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Numerous political pundits have analysed the pace of development in Igbo land in the context of the first republic politics while giving kudos and lambasting successive administrations and their achievements in the Southeast geopolitical zone in the last six decades.
Nowadays, many Igbos have made a lot of comparative references to the first six years of Nigeria’s independence to the 54 subsequent years following. Their reason for the comparison are the physical structures, human capacity building, and economic progress and prosperity recorded in the First Republic under the Late Dr. Michael Okpara as the premier of the then Eastern Region. He has been credited with laying a solid foundation and creating a template development agenda for the region which then covered part of the existing South-South states, excluding Edo and Delta states.
Indeed, many individuals have claimed that the most remarkable period for the Igbo in the last 60 years of Nigeria as a sovereign entity was under Okpara because of his monumental projects scattered all over the region. He built many farm settlements in the present Southeast and South-South geo-political zones. He also excelled in different fronts, including commerce and industry. For example, he built the Hotel Presidential in Enugu and Port Harcourt; established oil palm and cashew plantations in the present South-East and South-South zones, as well as established Nigergas, Nigercem, Niger Floor mill in Enugu, among others.
Michael Iheonukara Okpara, known as M.I. Power on the political scene, held sway from 1959 to 1966. Aside being an advocate of what he called pragmatic socialism, he also strongly believed that investing in agriculture is key to Nigeria’s development. At 39, he was the nation-state’s youngest premier.
Born on December 25, 1920 at Ohuhu in Umuahia, Abia State, Okpara attended Mission Schools and later Uzuakoli Methodist College before going to Yaba Higher College, Lagos, to study medicine on scholarship. Completing his studies, he worked briefly as a civil servant before going into private practice. While practising medicine, he developed an interest in the Zikist Movement — a militant wing of the National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroons (NCNC). After the 1949 coal mines riot that led to the shooting and killing of some miners by the police at Enugu coal mines, Okpara and other members of Zikist Movement were arrested for inciting the miners to riot and later released. This action made Okpara popular, and with the granting of self-rule in 1952, he was elected into the Eastern Nigerian House of Assembly on the platform of the NCNC. Between 1952 and 1959, he held various cabinet positions in the Region, including Minister without portfolio, Minister of Health, Minister of Agriculture and Production, among others.
In 1953, when NCNC legislators revolted against the party’s leadership, he remained loyal to Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe and helped to keep the party united. In 1959, when Azikiwe resigned as Premier of the Eastern Region to become the Governor-General, Okpara became the leader of NCNC and presided over the Eastern Region from 1960 to 1966, when the military took over the government. He was one of the two Regional Premiers that were not killed in the coup. Powerful and outspoken, Okpara was uncompromising on vital national issues. His stand on some national issues in 1963 led to the severance of the relationship between his party, the NCNC, and the then ruling Northern Peoples’ Congress (NPC).
As Premier, he promoted industrial and agricultural developments of his region and protested against the 1962-63 census, challenging the accuracy of the figures. He believed that the country’s development lies in the agricultural revolution and did not only own large farms in his hometown but also encouraged people to go into large scale farming. He also championed the educational and infrastructural developments of his region. Okpara was the leader of the United Progressive Grand Alliance (UPGA) — a coalition of NCNC and Action Group (AG) formed in 1964. He worked with Ojukwu after the declaration of the Republic of Biafra and left for Ireland after the war.
In 1978, he returned to the country and became a member of the National Party of Nigeria (NPN). He died on December 17, 1984 in his village, Umuegwu Okpuala in Abia State. It is alleged that while in government, he never owned a house. But before his return from exile in 1978, his close associates and beneficiaries built a house for him in his village. He was a member of the Royal Academy of Physicians of Great Britain and in 1964, was honoured with the Grand Commander of the Order of the Niger (GCON), one of Nigeria’s highest honours in recognition of his services to the country.
Streets, roads, squares, and tertiary institutions have been named after him in some states across the country. His statues are erected in some important places in Enugu and Abia States.
It is in recognition of the immense contribution of Okpara to the economic growth and development of the areas that most Nigerians especially Igbos speak glowingly of his tenure as the premier of the defunct Eastern Region in the First Republic. But quite sadly, successive regimes, beginning from the military regimes to the civilian dispensations have not been able to raise the bar of good governance set by Dr. Michael Okpara. Apart from Chief Jim Nwobodo and Chief Sam Mbakwe, the then governors of old Anambra and Imo states, respectively, no other Igbo leader has been able to match up to the agricultural revolution and the economic revitalisation bars set by Dr. Michael Okpara. Corruption, greed, and nepotism has eaten so deep into the bones of leadership in the Southeastern region.
Some have also argued that Michael Okpara’s era was during the era of regionalism where every region was in charge of their own development which is why there was much more socio-economical development during those periods as compared to the present times. Okpara used proceeds from palm oil to develop East; Chief Obafemi Awolowo used cocoa to develop West, while Ahmadu Bello used groundnut to develop the North.
On the whole, a number of Igbos believe that they gained more in the First Republic more than other periods in the history of Nigeria as an independent nation because the First Republic gave them a lot of exposure and opportunities. For instance, Dr. Jaja Wachukwu was made the Minister of External Affairs; Dr. Aja Nwachukwu was the Minister of Education, Dr. Nwafor Orinzu was the Senate President, while Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe was the president of the country. However, some individuals still believed that the Igbo got those key positions based on merit and not through any form of concession by anybody.
Nevertheless, one cannot argue that under Dr. Michael Okpara’s leadership, the Eastern region underwent tremendous growth. There was a will to strive and success was measured by how hard a man worked, political positions were given on pure merit and leaders always strove to outdo each other’s achievements. The current leaders in Igbo land should try to emulate Dr. Michael Okpara’s political expertise in economic development and political rebranding. This is the panacea that Igbo land needs to regain its past glory of being the envy of other regions.
THE EASTERN UPDATES