Zik as national symbol


Kayode Komolafe

Does symbolism have a role to play in resolving the crisis of nationhood caused by the cumulative mismanagement of Nigeria’s diversity?

This question appeared to be unwittingly thrown up by a video of Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe that surfaced in the social media a few days ago. The video is essentially a snippet of the history of the tragic civil war fought to keep the breakaway Republic of Biafra within the Federal Republic of Nigeria. In the 1969 video, Azikiwe known in his younger days as the “Zik of Africa,” denounced the head of state of Biafra, General Chukwuemeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu, as foisting a “tyranny” on the people of Biafra. Azikiwe accused Ojukwu of being recalcitrant in the course of peace-making. In particular, Azikiwe drew attention to the humanitarian disaster already caused by the war in Biafra at the time he was addressing the media in London on the crisis. The footages of malnourished children in the war-torn areas had caught the attention of the world. It has been estimated that between 500,000 and two million people died of starvation during the war.

Now there is certainly something problematic about the reactions to the video across the generations of those who actually experienced the tragedy and the generation born years after the war. The contradictory responses should again be a reminder of the problem in dealing with the Nigerian history especially the period of the war. This situation is made worse by the contempt with which the study of history is officially treated.

For instance, one perspective is that the question was more much complex than Azikiwe posed it in the video. After all, there are critics who still accuse Azikiwe of being part of the problem of the First Republic that led to the civil war, in the first instance. Azikiwe was also accused of initially endorsing the idea of Biafra before parting ways with Ojukwu.

For some members of the younger generation now in support of a Biafra Republic as enunciated by Mazi Nnamdi Kanu (who is standing trial on myriad charges), the action of Azikiwe in the video, was a simply a betrayal of the real Republic of Biafra that existed between May 30, 1967 and January 20, 1970.

So on both sides of the conflict, Azikiwe hardly emerged a unifying figure. The perception of ambiguity of Azikiwe’s role in the war still persists despite efforts by Azikiwe himself and his followers in the past to make clarifications on the historical period.

It is, therefore, within the context of this alleged ambiguity of Azikiwe’s place in history that the call by the Anambra State government on Nigeria to declare November 16, the birthday of Azikiwe, as a national holiday should be examined. By the way, November 16 is also the birthday of the accomplished novelist, Chinua Achebe.

Azikiwe was born in Zungeru, Niger State, in 1904 of Onitsha parentage. Indeed, Azikiwe died as the Owelle of Onitsha, Anambra State.

Governor Willy Obiano of Anambra State legitimately recounted Azikiwe’s unimpeachable nationalist credentials to support the advocacy for November 16 as a public holiday in honour of the memory of the great nationalist and widely acknowledged pan-Africanist. As Anambra state observed November 16 as public holiday for the third time, Obiano said: “It is a huge national embarrassment that Nigeria has yet to declare November 16 a national holiday.” It is also intriguing that a week after, neither the federal government nor any other state government has responded to the charge of Obiano. This silence is consistent with the levity with which the soft elements including the inherent power of symbolism needed for nation-building are treated in Nigeria. Instead of the call generating vigorous intellectual efforts on the interpretation of the nation’s history everyone simply ignores the topic and moves on to the “more urgent issues.” Yet for all-round development a nation should never ignore aspects of its history, however problematic. The areas of disagreement should be debated to draw lessons for the present and the future.

Perhaps, President Buhari should table Obiano’s proposal before the National Council of States for advice.

So, it was only Anambra, the home state of Azikiwe, that observed Azikiwe’s birthday last week as a national holiday. The supreme irony in the silence that has followed the advocacy of the Anambra state government should not be lost on all those who believe that national symbols could be employed in cementing national integration. National symbols could be inanimate objects such as emblems, flags, geographical features, artifacts, stamps and coat of arms. Symbolism could also be expressed through historical personalities – monarchs, heads of state, nationalists, political figures, sages, moral forces and cultural icons. The common attribute of these human beings and physical objects is that a nation could summon their historical essence as a rallying point. The spirit of the symbol constitutes a force for unity.

The celebration of Azikiwe’s well-documented heroism in nationalism should not just be the programme of his home state, Anambra. Beyond Nigerian nationalism, Azikiwe was a distinguished pan-Africanist who inspired other pan-Africanists both on the continent and in the diaspora. This much was acknowledged by the first president of Ghana, Osagyefo Kwame Nkrumah, in his autobiography.

Contemplating “the future of pan-Africanism” in 1962, Zik was theoretically critical of an ethnocentric definition of pan-Africanism. He put the matter this way:, “It would be useless to define pan-Africanism in racial and linguistic terms, since the obvious solution would be parochial. And chauvinism, by whatever name it is identified , has always been a disintegrating factor in human society at all known times of human history.” Five years after this statement, Biafra happened and the role of Azikiwe in the crisis that erupted still remains a matter of debate as demonstrated by the different responses to the video referred to above.

After his education in the United States, Azikiwe established newspapers in Gold Coast now Ghana) and Nigeria to pursue the cause of pan-Africanism. In Nigeria, he assumed the leadership of the nationalist movement after the death of Herbert Macaulay in 1946. It was certainly no accident that although Azikiwe was never the chief executive officer of state in the independent Nigeria, yet he was the president of the republic. Ordinarily, such a ceremonial position ought to carry with it the weight of the symbolism of a national moral force the way monarchs are viewed in some non-republics. That was not to be in the unfortunate circumstance of the First Republic.

Yet as a historical personality, Azikiwe’s greatest strength was that of the moral force of inspiration.

Perhaps the following recall from the history of the Second Republic could help demonstrate the power of Azikiwe as an inspirer. In the ferment of party formation in 1978/79, the political elements who later formed the National Party of Nigeria (NPN) which later produced President Shehu Shagari were not comfortable that Azikiwe with his immense political stature would not be on their side. Although NPN chose Dr. Alex Ekwueme (among the Igbo political giants in the party) as the running mate to Shagari in the 1979 presidential elections, the rival Nigerian Peoples Party (NPP) was consolidating the southeast for Azikiwe to be a presidential candidate of the party.

The following proposition suddenly emerged on the political horizon: Zik should maintain a supra-partisan dignity of purpose by being the “father of the nation.” The argument of the proponents of this ill-defined concept of the “father of the nation,” was that as the nationalist of unrivalled stature, Azikiwe, who was then 75 years old, should be above the political frays. He should remain neutral and provide guidance to poltical gladiators.

Azikiwe’s allies and followers, of course, pooh-poohed the idea of “the father of the nation” and fielded him as the candidate of the NPP, which eventually came third in the election.

Yet, 42 years after some politicians crowned him unsolicitedly as the “father of the nation,” only Azikiwe’s home state of Anambra is proposing that his memory should be honoured by declaring his birthday a public holiday.

Still on the role of Azikiwe as an inspirer, the following testimony of Chief Obafemi Awolowo may also be instructive. This is because in many of the fables of Nigeria’s political history, Azikiwe and Awolowo never saw anything good in each other; the two remarkable historical figures were not only rivals; they were also sworn enemies. Well, that is as far as fables go. But in November 1978, Awolowo eulogised Azikiwe even while still throwing some political jibes. There was a huge rally on the ground of the African Club in Calabar. Amidst the shouts of Awooooo, Awolowo assessed his fellow candidates at the election.

On Azikiwe, he said inter-alia that “over and above all, Zik is an inspirer.” In the political negotiations among political parties for formation of government in the build -up to independence, Awolowo offered to be the finance minister in a government in which he proposed Azikiwe as the prime minister. At that rally, Awolowo praised Azikiwe as a leading light of the Nigerian nationalist struggle and a pan-Africanist. Significantly, Awolowo said on that occasion that it was no happenstance that his own newspaper, the Nigerian Tribune, was first published on November 16, 1949, Azikiwe’s birthday. He, however, said that it was a “deep decline” that the Zik Africa of the 1930s and 1940s had been politically reduced to the Owelle of Onitsha in 1979.

Five months later, Azikiwe was at the same venue in Calabar where he read out at a rally a very charitable birthday letter addressed to Awolowo urging him to embrace the cause of national unity along with other leaders. Just like Awolowo did earlier, Azikiwe also threw a verbal missile to his opponent as the audience hailed him as Zeeeek. He reminded his audience that while as an old boy of Hope Waddel secondary school in Calabar he was no stranger to the serene city, “some other persons” were in Calabar as “prisoners.” Azikiwe was, of course, referring to the period between 1963 and 1966 when Awolowo served his jail term in Calabar, having being convicted of “treasonable felony.” Political rallies of the yore were indeed theatres of wits and charisma. These were the things that drew the crowds to the rallies.

If Azikiwe’s historical role as an inspirer of pan-Africanism and Nigerian nationalism was never denied by his contemporaries, how come the present generation seems so oblivious of that role? Indeed, the disappointment of the post-colonial generations of Africa about the state of things often make them downplay the great efforts the generation of Azikiwe put into the nationalist struggle. However, the important inspirations for nation-building could be drawn from the heritage of nationalist struggles. The lack of this inspiration could be one of the reasons for the fissiparous impulse that defines the politics of a large segment of the present generation.

Many of the important figures of nationalist struggles are yet to be accorded their pride of place in history.

All told, the question still persists: why is Zik not accorded in the Nigerian national consciousness the equivalent of, for instance, the place of Nkrumah in Ghana’s history? In the course of nation-building some figures emerged and were generally accepted as national leaders and never pigeonholed into sectional enclaves of ethnicity, region or religion – Mahatma Ghandi as moral force in India, Julius Nyerere as a model of modesty in governance in Tanzania, Kemal Ataturk as a moderniser in Turkey and Abdel Nasser as a lesson of developmental leadership in Egypt etc.

Why Nigeria is reluctant to accord Azikiwe the status of a true symbol of nationalism would remain a matter of historical conjectures.

In this respect, a number of historical ifs come readily come into the fore.

Would the history of Nigeria be different if Zik, an Igbo man, emerged in 1951 the first leader of government and premier in the old Western Region, dominated by the Yoruba? As a matter of fact, he nearly became the first premier of the region because his party (largely a confederation of many organisations) almost pulled the majority to form the government. What exactly happened that Zik’s National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroons (NCNC) lost out to the Action Group (AG) of Awolowo, who emerged as the first premier of the region? The answer to this question is one the most disputed stories of Nigeria’s political development. Those who believe the NCNC’s version would tell you that Azikiwe was rigged out of sheer ethnic chauvinism. The AG’s story is that practical politics played out and the party won democratically.

The second question: would the course nation -building be different if Zik didn’t return to the east to solidify his home political base after the disappointment of 1951?

Another question: would the course of Nigeria’s political development be different if Zik became the nation’s prime minister given his nationalist background in 1960? In the crisis of the immediate post-independent era, Azikiwe simply lacked the executive powers to make any difference.

The foregoing and many other questions will continue to crop up as long as national integration is the topic.

For now, despite his assured place in history Zik is yet to be accepted as a national symbol for nation-building.


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