There is certainly no other senior citizen of Idoma extraction who occupies the professional position to make definitive pronouncements on journalism in Nigeria or write a testimonial for any other journalist than Chief David Attah, the Benue born quintessential ex-this, ex-that. Whether one is talking of professional journalism, column writing, training of journalists, chief executive of media organisations and the media man in politics, he has seen it all, from the Northern regional information service in Kaduna to when he, along with a few others, were the first set of graduates deliberately recruited and groomed by the godfather himself, Babatunde Jose, for the Daily Times. It was from there Attah moved over as the General Manager to the then Benue Plateau Publishing Corporation, publishers of the now barely alive Nigeria Standard where he wrote a column called “Thinking Aloud” in the Sunday Standard. Then member, House of Representatives, followed by being General Manager, Benue Printing and Publishing Company, publishers of the barely surviving The Voice. Then Benue State Commissioner for Information; Chief Press Secretary to late Sani Abacha and, lately, party elder. So, he can issue any journalist a testimonial and it would be authentic.
But as his visitor on Tuesday, October 23rd, 2012 in Makurdi in the course of a research project which has taken me and others across one or two states in the North West, North East, North Central and the South West, he so threw me off balance that I did not know whether to laugh or cry when he set out to write a testimonial for me. It was the most beautiful testimonial I ever got but the vegetating state of existence of David Attah that was issuing it was too hard a reality to come to grips with for anybody at all who knew this once most comely and vibrant David Attah. Ill-health, lack of care and isolation have reduced him to that vegetating existence. Apart from the incredible physical deterioration, his hearing is also impaired by dosages of medicine he is taking. You have to raise your voice for him to hear you.
What he said about me was enough to keep anyone happy for life but I wondered throughout the rest of the day about his situation. How much does it take to send this man to Germany or London or China for specialist medical attention for just three months and he would be back totally restored? Members of the Idoma oligarchy or of the Benue establishment can certainly save the incumbent Chairman of the Benue Elders Association from dying slowly from a curable ailment. Or even the Benue and national PDP or the Federal Government since he was a high state official.
On arrival in Makurdi on Sunday, October 21st, 2012, for the Benue end of a research project, I went with Nathaniel Ikyur, my friend and my unpaid expert in interviewing to Attah’s Makurdi home to inform him of his role in the project and when he could grant me the in-depth interview. I couldn’t do this on the phone because the phone number I was given never clicked for once. Thinking that he still lived where I used to meet him years back, I decided on heading straight there. It was a disaster. I had to call his junior brother in Radio Benue to get a sense of where he now lives. That one described his house for us and advised we forget phoning, that we were sure to meet him at home. And so we went. And he was there, playing a local variant of the chess game with a friend he seemed totally at peace with. The most comprehensive and most apt description of his new abode is nature perfect. Its greenness and ambience must be the envy of even a Wangari Mathai, the late Kenyan environmentalist and Nobel Prize winner.
The first shocker that evening was that I could not recognise him even though he recognized me. The guy who opened the gate for us had instructed us to proceed straight to him. I asked whether we were turning right or left because none of the two persons that I could see from the entrance came close to the image of David Attah I carried. The guy couldn’t guess my confusion as he kept saying we should proceed straight on. So, we proceeded. When I got close enough, i could see that Attah’s playmate is so dark he couldn’t be David Attah. So, something must have happened to the David Attah I knew and whom I had come to see. I was thinking fast but he had started saying very nice things about me already, showing clearly that he knew who had come, he knew where I have been until recently and he has followed whatever I wrote in the newspapers. Still, I thought he was merely fulfilling the customary diplomacy of the professional elder being nice to a younger one. I was to get the real shocker on Tuesday, October 23rd, 2012 which was the day he gave us to come back for the real interview. The plan was for us to leave Makurdi on Monday morning for Gboko en route Taraba State but if Attah wanted Tuesday, so be it.
On Tuesday, we got to his house almost one hour late for the 11 am appointment. In Nigeria of today, there are a million things that can force you to be late to the most sensitive appointment, things that can neither be anticipated nor handled any other way than they running their course. But when he came to the exclusive Sitting Room we were directed to, he manifested no sensitivity to our lateness.
Instead, the testimonial writing resumed, with him veering off the subject matter of our interview and focusing on me. Attah said he had been unable to follow up on the subject matter of our interview because he has been bed ridden for three years. “Herein lies my delight when you turned up here, somebody I had wished to meet to tell him how proud I am that he is seeking a positive encounter with our complex nation in his very stimulating write-ups. I praise you as a person. Don’t be deterred”
According to him, his biggest disappointment is that virtue is not rewarded nor evil punished in Nigeria. “No society can progress with that inherent attitude. But I believe in destiny. What is yours can only be delayed, not denied. Your courage to work outside the system and to work for a critic, my friend, Sule Lamido, is something we admire, envy even. We can see you in your writing and you are all about the people”.
Continuing, Attah said “Nobody stops asking here. What provided the connecting link? You are not a Muslim. You are not from Kano or Jigawa. Then what happened. He must have been moved by a certain qualities that you must have demonstrated in one way or the other. Nothing happens for nothing”.
My situation, he said, was very analogous to his. He was propelled, he said, by the quest for action, the love of adventure and the desire to rub shoulders with the big boys of the South West in the field of journalism. As far as he knows, nothing from our background will take us close to the seat of power and within the range of powerful individuals if one didn’t have his kind of motivation.
“You have experienced Sule Lamido, now it is another project, all of them outside Benue State. Something must be going for you, my dear little brother. As an old man, I can only pray that God Almighty in his infinite mercies will give you the courage to stay right and fulfil your destiny”.
He came upon me so suddenly and so detailed that I was temporarily lost. I was wondering if he was talking about me or some other person. But the only other person with us never worked with Sule Lamido. So, he must have been talking about me. But we have not spoken for over a decade. How did he know all the details of encumbrances of public office?
I was to find more amazing and enigmatic things about the 67 year old Attah in the course of the discussion. I was to discover that, apart from reading at least three daily newspapers, he has a big library and, on many days, he remains in his library up to 4 pm before he comes out. Reading, for him, is the source of the greatest inner satisfaction. “There is nothing final about knowledge. Everything is in the process of being renewed. And if you don’t keep abreast of developments, you risk being left behind, with disastrous consequences”. He added that the day he stops reading is the day he dies. “I don’t read to pass an examination but I still have newspapers of the early 1960s because I don’t throw away anything”.
This reading habit, his ‘nature perfect’ home and the spirit of man in him must have been his greatest reality adjustment mechanisms, (RAM) at a time of physically restricted life, bodily depreciation, isolation and lack of care, compounded by the death of his wife much, much earlier.
As it is, these difficulties have no effect on his mental integrity and continuous engagement with seeking knowledge. I knew he read Economics but I had no idea what kind of educational environment it was. It was Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria where many dons impacted on him but particularly Professor James O’Connell, American Professor of Politics whom Murtala sent packing in 1975. O’Connell not only taught Attah in Zaria, he also stayed with Attah when Attah rose to become Group Manpower Development Manager of Daily Times in Lagos.
Were you not scared putting him up in your house, I asked Attah? O’Connell has been a marked man since he published his “The Fragility of Stability and the Inevitability of Instability” in 1967. The power elite of a newly independent African state like Nigeria which was grappling with instability could not be expected to stomach any such theory that, on the surface, was saying that it was a walking endemic catastrophe. So, they must have put him under watch.
Today, Attah says O’Connell meant no harm and that he, Attah, remains ever proud of such Philosophers and inspired writers. “They are imbued with what you and I do not have and they provide ethos for humanity”. I wondered what sort of Economist could be so philosophical and even poetic. He traces it to his cultural roots, saying that traditionally, every Idoma person of his age and those immediately following them were versed in the culture, spoke the language unadulterated, were familiar with the parables and spoke in them, drew parallels using figures of speech and phrases. All these resulted from being taught in the language for many years before being taught in English. So, his generation was grounded for future roles and encounters with other cultures, a huge contrast to the CNN generation growing up under ‘CNN’ and its Coca Cola civilization. And the ‘CNN’ does not ‘teach’ the Idoma Alekwu Culture which Professor Robert Armstrong, the American Historian and leading authority on Idoma society described as the biggest and richest traditional literature but which is not being researched and developed because everything about it is shrouded in secrecy and it does not recognise women.
Right now, I don’t know who, between Attah and the Nigerian Government, to believe on the reckoning with O’Connell. Didn’t Nigeria end up throwing away both the message and the messenger by deporting O’Connell and others like him without first asking him to explain further? No question like this was put to Attah and he did not answer any but extrapolating from his sermon on the state of the nation, one could stretch a connection. The problems are overwhelming, he said, and there are no traces of light at the end of the tunnel. His contention is that you can’t sow the seed of failure and expect success. “Nigeria is over blessed by Mother Nature but grossly impoverished through either under utilization or mismanagement. The leaders see the nation as a big cake to be shared and eaten gluttonously and garrulously. We are going through a period of national stupor when nobody is thinking. I have been to every continent and there is nowhere any group of people are suffering deprivations such as Nigerians. One-quarter of what happens here will cause a revolution elsewhere. But God cannot have given us conscience for nothing. When social policies fail, we turn to God for whom nothing is impossible. For that reason, it is plausible to say that all hope is not lost”.
But he is sure that only the truth will exalt a nation and explains that this is why he always draws everyone’s attention to the 4-Way test of the Rotary Club: Is it the truth, is it fair to all concerned; will it build goodwill and friendship and will it be beneficial.
At this point, Comrade John Odah intervened in the interview. The erstwhile General Secretary of the Nigeria Labour Congress, (NLC) who was returning to Abuja from the burial we all attended at home at the weekend and had called to find out where I was in Makurdi came to meet us at Attah’s house and caught this part of the interview. Odah who was equally devastated by the Attah he saw was, however, so delighted that our senior brother still spits fire. Odah said everyone should come and hear it straight from Attah’s mouth because if they in the labour movement said the same things, it would be branded radicalism. “But here is a non-Comrade saying it better than us”. This was before he resumed his journey to Abuja.
My second, Nathaniel Ikyur, asked Chief Attah how he handled being General Sani Abacha’s Chief Press Secretary. Attah said he simply went to the media houses and said to them: Now, I am in charge as the Information gate keeper. Tell me, should I or should I not take the job? Before he did this, he was told not to go to certain areas or media houses because they were hostile grounds. But he went and, according to him, Ibadan was even friendlier and receptive of him. “Dipo Ajayi and all the henchmen in the media houses received me very well” It was probably the magic of his Daily Times’s roots.
Two, he took into account the personality of Sani Abacha whom he described as an introvert and a professional soldier to the core. On the basis of these two developments, he went and put structures and then deployed what he himself called the expertise of well meaning Nigerians.
By his story, he also had a share of what almost every media adviser encounters – shadowy men who are good in surreptitious maneuvers, speaking in tongues to the boss. “People in government thought I was too powerful, that my image was looming large. But I said no, I had come as a bird of passage. And, that by my background, I was a stakeholder more than some of you. I was somebody that you gave an assignment and you could go to sleep. I could even go to Igumale (his native area in Benue State) and deploy. To everyone, I said, gentlemen, you don’t have to like this man called Abacha but I am involved”.
He is happy that Abacha stood his ground and resisted the pressures. In fact, according to Attah, a joke developed in the Villa that if you wanted to send Abacha to sleep, start criticizing his CPS, Attah. “He will go up and will not come down again. They said I had done juju on him. But it was never juju but doing your best when you are identified, called upon and given an assignment”.
By his own admission, the only time he had problem with Abacha was when Ken Saro-Wiwa was executed. The way Wiwa was dispatched left him and others in government hoping that somehow, they could save Wiwa’s life at the end of the day stranded. Wiwa had been his friend, a convivial fellow who had popularized the aphorism “if you want to be a millionaire, think like a millionaire”. Naturally, such a person must be an Attah’s friend, not in the monetary sense of the aphorism but the idealism there. But as Attah put it in this discussion, “unfortunate events and developments were taking place in Rivers State and Wiwa’s friends in government were finding things difficult given the caliber of people who were killed in the Ogoni 4 violence that brought about the trial. And there was a tribunal which came with an outcome and before you know, he was executed. I was very angry. I went to my boss. I said you should have given me time to organise. Abacha said but others were tried, why should his own case be different? I said no Sir, don’t draw parallels. It was not a question of whether you are right or not. Progressively, he began to see the point and that is why Abacha ordered that from that moment, everything about information matters about the Head of State be left to the CPS. Otherwise, everyone was pulling in different direction in explaining government response to every single issue in contest”.
In spite of powers granted him, he said things were pretty tough for the government because that time, all the big guys in the country such as MKO Abiola, Obasanjo and Shehu Yar’Adua were in detention and the international community was getting more and more hostile by the day. “So, I saw hell from those experiences” He is still hoping to capture his experience in a book.
It was impossible to end the discussion without asking him to compare journalism in their own time and now. Again, it is best to let him flow, “the temptation is to answer the question from the time I entered the profession in the early 1970s. Then, it was seen as a vocation for school drop outs plus a few thoroughly educated freedom fighters, especially in the pre-independence days when journalism was used to fight for independence. We were the first set of graduates employed in the Daily Times under a special programme. Myself, Chris Ekwale, Areoye Oyebola and one other economist from Cross Rivers State, then Martins Iroabuchi.
Alhaji Jose was futuristic. He saw the potential for the industry to out grow cub reporters and the need for the profession to keep pace with the society or the press would lag behind and would be unable to act as effective watch dog, let alone be the standard bearers. He thought right. Today, who is not a graduate journalist? And the transformation has been phenomenal. Take the quality of articles in any field of endeavour in the regular newspapers or the number of university dons and other professionals who find themselves in journalism. The transformation has been phenomenal irrespective of whichever direction you look at it from.
So, I am highly impressed, proud and fulfilled that the field of my specialisation is attracting that caliber of professionals in other areas. On the whole, the growth of journalism in Nigeria in terms of quality and the quantity is hard to believe when you go back in history. Journalism is the only thing going for Nigeria today. If you remove the media, it will be a terrible day to behold”.
It had been a long day with Attah. But when we rose to go, he insisted on seeing us off to the car. All that made parting even more difficult but we had to be on the move. With Attah, one can only say that God must, indeed, be great.