By Christopher C. Ulasi
Doctor Micheal Okpara governed the nine states which made up eastern Nigeria from 1959 to 1966. When the military coup of 1966 terminated his governorship on January 16, 1966 the only property he owned was an old bungalow he had in his village Umuahia Abia State. When the Biafra war ended in January 1970 he desired to study Economics in an American University but he could not raise the fees.
In 1974 after he had gone back to brush up his medical knowledge and was in Edinburgh for his membership examination he shared a flat with a foreigner, a West Indian.
The first time I saw Dr Okpara was at a political rally in Enugu in the early 1960’s. What impressed me that day was his pronunciation of the word simultaneously as in Simon. The next time I encountered him was in 1974. This time it was on one on one basis. It was in the city of Edinburgh Scotland the United Kingdom. He was there to prepare and sit for his membership examination in medicine. Dr. Okpara had qualified as a Medical Doctor in the 1950’s at Yaba Higher College but had gone into politics and had almost forgotten everything about medicine, when he was the Premier of Eastern Nigeria.
Mazi S.G. Ikoku, a renowned economist was the leader of opposition. Ikoku used to confuse, dazzle and bamboozle the government side with economic jargons. It got to a stage where Dr. Okpara could not take it anymore. He bought books on Economics and when others would be sleeping he would keep awake to swort Economics. Armed with what he was able to learn he was prepared for Ikoku’s fire. He was able to return fire for fire and there was always thunderous applause from the government side whether he got it right or not. This kindled his interest in Economics.
When the Biafran war ended, it was every man to himself. He first went to Ivory Coast and then from there to the United Kingdom. He was hoping to study Economics in an American University but he could not afford the fees nor did he get any sponsors. His younger brother was a Medical Student in Germany and his children were still growing up. He had hoped that the then British Foreign Secretary would come to his aid. Dr. Okpara refused to appeal to him for help. In his own words he felt it was “infra dig ” to beg Lord Shepherd for help. Incidentally this was the same man of whom Okokon Ndem in one his news talk on Radio Biafra had said, “This particular lord cannot be our shepherd”. This was because of the not so friendly attitude of the British government to Biafra.
When Dr. Okpara was confronted with the problem of which way to go he decided to return to medicine. He made his way to the Dublin University. The first day he stepped into the lecture hall he was lost completely. What the lecturer was saying was all Greek to him. To compound his problems his classmates were his children’s age mates. But he was determined to succeed. He showed extreme humility, courage and determination. He succeeded and relocated thereafter to Edinburgh for his membership examination.
We met in Edinburgh, this time on one on one basis. When my colleague Mr. Emma Chiedu and I informed him that we were sent to Heriot Watt University, Edinburgh by Golden Guinea Breweries Plc Umuahia for a Post Graduate Diploma in Brewing Science, his joy knew no bounds. He said he was always happy to learn that the establishments he set up were still functioning. For want of space I shall list some of these;
Calabar Cement Factory, Nigeria Cement Factory Nkalagu, Niger gas Enugu, Turners Asbestos Enugu, Pepsi Cola Factory Onitsha, Golden Guinea Breweries Umuahia, Aba Textile Mills, Trans Amadi Industrial Complex Port Hacourt, Obudu Cattle ranch, Presidential Hotels (Enugu and Port Harcourt) Eastern Nigeria Development Corporation rubber and palm plantations, Cashew Industries and Ekulu Pottery.
Eastern Nigeria had the largest number of secondary schools and they ranked among the best. Farm settlements were located all over the region.
Of his role in the University of Nigeria project , he quoted the scripture. Apostle Paul had said in (1 Cor 3:6) I have planted , Apolos watered . It was Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe who planted and Dr. Okpara watered His only source of watering was the sales from Palm produce. The current Government lodge was built by Dr. Okpara. Even Independence Layout where the Lodge and the House of Assembly are located was designed during his regime.
During his stay in Edinburgh, a time came when his flat mate finished his course and was about to relocate. It was gathered that he was looking for a flat mate. The thought that the former Premier of Eastern Nigeria was looking for someone to share a flat with was extremely depressing and I felt very sad. I did not habour the thought of ever making myself available. How could I have shared a flat with Mike Power even in far away Edinburgh I recall that John the Baptist confessed that he was not fit to untie the lace of Jesus’s sandals. That was exactly how I felt. How could I have watched him clean, cook and wash the dishes. On the other hand if I had decided to serve him my studies would have suffered greatly. In any case when I was growing up doing domestic chores was not one of my attributes. I was not ready to learn how to be dexterous with my left hand at an old age. He successfully passed his membership examination in Edinburgh and those of us from the old Eastern Nigeria and our friends threw a party for him.
I still remember how he felt so happy and was dancing his way around.
When he eventually came back to Nigeria he had nothing on which to fall back. It was Chief C.C Onoh whom he had made Chairman of Nigerian Coal Corporation, who gave him a half built property along Ogui Road, Enugu.
That property was disposed off after his death. His family was engaged in importation and when their goods attracted demurrage, the property was sold to settle the indebtedness. In concluding this reminiscence. I am reminded of the words, of the popular Anglican Church Song which says that when we have departed this earth we will only reminded by what we have done.
Now there is Michael Okpara University at Umuahia. It ranks among the top Federal Universities in Nigeria.
Okpara Avenue is one of the major streets in Enugu. Along it are sixteen different banks including Central Bank as well the Zonal Headquarters of PHCN. Okpara Square is a beautiful arena where important events take place in Enugu.
Jesus Christ said in Mk 8:36 What shall it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses his own soul. In Luke 12:15 the Bible says A man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possession Prov 28:20 A faithful man will be richly blessed but one eager to get rich will not go unpunished. 1 Tim 6:10 For the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil. Some people eager for money have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs.
May we have leaders with heart and dedication like Dr M.I. Okpara!!