After being ousted by a coup in 1983, Nigeria’s first Executive President became a remarkable diplomatic force outside the corridors of power, using his wide influence for the nation’s good, writes Solomon Elusoji
In 1979, Shehu Shagari emerged as the first Executive President of Nigeria. Since 1966, the nation had been plunged into military rule and had survived a bloody civil war that clawed at Nigeria’s fragile unity. There were, of course, great expectations that the return to democracy rule would help to turn the nation towards the path of prosperity, and with the oil boom of the 1970s, those expectations looked legitimate.
Shagari was born on February 25, 1925. He was educated at Kaduna College and taught in a school briefly. As one of the few northerners to show an interest in national politics, he ran for office in 1954 and was elected to the Federal House of Representatives. Thereafter he held several posts and was a member of every administration after Nigeria’s independence in 1960.
After a military coup in 1966 ended civilian government, he retired to his hometown. Gen. Yakubu Gowon appointed him federal commissioner for economic development in 1971, a position he took over from Chief Obafemi Awolowo. He faced Awolowo in 1979 and narrowly defeated him in presidential elections after the military government led by Olusegun Obasanjo allowed a return to civilian rule.
But the high hopes for Shagari’s civilian tenure was not to be. The signs were apparent, from the general elections itself, which was allegedly rigged in favour of Shagari’s National Party of Nigeria (NPN), to the indiscriminate corruption that trailed the nation’s bureaucracy, which was still steeped in its avaricious ways. Many believed Alhaji Shehu Shagari, a man renowned for meekness and diplomacy, was a victim of a multitude of public insults and criticisms. But, unlike his military predecessors, as a statesman Shagari never resorted to counter-attacks.
There are those who refer to Shagari’s meekness, during his four year stay at the national helm of affairs, as a sign of weakness. But it’s not any way. They claimed that he allowed the impunity of corruption to thrive and failed to unite the country. But today Nigerians know better- His detractors were bent on derailing his government.
Shagari’s apparent woes as President were further compounded by the international economic crisis of the early 1980s. He tried to minimise the impact of the crisis by cutting the budget, calling in the International Monetary Fund, and expelling two million illegal immigrants (mostly Ghanaians) in 1983. But it would appear not be enough. By the time he was up for re-election in 1983, the political waters in the country were sizzling.
He won the bitterly contested 1983 presidential elections, beating the much admired and ‘welfarist’ Awolowo for the second time. Also, the discontent already in the nation’s political circles, the harsh economic times, and the allegations of corrupt government officials, added fuel to a raging inferno.
So, when on December 31, 1983, a military coup led by Maj. Gen. Muhammadu Buhari toppled the government, and Shagari was arrested and detained, it was not a big surprise to those who were paying attention. Although, he would later be cleared of personal corruption charges and released from detention in 1986, Shagari was banned from active participation in Nigerian politics for life.
The transition from active politics to a quiet life in Sokoto was easy for Shagari. He had never had power-drunk tendencies, like some of his counterparts, and his natural meekness and graceful personality suited his political disposition.
But saying Shagari deserted politics is like saying Samson Siasia deserted football, because he is no more on the field. Over the years, he has been a prominent voice in national discourse. His opinions on national issues, by virtue of his age and position as a former president, normally carry a lot of weight.
During the Boko Haram crisis, he was one of the northern leaders regularly called upon to make relevant interventions, on behalf of the country. There have also been insinuations that Shagari saved Olusegun Obasanjo from being impeached by the National Assembly during his Third Term brouhaha. “He had to go and bring Shagari to come and beg them in the National Assembly so that they won’t do so,” one senator said in 2015.
“He might not have done well during his time, but he appears to have made up for that by these interventions,” a political analyst told THISDAY.
Recently, Shagari celebrated his 91st birthday and, as usual whenever he crosses another annual threshold, there were several statements made by national figures, paying their respects.
“You have been of immense blessing to Nigeria while serving her in various capacities as a teacher, nationalist, politician and statesman,” former President, Goodluck Jonathan, said. “The nation will continue to be grateful to you because of your vision, wisdom, democratic ideals and outstanding achievements as president. Your altruism, patriotism and long-standing commitment to peace and development will continue to inspire many Nigerians to offer their best to their country.”
Shagari was president at a time when things were falling apart, and he did his very to unite the country.
As one of the oldest Nigerian political statesmen still breathing, he is a repository of knowledge that the country can tap into. He has seen it all and might be one of the few people who can lay claim to understanding the Nigerian story, from living memory. His capacity as a great advisor is Shagari’s finest legacy, and what makes him a national hero.