I spoke with my relation on December 31st 2020 as Sir Valentine Attah was being interred. He screamed in disbelief. I think whoever had met the man or heard of him but was not aware that he had passed on would scream.
You did not have to love him but you could not ignore him in whatever human perspective you chose to view him: physique, intellect, administrative capacity, material possessions, human relations…
I got to know him at a closer range when he coordinated the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in Akwa Ibom State in the 1980s.
The international agency became a Department of Akwa Ibom State Government (AKSG) because Val brought it from the clouds to the dwelling of men the way he managed it. UNDP became a household name. Maybe I’m biased but I can say without equivocation that after him one cannot say that UNDP still exists in Akwa Ibom State.
He held several distinguished positions in the Civil Service but could not reach the final prize for one hundred percent political reasons. He was content with the status of Dean of the College of Permanent Secretaries. It is one of the tragedies of underdevelopment that politics takes precedence over overcapacity. It is there in every aspect of the Nigerian public service. For instance, in spite of qualification and experience, no Professor from Sokoto can be Vice-Chancellor of the University of Uyo. The reverse holds. Three years after leaving office as Chief Executive Officer of a Federal institution in Rivers State, a handful of people are still wondering why it happened and still swearing they must exact a pound of flesh for that ‘insolence.’ My friend from Rivers who dared to serve at Ikot Ekpene can visit Akwa Ibom State if something happens and he cannot avoid it else there is no love lost between him and his former staff.
Back to Sir Val. Some folks fold their tails and tuck between their legs if a bee stings them and then withdraw to the comfort of their homes. Not Val Attah. He held appointments after the slap on his face. In the State, he continued serving. At the Federal level, he chaired a Federal Board. I’m wondering if he wrote a memoir on his extensive experiences in public service. If he did not, we should be blamed for not highlighting it to him. I guess we thought he had more than a dozen years to go after the troubling stay as Chairman of Local Government Service Commission. When I met him as he gave his son to my childhood friend’s daughter, he looked as if he still had two score years to go. But this final journey is sometimes like the scientific theory of how the universe will end: from the big bang at the beginning to a whimper at the end.
Before the wedding of the young people which marked the last time, I met him physically (we continued to exchange text messages and calls), Val left me – I hope you too – an everlasting message on the essence of friendship.
I have been blessed with a handful of true friends and quite a number of fair-weather friends plus one or two frenemies. When three friends drove in from Omoku on 27/12/2020 with Christmas goodies that reduced the oppression of National Pension Commission on me, it gave a good feeling that there is true friendship after all. I met all of them because Professor Addison Wokocha took me to Ogbaland and cared for me for the next twenty years. Our friendship lasted nearly five decades without a break.
True friends are like wine in a cellar – the longer it stays the more mature and cured. And after processing it is hardly subject to spoilage. Sometimes one could get his/fingers charred while helping friends, which is what happened to Sir Val as the sun of his public service career was going west. Yet we must keep helping as Val did.
So, what lesson did Val leave us with on true friendship? Maybe the old primary school song which Rotary Clubs sing with gusto was always his partner: “Make new friends but keep the old; one is silver, the other gold.” My brother Ekanabasi, retired Permanent Secretary was given an assignment by Sir Val – his friend – to organize a workshop for designated staff of Akwa Ibom State Local Government Service Commission. I was requested to present a lead paper. Val came to declare the ceremony open. After his address he announced that one of the things he does is never to forget friends irrespective of circumstance. I was part of the audience rather than the high table. He descended from the high table, walked in that unique way he used to walk – heavily but boldly and with self-assurance like Socrates the Greek sage – met me in the audience, gave me a hug then walked out of the hall. I don’t need to tell us that all eyes were on me, apparently wondering who this friend could be when the hall had enough who’s who to have merited Val’s hug. The taste on my tongue was like that of grandma’s vegetable soup.
Was there an Akwa Ibomite that was not familiar with the name Valentine Attah? I doubt except age decreed otherwise. Sometimes it was easier to identify the name than those of some past Governors. Val was larger than life.
That was Sir Valentine Attah, PhD, distinguished and celebrated public servant, accomplished forester, a patriot from his Iboko Clan to the Nigerian entity; a philanthropist, distinguished Rotarian and Major Donor, loving husband, father, and grandfather who came to the world was exceedingly blessed and justified every natural endowment bestowed on him and bowed out as and when due. Val was a classic case of the axiom, “He came, saw, and conquered.” Requiscat in pace.