When Zik, the spirit man, left Onitsha province, Awka District, to Umuahia and appointed Dr. M. I. Okpara as the premier and late Dr. Akanu Ibiam as the Govenor of Eastern Region of Nigeria, people did not have much qualms about Ibiam. After all, they said, the post of a Governor was a ceremonial one.
In the case of Okpara, some people were skeptical about his eligibility for the position of premier which was an executive position. In the first place, people did not know much about him like Dr. J. O. J. Okezie and others associated with known Zikists and die hard supporters of the great Zik of Africa.
Secondly, people said he was too fat, which they assumed had something to do with dullness, timidity and lack of leadership charisma, believing that the politics of those days called for a very agile, brave and vibrant person who had the gut to play the hot tribal Nigerian politics of the time and look at other politicians from other regions in the eye without blinking or shying away whenever the situation called for it, which qualities they thought Okpara did not possess, judging by his physical appearance.
All this while, M. I. Okpara kept his calm and this calmness seemed to give credence to what people were thinking. Could this man carry the cross left behind by the great Zik?
However, in a short while, the same people began to see the true M. I. Okpara in action as a man of courage, charisma, leadership acumen, patriotism and a leader with full Igbo blood running in his veins.
Once when late Chief Obafemi Jeremiah Awolowo came to the East for political campaign, the Aba boys threw stones at him and his entourage. The story was everywhere. The Western press was furious in condemning the action. Even the Federal Government of Alhaji Tafewa Balewa condemned it vehemently.
Before then, an event had been fixed at Ibadan where M. I. Okpara was billed to present a paper and the event was in a month’s time. The then premier of Western region, Sir Akintola, in reaction to the Aba incident, publicly warned Okpara not to set his foot in Ibadan. But M. I. Okpara would not yield to that threat.
At a stage, the NCNC leaders led a delegation to M. I. Okpara to persuade him not to go to Ibadan. But the Premier insisted. The Yoruba Press which dominated the media space shouted with sensational headlines like, “The end of Nigeria is in sight!”, “Blood will flow in Ibadan” and such screaming headlines. Even the Prime Minister, Alhaji Tafewa Balewa at a stage pleaded with Zik to go and talk to his boy.
Zik heeded the Prime Minister’s advice and met Okpara in a one hour closed-door meeting. After the meeting, Zik went back and assured the Prime Minister that M. I. Okpara had agreed to shelve his proposed trip to Ibadan. Everybody was happy and the Yoruba Press showered praises on Okpara for suspending the tour to Ibadan.
To everyone’s shock and surprise, two days later, M. I. Okpara addressed a press conference at the Enugu Lion building where he insisted on going to Ibadan. There was confusion and apprehension. Awolowo was blowing hot. Akintola was blaring hot. A foreign newspaper published a news report headline, “It’s all over for Nigeria.
At that time, the police was under the control of the regions. It was within this period that M. I. Okpara created the mobile police and gave them iron caps. Other regions were to follow his initiative later.
The D-day arrived. M. I. Okpara and his entourage entered Ibadan exactly at the time he had announced. He went straight to the Government House but the premier was not around to receive him. He dropped a message in the visitors’ book.
The funny thing was that immediately on hearing the noise of Okpara’s entourage, the police men guarding the road all ran into the bush.
At the end of the visit and M. I. Okpara returned to Enugu, the same western Press began to eulogize him for his courage and referred to him as M. I. Power. That was how Okpara got that nickname.
Very forceful and outspoken, Dr. Okpara was uncompromising on vital national issues which in 1963 led to a severe strain in relations between his party and the ruling Northern Peoples' with which the NCNC formed the country's first post-independence government. Okpara as the Nigeria’s youngest Premier, protested against the 1962-63 census, challenging the accuracy of the figures which he insisted was manipulated in favour of the North.
Today, how many of our Igbo governors can boast of this type of courage and audacity to call the bluff of their counterparts in the North and West and even the Federal government when they cross beyond reasonable bounds or when the rights of Igbos are at stake. None, sadly.
During this time, all the local roads in the Eastern region, even pathways, were well maintained by the local council ‘lebra’ (labourers) introduced by the white men. They were paid daily at the rate one penny per day while the head lebra received two pence daily. Their duty was to ensure all season maintenance of all the local roads that linked various communities.
Along the line, Green Mbadiwe and his brother F. O. Mbadiwe got a contract engagement at the Nigerian Railways Corporation for the rail road project from the East to the Kaduna and pH. In the course of the job, they made a public advert for causal labourers.
In those days, the railway corporation was one the highly coveted places to get employment because of the high pay, just like the Central bank. This had a ripple effect on the PWD casual work force which experienced a mass exodus of its casual workers to the railways.
As a counter strategy to stem the exodus, M. I. Okpara administration approved a wage increase for PWD casual workers, from the previous one penny to three pence daily pay for each labourer and nine pence for head labourers. The new wage increase was widely publicized both in the media using the popular slogan that went viral:
“Lebra toro toro a day
Onye isi nayi nayi a day”,
The wage increase achieved its purpose with instant effect as all the casual labourers that left PWD for railways rushed back to enjoy the new wage bonanza. Talk of administrative ingenuity.
Meanwhile, at the Railways, Mr F. O. Mbadiwe, the owner of the popular Dayspring Hotels Enugu and father of a former National Assembly member Hon Edie Mbadiwe was known for his stickler for standard and efficiency and labourers who proved unable to work strictly according to Federal government job standard were relieved of their duties after several corrections failed.
As a core and comic politician, M. I. Okpara saw opportunity in the railways staff layoffs to taunt his political opponents by politically reading the routine out of context in yet another slogan:
Olu akwu ugwo”,
meaning, Mbadiwe’s job, job without pay. Till today, the phrase, “Olu Mbadiwe” has become a popular usage in Igbo land to refer to people working without pay. That was M. I. Okpara for you.
Although M. I. Okpara proved himself to be a no nonsense politician that was ready to do battle with his political opponents at any battlefield of their choice, he was also the best you could find in politics without bitterness policy as could be seen in his political campaigns which were marked by lots of comic and jocose innuendos.
A story is told of how M. I. Okpara went on a campaign to Orlu and Okigwe areas from where many prominent members of the opposition party hailed from, including K. O. Mbadiwe. He decided to adopt this comic approach to charge his opponents of neglecting their people in the area of development.
There was this popular music that was reigning at the time. M. I. Okpara changed the vocals of the music to send his campaign message across.
“Obodo nine emepesigo
Ofodu Okigwe na Orlu
Ndi an’anakpo Okigwe amaghi akwukwo
This went viral and has remained familiar to this day. Talking of charisma. What an ingenious way to effectively pass on a political campaign message without name calling or castigation of political opponents. A good lesson to Igbo politicians of nowadays.
Above all, during his tenure, M. I. Okpara demonstrated full scale patriotism in Igbo affairs as captured in his unrelenting support for the Igbo Union at all levels, from the parent union to regional and town levels.
His administration not only made constant huge financial donation to the apex Igbo Union under the national leadership of late Chief Z. C. Obi, he was also at the neck of his Ministers all the time, encouraging them to attend Igbo Union meetings and urging their financial support for Igbo Union at both national level and in their respective home divisions.
M. I. Okpara’s staunch support for Igbo Union contributed immensely to making the union the most formidable tribal union in Nigeria at the time and the mouth piece of Igbos at home and the Diaspora whose word was final and incontrovertible by any other Igbo group anywhere in the world. Not today were most of the Igbo governors are attacking Ohaneze as if Ohaneze is the cause of their non performance.
For M. I. Okpara, everything about Ndigbo matters. There was this story of a power contest between the legendary Killwe Nwachukwu and Old Mohammed, a northerner at a night event organized in Zaria in which Old Mohammed was declared winner in a verdict Igbos in Zaria challenged as manipulated by the organizers, using tribal influence.
Not satisfied, the Chairman of Igbo Union in Zaria, Leonard Ihesie took the challenge to Okpara about the unfair humiliation of an Igbo brother, Killwe, and their proposal for Killwe to challenge Old Mohammed in a second leg of the contest, this time outside Zaria, in Kaduna to be precise.
Without waiting for them to finish their story, M. I. immediately provided the needed fund for the repeat contest. He also gave them money to mobilize and convey as many Igbos as possible from Zaria and environ to Kaduna to cheer Killwe to victory.
This time, the contest was held in broad day light at the Square in Central Karu ,Kaduna. Killwe not only won the contest without giving one chance to Old Mohammed but also beat two other northern challengers. Talk of patriotism.
Today, we have a different and contrary scenario where it takes a century of writing letters for an ordinary citizen to see any of the Igbo governors and where Igbo governors, with the exception of Enugu and Anambra States, look the other way when it comes to financial support to Ohaneze, including the chairman of South East governors’ forum, who, on the contrary, has consistently shown public disdain and aggressiveness towards Ohaneze and its leadership by his frequent outburst in the media against the Igbo union.
Among M. I. Okpara’s sterling leadership qualities was a combination of economic vision, industry and sense of public welfare as epitomized in his legendary agrarian and industrialization programme, unprecedented and replicated in the annals of Igbo governance.
Notwithstanding the economic attraction posed by the then thriving Coal Corporation with national headquarters in Enugu, M. I. Okpara pursued a home grown economic blueprint via agriculture and industry.
Dr. Okpara did not only talk of agriculture, he put flesh and blood into it with relentless interest and aggressive policies which culminated into a rapid social, economic and industrial transformation.
These efforts still and will remain a monumental tribute to him and many generations to come, as despite callous neglect and abandonment by successive regimes evidence of his achievements still abound.
One last line about M. I. Okpara as Igbo leader. He never owned a house of his own while he was in government. When the Nigerian Civil War ended, he went into exile in Ireland. Before his return from exile in 1979, his close associates and beneficiaries took up a collection to build him a house in his village, Umuegwu.
It is most unfortunate that successive Igbo governors of Abia, Anambra, Ebonyi, Imo, and Enugu States have yet to build upon the selfless leadership and accomplishments of Dr. Okpara. God bless his soul and give him the peace of the grave.