ATTEMPT AT AN ANSWER – by Dr. S. Okechukwu Mezu
They lived in different times and clime. Dr. Michael Okpara was the Premier of Eastern Nigeria (Today’s South-Eastern states (Imo, Anambra, Abia, Enugu, Ebonyi) and parts of South-South states (Rivers, Akwa Ibom and Cross Rivers). He was not elected but chosen over Barrister R. Amanze Njoku and Prof. Eyo Ita and leader of NCNC in the Eastern House of Assembly by Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe who was heading back to the national scene Lagos preparatory to the Independence of Nigeria. The headquarters of Eastern Nigeria was at Enugu. There were initially three regions – Eastern Nigeria, Western Nigeria and Northern Nigeria. A fourth Region was added later Mid-Western Nigeria comprising present Delta, Edo and Bayelsa states more or less. Nigeria during Dr. Michael Okpara’s time was a Federation and the Regions could exercise almost the full powers of a nation with the exclusion of non-concurrent powers like Defense & Police Affairs, External Affairs, etc.) Each Region depended mostly on internally generated revenue – East Nigeria on Palm Oil, Western Nigeria on Cocoa, Northern Nigeria on Groundnuts and their pyramids.
Dr. Michael Okpara was a strong, able, astute leader and more confrontational than Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe, the former Premier, who handed over to him to become Governor later ceremonial President of Nigeria following Independence on October 1, 1960. Dr. Michael Okpara set up Adapalm which helped fund the establishment of the University of Nigeria at Nsukka, a Land grant institution modelled on the US Michigan State University system. It successfully challenged the University of Ibadan (formerly University College of Ibadan (UCI) then with Prof. Kenneth Dike as the Principal/President and Dr.E.C. Edoziem and the Dean of the College of Medicine. Michael Okpara’s government set up among other industries Golden Guinea Breweries in Umuahia (Independence Brewery) one of the first in the country, Ceramics Industry, Umuahia. He and his colleagues Dr. Akanu Ibiam – Governor of Eastern Nigeria – (Afikpo), Prof. Eyo Ita (Calabar) Barrister R. Amanze Njoku (Emekuku), Dr. Jaja Nwachukwu (Ngwa), Justice C. J. Mbanefo (Onitsha) to mention a few ran a government of skilled intellectuals and professionals unlike today where touts and rabble-rousers dominate. They set up Government Colleges in Enugu, Owerri, Afikpo and Umuahia with the highest of standards and competition. Life was simple, food was abundant and cheap and farming was the main employer and the population was mostly rural. Under this regime, people were healthier and better than they are today. In the urban areas. where there was light, Electricity Corporation of Nigeria (ECN), it was steady, regular and reliable. The Post Office was efficient and mail from Nigeria to the United States was delivered reliably in one week to ten days. Scholarships to colleges and the Universities were provided to the few students then accommodated on the basis of excellence and need both on the Divisional, Provincial and Regional level. Dr. Michael Okpara supported General Ojukwu during the Biafra War, though during the end he genuinely disagreed (not openly) with the drafting of young, unprepared and poorly equipped Biafrans to the war front where some were mowed down by the better equipped Nigerian troops oiled and well-supplied by Britain and the Soviet Union.But unlike Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe who defected to Nigeria, Dr. Okpara stayed with Biafra till the end and went on Diplomat missions for Biafra to France, Ivory Coast, Tanzania and Zambia whose governments Dr. Okpara heavily supported and funded during their struggle for independence. Dr. Okpara went into exile after the war and returned to Imo state before the 1979 elections. The roads in Eastern Nigeria were narrow, reasonably good then but lined on both sides by Oil Bean (Ugba) trees. Most were not macadamized but borrow pit earthwork maintained by a hard-working and dedicated crew of men each locally employed and assigned basically to each one mile of dirt road to fill pot holes and cut gutters to facilitate drainage and the run-off of water.
The regime of Dr. Michael Okpara was cut short by the coup d-etat of January 15, 1966 master-minded by Major Chukwuma Kaduna Nzeogwu, a brave, nationalistic and uncompromisingly ascetic first class soldier in thought, word and deed. During this coup the Premier of Northern Nigeria (Sir Ahmadu Bello), Prime Minister of Nigeria (Tafawa Balewa), Minister of Finance (Festus Okotie Eboh), Premier of Western Nigeria (S. L. Akintola) were killed amongst others. Dr. Michael Okpara was spared to the consternation of the rest of the country. General T. Aguiyi Ummunnakwe Ironsi, the most Senior Army Officer, and Igbo man, became President of Nigeria until the counter-coup that brought Colonel Gowon to power on July 29, 1966 and led to the killing of high ranking Igbo officers and Aguiyi Ironsi and his brave host Colonel Fajuyi as well as the pogrom and massacre of thousands of Igbo men, women and children in Northern Nigeria. The Civil War brought a concentration of power in the hands of central government of the “Federation” of Nigeria especially with the creation initially of twelve (12) states out of the existing four regions and more so with the establishment of the present thirty-six (36) states in the country.
Whereas Premier Michael Okpara ruled a larger group Eastern Nigeria at a time of peace and relative non-oil prosperity with some agitation then for the creation of Calabar-Ogoja-Rivers (COR) State, Samuel Onunaka Mbakwe was elected Governor of the Greater Imo State carved out of the then East Central State and comprising of today’s Imo State, Abia State and parts of Ebonyi state (Afikpo and Ohaozara). Mbakwe took office after the marvelous rehabilitation of several schools by the East Central State Government of Colonel Ochefu, the creation of a wonderful master-plan for the Owerri Metropolis by the young and dynamic first Military Governor of Imo State (1976) Commander Ndubuisi Kanu who pioneered Divisional hospitals in every division. Ndubuisi Kanu was followed by the lazy, tribalistic, insensitive and unproductive government of Colonel Adekunle Lawal who virtually liquidated Imo State government treasury and assets. He was succeeded by the short-lived but purposeful and professional regime Colonel Adenihu who handed over to Governor Mbakwe on October 1, 1979. Colonel Adenihu was instrumental in the building of the Commissioners’ Quarters (New Owerri) which he desperately tried to complete before handing over, the Construction of the State House of Assembly, the construction of the still uncompleted unit condos meant for Members of the State House of Assembly in New Owerri. In fact, Colonel Adenihu brought the Commissioners’ Quarters to ninety percent completion by October 1979 but Mbakwe waited till the very end of his first term in 1983 before completing the remaining 10% at more than the cost of the original building because of inflaction.
On assumption of office the Government of Mbakwe received like other states an unexpected Federal Allocation of N79 million Naira (then a windfall) which he immediately invested in the construction of roads in (politically determined) food production areas. He set up Imo University in a temporary campus at Madonna College Mbano and dilly dallied while looking for land in Obowo for the establishment of the permanent site of the University until Colonel Ike Nwachukwu came in 1983 and sited the institution amidst the gully erosions of Uturu where he spent more money on erosion control than on physical infra-structure. Governor Ike Nwachukwu had the distinction of selling off practically all the major industries established by Governor Mbakwe’s administration. But he was a good and fair-minded disciplined soldier. Mbakwe built a wonderful network of major and rural roads all over the state and practically in every constituency. He built the Concord Hotel (today decrepit and a shadow of itself). He launched the construction of Imo Airport. He sanitized the State Education system based on the report of the Education Commission chaired by Dr. S. Okechukwu Mezu that created also the Zonal Board Administrative system for Secondary Schools and Local Education Board in each local government to manage elementary schools, a program copied nationwide by other states in the Federation and still in operation in Imo State today. The Commission also abolished school fees and all levies and students only paid a minimal mandatory Registration fee each year for documentation purposes. The Commission also created a 2% Education funding tax on every contract awarded in Imo State to help fund the free education. Mbakwe borrowed heavily externally and left his successors massive external loans. The Federal Government debited at source the servicing of these external loans as they became due short-charging successive governments. But Mbakwe’s government set up the Okigwe, Owerri and Orlu water schemes, the expansion of Golden Guinea Industries in Umuahia, the Glass Industry in Aba. He set up the Independent Power Source at Amaraku and reticulated both water and electricity supply to practically every constituency in Imo State except in a place like Imerienwe, Ngor Okpala, where he pulled the Electric Polls already supplied to the community as punishment to the community for voting for their son Dr. Nnanna Ukaegbu who contested the governorship election under GNPP against him. Mbakwe’s government set up Cardboard Packaging Industry at Owerre-Ebiri, Aluminum Industry in Inyishi in Ikeduru, Paint Industry in Mbaise, Bicycle Assembly Plant in Naze, Burnt Brick Industry in Ezinachi and many others including Avutu Poultry Industry in Avutu, Obowo that was supplying poultry and eggs to as far away as Lagos. Imo Newspapers under the Chairmanship of Dr. S. Okechukwu Mezu attained a daily circulation of 150,000. Imo Broadcasting Corporation had a strong radio voice and Imo Television competed strongly with the NTA at Aba. Mbakwe’s government refurbished the Oguta Motel, the Catering Rest Houses renamed Imo Hotels at Owerri, Aba, Orlu, Okigwe and Umuahia. The economy of the state was buoyant, construction work was going on every where and in every local government as the NPP government led by Mbakwe competed ceaselessly with the activities of the Federal Government under the NPN Presidential Liaison Officer (PLO) Mr. Collins Mba former Managing Director of African Continental Bank who used the Imo River Basin Authority to create jobs and check erosion in the state. The strides in Imo State, educationally, economically, industrially and socially were phenomenal and yet the entire state revenue and allocation annually then was less than what some Local Governments in Imo State receive monthly today. Governor Mbakwe was not perfect and some of his Commissioners were guilty of corruption, but venial sins compared with the exponential, murderous, criminal and brazen looting of the State Treasury today by Legislators (Legislooters) and the Executive (Executionists).
But who is the greatest Governor of Igbo origin, Samuel Mbakwe or Dr. Michael Okpara? Governor Mbakwe I know very well and very intimately. We share the same initials SOM and worked together night and day during the campaign for his election as Governor of Imo State in 1979. For his second term, I did not vote for him and three months later he was sent to jail by Generals Buhari and Idiagbon. Dr. Michael Okpara, I know fairly well and worked very closely and intimately with him when I was General Ojukwu’s and Biafra’s Ambassador to Cote d’Ivoire in 1968. Dr. Michael Okpara, Dr. Kenneth Dike, Sir Louis Mbanefo and I cried together at Hotel Ivoire, Abidjan, Room 310 over the Biafran war in 1968 when Owerri fell to the Nigerian soldiers. But in 1979 as Chairman of Golden Guinea, I fired the General Manager, Mr. Iheukwumere, who was Dr. Okpara’s relation and who had been there since 1960. Dr. Michael Okpara and Chief Samuel Mbakwe were great courageous and fearless leaders more so than Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe, a superb intellectual with an encyclopedic memory but ever willing to compromise and Fabian in his philosophy. They all, like all of us, had their faults and Achilles hills. It is like asking, who is the greatest Pope in recent Catholic Church History, Pope Pius X or John Paul II. They were two great Popes. And who is the greatest Nigerian writer, Chinua Achebe or Wole Soyinka. They are both great writers, though personally, I would choose Achebe any day over Soyinka. We are still too close to recent history. Until the generals and associates of Mbakwe and Okpara spill their beans like General Babaginda and General Obasanjo, it is difficult to tell, for between reality and perception, there is always a little gully.
Dr. S. Okechukwu Mezu
Source: Black Academy Press
Sunday, 29 September 2013