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Obituary: Nnamdi Azikiwe

Nigeria's First President

LAGOS, May 13 [1996] (Reuter) - Nnamdi Azikiwe, Nigeria's first president, whose death was reported on Monday by the state-owned News Agency of Nigeria, was a champion of African nationalism and master of compromise in his country's turbulent politics.

Widely known as "Zik of Africa," the politician, scholar, poet and journalist helped to end the Biafran civil war that had plunged his Ibo people into mass suffering. The agency said Azikiwe, 91, died on Saturday at the hospital where he had been admitted for some time with an undisclosed illness.

An imposing figure standing over six feet (1.83 metres), Azikiwe was sworn in as Nigeria's first president in 1963 when it became a republic after independence from Britain in 1960.

He remained until the first coup d'etat in 1966, which led to civil war in June 1967 when Ibos in the east seceded to set up their own state of Biafra under then Colonel Emeka Ojukwu.

An estimated one million people died, many from starvation, in the 30-month civil war.

When Azikiwe saw the hopelessness of the war, he hastened its end by returning to the federal side.

This was denounced as a sellout by the Biafran leadership, but his esteem among Ibos was such that when the army allowed elections in 1979 he again emerged as their most popular figure.

"Zik has a good place in history in arousing West Africa and thereby African blacks to seeking independence," Ojukwu once told Reuters. "Beyond that, when others have come up he has distanced himself from them. He has never been able to be part of the West African movement," he added.

Azikiwe's Ibo-dominated Nigerian People's Party came third in the 1979 polls, won by the National Party of Nigeria headed by Shehu Shagari, a Hausa-Fulani from the north.

He took his party into alliance with Shagari, obtaining plum jobs for its members. The alliance ended when he wanted more.

A strong believer in democracy, the welfare state and the rule of law, Azikiwe, a titled chief in Iboland, became an important sounding board for an array of latter-day leaders, including former military President Ibrahim Babangida.

But he went into virtual seclusion for some time after August 1983 when his wife Flora died. They had several children and many grandchildren.

Azikiwe was born in Zungeru, northern Nigeria, on November 16, 1904. His father was a clerical worker for the then British administrator.

He was educated at Christian mission schools before going to the United States, where he studied for nine years at Lincoln University, Pennsylvania, and the University of Pennsylvania, graduating in philosophy and anthropology.

Lincoln University instituted a professorial chair in honour of Azikiwe at a lavish ceremony in 1994 where he was eulogised.

To pay his way, the ambitious young African took jobs as a lift operator, miner and dishwasher. He was also a keen athlete.

Azikiwe returned home in 1937 and became a messianic figure in the nationalist movement while working in journalism, commerce and politics.

He once described Nigeria's achievement of independence from Britain as "the consummation of my life's work." But despite his anti-colonialism struggle, he retained friendship with Britain.

After his American studies he went to the Gold Coast -- now Ghana -- as a propagandist for the nationalist cause. One of his pupils was the late Kwame Nkrumah, Ghana's future president.

Within 10 years he had become president of the National Council for Nigeria and the Cameroons, a political party which joined radical elements that emerged during World War Two.

He also launched five newspapers and wrote regular columns, stirring up nationalism in Nigeria and the West Coast of Africa.

After a long period in opposition in the Western House of Assembly, Azikiwe became the first prime minister of Eastern Nigeria, one of the then colony's three regions.

Adult sufferage, a wide programme of economic and social development, and administrative reorganisation were introduced under his premiership.

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