Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe, an Igbo from southeast Nigeria, presided over a democratic Government that was in power for a mere three years before the regional tensions that have marked the country’s politics ever since led to the first of many military coups.
But as a lawyer, political scientist, journalist, political activist, President and for many years Nigeria’s elder statesman, Dr. 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.
After years of agitation for nationhood, Dr. Azikiwe became Governor General of the Nigerian Federation at independence from Britain in 1960, and President in 1963, when the country was declared a republic.
While in office, he introduced universal adult suffrage and moved to extend schooling throughout the country.
When Nigeria’s civil war erupted in 1967, after a disastrous attempt at secession led by the Ibo general Chukwuemeka Ojukwu, Dr. Azikiwe broke ranks with leaders from his own ethnic group who supported the bid to form an independent nation called Biafra.
For a time, his support of a united Nigeria earned him the scorn of many in his native southeast. But with his customary political aplomb, Dr. Azikiwe soon emerged from the ashes of a defeated Biafra to figure prominently in the country’s triangular ethnic coalition politics.
He ran again for the presidency twice, in 1979 and 1983, during a brief interlude of democracy between military governments. But although he ran strongly in his native region each time, he ended up throwing his support to rivals from the north.
Early in his career, Dr. Azikiwe seemed to realize that his Ibo group, the smallest of Nigeria’s three major ethnic sub-divisions, could never rule the country outright. This insight led him to form alliances with northern politicians from the Muslim Hausa-Fulani ethnic constellation that would give him a far greater say in the country’s affairs than he could have hoped for alone.
Throughout his life, Dr. Azikiwe’s alliance with northerners put him at odds with Obafemi Awolowo, a socialist-inclined leader of the Yoruba, the country’s other important southern group. In the view of Mr. Awolowo’s supporters and many other Nigerians, Dr. Azikiwe’s compact with the north opened the country to domination by the north and by the military, whose senior officer corps is dominated by people of Hausa and Fulani background.
Born Nov. 16, 1904, in Zungeru in northern Nigeria, where his father was stationed as a colonial civil servant, Nnamdi Azikiwe attended English-run missionary schools. He then went to the United States, where he studied at Storer College in West Virginia, Howard University in Washington, D.C., Lincoln University in Pennsylvania and Columbia University in New York City.
Dr. Azikiwe taught political science at Lincoln University for three years in the early 1930’s before returning to Africa, where he founded the first of five newspapers he would create, The African Morning Post, in Accra, Ghana, in 1934.
In Ghana, Dr. Azikiwe became a mentor to Kwame Nkrumah, the Premier of that British colony who would go on to become the President of the first African country to free itself from European rule, in 1957.
Dr. Azikiwe returned to Nigeria in 1937 and worked as an editor and essayist before throwing himself into the limited local politics under colonial rule, becoming a member of the Legislative Council in 1948.
Making a name for himself as an outspoken advocate of independence, he went on to become Premier of the country’s Eastern Region in 1954.
After he disappeared from public for several weeks in 1989 following the death of his wife, Flora, associates of Dr. Azikiwe announced his death, provoking an outpouring of emotion in his honor. Clearly relishing the affection shown for him, Dr. Azikiwe resurfaced from seclusion, saying “I am not in a hurry to leave this world, because it is the only planet I know.”
As a traditional chief of the Ibo, Dr. Azikiwe is expected to have an elaborate funeral guided by ancestral customs. The Nigerian Government has also announced that he will be given a state funeral.