Victor Attah and a life of selfless service, By Udeme Nana

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ne would readily imagine that such an expression would serve to reprimand an old folk who indulges in smoking, womanising, excessive eating and drinking, struggling for food in private or in public places,  displaying a hateful and unforgiving attitude, name dropping, gossiping or lying for a living . Not in this case ! 

Nevertheless, that poser is the usual first response which an 85 year–old architect and former governor in Nigeria gets when he goes hunting for jobs in his professional line. In Nigeria, that is unusual. It doesn’t look ‘natural’. It seems like a taboo for anyone who has occupied a high political office to return to regular work after a seemingly cozy tour of duty in Government House. It is perceived as committing ‘hara – kiri’ – a class suicide and even former colleagues would wonder why, after serving for two terms in office, a former Governor would dust up his professional accoutrements and engage in “runs” as if he was a regular human being. 

In Nigeria, politicians walk with a certain swagger, a certain mien, a chip or with many chips on their shoulders. They talk in a certain voice and dress in a certain way. They put on a certain cap and lead a certain kind  of life. They become unnatural human beings!  Neither spirits but definitely, they feel higher – up than mere mortals. But that is an exact opposite of what the second civilian Governor of Akwa Ibom State represents. In his youth, he had been a non conformist, breaking from the mould; a free spirit, independent minded; pursuing his own path, even if he walked alone, not minding  prevailing expectations in the society. As a teenager, he moved away from a training Institute owned by Presbyterian protestants (Hope Waddel ) and transferred to a College run by the Catholic Church (St Patrick’s). He has remained a Catholic ever since.  His family was Qua Iboe, another protestant sect.

In 1962 , as a student and President of the Association of Architecture Students in Zaria, he led a protest against lecturers in his Department,  to find out why some students failed examinations!

He has led a life of protests since then, protesting against the unfair and unjust structure of Nigeria of his adult years. He believes that Nigeria needs to restructure because ‘when we had the regional governments, we had so much independence and the regions competed healthily among themselves’. That was when Nigeria practiced the true tenets of federalism including fiscal federalism. At that time,  each regional government paid a different and unique salary scale to it’s workers according to the strength of it’s economy. 

That changed in his adult life. And he hasn’t stopped protesting. It was his progressive radical bent which forced him to relocate from his base in Kaduna where he had set up his practice to Lagos in 1988.

He took his Avatar disposition to the Constitutional Conference convened by the late General Sani Abacha in 1994 / 95 and in 1999, when he got elected into office as the Governor of Akwa Ibom, hitherto, a sleepy back – wood location in Nigeria. His  transformative bent woke up the landmass and the people of the State.He mobilised the people.  He started out with a clarion call to everyone in his State to “Come, let us build together” but on assumption of office realized that he was face to face with the poverty of the State and the management of that poverty. He definitely wasn’t going to run away , abdicate or derelict his responsibility. He wasn’t going to lie low and maintain the status quo ante. He wasn’t going to express helplessness or throw up his arms in frustration or defeat. He didn’t gripe about it. He is made of sterner stuff. Although he bemoaned his fate, a man imbued with the courage of his leopard – hunting forbears , he set out to confront boldly, the reality which dawned on him. He needed resources to speed up the development of his state in line with his dreams. 

As a member of the Conference which prepared the Constitution  in use, he remembered the provisions for the payment of 13 per cent derivation to mineral bearing States in the Federation and led the agitation for fair play and justice in the payment of the derivation revenue. It was a tough fight against a stubborn President Olusegun Obasanjo whose conduct as a civilian President betrayed him as a General still at  ‘his Command’. Most Generals, in and out of military gear,  do not usually brook opposition, especially from “bloody civilians’’ but in Obong Victor Attah, the old military General found a contender with an insistent and loud voice.One is sure that with Attah’s outlook, courage and fighting spirit, President Obasanjo had secretly wished that his nightmare wasn’t a fellow in architecture but in arms. The building scientist possesses the no –  nonsense booming voice of a military parade Commander which comes into play when he is irritated or agitated. Attah rallied the governors, legislators, community leaders and youths from his State and the South – South region to articulate the need for payment of the 13 per cent derivation revenue without the on shore – off shore dichotomy to the oil producing States in his region. Team Obasanjo ‘won’  in the Court of Law – a battle – but Attah’s team won the fight, ultimately, with ‘a political solution’. More funds started pouring into the Niger Delta States with the payment of 13 per cent derivation revenue. 

As a statesman, this cultured leader believes that the current wholesale practice of presidential system of government at the Federal, State and Local Government Councils is one of the scourges bleeding Nigeria. As governor, he moved to implement the parliamentary system of government at the local Government Council levels in Akwa Ibom State. Shouldn’t Nigeria look at that innovation? Attah studied in both England and in the United States of America where both forms of government has provided lessons. 

Today, Akwa Ibom State is a preferred destination in Nigeria. Business moguls and others are flown into Uyo,  land at the Airport which he conceived and stamped on the ground before leaving office. Thankfully, the thriving Airport is aptly named in his honour. Golfers from across the world now fly into Uyo, regularly, to grapple with the lush green and challenging holes at the Ibom Golf Course which he built. They enjoy the serene Caribbean themed Ibom Icon Resort which his government also constructed.The power plant which he planted still hums and feeds power to the national grid. The emerging rich in Akwa Ibom live in the choice Shelter Afrique Housing Estate and ninety percent of the residents who own palatial residences there or elsewhere in the State and in other locations are beneficiaries of the fruits of Governor Victor Attah’s spirited fight for fair – play and justice in  revenue allocation to the State. If Akwa Ibom State didn’t earn the billions that accrue to the State monthly, the wealthy state of health of the State and most of her people would not have been possible. In his time as Governor, unlike his successors, Attah and his entourage usually drove through the bad patches of Uyo – Calabar, Uyo – Port Harcourt or Uyo – Owerri roads to board flights to keep appointments in Lagos or in Abuja.  Governor Attah fought for the windfall in revenue which made the State Government rich enough to purchase a private jet for use by the chief executive of the state who succeeded him. 

Indeed, barring very few, whoever became who or  what in politics from Akwa Ibom starting from 1999 owes the status to the man rightly christened as the father of modern Akwa Ibom State. If visitors to Akwa Ibom State now describe it as a beautiful destination, the credit belongs to Obong Attah because,  not only did he handle the  professional job to design the regional plan of the Capital City as a private citizen, he ensured that the design was mapped clearly on the ground when he emerged as governor of the state. For instance, he opened up the various ‘Ring Roads’ and secured the right of way to ensure that his successors faced no obstacles in the construction of the ring roads. As governor, Attah left indelible marks in almost all facets of life in Akwa Ibom State. He gave an hitherto voiceless people a strong voice in national affairs. He had a prominent front seat and his strident voice echoed at national political summits.He was a much sought after Key note Speaker at intellectual conclaves in Nigeria and abroad. Obong,  as he is often called , generated a sense of pride among the people of the state. He unbound them from the shackles of a negative psychology and energised them to soar to higher heights.  

In assembling his team, he knew no tribe nor tongue.  He looked for potentials , talents , gave them a chance, listened to and accepted rational advice and never for a moment, played ‘god’ in the life of anyone. He respected his Aides and associates. 

Politics and high political office didn’t take away his profession. In his words “Even when I was in politics, I always emphasised the fact that I am a professional in politics and not a professional politician. This profession that I am so proud of has served me well in the past and before I became Governor, I used to travel first class with my family and I am not trying to be immodest here.”

According to him, “when I got into office, I wanted to serve my people. I saw how the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) used to harass politicians and I didn’t want any of that,” adding that outside Nigeria, in Europe and America, “politicians still go back to their professional practice,” pointing to President Jimmy Carter, America’s 39

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 president, who went back to his peanut farm after his tenure in office. 

Even as he grapples with the question, “Oga, are you still doing this thing?” He has earned such roles as the restoration of the integrity of the master plan of Abuja, Nigeria’s federal capital city, particularly, the Central Business District. He won the task to design the master plan of the Kaduna State University, Abaji master plan and the master plan of the Federal University of Technology, Ikot Abasi.

This architect, who specialises in wind bending designs and left his professional marks in Kaduna, Adamawa, Maiduguri and Abuja, was involved in the team that designed the New Port campus of the University of New York and the six second generation universities in Nigeria, among others. Importantly, Architect Victor Bassey Attah has designed his life in such a way that he remains a human being: lively, cerebral, articulate.

The question, “Oga, are you still doing this thing?” is symptomatic of the disrespectful attitude of most Nigerians towards genuine work, workers, the professions, professionals and a loss of appetite for real work by majority of people who have tasted the free wheeling soft money of politics in Nigeria and in many developing countries. 

Obong Attah clocked 85 on Monday,  20

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, November. Happy birthday, Your Excellency! 

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