The amalgamation of the Northern and Southern protectorates of Nigeria in 1914 brought together an array of ethnic groups, languages and cultures under one unified nation. Nigerians and Africans alike yearned to represent themselves in the form of independence from colonialism: the right to self rule and the sovereignty of their land. The British colonial authority saw it best to divide Nigeria into regions in which a parliamentary system was adopted. Northern, Western and Eastern regions were thus created. They not only housed the three main ethnic groups of Nigeria – Hausa-Fulani, Yoruba and Igbo – but also functioned as largely autonomous entities. The abrupt end of the regional governance by the military coup of 1966 was followed by the Nigerian civil war 1967-1970, itself leading to successive military governments. Such events cast a shadow over the history of the early Nigerian state. The independence movement was therefore fought on many fronts. Throughout the trials and instability, common in post-colonial Africa, this article follows the lives and achievements of three heroes of independence, nationalism and Nigeria.

Chief Jeremiah Obafemi Awolowo, March 6, 1909 – May 9, 1987

Chief Jeremiah Obafemi Awolowo revolutionized the political terrain of not only his constituency of Western Nigeria, but Nigeria as a whole. Chief Awolowo, popularly shorthanded to Awo by the masses, began life from the humblest of beginnings. A native of the Yoruba ethnic group from Ikenne, Ogun state in south-west Nigeria, Chief Awolowo was born into a family of farmers. The political beginnings of Chief Awolowo came to the fore through the important roles he played in the organisation of the Nigerian Traders Association and the Nigerian Motor Transport Union in the latter years of the 1930s. Chief Awolowo innately disliked the then state of workers' rights in Nigeria and would become a pioneer in the labour rights field, co-founding the Trade Union Congress (TUC) of Nigeria in 1943.

Chief Awolowo became a driving force in the political gathering of Yoruba leaders, leading to the emergence of a political party known as ‘The Action Group'. The Action Group would go on to win the Western Region House of Assembly elections in 1951. Chief Awolowo displayed his immense character and dexterity by handling numerous sensitive positions within the assembly, and with the introduction of a new constitution he became the first premier of the region from 1952-1960. Awolowo's main political theories were channelled through the ideals of state resources being used diligently for people-oriented projects. The main onus lay in infrastructural development, agriculture and education. As premier of the Western region, Chief Awolowo implemented a 'free education for all' scheme up to secondary school level, alongside free healthcare up to 18 years of age. The major reshuffling of the Western region's civil service he oversaw created an effective team of administrators which led to the region's prosperity. The Western region's mass investment in education and agriculture helped the region to surpass others in terms of economic development and acted as an example of 'good governance'.

Successive military coups and the Nigerian civil war resulted in the adoption of a federal political system which consisted of states rather than regions, and which brought about the end of the Western region. Chief Awolowo still maintained a nationalist outlook with the floating of the Unity Party of Nigeria (UPN), yet failed to get the backing of other non-Yoruba states of the Federation in the 1979 and 1983 elections. Other groundbreaking achievements initiated by Chief Awolowo include the creation of Western Nigeria Television (WNTV) in 1959, which would hold the title as the first television station in Africa. He also led the construction of the Liberty stadium, the first purpose-built stadium in sub-Saharan Africa, and Cocoa House, the first sky scraper south of the Sahara. The legacy of the futuristic foresight of a leader like Chief Awolowo till date is still harked upon by the masses. The leader of the secessionist civil war state of Biafra, Chukwuemeka Ojukwu, referred to Chief Awolowo as the best president Nigeria never had.

Al-Hajji Sir Ahmadu Bello June 12, 1910 – January 15, 1966

Al-Hajji Sir Ahmadu Bello was the voice of Northern Nigeria before and after the country's struggle for independence. Born into a Northern aristocratic family in Sokoto, Northern Nigeria, his lineage was one of immense historical weight. His great-grandfather founded the powerful and expansionist Sokoto Emirate and was the son of Usman Dan Fodio, the revered Islamic scholar who led the Fulani Jihad in the early 1800's. Sir Bello received his earliest forms of education in the Northern region states of Sokoto and Katsina. In 1938 after an unsuccessful attempt to become the new Sultan of Sokoto he was conferred with the honorary title of Sardauna, which then allowed him to take court at the highly influential native authority council. Shortly after his return from studying abroad, he was elected as Sokoto's representative in the regional house of assembly. In a time of political intrigues and bridge-building across the nation, the Northern region remained somewhat factionalized and with this traditional approach not much could have been achieved. With the size of the Northern region greater than double that of the Western and Eastern regions combined, the unification of the factions solidified the hold of the north over all others. This was the ideology behind the Sardauna policy of consultation and the consensus among the power brokers and elite of the northern emirate states.

In the 1954 Northern region elections the Sardauna was unanimously chosen as the first premier of Nigeria's Northern region. The creation of the Northern People's Congress (NPC) culminated in an active and virile political party with the sole objective of consolidating the gains of Bello's dream of a politically unified Northern Nigeria. Under his leadership the master plan for the development of the Northern regions were drawn out. Such institutions that still stand until this day include the New Nigeria Development Company (NNDC), the New Nigerian newspaper and Radio Kaduna.

As Premier of the Northern region Bello's political theory on development did not waiver, and his legacy has cemented his name in the history of not only Northern Nigeria, but the entire country. The diverse nature of Northern inhabitants were collectively brought under one banner for the first time, which was coupled with educational reforms that challenged the high illiteracy rates of the north. The modernisation and development of state structures were accelerated to forestall slipping further behind the south in terms of developmental inequality. The military coup of January 1966 brought about the end of Northern regional government, which was followed by the assassination of prominent political leaders around the country. The life of the Northern political colossus was brought to an abrupt end, yet his memory still remains in the minds of many. Sir Ahmadu Bello is recognized as being one of the founding fathers of modern-day Nigeria and the champion of Northern political interests.

Benjamin Nnamdi Azikiwe November 16, 1904 – May 11, 1996

The fostering of nationalism within countries' borders can bring together people under a collective banner. Such banners only reach a level of real meaning if hoisted by someone of strength, heart and true integrity. All such qualities were exhibited by the Nigerian independence hero and the father of modern Nigerian nationalism, Nnamdi Azikiwe, popularly known as 'Zik'. A member of the Igbo ethnic group of Eastern Nigeria, Zik was born in Zungeru, Northern Nigeria. His father, a clerk for the British administration, instilled in him the drive for education and success. Azikie, after formative educational training in Nigeria, attended university in the UK and US from 1930 to 1933.

The pre-independence struggle was fought on many platforms, yet the most effective form of dissidence was displayed on the pages of newspapers. Azikiwe went to Lagos in 1937 and founded a West African newspaper which he used as a vehicle to promote not only Nigerian nationalism, but also a pan-Africanist agenda. Azikiwe also used the platform to criticise African elites for their continued culpability and acceptance of the suppression of African citizens.

The rise of a Nigerian political movement would not leave Azikiwe in its wake, and this brought about the creation of the ‘National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroons' (NCNC). Azikiwe co-founded the NCNC alongside a notable nationalist and independence hero, Herbert Macaulay. The NCNC as a political force maintained its strong roots in the Igbo-dominated east of the country which led to Azikiwe's rise to the premiership of Nigeria's Eastern region in 1954. He would embed his philosophy on African liberation - referred to as ‘Zikism' - and its five concepts around the continent, heralding it as the best possible solution for Africa's movement towards freedom. Spiritual balance, social regeneration, economic determination, mental emancipation and political resurgence would be its tenets. Azikiwe undertook the role of Premier of the Eastern region alongside his unrepentant dream of an independent Nigeria with the zeal that would see him adorn the title ‘The Great Zik of Africa'.

Upon the realization of the independence dream in 1960, Azikiwe was named Governor General of Nigeria, and with the proclamation of the republic in 1963 he would become the first president of the state of Nigeria. Azikiwe gained the respect and admiration of all those he encountered, including Queen Elizabeth II, who awarded him the title in 1963 of privy councillor to the Queen of England. The airport in the Nigerian capital of Abuja is named after him alongside the main sports stadium in Enugu, eastern Nigeria. The 500 Naira currency note also displays his image. The military coup of 1966 led to a prolonged period of social and political instability which reduced the powers of not only Azikwe but also his fellow independence contemporaries. Azikiwe contested the presidential elections as the candidate of the Nigerian People's Party (NPP) in 1979 and 1983 but failed on both occasions, leading to his retirement from active politics in 1986. The verve, endeavour and dedication he displayed throughout his life for Nigerian liberation shall not be forgotten.

Nigeria's entrance into the league of sovereign nations was not solely marshalled by Bello, Awolowo and Azikiwe. One must not forget the roles that others played, including Chief TOS Benson, Mallam Aminu Kano and Chief SL Akintola, to name but a few in the struggle for a free Nigeria. The fight was one that carried a whole nation forward, enabling all groups irrespective of ethnicity or creed to work towards moving the nation forward. Though testing historical events that have threatened to derail the project of Nigeria, the country still holds together. The dreams of the three premiers may not have materialised to their fullest extent in terms of economic development and the existence of a fully cohesive, hybrid nationhood, but the hopes and dreams imagined and, in part, consolidated by them inspire and raise the hope for a better tomorrow.