By Dele Sobowale
“Have you given up on the creation of your state?” President Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida, IBB, in a phone call to Obong Victor Attah as he prepared to create two additional states on September 23, 1987.
N.B. For the major facts presented in this column, about the creation of Akwa Ibom State, I have two living witnesses – Major-General Aliyu Gusau (rtd) and former military President Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida, IBB, GCFR. The state was created, virtually, at the last minute as IBB was going to announce the creation of Katsina State out of Kaduna State. Then, he must have decided that, for balance, there was need to create a southern state. Then he reached for the phone and called Attah. A new state was created after months of close lobbying by General Akpan and Attah; especially the Attahs.
Akwa Ibom State celebrated its 26th anniversary, last week, without four people who played a major role in its creation – General Akpan, late Mrs Eleanor Coleman, mother of the late First Lady of Akwa Ibom and His Excellency, immediate past governor of Akwa Ibom State, Obong Victor Attah. Irrespective of how his absence occurred, it was a gross oversight because, indeed, Attah was the Father of Akwa Ibom State and the “Uncle” of Bayelsa State.
What follows are mostly excerpts from a book, soon to be published on Akwa Ibom and related matters.
Long before the fateful day, for Akwa Ibomites that is, the Attahs had been close family friends of the Babangidas.
The close friendship was well-known among the top military brass and their staff. And, it extended to Mrs Coleman, Attah’s mother-in-law. On some of her visits to Nigeria from Barbados, she had been known to sit next to IBB, our future Head of State and playfully pull his ears while saying: “Why did a handsome boy like you get into the army? You want to get yourself killed”? That was how close the families were. It eventually worked to the advantage of all Akwa Ibomites who wanted a state of their own created out of Cross River. IBB survived any attempts to get him killed to become President and to create Akwa Ibom State. It was not an easy task defining where the boundaries of the state should lie for the following reasons, which emerged after the fact.
Akwa Ibom State now shares boundaries with three states — Cross River, Rivers and Abia States. Years of being part of the Eastern Region; and later, Cross River had resulted in mixed marriages and even dilution of cultures by people belonging to different ethnic groups. However, the three or four ethnic groups which ended up in Akwa Ibom State shared most of the Ibibio dialect – which are the dominant group in the state. According to facts available to me, the Ibibios, Annangs, Orons and a nearly extinct group, had settled in the area about 1500-1200 B.C. That fact provided the guidelines for determination of the new state. That is not the full history of Akwa Ibom State, but it is sufficient for us to understand that there was no arbitrariness in the decision. It was based on facts available at the time.
As for the eventual state creation, that is the actual drawing of the boundary lines, and Attah’s role in them, the story is best told in the words of General Gusau, in an interview I had with him. Here it is below:
“Attah was given an office in the Presidency and he had several copies of the map of Cross Rivers with him. Attah would mark the boundaries as he thought appropriate and I would take the proposal to IBB who would ask for time to study it. Then it would be returned with some adjustments and suggestions. It went on like that until a final boundary was agreed upon. However, the capital was not decided until later on. One other person who played a significant role was General Akpan. But, Attah, almost single-handedly was responsible for the creation of Akwa Ibom State”.
Another insider in the Babangida Presidency, who spoke on conditions of anonymity, said he could not recollect any other instance when a “bloody civilian”, who was not an official of government, was accorded the privilege which Attah enjoyed. “We even thought he was working on a secret project known to IBB, Gusau and Attah until Akwa Ibom State was created suddenly”.
I am aware of the mutual distrust between Attah and Governor Godswill Akpabio. But, it is reasonable to state that as long as Attah is alive, there should be no anniversary celebration in Akwa Ibom State, and perhaps Bayelsa, without Attah being invited as the Father of the Day. As Agathon, 447-401 B.C had declared, in Aristotle’s NICHOMACHEAN ETHICS, “Even God cannot change past”. For as long as Nigeria shall last; and, for as long as Akwa Ibom remains a State within it, OBONG Victor Attah is the father of the state.
Attah was not a politician when he undertook the task of creating a state for his people. In 1987, he was a successful practicing Architect and Town Planner. But, he heard the lamentations of the people who felt their development was being delayed by remaining within Cross River State; the bulk of the revenue was going to develop Calabar, while Uyo, Ikot Ekpene, Eket, Oron, Abak, Ikot Abasi remained glorified villages. Like the Biblical Queen Esther, he used his closeness to “the throne” to set his people free. Then he returned to his career.
As FATE would have it, he was elected the governor of the state in 1999 – and he was in for a shock.
“Attah, in 1999, must have felt like General Garibaldi, 1807-1882, the creator of modern Italy from several fiefdoms, who said: “We have created Italy, now we have to create Italians”. In 1999, Akwa Ibom was already twelve years old. Attah discovered that he still had to create “Akwa Ibomites”. (quoted from the book in progress on AKWA IBOM STATE). It is probably fair to say that the task of creating Akwa Ibomites can still be regarded as “Work In Progress”.
Finally, let me make a prophecy today. If Akpabio does not do it; another governor in the future will definitely build a befitting monument for Attah. My advice to people under these circumstances is “grant gracefully what cannot be denied”. The honour is long overdue. But, there is still one more anniversary before the present government of Akwa Ibom goes into history.
P.S. My first visit to some parts of Akwa Ibom State was in 1975. Traveling by road from Lagos, I was the National Sales Director of a Multi-national with distributors nationwide. One of the biggest was in Calabar. We started early in the morning from Aba, to pass through Ikot Ekpene, Uyo and end in Oron – in time to board the ferry that would carry cars, lorries and passengers across to Calabar. In less than five years, I had entered and exited “Akwa Ibom” from every conceivable point – including water. I was even offered a job as the General Sales Manager of defunct Dr Pepper Bottling Plant at Eket and I was one of those who laboured, in vain, to get the Abacha administration to complete ALSCON at Ikot Abasi.
I have always been fascinated by the people; their history and their cultures. If I was not born a Yoruba, I would have wished to be an “Akwa Ibomite”.
P.S. The articles on Nigerian Universities will continue but have been shifted to the EDUCATION pages of VANGUARD on Thursdays. Please join me there henceforth. It is in everybody’s interest. Thanks for reading our paper.