Akwa Ibom Trailblazers – The early trek and quest for American education


In 1925, Dr. Benjamin Nnamdi Azikiwe, Nigeria’s first President, began the trend of travelling across the Atlantic by boat to the United States of America in search of educational advancement. And it is partly because of Zik’s pioneering zeal for higher education that the number of Nigerian immigrants today in United States stands at over 500,000; with many of them involved in every sector of the American economy.

Before the attraction with post-secondary education in the U.S. took roots, the United Kingdom was the popular destination for Nigerians seeking higher education abroad. That included some prominent indigenes from the South East, such as former foreign minister Dr. Okoi Arikpo who studied at Oxford University and Sir Egbert Udo Udoma, a former Nigerian Supreme Court Justice and Ugandan Chief Justice who studied at Trinity College, Dublin as well as Oxford University.

Not too long after Zik arrived for studies at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania he was joined by Eyo Ita an Ibibio man from Ibeno. Lincoln is also the alma mater of Thurgood Marshall, civil rights activist and U.S. Supreme Court Justice. Marshall was the Court’s 96th justice and its first African American justice.

In a paper on the motivation for Zik to seek post-secondary education in the U.S., Levi Nwachukwu states: “Slavery had dehumanized the Africans, colonialism had marginalized him politically and oppression as well as exploitation had physically and psychologically bruised him. Lincoln’s mission was to restore his dignity through the enlightenment which education provides.”

And I believe this was a spur also for many other Nigerians of that era in their quest for education abroad.

Ita and Azikiwe, who both played pivotal roles towards Nigeria’s independence, were among a select group of about 20 Nigerian students that traveled across the Atlantic before 1938 to study in the US, according to James Coleman in his book “Nigeria: Background to Nationalism.”

In his book, Coleman informs that “most of these pioneers had been sent by missionary societies for religious studies; none of these religious students, except Ita, had returned as active nationalists.”

Among these pioneering students were Mbonu Ojike, Nwafor Orizu, and Ozuomba Mbadiwe as well as three Ibibio students all sponsored by the Ibibio (the Ibibio’s are the 4th largest ethnic aggregation in Nigeria, after the Igbo’s to the east) Peoples Union, IPU.

And so began a trend that has now led in no small measure to the uncommon transformation of Akwa Ibom State, through the production of a cadre of foreign-trained graduates that helped to provide expertise for the administrative and professional foundation for former Southeastern state of Nigeria, from where Akwa Ibom State was carved out 27 years ago.

This historical perspective is important because the Ibibio people, who occupy the palm belt in southeastern Nigeria and encompass a number of sub-clans; notably the Anang, the Efik, the Oron and Ekid people, have always been unique, industrious and progressive people, a fact emphasized during my recent interview with Dr. Esenowo J. Esenowo, OON, who is among these early Ibibio scholastic trailblazers.

With financial assistance from his people in Idua, Eket Dr. Esenowo left the shores of Nigeria in January 1950 for a circuitous boat (you could only travel by boat then) journey that took him through Marseille, France through London before arriving New York three months later on the SS Banfoura.

At Howard University Washington D.C., where he was enrolled to study medicine, Dr. Esenowo was just one of three students from the region. Others included T.T.  Etuknwa and Okon Eka Idem.

And it is quite interesting listening to this eminent Akwa Ibomite as he recalled his days in college during the height of segregation.

It wasn’t too long after his arrival that he got the first shock of his many experiences of racism. It occurred during his first trip outside campus for a haircut. “As I entered the saloon after a Whiteman had just finished his haircut I was told “Get out, we don’t barb niggers here.” Although, times have changed, this was obviously a shock for the young Esenowo, who said it was taboo for African students to venture out of campus then.

“In my time it was incomprehensible to think that a black man could be president,” he reflected on how times have changed, emphasized by Obama’s presidency.

It was because of this racial pattern that Esenowo, and three other Nigerian students at Howard, decided to head west to California, after graduation from medical school in 1956.

And California turned out to be a breath of fresh air for the four Nigerians, especially for Esenowo who initially practiced medicine at the General Hospital in Fresno.

Esenowo’s closest friend during his sojourn in America, was Etukudo Essien (an Uncle) who after working with the Nigerian Railway in Kaduna arrived in 1950 to study at Atlanta’s Bradley University, recognized as one of the top universities in the Midwest by U.S.News & World Report.

Esenowo like his friend Essien also arrived the shores of America with one portmanteau (Suit Case) the goodwill of his people back home and an ambition to prove himself in God’s own country.

Essien returned home in 1955 from the US by boat transiting through Freetown, Sierra Leone and then on to Nigeria with another prominent Akwa Ibomite  J.M. Essien, who attended Fourah Bay College the oldest university in West Africa and the first western-style university built in West Africa, whose first black principal of the university was an African American missionary named Reverend Edward Jones from South Carolina in the United States.

He returned with a master’s degree in Sociology to join a corps of young Nigerian graduates trained in the UK and USA that helped established the first batch of the nation’s civil servants. Soon after his return Etukudo Essien was employed  in the Eastern House of Assembly as the First Clerk of the house (Eyo Ita also served as the first leader of the Eastern Government following an election in 1951), and rose through the ranks to become Permanent Secretary Ministry of Lands in the Eastern Region in 1964, and was based in Enugu until the civil war broke out in 1967.

Like many other Nigerians who got swept up in an ethnic turmoil beyond their control, Esenowo and Essien ended up on both sides of Nigeria’s civil war divide. Essien was also separated throughout the war from his family, who lived in Nta-Isip, Ikot Ibiok in Eket, where he was born. Esenowo, courtesy of a federal government scholarship, proceeded to the United Kingdom for a postgraduate degree in medicine, while his best friend Essien served in the administrative think tank of the Biafran government.

To illustrate how the war created divisions between family and friends, Esenowo recalls an article written by Essien published in the London Times in 1967, where Essien who was then working for the Biafran leader General Odimegwu Ojukwu, was critical of the idea of the creation of South Eastern State by General Yakubu Gowon, because there were not enough technocrats to support the state. This letter sparked a war of words between the two friends and prompted an invitation to Biafra House in London, which Esenowo declined for safety reasons.

But in the spirit of reconciliation both friends were to reunite toward the end of the civil war when Essien returned from Biafra in 1969 to join the civil service of the government of South Eastern Nigeria as a permanent secretary in the administration of Governor Udoakaha Jacob Esuene. He lived with Esenowo until he and his family were able to get their own place.

The story of Esenowo and Essien (whose accomplishments as a Permanent Secretary in South Eastern State’s Ministry of Health, Ministry of Home Affairs and Social Welfare included the refurbishing of Immanuel Hospital in Eket) somewhat symbolizes the unique challenges faced by this group of pre-independence change agents, who sought post-secondary education in the U.S., to develop their young nation.

An interesting sidebar to this story is that more than 64 years after the Idua people pooled resources together to sponsor his education abroad, Dr. Esenowo will be making a symbolic donation to his community next month.

Ben Edokpayi, a Nigerian-American, is a strategic communications expert.


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