Isong: Integrity Personified
The Clement Isong Foundation (TCIF) has just launched a book in honour of the patriarch of the Isong family and foremost nationalist and patriot, Dr. Clement Nyong Isong. The book titled “Clement Nyong Isong: A life of integrity, discipline and public service” is written by a historian, Professor Olutayo Charles Adesina. Very comprehensive and well-written the book lacks the lick-spittle and sycophantic attributes of most authorised biographies. That is probably because there was not much in the life of this noble gentleman that could be positively said about him that anyone who knew him could consider to be an over-the-top exaggeration. He was brilliant, principled, disciplined, incorruptible, humble and fair-minded. It was a piece of good fortune for his family and Nigeria that there existed in the country one man who had such a rare combination of excellent qualities packed into his solid frame.
A Harvard University educated economist, Isong was governor of Nigeria’s Central Bank at the country’s period of peril. General Yakubu Gowon, Nigeria’s war time leader, had to lean heavily on the nimble brain of his CBN governor for a road map even though there were other strategic thinkers such as Chief Obafemi Awolowo who lent considerable wisdom to Nigeria’s civil war effort. Gowon says in the Foreword to the book that Isong was one of the few people privy to the decision to change the currency during the war. He also superintended over the conversion of the Nigerian currency from pounds and shillings to naira and kobo. According to Gowon, Isong “made doing the right thing so easy.” However, Isong was opposed to the fabulous salary windfall that was known as Udoji Awards of 1974 because of the inflationary spiral that it was likely to generate but Gowon went ahead and implemented it to the delight of Nigerian workers. Isong was thinking like an economist while Gowon was thinking like a politician. And when there is a clash between Politics and Economics, Politics almost always wins because even economic decisions are more often than not taken by politicians. At the Central Bank, Isong instilled discipline and a sense of integrity into fiscal and monetary management of our assets. It is doubtful if Clement Isong would have allowed the looting of Nigeria’s financial resources that occurred in subsequent years. In all probability he would have preferred to resign from the plumb job instead of becoming the facilitator of the legendary kleptocracy to which we all have become unfortunate heirs. As a reward for that unparalleled integrity Isong’s face and signature adorn, along with those of Alhaji Mai-Bornu, the one thousand naira note. No honour can beat that. Chief Ebenezer Babatope, a former minister of Transport, described Isong as the “most incorruptible leader ever found in Nigeria.” In Nigeria today, the tribe of people of integrity is fast vanishing because the efforts to enhance integrity are weak, meek and mild and a reversal of what we do in the real world. We talk about anti-corruption as a people and a government but in practical terms we buy question papers, marks and grades for our children and give corrupt people a place of honour at the table of governance. If integrity did not exist Isong would have invented it.
Isong was a one-term governor of Cross River State (1979-83) under the National Party of Nigeria. During his first and only term in office he established several factories in various parts of the state: Battery and Biscuits factories in Ikot Ekpene Senatorial District, Paint and Ceramics factories in Uyo, Steel Rolling Mill in Eket, Match factory in Calabar and Foam factory in Ogoja. He also revived the Asbestonit factory in Oron which had virtually collapsed and resuscitated the Palm Kernel Crushing Mill at Abak while injecting life into the dying Calabar Cement Company. Most of these companies are dead today because the successor governments apparently did not think it was the business of government to get into business or they simply did not know how to give good health to these institutions. The debate is unresolved even today as to whether or not government can successfully run a business in Nigeria. The statistics are grim. There have been more failures than successes largely because of political interference, wrong choice of managers, corruption and the feeling that what belongs to government belongs to nobody specifically. But I believe governments will continue to dabble into business because there are lots of gaps that private sector enterpreneurs are not interested in because they are low-profit enterprises.
I was the Editor of the Nigerian Chronicle (1977-80) when Isong was the governor of Cross River State. The members of the State House of Assembly were assigned rooms at the government owned Metropolitan Hotel in 1979 since their housing estate was under construction. Most of the legislators piled up huge bills at the hotel over and above their legitimate entitlements. One of my reporters with the support of the hotel got the documents that showed this high level of profligacy by the legislators. We confirmed all the facts and I slapped the story on the front page of the Nigerian Chronicle. The legislators got angry and commanded me to appear before them. The management decided that we should only send either the reporter or the News Editor. They did not want their Editor insulted by the parliamentarians on a story that was correct to a T. But the parliamentarians insisted I must appear before them. I refused because I knew they were very vulnerable. I also knew that the Isong government was happy that we published the scoop so as to be a check on their profligate consumption. The matter died eventually while they could only rant at me in their Hansard. Then about September 1980 I gave a three-month notice of my desire to resign as Editor of the paper. When Governor Isong learnt of it he sent his friend, Senator Victor Akan, to find out from me if I had a problem with his government. I told him to tell the governor that there was no problem and that I just thought it was time for me to move on. While Isong did not put pressure on me to stay, it was, surprisingly, the State House of Assembly members who debated in the House as to whether or not I should be allowed to go. It was a pleasant surprise to me that the people who were at war with me had asked that I rescind my decision to go away and actually published it in their Hansard. That, I presume, was the measure of the level of importance that people attached to newspapers in those days.
Despite his good performance, Isong did not get a second term as governor of Cross River State. The Cross River State mafia in Lagos led by Senate President, Dr. Joseph Wayas wanted Senator Donald Etiebet to be the next governor of the state. This group used the amorphous and indefinable asset called “federal might” to drive a good man who was a member of their own party out of office. It wasn’t that Isong was weak; it was simply that he was not willing and or ready to use underhand tactics to gain or retain power because he did not belong to the pantheon of desperate politicians who would like to cling to power at all costs. He rather preferred to go home with his integrity intact. He was a different type of Nigerian. He loved to serve for the sake of service. If he was not going to be in a position to serve because service needed him he was not going to bring down the roof because of it. Today’s Nigerian politicians would have done anything and everything to retain the position, but Isong was too humble, too sane and too patriotic for such gangsterism. He was humble up to the very end of his life. According to a Nigerian journalist, Inemesit Ina “In March, about two months before his death I encountered Chief Isong at a fuel station trying to buy fuel. This was in the days of long queues and I was told that if he didn’t come, his driver would have been unable to buy fuel on time. I almost wept because in other parts of the country where leaders are respected fuel would have been supplied free to Isong at home.”
This man who was nicknamed Double Governor by Senator Olabiyi Durojaiye, a former director of the Central Bank, did not consider it odd to go to the petrol station at the age of 80 with sterling accomplishments under his belt. That is a mark of his high humility. It is true that he came from a lowly background. He worked his way assiduously up to the top of the totem pole and by dint of his sweat he had become a paragon of upper society but he remained humble and simple till he died. That is a mark of true greatness which has been amply reflected in his biography and is in very short supply in our polity.