We had earlier shifted our search light from the above discourse for some time now for other pressing national issues, the most prevalent of which have been the vex issues of restructuring, self-determination, the acting president’s capacity to act fully in office like president, Presidential Advisory Committee Against Corruption(PACAC), serial somersault and EFCC’s bastardisation of our individual and collective civil rights and liberties. Today, we shall beam our searchlight on one of Nigeria’s great nationalist, Dr. Michael Okpara.
Michael Iheonukara Okpara
One of Nigerian’s titans of nationalism is Michael Iheonukara Okpara (25th of December, 1920 – 17th December, 1984). He was leader of NCNC and Premier of Eastern Nigeria during the First Republic, from 1959 to 1966. At 39, he was the nation’s youngest premier. He was a strong advocate of what he called “pragmatic socialism” and believed that agricultural reform was crucial to the ultimate success of Nigeria.
Michael Okpara, an Ohuhu-Igbo, was born in December, 1920, at Umuahia, in present-day Abia State. Although he was the son of a labourer, he was able to attend mission schools and later went to Uzuakoli Methodist College, where he won a scholarship to study medicine at Yaba Higher College, Lagos. Completing his medical studies at the Nigerian School of Medicine, he worked briefly as a government medical officer before returning to Umuahia to set up a private practice.
While involved in his practice, he developed an interest in the Zikist Movement (named after Nnamdi Azikiwe), a militant wing of the NCNC. After rioting workers were shot by police at the Enugu coal mines in 1949, Okpara was arrested for his alleged complicity in inciting the riot, but soon released. Upon attainment of internal self-rule in 1952, he was elected into the Eastern Nigerian House of Assembly on the NCNC platform. Between 1952 and 1959, he held various cabinet positions in Eastern Nigeria, ranging from Minister of Health to Minister of Agriculture and Production.
In 1953, when NCNC legislators revolted against the party leadership, he remained loyal and joined forces with Azikiwe. In November 1960, when Azikiwe left active politics to become Nigeria’s first African Governor-General, Okpara was elected leader of the NCNC. His outspoken manner led to a severe strain in relations between his party and the ruling Northern People’s Congress (NPC). Although Okpara was one of the politicians detained soon after the military coup of January, 1966, he survived the army revolt, in which two other premiers were killed (Ahmadu Bello and Akintola).
Okpara believed that Nigeria’s salvation depended on a revolution in agriculture. To this end, he acquired and managed a large farm in his hometown, called Umuegwu Okpuala Mixed Farms, which inspired many Eastern Nigerian leaders to follow suit. He also championed the educational and infrastructural development of Eastern Nigeria.
As written copiously by Professor Barth Nnaji, a former Minister of Power, though he trained in medicine, Dr. Okpara was, for all practical purposes, a social engineer. He recognized that a successful agricultural revolution was inevitable in order to provide foodstuff, cash crops and immense employment for the people.
He was convinced that an agrarian revolution would provide foreign exchange and raw materials needed by industries for the manufacture of a wide range of modern products in the newly independent nation. He awarded generous scholarships to many young men and women, studying agricultural sciences and agricultural engineering in local and overseas institutions. As the late Dr. Pius Okigbo, Africa’s most decorated economist, used to remind us all, every industrial revolution had been preceded by an agrarian revolution. Inspired by the example of Israel, which became a major food exporter no sooner than it was established as a nation in 1948, despite the fact that the country is a natural swath of desert, Dr. Okpara sought Israeli assistance in such key agric projects as the establishment of farm settlements, which turned out hugely successful within a short period.
The Western Nigerian government, led by Chief Samuel Ladoke Akintola, was to borrow a leaf from Dr. Okpara by introducing farm settlements in its region with, of course, Israeli help. Indeed, Malaysia, one of the world’s biggest exporters of palm produce (Nigeria also imports from her), was said to have originally taken their palm kernel from Okpara’s Eastern Region.
Thought for the week
“We, the People, recognize that we have responsibilities as well as rights; that our destinies are bound together; that a freedom which only asks what’s in it for me, a freedom without a commitment to others, a freedom without love or charity or duty or patriotism, is unworthy of our founding ideals, and those who died in their defense” –Barack Obama.