Nnamdi Azikiwe, born in 1904 in Niger State, Nigeria, 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. Before becoming the first president of Nigeria, Azikiwe worked as a journalist and set up a national newspaper in the Gold Coast.
He was a brilliant and hardworking student interested in research and pursuing degrees. While in the U.S., he worked as a teaching assistant, often taking classes and helping graduate students when they needed help with research and academic assignments. He worked as a teaching assistant until he returned to Africa.
Aside from all these, Azikiwe (born Benjamin Azikiwe) also indulged in sports as a professional athlete. He was so exceptional in sports so much so that in 1934, he was selected to represent Nigeria in the long-distance running events at the 1934 British Empire Games but this did not materialize.
The young sportsman who had been successful in many events he participated in including Welterweight Boxing Champion Storer College (1925–27); High Jump champion, Howard University Inter-Scholastic Games (1926); and Gold Medalist in Cross Country, Storer College (1927), was rejected by the British organizers.
That year, Azikiwe, while spending “a memorable summer” in England en route to Africa from the U.S., applied to compete in the 1934 British Empire Games for Nigeria in the mile and one-half race and the high jump. According to the book Nigerian Political Parties: Power in an Emergent African Nation, Azikiwe was confident he could do the mile in less than 4:30, having been a successful collegiate athlete in America.
He was, however, barred by the London Amateur Athletic Association following protests from the South African team. The official excuse for his disqualification was that Nigeria had not entered him formally for the competition, but Azikiwe’s response to his exclusion showed otherwise – “that games were not the arena for interracial and international fellowship that they were touted to be.”
And what was Azikiwe’s response to his rejection?
He dropped his Christian name, Benjamin, and changed his name legally in a London publication to Nnamdi Azikiwe. As the book Nigerian Political Parties: Power in an Emergent African Nation wrote: “…He decided that if he was an ‘extraneous element’ in England because of his color, he could do without his English name.”
From then, he diverted his spirit of sportsmanship that the British cherished into his political activities and anti-colonial work.
Popularly known as “Zik” or “Zik of Africa”, Azikiwe 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. Kweggir Aggrey in 1924.
After attending English-run missionary schools, Azikiwe started working as a clerk but due to his determination to study in the United States, he managed to stow away on a boat through some sailors he had as friends from the Port of Lagos. But he and two others were discovered and were thrown off in Sekondi, Ghana.
Azikiwe roamed around the city aimlessly for some time but managed to come to Accra where he did some menial jobs before serving in the Police Force as a constable. In 1925, he returned to Nigeria and asked his father, who was then working as a colonial civil servant, to give him some money to travel to the United States.
He attended Howard University, Washington DC for a while before enrolling at the Lincoln University, Pennsylvania, where he graduated in 1927 with a degree in political science and completed his masters in 1930.
He took up jobs as a miner, dishwasher, and a lift operator in order to pay for his tuition fees. He obtained a second master’s degree in Anthropology and Political Science from the University of Pennsylvania in 1933 after which he worked as an instructor at Lincoln.
He later went to the Gold Coast where he promoted the pro-nationalist agenda through the newspaper he established in Accra, the African Morning Post. Throughout his stay in the Gold Coast from 1934 to 1937, Azikiwe became a mentor to Kwame Nkrumah, who would later become the president of Ghana.
When Azikiwe returned to Nigeria, he edited the West African Pilot (1937-45) and launched about five newspapers while writing regular columns to drive the nationalist agenda in Nigeria and in West Africa.
In 1944, he became the president of the National Council for Nigeria and the Cameroons (NCNC), a nationalist political party in Nigeria. He later became leader of the NCNC and held a number of elected public offices including the premier of the Eastern Region, where he expanded educational facilities including laying the foundation for the University of Nigeria at Nsukka, formally opened in September 1960.
On October 1, 1960, Nigeria got its independence and Azikiwe was appointed governor-general with Sir Alhaji Abubakar Tafawa Balewa becoming the prime minister. In 1963, Nigeria became a republic, and Azikiwe was named its first president. He held this position until he was deposed by a military coup on January 15, 1966, which led to the Nigerian-Biafran civil war.
During the war between May 1967 and January 1970, Azikiwe, born to Igbo parents, was said to have supported Biafra, but in 1969, he strongly opposed the Biafran secession in favor of a united Nigeria. Azikiwe later became the Nigeria People’s Party’s candidate in the presidential elections of 1979 and 1983 but was not successful. He retired from politics in 1986.
On May 11, 1996, Azikiwe passed away in eastern Nigeria after a long illness. Decades after his death, the political scientist, journalist, writer and a believer in democracy still has his name etched in history books as one of the pioneers of the leading figures of modern African nationalism.
As a man who along the way became a patron of sport in Nigeria and President of the Nigerian Amateur Athletic Association, he once touched on the political significance of his lessons from athletics:
“From athletics I learned how to suffer in silence. I learned how to let the other fellow suffer with me as soon as I decided to apply the pressure. I learned how to act as if I was helpless even though I was as powerful as an ox…I have always looked at most of my life’s problems as problems which confront a Miler in a Mile Race…Boxing taught me to cultivate capacity to absorb punishment and to bid for my time so that when I struck I could knock out my opponent.”