Austine Okere, PhD
To a six year old boy whose parents repeatedly told him that he was part of Ndi Igbo extraction but only returned to the East few times a year and grew up on the streets of Lagos, the name Zik might be alien. At least for me at that time. Like many in similar situation, I was first introduced to the personality that is Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe via education text at primary and secondary school levels. However, there was some sort of connection I had with this name even though I could not explain it.
Perhaps it was the fact that Zik represents a symbol to the Igbo people (for which I did not know about at that time), or it was his immense contribution to the political and “nationhood” development of the East and Nigeria as a whole. Like many young boys in Lagos, I felt the need to know more about him even though the words from the lips of my tutors and parents appeared insufficient.
The point came when I forcefully inherited some books from my late Grandfather who had worked with the West African Pilot, and among my forced inheritance was the autobiography of Zik titled My Odyssey. However, the picture of an African in rugby paraphernalia was not enough to draw me, rather it was the words my Grandfather had scribbled on the ‘Dedication Page.’ It reads:
“Thanks to [al] mighty good God, who made it possible for me to work in the West African Pilot, the oldest newspaper founded by a true nationalist –Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe. As a journalist, I am very happy to have passed through the West African Pilot as other prominent journalist did; and I am certain that the series of success and progress that met them after their time at WAP will meet me.”
Now, did my Grandfather become one of the most prominent journalists in Nigeria at that time? Well that isn’t the focus of this piece. Rather, it was my Grandfather’s mindset and fascination/inspiration which the name Zik and the West African Pilot instilled in him; and eventually such translated to me, a “Lagos boy” who had never met Zik or even knew the official address of the West African Pilot.
This personal experience is important, because like many of us, when we first heard his name, we felt the need to either be like him or follow in his foot-steps at least in our attempt to “be the change we want[ed] to see” in our country. It was such words scribbled by my Grandfather and the immortalized experience of Zik captured on the pages of his autobiography (and other published text) that fueled my pursuit for knowledge at Lincoln University, sorry, I meant to say Nnamdi Azikiwe University (because this was the closest my parents’ money could afford).
At a time when the odds were against the formation of the Nigerian State, Zik used the machinery of the West African Pilot to capture narratives, tell stories and attack the fabric of European imperialism and colonialism in Africa. Motivated by his understanding of political ideals put forward by James Garfield, Marcus Garvey, and Kwegyir Aggrey (Echeruo, 1974) which epitomizes the Ndi Igbo spirit of sheer determination and hard work, Zik undertook a task to re-draw both the Nigerian political and journalism landscape. At great cost to him, he challenged the status quo of journalism set by the Lagos Daily Times sponsored by the British Government, while using our love for sports to capture everything that is anything about Nigeria.
Attempting to provide a litany of Zik’s achievement would be impossible here, but one feature which repeatedly stood out was how people who knew him well described him as a nationalist and how he stood for everything geared towards moving Nigeria towards better standing on issues of nationhood and political development. From the formation and operationalization of a political party, to the location(s) of his newspaper around Nigeria. From his philosophical thought to his contribution towards the political progress of the African continent, which for him cannot be placed on the same pedestal as countries in Europe and other parts of the world. He believed in gradualism as a pathway for nationhood, be it in Nigeria or in the African continent as a whole. He captures this thus:
Let it be remembered that it took Great Britain 1400 years after the Conquest of Boadicea to draft the Magna Carta…. It took France 1800 years after Caesar’s conquest of Gaul to dream up and effect the French Revolution, thereby founding a government of the people, for the people, by their accredited representatives… the United States was heir to generations of civilizations and experience in government [as] her builders where fresh from schools and universities in Europe. (Zik, 1961:3)
History is clear about the fact that Zik was a nationalist, he preached it, theorized it, and attempted to practice it. But if we agree that as Igbo we feel that un-explainable connection with him, do we still buy into his ideals, dogma and idiosyncrasies of nationalism today? Are the political elite, academia, and the larger Ndi Igbo world still sold on his nationalist purview? Perhaps historical experiences have punctured those “idealistic” beliefs, imagination, inspiration and confidence to achieving what one sets to dream in the Nigerian State as Zik attempted to sell to all who listened and were motivated by him (like my Grandfather).
A columnist of a Nigerian newspaper captured our current situation and he described this as the anguish of Zik’s nationalist ideology of a Nigerian “nation welded together by the power of mutual trust” and how historical experiences fueled by those who believed in a “modern nation based on a secular republican idea” motivated by ethnocentrism, religious and tribal bigotry have defeated Zik’s nationalism. Such situation, in the author’s words, has bequeathed to us “a Nigeria that is poor, broken, divided, backward and unproductive.” (Nwakanma, 2020)
From Zik’s speeches and thoughts communicated via published text, it appeared he envisaged a “social regeneration” which epitomizes Africa (and Nigeria) returning to the cosmopolitan idea of brotherhood of inter-tribal and pan-African harmony (Azikiwe, 1968); although he expanded this thinking within the African context, but the lessons drawn from this larger context can still be applicable to Nigeria today. In his view, Zik expected Nigeria to continue playing a leading role in Africa’s post-colonial regeneration by motivating the drive for larger unity of the African race (including those outside the shores of the continent).
Drawing from this, is the same Igbo spirit of brotherhood that I believe Zik attempted to extrapolate using a continental premise. While Zik tried to articulate this brotherhood concept philosophically, it is inherent in every warm-blooded Igbo. But again, it appears our collective historical experiences have taking this discourse beyond feeling and we live in a society of dis-unity, bigotry, and self-centrism, reflective of the need to survive in a Nigerian State which has not help generations like those of my Grandfather and mine achieve its dreams. Can we say therefore that Zik and his ideals still live in every one of us? Or like an elder watching young children play in the rain, are we choosing to ignore those ideals he worked so hard to instill? Perhaps we are about to cross the Rubicon and might chart a new destiny possessing the trappings of lessons from our collective historical experiences devoid of Zik’s ideals.
Maybe what might emerge is something no one can envisage. However, we are posed with contemporary questions: is Zik still in us? Does he still motivate us? Are we still excited when we hear his name? Do we still feel motivated and assured to achieve true nationhood as he dreamt? Do we still feel connected to him as kids hearing tales of his political accomplishments or like my Grandfather confident in the name that Zik holds? Will our children, like during my childhood, try to discover him for themselves? What lessons are we telling about his contributions towards the Igbo “nation,” and the Nigerian “nation?” Is there a future for his ideals in the world we are creating today?
Just like the title of this work, it appears I have more questions than answers about the current location of Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe in our contemporary society. I guess it might be because we have never felt more divided than we are today, so attempting to be nationalist as advocated by Zik appears to be a cumbersome task. But once we can answer these questions then we can truly tell, where he is, because, for me he should be in each and everyone of us, just like his nationalistic ideas envisaged.