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Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe

Posted by Webby on 11/14/2002 10:26:52 AM

Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe

16 November 1904 - 11 May 1996


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"Zik was one of the most practical, most pragmatic people that I knew during my political life. Whenever he was in London, I was always very, very happy to welcome him to my residence at 8 Aylestone Avenue, Brontesbury Park, for our group discussions about our individual and collective fight for independence and self rule. Zik would listen quietly as so-and-so said this-and-that and as arguments and discussions would stray from reality. When Zik finally spoke in his careful, measured and logical way, it would refocus our discussions to the more practical and achievable objectives.

I had great admiration for his intellect, his logic and most of all, his intense love for his Motherland, Nigeria."

Ngwazi Dr. H. Kamuzu Banda
Founding President of Malawi

In his own words, discussions with the author

Nnamdi Azikiwe
Nnamdi Azikiwe
Nnamdi Azikiwe
Nnamdi Azikiwe, Premier of East Nigeria, shown upon arrival at Idlewild Airport from London 7/5/59.

There is a profound feeling of humility and inadequacy that comes over me whenever I begin to write about one of the great indigenous men and women of Africa. No matter how well I think I may have known them, personally or through the written word, I am very aware of their complexity as people with feet in two worlds, the contemporary and the traditional. As a non-African friend of Africa, I realized years ago that I have been and am privileged to have been allowed only rather superficial glimpses of their complexity and the elements that made them great. No where is that more apparent to me than attempting to write about the incredible life of the late Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe, the great "Zik of Africa", first President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria.

Benjamin Nnamdi Azikiwe was born on 16 November 1904 in Zunguru, Northern Nigeria, to Onitsha Ibo parents. At a very early age, he was exposed to the inequities of colonialism (a realization that was to cause him to eventually drop his anglicized first name), when his father, Obed-Edom Chukwaemeka Azikiwe, a civilian clerk for a British army regiment, was forced to leave his job because of discrimination. The memory of this sorrowful event was to have a continuing major influence on his political attitudes and actions in the years to come.

november98_2.jpg (19048 bytes)Like most of the African greats, young Nnamdi had an insatiable quest for knowledge, and the rural life of turn-of-the-century Zungura provided only the barest minimum of educational opportunity. In his early years, he spoke only the Hausa language of the north but at the age of eight, he was sent to Onitsha to live with his paternal grandparents where, under their determined tutelage, he became fluent in the Ibo and Yoruba languages and eventually, English. His earliest formal schooling began at the Roman Catholic and Church Missionary Societyís Anglican missions at Onitsha where he excelled both in academics and sports. Outgrowing Onitshaís academic capabilities, Nnamdi moved on to the Wesleyan Boys High School in Lagos and then again to the Hope Waddell Training Institute in Calabar, an historic place to which he would return years later under much different circumstances.

Once again, in common with his fellow African greats, schooling was insufficient to fuel his towering intellect. He read voraciously. He devoured the philosophy of Marcus Garvey and the writings of W. E. B. DuBois. He followed very closely the career of The Great Aggrey of the Gold Coast (Great Epic Books Newsletter archive: May, June, July, 1998) . The "Black Zionism" of Garvey intrigued him. DuBoisí THE SOULS OF BLACK FOLK, Chicago, A. C. McClurg, 1904, shocked him and The Great Aggrey inspired him. He was to tell me many years later that the fortuitous finding and reading of an obscure 1903 DuBois publication, POSSIBILITIES OF THE NEGRO; THE ADVANCE GUARD OF RACE, was to be an everlasting and enormous influence on his business and political life.

Azikiwe was also carefully tutored in the great customs and traditions of his Ibo people and of the Nigerian nation. He quickly recognized the dichotomy of the two worlds in which he was part; that of the contemporary educated African and of the future custodian of venerable and vital tribal traditions and national culture. He vowed never to sacrifice one for the other and he remained ever-faithful to that vow.

november98_3.jpg (44431 bytes)Brief unfulfilling civil service employment followed secondary school. Determined to continue his education, Azikiwe traveled the well-worn path to the United States. In 1925, at age 21, he enrolled at Storer College at infamous Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, where he quickly acquired the nickname "Zik", by which he was to be known for the rest of his life. He spent one year at Storer, also enrolling in an intensive correspondence course in American Law and Procedures through LaSalle Law School of Chicago. He excelled in both.

America of the 1920ís, while offering Zik obvious opportunities, was oftentimes disillusioning, and indeed hostile, to the young Nigerian. Poverty stricken, depressed and homesick for Africa, and deeply affected by racial taunts, he went from job to job under the name of "Ben Zik", trying to earn enough to continue with his education. In 1926, he matriculated to Howard University in Washington, D.C. where a hoped for job fell through causing even greater financial strain. Finally, in early 1927, an offer of a steady on-campus job at Lincoln University enabled him to complete his undergraduate degree in Political Science. On to Columbia University and a part-time teaching assistantship, allowing him to obtain a certificate in journalism while editing the november98_4.jpg (41249 bytes)COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY SUMMER SESSIONS TIMES (1930), his first foray into the publishing world. In 1930, Zik was back at Lincoln University where he was awarded an M.A. in Political Science with honors and wrote and published his first book, LIBERIA IN WORLD POLITICS, self, 1931. Finally, in 1932, he traveled on to the University of Pennsylvania on a scholarship where he earned an M. Sc. With honors in Anthropology, coming to the attention of the great Professor Bronislaw Malinowski of London University.

After graduation in the late spring of 1934, Zik journeyed back to Africa, passing up Malinowskiís offer of Doctoral pursuits at London University in favor of beginning his efforts on behalf of Africa. While in transit in the Gold Coast, Zik met the already well known trade unionist and newspaperman, I. T. Wallace-Johnson of Sierra Leone. Wallace-Johnson offered Zik his first professional employment as editor of the AFRICAN MORNING POST, an Accra newspaper which he accepted and worked diligently at for three years, narrowly escaping prison after being arrested for publishing a "treasonous" article, a charge that was fortunately overturned on appeal.

In February, 1937, Zik finally returned to Nigeria filled with a passion to somehow be of great influence in the future of his homeland. He was very well educated. He had read broadly, absorbing the spectrum of politic philosophies, embracing everything from the days of ancient Greece to the current state of world political dogma. He had succeeded as a journalist, tasting Britainís wrath when their colonial system was challenged. He was keen to pursue business and commercial interests. Physically, he was an imposing figure in any crowd. Zik was more than six feet tall, broad shouldered and of very pleasant countenance. He possessed a courtly, almost "old world" charm. When he spoke, it was in a clear, mellifluous voice that at once pronounced the speakerís humility and authority. His voice and delivery were described as "seductive, eloquent, persuasive and spell-binding".

Zik, though still considered young at 33, living in a land where wisdom is equated with age, was clearly a very gifted man, destined to figure prominently in colonial Nigeriaís future. He knew it. His fellow Nigerians knew it and, watching uneasily, the British colonists and authorities also knew it. Just what his role and impact was is the subject for Decemberís Great Epicís Newsletter "Zik of Africa, The Business and Political Years".