Remembering Clement Isong, The Unsung Apex Bank Hero, Defending His Politics

The book, CLEMENT NYONG ISONG: A Life of Integrity, Discipline and Public Service were written by Prof. Olutayo C. Adesina, refreshes history and exhumes some gripping past about an undisputed global icon, the late Dr. Clement Isong. 
General (Dr) Yakubu Gowon, who served as the military Head of State during Dr. Isong’s stewardship as the Governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria (1967-1975) contributed a Foreword to the book. Dr. Gowon raised intriguing talking points on a potentially combustive subject about the past bothering on Nigeria’s reputation for resource management or lack thereof. In his words, “In the early 1970s, he (Isong) compelled me to set aside pending official issues to attend to matters of his office. He did that by coming to tell me the CBN had so much money but did not know what to do with it.” (Emphasis mine) In what appears as stirring the hornet’s nest, Dr. Gowon avers that “Regrettably, the innocuous remark was misunderstood by several citizens who preferred to believe and repeat the lie that our government was ‘awash’ with money that we lacked the foresight to expand judiciously.” 
For fairness and balance, Governor Isong’s submission, as presented in the book and as may be so inferred, is indicative of his disposition on the subject matter. Dr. Isong in his trademark candid manner was quoted in a newspaper report to have said: “Our economy is still going on but I cannot say buoyant.” This was in late 1969! (Daily Times Lagos, “Committee Studies Currency Change,” Friday, August 22, 1969, p.1.) Furthermore, the research findings and submission of the author do not support or portray Dr Isong as capable of harboring, exhibiting, or promoting profligate tendencies particularly with regards to public finance. (See pp.134-144, p.289)
Gen. Gowon duly acknowledged that writing the Foreword to the biography of Dr Clement Isong could be likened to scripting “the performance appraisal of one of my key men in government, 1966-1975.” He asserts that “His (Isong) leadership of the CBN at a critical period in the development of Nigeria was remarkable.” Dr Isong’s own testimonial on the state of the Nigerian economy that he ably superintended to the end of the War was unambiguous: “Nigeria’s economy…a giant that can stand the strains and stresses of this war for as long as it lasts unless it is irresponsibly abused.” (New Nigeria Kaduna, “Dr. Isong’s Warning”, Friday, 5 December 1969, p.1.) In the same vein, the verdict of an external assessor in the person of Dr. Vittonano Manfredi, the then Italian Ambassador to Nigeria is noteworthy. He declared that “despite the experiences of the country during the Civil War, the balance of trade between Nigeria and Italy had remained healthy.” (Daily Times Lagos, “Nigeria has a bright Economic Future”, Wednesday, November 4, 1970, p.15.)
Indeed, a reluctant and remorseful nation acknowledged these facts by the historic and rare honour of embossing Dr Clement Isong’s portrait on Nigeria’s N1000 (one thousand naira) currency note in 2005 (30 years after he left office). It’s a remarkable endorsement of Isong’s sterling stewardship and service to his country and serves as an eternal reminder to the world, of Dr Isong’s towering and golden place in history.Dr Isong’s rise to the apex of his career in banking and as a public administrator per excellence was no easy ride. The author traces the trajectory of a rather checkered life marked by series of challenges of debilitating life issues. These include difficulties at birth, a grueling childhood with the loss of his father as an infant, growing up in a culture surfeit in superstition, the strains and communal environment of life in polygamous homes, troubling health issues in his family, and a determined climb of the education ladder to launch out to the world, in spite of all odds.
 Isong’s tortuous life journey from Ikot Osong in the present day Onna local government in Akwa Ibom State where he was born on April 12, 1920 through his school years in the backwater setting of Oron; to the University College, Ibadan; Iowa Wesleyan College and Harvard University in the United States of America provide a compelling read. Upon completion of his PhD (Economics) programme at Harvard in 1957, Dr Isong worked at the Federal Reserve Bank in New York as Assistant Economist. He was recruited by the Nigerian Government from this high profile and prestigious position to come and serve his country. The author reports that back in 1953 Isong’s Faculty Advisor in his letter of recommendation to the Harvard Graduate School, said that “[Isong] should be a real asset to his native Nigeria upon the completion of his studies.”(p.27.) Dr. Isong’s astonishing record of accomplishment on returning to Nigeria is a classic case of swamp to stardom!
Prof Adesina in a no-holds-bar narrative, unmasked the sour intrigues of the politics of geography that dotted Isong’s career pathway and has remained a critical hindering factor to actualizing the country’s true potentials. But for fate, and circumstances of necessity, the authorities at the Federal level had to ‘course correct’ to save the nation from imminent economic collapse by offering Dr Isong the position of the Governor of the CBN in 1967. The author submits that:”It became obvious that the gathering clouds were going to blow out into a costly civil war. However, instead of looking inwards, the Federal Government panicked and looked for a savior from outside its shores. The politics of ethnic and regional security was a major factor in the decisions of the time.”(p.68)
Eventually, the stone that was earlier rejected became the cornerstone to bolster the nation’s faltering economic fortunes and its very survival at a difficult period of the Civil War. An important diplomatic communication in the British circle (with a legendary record of its own questionable intrigues and interests in Nigerian affairs) preserved that historic marker for posterity as contained in a letter to the British High Commission:”Following further discussion at the political level, it was agreed to appoint Dr. C.N. Isong as the Governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria in replacement of Mr. A. Mai-Bornu who resigned his appointment.” (p.70.)
Many may want to view Dr Isong’s appointment as an accident of history particularly in the context of the prevailing ‘Nigerian factor’ at the time. Isong was clearly disadvantaged being from the so called minority of the South Eastern State. The sheer force of necessity and the urgent demand for relevant industry competencies compelled the authorities to get the ‘best man for the job’ at that material time. The lot fell on Dr. Clement Isong.
However, for Isong, a visionary, deliberate and intensely focused person, it was no accident at all. The author provides evidence as stated in a form Clement Isong as a student in Harvard filled for the United States Department of Justice Immigration dated March 26, 1957. Isong stated unequivocally the type of employment he desired:”It is my intention to work in the Central Bank of Nigeria when I return home (emphasis mine). To give me some type of experience, my Professor has arranged for me to work at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York Research Department.”(p.55)
It is instructive to note that at the time of his writing, Nigeria was yet to establish a Central Bank! Indeed, Isong did actualize his career ambition, headed the apex bank and performed excellently as evident in his public service record and the testimony of many.  
The author recounts how Dr Isong was drafted into the political arena at the advent of politics in 1978 against his primary wish and the vehement opposition of his immediate family. Having been removed with disdainful shabbiness from the high office of the Governor of the CBN by a brash military administration led by Brig. Murtala Mohammed, it was understandable why he was reluctant to immediately accede to pleas for another public office in Nigeria. Not minding his acclaimed superlative performance at the helms of the CBN, the Nigerian bug of eating up its best and the upright was visited on the revered gentleman by a military junta that had shoved Gen. Gowon aside to cease power, in what was more like a palace coup.
Isong eventually accepted to pitch tent with the then National Party of Nigeria (NPN) as their preferred governorship candidate for Cross River State (before the creation of Akwa Ibom State out of it). It was a demonstration of uncommon magnanimity, sacrifice and humility on his part to serve his people and society. Upon being elected Governor of Cross River State, Isong was adamant at maintaining his trademark principled stand of integrity and prudence in the conduct of government business. He’s reported to have said at a public forum that “I think you need people who can say the truth as it is in politics; people who would not like to deceive others for their own personal gains.” Isong went on to affirm that “I am not a politician (a typical Nigerian type). It is a politician that goes up to the people and says ‘we are going to give you a new state tomorrow…” in spite of the obvious difficulties and falsehood. 
His unpopular and ‘truthful style’ set him on collision course with politicians within his own party, the NPN. The politicians’ preeminent interest of advancing their own personal and private gains was inimical to what Dr Isong was advocating. According to the author, “the political interests within the party developed tastes and impulses that were at variance with the dictates of the day and the vision of the Isong administration…as a result of this, the machinery of government that Isong strive to sustain began, very early in his political career, to incur both uninformed and tendentious criticisms from vested political interests. By 1982, this had become very vociferous.” Despite the many strains, oppositions and attacks, Dr Isong managed to create “an efficient and inclusive government machinery designed to take the state to greater heights,” as attested to by Dr Mathias Offoboche, the then deputy governor of Cross River State.
At the end of his first term, the political hawks in the NPN denied Isong a ticket to contest for a second term, only for the whole gang of politicians and the entire democratic process to be truncated by a military coup in December 1983 led by Gen. Muhammadu Buhari. It was barely three months after the conclusion of a highly contentious round of so called elections. Isong had walked away from office with dignity. In spite of his impeccable public service record, the military administration subjected him through a harrowing 20 months in prison for an alleged possession of illegal arms said to be found in his house. He was exonerated, acquitted and discharged by the court in April 1985 yet was still kept in detention until Gen. Ibrahim Babaginda took over command as head of state in yet another military coup in August 1985.
The author unveils an unsung hero in Dr Isong’s remarkable life of trials, tribulation and triumphs in the person of Mrs Nne Isong, his wife, a mother and the effective commander of the home front. She bore it all – the good, the bad and the ugly that became the lot of the Isong family. She remained steadfast in providing critical support, discipline, love, commitment and loyalty to put the family in stable and healthy state to sail on, always. Chief (Dr) Clement Isong in his post public service career remained active as an elder statesman in community service particularly in Ibibioland, which he cherished greatly. He was equally devoted to his Christian faith and humbly served in a few capacities. He also deployed the force of his moral integrity, experience and robust network to advocate for reforms in the criminal justice system in Nigeria inspired by the inhumane conditions he witnessed during his unjust incarceration in prison.
At his death on May 29, 2000 (a month after marking his 80th birthday) eulogies poured in from across the world extolling him for his talent, vision, resourcefulness, vigour, honesty, integrity, patriotism, loyalty and exemplary leadership. The author cites an Editorial in The Guardian, Nigeria’s foremost national daily affirming: “…Isong was an outstanding Nigerian who towered above most of his contemporaries in many areas of endeavour. In whatever ways he is assessed, he deserved a significant place in the pantheon of distinguish Nigerians.”The Clement Isong Foundation set up in 2006 in his honour, undertakes to promote the noble ideas of an irreplaceable icon, “a true legend and a hero in a nation in short supply of heroes.” 
John Maynard Keynes (1883-1946) a British and influential economist said that “The master-economist must possess a rare combination of gifts. He must reach a high standard in several different directions and must combine talents not often found together. He must be mathematician, historian, statesman, philosopher – in some degree. He must understand symbols and speak in words. He must contemplate the particular in terms of the general, and touch abstract and concrete in the same flight of thought. He must study the present in the light of the past for the purposes of the future.” 
Chief (Dr) Clement Nyong Isong (1920-2000) was undoubtedly such a man. Beyond his portrait eternally embossed on Nigeria’s N1000 currency note, his distinguished and indelible record of competence, integrity, discipline, patriotism and superlative public service, as masterfully captured in this book, is praiseworthy and should be celebrated for all times.

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