Chief Benjamin Nnamdi Azikiwe (First President of Nigeria, 1963 – 1966)

Every Nigerian who hears the name “Nnamdi Azikiwe” would reply, “Oh, that’s the first president of Nigeria.” While this is true and one of his major achievements, there is more to Nnamdi Azikiwe that is not always talked about in today’s world. Thus, this article will be showing the life and times of Nnamdi Azikiwe as a person, a politician, and a nationalist.

Early Life, Childhood, and Education of Chief Benjamin Nnamdi Azikiwe

Chief Benjamin Nnamdi Azikiwe was born on Nov. 16, 1904 to Igbo parents in Zungeru, Northern Nigeria. His father, Obed-Edom Chukwuemeka Azikiwe, was a clerk who worked with the Nigerian Regiment. His mother, Rachel Chinwe Ogbenyeanu (Aghadiuno) Azikiwe, descended from a royal family. Although his parents named him “Benjamin,” he would change it later on in life to “Nnamdi” to reflect his nationalist agitations.

Azikiwe had his primary and secondary school education in Onitsha, Lagos, and Calabar. Having been born and raised in Northern Nigeria, he spoke the Hausa language fluently. This caused his father to worry, and so, he sent him to Onitsha to live with his paternal family, where he could learn the Igbo language and culture.

As a result of living in Onitsha, Lagos, and Northern Nigeria, Azikiwe spoke the three major languages of Nigeria — Igbo, Hausa, and Yoruba, which later proved to be a great asset to him his nationalist agitation.

After his secondary education, Nnamdi Azikwe worked as a clerk in the Nigerian treasury in Lagos between 1921 and 1924. In 1925, he went to the United States to further his education. There, he bagged multiple degrees and certificates. These included a bachelor’s and two master’s degrees from Lincoln University and the University of Pennsylvania.

Azikiwe did not just attend schools in America. He designed an African history course at Lincoln University. He also wrote columns for papers such as the Associated Negro Press, the Philadelphia Tribune, and the Baltimore Afro-American.

Both as a clerk and a student in the United States, Azikiwe experienced racial discrimination during his time. It becomes a significant contributor to his agitation for nationalism.

Early Career: Newspaper Career of Chief Benjamin Nnamdi Azikiwe

In 1934, Azikiwe returned to Lagos, where a large number of people welcomed him. News of his writings in America had reached home. Back home, Azikiwe applied at several organizations for job positions that were in line with his qualifications. He wasn’t successful.

However, a Ghanaian businessman, Alfred Ocansey, offered him the position of editor of the African Morning Post, a new nationalist newspaper. Azikiwe accepted this offer and moved to the Gold Coast in Ghana.

In Ghana, Azikiwe wrote and published writings that promoted the nationalist movement. Azikiwe also wrote against African elites who preferred to accept the favours of the colonial masters over the mistreatment of their people. Azikiwe’s articles frequently got him in trouble with the colonial government. One of such articles titled “Has the African a God?” got Azikiwe tried for sedition and sentenced to six months imprisonment. However, a court appeal got this overturned.

In 1937, Azikiwe returned to Lagos, Nigeria, where he founded the West African Pilot newspaper. As he did in Ghana, he used his newspapers to promote his pro-African views. Furthermore, his newspapers spoke against racial discrimination and Injustice to Africans perpetrated by the colonial masters.

In 1940, Azikiwe’s newspapers began to call for political independence in Africa, among others. Azikiwe’s newspaper publications did not please the colonial masters or their allies. 

In 1945, they banned two of his newspapers: the West African Pilot and the Daily Comet, for misrepresenting information about a general strike. Even though Azikiwe admitted to this, he continued to publish newsletters about the strike in the Guardian newspaper. 

Nnamdi Azikiwe: Political Life and President of Nigeria (1957 – 1966)

Azikiwe’s direct involvement in politics began sometime in 1937 when he joined the Nigerian Youth Movement (NYM). In 1941, he left to join the Nigerian National Democratic Party (NNDP). In 1944, along with a few others, Azikiwe founded the National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroons (NCNC). He became its president in 1946. The purpose of the organization was to unify the heterogeneous Nigerian people. 

In 1948, with the NCNC’s support, Azikiwe was elected to the Nigerian Legislative Council. He served as a member of the Western House of Assembly from 1952-1953. Between 1954 to 1959, he served as the premier of the Eastern region in Nigeria. He was also the president of the Nigerian Senate between 1959-1960.

During these years, Azikiwe was at the forefront of the agitation for Nigeria’s independence. 

On October 1, 1960, Azikiwe’s dream was finally realized as Nigeria gained her independence. Subsequently, the colonial rulers appointed Azikiwe as governor-general, with the prime ministership going to Sir Alhaji Abubakar Tafawa Balewa.

On October 1, 1963, when Nigeria became a republic, Azikiwe became named its first president. He held this position until January 15, 1966, when a military coup overthrew him.

During the Nigerian-Biafran civil war of May 1967 – January 1970, Azikiwe supported the Biafran cause. However, in August 1969, he switched sides and helped Nigeria.

Azikiwe continued to be active in politics, leading the Nigeria People’s Party (NPP) between 1979 – 1983. During this period, he contested for the presidential elections, howbeit unsuccessfully. Finally, in 1986, he retired from politics.

Nnamdi Azikiwe’s Personal Life

In 1936, Chief Benjamin Nnamdi Azikiwe married Flora Ogboegbunam. As a couple, they had one daughter and three sons. Sadly, Flora passed away in 1983, and Azikiwe mourned her for a long time.

Azikiwe had other wives and concubines with whom he had seven children. One of his wives was Uche Azikiwe, a lecturer at the University of Nigeria.

Azikiwe acquired many great chieftaincy titles. These include the Nnanyelugo in 1946, the Oziziani Obi (red cap chieftain) in 1962, the Owelle-Osowa-Anya of Onitsha in 1972. 

He was the chancellor at the University of Nigeria at Nsukka (1961 to 1966). Also, he was the president of several sports organizations, including boxing, football, and table tennis. Azikiwe also published many works, including Renascent Africa in 1937 and My Odyssey in 1970.

Nnamdi Azikiwe’s Death

Nnamdi Azikwe died on May 11, 1996, in Enugu, Eastern Nigeria, at 91.

Nnamdi Azikiwe Honours and Awards

Chief Benjamin Nnamdi Azikiwe’s honours and awards include:

● Appearance on Nigeria’s ₦500 banknote since 2001

● Nnamdi Azikwe Hall, University of Ibadan

● Azikiwe-Nkrumah Hall, the oldest building on the Lincoln University campus

● Nnamdi Azikiwe University in Awka, Anambra State

● Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport in Abuja

● Nnamdi Azikiwe Stadium in Enugu

● Nnamdi Azikiwe University Teaching Hospital in Nnewi

● Nnamdi Azikiwe Library at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka

● Nnamdi Azikiwe Press Centre, Dodan Barracks, Obalende, Ikoyi, Lagos

● Azikiwe Avenue in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania

● CRDB Azikiwe Branch in Dar es Salaam

Quotes by Chief Benjamin Nnamdi Azikiwe

“Having passed through the crucible of political bondage in the furnace of colonial tutelage, how can any reasonable world statesman expect Nigerians to associate in an alliance of mutual security with countries which still regard Africa as a colonial pasture fit for safaris and cattle grazing and not for the enjoyment of basic human rights.”

“The challenge of Nigeria as a free State in twentieth-century Africa is the need to revive the stature of a man in Africa and restore the dignity of man in the world.”

“Each of our three Regions is vastly different in many respects, but each has this in common: that, despite the variety of languages and custom or difference in climate, all form part of one country which has existed as a political and social entity for fifty years. That is why we believe that the political union of Nigeria is destined to be perpetual and indestructible.”

“The lack of respect for human dignity has led to the political bondage of man by man in Africa.”

“Since the Berlin Conference, the continent of Africa has been partitioned and dominated by armies of occupation in the guise of political trustees and guardians, represented by the following European countries: Britain, France, Belgium, Portugal, Spain, Italy, and also the Union of South Africa.”

“We must search our hearts and be prepared to accept some home truths. Someone has rightly said that ‘Peace is indivisible.’ One-half of the world cannot enjoy the peace while the other half lives in the throes of war.”

“Without respect for the rule of law permeating our political life Nigeria would degenerate into a dictatorship with its twin relatives of tyranny and despotism.”

“No matter how old an individual may be, no matter if he is young or old, if he thinks in accordance with the times he is immortal.”

“The realization of New Africa can only be possible by the African cultivating spiritual balance, which leads to the practicalization of social regeneration, to realizing economic determination, becoming mentally emancipated, and ushering in a political resurgence.”

“There is plenty of room at the bottom because very few people care to travel beyond the average route. And so most of us seem satisfied to remain within the confines of mediocrity.”

“We cannot be satisfied with the ‘discussion’ of our own affairs, as envisaged in the Richards Constitution. We are unwilling to continue the reactionary policy of making our legislative chamber a debating society for the amusement of British colonial administrators.”

References

Britannica (2021) https://www.britannica.com/biography/Nnamdi-Azikiwe

Udoekene, A. (2019) https://www.google.com/amp/s/www.motivation.africa/5-motivational-quotes-from-nigeria-first-president-nnamdi-azikiwe.html%3famp=1

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