By Dele Sobowale
Only our love hath no decay
This no tomorrow hat, nor yesterday.
Running it never from us runs away
But, truly keeps his first, last and everlasting day.
John Donne, 1571-1631, VANGUARD BOOK OF QUOTATIONS, p 141.
While everybody else close to Obong Architect Doctor Victor Attah, former Governor of Akwa Ibom State, was busy writing tributes and publishing adverts in newspapers to congratulate him on his 80th birthday, I uncharacteristically, did nothing. There was a reason. Like the Board member of a company quoted on the Nigerian Stock Exchange, NSE, and acting on privileged information, I knew that there were more blessings for Attah other than his attaining the golden age of 80. And, as I knew, the honours tumbled torrentially.
History would record that in November 2018, a man called Victor Bassey Attah in the same month clocked 80 in a nation where the life expectancy is still 54 and in sound heath. In the same month he was awarded a Honorary Doctorate Degree by a university in Delta State and on the same day was installed as the Pro Chancellor of the same university.
On November 20, which was his real birthday, a book I edited titled IT IS WELL WITH MY SOUL, chronicling Attah’s achievements as Governor, was launched at the Shehu YarÁdua Conference Centre in Abuja before on overflowing audience of the cream of Nigerian society from all walks of life. The astonishing thing about the book launch was the fact that former President Jonathan was also launching his book in Abuja on the same day.
Fearing the tough competition some had urged me as the organiser of the Attah book launch to shift the date. I stubbornly refused. Remembering the story of the race between the Hare and the Tortoise in Aesop’s Fables in our youth, I knew that we must out-hustle the Jonathan team if we want to have a decent outing. Working patiently and steadily, using contacts all over Nigeria and touching many important places personally, we got over 750 very important people crammed into a hall meant for 400. In four months, I reckoned that I personally logged over 70,000 kilometres in Nigeria in pursuit of invitees. But, it was worth it in the end.
And to cap it all, on Saturday, November 24, 2018, at the Le Meridien Hotel and Suites, which Attah built when he was governor of Akwa Ibom State from 1999 to 2007, before a full hall, the current Governor of Akwa Ibom State, Udom Emmanuel, did what should have been done long before he became governor, but was not done on account of bad belle politics, he renamed Uyo International Airport, Victor Attah International Airport. I have searched everywhere in Nigerian history and cannot find another instance when a single individual, dead or alive, has had so many blessings showered on him by the Almighty God in such a short period of time.
Let me at this point restate my relationship with Attah for readers who might not be familiar with it. It all started as far back as 1954 when my father, who loved fishing, and would take his sons on the boat to under Carter Bridge in Lagos. In between waiting for fish he would tell us stories from Aesop’s fables as well as traditional Yoruba tales.
He was also passionate about one man – Zik of Africa. To us, his three sons, it was totally incomprehensible that an Ijebu man would abandon Awolowo and cling to Azikiwe an Ibo with all at his disposal. Half of his money was deposited in the bank controlled by the Eastern Regional Government when Zik was Premier and the other half he placed in Barclays Bank, DCO (now Union Bank) and Bank of British West Africa (now First bank). So passionate was my father about Zik that he read only the West African Pilot, owned by Zik and had several Igbo attires. Perhaps, if Zik had asked him to sacrifice one of his three sons he might have considered it.
One day, under Carter Bridge waiting for fish to bite, I summoned the courage to ask Daddy why he loved Zik so much. Instead of giving me a straight answer, he uttered something similar to Jesus answering the question: “who is my neighbour?” He told me that a man can only appreciate God if he can find a human being outside his own immediate family to whom he can devote his time and effort. Zik was for him that man. To be candid, at ten, it sounded like a lot of malarkey to me. But, I trusted Dad and I believed he would not mislead me.
It was not until I found myself as an undergraduate in university, taking courses in philosophy, comparative religious studies and history that the truth of Daddy’s advice hit me. In my readings, while compiling the VANGUARD BOOK OF QUOTATIONS, I later came across a fellow called James Boswell, 1740-1795, who achieved some measure of greatness by being the biographer of a greater person than himself – the incomparable Dr. Samuel Johnson, 1709-1784.
Boswell became the leading authority on the life of one of the greatest writers in history. Samuel Johnson was the first English lexicographer (don’t go searching for your dictionary, a lexicographer is a person who writes dictionaries). He was also an author of several books and a journalist – and in my opinion the best columnist ever in history. He left the world with such philosophical bombs like “Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel”. Boswell set me off in search of the person who will receive my attention so much. I was lucky. I found two – both here in Nigeria. Attah is the second one.
Late Architect Femi Agbe, my cousin in the Agbe-Davies family introduced me to Attah almost ten years before I met the man. At an Agbe Family function, my older cousin was talking with another family member and Attah’s name came up. The more cousin Femi talked about Attah – his courage, selflessness and fairness – the more I became determined to search for the man he was talking about. The real opportunity came when he became Governor of Akwa Ibom. Before you start thinking that he showered me with money, let me declare openly that he did no such thing. In fact we met twice in his eight years in office. But, then I had the man in my sights and I would not let him go.
In 2004, he asked me to write the foreword to the original book ATTAH ON RESOURCE CONTROL as he went to war with Obasanjo on behalf of others. I was an eager recruit to the combat and remain so till now. But, it was after he left office and Governor Godswill Akpabio and his appointees descended heavily on Attah with nobody to defend him that I stepped forward. I offered to join the battle at a time when Akwa Ibom was the murder and kidnapping capital of Nigeria.
This was no mercenary mission. Of what use is money to a dead man? It was, for me, a crusade. It is quite possible that none of the people Attah enriched stood up for him as I did despite the risks involved. My only inspiration was Daddy’s advice under Carter Bridge. The more I know about Attah, the more the devotion grew and today, I fully understand what Elton Trueblood means when he said “Faith is not [just] belief without proof; it is trust without reservation.” (VBQ p 55). There are two people alive today who I trust without reservation – our eternal uncle, Uncle Sam, publisher of VANGUARD Newspapers and Victor Attah. They can get me to do just about anything.
Permit me to end this narrative, part one really, by recalling what happened to Boswell as he worked on Johnson’s biography. Late one night, his young wife who had waited in bed for him night after night finally got desperate. She approached James without a stitch on hoping to get him aroused. He looked up briefly and said to her “Better put on your bath robe. It’s a chilly night.” She smashed the candle stick on his head. I almost got my head smashed working on the revised edition of ATTAH ON RESOURCE CONTROL launched in April this year and IT IS WELL WITH MY SOUL. Attah’s biography follows in two years time – God willing. I know more about the man than he knows himself as he will discover later. Thanks Dad and James Boswell; you showed me the way.
Happy birthday Sir.
TRUTH WILL ALWAYS PREVAIL
“God will be no helper of liars.” Homer, 900 BC.
VANGUARD BOOK OF QUOTATIONS, VBQ p 127.
A Federal Minister, went to Borno State in 2016, and after being driven around under heavy military escort, pronounced Boko Haram “defeated”. A few weeks after, Boko Haram kidnapped almost 50 UNIMAID researchers and foreign workers. They also launched suicide bomb attacks on over twenty communities in one month.
About two months ago, The minister was back again. This time it was to tell us that “Boko Haram has been decimated”. Today numerous families of soldiers are mourning their loved ones slain by a decimated gang. I am also grieving for the families and Nigeria. We thought a retired General could fight the war better than a “bloody civilian”. We were wrong; dead wrong. He is too old to fight this war. Ogapatapata of the armed forces just asked the military to “wipe Boko Haram off the face of the earth”. Take cover. Each time they talk like that Boko Haram replies with venom. “Liars ought to have good memories.” (Algernon Sidney, 1622-1683, VBQ p 127). These liars can’t even remember yesterday. Pity.