Last Monday, former Head of the Interim National Government, Chief Ernest Shonekan, clocked 80 years. Shola Oyeyipo writes on the eventful years of the elder statesman
No doubt, at 80 there is so much to say about businessman-industrialist-turned national political leader, Chief Ernest Shonekan. Providence entrusted him with the leadership of the most populous black nation in the world, when he became Nigeria’s ninth president between August 26, 1993 and November 17, 1993.
Born on May 9, 1936 in Lagos, Shonekan marked 80 years last Monday, May 9.
As Shonekan joins the octogenarian club, there have been encomiums from within and outside Nigeria for the man whose strategic role helped to stabilise his fatherland at a very crucial time in its history. It was he that succeeded former military president, General Ibrahim Babangida, at a time that the Nigerian political atmosphere was very charged, particularly, in the South-west, following the annulment of the June 12, 1993 presidential election, which Shonekan’s multi-billionaire kinsman, late Moshood Abiola, was poised to win.
In fact, to some political analysts, the choice of Shonekan, an Egba man who holds the traditional title of Abese of Egbaland, as the head of the interim government was simply to pacify the Egba and other south-westerners because of the annulled June 12 election.
Nigeria was plunged into a chaotic situation when on June 23, 1993, Babangida, on the pretext that there were some pending lawsuits, annulled the election considered the freest and fairest election ever in the nation. Record has it that no fewer than 100 people lost their lives in protests against his military regime before Babangida eventually handed power to the Shonekan-led interim government in August 1993.
It was a decision Babangida attempted to reverse but he was forced to hand over to Shonekan, a prominent businessman who was coming from a successful business and private life. In 1992, before he was named as the head of the ING, he headed Babangida’s Transitional Council formed to design a roadmap for Nigeria to return to democratic rule.
Shonekan joined the United African Company of Nigeria PLC (UAC) in 1964 and because of his ingenuity; it was a fast rise for him at the company. He was promoted to the position of Assistant Legal Adviser shortly after joining the company and he became a Deputy Adviser two years later, subsequently joining the board. He was made chairman and chief executive of the company in 1980, a position that put him as the chief executive of the largest African-controlled company in Sub-Saharan Africa.
A very brilliant young man, Shonekan attended C.M.S grammar school and Igbobi College, Lagos. He obtained a law degree from the University of London and was later called to the bar. He was also at Harvard Business School.
Though as the head of the ING, the three months Shonekan spent at the helm of affairs were uneventful; basically because the nation was in turmoil but yet he made some remarkable moves that are captured in the annals of Nigeria’s political history.
During his few months in power, he tried to create a new timetable for democracy to return to Nigeria. He also sought for debt cancellation but that did not yield any meaningful result because with the cancellation of the 12 June elections, there were heavy economic sanctions on Nigeria by western powers at that time.
Shonekan set political prisoners detained by Babangida free. He made a bill to repeal three major decrees of the military government and attempted to put in place a timetable for Nigerian troop withdrawal from the ECOMOG peacekeeping mission in Liberia. His government also initiated an audit of the accounts of NNPC, which till today is considered as a very corrupt sector and one of Nigeria’s main drain conduits.
Unfortunately, during the period, inflation was uncontrollable and most foreign investors had departed Nigeria. At the same time, MKO, as the winner of the 12 June elections was more popularly known, was totally opposed to the interim government and there were agitations against the government. “His government was further distabilised by workers’ strikes.” To MKO supporters in the South-west; Shonekan was an obstacle on the nation’s path to democracy, social justice, and improving the welfare of the people.
These and the fact that he was largely unable to firmly control the military while Nigeria gradually plunged into chaos was the argument of the then Defense Minister, General Sani Abacha, who forced Shonekan to resign on 17 November 1993 and assumed power as military head of state. Abacha eventually dissolved all democratic institutions and replaced elected governors with military officers.
However, in the views of many observers, fact is, the failure of the ING was by no means a true measure of Shonekan’s competence as a leader and his managerial skills, it was basically as a result of the tense political situation and military interference.
Now a member of Nigeria’s Council of State, Shonekan has remained largely apolitical. He is however an unrepentant advocate of infrastructural development, which absence, according to him, may hinder the nation’s economic transformation. His belief is that Nigeria’s dream of attaining economic reformation will remain a dream without the provision of infrastructure in all sectors of the economy.
Though he was no longer in power, he maintained a cordial relationship with Abacha and persuaded him to create the Vision 2010 Committee, which he chaired in 1996-97 and which drew up the blueprint for Nigeria’s economic development.
A quintessential political and economic leader, Shonekan was an economic adviser to former president, Chief Olusegun Obasanjo; Chairman and director of numerous companies in the commercial, industrial and financial sectors; member, Lagos Chamber of Commerce and Industry; member, Nigeria-Netherlands Chamber of Commerce; author of The Nigerian Economy (1986); and is the recipient of the Commander of the British Empire and French Legion d’Honore.
In 2004, he was awarded Nigeria’s highest national honor – The Grand Commander of the Federal Republic (GCFR) and he has headed several government committees and offered valuable advice to leaders of the country.
In one of his interviews, Shonekan traced the problems facing Nigeria to bad leadership, noting that “The task of nation building in an underdeveloped multi-ethnic state has never been easy anywhere in the world. When you consider the fact that Nigeria has had issues with good governance, it will become clear why it has been rather difficult to set Nigeria on the path of greatness.
“For one reason, the rot went very far, and for too long. The nation has regressed disastrously as a result of years of bad governance. It will take some time to recover lost ground, and move forward on the path of greatness. Institutions have broken down, age-long values have been eroded, and we are lacking in consensus as a nation. Nigeria in short, is not that easy to fix.”
He said further that “I agree that Nigeria has had problems of leadership, but that is only a part of the problem. With the kind of rot that we have in Nigeria today, it seems to me that we have also had a problem of followership. But then it is probably a chicken and egg situation. Simply put, which one comes first? When you appreciate the role of leadership in any organisation, it becomes difficult not to blame Nigeria’s problems on the failure of leadership. When leaders lead by example, followers are bound to fall in line.”
Last year, during his 79th birthday, former president, Dr. Goodluck Jonathan said Nigeria owed Shonekan a huge debt of gratitude for his contributions to national development, stressing that he had remained available to move the country forward.
“Over the years, you have always readily given of yourself to the cause of peace, stability, growth and development in our country, Nigeria. For this, we owe you an enduring debt of gratitude,” he said.
Now at 80, the incumbent President Muhammadu Buhari also paid glowing tributes to the elder statesman when in a statement by his Senior Special Assistant on Media and Publicity, Garba Shehu, he commended Shonekan’s immense contributions to national peace and development, which the president said he has exemplified as an accomplished administrator, astute businessman and a patriot.
“The President believes that the historic role played by the octogenarian in forging and maintaining the unity of Nigeria will continue to endear him to many. He assured that his administration would continue to look forward to his fatherly counsel and advice on how to move the nation forward.
“President Buhari prays that God Almighty will grant Chief Shonekan more years of good health and happiness to see the Nigeria of our dreams,” Shehu said.
During the birthday thanksgiving service for Shonekan in Lagos on Monday, Primate of the Church of Nigeria (Anglican Communion) Most Rev. Nicholas Okoh, described Shonekan as a great man worthy of emulation for his distinctive contributions to human and national development.
“Chief Shonekan’s life at 80 is already defined because he has seen this country during the colonial, post-colonial, independence and democratic eras. Therefore, the younger generation and politicians should tap from his wealth of experience and knowledge for progress of humanity and improvement of the society,” he said.
Former military head of state, General Yakubu Gowon, also urged younger Nigerians to emulate Shonekan’s virtues to enable them contribute to the development of the nation.
In the words of former Deputy National Chairman of the Peoples Democratic Party, Chief Olabode George, “Shonekan at 80 had been a beacon in the service of the country.”
Former vice president, Dr. Alex Ekwueme; the Ogun State Governor, Senator Ibikunle Amosun the Lagos State deputy governor, Dr. Idiat Adebule, who represented Governor Akinwunmi Ambode, were some of the eminent Nigerians at the thanksgiving event.
Commenting on his 80th birthday, Shonekan himself said: “I thank God for His mercies on me. That I am alive to celebrate my 80th birthday today with families and friends, I’m highly elated.”