Read Nnamdi Azikiwe’s sterling speech at the NAACP convention in 1959 calling for Pan-African unity

Francis Akhalbey July 19, 2019
Nnamdi Azikiwe

Popularly known as “Zik” or “Zik of Africa”, Nigeria’s first president, Nnamdi Azikiwe made his name in the 1930s as a devoted figure in the nationalist movement after his return to Nigeria from the United States, where he had gone to study.

He was, in his early days, motivated to fight towards the independence of his country and Africa as a whole after listening to a lecture given by Dr J.E. Kwegyir Aggrey in 1924.

On July 19, 1959, a year before Nigeria gained independence, Azikiwe, who was then the premier of Eastern Nigeria was invited to speak at the 50th-anniversary celebrations of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) at the Polo Grounds in New York.

One of the highlights of the speech was when he called on African-Americans to help foster trade relations between the United States and Nigeria as they prepared to fully gain independence from Britain.

Read his historic speech below:

I am greatly indebted to the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People for the invitation to speak on this occasion of the celebration of its fiftieth anniversary. For five decades, this organization has been in the vanguard of the struggle for human freedom in America. Its objective has been the attainment of equal rights for people of African descent and other peoples of colour who are citizens of this great bastion of democracy.

In the thoughts of Abraham Lincoln, this country was conceived in liberty of the individual and it was dedicated to the idea that democracy as a way of life can only be meaningful not only to its inhabitants but to the rest of the world if all facets of its society respect human dignity in the noble attempt to create equality of opportunity for all.

For 183 years, the people of the United States have been involved in a historic experiment to determine whether democracy can survive as an ideology which places a high premium on the value of the individual in a society which is heterogeneous. Throughout this period, this great country has been the cynosure of the world. Every little mistake in human relations has been magnified out of its proportions. Every error of judgement in the relations of the races has been critically analysed. And every act of injustice based on such extraneous factors as race, colour, creed or station in life has been subjected to the most severe strictures.

Such a negative attitude has not been due to any inveterate hatred of the United States per se (although we must admit that those with axes to grind cannot but make capital out of such slips), but the main reason is the universal respect which the world has for this country. Because of this high esteem, the outside world expects the United States, like Caesar’s wife, to be beyond reproach, so far as respect for human dignity is concerned, bearing in mind ‘the spirit of 1776’.

As students of human relations we know the fundamental social problems which confront those who are privileged to rule others. We also realize the impossibility of changing human nature in particular areas of social activities. But any Government which makes the slightest pretension to be democratic must prove itself equal to its responsibility by ensuring the application of the rule of law in the maintenance of order in a stable society, and by guaranteeing to its citizens the enforcement of fundamental rights.

What are these fundamental rights? They are the window display by which democracy advertises itself as a way of life. They are the yardstick by which the success or failure of democracy as an ideology can be most accurately assessed. These imply the exercise of freedom of speech, the freedom of peaceful assembly, the freedom of association, the freedom of movement, the freedom of private property, the freedom of public trial, the freedom from want and the other essential human freedoms which are enumerated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

For fifty years the NAACP has weathered the storm in the challenging situation of the American scene, which finds American citizens of colour in the ironical position of constantly reminding certain segments of American society, through the due process of law, that American democracy must be a living reality in American society. That this point of view has been stressed with all constitutional means at their disposal is very commendable indeed because it demonstrates their implicit faith in and unalloyed loyalty to the American way of life.

The NAACP has been an inspiration to me and to my colleagues who have struggled in these past years in order to strengthen the cause of democracy and revive the stature of man in my country. As a student in this country from 1925—1934, I had the opportunity of being fed with my American cousins what Claude McKay called the ‘bread of bitterness’. But I have also had the unique honour of sharing with these underprivileged God’s own children the challenge to conquer man-made barriers and to forge ahead to the stars, ‘in spite of handicaps’.

This spirit of the American Negro, as exemplified in the constitutional struggles of the NAACP, has borne fruits of victory in the course of the years. It has given the United States a fair chance of reconciling the theory of democracy with its practice in America. It has also fired the imagination of the sleeping African giant, who is now waking up and taking his rightful place in the comity of Nations. What a glorious victory for the American Negro!

Since the historic decision of the United States Federal Supreme Court in 1954, the Government and people of this country have been alive to their duty to the people of America and to the world. They have worked assiduously to enforce the constitutional guarantees of the fundamental rights of the citizen within the territorial limits of this country. And they have proved their genuine desire to improve race relations in this great country.

It is true that the NAACP, as one of the watch-dogs of the less privileged people, is still on the warpath; nevertheless history has provided the answer to the question whether the American Government believes in and practises democracy. Any serious student of race relations in America must admit that there have been radical changes for the better in the last quarter of a century. Only Governments which believe in democracy are capable of allowing themselves to be influenced by organized public opinion, and this is a credit to the present Government, in spite of what its critics may honestly choose to add to the other side of its balance sheet.

In Africa, the NAACP spirit of active resistance to the forces which are inconsistent with democratic principles has fired our imagination. We have relentlessly fought any attempt to foist upon us the horrible stigma of racial inferiority. We have successfully challenged cant and hypocrisy among those who pay lip service to democracy. And we have severed for ever the chains of autocracy in many African countries where millions of Africans were held in political bondage. We are proud that today Egypt, Ethiopia, Ghana, Liberia, Libya, Morocco, Sudan and Tunisia are free, sovereign and independent States; and we look forward with joy to the celebration of the independence of French Cameroons, Nigeria, Somalia and French Togoland in 1960.

Since I come from Nigeria, it may be pertinent for me to say a few words about my country and our plans for the future. Nigeria is a country which, in area, population and potential, can stand comparison with all but the largest countries in the world today.

Our population is estimated between 34 and 40 million. This is three times the population of the Union of South Africa and 10 million more than the population of Egypt. We are the largest populated country in Africa and the thirteenth in the world. In size, we are thrice as large as Great Britain and larger than any country in Europe except Soviet Russia.

Our mineral resources include large reserves of coal, iron ore, tin, lead, zinc, limestone, petroleum and natural gas; and our agricultural resources include palm oil and kernels, cocoa, rubber, groundnuts, cotton, timber, hides, and skins. Ours is an expanding economy. We have had a favourable balance of trade for many years now and, judged by our sterling balances aboard, not only is our currency very stable but our public finances are viable.

It is true that our languages are multifarious and give the impression to the outside world that Nigeria is a mere geographical expression because the British are said to be the only cement which holds Nigeria together. But the fact remains that Nigeria is also a historical reality, since social forces have caused the people to live together and to become integrated as a nation in the last fifty years. Factors which led to the building of America, Canada, Switzerland, and other nations, in spite of their racial, cultural and linguistic differences, are also at work in Nigeria, and we are optimistic that, other things being equal, our similarities are bound to outweigh our dissimilarities in the long run.

I therefore appeal to the Press and journalists, particularly of the Western democracies, to display statesmanship and be more objective in analysing our internal problems and not to exaggerate them, since these differences are not unique or peculiar to us but also exist among peoples of other continents who have ultimately resolved them and forged themselves into one nation. I have been obliged to mention the Press and journalists of the Western democracies, because, to my knowledge, the Press and journalists of the Soviet bloc have neither exploited our differences to their advantage nor used them in order to mislead the outside world or to knock our heads together as the former had done and are still doing.

Our people are essentially democratic and our major political parties are working hard to establish parliamentary democracy in Nigeria. Having experienced the tutelage of British rule, we have learnt to appreciate the traditions of constitutional government, and we are all geared to continue the rule of law and respect for human dignity, on the attainment of independence in Nigeria, next year, as we are successfully doing today. As far as I and my Party are concerned, we shall continue the difficult task of inculcating a sense of one-ness in our people so as to crystallize common nationality. We believe in the creation of one country and we will always eschew the idea of breaking Nigeria permanently into three or more divided and weak units, which would be innocuous as a factor to be reckoned with either in Africa or in the community of free nations. I speak in this vein because, like many other Nigerians, I have lasting connections with all the three Regions which now form the Federation of Nigeria.

I was born in Northern Nigeria, where the boundaries of the country lie on the verges of the Sahara Desert, and where the majority of the inhabitants worship God according to the tenets of Islam, and where the camel caravans still ply to and fro in their various missions across the desert to the Middle East.

I was educated in Lagos, the capital of Nigeria and a great seaport, where the ships of various nations anchor to trade with us. When the Ministerial system of government was introduced into Nigeria, I represented Lagos in the Legislature of Western Nigeria, where I still reside, in spite of my temporary absence in Eastern Nigeria.

My parents are natives of Eastern Nigeria, the arsenal of republicanism in Nigeria. Although I am Ibo, yet I speak Yoruba and I have a smattering of Hausa. I am now Premier of Eastern Nigeria, the land of my fathers, which lies five hundred miles from Lagos and almost a thousand miles from the place of my birth in Zungeru, in Northern Nigeria. Each of our three Regions is vastly different in many respects, but each has this in common: that, despite variety of languages and custom or difference in climate, all form part of one country which has existed as a political and social entity for fifty years. That is why we believe that the political union of Nigeria is destined to be perpetual and indestructible.

This, then, is the Nigeria which in fifteen months’ time will become a free, sovereign and independent State. It will be, by a very large margin, the biggest State in Africa. It will be no vassal State depending for its existence on the sufferance of other Powers. It will formulate its foreign policy in its national interest, but it will not be neutral on any issue which effects either the destiny of peoples of African descent anywhere on this planet or the peace of the world. Sustained by its connection with the democratic world, and powerful through the number of its inhabitants and the extent of its resources, Nigeria will be a country of consequence and, I am convinced, a force in world affairs.

Let me also emphasize that it will be a democratic country. In recent years great efforts have been directed actively towards building the institutions of democracy, and the fruits of these endeavours, together with the essentially democratic character of indigenous African society, give hope that Nigeria will be a country where the rights of the citizen will be respected, and where freedom under the law will be guaranteed to all. In Nigeria, we are building a country of which the whole black race can be justly proud. We have entrenched in our Constitution such fundamental human rights as civil liberties and freedom from discrimination of any kind.

Although Nigeria enters a future rich in promise, problems remain in plenty. The greatest of these is to raise the standard of living of our people, and it is in this connection, in particular, that we of Africa seek the co-operation of citizens of African descent in the United States. As I have shown earlier on, we have vast human, vegetable, animal and mineral resources awaiting development. All we need is capital investment, technical and managerial skills before these resources can be put to their fullest uses for the benefit of the people of my country and the investors.

You can help us by ensuring that this great country of America expands its existing trade relations with Nigeria. You can encourage our endeavours not only by opening the doors of your seats of learning to students from Africa, but by giving us the desired technical, technological and managerial co-operation in the development of our natural resources.

At this Convention today, we look back over the fifty years since the NAACP was founded. That period has seen great strides made in the struggle for justice for peoples of African descent, both here and in Africa. Today, we in Nigeria stand on the threshold of great events and we enter a future bright with promise.

I am convinced that developments in my native land will do much to enhance the prestige of peoples of African descent who are scattered all over the world. Your kindness in inviting me to speak today underlines the basic community of feeling between coloured Americans and their brothers in Africa. We struggle towards the same ultimate objective: to revive the stature of man so that man’s inhumanity to man shall cease. Your success shall be our success and your failure shall be our failure. In this basic unity lies the promise of great advancement for the black race throughout the entire world.

Source: Zik: A Selection from the Speeches of Nnamdi Azikiwe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1961)

Last Edited by:Ismail Akwei Updated: July 19, 2019


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