From Magnus Eze, Enugu
What happened in Abuja, the nation’s capital last Thursday, June 3, at the centenary celebrations of Dr Michael Iheonukara Okpara, former Premier of the defunct Eastern Region, was a good way of reliving the man fondly called “M.I. Power.”
Okpara was member, Eastern Nigerian House of Assembly on the ticket of the National Council of Nigerian Citizens (NCNC). He replaced Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe as Premier of the region and served in that capacity from November 1959 to January 1966.
A native of Umuegwu-Okpuola, Afugiri, Umuahia North Local Government Area, in present day Abia State, Okpara died in December 1984. But 55 years after he left office and almost 40 of his demise, Okpara’s legacies are yet to be equalled.
It was praises galore as the galaxy dignitaries who thronged the venue took time to eulogise the former premier at a three-pronged event consisting of leadership awards, book presentation and lecture.
Minister of Science and Technology, Dr Ogbonnaya Onu; former Senate President, Dr Bukola Saraki; former governors of Imo and Abia states Rochas Okorocha, and Theodore Orji; Chairman, United Nigeria Airlines, Dr Obiora Okonkwo; former chairman, Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC), Chief Onyema Ugochukwu; Minister of State for Solid Minerals Development, Dr Uche Ogah; Managing Director of Nigerian Inland Waterways Authority (NIWA), Dr George Moghalu and Sen. Sylvester Anyanwu led the pack.
Uzodimma, son of the former premier said one of the outstanding achievements of their patriarch was what he did in the area of economic development by harnessing the agriculture potential of the region; “Truth is that the occasion was not enough to list Okpara’s achievements in the defunct Eastern Region consisting of present day Abia, Anambra, Ebonyi, Enugu and Imo states in the South East and Akwa Ibom, Bayelsa, Cross River, and Rivers states in the South-South. His creative and visionary leadership at the period made that part of the country the fastest growing economy in the world.”
Daily Sun gathered that the Okpara administration adopted leading technologies in crop science, animal husbandry and food processing with the goal of creating value chains to ensure sustainability. Little wonder the region was self-sufficient in food production and sought markets for her agricultural products in other parts of the country and beyond.
In the area of development of grains, particularly rice, the region’s agrarian revolution under the Okpara premiership turned rice, which hitherto was exclusive to the rich, into a major staple of the region.
Renowned economist, Dr Pius Okigbo, had explained that Okpara’s administration invested substantial resources in the expansion of rice production in Abakaliki and other parts of the region boosted by the development of milling facilities that by 1965, Abakaliki had become the main rice processing centre in Nigeria handling massive deliveries from rice cultivating communities from other regions.
In livestock development, his primary focus was on poultry farming and to a lesser degree, pig farming. By 1962, Eastern Nigeria was relatively self-sufficient in poultry meat with substantial surpluses of eggs leading to the government policy of one egg per person, per day.
The Okpara government’s approach to development was arguably most pronounced in its industrial development agenda. As Okigbo explained, government had developed sector-specific industrial clusters in the region’s major cities.
For instance, the government invested in a number of industries organized around construction and building– corrugated iron sheets (Port Harcourt); asbestos roofing sheets, ceiling boards and pipes (Enugu); metal door and window frames (Port Harcourt); bricks (Umuahia) and door mats (Aba). It also encouraged private companies to go into household materials and decoration such as mattresses, metal and wooden furniture.
Onu who chaired the event said: “Michael Okpara was a gift from God to the people of the old Eastern Region. He built long lasting infrastructure. Politicians should emulate him. He was selfless. He was a committed patriot who loved his people. Nigeria is in search of heroes like the late premier.”
In his keynote address, Saraki said Okpara was one of the greatest leaders Nigeria ever produced, describing the agricultural programme of the defunct Eastern Region under the former premier as most ambitious. Represented by his former Chief of Staff, Ladi Hassan, he said:
“We need more individuals in our public service like Sir. Michael Okpara, who had foresight; we need leaders that seek solutions to the pressing issues of the day.
“We need men and women in positions of influence, who approach governance with a clear vision; a sign of unwavering courage to do what is right; and the clarity of thought and accuracy in action to develop policies and execute them to better the lives of our people; all our people.
“I emphasize on ‘all our people’ because we must see development as a holistic undertaking that requires hands at all levels to be on deck. The true litmus test of the Nigerian spirit in our leaders must be the ability to see every area in Nigeria as one’s own constituency regardless of where one originally comes from.”
The guest speaker, Okonkwo, spoke on “The Quest for a new Nigeria: The Michael Okpara leadership model.” Okonkwo who is an aspirant in the November 6, 2021, Anambra State governorship election. He said he would replicate the Okpara magic and possibly do more if elected:
“I am fired by the zeal to change the narrative on Anambra State and the South East. Our people seem entrapped. They seek a new leadership; one that will inspire them to do more for themselves and their various communities.
“In offering myself for the service of Anambra state and its people, I have decided to sacrifice personal comfort, roll my sleeves and dirty my hands to build on the legacies that Dr Okpara left behind. It is therefore for me, a call to serve the people of Anambra State in particular and Nigeria at large.
“That is why my mission philosophy is encapsulated in the words, ‘…maka ilu olu oma. Olu Oma,’ which means to do the good work. It is designed to comfort all citizens of Anambra. It will be government that is creative, purposeful, led with courage and driven by sharpened administrative skills, intelligence and experience.” Two other important aspects of the event was the presentation of two books: “Lessons in Leadership-The Story of Michael Okpara” and “Okpara-nomics”, written by Okigbo; and the unveiling of the proposed Okpara Leadership Centre.
Abia State Government made a donation of N40million towards the realization of the centre, just as the chief launcher, Dr Godwin Maduka, donated N50million.
It also featured awards presentation. Recipients included Sen. T.A Orji, Saraki, Obiora Okonkwo and two other governorship aspirants from Anambra State, Dr Maduka and Moghalu.
Others were Ekiti State Governor Kayode Fayemi, his Bayelsa counterpart, Duoye Diri; Minister of State for Power, Goddy Jedy-Agba, Minister of State for Mines and Steel Development, Dr Uche Ogah, Chief Ikechi Emenike and Prof Ofo Iwe, Vice Chancellor of the Michael Okpara University of Agriculture Umudike.
Maduka said he felt highly honoured to be considered as philanthropist of the millennium. He explained that he keyed into the project immediately it was brought to his notice because of his respect for the man Okpara whom he said was a legend.
Publisher of Verbatim Magazine, Tobs Agbaegbu, who headed the event organizing committee, said it was intended to keep the legacies of Okpara alive and as a way of making Nigeria’s leaders take after the departed icon.
A veteran journalist and indigene of Ohuhu community in Umuahia, Abia State, Okpara’s home town, Dr Emeka Nwosu, expressed joy that their illustrious son was being celebrated even long after his death.