Ogbuefi Nnayelugo, Owelle Osowa Anya n’Onitsha, Dr. Benjamin Nnamdi Azikiwe was the leader of the African nationalist resistance to colonialism from 1937 to 1957. He spearheaded it. He theorized it. He catalyzed it. In spite of the puny attempts by characters whom Azikiwe himself would have dubbed “Lilliputians” to revise the history of African nationalism in the 20th century, and diminish Azikiwe’s work, the great Zik continues to glow because he is preserved in the documents of the 20th century.
What he said; where he said it; who he fought, who fought him, why they fought him; what those who fought him said and wrote about him, and why they said and wrote what they did about him are all parts of Imperial and Post Imperial history and the struggles for Black freedom preserved in the great libraries and archives of the world. In 1943, Azikiwe issued a timeline within which he said the British must decolonize and leave Africa. He gave them fifteen years. The independence of Ghana in 1957, and Home rule in Nigeria in that same year saw the culmination of Azikiwe’s sustained pressure using the “parliamentary” method.
The African Nationalist movement was part of a global Black Freedom movement in the 20th century, which played out at key metropolitan epicenters. One part was the West Indies, and the other part was the Black Civil Rights movement in the United States. Zik activated the African movement, working in concert with a global network of allies – George Padmore, C.L.R James, I.T. Akunna Wallace-Johnson, Amy Ashwood Garvey, Ladipo Solanke, and in the US, WEB Dubois whose 1915 essay, “The African Roots of War,” may have impressed a young Nnamdi Azikiwe very early on the question of decolonization; Alain Locke, Azikiwe’s teacher at Howard, and for whom he would be research assistant, whose pathbreaking book The New Negro made an impression on Zik and inspired his own 1937 book, Renascent Africa; Leon Hansberry; Thurgood Marshall, Walter White, Rayford Logan, Ralph Bunche, and the biggest of them all, that melodic brass baritone, actor, all-round sportsman, orator, lawyer, and renaissance man, Paul Leroy Robeson, whom Zik called, “my leader.”
In 1945 Zik challenged Churchill’s interpretation of the Atlantic Charter, and vigorously called out the attempts to subvert African freedom at the newly formed United Nations meeting with his powerful essay in the West African Pilot challenging Churchill, “There is no New Deal for the Black man in San Francisco.” He deployed the argonauts – young men he had specially recruited to go to school in America as the “advance guard” of the “new African”: Nkrumah, Ojike, Orizu, Mbadiwe, Ikejiani, Okongwu, Akpabio, K.A.B Jones-Quartey, who went round the United States giving talks on the imperative of African freedom. Mbonu Ojike relocated to San Francisco where the new United Nations was being formed, leafletting, and canvassing for the African position. That year, Nkrumah left the US and moved to London, with an introductory note from CLR James and Azikiwe who had talked to his friend George Padmore about him. He joined up with Padmore and organized the Secretariat of the 5th Pan-African Conference which Padmore was planning for Manchester. In 1947, as a result of the persistent agitation of Zik in West Africa, and the “Zikists” abroad, and their contact with Eleanor Roosevelt and Ralph Bunch who worked in a very key position in the Roosevelt administration, they got the US President, Franklin Delano Roosevelt to get Churchill and the UK government to concede political independence and the rights of Britain’s African colonies, just like India, to independence. This is the story of Nigeria’s independence that Nigerians never get told. That Nigeria’s independence, and of the West African colonies was won by Azikiwe and his men in 1947. In other words, decolonization was secured in principle by the Zikists in 1947.
What happened in 1960 was a formal transfer of power following a transition which allowed Britain to secure its own key interests and not leave in a hurry as they were forced to in India. It was the culmination of the work Azikiwe began to do, starting from when he arrived Ghana, or the Gold Coast, to become Editor of the West African Morning Post in Accra. Azikiwe’s arrival radicalized the press in the Gold Coast and activated the era of radical or militant nationalist discourse. Until Azikiwe arrived Ghana, there was no nationalist movement. I’m not even sure that Ghanaians are taught this history. That is also because Nigerians have never been taught. We have been fed lies about “three nationalist founding fathers.” Ahmadu Bello was not a Nigerian nationalist leader. He in fact did not want independence for Nigeria and allied with the British frequently against the nationalist agitators. Neither did Awo fight for Nigerian nationalism. He fought for a regionalist mandate – what Zik called, “Pakistanism.” Awo had an intense disdain for the North and an intense fear of the East. The facts are clear. Their writings speak for them. The tenor of their political negotiations speaks for them. The archives of their debriefings speak for them. But in the need to maintain a false “kumba ya” and a feel-good “national history,” we have immortalized falsehood.
The founding nationalist imagination of modern Nigeria is Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe and his followers. Period. They sacrificed for this nation. Their ideas for a coherent, modern nation based on a secular republican idea, based on the equality of individual citizens, rather than on an ethnocentrism that bred religious and tribal bigotry was defeated by those who fought them and who took charge of this nation. The nationalists who fought for freedom were subverted and eventually sidelined. And here we are today.
Azikiwe’s idea of Nigeria was subverted and defeated. The current state of Nigeria is the clearest evidence of Azikiwe’s political failure. He dreamt of a nation welded together by the power of mutual trust. A nation built on Citizens sans Frontiers. Zikism has been described by so-called realists as utopian and built on unreconstructed idealism and naivete. Those who won the argument have bequeathed to us today’s Nigeria: poor, broken, divided, backward, unproductive, insecure, outlandish, and dangerous to the health and survival of the human person. To them the irreconcilable differences among Nigeria’s various peoples makes it impossible for Nigeria to meld and exist as a single, coherent nation. Today, Nigerians hate themselves as never before.
The Hausa hates the Igbo; the Igbo hates the Yoruba; the Yoruba hates everybody; and the minority groups are as confused and degraded as everyone else. Here is Nigeria that still practices an esoteric kind of feudalism which it calls democracy. Here is a constitutional republic which still maintains pseudo-monarchies and mud-empires. I will give just a recent example. Two weeks ago, the “Presidency” went around meeting with what it called regional “leaders” to discuss the security issues arising from the fall out of the ENDSARS protests.
This is straight of classical Feudalism. The Feudal lord has a habit of convening a meeting of his “Tenants-in-Chief” so that they would keep the peasants quiet. It doesn’t occur to the dinosaurs in the presidency that in the 21st century, and in an increasingly urban, and digitized society, and a republican democracy, there are no “middle men.” That a Legislature exists through which people in various constituencies elected their representatives, and empowered them to speak on their behalf. That the “kings, queens, and leaders” of the people are not exactly whom the government actually think they are. In the specific example of the South-East, anyone who claims to be “the leader(s) of the South East,” is playing dozens with the gullible presidency. The true leaders of the Igbo are diffuse. They rise by the day and change by the night as circumstances dictate. The true leaders of the Igbo receive Congressional mandate once the Igbo gather. Their mandates end with each Congress. That is why the Igbo themselves say, “Oha Wu Eze Ndi Igbo.” That is, “The gathering of the Igbo is the King of the Igbo.” Once the Igbo gather, they constitute the “Igbo sovereign.”
Everybody – irrespective of title or stature become equal, subject only to their “CHI” in that gathering. That is also why, if you press them a bit more, the Igbo will say, “Nani Chukwu wu Eze Ndi Igbo.” That is, “Only God is the true King of the Igbo.” That is to say, the leader of the Igbo is an idea, not a thing, or a person. The only person who ever came to near-universal acclaim as “leader of the Igbo” was Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe. But even he would have said, “Come off it!” If the Igbo publicly place a crown on your head, run! They want to kill you. So those who say they are meeting with “Igbo leaders” are on their own, because when true “Igbo leadership” meets, they do not gather in obvious places. They are selected by Lot. They are emissaries. They speak in parables, and they are also sometimes, the most unlikely folk whom no one suspects to carry a scared mandate. And the point is that this is so because the Igbo have practiced an ancient form of democracy, and a republic, for so long- indeed some scholars might say, long before Athens. The truth also is that increasingly, most Nigerians are becoming a bit more like the Igbo, driven by the desire for liberty and individual freedom, and far less than primordial allegiances. This generation is the last that will fall prey to crass ethnocentrism. The newer generation of Nigerians are coming round to the Zikist idea that all Africans are the same and owe each other the duty of mutual-respect; that the nation in its simplest idea is the largest mutual aid society. Nigerians are increasingly exhausted by persistent and needless rancour. They will fully come to realize that one’s greatest ally is his or her next door neighbor. People want the same things – secure streets; passable roads that are not flooded rgularly; good schools for their kids; neighborhood parks for recreation; a sense of safety; regular supply of electricity and clean water; clean, well-run public transportation; well-equipped hospitals; equal and affordable housing; good paying jobs; a regular source of income; a sense of one’s dignity; a sense of well-being that annuls the pressure of needless competition that makes one citizen detest or envy his fellow citizen, and kill to get ahead because of the very limited opportunities that casts one citizen against the other. This was Azikiwe’s dream for Nigeria: a nation where our very differences would meld into the beautiful color of the rainbow. A prosperous and humane nation where no man is prey against the other, and man’s inhumanity to man is abolished.