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  While we celebrate the likes of Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe, Chief Obafemi Awolowo, and Alhaji Ahmadu Bello, prominent Nigerians in history have been neglected to the abyss of oblivion, despite their achievements. This group of unsung heroes is a dearth in history which in many ways is a disservice to us and these rarely celebrated heroes. It is in the light of this situation I am doing a review on the life and times of Dr. Michael Okpara, the man who revolutionised Eastern Nigeria. 
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In the 1960s, Old Eastern Nigeria was the fastest growing economy in the world. This event was the machinations of one of Nigeria’s underrated nationalists in colonial Nigeria – Dr. Michael Okpara. Known as Michael Iheonukara Okpara, he was born in Umuahia in present-day Abia State on the 25th of December 1920 and died on 17th December 1984 in his birthplace too. He was a Nigerian politician and Premier of Eastern Nigeria during the First Republic, from 1959 to 1966. At 39, he was the nation’s youngest Premier. He was a strong advocate of what he called “pragmatic socialism” and believed that agricultural reform was crucial to the ultimate success of Nigeria. The life and times of Dr. Okpara revolved around the industrial revolution of Eastern Nigeria.  The Southeastern Economy Before Michael Okpara. The pre-colonial economy of southeastern Nigeria was anchored on three pillars – agriculture, manufacture and trade and commerce. To start with, 70 per cent of the inhabitants of the region were largely farmers who cultivated all manner of crops ranging from yams, cocoyams, citrus fruits, okro to other vegetables. The farming was largely subsistence, and the procedures were done with the aid of metal and wooden implements such as a shovel, axe, digger, and so on. Aside from farming, another group, especially those who lived on the bank of Niger River and elsewhere engaged in fishing. The tools and implements were produced by another group of people known as the blacksmiths who fashioned iron ore, metal and brass into various tools such as harpoons, diggers, guns, arrows, and other fishing, hunting, farming and household implements. The blacksmith was found within the manufacturing sector and areas like Awka and Nsukka had them in greater proportion. Occupations found within this same sector include basket weavers, wood and ivory carvers, drug makers, cloth dyers, shelter painters, and so on. Another sector which is trade and commerce marked the Igbo people of southeastern Nigeria as a very entrepreneurial group of people. They engaged in long and short distance trade and traded all manner of commodities not restricted to home and industrial goods. Finally, the slave trade also made up part of the bulk of the Igbo economy before Michael Okpara and colonialism. This was the economic landscape of what existed between pre-colonial and colonial southeastern Nigeria.  Colonial Economy of Southeastern Nigeria  The economy of Igboland was integrated into the industrial revolution happening in Europe between the 1800s and 1900s. Nigeria had just been sold to the British Crown by the Royal Niger Company for the sum of  £865,000 (£108 million today) in 1899. This began the intensive economic engagement between the British and Eastern Nigeria. Before the economy could kickoff without hitches, the British Army went about conquering indigenous chiefdoms and confederacies within the region. Reputable wars include the Anglo-Aro War (1901-1902), the Ekumeku War (1870-1914), and later on the Aba Women’s War (1929). It took the British over forty years to finally crush indigenous oppositions in Igboland.  Economic engagements began around the 1920s. The Eastern region found itself navigating towards the cultivation of cash crops such as oil palm, rubber, cashew and so on. The British invested its time and resources grafting the economy of the region into the capitalist sphere to meet the increasing demands of the British Empire and Europe. Further, the Two World Wars – 1914-1918 and 1937-1945 – accelerated the economy of the region. In another development, coal discovery in Enugu in 1909, further revamped the region as a top tier region on the map of the British Empire. Despite the hustle and bustle that went on in the region, it was left poorer when colonialism ended in 1960. It was also during and after this engagement that Michael Okpara’s formative years took place. 
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The Eastern Economy Under The Premiership Of Okpara. As Nigeria began the government of regionalism in 1957 under the colonial administration of Lord Arthur Richard, the three regions of the country – East, West and North – began a government of autonomy where regions were to be independently governed and their resources controlled and exploited by each region. This would mark a turning point in the history of Eastern Nigeria. With one swoop, the region was the most educated in Nigeria. Education and industry went hand in hand. And on 1 October 1959, Dr. Michael Okpara was elected premier of the Eastern Region.  Two years after the establishment of the Western farm settlement scheme in 1957, the Eastern Nigerian administration of Dr. Michael Okpara sponsored its Minister of Agriculture and his team for an excursion and investigation of the development of the Israeli Moshav Settlement Schemes. His fundamental reason for such a movement was to bolster and rehabilitate the agrarian industry of Eastern Nigeria. This fact-finding mission saw the Minister of Agriculture return with Israeli agricultural exports. The Administration began to survey suitable lands in the 12 Provinces of the region for cultivating various crops and educating the locals on modern agricultural practices.  According to Mathias Isiani, the Eastern Farm Settlement was officially established in 1961. It was mostly accepted by secondary school leavers who had knowledge of agriculture, however, had the physical and mental toughness to do the job. Furthermore, B. Floyd and M. Adinde (1967: 193) cited in Isiani (2020) noted that: “Dr. Michael Okpara in a speech in 1961 formerly informed the public that several farm settlements would be established, each costing at least 500,000 pounds ($1,400,000) covering about 4000-6000 acres and carrying 400 young men and families with individual farms.” This public declaration and successive establishment of the settlement schemes as noted above was based on the observation of agricultural expert Mr. Arthur Gaitskell, the manager of the Gezira Settlement scheme in the Sudan Republic.   The biggest achievement and indeed the cornerstone of the revolution was the Igbariam Farm Settlement. Igbariam farm settlement is one of the seven farm settlements in the Eastern region of Nigeria which was established purposely for solving the food insecurity challenge in Nigeria. According to Isiani (2020), the farm settlement site was planned to be an acquisition of 10,000-12,000 acres of village land. These acres of land could be achieved through land grants from the surrounding villages of Igbariam. The Igbariam farm settlement was the earliest of the settlements to be initiated and the most advanced by mid-1965. The acres of planned lands were donated by the Igbariam, Nando and Akwuzu. Some surrounding villages refused to contribute to this project, thus limiting the vision of the proposed 10,000-12,000 acres to 6,560 acres (Floyd and Adinde, 1967).  The government in total set up six farm settlements covering 61,775 acres at Ohaji, Igbariam, Erei, Boki, Ulonna South, Ulonna North, and Uzouwani. With 1,070 settlers in 1966, about 7,829.05 acres were planted with various cash crops, including oil palm, rubber, and citrus fruit. The settlers were required to cultivate food crops, such as yams, cocoyams, and maize on their compound plots for their subsistence. Equipped with modern facilities including maternity homes, schools, and modern farming equipment, these plantations represented the most ambitious of the government’s agricultural development programs and its attempt to create “modern,” self-supporting farming households.  Featured image source: The Guardian Nigeria
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This article was first published on 24th February 2022


Nnaemeka is an academic scholar with a degree in History and International Studies from the University of Nigeria, Nsukka. He is also a creative writer, content creator, storyteller, and social analyst.

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