My encounter with the Rt. Hon Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe
By Emmanuel Obe
I had just turned 15 in 1983 when the then living legend, the Rt. Hon. Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe, planned to visit Port Harcourt to address the Presidential campaigm rally of the Nigeria People’s Party.
And I couldn’t wait to set my eyes on him. Why? Azikiwe was Nigeria’s foremost nationalist; a man with education, who had his way with the spoken word; a man who often bettered the white colonial rulers in their own ways.
Zik, as he was popularly called, was a man whose reputation travelled ahead of him. He was admired and widely respected. People spoke about him with ululations. He was tall, handsome and flamboyant. And what was more? He came from Onitsha, the cradle of Western civilisation in Nigeria outside Lagos. Onitsha had religion, commerce, education and royalty. In much later years, one journalist from Imo State told me that in Igboland, after the White man, it was the Onitsha man. It wasn’t therefore a coincidence that Zik came from Onitsha. Where else?
My father often spoke glowingly of Zik, his mastery of the English language and his demagoguery. He represented everything a father wanted for his boy: bright, educated and patriotic.
I had read so much about him in elementary school and in my constitutional development studies in secondary school; and I came to adopt him as my favourite Nigerian nationalist. Now was the time for me to see him in flesh and blood. And to see Zik was the first bargain I put before my father and won. If he loved Zik so much and wanted his little son to admire him also, this was the time to prove it.
I asked my father to permit me to travel from the village to Port Harcourt to see Zik. I promised I would be well and return to give him a brilliant report of the event. To my surprise, he granted my request. I am sure my mother would not have allowed it, had she known about it. To let her adolescent son go get lost in an unpredictable crowd of a massive political rally in which he could be trampled on was the last thing she would permit.
The crowd at the Temporary Stadium in Port Harcourt was unprecedented. Every space was taken up by people enthusiastic to listen to Zik. It was tough controlling the crowd in front of the podium, where I easily squeezed myself to. As a boarding student at Baptist High School, I had regularly visited the Temporary Stadium to watch the Port Harcourt Darling Club, Sharks FC for which Benji Nzeakor, my classmate and Adokiye Amiesimaka, then Nigerian International, played. But I never saw the crowd that Zik attracted in any of those matches involving Sharks FC.
The crowd was getting restless. They wanted to hear Zik speak. But the political protocols had to be followed. In Africa, the biggest masquerade enters the arena the last. So they introduced the other political juggernauts. Each introduction was greeted by a wild applause. The lineup included Chief Clifford Cheta Nwuche (father of Chibudom Nwuche, Fourth Republic Deputy Speaker of the House of Reps); Chief Kemte Giadom, the NPP gubernatorial candidate; Chief Nwobidike Nwonodi, Dr. Obi Wali; Chief Solomon Lar; Chief Sam Mbakwe, Chief Jim Nwobodo, Chief Olu Akinfosile and Chief Adeniran Ogunsanya.
While the master of ceremony introduced all the other personalities and speakers, the duty of introducing the Great Zik of Africa was left to Chief Ogunsanya, Zik’s longstanding friend and associate since his days in the precolonial struggle for Independence.
Ogunsanya mounted the soapbox and said, “The man I want to introduce needs no introduction!”. And the stadium reverberated in “Zzziiiikkk!!!!!” as the crowd surged forward to catch closer glimpses of the Rt. Hon. Dr. Nnamdi Benjamin Azikiwe.
As he took the microphone, I watched Zik from below in front of the surging crowd, ready to catch every word that he spoke.
He said for lack of time he would summarise the sins of the Shehu Shagari-led National Party of Nigeria government into five:
Each word he dropped was greeted with wild uncontrollable applause and the cry of Zzziiiikkk!!!!
It was the first time I was hearing the words, squandermania and nepotism. They were enough for me to take home to my father.
Shortly after he spoke, the rally came to an end and the struggle to get out of the arena ensued. I successfully got out of the stadium and was at the Leventis Motor Park just in time to catch a bus to Eleme.
Many many years later I visited Zik’s country home, Inosi Onira in Onitsha and his Onuiyi Haven in Nsukka. I saw the building that houses his respected newspaper, the West African Pilot in Yaba, Lagos and met many people that Zik inspired into abandoning other endeavours to join the nationalist movement.
They included Chief Anthony Enahoro, who said Zik always called him, the Young Ebullient Tony. Enahoro was the brilliant young school leaver, who graduated from King’s College, Lagos to edit Zik’s Comet. It was Enahoro that moved first motion for Nigeria’s Independence in 1953.
There was also Igwe Osita Agwuna, the late Igwe of Enugwu-Ukwu na Umunri in Anambra State, who led the Zikist Movement that made the call for a revolution and the resort to armed struggle to secure Independence for Nigeria. He and some id his colleagues were imprisoned for making hat call to armed struggle. He told a delegation I joined to his palace in Enugwu-Ukwu in 2000 that when he was freed from prison, Zik told him, “You have passed through the vale of suffering. Your name shall be written in the annals of history.” Igwe Agwuna said dejectedly, up till date my name is not written on any street in Nigeria.
And then there was Prof. Eskor Toyo that visited me in my office in Calabar. He said he left secondary school to join the Zikist Movement and that he missed being a journalist with Zik’s Comet newspaper because the day he was to start work was the day Enahoro, the editor was arrested and taken away. “That was the beginning and the end of my career in journalism,” he told me. Toyo also told me that it was difficult in those days to campaign for Independence because many Nigerians did not believe that the black man was capable of ruling himself. He said people said the white man brought religion, brought education and brought civilization. “These black people you people want to rule us, can they produce pin?” he said the people had asked them as they went about with public address systems to sensitise the people about Independence.
I met Bob Ogbuagu, M.C.K. Ajuluchukwu and Mokwugo Okoye.
I had gone on to read My Odyssey, Zik’s autobiography, in which he chronicled how he stowed away in a ship to study abroad and became a pan-Africanist.
Zik used his newspapers not only to fight for Independence but also to inspire younger generations of Nigerians and Africans to stand up to colonialism. His newspapers promoted Africans of achievement and elevated Independence struggle to an intellectual height. The motto of the West African Pilot was Show the Light and the People Will Find Their Way. He founded the first modern indigenous university in Africa, the University of Nigeria with the motto: To Restore the Dignity of Man.
Today is the 116th posthumous birthday of Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe, Nigerian’s first President