What Rakiya Atta Scott told me about Aguiyi-Ironsi, Nzeogwu & pre-independence Nigeria
By Olusegun Adeniyi
Northern politicians had just concluded their meeting in Lagos with the Chief Minister of pre-independent Nigeria, Alhaji Abubakar Tafawa Balewa. A few were now gathered in the office of the Federal Minister of Land, Mines and Power, Alhaji Muhammadu Ribadu, with a number of northern bureaucrats, also part of the colonial administration. When it was pointed out by the Federal Minister for Social Services, Sir Shettima Kashim Ibrahim, that a decision had not been reached on a particular issue at their meeting, someone suggested that they “reach out to Kaduna” for clearance—an obvious reference to the Sardauna of Sokoto and Premier of Northern Region, who was president of the Northern Peoples Congress (NPC). Surveying his audience, Ribadu, (regarded as the de facto number three man in NPC) chuckled and said: “Ahmadu Rabah (putting emphasis on a name only he and perhaps a few others dared to address Sir Ahmadu Bello), “If some of us were not alive, he would probably claim to be a god.”
I know Nigeria is in the grip of an unprecedented pandemic that has not only brought out the best and worst in us but also threatens our future in so many ways. Sadly, some of the religious clerics have been reckless in their sermons that can only compound the challenge at a time they should be preaching the gospel of social distancing. Now that we are recording casualties and recognisable names are being put to the victims, it is evident that there are difficult days ahead. To compound the challenge, it would seem that when it rains in Nigeria, it actually pours. In a major setback for the war against insurgency that went practically unnoticed, dozens of soldiers (47 according to both Defence Headquarters and Aso Rock) were killed with scores injured on Monday by Boko Haram fighters, following an ambush near Gorgi village in Borno state. The insurgents who attacked our fighting troops from the rear were said to be heavily armed with rocket-propelled grenades and assault weapons. While I pray God to comfort the grieving families, that should compel introspection on the enormity of the danger confronting us as a nation.
Last Sunday, following an early morning meeting called by our pastor to brief workers on developments regarding the COVID-19 pandemic in our parish, an elderly man accosted me and said in an emotion-laden voice: “Eleyi ti won ni ka ma jade mo yi; se ebi ko lo ma lu ‘yan pa bayi?” (This one that we are admonished to restrict our movement, will one not die of hunger?). I understand the apprehension of the man. In a society where many families will not eat if they do not go out in a day and there is no safety net for the poor—as I pointed out in my tweeter engagement with @Biolakazeem and @DrOlusesan on Monday—there may be more deaths from deprivation if this crisis persists than from the actual virus.
I have in recent days received several messages, from the hilarious to the serious, on WhatsApp. A particular one sent to me by my brother, Matt Aikhionbhare is very instructive. It is credited to Filipino missionary and writer, Fr. Jerry M. Orbos SVD: “Let this COVID-19 outbreak cleanse, purify, and transfigure us all. How fragile life is, and how things can just change in an instant! How little are our achievements, possessions, and plans. Perhaps we all can become less proud, less selfish, and less materialistic in our thoughts, words, and actions.”
That should serve all of us, especially at a time like this when we need to support as many vulnerable people around us that we can. However, despite the fact that I can write a book on my experiences in the past one week and what they portend, as well as my fears regarding the road ahead, today I choose to divert the attention of readers away from Coronavirus. Instead, I want to share my encounter with Mrs Rakiya Atta Scott, which was like attending an advance history course on Nigeria. What I found fascinating was the lucidity, brilliant recollections and humour (including in a naughty sense) of a 93-year old woman. And as I listened, I gained a better understanding of events that shaped pre-independence Nigeria as well as the First Republic and the military era that followed. I also better understood how those events have conspired against our development as a nation.
As a devoted friend and admirer of the late Sardauna, Mrs Scott presented a picture of a North that is completely at variance with what obtains today. Our encounter left me with the inescapable conclusion that the traditional and political leaders that followed the first generation in that region lack the vision, passion and integrity that drove their predecessors. Sadly, we can say the same for the entire country. Candid, even brutal, while sometimes sympathetic in her assessments, it was delightful listening to Mrs Scott who never for once dissembled throughout our interaction. But like many Nigerians of her generation, Mrs Scott hinted that she would prefer to take what she knows about Nigeria to her grave (when eventually the bell tolls).
About a month ago, I received a call from the former Cross River State Governor, Mr Donald Duke. His excitement was palpable as he spoke glowingly about a friend of his mother he had recently re-established contact with. “After my chat with her, my first thought was, ‘Segun must meet this woman’. The information at her disposal, including confidential letters, official dispatches and personal correspondence of historical value dating back to the pre-independence era, are extraordinary…” The more Duke talked about this woman, the more excited I became about the prospect of meeting her. And on Friday, 6th March in Lagos, I met Mrs Rakia Atta Scott. But first, who is she?
Educated in Britain, Mrs Scott is the first qualified nursing sister in the entire Northern region and the daughter of the late Ibrahim Ichegudo Otaru, the first British appointed Atta of Ebiraland who died in 1964. The famous monarch was aptly described by one of his sons, Aliyu Ibrahim Atta, a former Inspector General of Police, as “a very successful polygamist who was blessed with 158 children.” Although he was forced to abdicate the throne in 1954 following disagreement with the Ebira Trade Union at the instigation of the British Colonial authority, the late Atta placed a great premium on western education and invested in it heavily for his numerous children.
Mrs Scott’s siblings include Judith Sefi Atta, a former Nigerian Ambassador and Minister; Abdulaziz Atta, Nigeria’s first Head of Service and Secretary to the Federal Military Government under General Yakubu Gowon; Mahmud Atta, Protocol Officer to the First Republic Premier of Northern region and former chairman of First Bank of Nigeria; Adamu Atta, Second Republic Governor of the old Kwara State (which includes part of the current Kogi and Niger states); AbdulMalik Atta, Nigeria’s first High Commissioner to the United Kingdom; Ado Ibrahim, the current Ohinoyi of Ebiraland and several others. Her late husband, Peter Giligan Scott, of whom she still speaks affectionately, was a British intelligence officer who worked as a colonial District Officer (DO) in Northern Nigeria.
At her home, Mrs Scott greeted her nephew, Kojo Claude Enin (son of her sister who married a Ghanaian) and Duke affectionately. She was warm towards me, although not before saying she fears journalists. But it helped that she had read many of my columns and confessed to enjoying them. When she began to speak, I was riveted. For instance, while recounting events of the January 1966 coup that shattered the peace of Nigeria and may be responsible for the mutual suspicions that now define our togetherness, Mrs Scott said her residence was close to that of Brigadier-General Samuel Adesujo Ademulegun, who was killed along with his wife. She actually heard the gunshots and watched as the soldiers left. She knew Kaduna Nzeogwu and some of the other coup plotters but what I found interesting about her account was a constant pushback on the notion that the late Major General Thomas Aguiyi-Ironsi (who became Head of State after the putsch) should be blamed for what happened thereafter. She spoke glowingly of Ironsi and was very defensive of him. She is still obviously close to northern military Generals of the era—from Gowon to T.Y. Danjuma to Ibrahim Babangida to the late Sani Abacha—just as she continues to relate well with former President Olusegun Obasanjo.
When a person attains a certain age, there is nothing to fear so she called everything as she saw it during our very informal chat. That is why it would be so interesting to have Mrs Scott document her story and the rich collection of documents that I have been told (and she indeed confirmed) are in her possession. Clearly, Mrs Scott expressed her disappointment with what Nigeria has become. While she retains affectionate memories of the late Chief Obafemi Awolowo and Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe, she believes that the late Sir Ahmadu Bello has been vindicated in seeking more time before independence for Nigeria. The late Sardauna, she argued, had a far more realistic assessment of Nigeria at the time than his peers, although she puts the blame for our woes on the current crop of political leaders for whom she has little regard. That was obvious throughout our encounter.
Pushed to share personal details by her nephew who obviously knows some of her stories, Mrs Scott refused the bait. But before I left she shared the story of a top northern public official who she claimed did all he could to woo her, without success. One day, a British colonial officer who had apparently been taking note met the two of them together and told the man: “If you pursue your assignment as diligently as you pursue Rakiya, this office will serve the people better.”
By some coincidence, the autobiography of the 83-year old younger brother of Mrs Scott and former Inspector General of Police was launched in Abuja last Thursday and I received a complimentary copy from a member of the family. Although poorly produced and could do with better editing, ‘Joy of Service’ is more about what was concealed than what is documented. And this is someone who was at critical places during momentous events in our national history. As Commissioner of Police in Rivers State between 1980 and 1983, Atta saw enough of politics in the state to draw conclusions as to how money and ethnicity play critical roles in the contestation for power in Nigeria. “…to benefit maximally from the resources of a state, the people of a particular section or area of the state would not mind rigging an election to have their ‘son’ in office. For Rivers State, the upland and lowland (riverine) dichotomy is too obvious, and it has contributed in creating tension and violence during elections…” he wrote without elaboration.
Enlisted into the police in 1960, Atta was an Assistant Superintendent in charge of ‘training of recruits’ at the Police College in Kaduna on 15th January 1966 when the first coup occurred. “At about midnight on the day of the coup, we heard gunshots incessantly and many prominent persons started driving into the Police College, Kaduna to take refuge. Alhaji M.D. Yusuf who was the Commissioner of Police in the Northern Region drove in, so did Ali Akilu, the Secretary to the Northern Regional Government, as well as Permanent Secretaries”, Atta wrote as he recounted how the coup leaders avoided a confrontation with the Squadron of the Mobile Police Force that was “fully trained and armed”, even though he ended the story with an anti-climax: “Subsequently, other things followed which for reasons of esprit de corps, I would not want to recount here.”
Six months after that coup, Atta was posted to the Administration Department of the Police College, Ikeja in Lagos where he also witnessed the counter coup by young northern military officers. “One early morning we heard gunshots from the Battalion next to us and soldiers were seen running helter skelter…The British Commandant of the Police College, Ikeja, Mr. R.V. Jones was able to send message to Ikeja Cantonment, and to the coup leaders who replied and agreed that they would not attack the Police College, Ikeja…At about 9.00 a.m., two high-grade cars drove into the Police College, Ikeja. One of them, flying the American flag, conveyed the American Ambassador and the other car which flew the British flag, conveyed the British High Commissioner…”
By virtue of holding strategic positions during all the military coups, Atta had first-hand accounts he would not share except for hints here and there. He was a bit more explicit on the abortive Gideon Orkar coup of April 1990. “Just as I was settling down as Inspector General of Police, I got an intelligence report on the planned coup mainly by officers from South-South. I established all the facts and alerted the Military President (General Ibrahim Babangida) of my findings, but the State Security Service (SSS) discountenanced the information, and two months later, Major Gideon Orkar struck in April 1990. By the time we got the briefings of the coup, a lot of facts presented by my intelligence report proved to be correct,” Atta wrote.
Given his illustrious public service career, I am disappointed with Atta’s book because he hesitated at every point, giving one excuse after another as to why he would not dwell on what happened. But Mrs Scott does not appear like someone who would be afraid to tell her stories. If she agrees to the idea, I am quite sure it would be a most revealing book. But I will also not be surprised if she chooses not to. Nigerians of a certain generation are adept at ‘letting the sleeping dog lie’, to our collective detriment.
As I parted with Mrs Scott three weeks ago, I told both Duke and Enin about the dearth of authentic Nigerian stories. To corroborate my point, Duke shared with me his March 2017 experience with HRH Prince Michael of Kent, (first cousin to Queen Elizabeth II) who was then in Nigeria for the opening of the Obasanjo Presidential Library in Abeokuta. “After the event, Prince Michael came to Calabar for three days as my guest. At a welcome dinner with guests at my residence, I shared the historical folklore about the relationship between the English Crown and the Obong of Calabar, which he initially did not believe until he went to the museum the next day. Now, he is fascinated by the story.”
Sometime in the 1880’s, according to Duke, Queen Victoria, (great, great grandmother to Prince Michael) sent a Royal Mail to the Obong of Calabar, whose territory’s natural habour was responsible for the transportation of more than a quarter of all slaves that departed from Africa. In the message, she requested an end to the slave trade for which hefty duties were paid to the coffers of the Obong. She pledged in return to promote the trade in palm oil, spirits, ivory, firearms, timber and fabrics between their territories. She appropriately signed off as Victoria, Queen of England and Associated Territories. But the interpreter conveying her wishes to the Obong read that last line as ‘Victoria, queen of all white people.’
After listening to the message, the then reigning Obong Eyo VII who styled himself as King Eyo Honesty VII promptly bought the idea, but with one demand: he and the Queen had to seal the deal via marriage. He then signed off as ‘Eyo Honesty VII, King of All Black Men’. In response, an apparently amused Queen Victoria sent a Cape, a Crown, a Scepter and a Bible. The Obong interpreted these gifts as her acceptance of his offer and the Bible a request that he embrace Christianity which he did. That explains why, at the installation of a new Obong of Calabar, immediately following the traditional rites of initiation, he proceeds to the Duke Town Presbyterian Church, where two bedecked chairs are placed before the steps leading to the altar: One for the Obong and an empty one, representing the seat of the Queen of England. The Obong’s legal wife sits behind in deference. I understand Prince Michael is including the story of his great, great grandmother’s ‘Calabar husband’ in his coming book!
Despite the fact that I stay away from Lagos these days because of the horrible traffic, I enjoyed my last visit of 6th March. In the evening, it was another session to relive memories with the Olowo Eko, Oba Rilwan Babatunde Osuolale Aremu Akiolu, at his Iduganran Palace. Given Oba Akiolu’s experience in the police where he retired as an Assistant Inspector General (AIG), I hope he will also document his story. Meanwhile, Mrs Onari Duke—who in April 2017 presented my book, ‘Against the Run of Play’—insisted I had to spend the night in their house rather than the hotel I had earlier booked. I cannot thank her enough for the kind hospitality. While I hope Mrs Scott will agree to share with me the fascinating account of her life and career which somehow connects with that of Nigeria, let me conclude with a story which would make a memoir by Duke himself extraordinarily compelling.
In December 2003, the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) was holding in Abuja at a period when there was a serious rift between the then Obong Nta Elijah Henshaw VI, the first Professor of Dentistry in West Africa, and other traditional title holders. The Obong was said to be fond of speaking English to intimidate some of them. “A new Ndidem of the Quas, Thomas Ika Ika Oqua III, was due installation at about the time CHOGM was being held at Abuja. I implored the Obong to attend to show fraternal goodwill between the two thrones and help bridge the widening divide. He was silent and I assumed that was consent. But at the installation ceremony, I noticed that the Obong was absent and unrepresented. I was furious. When I finally reached him on phone several hours after the ceremony, he calmly reminded me that I should know that with his ancestral Queen in Abuja, there was no way he would stay in Calabar just because of the installation of some village head. Certainly, Elijah Henshaw was in a class of his own!”, Duke said to roaring laughter.
At the end, what cuts through the foregoing disparate accounts is that the authentic history of our country lies hidden in the memory of individuals by dint of their experiences or proximity to major actors of the past. Even in times like this, such individuals should be encouraged, for the benefit of posterity and future generations, to step forward and tell their stories. Sadly, one of the challenges of Nigeria is that we discount the past. Never allowing the scars to heal means they will continue to haunt us. Who decided that History is not important a subject to be taught in school? History, as Etieene Gilson surmised “is the only laboratory we have in which to test the consequences of thought.”
Six years ago, we had a serious challenge with Ebola which we collectively fought as a people and overcame. If we learnt any lessons from that experience, it has not reflected in the way we are dealing with the Coronavirus pandemic and that says something about us. Tiffany Isselhardt argues that there is history everywhere “alive, breathing, and waiting to be heard”. She also says that “history is the story of us and can teach us who we are, where we come from, and perhaps reveal where we want to go.”
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