Michael Iheonukara Okpara was a political leader, doctor and the premier of Eastern Nigeria from 1959 to 1966. He was, at the age of 39, the nation's youngest premier.
Okpara, an Ohuhu-Igbo, was born on December 25, 1920 at Umuegweu Okpuala, Umuahia in present-day Abia State. He was one of nine children born to his father by two wives. He began his formal education in August 1927 at the local Methodist primary school a little behind his peers as his father did not initially wish for his young son to be taught by foreigners. In 1930, he moved to the Central School at Afuigiri, Umuahia and passed the entrance examination to the Methodist College in 1934. He later obtained a Mission scholarship to study medicine atYaba Higher College in Lagos.
Upon qualifying as a doctor after a five-and-a-half year course, he was posted to serve in Maiduguri, Borno State as a government medical officer. He served there for six months before the distance from home made him so homesick that he resigned to set up a private practice in Umuahia in late 1948.
He married Adanma Eyidiya in 1949 and their marriage was blessed with six children (three boys and three girls).
Okpara’s participation in politics began when he was elected secretary of the Medical Students Association, a position in which he served for two years. He also developed an interest in the Zikist Movement (named after Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe), the militant wing of the National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroons (later the National Council of Nigerian Citizens – NCNC). After rioting workers were shot by police at the Enugu coal mines in 1949, Dr Okpara was arrested for his alleged complicity in inciting the riot but was soon released. This incident led him to become a more active participant in politics with the full support of his wife.
Along with Jaja Wachukwu, he organised the New Africa Party with a view towards joining the NCNC because at that time, one could only join the NCNC from the platform of another organisation or through a divisional union. After internal self-rule was granted in 1952, he was elected into the Eastern Nigerian House of Assembly on the NCNC platform. He was a minister without a portfolio in the first government headed by Professor Eyo Ita between 1952 and 1953, a position which made it possible for him to carry on his medical practice unfettered by a heavy load of ministerial chores. He was made Minister of Health for Eastern Nigeria in 1954 and three years later headed the Ministry of Production, of which the Eastern Nigeria Development Corporation (a corporation which oversaw agriculture, industries, produce inspection and other such duties) was a part.
In 1953, when NCNC legislators revolted against the party leadership, he remained loyal and joined forces with Dr Azikiwe. In November 1960, when Dr Azikiwe became Nigeria's first indigenous 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).
Okpara was the leader of the NCNC and Premier of Eastern Nigeria during the First Republic (from 1959 to 1966). In the wake of the military coup of January 1966, he was one of the politicians who was detained, but he survived the army revolt in which the two other regional premiers (Ahmadu Bello and Samuel Ladoka Akintola) were killed. On August 4, 1966,Yakubu Gowon ordered his release from prison.
The Nigerian Civil War broke out on May 30, 1967, when Lt. Col. Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu, then the military governor of the Eastern Region, declared the independence of the Republic of Biafra from Nigeria. After the fall of Nsukka to the federal troops, many began to feel that Ojukwu needed to inject civilians into his administration. Some people close to Ojukwu pressured him into seeking advice from Okpara as they believed that he knew the region and its people very well. As at this time, Okpara was living in his village and abstaining from politics. However, the nearer the federal troops got to Enugu, the more Ojukwu was persuaded that some of the "Old Brigade" (as he referred to the First Republic politicians) ought to be drafted into the administration. Okpara eventually became Ojukwu's Special Adviser.
When the Civil War ended, he went into exile in the Republic of Ireland. Before his return in 1979, his close associates and beneficiaries took up a collection to build him a house in his village.
Okpara’s records were most remarkable in the ministries of agriculture and health. As the head of the Ministry of Agriculture, his reforms led to a considerable reduction in the cost of food. A strong advocate of what he termed “pragmatic socialism,” Okpara reasoned that Nigeria’s salvation hinged on agricultural revolution. To this end, he acquired and managed a large farm in his home town, which inspired many Eastern Nigerian leaders to follow suit. He laid the groundwork for the establishment of farm settlements where young men and women were trained to become modern farmers. This led to setting up of many farm estates such as the Colaro and Qua Falls estates in Cross River State. Food was so plentiful that Eastern Nigeria was able to export three million pounds worth of rice during his ministry. As head of the Ministry of Health, he was able to eradicate yaws and leprosy and also built new hospitals.
He also played a significant role in the industrialisation of Enugu (Eastern Nigeria’s government seat), Port Harcourt, Calabar, Aba and Umuahia. He also championed the educational and infrastructural development of Eastern Nigeria.
Honours and Legacy
Places and institutions named after him include Michael Okpara Way in Abuja; the Michael Okpara University of Agriculture in Umudike, Abia; Okpara Square in Enugu; and the Michael Okpara College of Agriculture in Imo State (now known as Imo State Polytechnic). He was made a Grand Commander of the Order of the Niger (Nigeria's highest honour) in 1964 in recognition of his services to the nation. There is also a statue of him in Enugu.
Okpara died on December 17, 1984.