Shonekan: Nigeria’s Short-lived Head of State But Long-lived Elder Statesman

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In death, Shonekan left behind a piece of history rigorous in substance and subtlety. But while alive, the ex-head of ING lived life up to the hilt, ranking among the brightest and sparkled among the shiniest. He was earnest. He was adjudged honest, writes Bayo Akinloye

“To the glory of the almighty, the Shonekan family announces the passing of our patriarch, loving husband to Margaret, dutiful father to us all and former Head of State, Chief Ernest, Adegunle, Oladeinde Shonekan, GCFR, CBE, the Baba Sale of Egbaland. He passed this morning of natural causes at the age of 85,” announced his family in a statement signed by Adeboye Shonekan.

Ernest Shonekan breathed his last on Tuesday morning, January 11, 2022.

In death, Ernest Shonekan, the head of the Interim National Government (ING), will lay still. Like a calm running brook, he coursed through life characterised by a higher calling, flowing unhindered by boulders. While alive, he leapt and reached for the highest height.

In death, Shonekan left behind a piece of history rigorous in substance and subtlety. In death, Shonekan bowed unbroken but awaiting a certain burial.

But while alive, the ex-head of ING lived life up to the hilt, ranking among the brightest and sparkled among the shiniest. He was earnest. He was adjudged honest.

Born on May 9, 1936, Shonekan was educated at the CMS grammar school in Lagos. After his secondary education, he attended the University of London, obtained an LLB degree in law in 1962. He was called to the Bar in the same year. He returned to Nigeria to join the legal department of the United African Company in 1964. He also attended the Harvard Business School in the US.

At UAC, his brilliance shone: he was assistant legal adviser: two years later, he became deputy legal adviser. Then, he joined the company’s board of management and was later appointed the chairman and the CEO of UAC in 1980.

The Abese of Egbaland continued to shine like the constant northern star, enduring, effervescent. His leadership prowess, business acuity and unassailable devotion to integrity were endearing. In a floundering state, he stepped forward to provide some respite to a nation wracked by political instability occasioned by the annulment of the June 12, 1993, presidential election. In Shonekan, no one doubted that still waters run deep.

In the wake of his death, Gen. Abdulsalami Abubakar noted that Shonekan’s belief in a united and peaceful Nigeria was unparalleled.

“He was dedicated to the progress and development of the county. He will be sorely missed. His historic and patriotic role in maintaining the unity of the country was one of the many things that endeared him to many,” said Abubakar.

Gen. Ibrahim Babangida used his position as military head to influence the joint session of the House of Assembly and the House of Representatives and appointed Shonekan to head the ING. Shonekan’s reign was short-lived but unforgettable as Gen. Sani Abacha toppled his government. He headed the Nigerian government between August 26 and November 17, 1993.

There was no ambiguity about his purposefulness and point of view during that period. Shonekan ordered the release of detained pro-June 12 activists. He was credited for restructuring the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) and the Nigerian National Petroleum Company (NNPC). He suspended Edmund Daukoru as the Group Managing Director and Group Executive Director of Finance and Accounts and Chief Okey Okwara of the NNPC for fraud and dereliction of duty.

He also probed the alleged payment of N100 million Naira by the Nigerian Postal Services (NIPOST) to hire aircraft from two foreign airlines to distribute mail, including other suspicious transactions. He ruled amidst the chaos of the striking Nigerian Labour Congress, National Union of Petroleum, and Natural Gas.

A Nigerian researcher, Oladiti Abiodun Akeem, described Shonekan as “an unelected political Nigerian leader.”

“The question may be raised, why did the IBB choose Shonekan as the head of the ING? The reason for the selection of Ernest Shonekan is vague and has not been ascertained by scholars or even explained by Babangida himself,” said Akeem. “Two possible reasons have been given for Babangida’s action. First, Babangida saw Shonekan as a loyal and trusted ally and second, Babangida’s choice of Shonekan was to show that there was no marginalisation by the Hausa/Fulani against the Yoruba people from the governance of the country.”

Surviving that ignoble era, Shonekan did not look back on contributing to nation-building. In 1994, he founded the Nigerian Economic Summit Group (NESG), a private sector-led think tank and policy advocacy group. The NESG, a non-profit and non-partisan organisation, promotes sustainable growth and the development of the Nigerian economy. Its objectives include building a first-class research institution to support stakeholders in the execution of policies, articulate programmes and strategies in response to emerging trends.

His corporate wizardry was not in doubt. His compatriots saw only fleeting glimpses of his political prowess. Shonekan had his place firmly established without apparent political affinity among the ruling pantheon, dead or alive.“On the political scene, Chief Shonekan, as the head of the Interim National Government in Nigeria, in 1993, though short-lived for the period of three months, through the palace coup orchestrated by Gen. Sani Abacha, rendered outstanding service to our country, and we will never forget that. He was a unifying force for the nation, and his contribution to the growth and development of democracy in Nigeria cannot be forgotten in a hurry,” stated ex-President Olusegun Obasanjo.

He came. He saw. He tried to salvage Nigeria in one of its darkest moments with unflinching courage and determination as he envisioned a great nation. All that remains of Shonekan are footprints of his adventures in the corporate world and the crooked terrains of Nigerian politics.