By Jiti Ogunye
Former President Shehu Aliyu Usman Shagari passed on today at the age of 93. Our condolences go to his family, his people in Shagari Village in Sokoto State, Sokoto State and fellow Nigerians. Being a former President of this much raped and abused Country, his loss should be mourned by all. May Allah, the merciful, the beneficent , grant him Aljannah Fridaus.
Before becoming President in October 1979, Alhaji Shagari served in many capacities at the Northern Region and Federal Government levels. He started his career as a school teacher before his foray into politics.
He was a Federal Parliamentarian and Minister, in the First Republic, under Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, the Prime Minister, between 1958 and 1966, when the first military coup aborted that Republic. After the end of the civil war , he returned to government in 1970 as a Minister, a position he held until 1971, when he succeeded Chief Obafemi Awolowo as Minister of Finance , when the latter resigned from the Gowon’s Government. Alhaji Shehu Shagari served in that capacity between 1971 and 1975, when the Gowon Government was sacked in a military coup, paving way for the emergence of the Murtala/ Obasanjo Military Regime.
Thus , when he became the first Executive President of Nigeria, in 1979, upon a switch of Nigeria to the American presidential system of government ( from the parliamentary or Westminster system of government), he was not new to politics , government and power. Although his emergence as president was controversial, it was expected that he would bring his experience and knowledge to bear on the running of government business and affairs.
Two controversies dogged his emergence as president. First, Alhaji Shehu Shagari was not said not to be an overtly ambitious, power craving politician. He reportedly had initially expressed no interest to run for office as president, indicating his preference to be a senator. He was, however, persuaded by the kingmakers in that era , principally and allegedly in the “ Kaduna Mafia “, a Northern Nigeria political power epicentre, to vie for the office of the President. He was, therefore , an unwilling ( and presumably) an unprepared candidate. When his performance in office became lacklustre, his leadership failures were attributed to his being an unwilling president.
The second controversy was about the very contentious election that brought him to power. The Electoral Decree No 34 of 1977 that governed the presidential election of 1979 had provided , just as it is the case currently, that in order to be elected as president, a presidential candidate must have scored at least one quarter of the total votes cast in at least two-thirds of the states in Nigeria; and the highest number of the votes cast. The requirement addressed the need for spread, since the entire country was the electoral constituency of the president. Nigeria had nineteen states then. In the election , held on August 11, 1979,Alhaji Shehu Shagari scored the highest number of votes cast in the election ( 5, 688,657 against Chief Obafemi Awolowo’s 4,916,651); and at least a quarter of the votes cast in twelve states. But that was not two thirds of the nineteenth states , mathematically . In the thirteenth state ( Kano State), Alhaji Shehu Shagari failed to score the required one quarter of the total votes cast . He secured 19.94 % of the votes cast in Kano State . Yet he was declared the winner of the election by the Federal Electoral Commission ( FEDECO) and returned as president-elect . The outcome of the election was challenged by Chief Obafemi Awolowo and his Unity Party of Nigeria ( UPN) in the election tribunal, which dismissed his petition. When an appeal from the tribunal’ s verdict eventually got to the Supreme Court, ( in Awolowo v Shagari ) before a full panel of seven justices, Chief Richard Akinjide, SAN who eventually became the AGF and Minister for Justice rehashed his arguments before the Election Tribunal, which was accepted by the Tribunal. His contention was that in order to get one quarter of the total votes cast in the thirteenth state, the reckoning must not be the total votes but two thirds of the total votes ; meaning that once a candidate satisfied the requirement of obtaining one quarter of the total votes cast in twelve states and in two-thirds of the thirteenth state, then he should be accepted as having satisfied the requirement of scoring at least one quarter of the total votes cast in each of at least two thirds of the nineteen states of the Federation.
That argument was rejected by Chief Obafemi Awolowo, who argued that one quarter of the votes in the thirteenth state could not be determined on the basis of a split of the total votes cast in the thirteenth state into fractions . He pressed the Court to accept that one quarter of the votes cast in each of at least two-thirds of nineteen states must be one -quarter of the votes cast in each of at least thirteen states of the Federation.
The Supreme Court in a majority decision of 6-1( Kayode Eso, JSC dissenting ) accepted the 12, 2/3 argument and upheld the dismissal of the Awolowo’s Petition. That decision did not rest the argument about the legitimacy of the Shagari Government. Especially given the fact that the election was held against the “anti- Awolowo disposition “ of General Olusegun Obasanjo , the outgoing military ruler , who had declared before the election that the best candidate might not necessarily win the election .
Upon being sworn into office , President Shehu Shagari exhibited humility, geniality and generosity of spirit. He conferred the highest honorific title in Nigeria, the title of the Grand Commander of the Federal Republic ( GCFR) , usually reserved for heads of state , on Chief Obafemi Awolowo .
Unfortunately, President Shehu Shagari was a genial President who presided over a profligate and financially reckless government that squandered the opportunities for a post-thirteen years of military rule era development of Nigeria. With the hawks in his government like Senator Uba Ahmed ( Secretary General of the ruling NPN) Umaru Dikko ( the Transport Minister), Meredith Adisa Akinloye ( Chairman of the NPN ) and Inspector General of Police , Sunday Adewusi, whom he couldn’t reign in, a budding fascism was being implanted in Nigeria. Every patriotic admonition by the opposition, principally the Obafemi Awolowo-led UPN that Nigeria was headed in the wrong political and economic direction was derided as a prophesy of doom from an ever-lamenting Jeremiah ( a reference to Obafemi Awolowo, whose baptismal name was Jeremiah ).
Most of the policies and programmes of the Administration were incoherent and not well thought through. In the agricultural sector , for example, a meaningless Green Revolution Programme, patterned after Olusegun Obasanjo’s Operation Feed the Nation ( OFN ), was put in place , with millions of naira being voted for the importation of fertilizers to help farmers. Yet , evidently, the fertilizer importation frenzy was largely a scam meant to siphon money. So also was the rice importation and cement importation policies . The ports became congested , with task forces being set up to clear the ports . It was an era of unbridled importation of goods , including luxury goods leading to the depletion or evaporation of Nigerian foreign reserves.
To the credit of the Administration, however, there was an expansion of the Country’s education system at the Federal level ; establishment of River Basin Authorities , irrigation schemes and dams across the country; and the laying of the foundation of the steel development sector in the country.
In departure from the pretentious “ low profile “ culture of the Obasanjo era, where the official car of members of the military executive ( military governors , Head of State) was a Peugeot 504, for example, President Shehu Shagari brought a thoughtless flamboyance into government, a lifestyle that the economy could not support. Mercedes Benz Cars became the official cars of government officials ( just like Toyota Prado Jeeps of today). And Nigerians were quick in naming the car “ Shagari Style “. His government bought a presidential jet, thereby starting a tradition of maintaining a wasteful presidential fleet , a tradition that continues to rule our lives as a country till today .
When patriots were warning that poverty had become accentuated under his government, a garrulous and cynical member of his cabinet reportedly taunted Nigerians that no Nigerian had started eating from refuse dumps.! The Government boasted that the economy was strong , and when the bubble burst , President Shagari , faced with the grim situation of the economy introduced “ austerity measures “. It was the economic hardship brought about by that gross mismanagement of the economy that the military used as a pretext to stage a come back coup , which unfurled a chain of unbroken military rule for another 16 years , until the death of General Sani Abacha led to a short transition to civil rule programme which brought Olusegun Obasanjo , a retired military general back to power .
Unfortunately also, President Shehu Shagari, ran a political party ( National Party of Nigeria) and a government, which obviously did not exhibit the character of a party, politicians and a government that had learnt any lessons from the tragedy of the First Republic. The First Republic collapsed, in part, because the politicians of that era who were in control of the Federal Government took a democratic opposition for treason , and political dissent for insurrection. It’s war on the opposition and persecution of opposition politicians presaged the collapse of the First Republic. Alhaji Shehu Shagari was a participant in that era . He was a Northern People’s Congress Minister. He was in attendance at the meeting the remnants of the Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa Government had with Major General Aguiyi Ironsi on January 15 1966, following the abduction and killings of the Prime Minister; Sir Ahmadu Bello, the Northern Nigeria Premier, Samuel Ladoke Akintola, the Western Nigeria Premier, Okotie Eboh, Finance Minister and other military commanders. The meeting purportedly transferred powers to the military.
The historical significance and lessons of that meeting ought to have been etched in the memory of Alhaji Shehu Shagari for ever, such that when he had a privilege to take over power back from the military thirteen years after those unfortunate occurrences , he should have striven to run a government and play the politics that would avoid the mistakes of the First Republic’s civilian administration, in order to inoculate the Second Republic from self inflicted destruction, and prevent it from coming into grief in the hands of ambitious soldiers who had seen themselves as the military wing of the Nigerian ruling class and the alternative to a “ fumbling “ civilian administration.
That was not to be . In spite of President Shagari’s personal geniality, he lacked the requisite discipline in leadership. Just as the NPC had behaved earlier, intolerant of the opposition, the NPN , under President Shehu Shagari, and his NPN Government started persecuting the opposition. In Kaduna State , Alhaji Balarabe Musa, the Governor of the Aminu Kano-led Peoples Redemption Party (PRP) was impeached by an NPN-led House of Assembly. Bala Muhammed, radical Marxist Lecturer in ABU was mobbed and burnt to death by political thugs for being a fierce critic of the Shehu Shagari Government. And Shugaba Abdurrahman Darman, the house leader of the Great Nigeria People’s Party ( GNPP ) controlled Borno State House of Assembly was deported from Nigeria and thrown into Chad , for not being a a Nigerian. The Minister of Internal Affairs signed a deportation order in 1980 to ground his deportation. His ostensible offence was that he was a fierce critic of President Shehu Shagari. It took a UPN inspired legal intervention of Chief GOK Ajayi, SAN to restore his citizenship and bring him back into Nigeria. He won the legal battle in the High Court In Maiduguri, and the appeals that followed up to the Supreme Court. Not without drama though. At the High Court hearing , a woman who had been procured from Chad , to claim that she was the real mother of Shugaba , surfaced . She wailed all through pleading that her son , “who had run away from home in Chad should be returned to her “ Be it noted that in 1980 , Shugaba, born in 1920 was a sixty year old man!
Of course, the apogee of the political infamy of the Shagari Administration was the massive rigging of the 1983 general elections. Political violence to terrorize the opposition ahead of the election was combined with actual police clampdown to spread terror before and during the election. Ondo State resisted the political robbery with tragic consequences. And predictably, three months after being sworn into office for a second term of four years, the military struck and overthrew his administration.
Instructively, while he and the Vice President, Alex Ekwueme , were detained following the coup, notable truculent members of his administration whose actions contributed to the collapse of the Second Republic escaped into exile : Adisa Akinloye, Richard Akinjide ; Umaru Diko, Uba Ahmed .
President Shehu Shagari was not known to be a personally corrupt ruler , as some of the military rulers before him and after him were known to be . He was flamboyant in his resplendent, well embroidered “Shagari Style” dress with his tall cap to match. He enjoyed the pomp and pageantry of presidential power; and he enjoyed traveling the world. He liked paying state visits. In 1983, he left Nigeria on a scheduled trip to India on the sad day NITEL Building in Marina, the tallest building in Nigeria, was consumed by inferno. On that day , he visited the burning NITEL building on his way to the airport , left it burning, and embarked on his trip.
President Shehu Shagari certainly was not like many politicians of the Fourth Republic who engage in massive asset stripping of the Nigerian State in the name of privatization. Nor did he recklessly loot the treasury of the country as many of them have done. But , by His laissez faire approach to governance, his negligence of duty , his permissiveness and his lack of exhibition of a disciplined leadership , he created a basis for the collapse of the second republic.
It was sad that when the posibibility of a military coup stared him in the face , he attempted to dissuade senior military officers from embarking on a coup by allegedly providing luxuries for them, including gifting Mercedes Benz Cars to the upper echelon of the military. That could not stop the planned usurpation of power
As we mourn the passing of President Shehu Shagari, in a country like ours where our cultures prescribe we do not speak ill of the dead , and where our past and recent histories are often distorted or forgotten, we must faithfully state his poor leadership records ,even as we recognize his warm, and genial personality.
This is the right thing to do . By so doing, history is not robbed. Facts are not distorted. And the current power welders, who are “ good people “ surrounded by some “ bad people” may take heed in the realization that personal character and integrity means nothing if it is not matched with transparent competence, and if it cannot be used to prevent bad people who find their way into government from being the determiners of the direction of government while the elected good people wring their fingers and do nothing.
Adieu President Usman Aliyu Shehu Shagari