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Shehu Shagari and the verdict of history

FORMER president and Turakin Sokoto, Shehu Shagari, passed away on Friday, December 28, at the National Hospital, Abuja, after a brief illness. He was buried next day (Saturday) according Muslim rites. Eulogies have poured in from far and wide. Former president, Chief Olusegun Obasanjo, who handed over to him the mantle of leadership in 1979, describes the late president as “a unifying force for the nation….Shagari died at a time the country and its leadership is in dire need of … experience and wisdom to tackle the multifaceted challenges facing the nation.”

On his part, retired military president, Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida, described Shagari as a “dependable bridge builder,” lamenting that, “Nigeria and indeed Africa, has lost a statesman and democrat whose wisdom, counsel, presence and experience and his sterling qualities of honesty and transparency are needed in these trying moments of our national life.”

By outlook and comportment, he was the mild-mannered schoolteacher that he was by training and vocation. Shehu Usman Aliyu Shagari was born on February 25, 1925 in the small village of Shagari, outside Sokoto, where his father, Mallam Aliyu, was village head. As was the custom in those days, he began his education at a Quranic school at home before attending Yabo Elementary School between 1931 and 1935 and Sokoto Middle School during the years 1936 to 1940. He then proceeded to the prestigious Kaduna College (renamed Barewa College) during the years 1941 to 1944. Of small build and modest, humble mien; Shehu often ran errands for the other boys. When a friend chided him for being so subservient, he replied, “Don’t worry, I am collecting Allah’s blessings.”  Shehu Shagari attended Zaria Teacher’s Training College from 1944 to 1952, from where he qualified as a teacher.

From 1953 to 1958, he taught in the Sokoto school system. It was from there that he made a detour into politics. Unlike today, it was permissible in those days for teachers, nurses and professionals to play politics while holding down regular jobs. Shagari’s first political post was that of Secretary to the Northern People’s Congress (NPC). In 1951, he won a seat in the Federal House of Representatives. In 1958, he was sent to Westminster, London, for training in parliamentary procedure. Upon return, he was given the cabinet level appointment of Parliamentary Secretary to the Prime Minister, Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa.

During the years 1959 up to his elevation to the high magistracy of the federal republic in 1979, Shagari was cabinet level minister seven times: Federal Minister of Commerce and Industries; Federal Minister of Internal Affairs; Federal Minister of Economic Development; Federal Minister of Works; Federal Minister of Pensions; Federal Commissioner for Economic Development, Rehabilitation and Reconstruction; and Federal Commissioner for Finance (serving in this capacity as a Governor of the World Bank and Member of the IMF Committee of 20).

Then as now, I do not know of anyone who has served seven times at federal ministerial level. During 1978, he was made Chairman of Peugeot Automobile Nigeria Ltd. Shehu Shagari was probably better prepared than anyone else, with possible exception of Obafemi Awolowo, to be the first executive president during our short Second Republic during the years 1979 to 1983. There had been a lot of jostling for the high prize among the northern elites, some of them far more academically prepared than he ever could be. Iya Abubakar was a first-rate NASA applied mathematician with a Cambridge doctorate, becoming a professor of mathematics at the uncommon age of 28. The late Talban Bauchi Ibrahim Tahir was a brilliant Cambridge intellectual who left a formidable academic record at their alma mater, Barewa College. Maitama Sule was an orator with an enviable record as United Nations envoy. Mahmud Tukur (younger brother to Bamanga), was a first-class graduate of political science from the University of Wales and a brilliant scholar of public administration. Adamu Ciroma had proven his mettle in journalism and central banking. Shehu Shagari beat them for the ultimate prize.

The 1979 elections were essentially a contest between Shagari’s National Party of Nigeria (NPN) and Obafemi Awolowo’s Unity Party of Nigeria (UPN). The matter went up to the Supreme Court where the high judicature under Fatai Williams CJ gave a judgment in favour of Shagari and the NPN, with one dissenting opinion by Kayode Eso JSC.

Shagari came to power with considerable goodwill and moral capital. He had wisely chosen as his deputy, Alex Ekwueme, an architect, planner and lawyer. The programme of the administration was anchored on housing, industries, transportation and agriculture. The government started off on a good footing. The government embarked upon an ambitious construction programme of new networks of rural roads. They completed Ajaokuta Steel in addition to the three rolling mills. They also built a new Aluminium plant at Ikot Abasi. The Kaduna oil refinery became operational under the administration. President Shagari also embarked on the Green Revolution to ensure food security and agrarian transformation. An ambitious mass housing scheme was launched.

By 1982, when global oil prices had collapsed, the economy was in dire straits. Shagari initiated an economic austerity and stabilisation programme that did little to stem the path-dependence of folly. Corruption and rent-seeking were rife. It is estimated that $16 billion of oil revenues were stolen during 1979 to 1983. His hit man, Umaru Dikko, controlled the import licensing system which was a vehicle for corrupt enrichment and public financial haemorrhaging.

The collapse of Johnson Matthey Bank in London was said to have been partly due to its use by Nigerian politicians as a vehicle for siphoning off their ill-gotten wealth into foreign bank vaults. Federal buildings started going up in flames; prominent among them the ultra-modern 32-storey NITEL building in Lagos. There was also the Federal Ministry of External Affairs and others. There was a discernible pattern to these arsons. They always occurred whenever a public audit was going to be executed, following allegations of corruption. According to the journalist, Ray Ekpu, “The pall of smoke became a pall of shame…first and foremost because, the fire, most people acknowledge, was no accident.”

Shehu Shagari may not have been personally corrupt, but he superintended a vastly corrupt system. The chain-smoking Shagari, whom Gowon once described as “the laziest minister” he ever had, was the ineffectual Ali Baba who supervised the 40 thieves. He had no capacity or even willingness, to check their excesses. True, he had won his re-election in 1983, but it was a Pyrrhic victory. There was hunger and despair everywhere. The press was being muzzled. The badly built “Shagari houses” collapsed in several cities, leading to the deaths of hundreds. About 380 farmers in Bakolori, Sokoto State, were massacred by police as they protested the damage done to their livelihoods by the World Bank-constructed Bakolori Dam. I was working as a young researcher at the National Institute for Policy and Strategic Studies at the time. I did field work on the World Bank Agricultural Development Programmes. I witnessed firsthand how expensive combined harvesters and other machinery bought with foreign loans were rusting away in the sun. Basic commodities became scarce. Chief Obafemi Awolowo ominously prophesied that the “nation is heading towards a rock.”

The media, students and civil society were calling in not-so-subtle tones for the return of the military. The government responded by expanding and equipping the mobile police. A former senior of mine in secondary school came to holiday with me in my bachelor den in Kuru. He spent the two weeks sleeping, waking, eating and sleeping again. He had been an ASP in the killer squads. He confided to me that he had killed so many that it was beginning to affect him spiritually. He died before his thirtieth birthday.

With the benefit of hindsight, Shagari should never have been president in the first place. He had neither the intellectual capacity nor the force of character to lead our country. He was a modest man, who, to echo Sir Winston Churchill, had many things to be modest about. If Obafemi Awolowo had been allowed to rule, he would have revamped our economy, called the bluff of the military and created a prosperous technological-industrial economy. He was the man with a plan. In denying him this opportunity, Nigeria lost its golden hour.

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