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JIDE OSUNTOKUN: Destroying Nnamdi Azikiwe’s statue in Onitsha a national embarrassment

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Nnamdi Azikiwe

It was widely reported that following the #EndSARS revolt by young people recently, the statue of the first president of our country, Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe in Onitsha, his home town was damaged or destroyed and when interviewed, some of the hooligans who did this dastardly act, said they attacked the statue because “the man was one of those responsible for Nigeria’s problems”. From where did these young people get their story? I felt very bad about this because the people spoke English so they were not completely dumb. I wonder what the reaction would have been if someone had done this to Obafemi Awolowo’s or Ahmadu Bello’s statue in Ikenne or Sokoto respectively. One cannot be too sure what the reaction would have been because the present generation suffers some kind of historical and mental amnesia about our past. Our school curriculum and the removal of the teaching of history from primary and secondary schools by the military when they ruled and ruined Nigeria may have been responsible for this. Some two or three years ago, a newspaper reported how a teacher in the primary school that Chief Obafemi Awolowo attended in Ikenne was surprised by the ignorance of the people about the past of their school. When he asked the children if they had heard about Obafemi Awolowo before and some of the children put up their hands and one after the other, they chorused the name of Obafemi Martins the Nigerian footballer. When the teacher then tried to correct them, they told him they had never heard about Obafemi Awolowo before. I don’t blame them. Most parents today in the materialistic jungle Nigeria has become would rather prefer their children follow the football or songs and dance route to fame and wealth than the dangerous route the likes of Awolowo and Azikiwe traversed before becoming famous. Even history graduates from our universities only think “Bode Thomas” is the name of a street in Lagos and cannot identify the name behind the street. My 40-year old engineer son once told me the only Nigerian leaders he knew were “Tunde Idiagbon and Muhammadu Buhari” because those were the leaders he knew growing up. He then innocently asked me if the current Buhari is the son of the Buhari he knew when he was growing up in the 1980s. I laughed and I said it is still the ageless Muhammadu Buhari. You can imagine what he said to me!

Now imagine if the people who damaged Azikiwe’s statue had come from another ethnic group than Igbo; all hell would have broken out or imagine if Ahmadu Bello’s statue had been damaged by say, Yoruba or Igbo, the whole thing would not have been seen as a manifestation of our poor educational backwardness or youthful exuberance but as a manifestation of ethnic and religious bigotry and who knows how many people would have been killed as result of apparent youthful ignorance!

I have always wondered why Azikiwe is not celebrated in Nigeria especially by the Igbo people. Some have said even though he wrote the Biafran national anthem, he deserted Biafra during the civil war. But this is not really true. It was when he saw the fruitlessness of the situation that he advised Emeka Ojukwu to seek for peace. He knew there was a time to fight and a time to seek for peace and as a wise man he knew the Igbo people had proved their mettle and to continue to fight a war in which they were facing overwhelming odds in terms of weapons, ammunitions and manpower was the height of folly. For taking this position, the man’s record has been deliberately distorted and his contribution to Nigeria and Africa as a whole has been diminished. This was a deliberate ploy by Ojukwu to reduce the stature of Azikiwe in order to boost his own. Yet without Azikiwe’s contribution, Nigeria’s independence would not have come at the time it came; it certainly would have been delayed. Many young people today cannot believe that with two Masters Degrees from two Ivy League universities, namely Columbia and Pennsylvania, Azikiwe could not get a job in the civil service of Nigeria because the British colonial administration did not think too highly about the quality of American education. Up to the early 1950s the “Colour bar” prevented Nigerians from getting served in hotels in Lagos reserved for whites only! But for people like Azikiwe, this humiliation would have continued for a while more in our own country. Today in Nigeria, young people without the right dose of historical education take many things for granted. It was not in the plan of the white man to walk away from his conquest of Africa without the push of such men as Azikiwe. Rudyard Kipling, one of the ideologues of imperialism felt black Africans constituted the “Whiteman’s Burden” and Africans were “half children half devils” and his counterparts in Germany regarded Africans as “Untermenschen that is, sub-humans and it was the lot of people like Azikiwe to remove from Africa what he called “man’s inhumanity to man”. His struggle and those of others like him should never be forgotten by poorly educated compatriots. Who was Nnamdi Azikiwe?

He was essentially a true Nigerian. He was born in 1909 in Zungeru, where his father was a clerk in the military detachment of the West African Frontier Force (WAFF) in the present-day Niger State in northern Nigeria. After some years of elementary schooling in Onitsha, he moved to Lagos for his primary and secondary schooling which he completed in Methodist Boys High School in 1924. He worked briefly as a government clerk before going to the United States in 1925. He finished his high school in Storer College, a high school for blacks at Harpers Ferry in Virginia before going to Lincoln University, a predominantly Black college in Pennsylvania.

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He later transferred to Howard University in Washington DC. These were black institutions in then segregated America where blacks were put in their place of subservience to whites. He acquired two Masters in Columbia University and University of Pennsylvania, two Ivy League universities in the United States. He was one of the first blacks to cross the “colour bar “in these white institutions. He achieved all this by dint of hard work, determination and exceptional ability to eat the “bread of racial bitterness” as he later put it. To pay his way through college, he served as porter in railway stations where he sometimes slept and even tried professional boxing. He spent a total of nine years in the United States before returning to Africa where he intended to show in his own words the “light of freedom for people to follow”. He did not return to Nigeria but in the spirit of Pan-Africanism, he went to Accra where he lived for a while and established a newspaper as the mouthpiece of fledgling African nationalism in 1934. It was not until following year that he shifted his base to Lagos.

While in the Gold Coast (Ghana) he mentored young people, including Kwame Nkrumah who later led his people to independence in 1957, three years before Nigeria. As a journalist, Azikiwe established newspapers located in Lagos and other parts of Nigeria and brought young people like Anthony Enahoro into journalism barely just out of secondary school. Azikiwe the orator was such an effective mobilizer of people that young men from all parts of the country flocked around him. People like Sule Zukogi, Raji Abdallah, Kolawole Balogun, Osita Agwuna to name a few formed the Zikist movement as a radical group to forcefully demand for “Freedom or death” from the British. Zikism became an ideology that sometimes left Azikiwe bewildered because he was not a revolutionary but a liberal democrat. He had however planted the seed of nationalism for the younger firebrands to water. Many of these young people suffered for it by being jailed by the colonial government and this made a few of them to be critical of Azikiwe. In the nationalist rally around him, all sorts of associations enlisted and the Ibo State Union became one of the powerful forces in the NCNC (National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroons) which at the prodding of mostly students in Lagos he joined the veteran nationalist and land surveyor Herbert Macaulay to form in 1948. This rally was distinct from all the previous nationalist parties that existed in Nigeria before Azikiwe returned to Nigeria in 1935 and they resented his domineering presence and dismissed him unfairly, in my view, as an Igbo champion.

It is a long story. It will suffice to say Azikiwe was elected into the Western House of Assembly from Lagos in 1951 and he actually wanted to head the government in Western Nigeria before the Yoruba felt their liberalism was being exploited and forced Azikiwe to abandon his pan-Nigerian mission for a more realistic vision of heading the government of Eastern Nigeria while his nemesis Obafemi Awolowo headed the government of Western Nigeria. This was the genesis of the poisoning of relations between the two titans of Nigerian politics and their followers. While Awolowo and Ahmadu Bello wanted a loose federation, Azikiwe wanted a federation with a strong centre. In 1959, some nationalist forces felt Awolowo and Azikiwe could have teamed up to lead a strong government to independence in 1960 but Azikiwe rightly or wrongly moved to form a coalition with the Northern People’s Congress (NPC) on principle of realism not idealism. He repeated this again in 1979 when his Nigerian Peoples Party (NPP) formed a coalition government with the northern party, the National Party of Nigeria. Whether his political decisions were the product of opportunism or realism remains a moot question but no one can deny Azikiwe his rightful place as primus inter pares among the founders of modern Nigeria. I was privileged to have met him in 1979 and chaperoned him round Philadelphia when the University of Pennsylvania honoured him with a doctorate degree, honoris causa. I was part of the official Nigerian delegation and I will never forget.

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