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READ: The Unforgettable Speech Nigeria’s First President Dared to Give in London Against Imperialism in 1949

Fondly called “Zik” or “Zik of Africa”, Nnamdi Azikiwe was Nigeria’s first president who 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.

He 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.

During Nigeria’s independence struggle, Azikiwe appeared before the Plenary Session of the British Peace Congress held at Lime Grove Baths in London on October 23, 1949, where he delivered an iconic speech.

Key moments from that speech included demanding Nigeria’s independence from Britain as well as denouncing imperialism.

Read it below:

“Take a look at the map of Africa. You will notice that its contour presents a shape which reminds one of a ham bone. To some people this ham bone has been designed by destiny for the carving knife of European imperialism; to others, it is a question mark which asks whether Europe will act up to its ethical professions of peace and harmony. Yet the paradox of Africa is that its wealth and resources are among the root causes of wars. Since the Berlin Conference, the continent of Africa has been partitioned and dominated by armies of occupation in the guise of political trustees and guardians, represented by the following European countries:  Britain, France, Belgium, Portugal, Spain, Italy, and also the Union of South Africa.

When the Allied Powers sounded the tocsin for World War I, Africa played a leading role not only as supplier of men, materials, and money, but as a theatre of war in which German colonialism in the Cameroons, in East Africa, and in South West Africa was destroyed. Again, when the Allied Nations beat the tom-tom for World War II, the African continent was used by military strategists in order to destroy the Fascist aims of Germany, Italy, and Vichy France. It is very significant that in the last two world wars, African peoples were inveigled into participating in the destruction of their fellow human beings on the ground that Kaiserism and Hitlerism must be destroyed in order that the world should be made safe for democracy—a political theory which seems to be an exclusive property of the good peoples of Europe and America, whose rulers appear to find war a profitable mission and enterprise.

Now the peoples of Africa are being told that it is necessary, in the interest of peace and the preservation of Christianity, that they should be ready to fight the Soviet Union, which the war buglers allege is aiming at world domination. Since the end of World War II, Field Marshal Lord Montgomery has been visiting several countries in Africa, including my country, Nigeria, which harbors uranium-233. Military roads are being constructed under the guise of economic development. American technicians are flooding Africa, and feverish preparations are being made for World War III. Certain factors have necessitated the stand which my organization, the National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroons, has taken in respect of the next war. In Nigeria and the Cameroons we face the inescapable reality that the blood of our sons has been shed in two world wars in vain. We remember that when during World War II the speaker requested Mr. Winston Churchill to confirm that the provisions of the Atlantic Charter applied to Nigeria, as was asserted by his Deputy, Mr. C. R. Attlee, the War Premier’s reply, couched in diplomatic language and delivered with a soothing manner, contradicted President Roosevelt’s interpretation to the effect that the Atlantic Charter applied to the whole world.

Today, in Nigeria, thousands of ex-servicemen are unemployed; they are disillusioned and frustrated, while some of them have been maimed for life, because they had been bamboozled into participating in a war which was not of their making. In spite of their war efforts, the people of Nigeria and the Cameroons have been denied political freedom, economic security, and social emancipation. Our national identity has been stifled to serve the selfish purposes of alien rule. We are denied elementary human rights. We are sentenced to political servitude, and we are committed to economic serfdom. Only those who accept slavery as their destiny would continue to live under such humiliating conditions without asserting their right to life and the pursuit of freedom, and joining forces with progressive movements for peace.

If I may be allowed to be frank, I must say that it is not enough for us to congregate here and adopt manifestoes for peace. We must search our hearts and be prepared to accept some home truths. Someone has rightly said that “Peace is indivisible.” One-half of the world cannot enjoy peace while the other half lives in the throes of war. You may succeed in averting war between the two great blocs, but yours will be a hollow victory so long as any part of the world remains a colonial territory. It is clear that imperialism is a perennial source of war.

The present colonial policy of the British Government can be reliable index of the prospects for the future. I mean no harm when I say without equivocation that such policy has been formulated in accordance with the logic of imperialism, buttressed by a false belief about the incapacity of the colonial peoples to develop initiative. To an extent, this policy was justified in the past, for historical reasons, but it can hardly stand the test of impartial analysis and criticism today.

Politically, British colonial policy has been to grant dependent peoples constitutions which are essentially autocratic. In spite of treaty obligations, Britain has ruled British protectorates and mandates as if they were British Crown colonies. The idea and implications of trusteeship have been misapplied or flouted so that the terminology is meaningless to the colonial peoples. Denial of elementary human rights such as freedom of speech and of the press, and freedom of association and assembly is rife.

Socially, the ogre of racial segregation and discrimination makes it extremely difficult for the colonial to develop his personality to the full. Education is obtainable but limited to the privileged. Hospitals are not available to the great number of the people but only to a negligible minority. Public services are lacking in many respects; there are not sufficient water supplies, surfaced roads, postal services, and communications systems in most communities of Nigeria. The prisons are medieval, the penal code is oppressive, and religious freedom is a pearl of great price.

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Economically, the colonial peoples have been made to appreciate that colonial possessions constitute “undeveloped estates” specially reserved as a legacy for exploitation by the colonial power in control, either through a closed-door policy or a system of preferential tariff, or as a dumping ground for the unemployed of the “protecting state.” This policy has affected the colonial peoples adversely. There exists in colonial territories a regime of monopoly which has a stranglehold on the country’s economy. The system of taxation is arbitrary and inequitable. The civil service is not as efficient as it should be, owing mainly to favoritism, nepotism, and racism. The agricultural program is often antediluvian, as no energetic effort is made to introduce and popularize labor-saving machinery and modern farming techniques. The mining policy is definitely despotic, for whilst state control may be desirable in a democratic state, yet the governor of a colonial territory “may in his absolute discretion” grant, cancel, modify, or renew any prospecting or mining right. Labor is exploited and victimized galore. And in spite of the catalogue of disabilities indicated above, the colonial policy of the British government seems to be dedicated to the gospel according to “the man on the spot” whose word is law and whose maladministration often entitles him to be kicked upstairs with a G.C.M.G. or a peerage as his reward.

I am convinced that as a colonial power Britain’s stock is high, in spite of the fact that her moral influence is not as salutary as could be desired because of her adherence to the antiquated ideas of imperialism and the herrenvolk. However, it is obligatory for Britain to examine herself more critically and be willing to adjust herself to the changing conditions of contemporary colonial thought and international society. It is highly desirable for Britain to cultivate the goodwill and loyalty of the colonial peoples, and thereby earn the approbation of the outside world.

We cannot be satisfied with the “discussion” of our own affairs, as envisaged in the Richards Constitution. We are unwilling to continue the reactionary policy of making our legislative chamber a debating society for the amusement of British colonial administrators. We resent the idea of our paid civil servants being an untrammelled bureaucracy, able to make, interpret, and administer our laws, without our knowledge and consent, and without our being effectively represented in such a chamber by councilors or legislators of our own choice.

We demand the right to assume responsibility for the government of our country. We demand the right to be free to make mistakes and profit from our experiences.

By virtue of a series of about four hundred treaties negotiated between Her Majesty Queen Victoria and the Kings of several territories which are now known as Nigeria, Britain assumed a Protectorate in all our country except Lagos township. The existence of these treaties is a recognition that the Protectorate thus established is not British territory, and its inhabitants are not British subjects. This is consistent with English Constitutional law. After almost one hundred years of British connection, certain factors have necessitated re-examination of our relations in order that the bond of fellowship between the two countries be either strengthened or disintegrated. We belong to the school of thought which prefers the former course, and we feel that the future of Anglo-Nigerian relations need not be a subject of conflict. Rather it should be a question of adjustment of the political and administrative organization. At present, we who are regarded as the articulate element in our country have the sense to make a friendly gesture towards strengthening the bond of fellowship with Great Britain. Self-government is our aim within our lifetime. The only way for the British in Nigeria to prove their sincerity is to implement their professions by actual deeds. I will admit that an effort is being made, but I submit that this can be increased.

I have never suggested, and I do not suggest, the wholesale evacuation of the British from Nigeria, but I hold that since Anglo-Nigerian relations are based on treaty obligations founded on friendship and commerce, there is no reason why Anglo-Nigerian condominium should not be the nucleus of a great Federation of States in the immediate future, to enable us to take our rightful place in the British Commonwealth. If the British mean well, then they must trust us and allow us to participate actively in the management of our affairs.

Every sixth man on the continent of Africa is a Nigerian. Every other person in the British colonial empire is a Nigerian. Add the British Isles to Belgium, Holland, Portugal and the Irish Free State, and then you have an idea of the area of Nigeria. There is gold in Nigeria. Coal, lignite, tin, columbite, tantalite, lead, diatomite, thorium (uranium233), and tungsten abound in Nigeria. There is palm oil galore. Rubber, cocoa, groundnuts, benniseeds, cotton, palm oil, and palm kernels are there in very large quantity. Timber of different kinds is found in many areas of this African fairyland. Yet in spite of these natural resources which indicate potential wealth, the great majority of Nigerians live in want.

…It is our considered opinion that factors of capitalism and imperialism have stultified the normal growth of Nigeria in the community of nations. We are confident that only by the crystallization of democracy in all aspects of our national life and thought—political, economic, and social—can we develop pari passu with the other progressive nations of the peace loving world. We are determined that Nigeria should now evolve into a fully democratic and socialist commonwealth in order to enable our various nationalities and communities to own and control the essential means of production and distribution, and thereby more effectively promote political freedom, economic security, social equality, religious toleration, and communal welfare.

For these reasons, we define imperialism as the enforced rule of one nation by another nation. This we hold to be an antithesis of democracy, for the realization of which our sons have shed their blood in two world wars. Therefore, we are compelled to denounce imperialism as a crime against humanity, because it destroys human dignity and is a constant cause of wars. And in doing so, we make the following declarations:

1) That we shall no longer be scared by false alarms sounded by imperialists and their venal press in respect of any ideology which is basically socialist in its concept.

2) That we shall no longer be prepared to pull the chestnut out of the fire for blundering warmongers.

3) That we shall no longer be dragooned to act as cannon fodder in the military juggernaut of hypocrites who dangle before our people misleading slogans in order to involve humanity in carnage and destruction.

4) That we regard imperialism as our primary mortal enemy against which should range all the various nationalities and communities of our country.

5) That we assert that we are entitled to be consulted and our consent obtained before we are stampeded into another world war.

6) That in the event of another world war, we reserve the right to adopt an independent attitude and a line of action which would accelerate our national liberation, by casting in our lot with any people whose attitude towards our national struggle for freedom warrants such an alliance.

7) That in the next world war, we shall pitch our tent in any camp which by word and deed satisfies our immediate national aspirations.”

Sources: Wilfred Cartey and Martin Kilson, The Africa Reader: Independent Africa (New York: Vintage Book, 1970).

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