By Godknows Boladei Igali
Born a princess of Ebirraland (one of the ethnic groups in Nigeria’s middle-belt), Ambassador Judith Sefi Atta, unarguably mother of the Nigerian bureaucratic class, in dignified silence, turned 90 on July 14, 2023. A pioneer female graduate from what was once Nigeria’s Northern Province, a teacher, educationist, diplomat, and administrator, her life has remained founded on national service and global applause. Her story is seldom told, obscured in the grandeur of self-abnegation and simplicity.
True, she had been a product of a genetic strand of national service and dedication. So in her several superlative roles as first senior female Principal and later Chief Inspector of Education in 19 of the present 36 states of Nigeria, she left indelible footprints. Her movement to the centre, being the Federal Ministry of Education saw her rise to the position of being one of the early Directors of Higher Education and later on, first Nigerian Ambassador to UNESCO in Paris. In the course of time, she was appointed first female Permanent Secretary of both the Federal Ministry of Science and Technology and thereafter, Ministry of External Affairs (now Foreign) Affairs. In the pioneering trail, she was the first woman to assume duty as Nigerian Ambassador to Italy and rose to be Nigeria’s first Minister of Women Affairs, among other accomplishments. Now, at the revered age of four-score and ten, she remains a UNESCO Lifetime Goodwill envoy.
An Ebirra blue-blood
Young Judith Atta’s life was hewed from the scion of one of modern Nigeria’s most outstanding natural rulers, Atta Ibrahim Onoruioza who was born about 1884 into a clan of Ebirra (also called Egbirra) royalty. He ascended paramount monarchy over the Ebirra people from 1917 and ruled until 1954. Like some other insightful Nigerian natural rulers at the dawn of colonial rule, he rightly gleaned the emerging new world and prepared himself and his people for the new realities. So from young age, he strived to obtain sound Koranic education and learned to speak and write English and six other languages, in addition to his mother tongue. He also engaged in active commerce, and within the limits permitted by colonial service, held various positions becoming an interpreter of note in the north. Atta Ibrahim also had a positively cautious attitude toward the incursions of the Roman Catholic Church into Ebirraland, to the chagrin of many contemporaries and fellow Muslims and traditional authorities. He therefore encouraged church planting including giving them a choice land within Okene, the capital town, enough also to build a school.
Atta Ibrahim’s cosmopolitan outlook to life saw him leave behind an unbeaten record perhaps in all of Africa through the involvement of his progeny in public service. Although majority of his household followed his strict Islamic lifestyle, western education was obligatory and he was not fretful over the few who opted for Catholic faith. So, amongst other great Nigerians, he produced the first indigenous Head of Service and Secretary to the Federal Government, Abdulazeez Atta, first Nigerian High Commissioner to United Kingdom with concurrent accreditation to much of Europe, Amb. Abdulmalik Atta, second medical doctor from Northern Nigeria, Dr. Abdulmumini Atta, and first Governor of Kwara State, Adamu Atta. Some of his other children were pioneer career diplomats from 1957 set and first Nigerian Ambassador to Cuba, Amb. Abdullahi Atta (now 95 years old) who also headed the external intelligence arm for years, former Inspector-General of Police, Aliyu Atta and the current sovereign (Ohinoyi) of the Ebirra people, Alhaji (Dr) Ado Ibrahim. These are in addition to, now 97-year-old, Mrs. Rekiya Scott, the first qualified Nurse from the north, and Alhaji Mahmud Atta, one of Nigeria’s pioneer protocol specialist and later Chairman of First Bank Plc, as well as the spouse of the pioneer private specialist medical hospital in Nigeria, Mrs. Saratu Majekodunmi of St. Nicholas Hospital, Lagos and many others in public service, politics, commerce and industry. Just from one man!
In this very interesting familial milieu, Amb. Judith Atta had to grapple with her male siblings and big sisters for relevance, ascendancy and not the least, mutual support.
The gift of brains and beatitudes
Of the legendary King (Ohinoyi) Atta Ibrahim’s more than few children, estimated at over 148 persons, young Judith stood out as the proverbial ‘Papa’s girl’. Though not the ‘ada’, she was adjudged by many to have been a child of unparalleled qualities. Almost Caucasian like in tincture, she was visibly a paragon of beauty and from cradle, an elixir of dignified femininity. Above that were her unusual humility, affableness and peaceable spirit. In the midst of a house full of many brothers, some of whom were aged enough to be her father, she earned notable attention as a child of promise.
The other creative imbuement that followed her from youth was academic brilliance and mental alertness. Her father swagged his deep affection for this star daughter by sending her, like some of his other outstanding children, to the best boarding primary schools in Anglophone West Africa. She attended First Achimota School and Aburi Girls School, both in Ghana (then known as Gold Coast), 1939-1946. Both institutions had been established in 1927 and 1946 respectively for elite education in the British colonies. With virtually no breathing space, she returned to Nigeria to attend St. Theresa College, Ibadan, in 1947 and passed out as a valedictorian in 1951. Secondly, this school which was established the year she was born, has produced such other Nigerian women as former First Lady, Stella Obasanjo, former First Lady of Kwara State, Omolewa Ahmed, former Vice Chancellor of Afe Babalola University, Prof. Sidi Osho and DG, NIDCOM, Abike Dabiri.
As age caught up with the King, he returned this particular daughter back home to spend three years (1951-1953) in the Palace at Okene, during which she also occupied herself with church work and teaching at the Native Authority Primary School.
Although most of her contemporaries from around Nigeria proceeded to the newly established University College, Ibadan, or like her immediate elder brother, Adamu Atta, who read Law at University of Achimota, Ghana, she was moved by ‘Baba’ to University College, Dublin, Ireland in 1954. Founded as far back as 1854 as a leading research centre of knowledge, this university’s motto: Ad Astra; Cothrom na Féinne:the Stars; Justice and equality further boosted Judith Atta’s affable personae and showed her fibre and candour. She graduated in 1957 as one of the best students with combined honours degree in History and Geography. Same year, she continued to the University of Reading in the United Kingdom for postgraduate studies in Education.
The pedagogic connoisseur
A lot of Nigeria’s leading political elites started off life with the noble profession of raising and building others – teaching. As Canadian Prime Minister, Justine Trudeau once said, “a good teacher isn’t someone who gives the answers to children… gives the tools to help other people succeed”. As a matter of fact, almost all the top politicians of the First Republic into the Second Republic such as the first Prime Minister, Tafawa Balewa, Premier of Northern Nigeria, Sir Ahmadu Bello, Premier of Western Region, Chief Obafemi Awolowo and President Shehu Shagari, were at one time or the other in their lives, teachers of note. This was the same in the diplomatic and administrative classes, where some of the top pioneers were men and women of the chalk and the board before they went on to become accomplished technocrats in their chosen careers.
This was the same path that Judith Atta followed after returning from the United Kingdom with a degree from two of the best institutions in the world. Rather than go straight into the administrative class, which offered bright opportunities for her as one of the first female university graduates from the north but she opted for the teaching profession. Indeed, office work could have also been easier as several of her elder brothers were already at the top echelon of the civil service, both in the north and at national level. However, she preferred the classroom, driven by a passion to be a signpost to other young women to pursue the path of education.
She was a teacher in all parts of northern Nigeria, starting with Queens College, Ilorin, a school established on 21st May, 1956 by the Sardauna of Sokoto with the aim of “bringing girls in northern Nigeria together”. Later, she moved to the apex Provincial Girls College, Yola which was set up as far back as 1916. That institution acquired a special status in 1954 and was renamed Yola Provincial Secondary School. Ultimately, Judith Atta was sent to Government Girls Secondary School, Kano as Teacher/Principal. In 1964, she rose to become the first woman to be promoted as Chief Education Officer in Northern Nigeria. This enabled her further traverse that expansive part of the country, ensuring that educational standards were topmost and particularly focusing on girl child inclusion.
Like the idiomatic gold fish which in many cultures symbolizes growth and progress, by 1968, her presence was needed at the centre and specifically at the Federal Ministry of Education. Consequently, she moved up as an Adviser on Teacher Education at national level. Indeed, it is argued by most pedagogic experts, and rightly so, that only sound and well exposed teachers could properly impart knowledge to younger generations. She held that position until 1976 when she became a Director at the Federal Ministry of Education.
It was during her time as Director of Higher Education that some of the strident achievements at the Federal Ministry of Education were made. These include; the take-off of seven new federal universities (Bayero, Calabar, Ilorin, Jos, Maiduguri, Port Harcourt and Sokoto). Additionally, it was during her period in 1981, that government of the then President Shehu Shagari established four new specialised universities of technology in the country, located at Akure, Minna, Owerri and Yola. It is also in the annals of Nigeria’s educational development that she played a major role leading to the establishment of Federal Government Colleges of Education and Federal Polytechnics across the country.
The new world of diplomacy
A new vista opened in the life of Judith Atta as Nigeria decided to upgrade its office at UNESCO Headquarters in Paris to the level of a full Ambassadorial status. This decision which took place in 1982, during the administration of President Shagari, also led to her appointment as Nigeria’s Permanent Delegate to the world body. Until that time, Nigeria’s Office at the UNESCO, which was actually established in 1967, exactly seven years after the country became the 58th member of the organisation, was attached to the Embassy of Nigeria in Paris. While in Paris, she was a member of UNESCO Executive Board which controls global institutions.
Besides registering Nigeria’s presence at a high level in that global body whose mandate is to advance knowledge and understanding, Judith Atta stamped her imprimatur in the work of UNESCO itself. She became a global reference point on issues of advancement and understanding among people of the world for which the organisation was established in 1946. Thereon, she was in 1986 appointed Federal Permanent Secretary in two key ministries, Federal Ministry of Science and Technology and Ministry of External Affairs. Subsequently, she was appointed Ambassador to Italy with concurrent accreditation to Greece and Cyprus between 1991 and 1995.
As Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, she undertook wide ranging reforms in ensuring administrative restructuring and unlocking career progression; matters which saw many diplomatic personnel rise to their career pinnacles. In the other aspects of her work at the international level, she made her mark on issues dealing with human rights and is credited to have chaired the 46th Session of the UN Sub-Commission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities in 1994-1995. Amongst other things, UN records state thus about her: “Expresses its appreciation to the Special Rapporteur (Amb. Atta) for monitoring the transition to democracy in South Africa and for the important role she has played and the support to eliminate apartheid in South Africa and to establish non-racial society”. Similarly, even before Beijing, she succeeded in putting as thematic on the agenda, issues pertaining to “women’s advancement” for discussions under the 3rd Committee at the UN Secretariat.
Elevation into high political office
Amb. Atta’s foray into the world of diplomacy came to an end in 1995 as she was brought back home to become the first Minister of Women Affairs and Social Development in Nigeria. Through this position, she fortified her heart desire of not only being the mouth piece for women inclusion in governance, but also provided the needed administrative and technical expertise which formed Nigeria’s policy elucidation on the matter. Relatedly, she was key on the delegation at the famous 4th World Conference of Women in Beijing in 1995. The Nigerian delegation was led by former first lady, Mrs. Maryam Abacha. Though behind the scene, Amb. Atta played key role in ensuring Nigeria’s place as the bellwether for Black and African women. Drawing on her well garnered diplomatic skills and contacts, she added to the crafting of the final document entitled “The Beijing Declaration” which underlined 12 key areas where urgent actions were needed. As Minister at a time, she replaced Mallam Adamu Ciroma as Vice Chairman of the Governing Council of the 18th Session of the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) which held in 1995.
Her long span in the public service was almost a tale of endless workload. She served on numerous government Committees, Panels and Commissions, particularly those dealing with educational development. Amongst others, she was almost permanently on the Governing Council of the University of Ibadan for nearly 16 years (1966-82). This she combined with membership of the Board of the University College Teaching Hospital, Ibadan. Similarly, she was a member of the Joint Consultative Committee on Education from 1974-82, chairing it for most of the period and also sat on the Board of West African Examinations Council (WAEC) from 1965-1982. Still in the educational sector, she was a member of the National Advisory Council for the Blind and played a major role in the work of implementing the National Policy on Education which remains largely in place in Nigeria. She also represented Nigeria on countless delegations around the world, combining them with her other schedules of duties. These straddling roles kept her at the very vortex of policy implementation within the federal bureaucracy at the peak of her career.
After a robust public service, Amb. Atta voluntarily retired from federal service, leaving behind unbeaten trails and records. In these latter years, she has remained active on issues of educational development, both at national and global levels. As common with her, much of her period of retirement has been devoted to issues of faith and building of ethical foundation of society. In quiet anonymity, she remains a mentor to many Nigerians, particularly those who pursue a career in public service.
Paradox of life
Although Amb. Atta’s public service could be regarded as spectacular; life had not always been laps of luxury and bliss. Her marriage to one of Nigeria’s most impressionable poets, Christopher Okigbo (1932-1967) was cut short by the Nigerian Civil War (1967-1970). Okigbo, who in 1956 won first prize in poetry at the First Festival of Negro Arts in Dakar, Senegal, decided to be in the front during those ominous days of war in Nigeria and later, paid with his dear life. Okigbo died at the age of 35 years.
In a touching tribute to his younger brother and his jilted romance with Judith Atta published in a Michigan State University Journal in 1994, Dr. Pius Okigbo, one of Nigeria’s most outstanding economists, wrote thus “he successfully wooed after a whirlwind courtship that would have racked the nerves of many humans and married Sefi Judith Atta, a devoted mother of their adoring daughter. Sefi was perhaps, the only girl he met and knew; who understood his quixotic personality and in return, he showered her with the most passionate and enduring love.”
The roles played by Nigerian womenfolk in nation building and in bringing us thus far, have not been sufficiently brought to the fore. In particular, the labour and industry of female pioneers in the federal service and not the least, the world of diplomacy are yet to be fully acknowledged and documented. In addition to being the matriarch of the Federal Civil Service like Mrs. Francisca Yetunde Emmanuel (1933-2020), who was employed in 1959 by the Federal Civil Service Commission as the first female Administrative Officer, her erstwhile contemporary and friend, Judith Atta was already active in the service of northern Nigeria a year earlier being 1958. Indeed, others such as Prof. Grace Alele Williams (1932-2022), who became first female Vice Chancellor in a federal university, was also active in service as a teacher. This is not to mention others such as 95-year-old Dr. Iphigenia Coker, first indigenous Principal of Queens College, Lagos and her colleague, Prof. Jadesola Akande (1940-2008) who became the first female Vice Chancellor of Lagos State University and not the least, Mrs. Gbolahan Abisogun-Alo (1936-2015) who was a pioneer Teacher in the Federal Government College and not forgetting Hajiya Hassan Iro-Inko of Katsina (1936-2005) who was one of the earliest female teachers from the old Katsina province.
In a public service that is still largely male-dominated, such women pathfinders not only broke the silver lining as they rose to the very top, but also left imprints which today form major building blocks for a great Nigeria. Their journey confirms contemporary American writer, Amy Tenney’s assertion that:
“The world needs strong women,
women who will lift and build others,
who will love and be loved,
women who live bravely,
both tender and fierce,
women of indomitable will.”
In the case of Amb. Atta, her focus on education and raising the status and dignity of women particularly in northern Nigeria which was relatively very conservative at that time, made her to mentor several excelling successors from that part and at the national level. What catapulted her to the surface despite the condoning lines of strong prejudicial circumstances was hard work, brilliance, faith and character. Of course, these were not without moments of ups and downs, moments of struggle and search for identity and relevance.
As she celebrates her 90th birthday, the much self-effacing Madame Ambassador remains an icon of incontestable national and global value. Deservedly, as the mother of the Nigerian Civil Service, she looks underneath, a whole world of women technocrats, not the least four of whom (Ebele Okeke, Ama Pepple, Winifred Ita and Folashade Esan) have since become Heads of Civil Service of the Federation of Nigeria.
For now, happy birthday, Mama. Many more years!
.Igali, a retired Ambassador and Federal Permanent Secretary, sent in this tribute from Abuja