To understand the Right Honourable Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe, his politics and leadership of Nigeria and the Igbo, it is necessary to have a biographical sketch of him. Benjamin Nnamdi Azikiwe, later to become simply Nnamdi Azikiwe was an enigma of sorts and he represented so many things to several people.
The puzzling personality presented to the world by Azikiwe is traceable to the philosophical worldview he adopted to order his life as admitted in his autobiography, My Odyssey, which he anchored on the middle course of being “eclectic and pragmatic” in order according to him, “to draw the best from each philosophy and make it work” to his “advantage in the light of reason and experience.
To a great extent this philosophical worldview he adopted and his application of it to his politics contributed to the lack of focus and inconsistent leadership that marked his tour de force as a politician and leader in Nigeria. Azikiwe was born of Igbo parentage from Onitsha in present day Anambra State.
His father Chukwuemeka Azikiwe was a colonial civil servant deployed to the Nigeria Regiment, then a military unit of the West Africa Frontier Force. Azikiwe had a cosmopolitan upbringing having a formative background spanning Nigeria’s three major ethnic groups and even an ecumenical exposure to Christianity, Islam and traditional region. Having been born into Igbo parentage, he spoke Igbo and was conversant with Igbo socio-cultural milieu. Having been born in Zungeru and lived in Kaduna, northern towns with preponderant culture and language being Hausa he had acquaintance with Hausa language and Islamic worldview.
Having schooled at Onitsha and Calabar, he had a good mix of cultural taste of the Igbo and Eastern minority tribe of Effik/Ibibio. His father’s transfer to Lagos meant Azikiwe being taken to Lagos, a Yoruba country where he finished his secondary education, lived and worked as a colonial civil servant. Azikiwe had a chequered history in his formative years but the most transformative was his educational career at Hope Waddell Training Institute at Calabar where he encountered a fellow student, a Liberian of Kru descent who told him of his country (Liberia), an African independent state governed by fellow black men which information excited the young mind of Azikiwe.
Another critical juncture of Azikiwe’s formative years was his encounter with a fellow student, a Yoruba, who told him of Marcus Aurelius Garvey, a great Negro from America who was coming with great army to liberate Africa from colonial rule. Having been given the Negro World magazine which he read and identified with the message of liberation especially the Universal Negro Improvement Association’s motto: ‘One God, One Aim, One Destiny which captivated his mind. Another milestone in Azikiwe’s transformation was his encounter with Rev. Dr. Kwegyir Aggrey who preached a sermon at the Methodist Church, Lagos and had challenged the students to have the vision of bettering themselves from their present situation by going to the new world (America) to ‘make a man’ of themselves.
Having received a book gift (Negro Education: A Study of the Private and Higher Schools for Colonial People in the United States) when Aggrey visited his school and delivered a lecture, this book left a lasting impression in Azikiwe.
The information, Azikiwe gleaned from this book fired his zeal to receive university education in America which he finally accomplished through utilizing pieces of information in the book. Dr. Aggrey’s lecture had also electrified Azikiwe’s imagination as he kept pondering the pith of the lecture which was that “nothing but the best was good enough for Africa.”
The Wesleyan Boys’ High School bookaward to Azikiwe threw up another beacon of hope, as the book, From Log Cabin to the White House by W.M. Thayer, an autobiography of President James Garfield of United States of America whose grass to grace story of overcoming poverty and militating parental poor background struggle through education further inflamed Azikiwe’s quest to better himself and overcome militating poverty to higher education in the United States of America.
The story of Azikiwe’s titanic struggle to get good education is the stuff of which great men are forged just as his bookprize portrayed about the life and times of President James Garfield and Abraham Lincoln. As we said earlier in this essay, the cosmopolitan makeup of Azikiwe’s personality is such that he was wired to a trajectory of a great life of service to his fellow men – in Nigeria, Africa and the world but somehow this great trajectory was deflected and turned to a mere flash of meteor or instead, of a lodestar of African liberation as he dreamt after listening to Rev. Dr. Kwegyir Aggrey and reading the Negro World magazine of the Universal Negro Improvement Association.
The legend of Azikiwe is that he was genuinely concerned about his place in history and had correctly grasped the fact that one can only become a responsible member of human community by acquiring good education. But the story of Azikiwe has shown that the acquisition of education and knowledge is one thing the application of them to life problems is another. Azikiwe’s misapplication of knowledge was the reason Azikiwe turned out the way he did in Africa and Nigeria’s history to the grief of mankind in general and the Igbo and Nigerians in particular.
It may not be right to say that Azikiwe got his philosophical foundation wrong for every philosophical orientation is right until its application to human problem proves its rightness or wrongness. Azikiwe reviewed several philosophical discourses, especially socialism (idealism) and capitalism (materialism) and decided to steer away from both by embracing the middle course of pragmatism and eclectism – that is picking the best solutions from both and applying them to life problems. But in a form of double-speak of which Azikiwe’s opponents/critics have accused him of, he had in his autobiography.
My Odyssey, emphatically declared that “capitalist system is a universal practice in Africa and, until it is universally rejected or radically modified, the prudent thing to do is to adapt ourselves to it until a revolution has taken place which might transform Africa or the world into a socialist leviathan.” At personal level, Azikiwe dreamt of being a wealthy capitalist and a philanthropist.
The misapplication of Azikiwe philosophical standpoint may neither be apparently clear nor its disastrous effect be felt in the area of economic and socio-cultural aspect of his life as could be seen in his predisposition to capitalism, acceptance of polygamy and social stratifications. But his application of that philosophy to political questions became markedly disastrous and calamitous for himself, his followers and his political constituency constituted by the Igbo ethnic group that suffered the consequences flowing from that misapplication of his philosophical standpoint.
In his book, Renascent Africa, first published in 1937 which serves as Azikiwe’s major philosophical/political treatise on Nigeria, he hinged his standpoint on four cardinal pillars, namely, Economic Determinism, Mental Emancipation, Spiritual Balance and Political Risorgimento. But in all these, nothing is fixed as Azikiwe had argued that he was not bound by any iron-clad philosophical standpoint and so could in any situation pick that solution which had most pragmatic value or effect. While practicing his journalism starting from Accra to Lagos, Azikiwe was a firebrand political ideologue, and could be fixed as an anti-establishment man as his newspapers by editorial policies denounced colonialism and its policies. It was journalistic integrity that established Azikiwe as a Pan-Africa, cum Nigerian leader and the people cued behind his message of liberation of Africa, and Nigeria.