Nnamdi Azikiwe: How Do We Remember Nigeria’s First President?

Popularly known as “Zik” or “The Great Zik of Africa”, Nnamdi Azikiwe was Nigeria’s first president at the beginning of the First Republic on October 1, 1963. At Nigeria’s independence in 1960, Azikiwe was Nigeria’s first and only indigenous Governor-General and had risen to prominence as the nation’s most influential nationalist.

As a leading member of the National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroons, later becoming the National Council of Nigerian Citizens, NCNC, Azikiwe was able to entrench his ideology, known as Zikism, among his ardent supporters.

At first, Nnamdi Azikiwe was in support of Biafra and became its roving ambassador but later turned against Emeka Ojukwu and urged the Biafran Head of State, to surrender to Yakubu Gowon, Nigeria’s Head of State.

Azikiwe Biafra
Former President Nnamdi Azikiwe urges Ojukwu to surrender to Gowon at a press conference in London, 1968.

In this article, we shall take a look at the life and times of Nnamdi Azikiwe. His political career, his fight for independence, his rise to the presidency and, of course, his role during the Nigeria-Biafra War.

Early Life and Education

Nnamdi Azikiwe was born, Benjamin Nnamdi Azikiwe, on November 16, 1904, in Zungeru, present-day Niger State, Northern Nigeria, to Obededom Chukwuemeka Azikiwe and Rachael Chinwe Azikiwe. His father worked as a clerk with the government while his mother was a trader. His parents were Igbo. As a child, Azikiwe moved around a lot.

At Zungeru, he learnt the Hausa language. His parents then sent him to Onitsha, present-day Anambra State, where he had his first primary education at the Holy Trinity School of the Roman Catholic Mission in 1912. At Onitsha, he was able to perfect his Igbo.

The senior Azikiwe, who was a Protestant, moved his son from a Catholic school to that of a Protestant. As a result of his father’s job and faith, Azikiwe attended several schools in his childhood. He later joined his parents in Lagos from Onitsha. There, he attended Methodist Boys’ High School in 1916.

Jamiaca’s Marcus Garvey greatly influenced Azikiwe with his writings and activism.

Shortly after, he moved to Calabar, present-day Cross River State, to further his educational career where he was trained at the Hope Waddell Training Institute in Calabar. He again returned to Lagos where he continued his education at Wesleyan Boys’ High School, Lagos.

Young Azikiwe was a product of many influences.

At Hope Waddell, he was influenced by the story told to him by one of his classmates, a Liberian, about the fact that the President and all the Governors in Liberia were Blacks; this would ignite a passion for the redemption of the Black man in him.

Also, he was introduced to the teachings of the Jamaican civil activist, Marcus Garvey. The ideologies of Marcus Garvey would become his guide toward nationalistic politics.

While at Wesleyan Boys’, Azikiwe was inspired by the sermon of James Emmanuel Kwegyir Aggrey of the Gold Coast (now Ghana), who was a resident of the United States at the time. Azikiwe was inspired by the life story of Reverend Aggrey and it was at that point he considered schooling abroad.

In addition, Azikiwe, in 1920, won a prize for excelling in his studies. He was gifted the biography of James A. Garfield, who rose from poverty to become the 20th President of the United States. This further spurred him to become great in life.

Image of James Abram Garfield
James Abram Garfield (1831–1881), 20th President of the United States (March 4, 1831–September 19, 1881)/ThoughtCo.

As a result of the several places he had lived while growing up, Nnamdi Azikiwe became fluent in Nigeria’s three major languages – Hausa, Igbo and Yoruba. He experienced, firsthand, the cosmopolitan nature of Nigeria’s urban areas, and this fuelled in him a sense of nationalist solidarity that transcended the lines of ethnicity.

Education in the United States

Nnamdi Azikiwe’s first attempt to travel abroad was in 1920. However, his attempt was unsuccessful. He worked for a few years at the Nigerian Treasury Department in Lagos from 1921 to 1924, after passing the Civil Entrance Examination in 1921. His father saved up some money and gave it to him in 1924 when he made another attempt to travel abroad.

In 1925, Azikiwe finally left for the United States. According to him, he left “in search of a Golden Fleece.”

Nnamdi Azikiwe attended Storer College, West Virginia from 1925 to 1927. He later left for Howard University where he spent two years as well – from 1927 to 1929. Due to financial constraints, Azikiwe had to engage in several menial jobs to pay his way through college. He worked as a dishwasher, coal miner, carwash attendant and kitchen hand, just to mention a few.

Azikiwe eventually applied for admission and financial assistance from Lincoln University, Pennsylvania. It was at Lincoln University he bagged a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science in 1930.

A young Nnamdi_Azikiwe
Nnamdi Azikiwe was 30 years old when he earned his PhD.

Earlier in 1927, Nnamdi Azikiwe obtained a Certificate in Law from Lassalle Extension University, Chicago. In 1930, with a scholarship from the Phelps Stokes Fund, he got admission to Columbia University to study Journalism.

In 1932, he obtained a Master’s degree in Religion and Philosophy at Lincoln University. He also concluded his Master’s programme in Anthropology and Political Science at the University of Pennsylvania in 1933.

Azikiwe was a graduate assistant at Lincoln University in 1930 and in 1933, he was teaching Political Science at the same university.

In 1934, after completing his PhD at the age of 30, Nnamdi Azikiwe left the United States for Africa.

Nnamdi Azikiwe’s Contribution to Journalism

In Ghana, Azikiwe took up a job offer as an Editor-in-Chief of The African Morning Pilot, a daily newspaper owned by Ghanaian businessman, Alfred Ocansey.

While in Ghana, he mentored Kwame Nkrumah, who would later become the first president of the West African country.

In the United States, Nnamdi Azikiwe had been a columnist for the Baltimore Afro-American, Philadelphia Tribune, and the Associated Negro Press. He realised the power of the media and its influence on the common man and sought to wield that influence wisely in liberating and redeeming the Blacks.

Nnamdi Azikiwe, The African Morning Pilot, preached the message of Pan-Africanism and heralded his philosophy of “a new and liberated Africa.” He heavily criticised foreign leaders and attacked imperialism. As a result, he was prosecuted for sedition in 1936. This led him to return to Nigeria in 1937.

Nnamdi Azikiwe established a media outfit called Zik Group. He then went on to establish The West African Pilot, published in Lagos. He was editor-in-chief from the founding of the newspaper in 1937 to 1945. He radically transformed the media world, especially the West African newspaper industry.

Ghana’s Dr James Aggrey was a great influence on Azikiwe

Azikiwe was also the Managing Director of Zik Press Limited, under which the following newspapers were printed and published – West African Pilot, Lagos, Eastern Guardian, Port Harcourt, Nigerian Spokesman, Onitsha, Southern Nigerian Defender, Ibadan, Daily Comet in Kano and Eastern Sentinel in Enugu.

The West African Pilot soon became the leading African-run newspaper in the Eastern Region printing over 20,000 copies in 1950. Nnamdi Azikiwe soon became known as a foremost pioneering newspaper proprietor and journalist.

Political Career

Shortly after the creation of The West African Pilot, Nnamdi Azikiwe soon became actively and directly involved in the politics of Nigeria. Using the tool of his newspapers, he wielded the influence of his media outlets and stimulated Nigerian nationalism.

He weaved into the hearts of the people through his strive for independence and he was an inspiration to many Nigerians. He soon rose to the rank of the leader of the National Youth Movement, NYM, – the most powerful nationalist organisation in Nigeria at the time.

Herbert Macaulay (November 14, 1864 -May 7, 1946) was the first Nigerian to qualify as a civil engineer on December 5, 1893/Public Domain.

In 1941, after a dispute with Ernest Ikoli, one of the founders of NYM, Azikiwe left the organisation. He went on to co-found, with Herbert Macaulay, the National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroons. At the time, the NCNC was not a political party. It was only a union of different ethnic and social unions with the same goal of fostering a Pan-Nigerian identity and securing self-government for all of Nigeria. The NCNC soon became the leading and most prominent nationalist organisation in Nigeria.

In 1945, Azikiwe led a General Strike action against the colonial government. His role and unwavering support for the General Strike earned him the nickname – “the Great Zik.” He has also been referred to as the father of Nigerian nationalism.

The NCNC soon became known as the National Convention of Nigerian Citizens. Following the Second World War, Nnamdi Azikiwe had become the nation’s most revered nationalist.

Nnamdi Azikiwe as Governor-General, President of Nigeria

In the 1950s, there were three major regions – the Eastern Region, Western Region and the Northern Region. There would emerge distinct tribal groups from the dominant tribes in each Region.

The Eastern Region, dominated by the Igbo, had the Ibo Federal Union. Azikiwe served as president of both the NCNC and the union.

The Western Region, dominated by the Yoruba people, had the Egbe Omo Oduduwa. This union was led by Obafemi Awolowo, another foremost politician and lawyer. The Egbe Omo Oduduwa would later evolve into the Action Group, AG.

Azikiwe Elizabeth II
Premier of the Eastern Region, Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe with the British Queen Elizabeth II during the latter’s official visit to Nigeria, 1956/LIFE Magazine.

The Northern Region, dominated by the Hausas and Fulanis, had the Bauchi General Improvement Union. This union was led by Mallam Sa’ad Zungur, Mallam Aminu Kano and Abubakar Tafawa Balewa. However, Aminu Kano and Tafawa Balewa later became founding members of the Northern People’s Congress, NPC.

In 1948, Nnamdi Azikiwe was elected to the Nigerian Legislative Council with the support of the National Council. He served as Premier of the Eastern Region from 1954 to 1959.

As of 1959, the three dominant unions from the different regions became political parties. The NCNC from the East, headed by Nnamdi Azikiwe. The NPC from the North, headed by Ahmadu Bello and Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, and the AG from the West, headed by Obafemi Awolowo.

The General Elections of 1959 saw the coalition of the NCNC and the NPC with the AG acting as an opposition group. Nnamdi Azikiwe emerged as the first indigenous Governor-General of Nigeria. He ruled as Governor-General from 1960 to 1963. On October 1, 1963, Nigeria became a Republic and Azikiwe would go on to serve as the first president of Nigeria from 1963 to 1966.

Note that Nnamdi Azikiwe’s Governor-General and Presidential roles were largely ceremonial.

Nigeria’s First Military Coup, Civil War and Rivalry with Ojukwu

President Nnamdi Azikiwe was ousted from office after Nigeria’s first military coup on January 15, 1966. The coup saw the emergence of Major-General Johnson Thomas Aguiyi-Ironsi as Nigeria’s first military Head of State.

At the breakout of the Nigeria-Biafra War in 1967, Azikiwe became Biafra’s roving ambassador. As a result, speculations would abound as regards his stance as a nationalist leader.

However, Azikiwe only sided with the Biafrans at first as a result of the genocide against the Igbos. He served as an adviser to Chukwuemeka Ojukwu, the Head of State of the Biafran Republic. Azikiwe travelled to other African countries seeking help for the Biafrans. Eventually, he changed his mind, pulled his weight behind the Federal Government, and urged Ojukwu to surrender to Gowon, having realised the futility of the war.

After the war ended in January 1970, Azikiwe was appointed Chancellor and Chairman of the Council of the University of Lagos, a position he held from 1972 to 1976.

Politics in the Second Republic

In 1979, at the founding of Nigeria’s Second Republic, Azikiwe joined the Nigerian People’s Party, NPP, and contested for the office of the President. His bid was not successful as Shehu Shagari, a school teacher from Sokoto and the candidate of the National Party of Nigeria, NPN, emerged as the first democratically elected President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria.

Azikiwe Nkrumah
Nnamdi Azikiwe was a mentor to Ghana’s first president, Kwame Nkrumah.

In 1983, Azikiwe contested again. This time, the NPP went into coalition with the National Party of Nigeria, NPN. However, doubts arose as to who would emerge as president between Azikiwe and Obafemi Awolowo of the Unity Party of Nigeria. In the end, neither Azikiwe nor Awolowo won the election.

Nnamdi Azikiwe resigned from active politics after the military coup that saw the emergence of Major-General Muhammadu Buhari as Nigeria’s fifth military Head of State on December 31, 1983.


Nnamdi Azikiwe championed and preached the message of Pan-Africanism. He eventually designed his own political ideology known as Zikism – a political philosophy aimed at decolonising the minds of young Africans. This philosophy was developed by Azikiwe as a reformed ideology.

Azikiwe then listed five principles – known as the Canons of Zikism – that were imperative to the political freedom of Africa.

They were: Spiritual Balance, Social Regeneration, Economic Determinism, Mental Emancipation and Political Intelligence.

Remembering Nnamdi Azikiwe

The Great Zik, as Nnamdi Azikiwe was fondly called, will always be remembered for his fight in the struggle for Nigerian independence and the emancipation of the people from the oppression and rule of the British colonial government. His excellent spirit and matchless character, coupled with his unwavering belief in the liberation of the Black man led to Azikiwe’s eventual emergence as the first President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria.

Through Zikism, his political ideology, he was able to renew the minds of most Africans and his supporters, known as Zikists, who looked up to him. Azikiwe is fondly remembered as the Great Zik of Africa, one of the foremost nationalist leaders of Nigeria’s First Republic.

Nnamdi Azikiwe
Nnamdi Azikiwe was Nigeria’s last Governor-General and first President. Albeit, both roles were largely ceremonial.

Nnamdi Azikiwe was an ardent believer in education as a tool for the emancipation of the African people. As a result, he clamoured for the creation of an indigenous university in Nigeria. This dream later became materialised in 1960 when the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, the first indigenous Nigerian university was inaugurated. The motto “To restore the dignity of man” was Azikiwe’s idea.

Nnamdi Azikiwe was conferred with the highest honour of the Grand Commander of the Federal Republic, GCFR, by the Federal Republic of Nigeria in 1980. He received several honorary degrees from different universities around the world, including Lincoln University, Howard University, University of Lagos, University of Nigeria, and so on.

Azikiwe served in various capacities as President of the NCNC, Member of His Excellency Privy Council, Eastern Nigeria, Vice President of the Nigerian National Democratic Party, Minister of Internal Affairs and Chancellor of the University of Lagos.

His highest office was the position of Governor-General from 1960 to 1963 and President from 1963 to 1966.

Dr Benjamin Nnamdi Azikiwe was a man of outstanding achievements who also excelled greatly in sports. He won several laurels to his name including the Welterweight Boxing Champion, Storer College, Gold Medallist in Cross Country, and Storer College, to mention but a few.

In addition, he was a member of several societies and organisations including the Anti-Slavery Society for the Protection of Human Rights, the American Political Science Society, the American Society of International Law, the Royal Economic Society, the Nigeria Olympic Committee, and the Nigerian Table Tennis Association.

Nnamdi Azikiwe also has to his name an autobiography, titled My Odyssey: An Autobiography, which was published in 1970.

Legacy and Death

Nnamdi Azikiwe, the Great Zik, passed away on May 11, 1996, at the University of Nigeria Teaching Hospital in Enugu, after a prolonged illness. He was 91. Azikiwe was buried in Onitsha on November 16, 1996, on what would have become his 92nd birthday.

Nnamdi and Flora Azikiwe
Nnamdi Azikiwe with his first wife, Florence “Flora”, 1983.

Following his death, he was survived by seven children and two wives – Uche Azikiwe and Ugoye Comfort Azikiwe. His first wife, Florence Azikiwe passed on in 1983.

Benjamin Nnamdi Azikiwe was, during his lifetime, revered as a great nationalist. Using his media outlet, the newspaper, he built a name for himself and etched himself in the hearts of many Nigerians. His influence was unmatched as he preached the gospel of Pan-Africanism and Pan-Nigerian identity.

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Igwe, A. (2015). ‘Zik of Africa’- An appraisal of the contributions of Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe to African socio-political and economic growth in the twentieth century. European Centre for Research Training and Development. UK. Vol.3, no.4, pp.14-27

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