Chief David Attah, former Chief Press Secretary to General Sani Abacha could be described as a special human being. As one of the first journalists in Northern Nigeria, he witnessed the first military coup in Kaduna and interviewed Major Kaduna Nzeogwu. He started reporting for the Lagos media while still in the University and held many challenging positions in Daily Times before he was recruited by the government of Benue-Plateau State to run its publishing house, Benue Plateau Publishing Corporation. He dabbled into politics and won election to the House of Representatives in 1979 and was unarguably one of the most productive members of the House of Representatives at the time. When the Second Republic was sacked by the military, he returned to the Media as General Manager of Benue Printing and Publishing Corporation newspapers. He also served as Commissioner in Benue State. When General Sani Abacha took over government, he was in his country home, Igumale, when several gun-totting soldiers arrived there and headed for his compound. The locals took to their heels, fearing that the soldiers had come to arrest him. Unknown to them, Abacha who was familiar with his antecedents, wanted Chief David Attah to come on board as Chief Press Secretary. He held that position until Abacha’s death. In the Fourth Republic, he was a chieftain of the Peoples Democratic Party and remained with the party until his death. During my last discussion with him, he spoke about his passion for excellence, his achievements as General Manager of Benue-Plateau Publishing Company, BPPC, publishers of the Standard newspapers, his politics and other national issues.
You assembled a winning team in Nigeria Standard. How were you able to identify such people with relative ease?
I had the knack for fishing out the best brains like Dan Agbese, George Ohemu Bagudu Hirse (who came from the television). We all had something in common: love for service. We demonstrated in any way possible that we were not part of the gang that goes ruthlessly after money. People like that are few in Nigeria. You can tinker with the problem of corruption but you can not solve it. Dan Agbese, Nats Agbo and David Attah have no National Honors in spite of all they did. What is the criteria? The Nigerian situation is just to probe and be probed. You probe today and tomorrow, somebody else is probing you. We can’t afford to waste so much time on frivolities and things that are considered abnormal in Nigeria because primitive accumulation of wealth is the paradox.
What would you describe as your major achievements in BPPC?
It is difficult to believe. I built the ten story office complex after which I didn’t have a personal house. People didn’t think, seriously, that journalists are serious people. No matter your status, you are seen as an errand boy, brown envelope pursuer. I wanted to prove people with such notion wrong; the first time in newspaper publishing the management was able to achieve such a feat. I established the first Sunday newspaper in Northern Nigeria, even before New Nigerian. We embarked on staff development, sent many indigenous workers for training. As people from different environments, I knew we were not going to stay for ever. And when the time came, we had to leave. We established Pen Powers Football Club, the first newspaper to do so. We were able to retain a respectable position in the national league. The team changed to JIB Rocks, Plateau United, etc. We were the first to introduce the first comic newspaper, Pappy Joe.
But then, it wasn’t me, it was the team: David Attah, Dan Agbese, George Ohemu, James Ikuve and many others. It is about thirty years ago. It is an effort for a sick old man like me to remember some of the details. The noble philosophy that guided our actions was clear: service. None of us cared about personal comfort. We left our place in Nigeria Standard to edit the New Nigerian just as Innocent Oparadike left to become the MD of Daily Times, my former employers. Many others went into the academics.
After that, I sauntered into other areas of adventure. The magazine we published, Focus magazine in Makurdi was of very high quality. I was in that venture with Nats Agbo who was the first Editor, Justice A.P. Anyebe, Professor Erim Ode Erim, Okpe Ojanga and Dr. Ankeli. We had quality contributors, Professors Alubo, Tyoden and Erim, Dr. Dan Mou and Dr. Amper. It was a formidable team. The quality articles in just one edition of Focus magazine can produce ten editions of the magazines we have today.
Plateau people were looking for emancipation. I discovered that that philosophy was in tune with my personal philosophy…progressiveness…what became the slogan of the NPP and the PDP, Power to the People, was coined from my article in the Plateau newspaper. Compare the politics of theSecond Republic with our recent experience: the difference is mind-boggling. You read in the newspapers about billions of naira that was stolen from the national treasury. If one man withdraws that from the economy, it will certainly affect the economy. Prosperity without production is a farce.
On the reaction of Plateau indigenes to his appointment
The people cooperated with me because I was able to convince them that I had a mission that we had come to manage a transition and they saw results. After the initial resistance which we broke through sheer functionalism, I was able to buy into them. Initially, they resisted me but later I became their friend and that maximized my desire to go into politics. When I won my election in 1979, the celebration was done in Plateau State. And progressively, we had maintained the relationship. It was at the Jos convention that Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe discovered something in me and became my mentor. I was in the committee that gave him a State burial when I was the CPS to Abacha. Abacha knew my relationship with him.
Plateau meant so much to me politically. They never give up, very determined people, because of the nature of the place, a miniature Nigeria; the leadership there had to fight to liberate their people. It was a different kind of liberation: Live and let live, peaceful co-existence. It was a good fight onto which every man gave himself a total commitment. So I took that spirit into politics in Benue. I served. During our time, it was the quality of your contributions that mattered most; it was not the size of your pocket. We don’t need to speak about the difference because it hits you on the face; be it PRP, NPP, NPN, relatively speaking, GNPP, the contrast is so glaring.
If I was looking for too much money, I would have gone into business. Politics is a call to service, not for personal aggrandizement. It was maybe the weight of this problem that made the Americans to say if you can’t beat them, join them; but I refused to join them. I tried my best, even if my best was not good enough. I sponsored bills and made useful contributions on the floor of the house. I presided over proceedings of the House more than other principal officers. I would have been Speaker if the Senate elections were not held before ours and John Wash Pam from Plateau had not already been elected deputy President of the Senate. The party couldn’t allow us to have it that way because majority of our elected officials came from the East. So I surrendered the position to Edwin Ume-Ezeoke.
In this country, we sow the seed of failure and expect to reap success. We talk of adding value, add value to what? Each time I read the newspapers, I see dogs eating dogs. The Idoma unanimously elected me as party chairman because it was zoned to Zone C. The meeting that selected me was presided over by Audu Ogbeh, the national chairman of the party. On the day of the election, I had my prepared speech. Then they called me to Government House and said the Idoma cannot be National Chairman and State Chairman of the party. Audu Ogbeh insisted and recognized me as Chairman of PDP for three years. My experiences in politics are edifying. With the benefit of hindsight, I got to understand life. And you can’t understand life without learning of peoples’ attitudes. I reflected on life, up to the level of introspection.
Somebody wrote something about me, a book, but it is now time for me to write my story. I have gone far.