Michael Iheonukara Okpara: A resolute and selfless leader
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 relationship between his party, the NCNC and the then ruling Northern Peoples’ Congress (NPC).
As Premier, he promoted industrial and agricultural development 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 development 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. The party was defeated at the centre.
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.
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