Mazi Mbonu Ojike, Nationalist, Pan-Africanist, Cultural Crusader and the "Boycott King" of Nigeria.
He was an Igbo man whose political stature comes third after fellow ndi-Igbos Dr Nnamdi "Zik" Azikiwe and Dr Kingsley Ozuomba Mbadiwe. Ojike was also a renowned student organizer and leader, a newspaper columnist (journalist) and a fire-brand politician was in the class of giant Nigerian political heavyweights like Chief H.O. Davies, Dr. Michael Okpara, Chief Ladoke Akintola, Chief Bode Thomas, Chief Remi Fani-Kayode, Alhaji Mohammadu Ribadu and Alhaji Zana Rima Dipcharima.
As a pan-Africanist, Mazi Ojike practiced what he preached by adopting native names, clothes, food, and ways of life. Ironically, he toured the towns and villages with his message of cultural nationalism in cars imported from abroad. He wore traditional dress to office and served palm wine, instead of whisky, champagne or beer at his official receptions and parties. He replaced his suit with agbada or jumper and encouraged civil servants to appear in office in native attire.
Mazi Ojike was a staunch critic of imperialism and lose no opportunity to attack colonialism and its effect on Africans. In the recent 2013 book entitled "The Igbo Intellectual Tradition: Creative Conflict in African and African Diasporic Thought," edited by Gloria Chuku, the author averred that "Ojike’s uncompromising rejection of alien culture, particularly European civilization and colonial domination, and his anti-European imperialist movement earned him the title of “The King of Boycottables.” Yet Ojike was a beneficiary of European civilization and even campaigned for the retention of some aspects of that civilization in Africa. This type of contradictions, as well as controversies and “scandals” surrounding Ojike’s scholarship, political career and activism are also examined."
US First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, sponsor and Guest of Honor of the African Dance Festival, held Monday evening, December 14, 1943 at the Carnegie Hall with Mazi Mbonu Ojike (standing on the right side wearing African dress with a cap) who came from the University of Chicago representin the African students. Image: Bettmann Collection
Mazi Ojike was one of the seven brilliant young men who were inspired and encouraged by Dr Nnamdi "Zik" Azikiwe to sail to United States "in search of the Golden Fleece" in December 1938. The group includes Dr K. O. Mbadiwe aka Man of Timber and Calibre, Otuka Okala, Dr Nnodu Okongwu, Engr. Nwanko Chukwuemeka, Dr Okechukwu Ikejiani, Dr. Abyssinia Akweke Nwafor Orizu and George Igbodebe Mbadiwe. Dr Mbadiwe always referred to this group as "Seven Argonauts." It is said that as soon as Ojike landed in US, he joined student politics and it did not take him much time to win election as the President of the African Students Union of Lincoln University. He also became the General Secretary of the African Academy of Arts and Research founded by Kingsley Ozuomba Mbadiwe (K.O.) On April 25, 1945, when delegates of fifty nations met in San Francisco for the conference known officially as the United Nations Conference on International Organization, Ojike was there as a student observer representing the Academy. As a leader of the African students movement Ojike embarked on extensive lecture tours of the United States educating the Americans on the honour and dignity of their roots. Ojike’s activism in the United States was not confined to associations, conferences and rallies.
In his short sojourn of three years and in his capacity as a prolific author he published three books: Portrait of a Boy in Africa (1945), My Africa (1946) and I have Two Countries (1947). In the first two books he vividly portrayed for his foreign audience the identity and integrity of African culture. His penetrating analysis was further pointed in his third book when in recording his American experience Ojike probed beneath the glitter of the American dream to draw illuminating comparisons with life in Africa. But his conclusion was neither parochial, nor romantic nor complacent. The message was to both his countries and to all humanity: “I am not proud of what our world has been nor of what it is; I am proud to join men and women of goodwill to make our civilization what it ought to be”
Ojike, actually became famous during the struggle for independence through his weekly newspaper column, ‘Weekend Catechism’ in the West African Pilot. Through that popular platform, he appealed to Nigerians to perceive independence from the cultural perspective. His idea was that the attachment of the young educated elements to British culture was another form of enslavement. Thus, the great nationalist taught Nigerians to reject or avoid “foreign things” or “imported things”, contending that, in the process of identifying with or embracing the culture of the colonial masters, the pride of the colonised community is further injured. Ojike was the General manager of the West African pilot.
He “plunged into the mainstream of militant nationalism” rising in very short order to a position of high prominence in National Council of Nigeria and Cameroon (NCNC) circles, from which he was to hold many major appointments including: an adviser to the NCNC Delegation at the 1949 constitutional conference, Deputy Mayor of Lagos, National Vice president of the NCNC,
Member of Eastern House of Assembly, Eastern Regional Minister of Works and Eastern Regional Minister of Finance.
Mazi Ojike was both a fan and foe of the former Premier of Eastern Region, Dr. Nnamidi Azikiwe. As Finance Minister under Zik, he fell out with his leader.
Ojike died at the age of 44 in an auto crash. Many Nigerians believed that he left without realising his full potentials.
First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, sponsor and Guest of Honor of the African Dance Festival, held Monday evening, December 14, 1943 at the Carnegie Hall. Shown here with her are Kingsley Ozumba Mbadiwe (center), head of the Academy of African Arts and Research, which is presenting the festival, and Mazi Mbonu Ojike who came from the University of Chicago representin the African students. Image: Bettmann Collection
Mbonu Ojike was born into the polygynous family of Ojike and Mgbeke Emeanulu around 1912 in Ndiakeme village of Arondizuogu in eastern Nigeria at a period when Igbo culture and society came under intense European imperial assault.
Ojike’s childhood saw conditions of great devastation, insecurity, uncertainty and anxiety occasioned by the confluence of events, that included British subjugation of the Igbo, the outbreak of WWI and the influenza epidemic of 1918–1919. These occurrences helped to shape his life. As one of the 19 sons of his parent, Mbonu demonstrated early in his life an independent mind and force of character.
By his own account he decided to go to school in spite of his father, a prosperous Aro trader who would have preferred his sons to serve their apprenticeship on the road with him. Leaving primary school at an unusually early age Ojike became a pupil teacher who ‘taught elementary subjects by day and studied secondary lessons by night’. "When he graduated from elementary school, he broke with local tradition by refusing to marry. he persisted in his studies, winning a scholarship to the famous Teacher Training College at Awka., from which he earned his Higher Elementary teachers certificate."
He went on to teach there after graduation. While teaching he continued his private studies, obtaining the Cambridge School Certificate and a University of London Diploma. The first signs of his political awareness appeared at this time when he led his fellow younger teachers on a strike to end discriminatory treatment. With the advent of Nnamdi Azikiwe (Zik) on the Nationalist scene, Ojike promptly enlisted in the struggle by joining the Zik’s group of Newspapers.
Still searching for knowledge Ojike became one of the groups of Nigerian; ‘Argonauts’ who, inspired by Zik left for the United States of America where he enrolled as a student of the Lincoln University. He later studied at Ohio and Chicago universities, obtaining B.A. and M.A. from Chicago University.
Not unexpectedly, Ojike joined student politics as soon as he landed in the United States. It did not take him much time to win election as the President of the African Students Union of Lincoln University. He also became the General Secretary of the African Academy of Arts and Research founded by Kingsley Ozuomba Mbadiwe (K.O.) On April 25, 1945, when delegates of fifty nations met in San Francisco for the conference known officially as the United Nations Conference on International Organization, Ojike was there as a student observer representing the Academy. As a leader of the African students movement Ojike embarked on extensive lecture tours of the United States educating the Americans on the honour and dignity of their roots.
Ojike’s activism in the United States was not confined to associations, conferences and rallies. In his short sojourn of three years he published three books: Portrait of a Boy in Africa (1945), My Africa (1946) and I have Two Countries (1947). In the first two books he vividly portrayed for his foreign audience the identity and integrity of African culture. His penetrating analysis was further pointed in his third book when in recording his American experience Ojike probed beneath the glitter of the American dream to draw illuminating comparisons with life in Africa. But his conclusion was neither parochial, nor romantic nor complacent. The message was to both his countries and to all humanity: “I am not proud of what our world has been nor of what it is; I am proud to join men and women of goodwill to make our civilization what it ought to be”
Mazi Mbonu Ojike returned to Nigeria in 1947 and “plunged into the mainstream of militant nationalism” rising in very short order to a position of high prominence in NCNC circles, from which he was to hold many major appointments including:
Adviser to the NCNC Delegation at the 1949 constitutional conference
Deputy Mayor of Lagos,
National Vice president of the NCNC
Member, Eastern House of Assembly
Eastern Regional Minister of Works
Eastern Regional Minister of Finance.
Mazi Mbonu Ojike
Mazi Mbonu Ojike died in 1959. In eight brief years of public life he did more than any other Nigerian, before or since, to raise public consciousness of our identity and pride as Africans or Nigerians, to counteract the rampant culture of disparagement, to assert and point the way to practical self-confident, self-reliance; self reliance in ideas, in behaviour and in action.
In his spare and incisive prose Ojike cut open and examined the cant, sophistry and pretensions of the colonial state and church.
His greatest impact was psychological and intellectual. He gave back to the Nigerian pride in himself as a human being, in his culture as a living functional whole.
He coined the now famous phrase “Boycott the Boycottables”, which earned him the title the “Boycott King”. He led by example, consistently wearing traditional dress to office and serving palm wine instead of whisky, champagne or beer at his official receptions and parties. Under the withering scorn of Ojike’s pen the southern politician abandoned his three-piece suit for the Agbada or jumper. The civil service itself capitulated, conceding the right of its staff to come to work in appropriate ‘native’ attire.
In his West African Pilot Saturday column, “Week End Catechism” Ojike interacted weekly with the many inquiring, soul-searching Nigerians exploring the problems and dilemmas of a society in the twilight of colonialism. His vision was always clear and consistent, his advice robust and practical.
As a political activist Ojike brought his vision, flair and common sense into the politics of independence. One of Nnamdi Azikiwe’s most influential lieutenants, he worked hard behind the scenes, defining and refining concepts, preparing position papers, manifestoes, slogans. A supreme publicist, he galvanized political rallies with his slogans and songs, earning the sobriquet of “Freedom Choirmaster”.
The sharpness of Ojike’s political vision is illustrated by one of the few overt acts of open disagreement with his party position. This was the subscription (with Professor Eyo Ita) to a Minority Report on the constitutional conference objecting not to the principle of a federal structure but to the creation of a federal system based on three regions, a solution which they foresaw would lead to destabilizing ethnic hegemonic and separatist action and reaction. (Coleman, 1956; Okafor 1981) Eighteen years later (in 1967) the three regional structures collapsed. Ojike also stood firm against the ideas of a house of chiefs and an Electoral College system, both of which have since been discarded.
Another celebrated facet of Ojike’s contributions to public life was his originality, courage, hard work and dedication as a Minister. Two significant instances of political courage may be cited: his contribution to a viable solution of the struggle between Onitsha indigenes and non-indigenes for the political control of the Onitsha Urban Council, and his bold introduction of the PAYE system of taxation. Both initiatives were at obvious and considerable risk to Ojike’s political career.
Ojike was a Minister with a difference. Thus, to cite but one instance, it is on record that as Minister of works on tour of projects he often assigned his luxurious official car to his officials to help with basic transportation needs while he visited locations on foot or push bike. A member of the Eastern House of Assembly paid him this tribute as published in the official Proceedings. “He went to the villages, educating and mingling with the poor natives. In fact in … Division he is not known as the “Boycott King” as he is usually known; he is known as the Minister of Water … in fact he is a work man … he is more of workman than a Minister.” As Minister of Works Ojike initiated the construction of major link roads in the East the results of which we are still enjoying today.
The presentation of Ojike’s first budget as Minister of Finance earned him this unstinting praise from the Leader of the Opposition, Professor Eyo Ita: “I think we ought to be proud to see that an African minister, just come to office, is able to take the whole span of the Region’s economic field, and deal with it in the way the Minister of Finance has done. What he has achieved has been compared with the achievement of his predecessors of another race. Although that also makes us feel proud. I want us to remember that we should not only compare ourselves with people of other races but we should compare ourselves with ourselves – in other words, what we can achieve.” Another eminent opposition member, Dr. Okoi Arikpo, had this to say “ I was very impressed by the touch of realism which runs through his entire address” that tribute was significant.
One of his most significant contributions was the introduction of the “Pay As You Earn”(PAYE) system of personal taxation into the country. He also saw to the smooth and effective take-off of the African Continental Bank the first indigenous bank in Nigeria, and was largely instrumental to the successful take-off of the Easter Nigeria Development Corporation (ENDC)
Mazi Mbonu Ojike.s greatest contribution to national development was in his insistence on national mental emancipation, in his propagation of national self-awareness and pride, and in his assiduous promotion of a self-reliant strategy of national development. He encapsulated his message in the famous slogan: “Boycott all Boycottables”, which earned him the title of “The Boycott King”.
As Professor Frank Ndili, former Vice-Chancellor of this great university stated in his preface to the first book in honour of Ojike published by the Institute for Development Studies, the Boycott philosophy “epitomizes belief in one’s own abilities. Nigeria today imports ready made goods, “psychological foods”, even models, patterns of organizations and institutions from the developed countries, thereby subjecting the national economy and society to all manner of international upheavals that our present level of socio-economic development cannot sustain., Nigeria can do without a number of these imported goods and values and shift efforts towards the optimal utilization of her inert capabilities.” That statement was made 26 years ago. Today there is a lot of talk, a lot of theorizing, a lot of evangelism about globalization. And Nigeria has publicly bought into the agenda. But the fact remains that unless we know ourselves, take good cognizance of our resources and strengths, and contribute them confidently and productively to the global partnership, whether it be in the sphere of ideas or in the sphere of materials, we shall remain, as now, the underdogs in the global struggle, incurring more than our fair share of the costs and earning less than our fair share of the benefits..
The second aspect of Ojike’s message which I would like to highlight today is reflected in his thoughts on education. Student, activist, politician or businessman, Mbonu Ojike was a teacher all his life, retaining an abiding interest in education. This Hall of Residence memorialises that interest. In an earlier effort we at the Institute for Development Studies organized in his honour a series of lecture on the theme: Education for Self Reliance. The published version included excerpts on Education from his Week End Catechism. I have taken the liberty of reproducing the excerpts for this presentation. You will observe how many of our present day concerns were anticipated and dealt with by Mbonu Ojike fifty-five or more years ago.
Thus in 1949 he argued the case for free, compulsory, with government building its own schools and encouraging all others interested in educational ventures. On content, he urged that “the entire education code be revised and recast to give our youth real and dynamic education for production And creativity. He was for rejecting foreign certificates in secondary education – Cmbridge School Certificate and London Matriculation and all that, in favour of developing our own standardised certificates based on relevant education of a quality worthy of honour at home and abroad..
On higher education, he argued: We do not learn for the sake of learning, but to do some service with it to ourselves and country. For him, “the duty which a university owes to a state is three-fold:
to discover and train a large number of intellectual elites, drawn from a wide circle of the nation without discrimination.
to maintain for the communityits own God-given standard or culture, that is, a canon of taste of beauty, of truth and juastice
to advance science and philosophy by promoting research, originality, rationality and inventiveness.
He also argues that a University without nationalism is a mere waste of time.
On the theme of culture, religion and civilization, he had this to say (again this was in 1949); Africa and Europe existed before the birth of Christ. Yet in that world epoch Europe did not rule Africa, neither was Europe moiré industrialized than Africa. The stream of civilization in its philosophical and material aspects did once flow from Africa to Europe even as it did flow from Europe to America two hundred years ago” And he added, prophetically, “Today Europe is declining, America is ascending, even as Europe was before and Africa was before Europe. Asia is rising though without the menacing factors of imperialism. Africa is coming back to its former glory. It will in due course take over. Sadly’ Africa has so far failed to fulfill its destiny. We need to focus on it. There is no need for self denigration or despair, much need for vision and effort. As he said: “Change is an imperative law of nature. Its source is attitude to life in all its ramifications and not geography. th pride and morality the leadership of rthe world.”.
Ojike had a vision for our country: “When I see in our country, shops, factories, banks, universities, societies and clubs maintaining proud comparison with what they are in other countries, then if I am asked to take a bow for contributing my tiny bit towards that reality of economic stability and national identity, I shall not hesitate to do so with humility and gratitude.” Tragically, he did not live to take that bow. But his message lives, and I hope that you, his spiritual children of Mbonu Ojike Hall, and indeed all of us, will live and work to take it for him.
Today the statue of Mbonu Ojike stands as a visual reminder of his legacy and message. Look to it and remember. To encapsulate his message: there is work to be done, the work of building a prosperous, confident and self-reliant nation, and no man or woman should rest from their labours.