Society and Culture

Biography of Benjamin Nnamdi Azikiwe

Benjamin Nnamdi AzikiweBorn Benjamin Azikiwe on November 16, 1904, in Zungeru, Nigeria; died 1996; married Flora Ogbenyeanu Ogoegbunam, 1936; children: three sons, one daughter.
Education: Lincoln University, B.A., 1930; University of Pennsylvania, M.A. Attended Howard University and Columbia University;.


Became first Nigerian to study in United States, 1925; served as instructor at Lincoln University, 1931-34; became editor of African Morning Post, Ghana, 1934; founded West African Pilot, Nigeria, 1937; helped found National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroons (NCNC), 1944; served as president of NCNC, 1946-60; became member of Nigerian legislative council, 1947; elected to Eastern Region Assembly of Nigeria, 1953; became premier of the Eastern Region Assembly, 1954; became president of the Nigerian senate, 1959; became governor-general of Nigeria, 1960; served as president of Nigerian republic, 1963~66.

Life’s Work

Playing a key role in Nigeria’s emergence as a free nation, Nnamdi Azikiwe served as the first president of Nigeria after it was given independence from Great Britain in 1960. Much of his life was spent working as both a journalist and politician to end British control of Nigeria. Known widely as “Zik of Africa,” Azikiwe was also a mentor to Kwame Nkrumah, who as president of Ghana became head of the first African country to free itself from European rule.

As was written in an obituary in a 1996 issue of Jet, “Known as a vigorous champion of African independence from European colonial rule, Dr. Azikiwe attained the rare status of national hero, admired across the regional and ethnic lines dividing his country.” For much of his life Azikiwe was a staunch defender of his Ibo people, and he helped to end the Biafran civil war that oppressed his tribe in the late 1960s. He was known as a charismatic orator who could sway large crowds with his emphatic delivery, and he frequently traveled to other countries to promote his causes.

Born in northern Nigeria in 1904, Azikiwe was the son of a member of the Ibo tribe who worked for the government. His early schooling was at the English-run Church Missionary Society’s Central School at Onitsha and the Hope Waddel Training Institute at Calabar. After Azikiwe graduated from the Methodist Boys’ High School in Lagos at the top of his class in 1925, his father granted him some funds so that he could travel to the United States and further his education.

Azikiwe’s American studies began at Howard University, where he played soccer and was taught by Ralph Bunche, who later achieved fame as a diplomat. He also studied at Storer College in West Virginia, Lincoln University in Pennsylvania, and Columbia University in New York City while in the United States. After receiving his B.A. degree in 1930 at Lincoln University, Azikiwe stayed on for two years as an instructor and to pursue undergraduate work. He cut his teeth as a journalist during summer jobs as a reporter with the Baltimore Afro-American, Philadelphia Tribune, and the Associated Negro Press in Chicago.

In 1934 he returned to Africa after five years in the United States and made his debut as a journalist there, becoming editor-in-chief of the African Morning Post in Accra, Gold Coast (which later became Ghana). Three years later he started up the West African Pilot in Lagos, Nigeria, then built his newspaper holdings to including four other city newspapers. Azikiwe used his various publications to actively promote nationalist fervor and attack racial prejudice in the African colonies.

Starting in the mid 1940s, Azikiwe pressed his cause for Nigerian autonomy on the political front as well. He played a key role in the founding of the National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroons (NCNC) in 1944, becoming its first secretary general and then its president in 1946. The prominence of the NCNC and the Ibo people grew under Azikiwe’s leadership. He used the NCNC to push for various reforms, including universal adult suffrage, direct elections, control of the civil service by African ministers, and Nigerian control of the territory’s armed forces. Azikiwe became more of a thorn in the side of the status quo in 1947 when he became a member of the legislative council in Nigeria. In this position he strove to improve conditions for his people via changes in the constitution. During a 1947 visit to England, he told the British that big problems would result if Nigeria was not granted freedom in 15 years, according to an article in the New York Herald Tribune.

After a new constitution for Nigeria was drafted in 1951, the interests of the three regions of the country took precedence over the interest of the whole country. Azikiwe maintained a political balancing act during this period in order to maintain his power. By 1952 he had become the first NCNC opposition leader in the Western House of Assembly, then he was elected to the eastern region assembly in 1953. In the summer of that year, he traveled to London with a Nigerian delegation and demanded that Nigeria become self- governing within three years. Disputes arose over Britain’s demand to separate Lagos, which was Nigeria’s capital and chief port, from the western region. Further discussions were held among the various parties in Lagos in early 1954, at which time it was agreed that a more conclusive conference on Nigeria’s future would be conducted in 1956.

Building his power in the Eastern Region, Azikiwe became its premier in 1954 after a new constitution was put into effect. He instituted a new education program in his region, and had a major role in Nigeria becoming the leading exporter of students for study abroad in Africa. In 1954 Azikiwe visited Europe, England, the United States, and Canada with members of the Eastern region economic commission in order to promote investment for developments in textile, vegetable oil refineries, steel, and chemicals.

Azikiwe had extensive business interests that brought him a significant income during the 1950s. He was assailed with allegations of corruption from other leaders in the mid 1950s, accused of having withdrawn $5.6 million in government funds and depositing it in a bank of which he was a shareholder to prevent the bank’s collapse, according to a 1956 article in Time magazine. Despite being found guilty of improper conduct by a British tribunal in 1957, Azikiwe was still reelected as premier when he dissolved his legislature under pressure and called for a new election in 1956. “When, five years before independence, Azikiwe was exposed as having used his political position to further his financial interests through the African Continental Bank, he still retained the support the Ibo in the Eastern Region; for they believed that he was working for them and so entitled to become wealthy,” noted John Hatch in Africa Emergent.

Azikiwe’s political stance at this time clearly favored his Ibo tribe and the Ibibio-speaking peoples of the Eastern region. After Obafemi Awolowo, an enemy of Azikiwe, formed the Action Group in the West, Azikiwe aligned himself with Abubakar Tafaw Balewa, who had gained control of the Northern People’s Congress. Since the Northern Region was most populous and had a political stance more acceptable to the withdrawing British, Balewa began to lead a new national regime in 1957. Azikiwe’s alliance with Balewa helped him be named president of the senate in 1959, then governor-general.

When Nigeria’s first independent government was established by a coalition of northern and eastern political parties in 1960, Azikiwe was named president and Balewa became prime minister. While new elections in 1964 kept Azikiwe in office, political instability led to agitation throughout the country. In January of 1966, a military coup d’etat ousted Azikiwe from power. After Biafra tried to secede from Nigeria in 1967 and created a civil war in the country, Azikiwe backed his fellow Ibo and traveled widely in other African nations to seek recognition of Biafra as an independent nation. Then he incurred the wrath of his former supporters in 1969 when he began backing the federal government in the war. In the years following the war, Azikiwe became a key opponent of the ruling party. Following the creation of a new constitution in Nigeria in 1978 that ended a 12-year ban on political parties, he ran as a candidate for the new Nigerian People’s Party but was defeated.

Throughout his career, Azikiwe used his nationalist press, political connections, and kinship of his tribe to promote education, self-government, welfare, and progress. He also wrote over a dozen books on the struggle for African nationalism and other topics. He died in 1996 after a long illness, at the age of 91.


Nnamdi Azikiwe Distinguished Endowed Chair in International Relations, Lincoln University.

Further Reading


  • Azikiwe, Nnamdi, My Odyssey: An Autobiography, Praeger, 1970.
  • Glickman, Harvey, editor, Political Leaders of Contemporary Africa South of the Sahara, Greenwood Press, 1992.
  • Hatch, John, Africa Emergent: Africa’s Problems Since Independence, Henry Regnery Company, 1974.
  • Markovitz, Irving Leonard, African Politics & Society: Basic Issues and Problems of Government and Development, The Free Press, 1970, pp. 456-457.
  • Olisa, Michael S. O., and Odinchezo M. Ikejiani-Clark, editors, African Revolution, Africana~FEP Publishers, 1989.
  • Rake, Alan, 100 Great Africans, Scarecrow Press, 1994, pp. 383~387.
  • Segal, Ronald, African Profiles, Penguin, 1962.
  • Zik, A Selection from the Speeches of Nnamdi Azikiwe, Cambridge University Press, 1961, p. 72.


  • Black Collegian, December 1981/January 1982, pp. 90~96.
  • Jet, June 3, 1996, p. 16.
  • Negro History Bulletin, February 1961, pp. 104~109.
  • New York Herald Tribune, December 21, 1947.
  • Journal of Modern African Studies, June 1974, pp. 245~263.
  • Time, August 5, 1956; March 25, 1957, p. 33.

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