Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe: An Apostle of Democracy
Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe, the Great Zik of Africa, must be remembered for being one of the pioneer builders of modern Nigeria. He was among the first crop of intellectual and political elite that laid the springboard on which the political journey of Nigeria took off.
While it is undebatable that Zik did not act alone in achieving the aforesaid, it is still the truth that his distinct contributions as an individual are worth documenting in history books. One of these contributions is his pioneering and eternally-impactful role in building and strengthening democratic culture in Nigeria.
Zik, it will be recalled, was the first Nigerian to study in the United States of America where he earned degrees in Political Science, Anthropology and Religion as well as obtained training in journalism. As believed by some commentators, American education, unlike British education of the time, was less conservative and infused in the learner an unrestricted spirit of inquiry, unquenchable thirst for liberty and radical quest for change. Imbued with these great qualities, the Great Zik returned to his fatherland and quickly made his presence felt. The result was that the ongoing nationalist movement in Nigeria instantly gained a new momentum.
Dr. Azikiwe’s contribution to sowing the seed of democracy in modern Nigeria started becoming a reality first through his quest to broaden and deepen national discussion and debate which is key to any democratisation process. This he did by going into newspaper business that would revolutionalise journalism in the emerging nation and ensure that more and more Nigerians could read newspapers, hence becoming informed on political happenings and so able to add their voices to the ongoing discussion and debate, an essential element of democracy.
Thus, The West African Pilot, established by Azikiwe, became a high-flying national daily newspaper. It was indeed the first newspaper in Nigeria to be founded on the ideals of freedom of expression and pluralism – two core democratic values which Zik’s American education had definitely implanted in him. For instance, unlike other successful newspapers before it, The West African Pilot did not pander to the British colonialists, rather it was boldly oppositional, thus serving as an alternative voice which resulted in the diversity of views crucial to building a democratic Nigeria. For this reason, it became at the time the most popular newspaper all over Nigeria, outclassing the almighty Daily Times, and sold hundreds of thousands of copies daily.
Also, recognising the need to broaden the space of political discussion in Nigeria beyond Lagos where the bulk of the political and intellectual elite were concentrated, Zik went ahead to establish other newspapers in other parts of Nigeria. These include Nigerian Spokesman at Onitsha, Eastern Nigerian Guardian in Port Harcourt, Southern Nigerian Defender in Warri, Sentinel in Enugu, Northern Advocate in Jos, and Comet in Kano. The intention, according to Zik, was to make news and other forms of information accessible to people in all nooks and crannies of the nation in order to enhance mass enlightenment and mass political participation. Thus, from east to west, north to south, Nigerians were empowered with important political information for democratic participation, thanks to the vision of one man, Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe. This vision and vigorous pursuit of same effectively broke the monopoly of Lagos as the enclave of political knowledge sharing and debate in the Nigeria of then.
Needless to say, Zik’s innovative efforts in building capacity in the field of journalism through his mentorship of budding young journalists like MCK Ajuluchukwu and Tony Enahoro helped equip Nigeria with her second generation of very competent journalists whose work contributed immensely in lightening up the sphere of political discussion and debate in the years before and after independence. The same can be said of his pioneering effort in instituting formal journalism education in Nigeria through establishing the Jackson School of Journalism, now the Department of Mass Communication, University of Nigeria, Nsukka. Little wonder he is widely acclaimed as the father of Nigerian modern journalism.
Zik’s mentorship in service of democracy in Nigeria also extended to training of political leaders. His ties with the Lincoln University in the United States enabled him to secure scholarship for young bright Nigerians in the institution so as to empower them for political leadership. Thus, in 1938, seven young men sailed across the Atlantic on an educational sojourn. The “seven Argonauts,” as Zik himself called them, included Dr. K.O. Mbadiwe, Dr. Okwunodu Okongwu, Dr. Abyssinia Nwafor Orizu, Mazi Mbonu Ojike, Professor Nwankwo Chukwuemeka, Prof. J.B.C Okala and Dr. Okechuchukwu Ikejiani. Incidentally, most of them eventually played important roles in the nationalist politics of the pre-independence era as well as in the Nigeria’s first experiment with democratic governance as a sovereign nation. Worthy of note is that one of them, Dr. Nwafor Orizu, became Nigeria’s second Senate President from 1960 – 1966.
This new crop of leaders mentored by Azikiwe brought to bear on Nigerian politics the democratic orientation they had imbibed by studying in America. Testifying to this, Orizu recalled that the American values of the inalienability of rights of individuals and total equality of persons influenced his contribution to the Nigerian politics of the time. He noted that it was this awakening as to rights and freedoms experienced by Zik and others who studied in America that fired up their spirits to pursue the realisation of a Nigeria completely free from chains, whether of colonialists or any internal rulers.
It is also noteworthy that Nigeria’s neighbours, Gold Coast – later Ghana – equally benefitted from this Azikiwe-inspired revolution. This happened through Kwame Nkurumah, the country’s foremost nationalist, who, on the encouragement of Zik, also sailed across the Atlantic to acquire the much prized American education.
Importantly, Zik’s immense contribution to laying the foundation of democracy in Nigeria also reflects in his party politics during the pre-independence era. He worked with Sir Herbert Macaulay in founding the National Council of Nigeria and Cameroon (NCNC). With the death of Macaulay in 1946, the leadership of the party fell on Azikiwe. Under his watch, the party emerged as the first truly national party. Its presence was felt in all parts of Nigeria unlike the older political parties that operated mainly in Lagos only. This radical departure implied broadening of the political space to integrate many Nigerians hitherto marginalised from party politics. While unfortunately, events of later years restricted the influence of the NCNC to the Eastern region mainly, there is no doubt that the party – ably led by Azikiwe – was a major impetus for the vibrant party democratic politics that evolved thereafter in the country.
Following the military takeover of January 1966 and the series of subsequent events that culminated in the civil war, Azikiwe, like a true democrat, desired a quick return to civil rule. However, when it became clear that the military was not ready to relinquish power any soon, he advocated for a stop-gap compromise where the military and civilians would share power in what he termed diarchy. Azikiwe put forward this view in a newspaper article on October 29, 1972. Despite the controversies that trailed his suggestions, it must be understood that by expressing this view, Zik was not in the least favouring dictatorship. On the contrary, he was proffering what he saw as a middle-way solution to the sit-tight attitude of the military leaders at the time; a gradual exit route from dictatorship and gradual entry route to democracy. While many disagreed with his suggestions, this model was copied two decades after by the military regime of General Ibrahim Babangida as a part of the gradual transition to civil rule.
In the second republic, Azikiwe once more threw his hat into the ring of partisan politics. He pitted his tent with the Nigerian People’s Party (NPP) for the presidential elections of 1979 and 1983. He fully subscribed to and propagated social justice, which was a cardinal ideological thrust of his party and as well both a key element and goal of democratic governance.
Having retired from politics, as a revered statesman, Dr. Azikiwe remained vocal with his pro-democracy views. While he was no longer active in the field, he remained a steady and respected voice in national discourse where he consistently espoused his democratic ideals.
Though Nigeria’s democratic journey has remained chequered and the nation appears still too far from her objectives, there is no gainsaying the fact that as the country aims for the ultimate democratic glory, she needs to continue to draw inspiration from the democratic ideals preached and lived by the Great Zik of Africa. This is indeed imperative.