Lady Adanma Okpara
Lady Adanma Okpara

By OBINNA EZUGWU

After 99 long years of consequential life clothed with strength and dignity, Mrs. Adanma Okpara, former Eastern Nigeria’s First Lady and wife of Dr. Michael Iheonukara Okpara, who served as Premier of the region between 1959 and 1966, marked her final journey home on Saturday when her remains were committed to mother earth.

Lady Adanma who passed away on August 22, after an illness, 37 years after her husband’s death in 1984, was laid to rest next to her husband at a mausoleum in their compound after a burial service at Williams Memorial Secondary School, Afugiri, Ohuhu, Umuahia North Local Government Area of Abia State, in an event that marked an end to an era.

She was the first of two Amazons to exit the stage, the other, wife Nigeria’s first military head of state, Aguiyi Ironsi, Mrs. Victoria Aguiyi-Ironsi, also an Umuahia woman following up on August 23, at age 97; two women of substance who demonstrated utmost strength of character even in most difficult circumstances, and went on to live lives defined by longevity and great impact.

Lady Adanma’s was a noble life crowned with ‘heroic’ death, having graciously worn the crown of old age, with associated wisdom for many years. But her heroism doesn’t lie in her longevity. Lady Adanma lived a life full of many accomplishments; set a standard in hard work and dedication, and proved an invaluable pillar of support, not just to her young family after losing her husband in 1984, but her entire community and indeed for many in the country.

But when her story is told in full, it will be mostly about how she, as First Lady, proved to be a source of strength to her husband who in 1959, at age 39, began shouldering responsibility of leading the young Eastern Region of Nigeria; an idyllic region just sprawling into civilization, comprising of today’s Southeast and much South South geopolitical zones.

Dr. Okpara was, in his day, a fiery charismatic politician whose firebrand approach to politics earned the nickname “M.I Power.” But although the young medical doctor had been an integral part of the Zikist Movement, a radical wing of the National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroons (NCNC), that was prominent in the struggle for Nigeria’s independence, and had following the grant of internal self-rule to the country in 1952, been elected into the Eastern Nigerian House of Assembly, even as he went on to hold various cabinet positions – including Minister of Health and Minister of Agriculture and Production – in the region before 1959, it would still have been a big responsibility on his young shoulders when he stepped into Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe’s shoes as Premier, following Dr. Azikiwe’s elevation to the office of Governor-General.

However, Dr. Okpara had a secret weapon in Lady Adanma, then a 37-year-old teacher, who readily stepped up to the responsibility of guiding her husband. And by the time the military coup of 1966 brought an abrupt end to their leadership, they had completed a revolution in the region, taking it from a largely agrarian locality to the fast industrializing space that had become the fastest growing, economically, in the World.

“She was the pillar behind my father’s success as the Premier of Eastern Nigeria, which was the fastest growing economy in the world then,” remarked her second son, Uzodinma. “She lived full and accomplished life. She was a politician and campaigned with her husband and was a great mobiliser of men and women, and a philanthropist.”

Pius Okigbo, an eminent economist and elder brother of renowned poet, Christopher Okigbo, who served as economic adviser to the government in Lagos, then federal capital, recorded that, in an address in Madras India, Dr. Okpara wowed the world with his programme of industrial and agricultural revolutions anchored in the innovative farm settlement scheme. Time was when Nigeria had great people in leadership.

A strong advocate for what he called “pragmatic socialism,” with a firm belief that agricultural reform was crucial to the developmental aspirations of the region and Nigeria in general, Okpara provided purposeful leadership, setting a standard in governance that remains unmatched six decades later.

He presided over a leadership anchored on agricultural revolution and industrialisation, and embarked on ambitious developmental projects which came to be known as the ‘Okpara Revolution.’ These found expression in the massive plantations, farm settlements and industrial clusters that dotted the region. There were the Enamel Ware Factory, Port Harcourt; Hotel Presidential in Enugu and Port Harcourt; Aba Textile Mills; Sunray Four Mill, Port Harcourt; Vehicle Assembly Plant, Port Harcourt; Modern Ceramic Factory, Umuahia; Catering Rest House and Modern Shoe factory, Owerri; Nkalagu Cement Factory; Nigerian Breweries plant in Aba; Tobacco and Glass-making Plant in Port Harcourt, among others.

Yet, besides these established factories, foundations were also laid for Calabar Cement Factory, Onitsha Textile Mill, Permatex Spinning and Weaving Company, Enugu, while Cashew and palm oil plantations as well as extension farms sprang up in different parts of the region.

Adanma Okpara and Michael Okpara
Adanma and Michael Okpara

In all these accomplishments, Lady Adanma was very instrumental. A true definition of strong woman, she held the fort at the home front and gave useful pieces of advice and counsel to her husband in critical periods, as has been attested to by all who are familiar with the family.

“The spousal support she provided to her late husband was instrumental to the monumental success he recorded as Premier,” Abia State governor, Dr. Okezie Ikpeazu in condolence message when she passed away in August. “Widowed since December 1984, Lady Okpara remained a model of good and excellent womanhood. She was a fountain of knowledge from which most women, especially, here in Abia, drank freely.”

The governor noted that the former First Lady remained at her husband’s house in Umuegwu, Ohuhu, Umuahia and continued to play the role of a mother, grandmother and community leader till her final days.

Indeed, Lady Adanma as First Lady, epitomized humility, simplicity and dedication. She shunned the flamboyance and publicity that is the hallmark of first ladyship today, and went about her business with dignity, which her background as a teacher, a profession then typified by discipline, perhaps predisposed her to.

She was the true definition virtuous woman. She never craved attention, as she went about impacting lives, even as she lived a modest life, ensuring that her husband did not steal from the public purse, what would have been an oddity in today’s Nigeria.

It is remarkable that the family never owned a house of their own while in government. Indeed, when Dr. Okpara left office, the only landed property he owned was one uncompleted building at Ogui Road in Enugu. There was no house in his home town Ohuhu in Abia State. When the Nigerian Civil War ended in 1970, he went into exile in Ireland, and it was only upon his return in 1979 that his close associates and beneficiaries took up a collection to build him a house in his village. There he would live until his death in 1984, and there Lady Adanma lived till she passed on, too.

Lady Adanma set a standard on many fronts: In leadership, humility, discipline dedication, she was never found wanting.

“Lady Adanma and Victoria Aguiyi-Ironsi represented an era of self-sacrifice in public service as they were always held up as beacons to women in leadership,” noted Dr. Nkechi Ikpeazu, wife of Abia governor, Okezie. “Their lives were momentous and though they would be sorely missed, they have left legacies worth introspecting, studying, emulating and replicating.”

Mrs. Ikpeazu said she is one of many wives of governors and heads of State who had, over the past five decades, received mentorship from the two women, noting that enjoyed the privilege of learning a lot about honour, humility, and self-respect from their lifestyles and stewardships.

Certainly, today’s first ladies have a lot to learn from the examples set by Lady Adanma, who even after losing her husband, continued to render selfless service to the church and humanity.

“After our father died in 1984; that is 39 years after, she lived a fully accomplished life,” said Uzodinma who further explained that after the death of her husband, “She carried on with her community service where she helped people up to few days before she died.”

It’s commitment to service to humanity acknowledged by Nigeria’s president, Muhammadu Buhari in a condolence message to the family.

“As a recipient of several awards and honours from faith-based and humanitarian organisations, President Buhari affirms that the late wife of the very formidable figure in the First Republic and the Eastern Nigeria, led by example even after leaving public office,” said the president in a statement by his media aide, Femi Adesina.

The president described her an enterprising and disciplined mother, who was a worthy example of humility and hard work to her children and the many women she mentored in her community.

 

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1 COMMENT

  1. Well befitting tribute to the couple who championed both the Agribusiness and Industrial revolution at the period of our history we needed it. May our awesome God bless you both. Your legacy will live from generation to generation. The people and nation will miss you dearly. RIP.

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