Dr. Michael Iheonukara Okpara was the Premier of Eastern Nigeria and leader
of the National Convention of Nigerian Citizens (NCNC), known at its birth as
the National Council of Nigeria and Cameroon. He and Chief Dennis Osadebay of
the Mid-West were the only Regional Premiers who survived the army revolt of
January, 1966, in which two other premiers were killed.
An Ibo from Ohuhu, near Umuahia-Ibeku in the then Eastern Nigeria - Nigeria's
first military ruler, Major-General J.T.U. Aguiyi-Ironsi, also came from Umuahia
- Dr. Okpara was at 46 the country's youngest Premier. The son of a laborer,
he was born in December, 1920. After attending mission schools, he went to the
Uzuakoli Methodist College, near his village, and won a scholarship to the then
Yaba Higher College, Lagos, to study medicine. Completing his medical studies
at the Nigerian School of Medicine, Dr. Okpara worked briefly as a government
medical officer before setting up private practice in Umuahia. While
.carrying on his practice, Dr. Okpara showed great interest in the Zikist
Movement (named after Dr. Azikiwe), the militant wing of Dr. Azikiwe's NCNC
which brought the independence struggle to a head in the late 'forties. After
the shooting of rioting workers at the Enugu coal mines (1949), Dr. Okpara was
one the Zikists arrested by the government for allegedly organizing the workers
for political ends. He was later released. Following the granting of internal
self-rule by Britain, Dr. Okpara was elected to the Eastern House of Assembly
in 1952 on an NCNC ticket. Between then and 1959, when he took over from Dr.
Azikiwe as Premier of the East, he held various Cabinet posts from Minister
of Health to Agriculture and Production.
When in 1953, NCNC legislators in the Eastern House of Assembly and the Central
Government in Lagos revolted against the party leadership, Dr. Okpara was among
party loyalists who joined forces with Dr. Azikiwe. It was not until November,
1960, when Dr. Azikiwe finally left active politics to become Nigeria's first
African Governor-General, that Dr. Okpara was elected leader of the NCNC. Very
forceful and outspoken, Dr. Okpara is uncompromising on vital national issues.
This in 1963 led to severe strain in relations with the ruling Northern Peoples'
Congress of the late Prime Minister Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, with which the NCNC
formed the country's first post-independence Government.
A strong advocate of what he calls 'pragmatic socialism', Dr. Okpara believes
the country's salvation lies in agricultural revolution. He owns a large farm
in his hometown and thus inspired many Eastern Nigerian leaders to take and
interest in farming.
Dr. Okpara was one of the politicians detained soon after the military coup
of January, 1966, which brought an end to civilian rule. He was released in
July after a second coup swept General Ironsi out of power. He received the
award of GCON (Grand Commander of the Order of the Niger), the country's highest
decoration, in 1964 in recognition of his services to the country.