The Technocrat Who Became Head of Government


Udora Orizu writes that the leader of Nigeria’s short-lived Interim National Government, Chief Ernest Shonekan who passed on at 85 years this week will be accorded honours due to a Nigerian Head of State

The late Ernest Adegunle Shonekan entered Nigerian politics in January 2, 1993 when former Military President, General Ibrahim Badamosi Babangida, appointed him as head of the Interim National Government. Prior to his political career, Shonekan, born on May 9, 1936, was a lawyer, who had a rich background in the private sector. He was the Chairman and Chief Executive of the United African Company of Nigeria, (UACN) a vast Nigerian conglomerate, which at the time was the largest African-controlled company in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Following Babangida’s refusal to hand over power to Chief Moshood Kashimawo Olawale Abiola, the presumed winner of the annulled June 12, 1993 presidential election, in August that same year, Babangida before resigning from office, following the annulment signed a decree establishing the Interim National Government led by Shonekan who was subsequently sworn-in as Head of Satate.

The annulled June 12, 1993 presidential election was an unforgettable day in Nigeria’s political history. Babangida’s action which was then considered a brazen slap on the South-west where Abiola hailed from and the biggest setback to the emergence of democratic leadership Nigerians yearned for threw the country into turmoil, forcing democrats, progressives and civil society organizations to vehemently resist the military leadership. Protests erupted in various parts of the country with groups such as National Democratic Coalition (NADECO) and the Campaign for Democracy (CD) taking up the fight. As much as there were causalities among them, they held on to their demand that Abiola must be sworn-in as the democratically elected president.

Shonekan was unable to control the political crisis which ensued following the election annulment. As a peacemaker he however tried his best during his few months in power. Despite the crisis hampering his government, he tried to schedule another presidential election and a return to democratic rule. Shonekan released political prisoners detained by Babangida. His administration also introduced a bill to repeal three major draconian decrees of the military government. He also lobbied for debt cancellation but, after the election annulment, most of the Western powers had imposed economic sanctions on Nigeria.

Shonekan further tried to set a timetable for troop withdrawal from ECOMOG’s peacekeeping mission in Liberia. However General Sani Abacha, Minister of Defence and Chief of Defence staff had full control over the military.

In November 17, 1993, barely three months into his administration, Shonekan was overthrown in a palace coup by Abacha. After that in 1994, he founded the Nigerian Economic Summit Group an advocacy group and think-tank for private sector-led development of the Nigerian economy. Since then Shonekan went on to feature prominently as an elder statesman.

Until his death, Shonekan, aalremained in the political consciousness of Nigerians, for different reasons. However, many consider one of the luckiest Nigerians who was drafted into governance of the country when he least expected it. As Providence smiled on him, elevating him to the exclusive club of the country’s leaders, even in death, he will be accorded the honour due to a Nigerian Head of State. He is survived by wife, Margaret, and children.