By 1879 the Yoruba had produced their first graduate, a lawyer by name Sapara Williams. In contrast, the first Igbo graduate could not emerge until about 1934. I believe his name was Dr. S. Onwu, a medical doctor. Despite this late start, due to no fault of the Igbo, Ndiigbo were able to catch up with the Yoruba by the 1960s. It was the investment in education in the 1930s and 1940s that yielded the dividends of the sixties, which saw the flowering of all aspects of Igbo culture and life.
Those were the hey days of the indefatigable The Rt. Hon. Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe, the great Owele of Onitsha and the first Nigerian Governor General of Nigeria, as well as the first President of the Nigerian Federation; of the boycott king, the Hon. Maazi Mbonu Ojike; of the flamboyant wordsmith, the Hon. Kingsley Ozuomba Mbadiwe; of the political pragmatist, the Hon. Dr. Michael Iheonukara Okpara, of the cerebral scientist and parliamentarian Honorable Kalu Ezera; and of radical Zikists like R.B.K. Okafor, Mbazulike Amaechi, and Mokwugo Okoye to name but a few. Mention must also be made of Dr. Nwafor Orizu, President of the Nigerian Senate before the outbreak of hostilities. These political fire-eaters and strategists brought charisma, color, and candor into the Nigerian political scene and raised the status of the Igbo man to an unprecedented height.
The academic group was led by intellectual giants like Professor Kenneth O Dike, first Nigerian principal of the University of London College at Ibadan and its first Vice Chancellor for seven years. There was Professor Eni Njoku, first Vice Chancellor and principal officer of the University of Lagos. Writers like Cyprian Ekwensi, Chinua Achebe, and Christopher Okigbo dominated the literary scene. Even though the Igbo were latecomers in the field of education — behind the Efik in the Cross Rivers State and the Ypruba of the South West — by 1960, the year of Nigeria’s independence, the Igbo had outstripped the Efik and were about at par with the Yoruba. The Igbo rise was so phenomenal that the Yoruba felt truly threatened and their leaders wondered aloud why the Igbo should take over the leadership of the University at Ibadan, a university located at the heartland of the Yoruba nation.
At the same time the business group led by tycoons like Okonkwo Kano, Sir Odumegwu Ojukwu of Nnewi, Chief Ihekwoaba ofNkwere, Chief Akwiwu — who was the first mayor of Port Harcourt, Chief Nnanna Kalu of Abiriba (though of a younger generation) and Chief Abaecheta of Mbieri provided necessary financial and moral support to the political and academic communities and helped in the overall renaissance of Igbo culture, art, and entrepreneurship.
“Something new always comes from the East,” says a Latin dictum. The Igbo spirit of enterprise, characterized by hard work and thrift was rewarded by the booming of its economy in the fifties and especially in the early sixties before the war. The road network in the then Eastern Region was clearly the best in West Africa, and according to a research conducted by a premier university in the United States of America, the Economy of Eastern Nigeria was rated as the fastest growing in the world, ahead of Malaysia, South Korea, China and Taiwan.