Young, Gifted and Radical The Figures Behind the Zikist Movement

Zikists were ahead of their time in espousing national interests over ethnic interests. Even today, Nigeria has yet to catch up with the vision the Zikists had in 1946. 

Contrary to popular opinion, Nigeria’s independence was not handed down on a platter of gold. Groups of young people put their lives on the line to make unconventional choices, like four young men who took a vow on 16 February 1946 that they would never get married until Nigeria became independent from the United Kingdom. It was an audacious declaration, perhaps foolish or immature in the minds of some, but that bold promise reflected the mood of the times: tense, dynamic, quivering with expectation.

By the 1950s, across Nigeria, young people had been consuming the lofty rhetoric of communists like I. T. A. Wallace Johnson, and George Padmore; pan-Africanists like W. E. B. Du Bois, Marcus Garvey, and Ladipo Solanke; and anti-colonialists like Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru. The youth rallied with gusto and purpose, filled with ambitious ideas about how to build a glorious nation outside the controlling arms of the British Empire.

One such group of young people were the Zikists. Inspired by the ‘de-tribalized’ ideals of Nnamdi Azikiwe, young Nigerians, mostly those who were already active members of Azikiwe’s party, the National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroons (NCNC), decided to form a brand-new campaign. They aspired to affect change where they felt existing pre-independence political platforms like the National Congress of British West Africa (NCBWA), Nigeria National Democratic Party (NNDP), the West African Students Union (WASU) did not.

Although Azikiwe was a leading anti-colonial voice, he never wanted to be a political messiah or to adopt a radical position in his independence movement. Still, Zikism held sway among young people like Kola Balogun, Raji Abdallah, K. O. Mbadiwe and Nwafor Orizu. In their youthful imaginations, Azikiwe loomed large as a revolutionary hero.

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KOLA BALOGUN

Kola Balogun was the first president of the Zikist Movement. In his mind, the NCNC had failed to provide real direction during Nigeria’s independence march. As such, in February 1946, Balogun sent invitations to 20 young men in Lagos, asking their opinion on the national issues. Twelve of them responded, leading to the creation of the Zikist Movement, as those men became its founding members. The ‘initiator’ of the conversation, Balogun became the Zikist Movement’s first leader.

Balogun was born in 1922 at Otan-Aiyegbaju, in present-day Osun State. His father was a produce trader. Balogun did his early schooling in Ebute-Metta, Lagos, and in Ibadan, Oyo State. He worked for two years with UAC from 1944 to 1946, before joining the Nigerian Advocate. In 1948, he was fired from the newspaper for his involvement with Zikists. He then moved to Azikiwe’s paper, the West African Pilot, where he worked from 1947 to 1948. In 1948, he relocated to Britain and enrolled in the University of London as a law student. As a student in London, Balogun participated in WASU and the London branch of the NCNC. He lost touch with the Zikist Movement and graduated with his law degree by 1951.

Returning to Nigeria in 1951, Balogun joined mainstream politics under the NCNC. He rose to become a two-time minister of research and information in the national governments of 1954 and 1957, representing the Western Region and the NCNC on the federal cabinet.

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RAJI ABDALLAH

Raji Abdallah was the second president of the Zikist Movement, serving from 1948 to 1949.   Abdallah belonged to the Ebira ethnic group and was born in Okene, in 1920, in present-day Kogi State. He was pivotal in getting northern support and membership for the movement. In the late 1940s, the Zikist Movement was kicking off in Lagos. Abdallah and Osita Agwuna had just formed the Anti-Colour Bar Movement (ACBM) in Kano. The ACBM was opposed to racial discrimination, or the colour bar, segregating whites and blacks in Nigeria. Both movements eventually became aware of each other and, over time, the Anti-Colour Bar Movement dissolved into the larger Zikist Movement. In time, following Balogun’s departure to London, Abdallah became the movement’s president while Agwuna deputized for him.’

Abdallah joined the Zikist Movement in 1946. The same year, he founded the Northern Elements Progressive Association (NEPA), a group seeking to raise nationalist consciousness amongst northerners. NEPA should not be confused with the more popular NEPU (Northern Element Progressive Union), a progressive political party that rivalled the dominant conservative Northern People’s Congress.

Like Balogun, in 1948, Abdallah was dismissed from his job with the Kano Rediffusion Service, a radio broadcasting service. This dismissal led him to get more involved with the Zikist Movement. He was fired because his involvement in NEPA and the Zikist Movement was considered too overtly political for a civil servant.

Historians disagree on the exact period but sometime between November 1948 and February 1949, after Goldeneye Macaulay (son of Herbert Macaulay) called for ‘dragging the (British) government down’ and seizing power by force, Abdallah gave a speech saying:

I hate the Union Jack with all my heart because it divides the people wherever it goes. It is a symbol of persecution, of domination, a symbol of exploitation, of brutality. We have passed the age of petition, the age of resolution, the age of diplomacy… This is the age of action, plain blunt and positive action.

Abdallah called on northerners to join the violent struggle against the colonizers. He referred to it as ‘positive action’ needed for ending British rule. This phrase travelled beyond the borders of Nigeria and was adopted by Kwame Nkrumah’s Convention Peoples Party (CPP) of the Gold Coast (now Ghana).

While giving this speech, Abdallah declared himself free from British rule. The British, however, did not take kindly to the revolutionary undertones of Abdallah’s message. Consequently, Abdallah along with nine other leaders of the Zikist Movement were arrested and charged with sedition. Abdallah was handed the harshest sentence of two years imprisonment on 02 February 1949, while others were jailed for six months to one year. This crackdown on Zikist leadership led to another round of reorganization within the Zikist Movement, allowing Nduka Eze to emerge as president, after Abdallah’s imprisonment, and Mokwugo Okoye as secretary-general.

Despite Abdallah’s call for northerners to join ‘the violent struggle’ against the British colonizers, the Zikists were never really violent. Zikists made charged statements to incite the colonial authorities and create awareness but hardly ever carried out acts of violence. However, after Abdallah’s detention, under Okoye’s direction, the movement truly turned violent and adopted anarchism to overthrow the British government. By constantly persecuting them and arresting their leaders, the British fully radicalized the Zikists.

After Abdallah finished serving his two-year prison sentence in 1951, he joined the mainstream NCNC like other ex-Zikists. He stayed with the NCNC till 1955 but was unhappy with the regional outlook that the party had adopted. He later joined the NPC, serving as its party manager from 1955 to 1966. Abdallah eventually left partisan politics and remained largely non-partisan till his death in 1982.

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K. O. MBADIWE

Like Balogun, Mbadiwe transitioned to mainstream politics under the NCNC after the Zikist Movement was banned. He served as minister of lands, surveys, and natural resources under the national government of 1954. In 1955, he moved to head the Ministry of Communications and Aviation, before leading the Ministry of Commerce and Industry under the national government of 1957. Although he joined NCNC, Mbadiwe remained nostalgic about the Zikists, and what they could have achieved with NCNC support. He once said:

It is debatable what course events would have taken if the NCNC had declared full support for the Zikist programme of action. Perhaps, independence would have come earlier than 1960. Perhaps, the Action Group would not have been born. Perhaps, there would not have been the NPC (Northern People’s Congress), and the spokesmen of Northern Nigeria would have been Aminu Kano, Raji Abdallah, Saad Zungur and Zana Bukar Dipcharima. Perhaps, too, there would have been shedding of innocent blood.

Mbadiwe’s statement shows a progressive, nationalist and radical side to the Zikists. Mbadiwe suggests that Azikiwe’s failure to support the Zikists delayed independence, helped ethnicism to enter Nigerian politics, and prevented the rise of more progressive northern politicians.

Mbadiwe was born in 1915 at Orlu, present-day Imo State. Before proceeding to the US for higher education, he was a trader and established the Mbadiwe Produce Association. After the Zikists were disbanded and he joined the NCNC, Mbadiwe first ran for a seat in the Eastern Region House of Assembly in 1951 and won. He was nicknamed ‘A Man of Timbre and Calibre’ In 1958, he broke with the NCNC and created the fringe Democratic Party of Nigerian Citizens.

Mbadiwe’s political relevance stretched into the Second Republic (1979-1983), where President Shehu Shagari appointed him a personal adviser on National Assembly Affairs. He was also the first and only ‘ambassador extraordinary and plenipotentiary of Nigeria’ in our history. He died in 1990.

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NWAFOR ORIZU

While never an official member of the Zikist Movement, Orizu was a close associate and admirer of Azikiwe. He was one of several youths Azikiwe inspired to study in the US, alongside Eyo Ita and Mbadiwe. Orizu provided the Zikist Movement’s philosophical underpinnings, which he drew from Azikiwe’s 1937 book, Renascent Africa. In a previous Republic essay, I described him as the ‘Vladimir Lenin to Azikiwe’s “Karl Marx”’. While Marx may have defined the broad strokes of the communist ideology through his Communist Manifesto, Lenin defined in practice how a communist state might be achieved and established the world’s first socialist republic.

In the same vein, Orizu took the theoretical leftist ideals that Azikiwe expressed and critiqued them in his book, Without Bitterness. Orizu believed that Azikiwe’s work lacked coherence and did not focus on the most pressing issue of the time—colonialism. From Azikiwe, Orizu coined the term ‘Zikism’, which became the movement’s name. According to him, Zikism was built on the social myth of African irredentism, which proposes the redemption of Africa from social wreckage, political servitude, economic impotence, ideological confusion, psychological immaturity, spiritual complacency and mental stagnation.

Orizu was born in 1914 into the Nnewi Royal Family, in present-day Anambra State. He was offered the royal stool after his father died in 1938 and sat on it briefly before handing it to his brother. Orizu believed his calling was to provide educational opportunities for himself, Nnewi, Nigeria, and Africa, in that order.

In 1945, Orizu founded the American Council on African Education (ACAE), a non-profit that helped African students study in the US with scholarships funded through American sources. He was critical of the British colonial government, and in a bid to silence him, colonial authorities levelled charges of fraud and theft of ACAE funds against him. He was subsequently convicted and sentenced to seven years in prison in 1953. However, the American chairman of the ACAE, Roy Wilkins, wrote a letter to Azikiwe, then premier of the Eastern Region, exonerating Orizu of any financial impropriety.

When Azikiwe was premier of the Eastern Region, he appointed Orizu minister of Local Government. While involved in politics for about a decade, Orizu established ‘The Nigerian Secondary School’ in Nnewi. After the First Republic (1963-1966) fell, Orizu became the school’s proprietor, a role he occupied through the Civil War (1966-1970). He was removed from his position at the end of the war when the government of the then East-Central State took over all schools. Possibly recognizing his contribution to education, the state governor, Dr Ukpabi Usika, appointed Orizu chairman of the East Central State Teachers’ Service Commission from 1974 to 1975. The Nwafor Orizu College of Education in Nsugbe, Anambra State, is named after him. He died in 1999.

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BANNED BUT NOT TO BE FORGOTTEN

In 1947, when Azikiwe assumed leadership of the NCNC, his ideals rang clear for all to hear. During his presidential address, ‘Before Us Lies the Open Grave’, he said:

I want you to make it plain to me that you are ready for the type of militant leadership I envisage—a leadership that will not accept the crumbs of imperialism in order to compromise issues…Today, I might be with you, but that is not guarantee that I would not be prepared to suffer heavy blows from the enemy; you must be prepared to make sacrifices in order to guarantee for Nigeria a nobler heritage…as from today, under my leadership, you must be prepared for the worst.

The Zikists answered the call. They supported strikes, instigated riots, called for violent action against the British colonial government, and at a point, they even began plotting to assassinate high ranking authorities. Not long after, the colonialists came after them, charging them for sedition. The Zikists were also accused by colonial authorities of promoting communist literature in Nigeria. As colonial authorities placed more pressure on the Zikists, there was an uptick in the influx of communist pamphlets the Zikist Movement circulated across Nigeria. They obtained these materials from the Communist Party of Great Britain and, at a time, over 50,000 pamphlets came into the country on one boat alone.

In November 1949, when 18 miners at the Enugu coal mine went on strike, leading to the Iva Valley Massacre, the colonialists blamed the Zikists. The Iva Valley Massacre was triggered by a protest by miners demanding better pay and improved working conditions. In the ensuing massacre, colonial security officers killed 21 miners. But the Fitzgerald Commission, set up after the strike to investigate the causes, cleared the Zikists of any blame, ruling the massacre as an industrial matter between management and the miners that were badly managed.

Eventually, the Zikists outgrew the NCNC, becoming more nationalist than their parent organization. They held firm, even after the originator of Zikism, Azikiwe himself, had moved on from them. In their four years of existence, the Zikists struck fear in the hearts of Nigeria’s colonial authorities and practised nationalist ideals in a nation that was already torn apart by ethnicism.

Although Zikists accelerated Nigeria’s independence march, the group would not exist long enough to see Nigeria declare its independence. Colonial officers deemed the Zikist movement an unlawful society. They banned it on April 13 of 1950, following sedition trials where several Zikists were implicated and imprisoned for plotting to instigate unrest and assassination. Subsequently, the group dismantled and its members transitioned to politics, business, and traditional rulership.

The four Zikists discussed in this essay are by no means the only ones worth mentioning. Other prominent Zikists included Mokwugo Okoye and Mbazulike Amaechi, the only surviving Zikist today. Also, the absence of women was by no means an omission. As ‘progressive’ as Zikists might have seemed at the time, they had no known female members.

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ZIKISTS TODAY

Today, the most prominent Zikist would be Mbadiwe whose name sits on a major Lagos highway, Ozumba Mbadiwe Road, the same highway where the 2020 #EndSARS protests took place. Very few may realize the legacy in young Nigerians standing up to a government deemed oppressive on a road named after a Zikist.

Naming roads or other forms of infrastructure after Zikists will not matter if Nigerians do not know the significance of these figures. A better way to honour the Zikists is to teach and learn their history. And not as a footnote in ‘The Story of Nnamdi Azikiwe’ but as an independence movement in its own right. Today, the shared narrative of Nigeria’s independence mostly revolves around three figures: Azikiwe, Obafemi Awolowo and Ahmadu Bello; but none of these men faced as severe persecution from the colonial authorities as the young Zikists. Before these prominent ‘founding fathers’ took the stage, many young Nigerians (Zikists and non-Zikists) boldly faced the wrath of the British.

Zikists, in particular, were ahead of their time in espousing national interests over ethnic interests. Even today, Nigeria has yet to catch up with the vision the Zikists had in 1946. #EndSARS gave a glimpse of what young people can achieve when we unite across ethnic and religious lines. So long as we keep in mind that the issues that plague us are greater than the factors that separate us, we will be one step closer to reawakening the Zikist spirit

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