Nnamdi Azikiwe – the First President of Nigeria

Nnamdi Azikiwe

Nnamdi Azikiwe was a Nigerian nationalist, journalist, and politician who fought bravely for Nigeria’s independence. After Nigeria became a federal republic in 1963, Azikiwe wrote his name in the history books by becoming the first democratically elected president of Nigeria. His presidency, which was characterized by tremendous gains in the health and education sectors, sadly came to an end following the 1966 military coup.

For his undying support of Nigerian nationalism, black pride and empowerment, he is generally considered as one of the key founding fathers of modern Nigeria. The article below presents the major facts and accomplishments of Nnamdi Azikiwe, the man who tried to restore the dignity and pride of the black man.

Nnamdi Azikiwe quotes

Fast Facts: Nnamdi Azikiwe

Born: Namdi Benjamin Azikiwe

Date of Birth: November 16, 1904

Place of Birth: Zungeru, Northern Nigeria Protectorate

Date of Death: May 11, 1996

Place of Death: Enugu, Enugu State, Nigeria

Father: Obed-Edom Chukwuemeka Azikiwe

Mother: Rachel Chinwe Ogbenyeanu (Aghadiuno) Azikiwe (1883-1958)

Sibling: Cecilia Eziamaka Arinze

Spouses: Flora Ogoegbunam (from 1936 to 1983); Uche Ewah (married in 1973)

Children: 7

Education: Howard University, Washington D.C.; Lincoln University; University of Pennsylvania

Political Party: National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroons (NCNC); Nigerian People’s Party

Offices held: First President of Nigeria (1963-1966), Third Governor-General of Nigeria (1960-1963); President of the Senate of Nigeria (January 1960-October 1960); Premier of Eastern Nigeria (1954-1959);

Most famous for: One of the key founding fathers of Nigeria

Ideology: Pan Africanism; Garveyism (the political, social and economic ideologies of famed African American philosopher Marcus Garvey); and Zikism

Nicknames: Zik

Major Accomplishments by Nnamdi Azikiwe

Nnamdi Azikiwe’s statue at Owerri Imo State

He was a columnist for a number of famous African American newspapers

Influenced by the famous Ghanaian educator James Emman Kwegyir Aggrey (1875 – 1927), Nnamdi Azikiwe sailed to the United States to further his education. After a two-year preparatory course at Storer College in West Virginia, he enrolled at Howard University, Washington, D.C.

In 1932, he graduated with a master’s degree in religion from Lincoln University in Pennsylvania. He followed this up with another master’s degree from the University of Pennsylvania in 1934. He briefly took up a graduate-student instructor job in the university before working as a columnist for famous newspapers such as: the Baltimore Afro-American, Philadelphia Tribune, and the Associated Negro Press.

His time in the United States also saw him become a disciple of Marcus Garvey’s political, social and economic policies, also known as Garveyism.

Fought very hard to end segregation during British colonial rule

In addition to his numerous achievements, Azikiwe was involved in efforts to desegregate the Nigerian football leagues. He viewed segregation on the basis of race, ethnic identities and religion as an affront to the blacks. And even after Nigeria gained independence (in 1960), he stayed at the forefront, fighting against people who wanted to use sports to perpetrate their diabolic political and ethnic agenda.

Such was his pursuit for equality and justice in sports that he created his own football club called Zik’s Athletic Club. The club was a place where people from all works of life, religion and ethnicity could come and freely participate in the beautiful game of football. The club even won the Lagos League in 1942.

Following those successes, Azikiwe established several other soccer centers across the nation in a bid to promote national unity. Some African historians have stated that Azikiwe’s football club laid the foundation of the Nigerian national team, which would later be dubbed the Super Eagles.

Founding member of the African Morning Post

Following his return to Nigeria around 1934, he had quite a challenging time finding a job of his liking. After failing to secure a teaching post at King’s College in Lagos, he turned his attention to Accra, Ghana. He took up Alfred Ocansey’s offer of senior editor at the African Morning Post in Ghana (formerly Gold Coast).

As editor, his professionalism was top-notch and beyond reproach, earning significant praises from his fellow journalists. He also took under his wings several journalists, inculcating in them a sense of black pride and pan-Africanist ideologies.

He was a vocal supporter of African culture and philosophy

While at the newspaper, he used the nickname ‘Zik’ in writing many of the articles in his very famous column– “The Inside Stuff by Zik”. Nnamdi Azikiwe blasted Africans in the upper class who were bent on maintaining the colonial mentality. He was quite dismayed at their unwillingness to criticize the manner in which African youth were indoctrinated into thinking Western culture superseded the various cultures in Africa.

Those ideas – Zikism – of his would later culminate in his book titled Renascent Africa (1973). He also used the newspaper to caution against petty ethnic and tribal conflicts. In his book he proposed five philosophical pillars that would underpin Africa’s revitalization and growth. Those pillars are social regeneration, economic determinism, mental emancipation, spiritual balance, and Risorgimento nationalism.

Founded the West African Pilot

After his exploits in Accra, Ghana, he returned to Lagos in 1937. He went on to establish the West African Pilot in order to champion the nationalistic ideologies in Nigeria. Extremely fed up with the colonial system in the country, he set up a number of similar newspapers across the country to support his pan Africanist ideas.

His Zik Group gradually became a leading player in journalism in the country; they managed for example the Southern Nigeria Defender (in Warri), the Eastern Guardian, and the Nigerian Spokesman.

Every one of those newspapers came to be famous for its community-inspired stories. Azikiwe also didn’t shy away from promoting women’s rights in the various women’s sections of his newspapers. By 1950, Azikiwe’s West African Pilot could boast of about 20,000 copies on a daily basis.

Established the National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroons (NCNC)

Azikiwe’s West African Pilot was criticized by some ethnic and political groups because of what they believed were his undue suppression of some political figures in the Yoruba community. His friction with the Yoruba group started during his time in the Nigerian Youth Movement, where he accused some members of the group of being too critical of the Ijebu people. Shortly after, he left the movement, along with several Ijebu members, to form his organization.

With the help of Herbert Macaulay, he formed the National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroons (NCNC) in 1944. He would later serve as the secretary-general of the council.

Leading member in Nigeria’s struggle for Independence

Following his successes in the newspaper business in Nigeria, Azikiwe gradually started shifting from blunt criticism of the existing colonial to several political causes, including Nigeria’s independence. He used the West African Pilot to call on the immediate political independence of Nigeria and the entire African continent. He drew inspiration from what the likes of Mahatma Gandhi and his movement were doing in India.

Azikiwe increasingly became fed up of Great Britain’s management of the Nigerian economy, including the wage ceilings of the 1940s. He lobbied for more social and political reforms that allowed for Nigerians to participate more in governance.

Nnamdi Azikiwe

Nnamdi Azikiwe’s legacy remains very much admired to this day in Africa. He is revered in almost the same fashion as legendary pan Africanists  Jomo Kenyatta of Kenya, Nkrumah of Ghana, and Hastings Banda of Malawi

Nnamdi Azikiwe was at the forefront of the general strike in June 1945

As the world descended into chaos during WWII, several African countries had started growing very frustrated with colonial governments. In Nigeria, Azikiwe devoted considerable amount to the empowerment of the youth. He believed that reinforcing a sense of black pride and nationalism were the most potent ways of achieving Nigeria’s independence aspiration.

His usage of his newspapers in spreading the message was so effective (during the general strike of 1945) that it got the Nigerian colonial government to ban a number of his newspapers in July 1945. He was forced to stay away from the public after rumors of possible assassinations of influential nationalists in the country. From then onward, Azikiwe would continue to push for self-government using whatever means possible, including boycotting foreign goods.

Azikiwe-Nkrumah Hall

Lincoln University’s Azikiwe-Nkrumah Hall, built in 1865, is the oldest building on campus | Image

Campaigned for increased power to the regional house of assemblies

Azikiwe and the somewhat militant group, the National Youth Movement, fervently opposed the colonial government’s revision of the 1922 Clifford Constitution. Those proposals, which came from British governor Arthur Richards, wanted to increase the number of appointed members in the Legislative Council.

Although it was intended to include more Africans in the council, the fact that those members would be appointed caused a lot of unease among NCNC members. Azikiwe felt that the loyalty those appointed council members would lie with the colonial government and the British crown. He feared that those members would be handicapped in the push for self-rule for Nigerians.

Another bone of contention had to deal with the issue of Africans not given similar opportunities for advancement as their white counterparts in the colonial civil service. Azikiwe and the NCNC made plans for protests to be held in the United Kingdom in order to raise awareness to issues facing his country.

After the death of Herbert Macaulay, Azikiwe took leadership of the party and organized the delegation to London, where he met with the West African Students’ Union, the Fabian Society’s Colonial Bureau, and the Labor Imperial Committee.

Additionally, he helped raise funds in America for his movement. He also had a very fruitful meeting with Eleanor Roosevelt, wife of US President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Premier of Nigeria’s Eastern Region

In 1952, Azikiwe contested and won a legislative council seat in the Eastern Assembly. He contested the election under the banner of the National Democratic Party – a party affiliated to the NCNC. His colleagues in the Assembly elected him to the position of chief minister and later he became premier of Nigeria’s Eastern Region in 1954.

First President of Nigeria

Owing to a hard fought battle by Azikiwe and his colleagues in the various legislative assemblies, Nigeria was able to become an independent republic within the Commonwealth of Nations on October 1, 1960. This feat came after the British Parliament passed the Nigeria Independence Act.

On November 16, 1960, he was appointed governor-general while Abubakar Tafawa Balewa was appointed prime minister. Azikiwe also had the honor of being a member of the Privy Council of the United Kingdom.

After immense agitations from the public, Nigerian parties in the various houses agreed to cut its relationship with the British crown in 1963. Subsequently, Nnamdi Azikiwe was elected the first president of Nigeria. His tenure as head of state witnessed massive amounts of investments in the health and education sectors of the country.

Unfortunately, his administration was forced out of power in the 1966 military coup, which resulted in Johnson Aguiyi-Ironsi coming into power as head of state. Although the ensuing political turmoil claimed the lives of several top Nigerian officials, including Prime Minister Tafawa Belewa, Nnamdi Azikiwe luckily escaped.  And after two unsuccessful presidential bids (in 1970 and 1983), Azikiwe would go on to live to the ripe age of 91 before passing away on May 11, 1996 in Enugu. The renowned Nigerian statesman was buried at Onitsha, Nigeria.

From left to right: 200 and 500 Naira notes contain the faces of Sir Abubakar Tafawa Belewa and Nnamdi Azikiwe respectively

Other Interesting Facts about Nnamdi Azikiwe

  • In Igbo language, Nnamdi Azikwe’s first name translates to “my father is alive”.
  • He was raised by Igbo parents – Obed-Edom Chukwuemeka Azikiwe (1879-1958) and Rachel Chinwe Ogbenyeanu. His father was a clerk in the colonial office, while his mother was a member of the royal family in Onitsha.
  • Owing to his father’s job as a civil servant, Nnamdi spent most of his childhood years in Northern Nigeria. As a result, he became very fluent in Hausa – the predominant language in those parts of Nigeria.
  • He also spent some of his childhood years with his aunt and grandmother at Onitsha. His father believed that his time there would allow him to get in touch with his Igbo-speaking paternal side of the family.
  • Built in 1865, the Azikiwe-Nkrumah Hall at Lincoln University was named after two of Africa’s most illustrious sons – Nnamdi Azikiwe and Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah (first president of Ghana). The hall holds the honor of being the the oldest building on campus.
  • There is a student hall at the University of Ibadan named after Nnamdi Azikiwe.  Nnamdi Azikiwe Hall.
  • He attended a number of mission primary and high schools; for example, he attended Methodist Boys’ High School in Lagos. Prior to that he had spells at Anglican and Catholic mission schools.
  • There is an international airport in nation’s capital named after him. The airport is called the Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport.
  • In the largest city of Tanzania, Dar es Salaam, there is a street called Azikiwe Avenue; a fitting recognition of Azikiwe’s distinguished contributions to the continent of Africa.
  • His political and social ideologies, Zikism, promote black pride and self-governance.
  • While studying in the United States, he was member of Phi Beta Sigma.

    Nnamdi Azikiwe quotes

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