Posted by OBI NWAKANMA on
A tribute to an African nationalist at his posthumous 101st anniversary
AS the incredible archive of the life and times of Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe opens to greater scrutiny, it becomes increasingly clear that the man lived a life by far larger than the closest of his contemporaries. In spite of the revisionist histories that have come to shape contemporary Nigerian truths, Azikiwe had no compare among his peers. From 1935 to 1966, Azikiwe embodied the Nigerian dream of a modern, progressive, post-colonial state. He fought for it. He got to the gates. But the dynamics of global history which defined the post-colonial era equally came to play in subverting much of the achievements of the Azikiwe generation.
In this article, I celebrate the life of the only hero of modern Nigeria, and place on record, that his one hundredth and one years offers a challenge to the current generation to review his ideas about the modern Nigerian state. Nothing in fact best exemplifies the decay of Nigeria than the fire set last week on the Inosi Onira home of Dr. Azikiwe. That very act speaks of the failure of Zik’s Nigerian project, and in its place, the enthronement of the futile, miasmic state, ruled – not by philosopher statesmen of Azikiwe’s mould – but by barrack goons masquerading as statesmen. It is not accidental that a systematic destruction of Africa’s radical leadership occurred in the very early years of the post-colonial era: People like Azikiwe were prevented from power, Nkrumah deposed from power and demonized, and Lumumba killed; and in their places were those trained in Sandhurst and other military academies – Idi Amin Dada, Emperor Bokasa, Mobutu Seseseko, Ignatius Acheampong, Gnassingbe Eyadema, and in Nigeria, the relay of generals; and Abacha was not the worst of them as we now love to think, to check Africa’s renascence.
These people were used by the west to subvert post-colonial Africa and undermine the dream which Azikiwe and his ilk fought to erect in the 20th Century. They were not alone. They were joined by a significant number of African intellectuals who became, as Fanon would suggest, complicit on behalf of the west. Many of these intellectuals have provided the revisionist narratives that have basically dispersed the nationalist spirit. Azikiwe is especially a victim of their form of revisionism.
The key project to revise and undermine Zik’s historical worth began with Ifeajuna’s subtle critique of his ambivalence in national affairs from 1964, in his yet to be published account of the Janurary 15, 1966 revolution.
It also follows a pattern which Mokugo Okoye, one of the leaders of the Zikist movement, amplified in his letters to Zik, in which he outlined Azikiwe’s “denial” of the activists of the Zikist movement. But it does seem that Zik’s rather studied positions have been historically vindicated, because just as he asked the young “fissiparous” elements of the Zikist movement to show evidence of how they would sustain an armed struggle, Azikiwe refused to participate in any illegal, and undemocratic method to change authority in 1964, even if he was to be the beneficiary of such a move. His disagreements with young, well-meaning nationalist officers on this score in 1964, based on his own experience, became the reason for criticism. But even those officers could never question the historical place of Azikiwe as Nigeria’s leading figure in the 20the Century.
The determined move to reduce his legacies entered its exponential stage in 1970, at the end of the war: a campaign to apotheosize other politicians, preparatory to the ensuing politics of the 1970s, and to undermine Igbo contributions to the evolution of the Nigerian state, which Azikiwe embodied, led to what I now call the quota-system heroism that often places Nnamdi Azikiwe on the same page with Obafemi Awolowo and Ahmadu Bello. In actual fact, this is a sacrilege of history. It ought to be clear to a new generation that Nnamdi Azikiwe was not only the most powerful, and most emblematic figure of Nigerian nationalism, but that Nigeria’s failure stems largely from its promotion of the alternative politics of his political opponents, over Zik’s nationalist ideology.
All we need to do is go into the archives, and understand that Ahmadu Bello, for instance, was not part of the nationalist movement. By 1947, when much of the nationalist work had been done by Zik and his followers - Saad Zungur, Raji Abdallah, Adegoke Adelabu, Funmilayo Ransome Kuti, Margaret Ekpo, Kola Balogun, Olu Akinfosile, Mbonu Ojike, and the young men of the Zikist movement – Obafemi Awolowo was still a law student in England. As the facts begin to emerge from colonial archives and letters about the provenance of the two parties – the NPC and the AG - that were established in 1947, not to merely oppose the NCNC, but to further British colonial designs on the post-colonial state, we will begin to understand the dimensions of internal struggles that Azikiwe had to wage. But all in good time. Azikiwe’s legacy is in any case, that he piloted a movement from the experience of his involvements in the Black Civil Rights Movement and the Harlem Renaissance in which he had been involved as a student in America. He earned Master's Degrees in Politics and Anthropology from Lincoln University and the University of Pennsylvania; and completed doctoral work at Columbia University in New York. With his education in one historically black land grant university, (Lincoln) and two ivy-league universities (UPenn and Columbia), Azikiwe returned, and sought a job to teach at King’s College, Lagos. His application was rejected by the colonial administration on grounds that he was not qualified; he did not have an English degree. But the key problem was Zik’s politics: he returned from America and galvanized the anti-colonial movement, infused it with style and purpose, and established its raison d’etre.
He broke with the gradualist stance of a wing of the Nigerian Youth Movement, and resurrected the radical Herbert Macaulay, who until then had laboured, almost alone, at the extreme of political agitation. Zik was always a marked man. Colonial archives describe him as “Communist Zik”; a slippery and charismatic leader of the Nigerian anti-colonial resistance. When Azikiwe returned to the continent and established himself in Ghana as editor of the Morning Post in Accra, in the close friendship and influences of the leading figures of Black resistance of the 20th Century - Edward Blyden, Marcus Garvey, and George Padmore – he ignited the active phase of the anti-colonial movement in Africa and the politics of pan-Africanism.
It is quite remarkable that Zik introduced Nkrumah to pan-African politics, gave him the introductory letter with which he went off to Lincoln, and basically introduced him to the leading figures of the Black resistance in the United States. It is also remarkable that the key figures of the anti-colonial movement in Africa – Nkrumah, Nyerere, Kenyatta, Kaunda, and even Mandela, acknowledged Zik as the leader and the inspiration of their politics. Not many Nigerians know today that Zik organized to bring Mandela to Lagos in 1961/62 where he lived for six months with Mbazulike Amechi in Yaba, as a guest of the NCNC Training School at Yaba Lagos. It was from Lagos that Mandela returned to South Africa to face his political trial. It was not accidental, therefore, that on his release, Nnamdi Azikiwe, leader of his generation of anti-colonial activists, was one of the first people Nelson Mandel requested to see and confer with.
It is thus, quite part of the
revisionism, led by a rump of Nigeria’s compromised intellectuals, most of whom have never “read the minutes of the last letter” to often categorize Azikiwe as part of a triad of regional heavyweights. No. Nigeria’s key regional heavyweights were: Michael Okpara, Obafemi Awolowo, and Ahmadu Rabbah. Azikiwe was their leader. Zik lived too large a life to be fully examined in one newspaper column, and that is the difficulty, because we encounter him at every phase of the modern nation. One clear point is that the fiction of nationalist heroism, which has become a mere signal of Nigeria’s quota system, often fails to truly account for such a large life. Nigerian history is often the product of fiction. In fact, one example is about the founding of the University of Ibadan.
There is no place in its current history which acknowledges that Azikiwe’s agitation, especially through the panel established by Arthur Richards in 1945, led to the constitution of the Elliot Commission, and subsequently the founding of the University College in Ibadan in 1948. Azikiwe of course later disagreed with the philosophy of colonial higher education, and founded the University of Nigeria, which he chartered in 1946, modeled after three American Universities: Harvard, the University of Virginia, and Cornell’s land grant system.
From Zik’s conception of Nsukka, we can basically glimpse the man’s aims: to create grounds for the emergence of a post-colonial middle class which would serve rather than be served, and who would have sound, rounded education, rather than the lateral, bourgeois education then available at Ibadan.
Zik’s vision of Nigeria did not materialize because he was fought basically to a standstill. But a glimpse of Azikiwe’s work would be seen in the Eastern Nigerian Economic and Development plan, 1954-1964 (the ten- year plan) which was authored between Zik and Mbonu Ojike, and which was later executed to the letter by Michael Okpara as Premier. The upshot was that by 1964, according to the Harvard Review, the Eastern Nigerian economy was the fastest growing in the world. In other words, there was much to be said for Azikiwe who provided a detailed plank for an economic resurgence in the post-colonial society, linked to qualitative programmatic thought. Nnamdi Azikiwe is often glibly described as the father of modern Nigeria, but what is often never said is that he ultimately embodies the Nigerian tragedy also: Zik was like Moses; he saw Canaan, but he did not get there. The tragedy is that he had no Joshua to take the last final steps. But history will not blame him because he tried more than most men. His life, ultimately, will be judged as a major triumph.
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