The announcement by the Anambra State Government declaring the November 16 birthday of Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe, Nigeria’s first President, a state holiday is a laudable, worthy and inspirational move that all true Nigerian patriots should applaud. Also worthy of support is the strong recommendation by the state government that that the Federal Government should borrow a leaf from its laudable example and declare Zik’s birthday a National Holiday.
By any measure, the initiative by the Willie Obiano administration is timely and commendable. Azikiwe who was christened Benjamin before he gave up the name in protest against the policies of the colonial government is deserving of the honour. Any serious effort to identify the greatest Nigerian of all time will certainly have Azikiwe in the front ranks. Not only did play a starring role in the struggle for the country’s independence and the critical First Republic, Azikiwe was also a key figure in the development of Nigerian press and the establishment of the Nigerian financial sector.
Even though he was born to Igbo parents in Zungeru in present day Niger State 10 years before the amalgamation of the southern and northern protectorates, Azikiwe’s political and professional career first flourished in the southwest. In 1934 when he returned to Lagos after five years of academic sojourn in America, Azikiwe founded his first paper The West African Pilot, a newspaper which he used to promote nationalism in Nigeria and support the independence struggle in the African continent. Zik also established the Southern Nigeria Defender, the Eastern Guardian, the Nigerian Spokesman and the Comet. These ventures served as his business and political tools which he used to great effect. At the peak of his premier paper’s circulation in 1950, it was printing thousands of copies daily which were voraciously read all over the country. These papers played an important role in mustering support for Nigerian independence eventually in 1960.
At 36, Azikiwe ventured into active politics, joining the first nationalist organization, the Nigerian Youth Movement (NYM). Three years later, he and Herbert Macauley founded the National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroons (NCNC), the platform he led after Macauley’s death, to delay the implementation of the Richards Constitution which had failed to give more powers to citizens at the regional level.
Azikiwe fought many political battles in the western region. He won a regional assembly seat from Lagos, but failed to represent the region in the Federal House of Representatives due to the lack of a majority in the Lagos Assembly which was controlled by Chief Obafemi Awolowo’s Action Group (AG). In 1951, he became the leader of the opposition to the government of Obafemi Awolowo in the Western Region House of Assembly. His non-selection to the national assembly caused chaos in the west.
Soon after, Azikiwe moved to the Eastern Region from where he was selected as Chief Minister, and became premier of Nigeria’s Eastern Region in 1954 when it became a federating unit.
After the Nigerian Civil War, he was Chancellor of the University of Lagos from 1972 to 1976. He joined the Nigerian People’s Party in 1978, making unsuccessful bids for the presidency in 1979 and 1983. In 1979, Zik sought to get elected as the Head of State but lost to Alhaji Shehu Shagari. After four years, he contested again in 1983 and lost after what was alleged as mass rigging of the elections by the ruling party. Zik was highly saddened by this that he had to quote Proverbs 11:21 which states that the wicked shall not go unpunished. Three months later the military struck and the many players of that time were imprisoned and sent on exile.
He was forced out of active politics after the 1983 military coup. Azikiwe died on 11 May 1996 at the University of Nigeria Teaching Hospital in Enugu after a long illness, and is buried in his native Onitsha. After 23years, his Mausoleum was commissioned by President Muhammadu Buhari on Friday, January 24, 2019. At Azikiwe’s death, The New York Times said that he “towered over the affairs of Africa’s most populous nation, attaining the rare status of a truly national hero who came to be admired across the regional and ethnic lines dividing his country.”
Kingsley Mbadiwe, a former minister described Azikiwe as “a god when the colonialists were in Nigeria. His orders were feared by everybody including the police”. He also said that Zik had “a varied nature. But he was more patient than myself, perhaps accountable by age difference, but his patience can be overtaxed and when he wants to fight, he fights like a wounded lion”. In describing the man Zik he said Zik had a messianic outlook like Mahatma Gandhi of India in certain respects. But unlike Gandhi who said he was the light and the way, Zik only showed the light for people to find the way. This should explain what epic levels Zik attained in the minds of his numerous admirers and followers.
Many well informed persons believe that the aftermath of the civil war would have been much worse for the people of the former Eastern Nigerian Region without Zik’s intervention. Zik met Gen Yakubu Gowon, the then military Head of State, to help soften the Federal Government’s attitude towards the people as it was obvious that the war was ending.
Azikiwe was a patriot without peer, the father of the nation, a professional pathfinder in media and finance, the first son of the Igbo race, a philosopher and public intellectual and a rare human being. It is sad that the name and contributions of this remarkable man are no receiving the kind of prominence they deserve in these unreflective times. In the interest of the nation and the Igbo race, Zik deserves to brought back to the front burner of national consciousness and pre-eminence. The initiative by the Anambra state government is an excellent way to initiative this important process. As Governor Obiano put it, Nnamdi Azikiwe was “truly phenomenal”.
Governor Obiano’s declaration of November 16 a work-free day in Anambra State and his call on the Federal Government to make it a national public holiday are compelling. They deserve nationwide support.
Dr Uzochukwu is an economist in Abuja