A Leader in Time of Real Crisis

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His first major political exposure was not a pleasant experience, but it unveiled the man, Ernest Adegunle Shonekan, who many considered a bridge-builder and peacemaker, writes Segun James

Elder statesman and former head of the Interim National Government, Chief Ernest Shonekan, died yesterday at 85 years. But, beyond the pain of his passing are the reminiscences of the turbulent period he held sway as the heads of the Interim National Government (ING), an idea conceived by former Military President, Ibrahim Babangida, to mitigate the June 12 crisis at its very peak.

Shonekan was one of Nigeria’s business leaders before venturing into politics by accident. Prior to his stint political career, he was the chairman and chief executive of the United African Company (UAC) of Nigeria, a vast Nigerian conglomerate, which at the time was the largest African-controlled company in Sub-Saharan Africa.

On January 2, 1993, Shonekan assumed office simultaneously as head of the transitional council and head of government under the Babangida junta. At the time, the transitional council was designed to be the final phase leading to a scheduled handover to an elected democratic leader of the third republic.

Unfortunately, during this period, Shonekan learned of the dire condition of government finances, which he could not correct. The government was thus hard-pressed on international debt obligations and had to hold constant talks for debt rescheduling.

In August 1993, Babangida resigned from office, following the annulment of the June 12 elections. He signed a decree establishing the ING led by Shonekan, who was subsequently sworn in as head of state.

Shonekan was unable to control the political crisis that ensued following the election annulment. During his few months in power, he tried to schedule another presidential election and a return to democratic rule, but a national strike hampered his government.

The presumed winner of the June 12 election, Chief Moshood Olawale Kashimawo Abiola, viewed Shonekan’s interim government as illegitimate. But such misgivings did not stifle Shonekan from working. He, during the period, released political prisoners detained by the Babangida regime. Shonekan’s administration also introduced a bill to repeal three major draconian decrees of the military government. But Babangida made the interim government weak by placing it under the control of the military.

Shonekan tried to set a timetable for troops’ withdrawal from ECOMOG’s peacekeeping mission in Liberia, Abacha, who was the minister of defence and chief of defence staff at the time, had full control over the military. In no time, Abacha staged a palace coup, and the Shonekan government was peacefully overthrown. He was in office for three months.

In 1994, he founded the Nigerian Economic Summit Group, an advocacy group and think-tank for the private sector-led development of the Nigerian economy. And since then, Shonekan had deservingly claimed his place in the body polity as an elder statesman.

While three months could be adjudged as quite insignificant to achieve anything by any government, Shonekan, ironically, left an impression, which lent credence to the saying, “It is not how far, but how well.”

His place in the body polity cannot be overemphasised, and he would be so remembered till the end of days. Adieu!