Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe:
The Only Nation Builder Nigeria Ever Had

Nnamdi Azikiwe 12

By Lawrence Nwobu
11th October 2013

On the 24th of May 2013, Professor Pat Utomi in an article titled “nation building: how we missed the plot,” decried the absence of nation building in Nigeria.  No one can doubt the necessity of nation building; more so in a nation like Nigeria that has been torn by unrelenting ethno-religious conflicts and held down by the contradictions of her ethnic, cultural and religious diversity. Yet as necessary as nation building is for Nigeria, you need leaders who genuinely believe in Nigeria and who are liberated from the demons of tribalism, religious fanaticism, hate and bigotry to make it happen.   Nation building is not an easy feat particularly for bigots, tribalists and opportunists, because it involves a lot of sacrifice and a sustained process of ethnic and cultural integration through deliberate policies of inclusion, social justice, mutual respect, equality, fraternity, indoctrination and even spread of development and opportunities amongst other pragmatic initiatives. 

An ideal nation builder must demonstrate in words and deeds a clear policy of total integration that forbids exclusion and all forms of discrimination. Unfortunately, Nigeria since independence have been ruled by leaders whose disposition and content of character can only be described in three words;   “tribalism, bigotry and opportunism.”  Ahmadu Bello and Tafawa Balewa who formed the core of the independence leadership could conveniently be described as “the leaders who hated Nigeria.”   They so much rejected the very idea of Nigeria that Ahmadu Bello in his book and autobiography “My Life” published in 1961; he famously derided the amalgamation of Northern and Southern Nigeria as “the mistake of 1914.”He instituted policies of segregation that created a separate area of habitation (sabon gari) for southerners living in the North and introduced the “Northernization” policy that gave preference to Europeans and other foreigners in employment to Southern Nigerians.

Ahmadu Bello so loathed Nigeria that throughout his life, he deliberately avoided ever visiting the South. Tafawa Balewa who became the prime minister at independence was just as rabidly bigoted as his master Ahmadu Bello. In 1948 while addressing  the legislative council, Abubakar  Tafawa  Balewa   declared that  “Since 1914 the British Government has been trying to make Nigeria into one country, but the Nigerian people  themselves  are historically different  in their backgrounds, in their religious beliefs and customs and do not show themselves any sign of willingness to unite. Nigerian unity is only a British intention for the country.” This speech, famously delivered to the legislative council underscores the mindset of the character that with Ahmadu Bello formed Nigeria’s post-colonial government in 1960. Since a man cannot give what he does not have, it was impossible and inconceivable for the duo who sufficiently demonstrated their hatred/rejection of Nigeria in words and deeds to undertake any measure of nation building especially at those formative years that the nation needed it most.

Subsequent Nigerian leaders  who parade themselves with the false propaganda of one Nigeria have all been tribalists, bigots, crooks and opportunists who never believed in Nigeria beyond the financial gains and regional domination (born to rule) it afforded them in the same mould as the duo of Ahmadu Bello and Tafawa Balewa.  This is the simple reason; there has been no nation building in spite of the necessity of it. Of all Nigeria’s leaders from independence to date, Dr Nnamidi Azikiwe remains in words and deeds the only leader who invested in nation building.  Born on the 16th of November 1904, to a father who like many upwardly mobile Igbo of the time worked for the British administration as a clerk. He was the most educated of the three national leaders of the time having obtained a post graduate degree in the historically black Lincoln University, Pennsylvania in political science in 1933 and another post graduate degree in Anthropology from Columbia University in 1934. A recipient of fourteen honorary degrees from American, Nigerian and Liberian universities in recognition of his exemplary works, he briefly taught in Lincoln University before returning in late 1934, from whence he became the arrowhead of the nationalist struggle for independence.

A tireless intellectual who published many books, essays and owned  the then largest chain of newspapers in Nigeria  established in 1937 (West African pilot),  he was also an exceptional sportsman. He won gold medals in cross country racing, 1000 yard run and several medals in high jump, welterweight boxing, and swimming amongst others.   His life and times in the United States during the highly charged and segregationist “Jim Crow” racist era, his education and indoctrination in a black college and other experiences of racism probably brought him to a better understanding of race, broadened his outlook and shaped his belief in Nigerian unity and ultimately Pan-Africanism.  In 1944 he co-founded the National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroons (NCNC) alongside Sir Herbert Macaulay from the West; becoming the Secretary General and demonstrating his willingness to serve and work with people from other regions unlike other national political leaders of the time. Throughout his political career, he was a strident advocate of Nigerian unity, making great sacrifices to accommodate his desire for Nigerian unity.

When in 1953, riots sponsored by hostile Northern leaders opposed to independence erupted in Kano that killed scores of Southerners as a result of the demand by Chief Anthony Enahoro for early independence by 1957, Dr Nnamidi Azikiwe rather than take offence at the senseless killings and push for separate independence and thus separation, declared most magnanimously that the “East will wait until the North is ready.”  When again in 1957, the British colonial authorities offered independence individually to the regions provided two out of the three regions accepted the offer, the Northern region declared they were not ready for that level of political and economic independence, the Western region declared their readiness  for independence, the East  became  the tie to make or break Nigeria;  Dr Nnamidi  Azikiwe in a historic  move,  rejected the offer by declaring  that “although the Eastern region was ready to assume the responsibilities of regional  independence, its attainment without the North would lead  to the balkanization of  the Nigerian nation and conceivably a break-up of the country. The Eastern region would rather suppress its appetite for independence and the obvious gains it would entail until the Northern region was ready.” 

With this simple declaration, Dr Nnamidi Azikiwe prevented what would have been the break-up of Nigeria as offered by the then colonial authorities in 1957. He also stridently opposed the Northern proposal for the right of self determination to be enshrined in the constitution in subsequent constitutional conferences.  He appointed Prince Solomon Akenzua from the Midwest and Abdulaziz Atta from the North as permanent secretaries in the Eastern Nigeria civil service and in 1956, “Mallam Umaru Altine” a Northerner won elections and emerged the first mayor of Enugu under the sponsorship of Dr Nnamidi Azikiwe.  Many Nigerians today would be surprised to know that there was once a time a Northerner was the mayor of Enugu, the capital of the then Eastern region. That was made possible by Dr Nnamidi Azikiwe’s belief and ceaseless advocacy in words and deeds for Nigerian unity. He was not only an advocate of Nigerian unity; he was also highly invested in Pan-Africanism and the campaign for a United States of Africa. He is consequently the only Nigerian leader listed among the pantheon of Pan-Africanists.

Of all Dr Nnamidi Azikiwe’s sacrifices for nation building, the greatest was in 1959 when after winning the largest number of votes, and the 2nd largest number of seats  (NCNC got 2,592,629 votes as against  2,027,194 votes for NPC) he rejected  Chief Obafemi Awolowo’s  offer for a coalition which would have given him a majority to form the government and emerge the prime minister  with Chief Awolowo as minister of finance and  instead choose to enter a coalition with Tafawa Balewa’s  NPC and emerge a junior partner  in the overall interest of Nigerian unity.  There is no precedent anywhere on the African continent either then or now where a leader in line to take power as prime minister rejected such an offer in the interest of nation building. Dr Azikiwe did what no leader dead or alive has ever done within the African continent. Unlike other Nigerian leaders, Dr Azikiwe was not imprisoned by tribalism, hate and bigotry. He was a man of love, an adept believer in African brotherhood, an enigma, an uncommon specie, an indefatigable believer in Nigerian unity and a nation builder. He made the greatest possible sacrifices for Nigerian unity, and remains to date the only nation builder Nigeria ever had. 

If other leaders had made just 30% of the sacrifice and effort Dr Azikiwe made in nation building, Nigeria would have turned out a more harmonious nation. Alas, Nigeria has been ruled only by tribalists, bigots, opportunists, criminals, vandals, madmen, and we are paying the price today. Except Nigeria gets a genuine nation builder like Dr Azikiwe I see no future for the nation!

 Dr Nnamidi Azikiwe’s One Nigeria Mistake?

Ironically Dr Azikiwe is now blamed by people of his own ethnic stock, for having made the mistake of advocating Nigerian unity, which has turned out a colossal disaster. They premise that had Dr Azikiwe faced the reality of Nigeria’s contradictions and seceded when the opportunity presented itself on many occasions before independence, the various units would have been spared the injustice, marginalisation, ethno-religious conflicts, civil war, misrule, domination and suffering that has characterised the nation.
While it is true that Dr Azikiwe was mistaken in his assessment of the possibility of Nigerian unity, he still deserves respect for at least believing in a lofty, albeit unrealistic ideal and working to actualise those ideals. After more than five centuries of slavery, colonialism and discrimination against black Africans, Dr Azikiwe like other Pan-Africanists believed in the necessity of black brotherhood and fraternity as a strategy to claim their dignity and rightful place in the world. Unfortunately, he was in a nation infested by incurable, narrow minded, primitive bigots who never shared his ideals and was mistaken to believe he could persuade such characters into helping to construct a harmonious Nigeria.

 It is said that “history will judge better those who tried and failed than those who didn’t try at all.” Dr Azikiwe was a man of rare principles who zealously pursued what he believed in. He ultimately failed in his nonetheless lofty vision for Nigerian unity, but history will give him better judgement because he tried at least.  It is left for the present generation to correct the now obvious mistakes Dr Azikiwe made in advocating for Nigerian unity.  

Lawrence Chinedu Nwobu
Email: lawrencenwobu@gmail.com



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