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Remembering life and times of Nduka Eze

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As we mark and celebrate 60 years of Nigeria’s Independence obtained from the British on October 1, 1960 and look back at some of the influential figures and nationalists that made that dream a reality, it is also high time we spare a moment or two to also reflect on the unsung heroes, the radical nationalists of the left often forgotten but who also stood in the trenches all those years ago to fight for our liberation and freedom. They constitute the neglected aspect of Nigerian nationalism in that they have been ignored in the established literature of Nigeria’s struggle for independence and have not been given their due place in the annals of our nationalist struggle. This forgotten aspect of Nigerian nationalism during the decolonization period is perhaps best exemplified through the life and times of the radical socialist and one of the great names of the labour movement Nduka Eze. Regarded as the father of leftist nationalism, Nduka Eze was a political activist from Asaba who coincidentally died on October 1, thirty-seven (37) years ago on the anniversary of our liberation which he along with many others of his ilk and persuasion not only strived to obtain but committed the strength, courage and valour of their youth in achieving.

Nduka Eze was born on February 25, 1925 at Asaba in the present Delta State. He attended mission schools for his elementary and secondary education before leaving college in 1944. Thereafter, he worked as a clerk for the UAC for two years till 1946, (later becoming the pioneer UAC national union president). He also worked briefly as a journalist and was one of the assistant editors of the Nigerian Advocate. Eze then went into the labour Movement rising to become Secretary-General of the Amalgamated Union of United Africa Company African Workers of Nigeria and Cameroons, better known as UNAMAG. As Secretary General of UNAMAG he fought his previous employers the UAC, the British authorities and the colonial police. Like other members of the Movement, he was inspired by Azikiwe’s political ideas. He considered Azikiwe as a symbol of the emergent Nigerian nation. Described by a contemporary as “a stationary firebrand,” Eze combined militant activism with the advocacy of radical ideas. The prominent themes of his early political ideas were the role of youth in political Movements, the necessity for militant action to complement the propagation of nationalist ideas, analysis of colonial exploitation, the leading role of the working class in the nationalist struggle and advocacy of socialism for post-colonial Nigeria.

Before long Nduka Eze became a pioneer and founding member of what has long been regarded as Nigeria’s pioneer radical political organization namely The Zikist Movement. The Movement was inspired by the nationalist ideas and activities of Nnamdi Azikiwe but was also influenced by the ideology of Zikism espoused by another Nigerian nationalist, Nwafor Orizu. Eze soon became an influential exponent of the Zikist Movement. Before long he was sent out as the Movement’s Field Secretary, to undertake a forty-day fifteen-town tour of the country between the months of June and July 1946. The tour took him to Abeokuta, Ibadan, Kaduna, Zaria, Kano, Jos, Kafanchan, Enugu, Aba, Port Harcourt, Onitsha, Asaba, Benin City, Sapele and Warri. The Movement’s decision to send Eze on this tour was an indication of the seriousness with which it took its objective of becoming a pan-Nigerian nationalist Movement and it could not have chosen a better representative than Eze. Described as a forceful, fearless and thought-provoking speaker he possessed the gift of the garb and usually held his audience spell-bound with his intellectual urbanity. His oratorical power and finesse was compared to that of the renowned Roman Orator Demosthenes by the foremost newspaper of the day – the West African Pilot. Eze successfully established links with the provincial branches, propagated Zikist ideas and even contributed to the formation of a branch in Aba, which was inaugurated after what was described as his “thought-provoking” lecture on the philosophy and purpose of the Movement. A measure of the impact which Eze made during his tour is discernible from an article titled “Zikist Eze and Nigeria”, written by the then President of the Sapele branch, H. Ekwuyasi. He argued that the propaganda tour of the “eloquent and fiery” Eze was one of the greatest efforts towards African redemption in the history of Nigeria.

While on tour, in another notable lecture at Onitsha in 1946, Eze, seeking to rally the youth to the Movement’s banner, highlighted the important role youths had played in historic revolutionary Movements. He argued that like those youths, the Nigerian youths of the Zikist Movement were ushering in a new way of life. He therefore called on them to embrace the creed-Zikism; to stand firmly by their duty and be convinced that right made might. At other times, he acknowledged the inspirational role of other predecessors such as Herbert Macaulay but argued that in the current period it was the responsibility of the youth to seize the gauntlet thrown down by their predecessors and advance the cause of nationalism further.

On the necessity for radical anti-colonial action, Eze deployed a number of arguments. He contended that to effectively challenge British colonialism, it was important to eliminate totally the fear complex, which was inculcated by the kind of education, which made Africans feel that British military power was invincible and unassailable. He also reiterated the need for courage by arguing that in the course of the struggle people should not be intimidated by the possibility of imprisonment, deportation or death. He asserted that although members of the Movement had been labeled “irresponsibles”, their code of honour was service to Nigeria. Continuing, Eze argued that a constitutional approach should be eschewed because it was inadequate to advance the cause of freedom.

The earliest detailed statement of “radical nationalism” made by Nduka Eze was in an article titled “The Working Class Movement and The New Awakening” published in the Nigerian Spokesman in 1947. In it he expounded his views on the nature of colonial domination, paths to liberation and the necessity for socialist transformation of liberated Nigeria. Eze stated that human history was dominated by the quest for food, shelter and clothing. He argued that colonialism, imperialism and exploitation were actuated by economic reasons. Colonial exploitations in Nigeria he stressed were based on the exploitation of the people’s labour power and natural resources and were maintained by force.

As he put it: “… these foreigners have no right to exist in our territories… but by sheer force of might, they have unscrupulously grabbed all the gold which the efforts of thirty million people have produced”.

He argued further that the economic exploitation of Nigeria was directly beneficial to Britain in terms of employment and economic buoyancy, asking rhetorically, “can England witness the progressive industrialization of Nigeria when that means unemployment and economic depression without placing barriers against (the) selfless efforts of the native entrepreneurs”. In view of this, Eze discounted those who argued that economic development should be a prerequisite to political freedom. In an analysis of the social consequences of British colonialism in Nigeria, Eze argued that its policies had “created two classes in Nigeria the upper classes and the lower classes…” Wealth was concentrated in the hands of the aristocrats while the majority lived in poverty and disease. Interestingly, he argued that this colonial class differentiation was in “direct conflict against the immemorial communism or republicanism of African governmental structure. As for the strategies of liberation, Eze argued that past nationalist movements had failed because they lacked a mass base. The social class which should provide the mass base for radical anti-colonialism is the working class. In his view the involvement of the working class will fuse the economic and political dimensions of the national liberation struggle. In the light of this he called on the working class Movement to generate a revolution that would emancipate Nigeria.

In 1948, for the first time, the Zikist Movement called for a national revolution in the form of direct action. Many members were arrested and some were tried for Sedition. Azikiwe made sure to dissociate himself from the incarcerated revolutionaries. He publicly criticized the Movement, insinuated fraud by imprisoned Zikists, and refused to seek the release of the prisoners. This became a watershed period in the history of the Zikist Movement but undaunted Nduka Eze by 1949 rose to become President General of the Zikist Movement and stamped his outlook on the organisation.

Under his watch, the Movement began to espouse socialism as the ideology for post-colonial Nigeria. At the same time, it began to attempt to expand its strategy to include the working class as a whole; it also added armed sabotage to its basic strategy of civil disobedience. During this period it participated in the popular protests which erupted in Eastern Nigeria after the Iva Valley Massacre of November, 1949. Early in 1950, it attempted to implement another programme of revolutionary decolonization through sabotage actions. Informed of the Movement’s plans, the Colonial State struck with country-wide arrests, trials and the incarceration of several of its leaders. The Movement was eventually suppressed in April, 1950.Thus Zikism melted away, but labour unionism remained very active in the period 1951 up until independence was obtained in 1960. During that period, Nduka Eze continued championing the cause of the working class becoming a great labour leader in the process. His union activities eventually coalesced into his prominent role in the NCNC and through this he became more active in mainstream politics.

After falling out with Zik, he aligned himself with what he considered to be the more progressive leadership of Chief Obafemi Awolowo and the Action Group. He became directly responsible for Asaba province under the Action Group, often clashing with the NCNC’s Chief Dennis Osadebay in adopting different approaches to the welfare of their people. While in charge of Asaba province (which then extended from Asaba to Agbor) he established to his credit the Asaba General Hospital (now known as the Federal Medical Centre, Asaba). He fought for the workers’ welfare and moved the various international affiliates of the country’s trade unions to secure international scholarships and grants for the Nigerian worker. Many through him benefitted from the scholarships programmes for which the Action Group and Chief Awolowo had become famous for in the Western Region. One of the beneficiaries of his efforts in this regard became the first Nigerian Nuclear Physicist who trained in the laboratory of the Great Albert Einstein – Chief (Dr) Philip Onianwa, the late Akwue of Asaba.

After the task of independence had more or less been achieved, Nduka Eze left for the United Kingdom in 1960 to pursue a career in law. He gained admission into the London School of Economics in 1962 to pursue his LL.B Degree and was called to the Bar at the Inner Temple in 1965. By 1966, the Nigerian polity had begun to heat up. The Biafran leader, Lt. Col. Odumegwu Ojukwu reached out to him and invited him to come back from the UK to assist in what was becoming both a National and Eastern Regional crisis. On his return he observed that no Igbo man was safe in the country as the atmosphere even in Lagos was toxic. Even though he grew up in Lagos and spoke Yoruba fluently, that gave him no comfort. Nduka Eze on his return to Nigeria from the UK decided to pitch his tent once more with Chief Obafemi Awolowo. His first role was to use his influence with Awolowo to broker some truce between the various federating units which was one of the main issues of contention at the time. Awolowo was open to it but later changed his position. It has been reported that Awolowo had a direct understanding with Ojukwu on the secession issue but for one reason or the other this never materialized. When the war started Nduka Eze used his various contacts in eastern Europe to secure assistance for Biafra –he found Ojukwu to be extremely dictatorial and impervious to reasonable advice and on several occasions fell out with him leading to his detention in Biafra as a Nigerian sympathizer- The Nationalists were caught in the middle in that crisis. The country they labored for was being put asunder by men who knew nothing of their sacrifice and struggle. Nduka Eze soon realized that speaking truth to power had its consequences as his experience on both sides (he was also detained by Gowon’s government at the end of the war for his assistance to Biafra) attests but he never stopped speaking truth to power. The cost to his family was considerable but it is always so with nation builders. The war had deep personal costs to him as he lost his beloved wife Rose in the Asaba Massacre in 1967.

By far the biggest crisis of that period for Nduka Eze and many others was the Asaba massacre, which occurred in early October 1967 at the outset of the Biafran War following the secession of the Eastern Region. On October 5, 1967 Federal troops of the Second Division entered Asaba and began ransacking houses and killing civilians, claiming they were Biafran sympathizers. Over a period of three days over a thousand people lost their lives. The town was left in ruins and the survivors traumatised. Many women were raped and others killed. Nduka Eze spent a life time trying to seek justice for the victims of that war especially since the facts and truth of what happened was largely suppressed. It is fair to say that the Asaba massacre was the single worst atrocity of the civil war. Although Nduka Eze had long died by the time the Human Rights Violations Investigation Commission –popularly known as the Oputa Panel was set up in 1999 to look into several human rights abuses including the Asaba massacre, his son Chuck Nduka-Eze a Barrister of distinction took up the gauntlet and presented the case of the victims of the Asaba massacre before the panel showing that even in death the spirit of Nduka Eze remained alive in his son.

The political instability of the mid 1960s and the Biafran civil war meant that Nduka Eze was only able to enroll at the Nigerian Law School in 1972 just after the civil war had ended. He was eventually called to the Nigerian Bar that same year and thereafter dedicated himself to active legal practice specializing in labour issues and workers’ rights up until the return to civil rule in 1979. At the beginning of the Second Republic, Nduka Eze found himself in the Nigeria Peoples Party (NPP) but soon afterwards the party split and he ended up in the Alhaji Waziri led faction of the Party which was renamed the Great Nigeria Peoples Party (GNPP). He became the Party’s General Secretary. Nduka Eze sadly died on October 1, 1983 aged 58 years after a brief illness. He was survived by eight children four of who are lawyers. One of his sons, Chuck Nduka-Eze is a titled Cabinet Chief of Asaba and bears the title the Isama Ajie of Asaba. Nduka Eze remains an inspiration to many other modern contemporary Nigerian radicals of the left whose struggles and sacrifices we hope will ensure that Nigeria emerges liberated as a true democracy free from oppression and exploitation in whatever guise or form. The likes of Nduka Eze committed a lifetime in trying to achieve this objective and today as ever, we fondly remember and acknowledge the sacrifice and dedication of this patriot of Nigeria radical vanguard.

Nduka Eze was an intellectual who in many respects lived ahead of his time in that he foresaw the impact and consequences of economic imperialism 60 years ago. Today, what has changed? Was the approach adopted by the more conservative and liberal nationalists the right one? Moving forward should we adopt a more radical approach if we are to bring about purposeful development and prosperity to our people? Nduka Eze asked all these questions a generation ago and they are just as relevant today as they were then. As a nation we need to become more adaptable, socially inclusive and progressive. Perhaps it is the striking of that balance between conservative, liberal and radical nationalism that remains the missing link. If so, that is a shame because the likes of Nduka Eze provided us with an alternative right from inception but we chose instead to rewrite history and ignore their blue print as if to say it never existed. How many roads, buildings or other monuments are named after any of these nationalists of the left? So strange all this! Nevertheless this account is neither a biography nor a memoir. They are stories of a life lived indeed! They are true historical facts and records of the life and times of a nationalist hero in Nduka Eze – the inspirational father of leftist nationalism.

Kola-Balogun, a legal practitioner, was a former Commissioner for Youth Development in Osun State.


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