Shehu Shagari: A Good Man But Bad Leader

Shehu Shagari: A Good Man But Bad Leader

Former President Shehu Shagari, left, with President Muhammadu Buhari

By Jiti Ogunye

As we mourn the passing of President Shehu Shagari, in a country like ours where our cultures prescribe that we do not speak ill of the dead, and where our past and recent histories are often distorted or forgotten, we must truthfully state his poor leadership records, even as we recognise his warm, and genial personality.

Former President Shehu Aliyu Usman Shagari passed on yesterday at the age of 93. Our condolences go to his family, his people in Shagari Village in Sokoto State, Sokoto State and fellow Nigerians. Being a former president of this much raped and abused country, his loss should be mourned by all. May Allah, the merciful, the beneficent, grant him Aljannah Fridaus.

Before becoming president in October 1979, Alhaji Shagari served in many capacities at the Northern Region and federal government levels. He started his career as a school teacher before his foray into politics.

He was a federal parliamentarian and minister in the First Republic, under Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, the prime minister between 1958 and 1966, before the first military coup aborted that Republic. After the end of the civil war, he returned to government in 1970 as a minister, a position he held until 1971, when he succeeded Chief Obafemi Awolowo as minister of finance, on the resignation of the latter from the Gowon government. Alhaji Shehu Shagari served in that capacity between 1971 and 1975, when the Gowon government was sacked in a military coup, paving way for the emergence of the Murtala/Obasanjo military regime.

Thus, when he became the first president of Nigeria in 1979, upon a switch of the country to the American presidential system of government (from the parliamentary or Westminster system), he was not new to politics, government and power. Although his emergence as president was controversial, it was expected that he would bring his experience and knowledge to bear on the running of the business and affairs of government.

Two controversies dogged his emergence as president. First, Alhaji Shehu Shagari was said not to be an overtly ambitious, power craving politician. He reportedly had initially expressed no interest to run for the office of president, indicating his preference of becoming a senator. He was, however, persuaded by the kingmakers in that era, principally and allegedly the “Kaduna Mafia”, a Northern Nigeria political power epicentre, to vie for the office of president. He was, therefore, an unwilling and (presumably) unprepared candidate. When his performance in office became lacklustre, his leadership failures were attributed to his being an unwilling president.

The second controversy was about the very contentious election that brought him to power. The Electoral Decree No 34 of 1977 that governed the presidential election of 1979 had provided, just as it is the case currently, that in order to be elected to office, a presidential candidate must have scored at least one quarter of the total votes cast in at least two-thirds of the states in Nigeria; and the highest number of the votes cast. The requirement addressed the need for spread, since the entire country was the electoral constituency of the president. Nigeria had nineteen states then. In the election, held on August 11, 1979, Alhaji Shehu Shagari scored the highest number of votes cast (5,688,657, as against that of the top contender, Chief Obafemi Awolowo’s 4,916,651); and at least a quarter of the votes cast in twelve states. But that was not two-thirds of the nineteenth states, mathematically. In the thirteenth state (Kano), Alhaji Shehu Shagari failed to score the required one-quarter of the total votes cast. He secured 19.94 per cent of the votes cast in Kano State. Yet, he was declared winner of the election by the Federal Electoral Commission (FEDECO) and proclaimed as president-elect. The outcome of the election was challenged by Chief Obafemi Awolowo and his Unity Party of Nigeria (UPN) in the subsequent election tribunal, which dismissed the petition.

When an appeal of the tribunal’s verdict eventually got to the Supreme Court (in Awolowo v Shagari), before a full panel of seven justices, Chief Richard Akinjide (SAN), who eventually became the attorney-general of the federation (AGF) and minister of justice, rehashed his arguments before the Election Tribunal, which had been accepted by the Tribunal. His contention was that in order to get one-quarter of the total votes cast in the thirteenth state, the reckoning must not be the total votes but two-thirds of the total votes; meaning that once a candidate satisfied the requirement of obtaining one-quarter of the total votes cast in twelve states and in two-thirds of the thirteenth state, then he should be accepted as having satisfied the requirement of scoring at least one-quarter of the total votes cast in each of at least two-thirds of the nineteen states of the federation.

The argument was rejected by Chief Obafemi Awolowo, who counter-argued that one-quarter of the votes in the thirteenth state could not be determined on the basis of a split of the total votes cast in the thirteenth state into fractions. He pressed the Court to accept that one-quarter of the votes cast in each of at least two-thirds of nineteen states must be one-quarter of the votes cast in each of at least thirteen states of the federation.

The Supreme Court in a majority decision of 6-1 (Kayode Eso, JSC, dissenting) accepted the 12 2/3 argument and upheld the earlier dismissal of Awolowo’s petition. That decision did not rest the argument about the legitimacy of the Shagari government. Especially, given the fact that the election was held under the “anti-Awolowo disposition” of General Olusegun Obasanjo, the outgoing military ruler, who had declared before the election that the best candidate might not necessarily win the election.

Upon being sworn into office, President Shehu Shagari exhibited humility, geniality and generosity of spirit. He conferred the highest honorific title in Nigeria, the title of the Grand Commander of the Federal Republic (GCFR), usually reserved for heads of state, on Chief Obafemi Awolowo.

When patriots began warning that poverty had become accentuated under his government, a garrulous and cynical member of his cabinet reportedly taunted Nigerians that no Nigerian had started eating from the refuse dump! The government boasted that the economy was strong, and when the bubble burst, President Shagari, faced with the grim situation of an unraveling economy introduced “austerity measures”.

Unfortunately, President Shehu Shagari was a genial leader who presided over a profligate and financially reckless government that squandered the opportunities for a post-thirteen years of military era development of Nigeria. With the hawks in his government like Senator Uba Ahmed (secretary general of the ruling National Party of Nigeria, NPN) Umaru Dikko (the transport minister), Meredith Adisa Akinloye (chairman of the NPN) and inspector general of Police, Sunday Adewusi, who he couldn’t rein in, a budding fascism was being implanted in Nigeria. Every patriotic admonition by the opposition, principally the Obafemi Awolowo-led UPN, that Nigeria was headed in the wrong political and economic direction was derided as a prophesy of doom from an ever-lamenting Jeremiah (a reference to Obafemi Awolowo, whose baptismal name was Jeremiah).

Most of the policies and programmes of the administration were incoherent and not well thought through. In the agricultural sector, for example, a meaningless Green Revolution programme, patterned after the previous Olusegun Obasanjo administration’s Operation Feed the Nation (OFN), was put in place, with millions of naira being voted for the importation of fertilisers to help farmers. Yet, evidently, the fertiliser importation frenzy was largely a scam to siphon money. So also was the rice and cement importation policies. The ports became congested, with task forces set up to clear them. It was an era of the unbridled importation of goods, including luxury goods, leading to the depletion or evaporation of Nigerian foreign reserves.

To the credit of the administration, however, there was an expansion of the country’s education system at the federal level; establishment of River Basin Authorities, irrigation schemes and dams across Nigeria; and the laying of the foundation of the steel development sector in the country.

In a departure from the pretentious “low profile” culture of the Obasanjo era, when the official car of members of the military executive (military governors and the head of state) was a Peugeot 504, for example, President Shehu Shagari brought a thoughtless flamboyance into government; a lifestyle that the economy could not support. Mercedes Benz saloon cars became the official vehicles of government officials (just like the Toyota SUVs of today). And Nigerians were quick in naming the car “Shagari Style”. His government bought a presidential jet, thereby starting the tradition of acquiring and maintaining a wasteful presidential fleet, a tradition that continues to rule our lives as a country till date.

When patriots began warning that poverty had become accentuated under his government, a garrulous and cynical member of his cabinet reportedly taunted Nigerians that no Nigerian had started eating from the refuse dump! The government boasted that the economy was strong, and when the bubble burst, President Shagari, faced with the grim situation of an unraveling economy introduced “austerity measures”. It was the hardship brought about by that gross mismanagement of the economy that the military used as a pretext to stage a come back coup, which unfurled a chain of unbroken military rule for another 16 years, until the death of General Sani Abacha led to a short transition to civil rule programme, which brought Olusegun Obasanjo, the retired military general, back to power.

Unfortunately also, President Shehu Shagari ran a political party (the National Party of Nigeria) and a government, which obviously did not exhibit the character of having learnt any lesson from the tragedy of the First Republic. That Republic collapsed, in part, because the politicians of the era, who were in control of the federal government, took democratic opposition as treason, and political dissent as insurrection. It’s war on the opposition and persecution of opposition politicians presaged the collapse of the First Republic. Alhaji Shehu Shagari was a participant in that era. He was a Northern People’s Congress (NPC) minister. He was in attendance at the meeting that the remnants of the Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa government had with Major General Aguiyi Ironsi on January 15, 1966, following the abduction and killing of the prime minister, and also the assasination of the Northern Nigeria premier, Sir Ahmadu Bello; the Western Nigeria premier, Samuel Ladoke Akintola; finance minister, Okotie Eboh; and other military commanders. The meeting purportedly transferred powers to the military.

The historical significance and lessons of that meeting ought to have been etched in the memory of Alhaji Shehu Shagari for ever, such that when he had the privilege of taking over power back from the military, thirteen years after those unfortunate occurrences, he ought to have striven to run a government and played a politics that would avoid the mistakes of the First Republic’s civilian administration, in order to inoculate the Second Republic against self-inflicted destruction, and prevent it from coming to grief in the hands of ambitious soldiers, who had seen themselves as the military wing of the Nigerian ruling class and the alternative to a “fumbling” civilian administration.

That was not to be. In spite of President Shagari’s personal geniality, he lacked the requisite discipline in leadership. Just as the NPC had behaved earlier, intolerant of the opposition, the NPN government, under Shagari, began persecuting the opposition. In Kaduna State, Alhaji Balarabe Musa, the governor from the Aminu Kano-led Peoples Redemption Party (PRP) was impeached by an NPN-led House of Assembly. Bala Muhammed, the radical Marxist lecturer at the Ahmadu Bello University (ABU) was mobbed and burnt to death by political thugs. And, Shugaba Abdurrahman Darman, the house leader of the Great Nigeria People’s Party (GNPP)-controlled Borno State House of Assembly was deported from Nigeria to Chad, for purportedly not being Nigerian. The minister of internal affairs signed a deportation order in 1980 to ground the forced eviction. Darman’s ostensible offence was that of being a fierce critic of President Shehu Shagari. It took the UPN-inspired legal intervention of Chief GOK Ajayi (SAN) to restore Darman’s citizenship and bring him back into Nigeria. He won the legal battle in the High Court in Maiduguri, and the appeals that followed up to the Supreme Court. Not without drama though. At the High Court hearing, a woman who had been procured from Chad to claim that she was the real mother of Shugaba surfaced. She wailed all through, pleading that her son “who had run away from home in Chad should be returned to her.” But it was noted that in 1980, Shugaba, born in 1920, was a sixty year old man!

President Shehu Shagari certainly was not like many politicians of the Fourth Republic, who engaged in massive asset stripping of the Nigerian state in the name of privatisation. Nor did he recklessly loot the treasury of the country, as many of them have done. But, by his laissez faire approach to governance, his negligence of duty, his permissiveness and his lack of exhibition of a disciplined leadership, he created a basis for the collapse of the Second Republic.

Of course, the apogee of the political infamy of the Shagari administration was the massive rigging of the 1983 general elections. Political violence to terrorise the opposition ahead of the election was combined with actual police clampdown to spread terror before and during the elections. Ondo State resisted the political robbery of that perios with tragic consequences. And predictably, three months after being sworn into office for a second term of four years, the military struck and overthrew his administration.

Instructively, while he and the vice president, Alex Ekwueme, were detained following the coup, notable truculent members of his administration, whose actions contributed to the collapse of the Second Republic escaped into exile, including: Adisa Akinloye, Richard Akinjide, Umaru Diko, and Uba Ahmed.

President Shehu Shagari was not known to be a personally corrupt ruler, as some of the military rulers before and after him were known to be. He was flamboyant in his resplendent, well embroidered “Shagari Style” dress, with the tall cap to match. He enjoyed the pomp and pageantry of presidential power; and he enjoyed traveling the world. He liked paying state visits. In 1983, he left Nigeria on a scheduled trip to India on the sad day that the NITEL Building in Marina, the tallest structure in Nigeria, was consumed by an inferno. On that day, he visited the burning NITEL building on his way to the airport, left it burning, and embarked on his trip.

President Shehu Shagari certainly was not like many politicians of the Fourth Republic, who engaged in massive asset stripping of the Nigerian state in the name of privatisation. Nor did he recklessly loot the treasury of the country, as many of them have done. But, by his laissez faire approach to governance, his negligence of duty, his permissiveness and his lack of exhibition of a disciplined leadership, he created a basis for the collapse of the Second Republic.

It was sad that when the possibility of a military coup stared him in the face, he attempted to dissuade senior military officers from embarking on the coup by allegedly providing luxuries for them, including gifting Mercedes Benz cars to the upper echelon of the military. That did not stop the planned usurpation of power.

As we mourn the passing of President Shehu Shagari, in a country like ours where our cultures prescribe that we do not speak ill of the dead, and where our past and recent histories are often distorted or forgotten, we must truthfully state his poor leadership records, even as we recognise his warm, and genial personality.

This is the right thing to do. By so doing, history is not robbed. Facts are not distorted. And the current power welders, who are “good people” surrounded by some “bad people” may take heed in the realisation that personal character and integrity means nothing if they are not matched with transparent competence, and if it cannot be used to prevent bad people who find their ways into power from being the determiners of the direction of government, while the elected good people wring their fingers and do nothing.

Adieu President Usman Aliyu Shehu Shagari.

Jiti Ogunye, lawyer, public interest attorney, legal commentator, author, and essayist, is the legal adviser to PREMIUM TIMES.

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