Whereas Premier Michael Okpara ruled a larger group Easter Nigeria at a time of peace and relative non-oil prosperity with some agitation then for the creation of Calabar-Ogoja-Rivers (COR) State, Samuel Onunaka Mbakwe was elected Governor of the Greater Imo State carved out of the then East Central State and comprising of today’s Imo State, Abia State and parts of Ebonyi state (Afikpo and Ohaozara). Mbakwe took office after the marvelous rehabilitation of several schools by the East Central State Government of Colonel Ochefu, the creation of a wonderful master-plan for the Owerri Metropolis by the young and dynamic first Military Governor of Imo State (1976) Commander Ndubuisi Kanu who pioneered Divisional hospitals in every division. Ndubuisi Kanu was followed by the lazy, tribalistic, insensitive and unproductive government of Colonel Adekunle Lawal who virtually liquidated Imo State government treasury and assets. He was succeeded by the short-lived but purposeful and professional regime Colonel Adenihu who handed over to Governor Mbakwe on October 1, 1979. Colonel Adenihu was instrumental in the building of the Commissioners’ Quarters (New Owerri) which he desperately tried to complete before handing over, the Construction of the State House of Assembly, the construction of the still uncompleted unit condos meant for Members of the State House of Assembly in New Owerri. In fact, Colonel Adenihu brought the Commissioners’ Quarters to ninety percent completion by October 1979 but Mbakwe waited till the very end of his first term in 1983 before completing the remaining 10% at more than the cost of the original building because of inflaction.
On assumption of office the Government of Mbakwe received like other states an unexpected Federal Allocation of N79 million Naira (then a windfall) which he immediately invested in the construction of roads in (politically determined) food production areas. He set up Imo University in a temporary campus at Madonna College Mbano and dilly dallied while looking for land in Obowo for the establishment of the permanent site of the University until Colonel Ike Nwachukwu came in 1983 and sited the institution amidst the gully erosions of Uturu where he spent more money on erosion control than on physical infra-structure. Governor Ike Nwachukwu had the distinction of selling off practically all the major industries established by Governor Mbakwe’s administration. But he was a good and fair-minded disciplined soldier. Mbakwe built a wonderful network of major and rural roads all over the state and practically in every constituency. He built the Concord Hotel (today decrepit and a shadow of itself). He launched the construction of Imo Airport. He sanitized the State Education system based on the report of the Education Commission chaired by Dr. S. Okechukwu Mezu that created also the Zonal Board Administrative system for Secondary Schools and Local Education Board in each local government to manage elementary schools, a program copied nationwide by other states in the Federation and still in operation in Imo State today. The Commission also abolished school fees and all levies and students only paid a minimal mandatory Registration fee each year for documentation purposes. The Commission also created a 2% Education funding tax on every contract awarded in Imo State to help fund the free education. Mbakwe borrowed heavily externally and left his successors massive external loans. The Federal Government debited at source the servicing of these external loans as they became due short-charging successive governments. But Mbakwe’s government set up the Okigwe, Owerri and Orlu water schemes, the expansion of Golden Guinea Industries in Umuahia, the Glass Industry in Aba. He set up the Independent Power Source at Amaraku and reticulated both water and electricity supply to practically every constituency in Imo State except in a place like Imerienwe, Ngor Okpala, where he pulled the Electric Polls already supplied to the community as punishment to the community for voting for their son Dr. Nnanna Ukaegbu who contested the governorship election under GNPP against him. Mbakwe’s government set up Cardboard Packaging Industry at Owerre-Ebiri, Aluminum Industry in Inyishi in Ikeduru, Paint Industry in Mbaise, Bicycle Assembly Plant in Naze, Burnt Brick Industry in Ezinachi and many others including Avutu Poultry Industry in Avutu, Obowo that was supplying poultry and eggs to as far away as Lagos. Imo Newspapers under the Chairmanship of Dr. S. Okechukwu Mezu attained a daily circulation of 150,000. Imo Broadcasting Corporation had a strong radio voice and Imo Television competed strongly with the NTA at Aba. Mbakwe’s government refurbished the Oguta Motel, the Catering Rest Houses renamed Imo Hotels at Owerri, Aba, Orlu, Okigwe and Umuahia. The economy of the state was buoyant, construction work was going on every where and in every local government as the NPP government led by Mbakwe competed ceaselessly with the activities of the Federal Government under the NPN Presidential Liaison Officer (PLO) Mr. Collins Mba former Managing Director of African Continental Bank who used the Imo River Basin Authority to create jobs and check erosion in the state. The strides in Imo State, educationally, economically, industrially and socially were phenomenal and yet the entire state revenue and allocation annually then was less than what some Local Governments in Imo State receive monthly today. Governor Mbakwe was not perfect and some of his Commissioners were guilty of corruption, but venial sins compared with the exponential, murderous, criminal and brazen looting of the State Treasury today by Legislators (Legislooters) and the Executive (Executionists).
But who is the greatest Governor of Igbo origin, Samuel Mbakwe or Dr. Michael Okpara? Governor Mbakwe I know very well and very intimately. We share the same initials SOM and worked together night and day during the campaign for his election as Governor of Imo State in 1979. For his second term, I did not vote for him and three months later he was sent to jail by Generals Buhari and Idiagbon. Dr. Michael Okpara, I know fairly well and worked very closely and intimately with him when I was General Ojukwu’s and Biafra’s Ambassador to Cote d’Ivoire in 1968. Dr. Michael Okpara, Dr. Kenneth Dike, Sir Louis Mbanefo and I cried together at Hotel Ivoire, Abidjan, Room 310 over the Biafran war in 1968 when Owerri fell to the Nigerian soldiers. But in 1979 as Chairman of Golden Guinea, I fired the General Manager, Mr. Iheukwumere, who was Dr. Okpara’s relation and who had been there since 1960. Dr. Michael Okpara and Chief Samuel Mbakwe were great courageous and fearless leaders more so than Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe, a superb intellectual with an encyclopedic memory but ever willing to compromise and Fabian in his philosophy. They all, like all of us, had their faults and Achilles hills. It is like asking, who is the greatest Pope in recent Catholic Church History, Pope Pius X or John Paul II. They were two great Popes. And who is the greatest Nigerian writer, Chinua Achebe or Wole Soyinka. They are both great writers, though personally, I would choose Achebe any day over Soyinka. We are still too close to recent history. Until the generals and associates of Mbakwe and Okpara spill their beans like General Babaginda and General Obasanjo, it is difficult to tell, for between reality and perception, there is always a little gully.
Dr. S. Okechukwu Mezu