(1949) Nnamdi Azikiwe Addresses Phi Beta Sigma Fraternity at its 35th Annual Convention in Washington, D.C.

Nnamdi Azikiwe
Public Domain Image

Here Nnamdi Azikiwe, future first President of Nigeria, delivers an address to his fellow fraternity members at the Banneker High School Auditorium, Washington, D.C., on December 27, 1949, at the 35th Anniversary of the Phi Beta Sigma Fraternity.

I have travelled 8,500 miles in order to be present on this momentous occasion. It took me less than 40 hours to make the trip by aeroplane, in two stages, thanks to modern scientific knowledge. I bring you greetings from Sigma men who are scattered over the continent of Africa. In concert with their comrades-in-arms they are playing their part in the great awakening which has gripped that continent of everlasting spring, having been imbued with the idea of ‘Culture for service and service for humanity’.

What is the nature of the struggle for national freedom in contemporary Africa? What are the forces at work to intensify that struggle? What is the reaction of the African people towards national realization? What is the role of the United States in this attempt of the African towards national self-determination? These are some of the issues I shall attempt to clarify within the limited time at my disposal. Throughout Black Africa, a struggle for national freedom is in the offing, because factors of imperialism have stultified the normal growth of Africans in the community of nations. Consequently, our indigenous people present a sorry spectacle of degraded humanity. Politically, they are dominated by alien races and are denied the basic human rights. Socially, the African has been made to witness discrimination of different kinds against him in his own native land. Economically, the African has been subjected to exploitation of a most heinous type, whilst he vegetates below the minimum subsistence level of existence. Yet, in spite of his plight he has become self-assertive and he is demanding a place in the sun.

What forces have been at work to intensify this struggle of the African for self-determination? Let me take the liberty of referring to comments made by Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt during the World War II, when it appeared that certain sections of American society were diffident in participating wholeheartedly in the war. She said: ‘We are fighting a war today so that individuals all over the world may have freedom. This means an equal chance for every man to have food and shelter and a minimum of such things as spell happiness to that particular human personality. If we believe firmly that peace cannot come to the world unless this is true for men all over the world, then we must know in our nation that every man, regardless of race and religion, has this chance. Otherwise we fight for nothing of real value. . . . If the future holds only a repetition of the past, if in each nation there are to be real slaves, even though they do not exist in name, then the boys who say they do not know why they fight have a right to say so. There would be no world worth fighting for and the only men who would have any reason for fighting would be the professional soldiers who fight for the love of fighting.’

That was precisely what happened to the African. He was persuaded to fight in order to free European nations. His reward was denial of freedom and the tightening of the chains of servitude. Due to the forces of intolerance, prejudice, ignorance, pride, and superstition, those whose homes were bombed by the V1 and V2 bombs, those who had suffered the humiliation of the concentration camp—refugees, displaced persons, kings without kingdoms, ‘Governments’ without countries—these ungrateful Europeans continued the enslavement of their former comrades-in-arms, after winning the war. Thus they have failed to win the peace. Today, man is still a wolf to man, and the teeming millions of Africans have been denied the heritage of democracy, despite their sacrifices in two world wars for its attainment.

I think that the Government and the people of the United States can play a creditable role in the attempt of the African to achieve freedom in his life-time. Emerging from World War II not only as an arsenal but a bastion of democracy, the United States has been presented by history with an opportunity for constructive statesmanship on the continent of Africa. Having been educated in the United States, I could be expected to be steeped in the traditions of Jeffersonian democracy. But that cannot make me blind to any situation which might stunt the natural development of my people towards an independent national existence. At times, I am perplexed at the role of the United States on the African continent. Is this great nation buttressing the forces of European reaction so as to manacle the people of Africa and thwart their legitimate aspirations towards nationhood?

It is obvious that the United States Government is assuming some responsibility for the development of the under-developed areas of the world. We who live in some of these under-developed areas are profoundly gratified that such a great nation should realize the urgent need for this economic step. The proposal of the Point Four Programme by President Harry S. Truman is indicative that this part of the world feels that its economic life is affected by the conditions which have caused stagnation in underdeveloped areas, comprising more than half the people of the world. Perhaps it is fitting at this moment to interject an old adage familiar to all of you, that no economic chain can be stronger than its weakest link. From the fact that more than half the chain is weak, it follows that the economic mooring of the world is not too secure.

It is commendable that at this moment in the course of world history, when cold war propaganda has such an unnerving effect on the more highly developed nations, President Truman should propose something that should lighten the tension of this ideological warfare. Such a project is ripe with possibilities that may save the world from a war more devastating than the two struggles that most of us have witnessed in our life-time. The crux of this programme seems to me in a large measure to be the solution of the problem with which we are confronted in West Africa. Moreover, it is a denunciation of the old imperialistic policies based on exploitation of less fortunate people that has heretofore set the world asunder. It means that the people of the western world may look forward to a more bountiful life; that they may feel that they can enter more freely in the competitive struggle to satisfy their human wants. The effect on the people of Africa can be better imagined.

But is there a deeper economic significance to the Point Four Programme? Is it possible that the under-developed areas contain raw materials which the United States must have because the stock-pile reserves are getting dangerously low? To an African who has been conditioned to expect many strange behaviour patterns in international relations, in so far as these patterns have affected Africa, the questions seem to cast the twin shadows of doubt and fear. I am optimistic enough to believe that President Truman must have fully realized that in spite of the urgent need for replenishing the stock-pile of priority materials, such as cocoa, tin, columbite, bauxite, palm products, uranium and so on, which abound in my country, all under-developed areas must be invited to participate in a programme that has the potential ingredient for establishing more firmly the four freedoms so essential to a free world.

One feels that the President had rightly put the aims and objectives of his country first. It follows that all advantages for that country must be considered. That, again, is as it should be for the best interest of this country. But we who live on the other side of the world could derive many benefits from these co-operative efforts. Naturally, our aim would be to work vigorously for the success of such a programme. In it we can visualize a turn of events which can lead ultimately to our independence.

However, the general nature of the President’s Point Four Programme has elicited different interpretations from various interests. Big business in America, for instance, sees it as a new avenue for private ventures and from all appearances suggests that the Government guarantees security of operation against risk. While, on the other hand, the British authorities have interpreted the Point Four Programme as a new device for bridging Britain’s dollar gap. in the light of this latter interpretation, which is very vital to the struggle we are making for freedom, it is heartening to know that the United States is not necessarily in accord with Britain on this score. This may suggest the reason for the Kennan Report’s recommendation of an on-the-spot study of the African situation.  It may hasten the day when the United States and Britain must re-orient their policies in respect of future relations with Africa as an under-developed area.