Kenneth Dike (1917-1983) was an African historian noted for setting up the Nigerian National Archives and for serving as roving ambassador for Biafra during Eastern Nigeria's bid for secession.
Kenneth Onwuka Dike was born December 17, 1917, in Awka, (East Central) Nigeria. He attended Dennis Memorial grammar school in nearby Onitsha and went on later to first Achimota College in Ghana and then to Fourah Bay College in Sierra Leone. He received his Bachelor of Science degree at the University of Durham, England. His M.A. degree was from the University of Aberdeen in Scotland, and he earned his Ph.D. in history from the University of London.
As both historian and leader of the University of Ibadan's post-graduate school in Nigeria, Dike is said to have "Nigerianized Nigerian history" (Michael Crowder). Through his work, he gave the world an understanding of the way trade was carried out along the Niger river and in the Niger Delta during the 19th century. Perhaps Dike's best known book is Trade and Politics in the Niger Delta 1830-1890 (1956). In this work, Dike examined the "detailed process by which the existing native governments were gradually supplanted by British consular power and following it the Crown Colony administration." The work, based on his doctoral dissertation, looked at how economic change affected the political and social life of 19th century Nigeria. The 1950s proved to have been Dike's most productive scholarly years—preceding his university administrative career and later political activity in the interest of an independent Biafra.
In 1953 his Report on the Preservation and Administration of Historical Records in Nigeria was published. This work had to do with setting up the Nigerian National Archives which he later served as director. In this same documentation and preservation vein, Dike served for a time as well as chair of the Nigerian Antiquities Commission. Then in 1957 A Hundred years of British Rule in Nigeria appeared, followed in 1958 by The Origins of the Niger Mission.
From 1960 until late 1966 Dike was vice-chancellor at Ibadan—i.e., he was that university's chief administrative officer. Prior to assuming that post he had been director of the Institute of African Studies at Ibadan in addition to being director of the National Archives. His combined administrative/academic skills also led to his appointment as chair of the Association of Commonwealth Universities.
His resignation as Ibadan's vice-chancellor came in December 1966, at the beginning of the Nigerian civil war. As an Ibo and an Easterner, his role as a head university administrator in Western Nigeria became untenable. A long struggle to keep his position was lost to a Yoruba opponent, and Dike made the critical decision at that point to opt for "a new life in an independent Eastern state" (John de St. Jorre). Dike joined fellow Ibo people in Eastern Nigeria who were seeking secession and to form a separate nation. This new nation was to be called Biafra, named for the Bight of Biafra at the mouth of the Niger river. The name of this body of water separating the eastern and western parts of Nigeria has since been erased from maps of the reunified nation.
From Ibadan Dike, as a former vice-chancellor, went home to become Biafra's roving ambassador. He acted in this capacity from 1967 to 1970, travelling extensively and speaking out on behalf of the Biafran position in the civil conflict. In 1969 he appeared in the United States before the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. His remarks during this visit were quoted widely in a Washington Post article entitled "Biafra explains its case" (April 13, 1969). Dike proved to be one of Biafra's top emissaries. He was a visible and important component in negotiations at various stages throughout the conflict. His voice rang out loudly pleading for Biafran recognition. During the war years he held a new post as vice-chancellor at Nsukka University in Biafran territory. Nsukka was known for hosting a core group of "international stars of the Ibo elite" referred to as an "Nsukka secessionist group" (de St. Jorre).
By 1968 Dike's position with regard to Biafra had become unshakable. Prior to that time Eastern Nigerian attempts to achieve a loose confederation with the West had his support. These overtures, however, had been rebuffed by the West. As a result, Dike felt that "after so much sacrifice we are not prepared to go back…." Biafra's eventual and necessary unconditional surrender was certainly a blow to this determined intellectual. Still, during the final days of the secession effort he served as Biafra's representative at cease-fire negotiations in Abidjan, Ivory Coast.
During the postwar years, in the 1970s, Dike went into exile and took up an academic position at Harvard University in the United States. At Harvard from 1971 to 1973 he was chair of the Committee on African Studies. Then in 1973 he was appointed the first Mellon Professor of African History at Harvard. He continued to teach there until 1978, when he found it possible to return to Nigeria.
Back in Nigeria he again went into administrative work, this time as president of Anambra State University. Anambra is located in Enugu in the Eastern part of the reunited nation northeast of his birthplace, Awka. Dike was accompanied by his wife Ona when he returned to Nigeria. Dike died in an Enugu hospital on October 26, 1983, at the age of 65. At the time of his death, one daughter, Nneka, and one son, Emeka, lived in Nigeria's capital city, Lagos, on the Western coast. Three other children (two daughters, Chinwe and Ona, and one son, Obi) remained in the United States, in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
There is no published biography of Kenneth Dike. His historical work is quoted and used widely in Michael Crowder's The Story of Nigeria (1973), published in London by Faber and Faber. The books mentioned in this biographical article, particularly his Trade and Politics in the Niger Delta 1830-1890 (London, 1956), are available in many university libraries in the United States. Readers interested in Dike's role as a Biafran emissary may read of him in Raph Uwechue's Reflections on the Nigerian Civil War (1971); in N. U. Akpan's The Struggle for Secession 1966-1970 (London, 1971); and in John de St. Jorre's book The Nigerian Civil War (London, 1972). □