It is impossible, in a short account, to give more than a blurred image of Zik, the dedicated, full-time politician. He approached politics as he did everything in life, with zeal, creativity and total commitment. Zik’s fundamental philosophy of life was "anything worth undertaking requires no less than complete commitment". And commit he did!
Calling upon a political base developed in the early 1940’s with the establishment of the powerful Nigerian Youth Movement (NYM)and the National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroons (NCNC), Zik soon had Political Action Groups working in support of his plans and objectives for the Eastern Region. Paramount amongst these was bringing an end to tribalism and division that existed throughout the east and, in fact, all of the nation. He had never hidden or disguised his ultimate nationalist objective for Nigeria, independence from Britain and self rule. He was determined to build bridges of cooperation and unity from his Eastern Regional capital of Enugu to his politically and culturally diverse counterparts in the country’s other regions. This was essential in order to present the truly unified front demanded by Britain as a precursor to independence. Using his incredible charm, diplomacy and communication skills, he traveled throughout the Eastern Region and the nation, preaching the gospel of unity and loyalty to One Nigeria. His very apparent sincerity and oratory soon resulted in a formidable nation wide-wide political following. Zik’s efforts culminated in a speech before an estimated 60,000 people in Lagos on 27 November, 1958 in which he announced that Britain had agreed in principal to grant independence and self-government to Nigeria with effect from 1 October, 1960. His speech was attended and cheered by a broad spectrum of senior ministers, business and church men and women from every corner of Nigeria. Zik charged his cheering audience with the continuing task of hard work and dedication in order to realize their common independence goal. Commenting at the conclusion of the speech, an oft-time political opponent and esteemed Nigerian educator, Mr. Mbonu Ojike, stated "The Doyen of Nigerian nationalism has brought to the three Regions of Nigeria, self-government on a platter of gold and thank God, this Herculean task has been accomplished without bloodshed. Only Zik could have chronicled this epoch".
In the meantime, other efforts began to pay off. Schools and clinics were being constructed throughout the region in a shining example of self-help schemes. Zik’s enthusiasm for development and the resulting economic prosperity was achieving his stated goal of bringing people together for a common purpose and greater good.
In 1959, Zik was elected to the Nigerian House of Representatives and shortly thereafter, was appointed Minister of Local Government. His greatest frustration at this point in his political life was the intense hostility that divided his own Ibo people, manifest by the deep schism between the Onitsha and Non-Onitsha Ibos. His attempts to arbitrate were met with derision and hatred from both sides. In the middle, and desperately frustrated, Zik considered resignation from his office and return to the business world. To the people of his hometown, Onitsha, he said "I have been fighting all my life. I fought in the U.S. I fought in London. I fought in Accra. I fought every inch for freedom in Lagos. You know I can fight. But I have not returned home to fight, and if my people do not want me, I am prepared to go. I told my father this and I tell you the same: let me fall and be forgotten. I am convinced I have tried my best to serve my people and live up to my philosophy. But I will not fight my people, for in their hearts, is my sanctuary".
But Zik did fight. For love of country and to satisfy his burning nationalism, Zik fought his enemies on the political stump and in courtrooms. He refuted allegation after allegation and, in January, 1960, he was sworn in as President of the Nigerian Senate. On 16 November, 1960, Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe raised his right hand and swore his oath as Nigeria’s first indigenous Governor-General and Commander-In-Chief of the Armed Forces, with the late Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa serving as Nigeria’s first Prime Minister. On that same day, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, appointed Zik to the Queen’s Privy Council, the first Nigerian to be so honored.
Finally, on 1 October, 1963, Nigeria became an independent Federal Republic and H. E. Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe, assumed the mantle as her first President, appointed unanimously by the Federal Parliament. It was a long and sometimes very tortuous road from a humble Onitsha childhood to the largely ceremonial position as Federal President. Ceremonial though it was, the great Zik had fulfilled his motivating dream and objective, the independence and self-rule of his motherland, Nigeria.
Zik served diligently and faithfully as Head of State until his removal from office by a military coup d’etat on 14 Ã¢â‚¬â€œ 15 January, 1966, resulting from pre-election political rioting throughout the country. Zik was succeeded by the Chairman of the National Military Government, General Johnson Aguiyi Ironsi.
Deeply disappointed over the events in his now troubled homeland, Zik left Lagos for his country residence at Nsukka where he spent his time writing and contemplating his future. After several months of thoughtful consideration about his future, he was, after all, only 62 years old, Zik was determined to continue playing a guiding role in his nation’s future.
It was clear to all of us who knew Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe that the word "retirement" was not in his vocabulary. Seclusion at his country home at Nsukka lasted throughout much of 1966, during which time Zik wrote, walked and worked diligently to suppress his disappointment at the political turn of events that brought about military rule in Nigeria.
In April of 1967, I had my first opportunity to spend time with Zik since his withdrawal from politics. We met in London for dinner at one of his favorite restaurants, Boulestan. I was struck immediately by how subdued and melancholy he was; his usual ebullience constrained and his demeanor lacking the customary Zik extrovert personality. I commented with respect, on my observation. He said nothing for perhaps 30 seconds and then allowed me a glimpse of his soul. "Don, I am still in mourning for my country Nigeria". He went on to talk for over an hour about the condition of his country, socially, economically and politically. "I am trying to find a role that will have the greatest impact on the future of Nigeria because if the continued neglect of matters concerning tribal, ethnic and religious division and hostilities, economic deprivation and political and social unrest continues, Nigeria will explode, even more than it already has, in catastrophic warfare". Zik went on to describe in grim detail, the July to October, 1966, massacre of an estimated 35,000 Ibo in the Hausa dominated north and the plight of at least 2 million Ibo refugees flooding the east.
Sadly, on May 30, 1967, Zik’s prophetic words were fully realized when the Ibo of the Eastern Region of Nigeria attempted to secede from the Republic through a unilateral declaration of independence for a new state of Biafra. It is not my intention to discuss this horrendous war which tore Nigeria asunder, other than to say that, as a first hand observer, it set in motion a conflagration too horrible to contemplate, in complete fulfillment of the worst of Zik’s nightmarish prophecy.
Ironically, it was out of chaos and war that Zik found his mission, his raison d’ÃƒÂªtre. As an Ibo who understood the basic philosophy and objective of secession, his immediate inclination was to support the action of the head of the Eastern Region and now leader of Biafra, Lieutenant Colonel Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu. His tacit support was accompanied by a stern message in which Zik spelled out his demands for a peaceful, political reconciliation of differences between Ojukwu and General Yakubu Gowon, the military leader of the Federal government. Zik insisted on peaceful resolution and stated unequivocally that if reconciliation could not be achieved without bloodshed, then a unified and peaceful Nigeria must result.
Zik’s support was manifest through an extensive but very low key tour of European and African capitals to win recognition, support and aid for the new nation, Biafra. Most doors were quickly closed to Zik’s pleas, although he found limited success with recognition of sovereignty from Zambia, Gabon, Tanzania and Ivory Coast. Discussions with the government of France yielded a limited quantity of weapons, but the military might of the Federal government, amply equipped by the Soviet Union and United Kingdom, soon led to open warfare. Zik’s worst nightmare was realized.
Zik appealed for the intercession of the Organization of African Unity, the United Nations and the Vatican as a means to reconcile the combatants. In early 1969, Zik, in complete despair at the fighting now raging in his homeland, announced that he could no longer, in good conscience, support the Biafran endeavor and opted instead for a peaceful settlement and a united Nigeria, a goal that he pledged to work hard for.
I was privileged to be at Rhodes House, Oxford, on February 16, 1969, when Zik delivered a masterful address outlining his peace proposals for ending the civil war. In delineating the horrors before the high level group in attendance, Zik sparked a wave of international sympathy for the plight of the millions of starving men, women and particularly children, of breakaway Biafra. Within days of his powerful address, airlifts of food and medicine began from the United Kingdom, Europe and the United States and Canada to Enugu and Port Harcourt.
The last of Biafra’s poorly equipped and demoralized forces were finally overcome in pitched fighting south of Enugu on January 12, 1970. General Ojukwo and his senior officials escaped Federal arrest and detention by fleeing on January 8, 1970, to the Ivory coast. Finally, on January 15, 1970, the Biafran adventure collapsed and ceased to exist, surrendered by an acting President, Philip Effiong.
The fighting that savaged Nigeria was over, but the tragedy was far from finished. The nation, particularly the Eastern Region, was a shambles, with millions of starving and destitute people left in its wake. Zik was a whirlwind of activity, working to calm people and travelling extensively, now seeking support for refugee assistance and national reconstruction and finding a strong measure of international support. Aid flowed and along with it, Zik’s popularity was renewed. In 1970, he announced his re-entry into politics in opposition to General Gowan’s continued military rule. His overtures met with failure and Zik again retreated, this time to an old love, sports. He became active in organizing and running amateur football. He chaired the Nigerian Boxing Board of Control and started the Nigerian Table Tennis Association.
Best of all, through the persistent urging and nagging of his many friends, including me, he completed a work long in progress, his autobiography, published in 1970 in London and New York, entitled MY ODYSSEY. Sadly, it was never updated, so much of Zik’s later years are somewhat clouded. I do know that he found much satisfaction in his appointment on January 1, 1972, to the office of Chancellor of the University of Lagos. This lasted until late 1975 when he was replaced by General Gowon’s military successor, General Murtala R. Muhammad. Turning again to writing, Zik completed ECONOMIC RECONSTRUCTION OF NIGERIA and MEDITATION, a collection of poetry, and finally, his last book, an anthology, TREASURES OF WEST AFRICAN POETRY.
In 1996, Zik was greatly honored in a traditional way when he was initiated into the esteemed Ibo Ozo Society of Onitsha, rising to eventually be inducted into the high office of Owelle of Onitsha.
Zik made one last political run, taking up the leadership of the National Peoples Party after the return to the brief four year civilian rule of President Alhaji Shehu Shagari. In 1982, he announced his candidacy for President in the elections scheduled for 1983. He campaigned with great vigor throughout the nation, expressing his determination to rebuild Nigeria. "Change ’83!" rang throughout Nigeria. But, Zik’s election was not to be. On December 31, 1983, General Mohammed Buhari re-established military rule as Chairman of the Supreme Military Council. Military rule has continued to this day in Nigeria under a succession of army generals.
Zik retired back to his home at Nsukka where he lived in peace until his death on May 11, 1996. He is survived by his second wife, Dr. Uche Azikiwe, an esteemed educator. Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe was one of the "Grand Old Men" of Africa. His was a life of great achievement and enormous dignity. He will always be remembered as the Father of Nigerian nationalism, Independence and self rule. He touched the lives of all who knew him and will never be forgotten.