By Dele Sobowale

“Perhaps, one day, this too will be pleasant to remember”, Virgil, 70-19 B.C

“When we finally reached Nigeria, I was certain that I had reached my resting place on earth. There would be no return to Barbados or UK”. Mrs Alison Attah, April, 2012, in an interview in Lagos.

Tuesday October 29, 2013 will mark exactly one year since Mrs Nenyin Alison Attah, the former First Lady of Akwa Ibom State departed this world for eternal life. For the two children, Felicia and Christopher, and for His Excellency, Obong Victor Attah, the Father of Akwa Ibom State, it has been a long year; made longer by the absence of the centre-piece of every home – a loving wife and mother. Life had ceased to be the same for them; but life must go on.

But it was not only the husband and kids who will miss her. Eno, the house help of over three decades, who through the generousity of the former First Lady, had sent two kids to university and is the proud owner of three bedroom bungalow, with boys quarters attached, had refused to go. Like the Biblical Ruth she had decided that even in death “Your people shall be my people”. She represents a lot of people who are still to come to terms that their long term benefactor had gone – never to return.

Last year, on these pages, I had made the observation that “At every funeral there is a star of the show; who will not go home when the function is over”. One thing about memorial services is that the star of the show can never be there. As we gather together, at the Catholic Church on Tuesday, to honour, to me, the first of all First Ladies, it is always a pity that she will never be there again to see how much she is loved.

I have half a page to write what should ordinarily require a small book about Nenyin Alison Attah. Where does one begin and where does it end? So forgive me if there are gaps in the story you are about to read. There is more where that came from. I had the advantage of being frequently at her bedside in the hospital during the last two courageous years of her life and we talked. Not once did she mention her concern for Barbados, her land of birth. Not once did she express the wish to be back on that island nation where there is far greater tranquility than in Nigeria. She always talked about Nigeria and how things could be done better.

She did not marry Victor Attah because she was searching for “gold”. Attah, as some people know was the third son of a father, B.U.A, Attah, OON, the second Nigerian to obtain a degree in Agriculture and the first to bag a Masters Degree in the discipline and he was responsible for the establishment and development of Palm Oil Research Institute. B.U.A Attah had on one occasion told an uppity Yoruba Professor of Medicine, at Ibadan, who asked if he wanted to be like the Joneses,: “Where I come from, we are the Joneses”. Young Victor, in Leeds in 1967, was one of the Joneses, and, he was very sure of himself. The lady he had been trying to catch was Alison, whose father, Julian Coleman, was a sugar plantation owner and wealthy. Alison, born on June 15, 1938, like Attah, was the third child, and third girl, in a house that was later to be filled with successful kids – boys and girls. She not only traveled to Britain for her education, she bagged an undergraduate and a Masters Degree as well. When the meeting with young Victor Attah, which occured at a Student’s Dance, blossomed into marriage, it was a union of the ‘Joneses’. She read voraciously, not because she was trained in Library Science but because she loves reading. She could recall whole poems even as she was struggling with death for her life. She was the first person I ever met who could almost match me quote for quote. Simply remarkable.

Her big chance to really demonstrate her love for Nigerians came in 1999 when Attah was elected Governor of Akwa Ibom State. Unlike most first ladies, she was not prepared just for the glamour of office but also for the service required of those who are fortunate to be called to lead. Her focus was on the really down-trodden in the State – the women and the children. For what follows, my witnesses are the women who worked with her in the eight years she was the First Lady of Akwa Ibom. Hostile politics in the state will not allow me to name them; but they will certainly be named in the near future. She initiated many programmes; and paid for many from her own pocket. (Don’t forget, her father was one of the ‘Joneses’ in Barbados).

She and Governor Attah had barely settled down to work at Uyo when Nigeria adopted the eight (8) Millennium Development Goals, MDGs. Like the practical person she had always been, she focused on three objectives – listed below:
3. Promote gender equality and empower women.
5. Improve maternal health
8. Develop a global partnership

But she added a fourth on her own taking care of the kids. The fourth was particularly relevant to Akwa Ibom because Attah, as Governor, had bitterly decried a situation in which “Akwa Ibom had become the nation’s largest supplier of house maids and cooks”. To undertake this mammoth project she created the CHILD DEVELOPMENT TRUST FUND with her own money. Children trafficking was rife; most so-called “Orphanages and Motherless Children Homes were actually fronts for children trafficking by vicious men and women. She was determined to put a stop to this. But, even children who were living at home were mostly malnourished. Hunger and real learning are like two parallel lines which do not meet. So she had to tackle under-nourishment as well. This she did by creating ALI MEALS. These were vitamin and mineral supplements, produced in a factory she established to provide essential food supplements for the kids in primary schools.

Forgive me if I cannot list all the interventions and elaborate on them. But included among her notable achievements was the donation of one million books by an American donor to the state. DOCTORS WITHOUT BORDERS were brought in to treat women and children with congenital defects and to train local health officials to enable them provide better quality primary health care. She was also active in providing support for widows who were often deprived when their husbands died and she provided start up capital to women starting their own businesses. And, when the refugees came trooping in from Bakassi, she was there to welcome and help rehabilitate as many as her personal finances could allow.

To me, however, her greatest accomplishment was turning the children trafficking orphanages to real support centres for children without parents. And, she did this without incurring the violent backlash of the men and women trafficking in kids from the state. She simply got them registered and thereafter their activities were regularly monitored and suddenly child trafficking from the state was reduced significantly. There is more where those came from…..

May her soul rest in perfect peace.

I was in Delta State on Sallah Day and the day after. I briefly and unofficially visited Western Delta University; then I proceeded to Michael and Cecilia Ibru University at Agbhara-Ottor – both in Delta State. Both of them can be regarded as “Work in Process”. But, already some common problems are emerging…..
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