Nnamdi Azikiwe’s Zikism The President and the Revolutionary Ideology He Denied

A troubled relationship with Zikism, the leftist political ideology Nnamdi Azikiwe inspired and drew his political base from, may explain his sudden yet prolonged fall from prominence.

Of all Nigeria’s most prominent pro-independence political leaders, Nnamdi Azikiwe, fondly called ‘Zik’, was the first to support and adopt the Marxist socialist platform. He even wrote books expressing his leftist leanings, such as Economic Reconstruction of Nigeria and Political Blueprint of Nigeria. In these books, Zik asserted that Marxist philosophy should be the basis of Nigeria’s new economic system. He advocated, however, for a democratic transition to this new system rather than a revolutionary transition.

Over time, Zik abandoned these ideas and began instead to espouse free trade, self-reliance, constitutionalism and moral rearmament. Zik, it appears, might have realized that it would be better to agitate for freedom within the framework of the colonial system, rather than advocate for its tearing down. What led to his gradual change of ideological position from left to right? And what were the implications of this change on his political trajectory?


1945 was the year World War Two ended and the year of the watershed General Strike, the first of its proportions in Nigeria. The strike mainstreamed the adoption of ideological movements anchored on political freedom, social equality and economic security. It was around this time that Zik effectively built a name around socialism within a short time with the publication of his two books in 1943 and the founding of the NCNC (National Council of Nigeria and Cameroon) in 1944. Even when he abandoned the belief system, he had already created expectations in the minds and hearts of millions of followers who had come to see in him a potential radical socialist leader who could lead them in a confrontation with the colonial powers. Zik gradually shifted away from core Marxism as his socialist beliefs did not accommodate ideas of proletarian struggle and the inevitable march to communism. His followers were known as the Zikist Movement.

Formed within the NCNC, the Zikist Movement represented the party’s radical youth base Zik inspired. Its founding members included Kola Balogun (first president), C.K. Ajuluchukwu (first secretary-general), Raji Abdallah (second president), and K.O Mbadiwe (a prominent member). The movement was exasperated by what they considered the slow pace of Nigeria’s political advancement. Their ideological system was Zikism. Though a leftist ideology, Zikism was confined to the local colonial realities of Nigeria at the time and countering them. In this sense, Zikism was distinct from conventional leftist ideologies like socialism which saw the struggle for liberation from an international lens. Zikism was also militant, which is where Zik drew the line in his association with it.


Before the Zikist Movement emerged, pro-independence agitation was primarily civil and contained in Nigeria. Pro-independence activists focused on criticizing the failures of the colonial government. The Zikist Movement upended this, taking inspiration from Mahatma Gandhi and his civil disobedience methods. While Zik laid the foundation for Zikism in his 1937 book, Renascent Africa, it was Nwafor Orizu in his 1944 book, Without Bitterness, that elaborated and systematized the Zikist ideology.  In a sense, Nwafor Orizu was to Zik what Vladimir Lenin was to Karl Marx.

The Zikists adopted civil disobedience, boycotts and politicizing strikes to pass their message. They defied police orders not to hold demonstrations, shut down markets to celebrate national holidays or in protest against acts of injustice. They also organized riots to protest the 1949 Enugu Iva Valley shooting. They were more than just the youth wing of the NCNC, as many considered them. They had their distinct political structure and were loyal to Zik, who was the leader of the NCNC. Even when the NCNC caved into ethnicism, the Zikist Movement retained its pan-Nigerian outlook, believing that confronting the British took precedence over differences cultivated by colonial rule.

The fall of the Zikist Movement is a story of Zik’s shortcomings. Zik admired Gandhi and spoke with the same rhetorical force. However, he was unwilling to make the kind of personal sacrifices that Gandhi made.

In 1948 and 1949, the Zikists openly called for revolutions to bring down the colonial government. In 1949, at the NCNC Convention, Zik publicly condemned these statements, calling on the Zikists to ponder how they could achieve their aims without a disciplined army. Zik was correct, but his statement knocked the wind out of the Zikists’ sails, such that the African Echo, a daily, published a piece of commentary that concluded that, ‘For our part, we wonder where Zik will get any army to mobilize when the time comes. Indeed, not those disappointed and disillusioned disciples of Zikism would again freely offer their services.’

Years later, during the First Republic (1963-1966), Zik would need a popular base to carry out specific actions, but there would be no one behind him.

Named after him, Zikism was the ideology Zik promoted but was unwilling to practice. Eventually, the Zikists realized that Zik was not worth embodying their ideology, especially after his open statements condemning them and distancing himself from the movement. At their second annual general conference, a motion was moved to dump the name ‘Zikism’. The motion failed, but it was clear that Zik’s sheen was fading. The Zikists started making plans to call for a revolution around February 1950.  Before the D-day, British authorities got wind of their plans, raided their headquarters, and arrested their authorities.

At his trial for sedition, secretary-general of the Zikist Movement, Okoye, was reported as saying: ‘Africa’s redemption is our motto: civil disobedience is our method, and the achievement of that redemption shall be our reward.’

On 12 April 1950, the colonial government declared the Zikist Movement an illegal organization and gave them a month to round up their affairs, citing the need to preserve law and order. But the trial against their principal leaders proceeded. At the same time, there was a marked shift in how the colonial authorities treated Nigerians. More slots were created in the civil service to accommodate young Nigerians. Some of the Zikists were given government jobs. The discussions towards the next constitution, the Macpherson Constitution of 1951, were more open and, unprecedently, involved Nigerians.

It was during their trials that Zik came to the Zikists’ defence. They were already in jail, and as such, could not drag him into their agitations or pose a threat to his political trajectory. It was too little, too late. He even borrowed their rhetoric, calling for immediate revolutionary action. In this way, Zik’s conduct mirrors a behaviour that most Nigerians are familiar with in the Fourth Republic (1999-present). When a social movement begins, most members of the political class avoid coming out in support. Only when it becomes trendy and safely contained do they come in support, hijacking it even, sometimes.


To understand Zik’s actions and why he chose to turn his back on the Zikists at a time when they needed his support, it is important to understand the man himself. To this end, there are several events in Zik’s life that provide the required insight.

One of them was in 1941, when he broke away from the Nigerian Youth Movement (NYM) with his Igbo supporters and supporters of Ijebu origin, accusing the NYM leadership of bias against these two ethnic groups. Zik, incidents like this reveal, was first a businessman before he was a politician. Some of his critical political decisions were influenced by his economic interests, which is probably why his romance with socialism and Zikism was short-lived. Zik’s grudge with the NYM leadership in 1941, for instance, was not as simple as ethnic bias as he claimed; it was also influenced by his business interests. Zik was the proprietor of the West African Pilot, a daily at the time. A candidate for NYM presidency in 1941 was Ernest Ikoli, the proprietor of the Daily Service, a rival to Zik’s publication.

Zik did not support Ikoli but pitched his tent instead with Samuel Akinsanya, an Ijebu man. On the surface, the sheer fact of abandoning his kinsman and supporting someone from another tribe might project Zik as detribalized. However, at its heart, this was a pure economic vendetta, aimed at gaining an edge over his competitor. Awolowo supported Ikoli, who won. Taking the loss personally, Zik said it was because he was an Igbo man, which was why he pulled out, followed by Igbo and Ijebu supporters.

In 1952, Zik (an Igbo man) was contesting for premier, or ‘leader of government business’ in the Western Region (a predominantly Yoruba region). He nearly won until Awolowo orchestrated perhaps the first cross carpeting manoeuvre in Nigeria’s political history. At the first sitting of the Western Region House of Assembly in 1954, 20 NCNC parliamentarians defected to the AG, reducing the NCNC seats to 23, and giving the AG 42 seats, a sufficient majority to form the first regional government. Zik then returned to his native Eastern Region and used similar tactics, orchestrating a stalemate in government where budgets could not be passed, despite the NCNC majority. Eventually, new elections were called to resolve the government, creating room for Zik to contest, win, and displace the then-leader, Eyo Ita, a minority, and take his place as leader of the predominantly Igbo Eastern Region. This was an early indicator that Zik was inclined to political power for his own sake, even if it meant triggering a political crisis that ultimately affected the people he was going to serve.

Evidently, Zik was willing to adopt ideologies and alliances as well as abandon them suddenly to advance his personal interests. With this in mind, his eventual change of position from left to right, adoption of free trade, self-reliance and constitutionalism ideals, and betrayal of the Zikists is easier to understand.


Although Zik only held the office of president from 1963 to 1966, his powers were no different from when he was governor-general from 1960 to 1963. In the elections that ushered in Nigeria’s independence government, Zik’s NCNC secured the second-largest number of seats after the NPC. Zik, at this point, was faced with two choices: ally with the AG and become prime minister, while Chief Obafemi Awolowo would be minister of finance, or ally with the NPC.

Although in the arrangement with the AG, Zik’s party would have had the upper hand in the governing coalition, he chose the other option: to ally with the NPC, where his party was the junior partner. The NPC produced the prime minister, and Zik was settled with the ceremonial position of governor-general, then president. Zik’s choice here is reflective of what has plagued Nigerian politics to date—personality over ideology. The NPC and NCNC were opposites in ideology and orientation, whereas the AG and NCNC shared a common progressive outlook. The AG was more radical, but it would have been easier for both parties to find a middle ground.

Why did Zik accept to be a ceremonial head of state when he could have had absolute power? I believe that after his experiences with Awolowo during their NYM days and in the Western Region, Zik never forgave Awolowo. For all he knew, Awolowo might orchestrate a takeover and push him out, just like he did in the Western Region. At least, with the NPC, he would not have to watch his back with Tafawa Balewa.

As the years went by, the NPC and NCNC in the governing alliance openly antagonized each other on subjects like the Anglo-Nigeria Defence Pact, a United States of Africa, funding students studying in the Soviet Union, getting aid from Israel and Saudi Arabia, and joining the Non-aligned Movement. Everything came to a head in 1964 when both parties found themselves on opposing sides in the election. While all this happened, Zik could hardly intervene as Nigeria’s first democratic experiment went downhill.

After the 1964 elections, which saw widespread rigging by the Nigerian National Alliance (NNA) made up mainly of the ruling NPC, the Yoruba-based Nigerian National Democratic Party (NNDP), and other minority Nigerian parties, Zik was not inclined to call on Tafawa Balewa to set up a new government. Unfortunately, he had no such constitutional powers. Also, he had no political base to carry out such an action. In his bid to always look nationalist and project pan-Africanism, Zik scorned what is probably the first lesson in Nigerian politics 101—always have a movement behind you. Had Zik not abandoned the Zikists years earlier, he would have nurtured a solid movement to push his agenda, just like the Awoists did for Awolowo while he was imprisoned.

A highly influential Zik would have been able to play a more decisive role in the aftermath of the Nzeogwu coup. There was no need to hand it over to the military. The prime minister was killed, but the House of Representatives, the Senate, the cabinet ministers, and the president were still standing. It was simply a matter of appointing the then-minister of defence to be acting prime minister and declaring a national state of emergency. The military would have had enhanced powers but within a democratic framework. Zik’s absence when Nigeria needed him the most and his failure to connect with a local political base stripped him of the power to intervene at that moment.


That Zik gradually faded into irrelevance after the collapse of the First Republic seems to be a fitting reward for a man who repeatedly refused to boldly take the opportunities presented to him to live up to the ideals he preached. Zik did a better job than Awolowo and Bello in cutting a nationalist profile. However, when push came to shove, he proved to be the weakest link in Nigeria’s political tripod. He allowed his business interests and personal political ambition to overshadow his duty to his people. His unwillingness to antagonize the colonial authorities made him gradually lose touch with Nigeria’s youth, even with his ethnic group. Today, the average Igbo person will mention Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu as an Igbo leader despite his flaws and despite Ojukwu dragging them into a needless war before referring to Zik.

Zik’s undoing was in cutting an image he could not match. Had he actively supported the Zikists, he might have been able to leverage their work to build nationwide acceptability, something none of the founding fathers could achieve.


Except in Western Sahara, where opposition to Moroccan occupation is rising, today’s African youth may no longer face the challenge of colonialism. But today, the forces of imperialism are more pernicious in their quest to exploit Africa. Whereas in the past, it was a unidirectional exploitative relationship between each nation and its colonial master, today, Africa is exploited by diverse foreign interests in connivance with a corrupt, rudderless, local political elite.

In today’s Nigeria, Zikism is hardly remembered. In general narratives where it is even mentioned, it is usually referred to as the youth wing of the NCNC. But Zikists were an independent political force who shaped the events leading to Nigeria’s independence. They actively campaigned for a pan-Nigerian identity when the major political parties were exploiting ethnic sentiments.

There are signs of a gradual emerging youth class in Nigeria that shares parallels with the Zikist Movement. We saw them in their most compact form during the #EndSARS protests. A protest that was first directed against police brutality but quickly escalated into a protest about the state of Nigeria and the incompetence of the Buhari administration. Like the Zikist Movement in the late 1940s, #EndSARS had no cult-like leader. It was young people across Nigeria, organically collaborating, with no central authority, bonded by their frustration and desire for a better nation.

But that is where the similarity ends. Unlike the Zikist Movement, #EndSARS has no political machine. The Zikist Movement collaborated with and funded the NCNC, thus ensuring that they had a voice within the party. Another dissimilarity between the Zikist Movement and #EndSARS is that the latter had no clearly defined ideology and shared vision about Nigeria it wanted to transit.

#EndSARS may have successfully raised the political consciousness of millions of Nigerians. Still, it will always be possible to splinter any youth formation that threatens the political establishment without ideology or basic principles. It is, therefore, necessary for young Nigerians to take ideological politics seriously. Nigeria has had three failed democratic attempts and is currently undergoing a failing fourth attempt that all have one thing in common—placing personality over character and placing ethnicity and religion over national interest, something Zik repeatedly did over the course of his political career.

Ideology does not divide; ideology unites. A country as diverse as Nigeria needs political movements that are ideology-based to bring people together across their natural and societal divides. We must begin to make choices for candidates, not just on the person’s likeability, but the ideology of the political party and how well they live up to it.

And those who will get involved in politics must learn from the tightrope that Zik unsuccessfully walked—balancing between being a tribalist and nationalist in a nation as divided as Nigeria is today. In a federation, there is a place for locally oriented tribal politicians, who can always be counted on to defend their group against everybody else, as long as it is done within the bounds of civility. There is also a place for the big picture national politician who understands how to negotiate and find workable compromises that get separate groups to work together towards a shared vision.

Whatever side you choose to swing, ensure that you are not just a person of rhetoric but of action

The views, thoughts, and opinions published in The Republic belong solely to the author and are not necessarily the views of The Republic or its editors. We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editors by writing to [email protected].