Benjamin Nnamdi Azikiwe was born on November 16, 1904, in Zungeru, Northern Nigeria where he learnt Hausa language at his tender age. His parents were Igbo; his father Obed-Edom Chukwuemeka Azikiwe (1879–1958), a clerk in the British Administration of Nigeria and his mother was Rachel Ogbenyeanu Azikiwe. Nnamdi means “My father is alive” in the Igbo language.
After studying at Hope Waddell Training Institute, Calabar, and Methodist Boys’ High School Lagos. He became a pupil teacher at St. Jude’s CMS Central School, Orafite, and CMS Central School, Onitsha (1919). He was a third class clerk with the Treasury Department, Lagos (1921). Residing all over Nigeria enabled him know how to speak the three main languages in Nigeria, Igbo, his mother tongue,Hausa, and Yoruba. After an unsuccessful attempt to stow away to America in 1924, his father saved some money, and gave him for his journey to America.
He left for the United States in the late 20s, as he put it “in search of a Golden Fleece.” While in the US, he worked as a dishwasher, coal miner, potato peeler, car wash attendant, elevator boy, kitchen hand, and waiter to pay his way through college. He attended Storer College in West Virginia for two years (1925-1927). Due to financial difficulties, he left for Howard University, Washington DC, where he studied for two years (1927-1929).
In 1929, he entered Lincoln University, PA. In 1930, he received his BA degree in Political Science. His classmates included Thurgood Marshal, the late Supreme Court Justices who left a mark in Americas Judicial system, and his senior was Langston Hughes (completed in 1929) , the late African American Poet. Azikiwe completed Lincoln university in 1930, long before another indomitable African freedom fighter Kwame Nkrumah also entered Lincoln University and completed in 1939.
In summer 1930, he was admitted to Columbia University to read journalism, with a scholarship from the Phelp Stokes Fund. He obtained an MA degree in Religion and Philosophy at Lincoln University (1932). While still at Lincoln University, he was employed as a Graduate Assistant in summer 1930. In 1933, he concluded two Master’s degree programs, in Anthropology and Political Science at University of Pennsylvania, PA. He was appointed a full-time lecturer in Political Science in 1933. He taught ancient, medieval, modern and English history, as well as African history. While still pursuing his Master’s at Columbia University, he registered for the Doctor of Philosophy degree at the school. In 1934, his Ph.D. Thesis, “Liberian Diplomacy, 1847-1932” was published as “Liberia in World Politics.” Since his attendance at these schools, he has received many honorary degrees from them, including two from Lincoln University. After accomplishing his academic dreams, he knew it was time to go back to his homeland, to join in the fight to free Nigerians from the evil grasp of Britain, who was then our colonial masters.
After teaching at Lincoln, Azikiwe returned to Nigeria in mid 30`s and proceeded to Gold Coast (Ghana) where he took the position of editor for the African Morning Post, a daily newspaper in Accra, Ghana in November 1934. In that position he promoted a pro-African nationalist agenda. Smertin has described his writing there: “In his passionately denunciatory articles and public statements he censured the existing colonial order: the restrictions on the Africans’ right to express their opinions, and racial discrimination. He also criticised those Africans who belonged to the “elite” of colonial society and favoured retaining the existing order, as they regarded it as the basis of their well being.” Azikiwe is still studied by Ghanaian journalism students in the history of journalism in Ghana for bringing firestorm in the practice of journalism under colonialsim.
As a result of publishing an article on May 15, 1936, entitled “Has the African a God?” written by I. T. A. Wallace-Johnson he was brought to trial on charges of sedition. Although he was found guilty of the charges and sentenced to six months in prison, he was acquitted on appeal. He returned to Lagos, Nigeria, in 1937 and founded the West African Pilot, which he used as a vehicle to foster Nigerian nationalism. He founded the Zik Group of Newspapers, publishing multiple newspapers in cities across the country. Azikiwe became active in the Nigerian Youth Movement (NYM), the first genuinely nationalist organization in Nigeria. However, in 1941 he backed Samuel Akinsanya to be NYM candidate for a vacant seat in the Legislative Council, but the executive selected Ernest Ikoli instead. Azikiwe resigned from the NYM amid accusations of discrimination against Ijebu members, taking all Ibo and most Ijebu members with him. After a successful journalism enterprise, Azikiwe entered into politics, co-founding the National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroons (NCNC) alongsideHerbert Macaulay in 1944.
He became the secretary-general of the National Council in 1946, and was elected to Legislative Council of Nigeria the following year. In 1951, he became the leader of the Opposition to the government of Obafemi Awolowo in the Western Region’s House of Assembly. In 1952, he moved to the Eastern Region, and was elected to the position of Chief Minister and in 1954 became Premier of Nigeria’s Eastern Region. On November 16, 1960, he became the Governor General, with Abubakar Tafawa Balewa as Prime Minister. On the same day became the first Nigerian named to the Privy Council of the United Kingdom. With the proclamation of a republic in 1963, he became the first President of Nigeria. In both posts, Azikiwe’s role was largely ceremonial
Azikiwe and his civilian colleagues were removed from power in the military coup of January 15, 1966. During the Biafran (1967–1970) war of secession, Azikiwe became a spokesman for the nascent republic and an adviser to its leader Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu. After the war, he served as Chancellor of Lagos University from 1972 to 1976. He joined the Nigerian People’s Party in 1978, making unsuccessful bids for the presidency in 1979 and again in 1983. He left politics involuntarily after the military coup on December 31, 1983. He died on May 11, 1996, at the University of Nigeria Teaching Hospital, in Enugu, Enugu State, after a protracted illness.
His time in politics spanned most of his adult life and he was referred to by admirers as “The Great Zik of Africa”. His motto in politics was: “You talk I listen, you listen I talk.”
The writings of Azikiwe spawned a philosophy of African liberation Zikism, which identifies five concepts for Africa’s movement towards freedom: spiritual balance, social regeneration, economic determination, mental emancipation, and political resurgence.
In his lifetime, he wrote a lot of books, poetry, and articles. His celebrated publications include Liberia in World Politics: Renascent Africa (1934); Political Blueprint for Nigeria (1943); Economic Reconstruction of Nigeria (1943); Zik: A Selection of the Speeches of Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe (1961); Assassination Story: True or False? (1946); “Essentials for Nigeria’s Survival.” (1965); “Before Us Lies The Open Grave” (1947); “The Future of Pan-Africanism” (1961); “The Realities of African Unity” (1965); “Origins of the Nigerian Civil War” (1969); I Believe in a One Nigeria (1969); Peace Proposals for Ending the Nigerian Civil War (1969); My Odyssey: An Autobiography (1970); Dialogue on a New Capital for Nigeria (1974); “Creation of More States in Nigeria, A Political Analysis” (1974); Democracy with Military Vigilance (1974)
The Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport in Abuja, the Nnamdi Azikiwe Stadium in Enugu, the Nnamdi Azikiwe University in Awka, Anambra State, Nnamdi Azikiwe Press Centre, Dodan Barracks, Obalende, Ikoyi, Lagos are all places named after the former governor general.
His portrait adorns Nigeria’s five hundred naira currency note. History reveals Zik as the only individual whose name appeared in a democratic constitution.
The Nigeria’s 1963 Republican Constitution which was an amendment of the 1960 Independent Constitution has the following words: “Nnamdi Azikiwe shall be deemed to have been elected President and Commander in-Chief of the Armed Forces,” as submitted by then Prime Minister Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa who posited that, “Nigeria can never adequately reward Dr. Azikiwe” for his nationalism.