Chuks Iloegbunam pays tribute to Jika Attoh, broadcast journalist of note
“From all indications,” said Jika Attöh. He was dark, and dapper. He spoke English with an uncommon fluency. We also communicated in Igbo, which made me wonder if he was of the ethnic group. It was in answer to my question that he said, “From all indications.” I failed to see the indications, for neither Jika nor Attöh was Igbo. The year was 1976. We were standing in line inside a hall at the Faculty of Arts building of the University of Ife (Obafemi Awolowo University), all freshmen, waiting to register for our courses in the English Department. Jika told me he was from Onitsha, which was about 15 kilometres from my hometown of Abatete. His full name was Ifejika Michael Elvis Attöh. Of the Attöh surname, he explained that the origin was Ghanaian. He warned that it wasn’t spelt correctly unless two dots hung over the ö in it! Our friendship started on that day.
When on October 25, 2023, Ikeddy Isiguzo called for my confirmation of the terrible news, I instantly told him to perish the thought. “I tagged Jika to a WhatsApp message I posted this morning,” I said. Then I spoke more sensibly: “Who told you?” The story had appeared on a WhatsApp forum. I advised that he played no part in spreading it without confirmation. I dialled Jika’s number, expecting to hear the usual Babandidi or Misti Shooks, but it rang out. The prospect of calling his wife carpeted me. I tried a mutual friend’s number in Enugu without connecting. Less than ten minutes later, Oseloka Zikora called. “Terrible news,” he said in a subdued voice. He was in Namibia. Jika’s wife had got him by WhatsApp and, could he please pass the message on to Babandidi? Suddenly, calls started pouring in from all over, to ask if it was true, or to express condolences.
By the following day, social and electronic media were full of tributes. What was I to do? Write a tribute? I couldn’t even pass any comments on the ones that I managed to read. I was in denial, believing that escaping into myself would clean the past day’s slate of demise, of the loss of a dear friend and brother. Then I remembered with regret that I was to have been in Enugu on Friday, September 29, 2023, for an Ohanaeze Ndigbo event in honour of past Igbo leaders, including Dr. Michael Okpara, Sir Louis Phillip Odumegwu Ojukwu, General Aguiyi-Ironsi, General Odumegwu-Ojukwu, and others. I had told Jika that I was mulling over attending. I had a book on Ironsi and another on Ojukwu that could be useful to those desirous of information on those listed for posthumous honours.
Jika responded thus on September 25: “No matter how history judges them eventually, these are undoubtedly illustrious Igbo men. And, as my village elders would say, if outsiders don’t celebrate you, it’s legit to celebrate yourself. Ohanaeze should honour their own, and Babandidi should display his monumental works on these heroes at the event. Logical reasoning. I salute you again, my esteemed brother.”
I ditched the trip. Recalling this, a shaft of pain seared through my essence. Had I made it, I would have met Jika alive. I probably would have stayed on in the Coal City, affording solace and holding his hand as he transited into immortality. Now, all I can manage is to celebrate him. Yet, this cannot come easy because mourning is not exactly like downing choice liquor. Looking at the past and imagining the future, all I can do today is to wish Jika peace and his family solace. But because it amounts to a bounden duty, I must write some words about my brother and bosom friend. However, to make head or tail out of this assignment, it’s critical to start by invoking the memories of two great Nigerians that left imprints on the sands of Nigerian history.
They are Alhaji Shehu Musa (1935-2008) and Professor Ben Obumselu (1930-2017). Alhaji Shehu was Secretary to the Government of the Federation (SGF) during the Shehu Shagari presidency. Dr. Obumselu was an eminent professor of Poetry, and an Igbo leader. In one of the last interviews Alhaji Shehu granted, he deeply lamented to the Vanguard that all his dear friends had died, leaving him alone on Mother Earth. I didn’t quite put his lamentation in context. If God granted him longevity, I wondered, what was the point of whining about departed friends? I now know better. Professor Obumselu was not just a friend but also a mentor. Visiting his Lagos home one day, we spent time discussing a whole range of topics, including his late friend, the poet Christopher Okigbo. Then a young man came in who, after salutations, complained that a project to benefit younger people that the professor had initiated was being sabotaged by those who should be at its cutting edge.
I thought Obumselu would flare up. Instead, he smiled and addressed the young man. “Listen,” he said. “Many thanks for your efforts. I am not bothered by what the spoilers are up to. I cannot wait to go in and cherish the company of my grandchildren.” The man soon left, pocketing some money Obumselu had given him. Behind his back, Obumselu emphasised that time spent with his grandchildren now had the most meaning to him. I couldn’t understand. I now know better.
To return to Jika Attöh, our friendship blossomed. We went to and came from lectures mostly together. The same thing applied to other campus activities that captured our interest, like grabbing a spicy meal at the Bukateria, or listening to the fireworks of academics during the Background Lectures series. When vacation came, we often travelled East together and camped first at their family home at No 10 Ibegbu Street, Inland Town, Onitsha, where Jika’s mother fussed over us, and prepared all the dishes that made us long for more. After we had graduated, Jika and I referred to our mothers by their first names. Although his mother was Nne O’dii or O’dii’s mother to everyone else, she was simply Ememgini to us. In my book, Ememgini means My Innocence Should Be Self-Evident. My mother was Agwaniru – You Don’t Mess With Me! We discussed them with love. They were two poor, petty trading widows deeply in love with their offspring. Jika’s father, a former policeman, died when he was an adolescent, leaving behind Ememgini, Jika, and his older brother, Anthony Okwudili better known as Tony O’dii. It was largely by her efforts that they grew up in Abakaliki, finishing primary and secondary school education.
In the morning after our graduation, Jika confessed to me that he had found himself weeping during the night. The very fact that he came through was overwhelming. The problem had nothing to do with academic challenges. It was that Jika, like I, had paid himself through tertiary education. It was no mean achievement. He had combined academics with students’ politics and a lean purse to come up successful. I recall the day he mentioned his intention to vie for the post of our Students Union PRO. I automatically became his unofficial campaign manager. He won. Their year in office coincided with the turbulence of the Ali Must Go students’ riots caused by a hike in tuition fees.
His one-year stint in the National Youth Service Corps (NYSC) scheme found him teaching at the Federal Government Girls College, Kazaure, in the old Kano State. He took something precious from there that remained unrevealed to people until about a decade later. After the NYSC, he returned to broadcasting in Enugu where he previously worked at both Radio Nigeria and the Nigerian Television Authority (NTA). Practicing journalism in Lagos, work often took me to Enugu and to No 2 Ojike Lane, Uwani, Enugu, where Jika rented a flat, just paces away from the College of the Immaculate Conception (CIC).
It was during my first Ojike Lane visit that I learnt more about Jika’s versatility. The flat was neatly packed full of books – thrillers and non-thrillers. James Hadley Chase, Sydney Sheldon, Agatha Christie. And many more. And Jika and O’dii had read them all. They introduced me to the Australian writer Morris West, the author of such memorable novels as The Devil’s Advocate and The Shoes of the Fisherman. So, who imparted the reading culture to them? It was their father, Patrick Odikasigbue Attöh, who was fondly called P.O.K. He subscribed to the Readers Digest and many such publications and, as Jika often recalled, nothing pleased his father more than to sit in his parlour, reading the Readers Digest, smiles playing around his lips and the occasional peal of laughter going off as incited by whatever he read. The children picked it up.
We were all there when O’dii wedded in Enugu and started raising a family of his own. Towards the end of 1983, Jika showed up in Lagos. He had gained admission to study Mass Communication at the University of Lagos. This meant that he split his post-graduate days between Unilag’s Akoka campus and my Festac Town flat. One day an urgent message came for him to be in Onitsha. Ememgini was in the hospital and had sent for him, stressing that she did not want to answer her Creator’s call while he was elsewhere. Jika went East. When he returned to Lagos, he was in the black sleeves and trousers of mourning. Ememgini had, indeed, passed. Mercifully, Jika was there. With O’dii and other family members, they organised her funeral. Jika mourned her beloved mother for 12 months, invariably decked out in black. It was a terrible blow. But life continued. Before Jika finished his MSc programme, my wedding came up in 1985. Of course, he was there to arrange things the way he knew very well how to do.
During the 1990s, I wasn’t in Nigeria. Two things about the brothers happened in my absence. Jika wedded in Enugu in 1995. When I asked his bride’s name, he said Mom. Mom? “Yes, just Mom!” Well, Mom turned out to be the calm, wonderful Violet Chizoba Agbakoba who had been one of Jika’s students during his service year in Kazaure! About four years later, O’dii died at less than 50. It was consoling that, by then, Jika had started raising a family of his own, not left severely alone, and forlorn.
After the NTA, Jika returned to Lagos to work first as a news anchor at Channels TV and then moved over to the African Independent Television (AIT), where he established and anchored the flagship Kaakaki morning programme. He had become a national celebrity. You missed Kaakaki only if news and current affairs were not part of your life’s staple. Like everything with a beginning, Jika’s long run at the AIT also came to an end. Broadcasting, like a powerful magnet, drew Jika back to Enugu where he set up the Cosmo FM. Unbranded! The radio station was Unbranded because Jika managed to chart for it a strictly non-partisan course. This was even though its financier was Dr. Chimaroke Nnamani, then the Governor of Enugu State.
I soon left Lagos for Awka – a spare 50 kilometres from Jika. During the first few months of my work at the Government House, Awka, I operated from Jika’s house in the Enugu GRA. Petrol was affordable. The road was good and unclogged by traffic. Insecurity hadn’t become a plague. Meanwhile, Jika’s family couldn’t be abruptly uprooted from Lagos. Mom ran her business while the kids continued with schooling. After every day’s work, we sat upstairs and discussed politics, journalism, and our private lives. We often recalled with nostalgia our dear departed ones – POK, Ememgini, O’dii, Agwaniru, etc. We planned for and anticipated a much better future for our offspring. Inside Jika’s house, something else flooded the place like books had occupied considerable space at Ojike Lane. These were piles of musical recordings on vinyl, cassettes, and CDs. They occupied an entire room upstairs, every single item carefully kept. Sometimes we killed time listening to old-time favourites by superstars like Bob Marley, James Brown, Harry Belafonte, Hank Crawford, Stephen Osita Osadebe, Ebenezer Obey, and Orlando Owoh. The artistes are too numerous to be all mentioned.
Jika made Cosmo FM the number-one radio station in Enugu and neighbouring states. Before long, job pressure transfixed me in Awka, except duty dictated otherwise. I kept track of Jika’s work, nonetheless. Or so I thought. Each time we discussed it, he promised me that everything was going fine. One day I got urgently summoned to Enugu. They said the message was from Jika. My mind raced. If Jika wanted me, he called me. Why should he go through third parties to reach me? Well, I went post-haste to Enugu and eventually to the EFCC headquarters in the city. Jika had been there for nearly a week. I was needed to sign his bail bonds. I couldn’t understand. While I walked the EFCC corridors, I discovered that former Edo State Governor Lucky Igbinedion was, like Jika, also an “intern” in the place! We found Jika. A key slid into its lock, the door flung open and Jika came out. Although he appeared calm, I could read angst in his visage. We moved to a room with a large desk but hardly any chairs. I and a lady married to a retired Army officer signed his bail papers. It remained for Jika to sign and escape into freedom. He hesitated. Then he straightened up from his stooping position, pen, and the paper he was to sign on firmly in his hands. Looking straight into the face of the EFCC officer in charge of things, he let off a question: “May I ask why I was arrested and detained here?”
The young EFCC man bristled. He raised his voice as though he wanted Chief Igbinedion and all others cooling their heels in the facility to hear him loud and clear. “Was I the person that arrested you?” He asked. “Or are you suggesting that if my superiors brought you here, I shouldn’t keep you? I can lock you back in now if you provoke me, and nothing will happen.”
We soon left the EFCC behind us, saying very little. While I drove, it was made known that the premises of Cosmo FM were no longer tenable to us. I refused to return to Awka until I got the hang of what the problem seemed to be. It soon became clear. The celebrated national “anti-graft” body had seized Cosmo FM and, you guessed it, ultimately left it like a bull would a china shop. For months, but unknown to me, Jika had simply tolerated the invasion; there was little he could have done, anyway. But, when he took exception to certain of their wilder excesses, they reminded him who was boss by calmly collecting him and administering to him a dose of life inside the slammer.
Jika next established Sir Emeka Offor’s Blaze FM in Orafite, Anambra State. We were again closer to each other than was the case when he stayed in Enugu. Jika rapidly made Blaze FM a radio station to reckon with in Anambra and surrounding states. He had the broadcaster’s touch. He spent a few years there and moved on. Soon Governor Sullivan Chime appointed him the Managing Director of the Enugu State Broadcasting Service (ESBS). Characteristically, he served with credit. Then a Pharaoh came who didn’t know Joseph. As Jika told me the story, he was in the office one day when word came from Governor Chime’s successor that he should report immediately. On presenting himself, the Governor thanked him profusely for his great work at the ESBS but quickly regretted that he had to go. Why? Because, explained the Governor, his “constituency” could no longer tolerate the aberrant situation in which their radio station was under the headship of an Anambra indigene.
Jika engaged himself across the country organising broadcast trainings. He was an Executive Director of the West African Broadcast Media Academy chaired by veteran broadcaster Kevin Ejiofor. We, of course, kept in regular touch. As I prepared for a chieftaincy title in 2019, Jika sent profuse apologies. He wasn’t going to make it. I understood. Yet, on the day of the ceremony, Jika was one of the first guests to arrive. And he stayed till very late. The last time I would see my brother Jix alive was in September last year. I was to launch The Promise of a New Era, my Peter Obi biography, in Enugu. I told him to find someone better than himself to be the MC for the occasion. We knew what that meant. When I arrived in Enugu days before the launch and alerted Jika of my presence, he mentioned on the phone that he had got the youthful Von Nwandukwe of Radio Nigeria, Enugu, to be the MC. I warned him to stop the trash. “My brother,” said Jika in a calm voice. “I have been seriously sick in the past many months; I can’t be the MC.” I thought he was joking until he surfaced the following morning in the hotel where I was lodging.
I stared with unbelieving eyes at the spectacle that confronted me. Jika was wiped out. Completely. Wetin happen? Jika told the story of how he had been rushed to the hospital unconscious, how he had gone under the surgeon’s blade, and how the medical personnel had said thereafter that, had he reached their premises hours later, it would have been in the form of a corpse. I was dumbfounded. My wife, sitting next to me, was stupefied. Wearing a smile, Jika calmly assured us that the worst was over and that he was on the mend. He was at the book launch, of course, arranging acoustics, cueing speakers, and distributing signed copies of the book to patrons.
I stayed another week in Enugu during which Jika and I saw each other daily. He will drive into the hotel and leave his car in the parking lot. We will hop in mine and drive to many places. He even had us visit the ESBS where he made the point of leading me from office to office, introducing me to all the officials who were present. I didn’t realise then that, for the final time, he was showing me around a city in which he had spent most of his adult life. He showed me the way to one of the four Roban Stores in Enugu where we tried to convince procurement gurus to put up The Promise of a New Era and Ironsi for sale in their many branches. They collected a copy of each of the books and said the “board” would meet in a week to decide what to do. But, about 15 minutes after we drove off, the lady at the head of the team we had met phoned. A decision had been taken on our pitch, after all. They would buy The Promise…for N500 and Ironsi for N1000. In so far as offers go, this was insensate, ludicrous, and preposterous.
A year later, I was rudely shocked with the news that Jika’s final curtain had fallen. There hadn’t been the slightest indication that he had suffered a relapse. Unfortunately, the passing of dear ones has recently been a recurring experience, recalling Alhaji Shehu Musa’s lamentation. Look at this list: Ikeogu Oke. Oscar Onwudiwe. Professor Ebere Onwudiwe. Chief Pini Jason. Prince Emeka Obasi. Ichie Emma Agwunobi, Ogbueshi Robyn Okonkwo, Conrad Bosah and others. Of course, I cannot, despite the abject rottenness that is today’s Nigeria, profess antipathy at being alive. But it would have been an infinitely happier experience if our circle of friends lived into the nonagenarian era, the hairs over our pates grayed to impeccable whiteness! Without question, my preference would have been that Jika stayed. But the matter of whether he remained or departed was not in my hands, was not in any human hands.
Jika died in harness in a city he had, as a youth, exuberantly rocked to tiny pieces and where, miraculously, he had survived two dangerous encounters. Days after I was appointed Anambra’s Chief of Staff, I escorted Governor Peter Obi to the Akanu Ibiam International Airport, Enugu, to catch a flight. Then I retired to Jika Attöh’s Independence Layout residence. Some friends from Sosoliso Airlines had visited that evening and, with Jika behind the wheels of his black Toyota Camry, we took them back to their official quarters on Rangers Avenue, near the Hotel Presidential. We were driving back home when a yellow-painted Mercedes car overtook us at great speed and stopped abruptly in our front. It took dexterous driving for Jika not to ram into the vehicle. Before we fashioned expletives for the reckless driver, the limousine’s doors opened, and four pistol-wielding young men emerged. This happened less than 50 metres from the gates of the Government Lodge. Cursing and swearing, the rascals marched us to a deep gutter and forced us to lie face down in the filth. While in that vulnerable position, the bandits noisily argued on whether to end our lives. They later drove away in Jika’s car which was recovered days later. The obviously stolen Mercedes waited for the police or its owner. We lost our cell phones, wristwatches, and cash. Two years earlier, Jika nearly lost more than accessories and money. A bullet fired at him at point-blank range by car snatchers missed his collarbone and his trachea and exited from the tendons holding his left shoulder. He didn’t know how he got to the hospital where his life was retrieved from the Grim Reaper.
Jika lived and succeeded despite monumental challenges. He left an indelible mark as an icon of Nigerian broadcast journalism. With glee, he announced to me the broadcast license he had won. After making many a broadcast station rise and shine, he is no longer going to actualise the dream of owning a personal radio station. Just as we discussed the broadcast license, I told him of the plans to make a film out of my biography of General Aguiyi-Ironsi. He immediately suggested a competent hand to direct the project. Jika will not watch Ironside – the Film from this realm. But his name, written in letters of gold, will feature prominently in the credits. Given Jika’s enormous goodwill, I hold strongly to the belief that with his devoted wife’s industry and commitment, as well as the discipline of their three graduate children, the family could, in his loving memory, make a Radio Jika Attöh happen to general acclamation.
Jika’s unannounced goodbye has created an unbridgeable chasm in all our lives. Yet, we cannot deny – not even in our wildest dreams – that God has
Never denied us. It is true that, like most members of our generation, Jika lived through the insidious deterioration of Nigeria. That was why he and his loving wife gave their all to the raising of their brilliant children. He found laughter in their eyes; they forever made his day. Like Professor Obumselu, he was keenly aware that our generation had had life’s lollipops snatched from our hands by the champions of cant, caprice, and constant creed contention. All our joys resided in the promise of our children and grandchildren.
Jika, brother of mine. Rest!
Iloegbunam is a Journalist and Author