DAILY TRUST. SUNDAY 26TH AUGUST 2018.
General Reminiscences with Ambassador Abdullahi Ibrahim Atta
By Temitayo Odunlami & Risikat Ramoni, Lagos | Publish Date: Aug 26 2018 2:00AM
Ambassador Abdullah Ibrahim Atta, at 90 years old, is so clear of speech, sharp of sight and nimble on the foot. Plus his memory remains so retentive, he recalls names and dates of activities since childhood with unequivocal accuracy. A prince of the famous Atta family of Ebiraland, Amb Atta reminisces with Daily Trust on Sunday on his childhood, legacies of his father the late Atta of Ebiraland, his steps up the career ladder and how a disciplined lifestyle is causal to longevity and sound health
The Atta name, from Kogi State, is phenomenal, with the family believed to be one of the largest in Nigeria.
How memorable was it for you growing up in such a family?
I was born in Okene, the present day Kogi State on August 10, 1928. My father was a traditional ruler, Alhaji Ibrahim Atta, the late Atta of Ebiraland. My mother was the daughter of the town head. Her name was Aminatu. Her father produced so many beautiful women. My uncle was the one who first married her elder sister, who, for several years, had no child. My mother was always being sent to her sister’s matrimonial home. My father’s mother, Hajia Zainab, upon sighting my mother, asked about her and instantly said this lady would be married to her son.
The idea was not welcomed as it was said that two brothers cannot marry two sisters.
In those days, traditional rulers had so much power; when they said they wanted a woman for themselves, their authority cannot be challenged. My mother’s father had no choice but to give her daughter’s hand in marriage to my father. That was in 1926. In August 1928, I was born. By then, my grandmother, the motivator had died. She didn’t live to witness my birth as she had died in December 1927, not long after my mother had taken in.
After I was born, three or four others were born after me, so I had three brothers and one sister. My sister, the youngest, is deceased. She was a matron in a hospital. Two of my brothers are businessmen. One was in the Nigerian Navy. One of my businessmen brothers passed on last year. Now, there are only three of us left from my mother.
In the Atta general household, we are still many. What we now have are Atta’s children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, and there are almost a thousand of them. When we celebrated my father’s passing in 1964, there were so many of us, some living in Nigeria and some abroad. There have also been a lot of inter-tribal marriages in the family. We are spread all over.
You have been a civil servant, a diplomat, an Intelligence officer, and a lot more. How did it all start?
I was born in the palace and I grew up there. I went to the only primary school at that time in Okene, from 1936 to 1942. From 1943, I went to Ondo Boys High School; there were no secondary schools in our province at the time. The only secondary school was the Okene Middle School, which was government-owned and stopped at Middle Four. The intake was very restricted and it admitted only 24 students a year in the whole province. These 24 students were divided into four divisions from each province. Each division supplied only six students a year. The colonialists were very restrictive because they didn’t really want us to be educated.
My father wanted to establish schools but they refused. That was why he decided to send us to Ondo Boys High School in the Western region. He had friends in Ondo, the Reverend Adeyemi, and another one, Deacon Lennon, who was in charge of the Ikare Diocese of Ondo. Ebiraland was within the Ikare Diocese. My father sought their assistance for a school for his children. He sent 12 of us to Ondo Boys High School.
Out of the 12, only eight were his biological children, four were his friends’ children. There were also the sons of his chief driver, two sons of his chief messenger and the brother of his chief of police. He sponsored them all to the school and was paying the fees for all of us.
In 1945, a problem arose at the school when the Principal was accused of over-admitting people and some of us had to leave. I moved to Oduduwa College with two of my brothers, including the present Ohinoyi (Atta) of Ebiraland. We got admission through the Reverend and the then Ooni of Ife, Oba Adesoji Aderemi, who was also my father’s friend. We were there for two years and finished our secondary education there in 1948.
Did you start your civil service career immediately after that?
Yes. In March 1949, I was recruited by the Nigerian Railways as a station staff and posted to the traffic and commercial department. I was sent to the Railway training school at Ebute Meta (West) for six months. There were new entrants from all over the country at the school, from the East, North and West, including Lagos. The federal character was what was used then, but we didn’t know. From Lagos, I remember Mr Bamgbose and Mr Apena. From the West, I remember Mr Adedoyin from Ijebu Ode and Mr Tayero from Ilesa. From the East, I remember Mr Ebong, Mr Itu and Mr Okoro, who later became the General Manager of Railways.
From the North, there was me, Abdullahi Atta. I used to be called Ibrahim but my full name is Abdullahi Ibrahim Atta. There was Mr Iyemba. There were two boys from Kano: one was called Wudil and the other Sani. There were also two boys from Zaria: one was called Yerosain and the other Abdullahi Aliyu. These were my contemporaries at the training school.
When we finished our course, we were taken back to our regions. From the headquarters in Zaria, we were all posted to different places. Aliyu and I were posted to Jos.
I was in Jos from October 1949 to September 1954 when I was posted to Kafanchan as a relief station master. My duty then was to relieve any station master in small stations who was ill or proceeding on leave. I was in my 20s then and those people I went to relieve were my father’s age. They would tell me, ‘You small boy, you are holding a position that has taken us many years to get here and you just got the position easily.’
In one instance, I was somewhere to relieve someone in the West and I was getting off the train when I heard him telling his wife in Yoruba, ‘It is a small boy that they sent.’ And the wife replied, ‘Maybe he is educated. He is a college graduate.’ They didn’t know I understood the language; I had studied Yoruba in school. So I just smiled. In that region at that time, their highest qualification was mostly the primary school level. When they had people with secondary school education, we became a class above them. That was very dangerous for us because the old men were very envious of young boys who they considered a threat to them.
Some of them got the post of a station master by paying for it. One of them actually sat me down and told me a story. He said it took him 30 years to be a station master. He said to get to such a position, they would need to go to Ebute Meta, the railway headquarters, to see a Chief Clerk who they would give some form of gratification (I don’t want to say bribe) who would work it for them. To them, being a station master was a great achievement.
After I had spent three years at railways, I didn’t like the job anymore because I didn’t see any future in it for me. In the career, you didn’t know where you would be going next. There was no encouragement. And those people were living a frivolous life that I didn’t like. So I wrote a letter to go back to administration, but they refused. Their excuse was that they had spent a lot of money to train me so I couldn’t go anywhere, I must work there. They asked me to withdraw my application but I insisted I wouldn’t and it should rather be on record. And it was on record until 1957 when they changed the Railway to a Corporation. It was before then known as Government railway, not corporation.
All members of staff were asked to sign transferring their services to the new corporation. That was my opportunity and I grabbed it. I insisted I wanted to remain a government official and wouldn’t be a part of the corporation. I was then in a small station called Karazau near Gusau. They sent a white man to interview me and try to convince me to sign. The man came with his wife. He inspected my work, signed my register and asked me to see him in his coach.
When going there, I took some fresh corn and eggs to him as gifts. He was shocked and said since he became a Traffic Inspector, no African ever did that for him. After enquiring where I came from and I told him, he said he knew my father, that he was a very tough man. He asked why I didn’t wish to continue with railway. I answered that I didn’t see any future for myself in railway services and would rather go to administration where I believed there was a promising future for me. I also told him I had spent seven years working in the bush and didn’t find that encouraging. I made him realise that truly somebody had to work in the bush, but not a young man like me and I wanted to go to the city.
His wife, a young, beautiful woman who also interviewed me, said, ‘The young man is quite right.’ And that made him angry, retorting, ‘Why will you support him?’ Somehow, he went back to Zaria and told them I was adamant and refused to sign. They quickly prepared a transfer letter for me to the Prime Minister’s office in Lagos.
My wife had gone to have our first baby in Kaduna. After I got the message of the transfer, I packed my things and went to Kaduna to tell her I’ve left the railways, without the details. She asked what would happen to us as I had lost my job and we had our first baby to take care of. It was then I made her realise my job was still intact, but no more with the railways. I gave her the news I would be going to Lagos and she would have to stay with my brother in Kaduna, with a promise that as soon as I have an accommodation in Lagos, she would join me. And that was what we did.
In November 1957, I travelled to Lagos and stayed with a friend on Queens Street, Yaba, for two months. He assisted me to get a room at No. 11, Little Road, Yaba. In February, I sent for my wife and she came with our baby. Unfortunately, we lost the boy at age seven. But God blessed us with other children.
Pa Oguntolu, our landlord was an elderly, retired postmaster who later became like my father. We stayed with him for four years before I was given an apartment in Ikoyi. The day I packed my things to leave, Baba could not bear it. He entered his room and locked the door. I also shed tears. His children are still my best friends till today. Just last week, they came visiting. They were young people then and it was their mother who looked after us. Mama Oguntolu looked after my wife whenever we had a baby. They were our family.
In August 1962, I moved to Ikoyi, and in November, I was asked to go on posting to the Republic of Guinea where we opened our Mission there.
Were you still working in the Prime Minister’s office then?
When I arrived in Lagos and reported to the Prime Minister’s office, the management posted me to the Finance Division of that office, particularly the Exchange Control department. I was dealing with foreign exchange, and this was all before the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) was established. After the CBN emerged, that section was transferred to the CBN. I didn’t know they were planning to send me to the CBN. The Foreign Affairs people spotted me and said I must join them. It became an argument between the Permanent Secretary of the Foreign Affairs Ministry and that of Finance, who relied on me. It was a battle between the two of them, but finance eventually allowed me to go.
It was within a few months of joining Foreign Affairs that I was posted to Guinea in 1962, with another senior officer, to open the Mission there. I was there for six months. It was while in Guinea that I realised how great a nation Nigeria is. Unless you go out to other African countries, we do not appreciate what we have.
In Guinea, there was no food. Apparently, what happened was that when they got independence from the French colonialists, their French masters took everything away with that independence, including electricity plugs, telephone and everything else.
But it’s been widely believed that the French colonialists loved the people they colonised, courtesy their assimilation policy, so why did you say this?
Yes, but the Guineans were insisting on absolute independence, while the colonialists were after a partial one. So that made them rip off everything and the poor Guineans had to start all over again. There was no food. The American government had to be sending a boatful of rice to Guinea every month, and whenever this boat was slightly late, there was chaos and the people were hungry. When we were there, we would queue every Sunday for a loaf of bread, which we had to manage for one week.
We had our transport vehicle, a Land Rover, and Sierra Leone’s Freetown is 205 miles away by rough road from Conakry. We would usually go to Freetown to get our supplies of rice, yam, beans, palm oil and everything we needed in the house. If we forgot anything as small as a tooth paste, we would be sorry. One day, I took the jeep and drove around Guinea for over 100 miles in search of a chicken or goat, but I couldn’t get any.
Where I lived, my neighbours were Guineans. But I observed there was one thing wrong with them, which was laziness. Their land was very fertile. At the rear of where I was staying, I cultivated the ground to plant seeds of maize and within three months, I was plucking ripe maize for consumption. The Guineans would come to beg for some. They saw me clearing and planting but they wouldn’t plant. When I asked the most elderly of them why they were not planting, he replied they had no strength for farming. They were waiting, always waiting for American rice.
I spent only seven months there before I was posted to Ghana in July 1963. In Ghana, I worked with Leslie Harriman, who was my High Commissioner. Alhaji Isa Wali came to replace Harriman after he left.
I got another promotion and I had to return to Lagos in October 1964. In February 1965, I was sent to Britain for a three-month course at the Intelligence academy of the British Foreign Office. Two other officers and I had a training on intelligence work. We came back after three months, spent some time at the ministry and were then posted to Cairo, Egypt in September 1965.
The Atta family fame is legendary. How many children exactly did your father have?
148. The 149th, born after his death, is now more than 50 years old. My father was nearly 80 years old when he died in 1964. The Attas known by all are my father’s children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
How was he able to manage such a large family without rancour?
Polygamous life was very common in those days; it was actually a way of life. Many men married many wives in those days for various reasons, but the most significant of the reasons is that they needed help on the farm. The women would have many children who would be useful on the farm. There was only manual farming then and no technology to assist, so many hands were required.
Another reason many women were in one man’s house is that the men needed hands to fight off wars. Whenever there was war, men required large households to defend families. For example, the Fulani, in those days, would go to villages, capture people and sell them to the white men. Under the guise of religion or other reasons, they would raid villages and capture the women. My father fought off the Fulani and the Nupe when they attacked Ebiraland in the early 20th century.
My father had a very strong mother who was a business woman and was very rich. My father was a young man in his 20s when the Europeans came and the man they initially installed as the community head was not capable enough. The white men saw that my father could speak many languages – Hausa, Yoruba, Nupe, several other local languages around us and pidgin English. He was able to communicate with the white men, so they regarded him as someone competent and decided to put him as the head. At that time, he was already 30. He was installed as the Atta of Ebiraland.
Was he the first Atta?
The first Atta was only a clan head but my father was the first Atta who was a traditional ruler in Ebiraland. He was the one who united the Ebira people because, earlier in Ebiraland, people were living clan by clan, village by village. He was the one who harmonised everybody. He was very exposed and knew what to do. He linked Ebiraland with Kabba, Auchi, Ajaokuta and the Yorubaland. The Ebira people started going to Yorubaland to do business, farming and so on. He established a very sound administration.
He wanted to build a school but the white men did not agree, but they later allowed him to build one up to Primary Four only in Okene. The missionaries came and he encouraged them to build another school. The Catholic and Anglicans each built their own schools and many people were able to send their children to school. That was how my father also sent his own children to school.
The missionaries were at loggerheads with the colonialists who didn’t want the schools built. But the missionaries insisted they needed more educated people to preach their gospel, and that provided an opportunity to educate many more people in Ebiraland and environs.
Initially, the Ebira people didn’t like the idea of my father putting their children in school because they kept asking who would help them on the farm. It was a problem. Parents had to be begged to bring their children forward for school enrolment and sometimes, coercion needed to be used to intimidate parents to send their children to school.
When the missionary schools were charging school fees, a shilling per child, many parents could not pay. My father had to beg the missionaries to reduce the fee and he encouraged them to build the church and school in the same compound, for both the Anglican and Catholic.
When the whites persuaded him to become a Christian, he told them he brought Islam to Ebiraland and he remained a Muslim, but that wouldn’t stop him from educating his people even if it would mean building churches alongside schools.
He had to marry many women as some parents brought their daughters and gave to him. They wanted to associate with royalty. There were some parents who told my father they would give their daughters to his sons if he himself would not marry them. That was how the family became large.
My father was a big farmer and hunter. Once we returned from school (and boarding school later), and we were many, he would take us to the farm to work. We never bought food, and that was how he was able to sustain his family. The salary he was getting then was a large amount; it was 100 pounds sterling a month. It’s like earning N1 billion a month today.
My father’s farm was so big that he was selling cocoa and cotton to the UAC and would use the proceeds to buy lorries to trade, which made him to easily afford our school fees. He later sent some of my brothers and sisters to England. He arranged with the UAC to pay the school fees of those abroad, while he paid them back with cocoa here. He had a lot of economic sense.
How many wives did he have?
I cannot say exactly how many but the minimum I can give you is about 30. He married four wives Islamically, but then parents started bringing their daughters to him and consequently, that was how there were so many.
Did you toe your father’s path on polygamy?
No. Going away from home helped me a lot regarding marriage. I married my wife in 1955 and we have been together till now. God blessed us with 10 children. We have eight alive – five girls and three boys – and lost two. Not having too many children helped me in terms of bringing up those we have and educating them. They all did well, graduated from the university, and all married. I am very proud of the children God has given me.
My father was a good man. He strove hard to educate us. But it wasn’t completely easy for him. Some of his wives didn’t want him to send their daughters to school. In one instance, one of my sisters in primary school was slapped by her teacher. On getting home, she told her mother she had a headache, and after much persuasion, she revealed that a teacher had slapped her in school. My step-mother vowed to deal with the mother of the teacher. She went to meet her own husband, held him by the collar and shouted it was he who insisted her daughter be sent to school. Women are very powerful I must say. He had to beg her.
When some of the girls were approaching puberty, their mothers would stop them from going to school, vowing no teacher would impregnate them. They would rather tell the girls to learn cloth weaving, and do domestic chores and general home management.
Later on, when some of my sisters who went to the university graduated, got good jobs and started driving cars, those mothers began regretting their decision and wanted to send their daughters to school, but, for most of the girls, it was late.
That was one irony my father had to contend with: while some of his wives were fighting him not to send their children to school or fighting him to withdraw them from school, some women outside were begging him to take their children to school.
You have been talking about all seriousness when you were growing up. Didn’t you play pranks as a youth?
I couldn’t play enough pranks because God gave me consciousness very early and I knew it’s an opportunity that I must never abuse. My father had so many children and there was a rivalry about whose children would go to school. Of my father’s 148 children, I can remember that about 100 went to school. Education among them was so competitive it was a special privilege to be selected among them for school. Bida, Lokoja, Ikare and Ondo were the nearest available education options.
At home, my father was a strict disciplinarian; whoever messed up would get the bulala (cane), so there was no room for pranks. But there was one prank. School began by 7am and closed by 1pm. Whenever we returned from the primary school, we must resume at the Arabic school by 2pm right in the palace. The Quranic teacher, Mallam Bello, had a horse whip which he was always using to whip us – for no reason.
There were about a 100 children in a hall not big enough for all of us. Despite the fact we were ceaselessly shouting the Arabic alphabets and surahs, the mallam was always whipping us on our naked body.
Because of this cruelty, we decided not to be coming home directly whenever we finished from school. We would find somewhere to hide until about 5pm when the Quranic lesson would have ended, then we would go home. One day, my father went to the mosque adjacent to the school within the palace and noticed the school was half-filled. He asked Mallam Bello why his children were absent and asked for a list of the absentees. Later, he lined us up, about six or seven of us, and asked why we were not in the Quranic school, but we couldn’t answer that it was due to the excessive beating Mallam was always giving us, because Mallam was right there. My father directed that each of us should be given three strokes of the bulala for running away from school.
After that, it didn’t happen again. But we started abusing Mallam Bello and were telling our father’s confidants that the Mallam was only beating us and wasn’t teaching us anything. And truly, I didn’t benefit from what he taught me; I had to learn about Islamic worship all by myself after leaving school. That was the only prank I played.
You just celebrated your 90th birthday anniversary. But you are still so agile, with a clear speech and a sharp memory. What is the secret behind your enviable health?
The real secret is, first, God. Nobody can say there is any secret for good health or longevity. No amount of good food can do it. Sometimes, even the good food becomes a hazard.
Of course, lifestyle matters too. Be moderate in whatever you do; your eating, your drinking, etc. If you are a woman’s man, don’t go after too many girls because you will collapse early. Don’t go after too much money; when you become rich, it’s another problem as there will be sleepless nights because you don’t want to exhaust your riches.
That’s the problem rich men face. I am not a rich man, but I am rich in other ways. God has given me a good health, a good wife and good children. I am grateful to God for all these. I don’t have money but I have peace of mind. I retired in 1987, although I was called back to work for six years after my retirement.
Then, if you are not active, you will break down. Lying down in bed all day, not getting up to be active to do some things yourself rather than be asking people to do them for you will render you weak. The food you eat will not digest well and it becomes a problem for you.
I get up in the morning, and under the monitoring of my wife who does not give me trouble, I use the treadmill to exercise my body. If I can’t go out, I use it for 10 to 15 minutes, I get warm and I’m okay for the day. If it’s a day I can walk, I go for a walk. That’s how I keep fit.
Looking at your photograph, when you were young – you were very handsome – one wonders how you kept the girls away. Or did you play any pranks in that direction?
If you don’t go after women, they will come after you. When I first came to Lagos, I noticed it was different from the North where there was a lot of discipline in man-woman relationships. In Lagos, there were many girls working in my office when I was in the Ministry of Finance. There were only two boys when I was head of the section, the rest were girls. Many of my colleagues didn’t know I could speak Yoruba. They kept calling me an impotent man in Yoruba language because they never saw any woman visit me. Sometimes I would smile; other times I would pretend not to hear what they were saying.
One day, I surprised them. I wanted to take my family for shopping and my three children came to the office. One of them was eight years old. My boy was so hyperactive that he went straight to my boss’ (a white man) cubicle and asked for his pen to paint something. My boss asked whose children were they and I answered mine. My wife also came in. They were all surprised to see that I did have a wife, and kids too.
You have so many books in your library. Do you still have the energy and good sight to read books at 90?
Reading is my hobby. I have loved reading from childhood. I have not read all the books in my library (over 300 to 400 books) but I have read most of them. Some of them were stolen while we were always travelling here and there.
Culled from Daily Trust. Sunday 26TH August 2018.