Nnamdi Azikiwe (1904-1996) was one of the foremost Nigerian and West African nationalists and the first president of Nigeria.
Nnamdi Azikiwe was born on Nov. 16, 1904, of Ibo parents in Zungeru, Northern Nigeria, where his father worked as a clerk in the Nigerian Regiment. His parents gave him the name Benjamin, but he later changed it to Nnamdi. He attended school in Onitsha, Lagos, and Calabar. In 1921, when he discontinued his secondary school education, he was fluent in the languages of the three major ethnic groups of Nigeria--the Hausas, the Ibos, and the Yorubas--a major asset for the future Nigerian nationalist. Between 1921 and 1924 he worked as a clerk in the Nigerian treasury in Lagos.
In 1925 Azikiwe went to the United States to study. He attended Storer College and then Howard and Lincoln universities. He received a bachelor of arts degree in political science from Lincoln in 1931 and advanced degrees from Lincoln in 1932 and the University of Pennsylvania in 1933. As a black penurious student (nicknamed Zik), Azikiwe worked at a wide range of mostly lowly jobs and was frequently a victim of racial discrimination. His American experience was certainly a source of his pan-African patriotism.
Between 1932 and 1934 Azikiwe taught political science at Lincoln University. At this time he began writing seriously, and his productions reflected his pan-African inclination. He devised a "Syllabus for African History" and wrote a book, Liberia in World Politics (1934), in defense of the black republic. In 1937 he published Renascent African,the most important single expression of his pan-African ideology.
In 1934 Azikiwe returned to Nigeria and accepted an offer to edit the African Morning Post, a new daily newspaper in Accra, Ghana, which he quickly made into an important organ of nationalist propaganda. In 1937 he returned to Lagos and founded the West African Pilot,which became "a fire-eating and aggressive nationalist paper of the highest order." In the next decade Azikiwe controlled six daily newspapers in Nigeria: two in Lagos and four strategically placed in the urban centers of Ibadan, Onitsha, Port Harcourt, and Kano. These played a crucial role in stimulating Nigerian nationalism. To support his business ventures and to express his economic nationalism, Azikiwe founded the African Continental Bank in 1944.
Azikiwe also became directly involved in political movements. In 1937 he joined the Nigerian Youth Movement, leaving it for the Nigerian National Democratic party in 1941. In 1944, on Azikiwe's initiative, the National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroons (NCNC) was founded to "weld the heterogeneous masses of Nigeria into one solid block." Azikiwe was elected the council's general secretary and in 1946 its president. In this period his major political writings, apart from his newspaper articles, were Political Blue Print of Nigeria and Economic Reconstruction in Nigeria(both 1943).
Between 1947 and 1960 Azikiwe, as leader of the NCNC, held a number of elected public offices. He was a member of the Nigerian Legislative Council (1947- 1951), member of the Western House of Assembly (1952-1953), premier of the Eastern Region (1954-1959), and president of the Nigerian Senate (1959-1960). During these years he had continued to play the single most vigorous role in Nigeria's march toward independence. While premier, he greatly expanded educational facilities in the Eastern Region and laid the foundation of the University of Nigeria at Nsukka, formally opened in September 1960.
On Oct. 1, 1960, Nigeria became independent, and Azikiwe was appointed governor general with the primeministership going to Sir Alhaji Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, deputy governor general of the Northern People Congress, the largest single party of the federation. On Oct. 1, 1963, Nigeria became a republic, and Azikiwe was named its first president, a position he held until he was deposed by the military coup of Jan. 15, 1966.
In the Nigerian-Biafran civil war, May 1967-January 1970, Azikiwe at first reluctantly supported Biafra, but in August 1969 came out against Biafran secession and in favor of a united Nigeria.
From 1978-1983 Azikiwe led the Nigeria People's Party (NPP); he was the NPP's candidate in the presidential elections of 1979 and 1983. He retired from politics in 1986.
Azikiwe died in eastern Nigeria on May 11, 1996, following a long illness. Marking his death, the New York Times commented that Azikiwe "towered over the affairs of Africa's most populous nation, attaining the rare status of a truly national hero who came to be admired across the regional and ethnic lines dividing his country."