Sometime last year, retired Air Commodore Idongesit Nkanga had called me to say that he would like me to be the reviewer of his biography, which he planned to launch on January 27, 2021, when he would be 69. The book, which was written by Mr. Princewill Isong Daniel, is a documentation of his flight from the tarmac of his career as an Air Force man and politician to the pinnacle of national recognition. January 27, 2021, came and I did not have the opportunity of reviewing the book because Idongesit Nkanga had died 34 days before his 69th birthday.
Nkanga was the first indigenous governor of Akwa Ibom State and stayed in office from September 5, 1990, to January 2, 1992. Before then, the young state had two governors who were non-indigenes, namely, Col. Tunde Ogbeha, from Kogi State, and Col. Godwin Abbe, from Edo State.
It was unclear why the military, which had established a tradition of appointing military officers as governors to states other than their own, sent Nkanga to his own Akwa Ibom State. That policy had two sides: the advantage was that the indigene-governor might know the lay of the land better and show a deeper commitment than the non-indigene. The disadvantage was that the indigene could be easily ensared by ethnic bigots and forced into an ethnic cocoon. They did that to Nkanga, forcing him to stop the broadcast of news in all vernacular languages other than Ibibio, the language of the majority tribe to which Nkanga belonged. This caused a lot of tension in the state. I was miffed for two reasons: (a) I was married to an Ibibio girl and I am of the Annang stock. Does it mean that the Ibibios think I am inferior and should not have been allowed to marry their daughter?
What will happen to my children whose feet are in the two tribes, who speak a mish-mash of Ibibio and Annang and are married to people from various parts of the country? What will happen to me and my wife who teach each other proverbs of the two tribes? I wondered many years later whether my three brothers who got married to Ibibio girls a few years later would have decided otherwise because of the ethnic bigotry that some small-minded people had tried to impose on the state. If that happened, love would have lost and bigotry would have won; (b) At a philosophical and practical level, I believe in diversity and inclusivity. I know that diversity is not a crime. It can only bring the crème de la crème to the table.
American President Joe Biden has appointed four brilliant Nigerians into his government. I was sure then, as I am now, that language does not divide people. It is small-mindedness that does.
For the past 37 years, I have had the honour of working closely with three other Nigerians from various parts of the country: Dan Agbese (Benue), Yakubu Mohammed (Kogi) and Soji Akinrinade (Osun). None of us speaks the other’s vernacular language. We only speak to each other in English or pidgin, yet, we have remained strong partners and friends, in fact, brothers, and people wonder whether or not we do disagree with each other. Of course, we do, we argue, we shout, we pound the table but we remain friends and partners. For us, ethnicity is never an issue. Religion is never an issue. Friendship, open-mindedness and professionalism are the threads that bind us together. Those are our survival kits.
I was editor in-chief of Newswatch when the language issue became news. I decided to find out from Vice-President Augustus Aikhomu whether it was the policy of the General Ibrahim Babangida government to move against the languages spoken by minorities. He said it wasn’t and that it was actually more beneficial to any government if its policies can be communicated in several languages to the citizens. He promised to get the policy of restricting broadcasts only to Ibibio language reversed. That was done. Nkanga was freed from the tension that had gripped the state. The peaceful resolution of the matter put a spring in his feet.
This humble, affable man of good manners used his ingenuity, along with his deputy, an experienced public servant, Ufot Ekaette, to build within 10 months 10 blocks of three storeys buildings, which have today been named Idongesit Nkanga Secretariat. It may look like an insignificant achievement today but, in those days, the money was simply trickling in and no one even believed that the gigantic project would be completed by the Nkanga government. He and his deputy were practically at the site every day supervising contractors until the work was done and dusted. Nkanga was not menacing as a military man but he was self-assured and had a quiet air of authority, rare warmth and an organisational muscle that he took with him to every assignment he was given. His brilliance may not have been noticed except by those very close to him because he was not a loud and noisy fellow.
One day Mr. Clement Ebri, a man with whom I had worked in the Nigerian Chronicle in Calabar before he became Governor of Cross River State, showed up at my door in Ikeja GRA, Lagos, with Nkanga, years after both of them had ceased to be governors of their states. As they entered, Ebri said, “I want you guys to hug each other. This problem must be resolved today.”
I was totally at a loss because I did not see the language conflict as a problem between the two of us. Once it was resolved I was fine. My upbringing teaches me that people are just people and that in every tribe there are good and bad people. What matters is what values they bring to the table. So, I make friends with people of various tribes and stripes provided we have some shared values. No language is superior or inferior. Your language is dear to you as mine is dear to me. You cannot make your language dearer to me than my own is to you or to me. More fundamentally, no one chose who his parents would be. So, the tribe to which you belong is purely an accident that you had no hand in bringing about.
Nigeria will only be truly united when we learn to accept the existential reality of our diversity and govern in consonance with that reality. That is a fundamental problem of the Muhammadu Buhari presidency. It didn’t start today. It has been a major issue in the Nigerian Armed Forces and other federal agencies. Nkanga would not have been military governor of Akwa Ibom State if Air Marshal Nsikak Eduok, now dead, had not intervened.
This is how it happened. The Ghanaian Staff College was an elite college for brilliant servicemen. Idongesit Nkanga was one of the brilliant airmen selected for the course. On his return, he was not immediately deployed. There was a tribal gang-up against him, as narrated by Eduok. Eduok was asked by the Chief of Air Staff, Air Marshal Nuriadeen Yusuf, to recommend six Nigerian Air Force officers to be appointed as state military governors. On the day he and his colleague went to submit the list, he was worrying about the ill treatment given to Nkanga without knowing that his face gave him away. As he entered, Yusuf read his mood and asked what was his problem. “Nothing Sir,” Eduok said.
But Yusuf pressed further and asked him to talk frankly to him as a son to a father. He did, saying that the conditions for appointing military governors seemed deliberately weighted against his own people so even as the chairman of the committee he felt unable to nominate brilliant people from his area. Yusuf asked, “By the way who do you have in mind?” Eduok replied “Wing Commander Idongesit Nkanga.”
Yusuf asked if Eduok knew him very well. Eduok said “Yes.” Yusuf said “Tell him to see me in the Air House by 8pm tomorrow with his wife.”
“When I went back to my house, I called Idongesit and relayed the instruction from our boss. Idongesit kept the appointment as directed. The following day, he was announced as the military governor of Akwa Ibom State,” according to Eduok.
Former President, General Babangida, who had a good pair of eyes when it came to choosing people of merit, says that Nkanga “was one of the very best and highly disciplined pilots in the Nigerian Air Force whom I had enjoyed working with. His versatility, sense of purpose, dedication and commitment saw him growing further in his career to being appointed Commander of the Presidential Air Fleet (PAF).” When he retired in 1999, he pitched his political tent with the National Democratic Party (NDP), contested for the governorship of the state and lost. He then changed camp and career trajectory when he joined the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) and chose to be a kingmaker instead of the king. That worked for him because he succeeded in delivering Godswill Akpabio to the governorship seat twice and in the 2015 and 2019 gubernatorial elections he successfully led Udom Emmanuel’s campaign. That is a significant record for him as a brilliant big game player, strategic thinker and organisational genius.
I saw Nkanga in full flight at the 2014 National Conference, where he was the leader of the Akwa Ibom State delegation. Between day and night there was no difference. He was perpetually on the move, prodding us, organising, moving, meeting, discussing with various groups whose interests coincided with those of our state. He was a restless workforce who earned the admiration of many, including those whose interests were diametrically opposed to ours.
He was a valiant warrior, along with the old war horse, Chief Edwin Clark, and the entire Niger Delta delegation on the issue of equity and justice for the Niger Delta people. It was no surprise when, a few years later, he climbed into the office of the president of PANDEF, the forensic fighting machine of the oppressed Niger Delta people. Now, PANDEF must look for and find a fighter of no mean weight because there is no manifest interest by the political elite in resolving those problems any time soon. The people of Akwa Ibom State are lucky to have had him in the cockpit of the board of Ibom Air Limited from takeoff to high altitude.
The establishment of an airline by any government of Nigeria is fraught with signs of turbulence. With Nkanga’s guidance, Ibom Air seems to be reaching cruising level without too many bouts of unexpected turbulence. That is a tribute to Nkanga’s painstaking and obsessive devotion to the success of the airline. The amazing thing about Nkanga is that even with all his achievements he remained very humble, disarmingly friendly and possessed a healthy disdain for unabashed opulence. People like him are hard to come by today in Nigeria.
May his soul rest in peace.