Nigeria is 63: Here Are Those Whose Labour And Struggles Led To Independence

Hurray! Nigeria is 63 years old! Fireworks!

On this day, in 1960, Nigeria was conceived as it officially gained independence from the British colonial masters.

A lot of things have changed in 60 years, especially regarding the political landscape. What can never be forgotten, however, is the labour of our heroes who made Nigeria’s independence possible.

From Tafawa Balewa, Nigeria’s first prime minister, to Nnamdi Azikiwe, the country’s first elected president, these individuals made the fight for Nigeria’s independence their personal struggle. Like always, we remember them on this day.


Bello was the first and only premier of the northern region who ruled from 1954 to 1966. As the leader of the Northern Peoples Congress (NPC), he led the party to a majority victory in the pre-independence parliamentary elections of 1959. As Sardauna of Sokoto, he was a formidable force behind the throne and was considered one of the most powerful men in Nigeria.

The historical 1959 general election which effectively ushered in Nigeria’s independence in 1960, saw an alliance between the NPC under Bello forged an alliance with the National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroons (NCNC) under the leadership of Nnamdi Azikiwe, which resulted in Nigeria’s first indigenous federal government.

Bello chose to remain the premier of northern Nigeria and always preferred to be among his people in the north. His reign was cut short in January 1966 coup when he was assassinated by Chukwuma Nzeogwu in a coup which toppled Nigeria’s post-independence government.


Azikiwe was a leading figure of modern Nigerian nationalism who spent a better part of his life working to end British control of Nigeria, both as a journalist and a politician. Azikiwe served as the last governor-general of Nigeria from 1960 to 1963 as well as the country’s first elected president from 1963 to 1966 during the first republic. He had joined politics in 1944 and later co-founded the National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroons (NCNC) after a successful stint as a journalist, he became active in politics in 1944.

He inspired the Zikist movement, a radical revolutionary and multi-ethnic youth body which championed the Nigerian struggle against imperialism and the belief that Nigerians and indeed Africans should manage their own affairs.

As far back as the 1940s, Azikiwe had been championing for Nigeria’s independence from British rule and, in 1943, joined other West African editors to sign a memorandum raising awareness about political independence. They had also called for socio-political reforms that would include a repeal of the crown colony system, installing a representative system in regions and granting independence to West African colonies under the British rule.

An obituary in the 1996 issue of Jet captures his place in Nigeria’s and Africa’s history thus: “Known as a vigorous champion of African independence from European colonial rule, Dr. Azikiwe attained the rare status of national hero, admired across the regional and ethnic lines dividing his country.”


After the NPC won the pre-independence parliamentary election, Tafawa Balewa, being the vice-president of the party, emerged Nigeria’s first prime minister, a position he held till January 1966, when he was killed in the coup.

During his reign, Balewa was deeply involved in Nigeria’s policymaking process and developed a formidable reputation among Nigeria’s allies globally, especially from 1960 to 1961, when he doubled as the foreign affairs advocate of Nigeria.

He was also known to have also played important roles in the early years of indigenous rule in Africa, and was an important leader in the formation of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU). In the 1950s, he was actively involved in the campaign for indigenous rule and discussions on constitutional reform which ultimately led to independence in 1960.


Obafemi Awolowo, who was the first premier of the western region from 1954 to 1960, was another nationalist who played active role in the struggle for Nigeria’s independence.
For some, he was Nigeria’s foremost federalist and advocated for federalism as the only basis for equitable national integration.

While he led the Action Group (AG), Awolowo was on the forefront of the campaign for a federal constitution, which was introduced in the 1954 Lyttleton Constitution. As the leader of the opposition, he frequently challenged the policies of the Balewa-led government under the Northern People’s Party, often seen as aligning with the British colonial administration.

Awolowo was one of the country’s leading social democratic politician who, in his agitation for self-rule, was also known to have stood for economic and social development especially in the western region.


Tagged the father of Nigerian nationalism, Herbert Macaulay was one of the key figures who helped lay the foundation of modern Nigeria.

During the 1920s when Nigeria started to witness the political agitation for self-rule, Macaulay was among the first generation of Nigerian Nationalists who protested against some policies introduced by the British colonial rule, including water rates, land issues, and management of railway finances.

It was during that time, in 1923, that he founded the Nigerian National Democratic Party (NNDP), Nigeria’s first political party whose members were the first to sit in the legislative council and which held sway in Nigeria’s political theatre until the late 1930s when it joined forces with the Nigerian Youth Movement to form the National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroons (NCNC), a nationalist organization designed to advocate for Nigeria’s independence.


Enahoro is reported to be the first politician to move the motion supporting Nigeria’s independence in the parliament in 1953, although it ended up an unsuccessful move. The early agitation for self-rule suffered setback and at one time, caused the northern members of parliament to stage a walkout out of the legislative chamber.

Notwithstanding his motion’s defeat, it contributed to a new movement in the parliament that sustained the pressure on the British colonial masters for Nigeria’s independence. It also saw the emergence of similar motions, including from Balewa and Remilekun Fani-Kayode, former deputy premier of the western region, all of which resulted in Nigeria’s independence in 1960.

As the chairman of the National Democratic Coalition (NADECO), a pro-democracy group, Enahoro challenged the dictatorship of Sani Abacha till the military leader died in 1998.



A group which was a key part of the struggle for Nigeria’s independence and which confronted the British maladministration were women from the southern part of the country known to have carried out the popular ‘Aba Women’s Riot’.

The riot featured women who rebelled against economic and socio-political oppression of the colonial masters in parts of Igboland, especially the imposition of tax on the market women and the dictatorial powers of the warrant chiefs who were in power following the introduction of indirect rule system of government.

In November 1929, thousands of the women assembled in Calabar and Owerri from where they took over major roads and streets in protest. Some of the warrant chiefs were forced to resign, following the riot, which was seen as the first major uprising against the British rule in Nigeria.


Another individual who popularly stood against the British colonial rule, demanding for the rights of citizens in the pre-independence era was Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti. As a revolutionary, she was known to have used her influence to mobilise women and organise resistance against colonialism at the time, earning her the moniker “Lioness of Lisabi”.

One of such moments was when the colonial officers refused to give permits for demonstrations in parts of Nigeria. This did not deter Ransome-Kuti who at the time had been outspoken about some of the policies of the colonial masters, such as taxation and shutting out women in the decision-making process.

She mobilised market women for events such as picnics and festivals, and, in 1953, organised a conference in Abeokuta to discuss women’s welfare. The gathering gave birth to a women’s group known as the Federation of Nigerian Women’s Societies (FNWS), which set out to fight for women’s rights against all odds.

One of the most memorable points of her life — which unfortunately resulted in her death — was on February 18, 1977, when hundreds of soldiers raided the Lagos residence of Fela Kuti, her son who was also a known activist.

The 76-year-old Ransome-Kuti was thrown from a second-storey window during which she sustained injuries that eventually led to her death on April 13, 1978. In writing about the late activist, Cheryl Johnson-Odim, prominent academic, noted: “No Nigerian woman of her time ranked as such a national figure or had [such] international exposure and connections of Ransome-Kuti.”


One of the prominent nationalists in pre-independent Nigeria was Mbanaso Ukwaraozurumba, better known as Jaja of Opobo, who prominently rose from being a slave boy to a decorated king.

An account of his life had it that Jaja, born of Igbo descent, was sold as a slave to his British master at the age of 12 and subsequently renamed Jubo Jubogha.

He was later resold to Iganipughuma Alison of Bonny in modern-day Rivers state, where he grew to be loved. Jaja would later rise to become the head the Anna Pepple House, after it broke away from Bonny in 1869, and declared himself King Jaja of Opobo.

As king, he was always at loggerheads with the British especially in Opobo where he never let them have things their way. He was known to have monopolised trading in the region and even shipped palm oil directly to Liverpool, independent of the British middlemen.

Jaja’s refusal to stop taxing the British traders and merchants angered the colonial masters who later declared Opobo as its territory in the 1884 Berlin conference. They eventually arrested him in 1887 when Henry Hamilton Johnston, a British vice-consul, invited him for negotiations.

Jaja was sent to Accra where he was prosecuted and convicted for “treaty breaking” and “blocking of highway trade”. In 1891, after serving four years in captivity, he was allowed to return home but never made it home as he died after collapsing when his ship docked on the island of Tenerife. He was rumoured to have been poisoned by British seamen.


In the pre-independence Nigeria and beyond, Margaret Ekpo stood out as as a political icon who lived her life fighting for women’s rights and the recognition of the place of women in politics. Aside from being a women’s rights activist, Ekpo was also a social mobiliser and grassroots politician who was never intimidated by the men who dominated the politician scene at the time.

In the 1940s, she was known to attend political and activists’ meetings to discuss the colonial master’s maladministration in place of John Ekpo, her husband, who, like other Nigerian medical doctors, detested how they were being treated, but could not attend such gatherings because of his work as a civil servant.

In fighting for the right of women and their unjust treatment by the colonial masters, Ekpo registered with the National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroons (NCNC) and, in the years that followed, joined forces with the likes of Ransome-Kuti in mobilising women to become more involved in politics. In 1953, she was nominated by the NCNC to the regional house of chiefs and in the following year, established a pressure group known as the Aba Township Women’s Association.


Among those who laid down their lives protesting British maladministration were 21 coal miners who were shot dead at a British government-owned coal mine in Enugu state.

During the British colonial rule in Nigeria, coal was one of the major sources of income for Nigeria and the Iva Valley mines, where the incident took place, had been built by the British. The workers faced harsh working conditions, battling racism and assault in the hands of British colonial masters.

On November 1, 1949, the situation escalated with a strike action over debts owed the workers during a period of casualisation.

Rather than address their demands, the colonial masters sacked some of them and ordered the removal of all coal mines in the Iva Valley. The workers resisted this, fearing that it could result in the mine being shut down. In confronting the protesters, F.S. Philip, the police chief, ordered security operatives to disperse them with gunshots. They ended up shooting dead 21 workers and one volunteer, with many more injured.

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