The Pioneer Historian: Kenneth Onwuka Dike (1917-1983)

Professor Kenneth Onwuka Dike (December 17,  1917-October 26, 1983), B.A., M.A., PhD.,Hon. LLD, Hon. D.Litt., Hon. D.Sc., Andrew W. Mellon Professor of African History, Harvard University, was the first indigenous Vice Chancellor of the University of Ibadan and roaming Ambassador of Biafra to Côte d’Ivoire.

Professor Kenneth Onwuka Dike (December 17, 1917-October 26, 1983)
Professor Kenneth Onwuka Dike (December 17, 1917-October 26, 1983)

Early Life and Education

“The Pioneer Historian”, Kenneth Onwuka Dike was born in Awka, present day, Anambra State, Nigeria, on December, 17, 1917. He was the third son of Nzekwe Dike, an itinerant medicine-man and trader. He lost his father in 1922, at the age of four, and his mother, Nwudu Dike, a year later.

Thus, young Kenneth became an orphan at an early age and was raised by his grandfather, Dike Nwancho, assisted his elder brother, George Dike, who was born in 1909.

In 1923, Dike was apprenticed to an itinerant medicine-man who operated between Awka and the commercial city of Onitsha. He started his primary education at Government School Awka and then his secondary education at Government College Awka. In 1933, he enrolled at the prestigious Dennis Memorial Grammar School, DMGS, Onitsha, Nigeria.

After three years at DMGS, Dike spent another two years at Achimota College in the Gold Coast, present day, Ghana. From Achimota, he moved to Fourah Bay College, Sierra Leone. At the time, Fourah Bay was affiliated to and awarding degrees of Durham University. This meant that through Fourah Bay, Dike took the B.A. (in English, Geography and Latin) of Durham University.

In 1943, he returned home to Nigeria but didn’t stay long. In November 1944, Dike left on a British Council Scholarship for the M.A. degree in History at University of Aberdeen. In June 1947 he graduated, bagging first-class honours (the best of his year) at Aberdeen.

Four months later, Dike registered for his PhD at King’s College, University of London. Under the supervision of Vincent Harlow and Gerald S. Graham, he did a dissertation entitled “Trade and Politics in the Niger Delta, 1830-1879.” He earned his PhD degree on July 28, 1950. With it he became the first African to “pass through professional training” in Western historical scholarship.


The 1950s proved to have been Dike’s most productive scholarly years—preceding his university administrative career and later political activity in the interest of an independent Biafra.

In 1953, his Report on The Preservation and Administration of Historical Records in Nigeria was published. This work had to do with setting up the Nigerian National Archives which he later served as director. In this same documentation and preservation vein, Dike served for a time as well as chair of the Nigerian Antiquities Commission. Then in 1957 A Hundred Years of British Rule in Nigeria appeared, followed in 1958 by The Origins of the Niger Mission.

From 1963 until late 1966 Dike was Vice Chancellor at Ibadan—i.e., he was that university’s chief administrative officer. Prior to assuming that post he had been director of the Institute of African Studies at Ibadan in addition to being director of the National Archives. His combined administrative/academic skills also led to his appointment as chair of the Association of Commonwealth Universities.

Image of Kenneth Dike, First Vice Chancellor University of Ibadan
Professor Kenneth Dike and Prime Minister Alhaji (Sir) Abubakar Tafawa-Balewa at the University of Ibadan main campus for the inauguration of Dike as the first indigenous Vice Chancellor of the university, 1963.

His resignation as UI’s Vice Chancellor came in December 1966.

As an Igbo and an Easterner, his role as a head university administrator in Western Nigeria became untenable. A long struggle to keep his position was lost to a Yoruba opponent, and Dike made the critical decision at that point to opt for “a new life in an independent Eastern state”.

Dike joined his fellow Igbo people in Eastern Nigeria who were seeking secession and to form a separate nation. This new nation was to be called Biafra, named for the Bight of Biafra at the mouth of the Niger River. The name of this body of water separating the eastern and western parts of Nigeria has since been erased from maps of the reunified nation.

From Ibadan, Dike went home to become Biafra’s roving ambassador. He acted in this capacity from 1967 to 1970, travelling extensively and speaking out on behalf of the Biafran position in the civil conflict.

Professor Kenneth Onwuka Dike was the first to draw the attention of the international community to the fascinating outlines of a viable African epistemology instead of venturing into European history. As indicated above, Dike, despite all odds, successfully carried out his doctoral dissertation, Trade and Politics in the Niger Delta, 1830 – 1885 later published in 1956 by the Oxford University as Trade and Politics in the Niger Delta, 1830 –1885: An Introduction to the Economic and Political History in Nigeria.

By 1968, Dike’s position with regard to Biafra had become unshakable. Prior to that time, Eastern Nigerian attempts to achieve a loose confederation with the West had his support. These overtures, however, had been rebuffed by the West. As a result, Dike felt that “after so much sacrifice we are not prepared to go back….” Biafra’s eventual and necessary unconditional surrender was certainly a blow to this determined intellectual. Still, during the final days of the secession effort he served as Biafra’s representative at cease-fire negotiations in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire.

During the postwar years, in the 1970s, Dike went into exile and took up an academic position at Harvard University in the United States. At Harvard, from 1971 to 1973, he was chair of the Committee on African Studies. Then in 1973, he was appointed the first Mellon Professor of African History at Harvard. He continued to teach there until 1978, when he found it possible to return to Nigeria.

Family and Death

Back in Nigeria, he again went into administrative work, this time as president of Anambra State University. Anambra was located in Enugu in the Eastern part of the reunited nation North-East of his birthplace, Awka.

Dike was accompanied by his wife Ona when he returned to Nigeria. He died in an Enugu hospital on October 26, 1983. He was 65. At the time of his death, one daughter, Nneka, and one son, Emeka, lived in Nigeria’s capital city, Lagos, on the Western coast. Three other children (two daughters, Chinwe and Ona, and one son, Obi) remained in the United States, in Cambridge, Massachusetts.


Professor Kenneth Onwuka Dike was the first to draw the attention of the international community to the fascinating outlines of a viable African epistemology instead of venturing into European history. As indicated above, Dike, despite all odds, successfully carried out his doctoral dissertation, Trade and Politics in the Niger Delta, 1830 – 1885 later published in 1956 by the Oxford University as Trade and Politics in the Niger Delta, 1830 –1885: An Introduction to the Economic and Political History in Nigeria.

Though the book made an immediate international impact as marking a new beginning in the historiography of Africa, it greatly stimulated and inspired new generation of practitioners of African history to make vigorous researches using various ways, views and methods. Many African scholars went further to investigate Africa and African history, cultures and affairs other than theirs.

Image of Kenneth and Ona Dike
Kenneth Dike, with his wife, Ona, on receiving the Honorary Degree of Doctor of Laws at the University of Aberdeen, Scotland, July 8, 1961.

Dike also created enduring foundations which gave impetus to an African initiative or Africa – centered perspective when he mooted for the establishment of Department of History in the University College Ibadan. He, therefore, used the Department of History to sow and water the seed of African epistemology.

The History Department soon became “a centre of excellence in African historiography in the world“.

In fact, at a point, “The History Department of Ibadan had no less than four full professors, and began to supply staff including Vice Chancellors, to other universities”.

At this juncture, it would be worthwhile to recall that the late Professor Kenneth Onwuka Dike was the first African head of History at the University of Ibadan, and the first Indigenous Principal of the University College Ibadan and later the pioneer Vice-Chancellor of University of Ibadan.

READ ALSO: How UNILAG’s Vice Chancellor was nearly killed in 1965

The efforts of Dike would be better appreciated if we remembered that Ibadan was still under the control of imperial London and its curriculum was stocked with European and English History as well as British Colonial History. Dike’s idea of “African first” created new generation of African historians who through the rigorous inquiry projected the “glorious Africa” internationally with pride and satisfaction.

Another remarkable contribution of Professor K.O.Dike to African epistemology with great emphasis on African initiative or African centred perspective was the establishment of the Historical Society of Nigeria (HSN) in 1955 purposely “to consolidate the gains envisaged from the training and research at Ibadan”.

The Historical Society of Nigeria (HSN) thus became the first and now the oldest academic professional body in Nigeria which produced most of the early practitioners of History who became professors, administrators, heads of institutions, and contributors to national development. Prominent among them are Jacob Ade-Ajayi (1929-2014), Isaac Okonjo, C.C. Ifemesia, Ebiegberi Joe Alagoa (b.1933), Tekena Nitonye Tamuno (1932-2015), J.C. Anene, Emmanuel Ayandele (1936-2014), Obaro Ikime (b.1936), Adiele E. Afigbo (1937-2009) and S.J.S. Cookey (b.1934).



Awortu B.E, Uebari Samuel (2015). African Intellectual Revolution In the 20th Century: A Review of Kenneth Onwuka Dike’s Contributions to African History. International Journal of African and Asian Studies. ISSN 2409-6938.


Chuku, Gloria (2013). The Igbo Intellectual Tradition, pg. 137-164.

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Ayomide Akinbode

Ayomide Akinbode holds a degree in Chemistry but has a passion for History and Classics. When he is not writing, he’s either sleeping or playing Scrabble.

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