By Soni Daniel
I must confess that I just happened to find myself in the middle of two great Akwa Ibom leaders, patriots, pioneers, champions and change-makers, who were also among the finest and most brilliant military pilots who ruled the skies for many decades.
Frankly, I cannot explain what I did that endeared me so much to the two men during the nearly three decades of our union. I still continue to ponder how the two highly-placed leaders considered me worthy to share ideas and visions with them while they were alive and never hesitated to discuss personal matters of interest with me even though we had been separated by time and space for many years and occasionally meet at close range.
I first met and become very close to the then Wing Commander Idongesit Okon Nkanga when he was named the first indigenous Military Governor of Akwa Ibom State in 1990 when I was a News Assistant Trainee for Akwa Ibom Broadcasting Corporation while waiting to enrol for my first degree at the University of Uyo. Although, I was a news assistant trainee, I was assigned to cover the Governor’s Office on account of my assessment by the management of the media establishment.
In that position, I interacted freely with the military governor, whose village of Ikot Nya shares the same boundary with mine of Ikot Abasi Nsit in Nsit Ibom Local Government Area of Akwa Ibom State. Our relationship grew to a point that we would have to meet often at chosen locations to talk about the new state and what he needed to do in order to lay a solid foundation for the new state and write his name in gold.
Nkanga trusted my judgment and made it clear to his close circles that nothing serious should be hidden from me and I felt on top of the world. Soon, I gained admission to UniUyo and I was forced to combine schooling with work and our frequency of interaction ebbed. Nonetheless, Nkanga, ensured that I got my Communication Arts choice over Philosophy, which the university offered me without any justification.
When he finally left office on January 2, 1992, he slapped some freshly minted N20 notes, which was the highest Nigerian currency at the time, amounting to N500 into my hand after we returned from his village to the Government House Uyo in company with James Akpandem, my good friend and brother, who worked with the Punch Newspaper at the time. It was that money that I used in paying my school fees for the second year after my wife’s cousin, Monday Idiong, had paid N400 for the first session. Nkanga used to tell me then: “Inua Ekpe” always do all you can to stand out anywhere you find yourself. If you are upright and have integrity, you can be anything in this world no matter how people try to twist what belongs to you.”
By the time I went for the compulsory one-year National Youth Service Corps programme in 1995 and was rejected by one of the oil companies with a strong presence in Akwa Ibom State, Nkanga became my guardian angel by promptly taking me to the Presidential Wing of the Murtala Mohammed Airport Lagos and introducing me to the then AVM Nsikak Abasi Essien Eduok, who was the Minister of Aviation at the time and he wasted no time in fixing me.
“Sir, Nkanga began, this is one of our boys, Soni Daniel, who has no place to do his compulsory one-year national service,” he concluded and saluted Eduok once more and retreated from the plane.
Eduok, stretching his hands towards me asked, “Da owo abadie”? Translated to mean, “Young man, how are you”? I answered in trepidation, not believing that such an exalted icon, whose name I had only hitherto been hearing on radio and television, could offer me a handshake and smile at me as broadly as he did.
“Take him to Group Captain Peter Gana and tell him that Soni is my boy,” Eduok ordered one of his aides and he quickly saluted and in a jiffy, we were in the Office of the Managing Director of the Nigerian Airways and I was signed in with ease to do my national assignment.
That singular encounter facilitated by Nkanga was not only divine but historic and life-changing for me as it opened a very strong and symbiotic bond among us even though I was a ‘small boy’ compared to them. Eduok and Nkanga treated me as their junior brother and son but respected my opinion on any subject matter they wanted my counsel on.
As he assumed office as Nigeria’s 12th Chief of the Air Staff only a few months after I had settled down to serve at the Nigeria Airways, Eduok brought me to the ‘Air House’ in Victoria Island and introduced me and Sam Akpe officially to his top officials as the duo to write his Biography and gave us unhindered access to him and his family from that moment till he passed on. He provided significant support and chaired my wedding on October 16, 1999, and was always willing to ‘hide’ me and my wife in his house any time any of my stories in Punch Newspaper at the time I was the state correspondent upset some big wigs in the state.
Eduok and Nkanga took a special interest in my education, family and progress in life and were eager to assist me to stabilise as one of their ‘boys’ even though I had grown to become a man of my own: they were my genuine and divinely arranged godfathers and I truly miss them as they departed this world almost simultaneously on December 25, 2020, and January 6, 2021. I will forever be grateful to the two heroes of Akwa Ibom for many reasons.
While Air Cdre Nkanga assisted assiduously to lay a solid educational foundation for me, God used AM Eduok immensely to stabilise me as a family man. When I was leaving for the City University of London for my second Master’s Degree in International Journalism on September 14, 2007, AM Eduok tucked a small white envelop into my hand with an instruction: “Use this to pay your way from Heathrow Airport to your university”.
I only got to know the real value of the ten pieces of £50 notes amounting to £500, when I started spending pounds for the first time on arrival in London. Before then, I had never seen or known how the British currency looked like. At that time, the £500 was enough to sustain me as a foreign student for a term and in appreciation, I sent a very strong THANK YOU message to him. His only response was: “Make the best of the opportunity because if you miss it, you might never recover from it.”
Upon my return to Nigeria in 2009, AM Eduok encouraged and convinced me to join the iconic bureaucrat Chief Ufot Ekaette, former SGF, who had just been appointed the pioneer Minister of Niger Delta Affairs, as his Special Assistant on Media and Publicity, based on the former’s insistence that I was his choice for the job after perusing my resume based on my initial rejection of the offer. But I succumbed largely because I could not say no to AM Eduok for any reason!
Eduok and Nkanga remained my mentors, role models and heroes till death and we savoured our strong bond of friendship for almost three decades. Sam Akpe and I had completed AM Eduok’s Biography since April 1999 and we were merely awaiting his approval for the printing and launching of the book: “ON THE MOUNTAIN TOP” but he insisted we must continue to wait till he clocked 75 so that it would not appear as ‘I am advertising myself’. But unfortunately, he exited this world without the book being published and presented to the world as he would have wished. But the manuscript is still alive and well kept!
Early last year, after a sumptuous pounded yam and chicken meal on a Sunday afternoon in his Asokoro home, Akpandem James and me discussed the idea of writing Nkanga’s Biography and he instantly acquiesced only for COVID-19 to break out and asphyxiate our initial contacts with those we were supposed to meet. In our last meeting after church at the RCCG, Glory Tabernacle Parish Asokoro, around September, three of us deliberated on many issues of interest and reminded him of how he assisted us with N500 each on the last day of his stewardship as the Military Governor of Akwa Ibom State on January 2, 1992, but he just nodded his head and said: “We thank God for everything”. We never suspected that that would be our last meeting with our hero, mentor and godfather.
Eduok and Nkanga advertised me broadly as a good product and were so proud of me to the point that they unreservedly introduced me to members of their respective families-fathers, mothers, children and other siblings. For this privilege, almost all members of their families know me as AM Eduok and Air Cdre Nkanga’s close ally and confidant, and I feel good to be so associated with them.
Today, as I look back, I am happy and proud that Destiny brought Eduok and Nkanga my way to shape and propel me to be the man that God destined me to be. Although they are gone, I take consolation in the virtues of integrity, contentment and excellence they both bequeathed to me and I cherish them even in death!
Adieu, my heroes, mentors and godfathers!