‘In any society where a governing elite, faced with wide social inequality, mass poverty, unemployment and conspicuous waste of limited national resources, resorts to a systematic denial of its earlier revolutionary slogans, such an elite is bound to be challenged by a frustrated younger generation that is eager to consummate the social revolution.’
– Mokwugo Okoye: A Letter To Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe (August, 1955).
There is no doubt about it: the youth in Nigeria are stirring at long last. You need to encounter them on social media platforms and radio and television phone-in programmes to experience their fury against the two main political parties, the All Progressives Congress, (APC) and the Peoples’ Democratic Party (PDP) and their presidential candidates, Bola Ahmed Tinubu and Atiku Abubakar, respectively. It is a fury powered by the realization that the two parties do not have the faintest clue that Nigeria is gripped by a profound economic, political and social crisis, and that nothing short of new and truly patriotic faces as presidential candidates will do.
The two political parties’ decision to throw up Bola Tinubu and Atiku Abubakar, two politicians who have been on the scene since 1999 when the Fourth Republic began – politicians who have done absolutely nothing to address the poverty and the unemployment crisis in which the youth are presently trapped, is an indication, the latter believe, that it will be business as usual come 2023 and they are now determined to put an end to the same old game. The youth are saying that they will vote for neither Tinubu nor Atiku. They are also saying that they want to throw up a new political class in the country that will take her social and economic problems seriously and in fact move mountains to address them for the benefit of young and old, rich and poor.
A new peoples movement is about to be born in the country powered by our youth. The last two peoples’ movements which brought about profound change in the country are the Zikist Movement in the late 1940s that paved the way for independence in 1960 and the June 12 1993 Movement which ended military dictatorship in the country in 1999. Both movements were led primarily by Nigerian youth. In this essay I will trace the origin and trajectory of the Zikist Movement to serve as a lesson for the Nigerian youth are presently working to bring about a change in the way Nigerian politicians do business.
The Zikist Movement was founded in Lagos in February 1946 at the instance of four young journalists – M.C.K. Ajuluchukwu, Abiodun Aloba, Kolawole Balogun and Nduka Eze. They had just been dismissed from their jobs in the ‘Nigerian Advocate’, a Lebanese-owned newspaper, for advocating for independence from British rule, and they decided to establish an organization that would continue to push their demands, built around the person of Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe, the courageous journalist and proprietor of the ‘West African Pilot’, and the leading advocate for independence following the death of Herbert Macaulay in 1945.
The Young Zikists, as they were called, were impatient with the tactics of the older generation of Nigerian nationalists who contented themselves with writing petitions and articles in newspapers calling for the British colonisers to quit. They wanted independence immediately, and they resorted to protest marches, boycotts, strike actions and such tactics designed to impress on the British rulers that the time for them to go had come. Members of the Zikist Movement wanted the three big regions to be broken up into smaller states. They also advocated socialism, wanting the commanding heights of the Nigerian economy to be socialized so that the poor too would have a real stake in factories, farms and the service sector.
But it was in their pan-Nigerian outlook that the Zikists distinguished themselves most. The British colonizer had cynically divided the country along regional lines and was in fact encouraging the flourishing of ethnic sentiments to divide the emerging indigenous political elite. This was an old tactic adopted by colonisers everywhere to divide the political opposition and make it difficult to mount a united challenge. The Zikists would have none of this. Although established by southerners, the Zikist Movement quickly spread to northern towns and cities and attracted such eminent young northerners as Raj Abdullah and Sa’ad Zungur who were later to play distinguished roles in the nationalist cause.
It was at the height of the Zikist Movement’s popularity and power giving the British sleepless nights that Dr Azikiwe chickened out and publicly disowned the organization. This was a terrible blow for the young people. They tried to mediate with Azikiwe but he was adamant, taking to the pages of the mass-circulating ‘West African Pilot’ to describe the young Zikists as malcontents and overzealous renegades. This was the signal the British colonisers were waiting for. They arrested the leaders of the Zikist Movement in February 1950 and imprisoned them. The Movement was subsequently banned. Those who escaped arrest changed the name of the organization to the Freedom Movement and tried to resuscitate it but the old fire was gone.
Even so, the activities of the Zikist Movement and the courageous and uncompromising stance of its members who insisted that the British must go served notice to the latter that the time to quit Nigeria had come, and ten years later this indeed came about. However, the young Zikists’ dream of a great, united and prosperous Nigeria where the poor had equal say in the affairs of the country as the rich and where the divide between the north and the south was bridged did not come about. Britain, looking after her own interests, handed over to the independence politicians a hopelessly divided country where the rich, sixty-two years later, continue to be as cynical as they are corrupt and indolent and the poor are powerless to do anything about their sorry situation.
This then is the story of the Zikist Movement, and I urge the present generation of Nigerian youth intent on displacing the APC and PDP to bear the lessons of the rise and fall of this intrepid movement in mind as they move to remake the country.
- Dr Okonta was until recently Leverhulme Early Career Fellow in the Department of Politics, University of Oxford. He now lives in Abuja.