Nnamdi Azikiwe: Immortal Legacies of an Ideological Colossus

Among the many qualities that may set a political leader apart from his/her peers is the strength of the ideology he/she espouses and lives out. Indeed, political leadership cannot be separated from ideology because leading a people necessarily entails following certain beliefs and principles aimed at realising the best interest of the led – and such beliefs and principles constitute ideology.

Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe, Nigeria’s foremost nationalist, no doubt, falls into the class of such leaders set apart from their peers by the sheer quality of the ideology they uphold. Zik was a man of ideology, a quality that emphatically defined his almost 60 years sojourn as a politician and statesman in the Africa’s largest nation.

By the time he launched himself in the Nigeria’s public scene in the late 1930s, Azikiwe’s political ideology had already become known to those who had followed his journalism career in the Gold Coast, later Ghana, as well as read his popular book, Liberia in World Politics. Having studied in the United States, Zik was thoroughly influenced by the liberal ideology of that clime, especially its emphasis on the unrestricted freedom of the human spirit, equality of all persons and total respect for civil liberties. These values formed the major impetus that drove Zik’s political activism, especially in the context of the fight to end colonialism.

Little wonder Zik’s entry into the arena of the anti-colonial struggles was to change permanently the colour and tempo of that movement. As have been noted by many historians, Zik brought an ideological transformation that birthed a new approach to nationalism that was direct, forceful and radical; a significant departure from the more conservative and softer method of the older African nationalists like Casely Hayford of Ghana and Herbert Macaulay of Nigeria. Henceforth things were never the same.

Dr. Azikiwe”s ideology of anti-colonialism was such that saw self-rule by Africans as deriving from the dignity which nature has bestowed on the human person, hence he was of the view that Africans should demand their independence and not beg for it. This ideology sees colonialism as evil being that it negates the inalienable rights and liberties naturally belonging to every human person and every people, as such the quest for independence by colonised peoples was a right and not a privilege.

It was exactly this ideological spirit that Azikiwe injected into the National Council of Nigeria and Cameroons (NCNC), a party he steered into becoming the first truly nationalist political party in Nigeria. No doubt, other political parties that followed suit got inspiration from Zik’s NCNC in their approach to nationalism. Hence, it will not be wrong to agree with many writers and historians who have asserted that Zik’s entry into the arena of the anti-colonial struggles had an instant and very strong catalytic effect; it quickened the journey to Nigeria’s independence.

Nonetheless, it is admirable that Zik was able to make this impact without having to embrace violence as part of his beliefs. His ideological posturing, though radical, was devoid of any appeal to physical force. Stated differently, the Zikist ideology, despite its radically transformative outlook and vigour of pursuit, relied on intellectual and moral engagement as against physical aggression. This is remarkable given that at the time in question, violence was vigorously being promoted by the Third World Marxist intellectuals and activists as the only assured tool for achieving such rapid liberation of the continent. Hence, unlike some of her African counterparts, Nigeria’s independence came without any form of armed struggles.

So large an ideological figure had Zik become that the word “Zikism” soon emerged in the pre-independence period in reference to his ideals of freedom and radical transformation among African countries. This development was largely as a result of the founding of the Zikist Movement, an organisation of young persons committed to propagating and living out the ideology of Zik. This organisation, formed in 1946, was led by the cerebral and radical Mokwugo Okoye while other prominent members included Nwafor Orizu, Osita Agwuna, Anthony Enahoro, Fred Anyiam, Raji Abdallah, Oged Macaulay, and Smart Ebbi. Driven by the spirit of “demanding-and-never-begging-for-freedom” as inspired by Azikiwe, these young persons inevitably found themselves in head-on collisions with the colonial authorities. Not unexpectedly, some of them were arrested, tried and jailed.

It is important to mention that Zik’s ideological mentorship of future Nigerian leaders was not restricted to the political arena. His facilitation of free university education in the United States for some of them in the earlier period of their lives proved very crucial in preparing them for the leadership roles they were destined to play. The beneficiaries included Nwafor Orizu, K. O. Mbadiwe, Mbonu Ojike and Okechukwu Ikejiani. As testified by Orizu, this American education was key to his progressive ideological orientation and which fired him up for the vibrant role he played in the Nigeria’s politics of nationalism. This, most probably, was also true of others; a testimony to Zik’s huge ideological influence on the Nigeria’s political evolution.

Apart from these persons who came under Zik’s direct mentorship, some other leaders of Nigeria of the time equally drew inspiration from this ideological colossus. One remarkable example was Chief Obafemi Awolowo, who eventually became one of the fathers of Nigerian nationalism. In one of his books, Awolowo testified how he had excitedly attended a public lecture given by Zik at Glover Cinema Hall, Lagos, in the late 1930s, just to hear a man whose voice had become akin to a voice of an oracle in the Nigeria of those days. Of course, what he heard on that day inspired him and was to be of lasting influence on his political sojourn. No greater testimony to this existed than the decision of Awolowo, years later, in 1949, to choose Zik’s birthday, November 16, as the date to launch his much influential newspaper Tribune – an action he admitted to be a deliberate gesture in honour of Zik.

It is important to mention that Azikiwe’s remarkable ability to articulate his ideas and beliefs was of great help in the ideological influence he wielded in those days. A man of exceptional oratorical gift, people usually trooped to his lectures to hear him. It was one of his great lectures, held at Onitsha in 1937, that inspired one of Nigeria’s foremost nationalist, Nwafor Orizu, to seek greatness in leadership. Once the young Orizu was able to meet Azikiwe in the morning after the lecture, he was instantly accepted into his mentorship, and the rest is history.

An important dimension to Zik’s ideological contribution to the evolution of the modern Nigeria was the belief that for there to be liberation and progress, the people must be enlightened. Thus, emphasis on informed citizenry was a core value of the Zikist philosophy. This was the idea behind his decision to establish a chain of newspapers beginning from 1937 to get people informed and educated, thus becoming better placed to pursue their liberty and progress. Remarkably, his flagship newspaper, The West African Pilot, had the motto “Show the Light and the People will Find the Way.”

In the same vein, it is on record that Zik was the first indigenous leader to fully institutionalise public libraries as a way of promoting mass enlightenment. His decision, as the Premier of the Eastern Region, to establish by legislation the Eastern Nigerian Library Board with a library facility in Enugu was the first of its kind. It was a model to be copied by other regional governments and later by the state governments that succeeded them.

Dr. Azikiwe’s ideology of realising human progress through enlightenment also came into action in 1960 when he established the University of Nigeria Nsukka (UNN), Nigeria’s first indigenous university. The motto chosen by Zik for this citadel of learning was “To Restore the Dignity of Man,” which echoes the Zikist ideology of restoring the dignity of Africans through a holistic enlightenment that would breed insight, vision and courage necessary for self-liberation from all encumbering forces, external and internal. Needless to recall, the UNN became the crucible in which many foundational leaders of the Igbo race and even of other parts of Nigeria were intellectually moulded.

One thing that should never be left unsaid in recalling Zik’s ideological contribution to the growth of modern Nigeria is the innovativeness and courage of his thoughts. He was exceptional in thinking outside the limits of the entrenched beliefs and prejudices of his time. As a fearless thinker, he came up with an ideology of African liberation that sharply contrasted with what was at the time generally accepted as the norm, thus bringing an unprecedented impetus to the anti-colonial struggles of the post-World War II era.

In the early 1980s, Zik also proposed what he called “Neo-Communalism” as an ideology to be adopted by Nigeria if she was to surmount the many obstacles that had impeded her march to greatness. He arrived at this philosophy after contemplating on the weaknesses of the major two global ideological alternatives of Capitalism and Communism, thereby concluding that Nigeria would be best served if she could adopt a system that would fuse together elements of African traditional Communalism with elements of modern political and economic arrangements. Neo-Communalism, though never experimented with in real time, received much attention among scholars who reviewed and debated its strengths and weaknesses.

In all, Zik’s ideological legacies in Nigeria and beyond transcends all doubts. By completely changing the tenor of African nationalism, his ideological intervention was destined to have a lasting impact on the political fortune of several nations of the continent. For Nigeria where he directly lived out his ideology, his impact has been huge and would remain indelible.

In the sphere of learning and research, Zikism as an ideology has received and continued to receive serious attention from scholars and writers. It has appeared in countless textbooks and has featured as a subject of research in journals, thesis and dissertations in Nigeria and around the world.

One may thus confidently conclude that Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe had indeed left us with undying legacies in terms of political ideology. Therefore, as our nation searches for the way forward in her numerous political and economic quagmires, pausing a bit to contemplate on these great ideals and beliefs of Zik may prove to be that crucial step towards the much-sought breakthrough.