I did not know Obong Victor Attah up close before his emergence as Governor of Akwa Ibom State in 1999. There was no personal relationship beyond a distant admiration based on political association until the ban on politics was lifted in 1998. Even then, my interaction with him was not quite close.
I had a fair knowledge of who Attah was, being a famous architect. Before his entry into politics, he operated mostly outside Akwa Ibom State, where he engaged in the conception, design and execution of important projects across the country. Even then, he was always mentioned as someone whose political and economic vision for the state was unmistakable.
Most importantly, we knew him as the man who developed the Master Plan of Uyo, the capital city of Akwa Ibom, shortly after the state was created. But there was nothing personal between us. I was a practicing lawyer, with my chamber located in Eket, and would venture into politics occasionally, while Attah owned a flourishing architectural practice based outside the state with a huge professional reputation across the country. Our path hardly crossed.
All this however changed slightly when the ban on politics was lifted in 1998 by the then military administration following the death of General Sani Abacha, the then Head of State. It was time for the politically-minded to step out of the cold and congregate.
As a grassroots man, I got involved in politics in 1998 without seeking election to any office. I was merely interested in identifying with well-focused individuals with clear-cut visions on development of the state, particularly its localities.
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After listening to several opinion leaders and engaging in personal analysis, I realised that among the aspirants for the office of governor of my state, Obong Victor Attah gained much acceptance as someone who was visionary and vocal on crucial issues concerning the state. He did not only convincingly analyse the problems of the state in his manifesto, he also articulated the path to solutions.
During his 60th birthday anniversary, when he formally declared his ambition to seek the governorship of the state, he won my heart with his detailed development projections. Most remarkably was his eloquence as he addressed the people from Ibom Hall. He spoke passionately and ignited hope and expectations across the state. I wasted no time on deciding and signing onto his campaign team.
Before that time, I had served my people as a Council Member in my Local Government; a member of the State House of Assembly, where I emerged as the Deputy Speaker and later the Chairman of my Local Government Council; all under short-term arrangements by the military regimes of that era. My political profile, though not intimidating, was on a steady and noticeable rise, not only within my locality, but within my senatorial district and the state at large.
I must emphasise here that I was not one of the noticeable members of Obong Attah’s campaign team. I was more concerned about mobilising my community to vote for my party, the Peoples’ Democratic Party, and by extension the most acceptable governorship aspirant on that platform. That aspirant happened to be Obong Attah. His message on economic growth based on resource control was quite insightful.
Campaigning with a manifesto entitled: “Come, Let’s Build Together,” Obong Attah pulled almost every forward-looking politician in the state into his team. We campaigned with one voice guided by common belief.
It is not clear whether he noticed me from a distance as we had no opportunity of personal interaction – formal or informal. But at the end, he won the elections all the way to the governorship. Of course, it was clear that he would win because Akwa Ibom had emerged as a strong PDP state with noticeable aspirants for the different offices from the local to state and national levels.
When Obong Attah emerged as governor of the state, I was not among those who presented themselves for appointment. Since there was no deep personal interaction between us except as members of the same political party, I had voluntarily joined his campaign organisation without any hope of appointment into his cabinet. But all that changed as political events took concrete shapes.
It is likely that he made enquiries about professionals with appreciable political depth whom he could appoint into his cabinet and my name came up. I believe that my appointment as Attorney General and Commissioner for Justice did not just happen. God planned it and placed some influential people to recommend and endorse it. In a state filled with top-rated lawyers, I was not the best qualified, but I was picked.
After my confirmation, formal appointment and commencement of duties, I found in Obong Attah a leader full of ideas and direction. He challenged me from the first day to sit up and be focused by giving me a free hand to operate. I found out that though he is not a lawyer, he asked penetrating questions on every issue. It became obvious that before you appeared before him on any issue, you had to do your homework and be well-grounded on the details. My joy and satisfaction were that I was not found wanting.
As a governor, Obong Attah ran an all-inclusive government. He appointed into his cabinet people from all the ethnic groups in the state, including people from Ibeno and Eastern Obolo, a feat his successors could not sustain. Every time we met as State Executive Council, I found Obong Attah to be very democratic. He allowed members to make contributions on every issue, a situation that made every decision unanimous.
Let me mention that it was during his era that most of the outstanding infrastructure in the state were conceived and initiated. These included Ibom Airport; Ibaka Deep Seaport; Shelter Afrique Housing Estate; Ibom Icon Hotel and Ibom Golf Course. Obong Attah’s era as governor of Akwa Ibom was that of dry and unappreciated sacrifice for the state. Having just taken over from a military administration, he was deliberate about fixing the state in the areas of infrastructure, economic development and capacity building.
He knew what to do but lacked the financial resources to get those things done. This was at a time the state was deliberately starved of funds through the delay and eventual cancellation of the statutorily-guaranteed percentage of the oil revenue, a matter that had to be decided by the Supreme Court in favour of the Federal Government of Nigeria.
It was a painful experience. Things became so difficult that government could not afford purchase of vehicles for official functions. One day, after a meeting at Aso Rock Villa, while other state governors took off in their convoys of exotic vehicles, our governor’s official car embarrassingly refused to start. We had to quickly arrange an alternative way to get him out of the Villa. Whether it was a sabotage or a mere mechanical fault, we did not know. But it was clear that the car was old, having been inherited from the previous administration.
While some political jobbers saw Obong Attah’s action as avoidable political stubbornness because he took on the government at the centre, some of us saw it as unprecedented patriotism because he refused to settle for anything that was not in favour of Akwa Ibom State. He fought on and eventually won the battle in the dying days of his administration, having been massively re-elected in 2003. It was therefore the succeeding administrations that enjoyed the fruits of that “stubbornness”.
Apart from his face-off with the Federal Government over unlawful and naked deprivations, Attah’s administration was locked in boundary tussles with our neighbours: Cross River and Abia States. It was as though these distracting situations waited for his emergence as governor to unfold. He took them one after the other as they unfolded. I can still remember his gentle voice asking probing questions during our almost daily briefing sessions: “Attorney, what do we do?”
For a man with such deep and wide intellect, he was always ready to listen. He studied every situation as they unfolded and seemed to have premonitions about them all. Obong Attah never pretended to know it all. He listened to and took professional advice on every issue. He knew when to play politics and when to strike a compromise. He came to governance as a satisfied man with cultivated integrity and refused to seize any opportunity for self-enrichment. He is the kind of leader I would repeatedly serve if I had another opportunity.
Obong Attah is unquestionably the Father of Modern Akwa Ibom State. However, his voice was not only heard or meant for Akwa Ibom State alone. His influence and advocacy extended to the entire South South states.
On October 19, 2023, at the Yar-Adua Centre in Abuja, I watched with huge admiration as Obong Attah demonstrated statesmanship when he spoke at the anniversary of Naija Times, an online newspaper owned by media professionals across the country. His speech was short, energetic and, as usual, deeply scholarly. He did not talk like an-85-year-old. He walked the steps spritely, took the stage and delivered a short and impactful extempore comment that earned him repeated applause.
That’s my boss, Obong Victor Attah. Happy Birthday, Sir.