…Mine is an unusual book review as the author and subject of the book is my maternal uncle. Long before I met Ambassador Abdullahi Atta personally, my mother Sadatu Baiye of blessed memory told me about his humility and brilliance as they were both classmates in elementary school. When I eventually met Uncle Abdullahi, he did not disappoint.
The listening ear, the affectionate attention and gentle demeanour were all evident. I remember vividly when l came to Lagos to apply for what used to be the passport for travel within West Africa. There I was received by him in his office in Six-Storey Building on Broad Street with a flourish meant for someone greater than a Sixth-Form pupil hoping (in vain, as it turned out!), to read French at the university.
He personally led me to the old Passport Office where, all formalities concluded, the following day I emerged with a sprightly red document called “Regional Validity Passport”. Lest I forgot, my uncle’s title back then was Counsellor, Research. I took note of that and wished I could one day aspire to that title, no doubt impressed by the comportment and gravitas of the holder!
You can imagine my consternation when only a few months later, I met the word ‘Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary’ which then, I imagined meant the holder could do anything except recreate the universe! Well, I simply reviewed my dreams to include the fact that this uncle of mine would reach that zenith and God knows, one day I might do the same!
I should move away from sentimental goulash for a while and try to do an appreciation of the book, its subject and his life and times.
“International Diplomacy and Palace Politics: the Memoirs of an African Prince”, has as its main proposition, the fact that Ambassador Abdullahi Atta’s upbringing in the palace of Alhaji Ibrahim Onoruoiza, the Atta of Ebiraland was key to his success as a career civil servant and highly respected diplomat. The author dwelt at length on the values that were inculcated in him in the palace, which values shaped his life and career. Notable among these was integrity.
“In my childhood”, he writes on Page 35, “it was an abomination to hear that somebody had cheated another or stolen money. It is with nostalgia that I remember all these aspects of life in Ebiraland”.
In a foreword to the book, Chief Emeka Anyaoku, former Minister of External Affairs and later, former Commonwealth Secretary-General referred to “the values and attributes of an exemplary Nigerian public servant”.
What other values shaped this gentleman? They included humility and hardwork as his father, the Atta was a formidable disciplinarian, strict but fair. The author refers to his father’s kindness and assistance to many outside his family but one lesson stands out – the king’s ability to find out what the people really thought about him and to discern the truth from falsehood. How else could the young career civil servant have handled the challenges of being posted out in the sticks as a railway station master with a new bride and less than spartan conveniences in Karazau train Station where he resorted to what he termed “large scale farming” on a plot of about 200 hectares? Such was the fecundity of this farming enterprise that the funds generated often exceeded the meagre salary. Hardwork paid then.
Ambassador Atta was brought up in a community where indigenes lived peaceably with people from other ethnic affinities. That explains his urbane and affable demeanour but it was not all rosy. There was the near fatal incident in which some Nigerian students in Cairo physically assaulted him because they felt he was not hard enough on the pro-Biafrian students who were in Egyptian universities! Thanks be to God, for had the fanatical assailants succeeded in strangulating him, this book would not have written. But it ended well as the northern students involved apologised after an intervention by the late Mallam Aminu Kano who was at the head of a delegation to Egypt in 1967. Just as well the Civil War ended with a “No Victor, No Vanquished” pronouncement by General Yakubu Gowon, Head of State before, during and after the Civil War years.
What should we say about the unfair methods employed by the author’s superiors at the Ministry Of External Affairs which included being peremptorily recalled home from Cairo by Ambassador Ogbu because he wanted to settle scores with the author’s elder brother, Alhaji Abdul Aziz Atta who was then Permanent Secretary, Ministry of Finance and later Secretary to the Federal Military Government till his death on 12th June, 1972?
His thoughts about Nigeria’s difficult political environment are there but he remains at heart a patriot. It is no wonder that he is pained by the humiliating treatment meted out to our pensioners as they are frequently wheeled out to identify themselves so they can receive their measly stipends. One would have wished for his pronouncement on whether the nation should have a distinct and separate Foreign Service as other arms of the public service do have and as it done in developed countries.
The success of Ambassador Atta was boosted in no small measure by the strong family ties nurtured with and by his wife, Hajia Amina. Her home-making skills are legendary. She has a well-deserved reputation for taking very good care of her husband’s many siblings and nieces and nephews. On my first taste of her culinary skills and hosting charm, when they lived in a flat in Bourdillon Road, Ikoyi, I observed that we ate in turns as there were several of us who visited unannounced! But I must add, we ate very well. Is it any surprise, therefore, how she was able to feed all Non-Aligned Foreign Ministers when the then Minister of External Affairs “ordered” that only Nigerian dishes be served? The author’s accounts on Pages 115-117 about the event confirms the fact that his wife’s credentials as a cosmopolitan hostess and consort were further burnished by the spectacular fete for the Non-Aligned Foreign Ministers in Havana.
This memoir is pleasant to read. The preview by former Head of State, General Yakubu Gowon added immense value to the book. Ambassador Abdullahi Atta is a good raconteur. I still remember with relish, the stories he has told me, though, as so often happens, he has told them repeatedly but heavens forbid that I should remind him that I had heard that before. For me, Ambassador Atta’s life and writings mirror each other. His fetching manners, cool under pressure and solicitous of his relations and guests have made him very popular with my generation of Atta children and grandchildren and further beyond.
The publishers and editors have done a splendid job. The prose is uncluttered and the syntax, painless. Abdullahi Atta is an embodiment of his father’s acute intelligence and gregarious instincts. There is very little to fault in the editing of this book, though an index would have been advisable. Rather, than chapters, the narrative is broken into parts. Personally, I would have opted for chapter-by-chapter presentation as the publication is not long enough to be broken into parts.
The editors should have resolved the conflicts in dates for the Okene Waterworks which was opened in 1937 by Governor Bernard Bourdillon. Elsewhere, 1936 was chosen as the date. Kabba was mis-spelt “Kaba” on Page 35 and the reference to ‘foreigners” on Page 31 should have been rendered ‘non-indigenes’. The photographs and illustrations are most helpful as they are a fitting throwback and encapsulate Atta’s life and times. He shares nuggets of wisdom in the Reflections postscript.
A leading member of the Nigerian diplomatic class, namely Ambassador Oladapo Fafowora once remarked to me, “Ambassador Atta is a blessed man. His children are all doing very well”. This matter pervades the latter parts of the book and the author’s pride in his children’s success is justifiable.
Bill Gates Snr, father of Bill Gates, founder of Microsoft, has written a book in answer to the many who have asked him how he managed to raise a prodigy such as Bill. In Showing Up for Life: Thoughts on the gifts of a lifetime, Gates the elder wrote that Bill his boy once asked him if he ever took time to think!
Ambassador Abdullahi Atta may be too modest to write a book about his children, but his elation is no less palpable. He is not done yet, though, as he said on Page 151, he is looking forward to seeing his first grandchildren graduate from the university. He writes, “It will be my delight to see them out of university and married, then I can have my marching orders”.
Well, I now have my marching orders, though definitely of a different kind.
*Clem Baiye is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief at VERITY COMMUNICATIONS LIMITED.