Why Delta And Edo State Should Immortalize Dr. Michael Okpara

The people from the old Midwestern region of Nigeria (Bendel State, now Delta State and Edo State) will not need a history book to list out the heroes that formed a movement for the actualisation of the region. Of course it will be very easy to mention the courageous leader of the movement, Chief Dennis Osadebay and his vice Osagie, others like Oba Akenzua, Okotiebo etc But none will ever exhaustively discuss the involvement of Dr. Okpara Michael (GCON).

Michael Iheonukara Okpara was born December 25, 1920 in  Ụmụaka. He hails from Umuegwu Ohuhu Igbo, area of the present day Abia State, Nigeria.

Though from a humble background, his academic brilliance earned him a scholarship to attend Mission Schools before he proceeded to Uzuakoli Methodist College, where he won another scholarship to study medicine at Yaba Higher College, Lagos. Upon graduating from medical School at the Nigerian School of Medicine, he was briefly employed as a government medical officer. He would later return home to Umuahia to establish a private hospital. Overtime, he became a fan of a pre independence pressure group known as Zikist Movement and the political party National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroons (NCNC) which he joined.

At the aftermath of the Enugu blood bath of 1949 when picketing mine workers were shot by police, he was detained for his alleged involvement in the protest. His popularity soared in the Eastern region.

His activism was rewarded in 1952 when he was elected into the Eastern Nigerian House of Assembly on the platform of NCNC.

When the Eastern region was created on October 1st 1954 with Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe as the Premier, Ọkpara enjoyed some Juicy appointments ranging from Minister of Health to Minister of Agriculture and Production. On the 1st of October 1959, he replaced Dr. Azikiwe as the premier of the Eastern region.

After Independence day of October 1st 1960 Azikiwe retired from active politics to assume his position as Nigeria's first African Governor-general and Okpara was elected as the new leader of the NCNC. So, he held the position as the political leader of NCNC and Premier of Eastern Nigeria during the First Republic from 1959 to January 15, 1966 when a bloody coup truncated his tenure.
For the people of the old Midwestern region, the most important days of Dr. Okpara as the leader of the NCNC came a few months before the plebiscite election to determine if the region would be created or not. For over 3 months, the Premier in company of his wife, Dr. Dennis Osadebay and other elite politicians toured the entire Midwestern region to educate the people on the importance of creating a new region for better integration and representation. The powerful orator threw all his weight behind the movement despite that the Eastern region will lose some part of her territory to the new region when it is created.

The sensitization campaign train first hit Ogwashi-Uku around June 1963 where they were welcomed with over 50 deafening cannon shots "Mpọlọ ani". The Premier announced there that amnesty will be granted to all those who agitated and rebelled against the state in their quest for self determination in order to form a new region free from hatred and rancour.

The second point of call was Agbor, before they proceeded to Abraka, Amai, Ozoro, Ughelli, Warri, Bomadi, Patani, Sapele, Uromi, Jato, Ogume and Benin.

In every place they visited, Dr. Okpara made a unique promise of what the new government will bring, educated the voters and in most cases through an interpreter.

In Jato, he promised a cement factory to generate employment, in Sapele where he was largely welcomed by students he promised bursary, in Benin where he was received by Oba Akenzua, a brass art piece was presented to him. He was very successful in the campaign, even where he met protests he took time to convince.

The Midwestern region required at least 60% "Yes" votes to have their region. On the 13th of July 1963, the plebiscite election was held and the "Yes" votes surpassed the required 60% leading to the creation of a new region with her headquarters in Benin.

Chief Dennis Chukwudede Osadebay world become the first premier of the Midwestern region that only lasted from 1966 to 1967 when it was declared a province of the West. After the new state was formed, Dr. Okpara sent a congratulatory message to Chief Osadebay and pledged his continued support for the new region.  His show of love, patriotism and selfless dedicated to the Midwest deserves endless thunderous ovation.

Prior to that, Rivers province had been granted autonomy from the Eastern region on May 27, 1967 leaving only East Central and South East under the control of the Eastern Premier. The declaration of Rivers as a region followed a rebellion led by Isaac Adaka Boro.

With the onset of the Biafra declaration in which no state in the old Midwest was part of the Biafra territory, Igbos of the Midwestern extraction were geographically excluded but yet many fought for the new State of Biafra since many of the principal actors such as Col. Joe Achuzia, Maj. Chukwuma Nzeogwu etc hailed from the defunct Midwest. The Asaba pogrom will remain in the hearts of everyone who reads about or witnessed the war.

In all this, the selfless contributions of Dr. Okpara Michael has remained underacknowledged till this day with all glory naturally heaped on Chief Osadebay. Throughout his political career in which at the age of 39 years he was the youngest Premier in all the regions, he never owned a house while in government. At the end of the Civil War, he was exiled in Ireland and upon his return in 1979, his compatriots and beneficiaries raised funds and built him a house in his hometown Umuegwu.
The Governors of Delta State and Edo State should do well to immortalize Dr. Michael Okpara in the states to compensate for his relentless struggles for the region.

By Onwordi Ngozi Fortune.

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