Those who work like him because they believe sincerely in service are rare in our country. In that respect, Shehu Shagari remains a shining beacon.

Ray Ekpu

When Alhaji Shehu Shagari, Nigeria’s first elected President, died on December 28 last year at the ripe age of 93, there was an outpouring of encomiums by Nigerians of different walks of life. The statements of condolences were largely those of celebration, commendation and even veneration. These statements contrast sharply with the opinions expressed about his government when it was overthrown by Major General Muhammadu Buhari on December 31, 1983. The reasons for this discrepancy are two: One, Nigerians are generally kinder in their assessment of the dead, irrespective of their deeds or misdeeds when they were alive. Apparently, the view is that there is no point flogging a dead horse or it is pointless hitting someone who is already down and out.

Shehu Aliyu Shagari (1925-2018)

The second reason is that time always seems to infuse us with a new level of clarity about the past, and we all seem to get wiser by the gift of hindsight. When an event occurs, journalists rush in and make their judgement without having time for a long and serious introspection. That is why journalism is said to be “history in a hurry.” But with the effluxion of time, perspectives seem to differ either because we have received the gift of new knowledge or wisdom or we have a basis for comparing the present with the past. If the present offers a picture of unsavouriness then the harshness of our opinion about the past is revisited with a high level of compassion. This act of compassionate revision has worked largely in Alhaji Shehu Shagari’s favour.

Shagari was a trained teacher who loved to write poetry but he did not wield the chalk for a long time. The pull of politics and community service was irresistible. He got into politics as a member of the Northern People’s Congress (NPC) and became its secretary. He got elected into the House of Representatives in 1954, six years before Nigeria’s independence, representing Sokoto West. In 1958, he became the parliamentary secretary to Alhaji Tafawa Balewa, who was to become Nigeria’s first and only Prime Minister. Shagari also served as Federal Minister and Federal Commissioner from 1958 to 1975. In 1970, he became the Federal Commissioner for Economic Development, Rehabilitation and Reconstruction. Later, he was made the Federal Commissioner for Finance. As the military government of General Olusegun Obasanjo was working on a programme of return to civil rule in 1978, Shagari thought it was a good idea for him to contest election into the Senate.

However, the kingmakers thought otherwise. They believed that Nigeria needed a man of his temperament, character and steady hand, someone who could build bridges between Nigeria’s diverse groups. In that presidential primary, three other contestants, namely Umaru Shinkafi, Ali Ciroma and Umaru Dikko featured. The kingmakers chose Shagari as the presidential candidate of the National Party of Nigeria (NPN).

In that presidential contest, four other very prominent leaders also took part. They were Chief Obafemi Awolowo (UPN), Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe (NPP), Alhaji Aminu Kano (PRP) and Alhaji Waziri Ibrahim (GNPP). Shagari beat them to the presidential seat but victory was challenged vigorously by Awolowo all the way to the Supreme Court. The apex Court ruled in Shagari’s favour but Awo and his followers thought he was occupying a “stolen presidency.”

In 1980, he initiated what he called a Green Revolution, an agricultural policy that was aimed at food sufficiency. He established 11 river basin development authorities, Ministry of Water Resources, National Food Production programme and agro service centres.

By 1981, there was a sharp drop in the price of crude oil and the government decided to introduce an austerity programme called Economic Stabilization Programme. This drop in government revenue drastically affected the implementation of government programmes.

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However, the government was still able to make significant strides in low cost housing schemes for the poor in all states of the federation. Other achievements were mainly in the area of industrialisation. He completed the building of the Kaduna Refinery, initiated the Ajaokuta Steel Mill in Kogi State and the Aluminium Smelter Company of Nigeria in Ikot Abasi, Akwa Ibom State.

His choice of Dr. Alex Ekwueme, a private sector architect, as Vice President was widely commended because it was an indication that he preferred the assured contributions of a technocrat to the uncertain contributions of a hard core politician such as Dr. K.O. Mbadiwe, who was rigorously campaigning to be picked. Ekwueme proved to be a reliable and supportive Vice President who made seminal contributions to public policy development during those four years.

The presidential system was newly introduced in Nigeria. It seemed to be dominated by some of the powerful players of that era such as Alhaji Umaru Dikko, Transport Minister, a man that Shagari admitted was a great lover of power, Dr. Olusola Saraki, Majority Leader, who was also one of the party’s financiers, Dr. Joe Wayas, Senate President, and the party’s troubleshooter and gadfly Alhaji Uba Ahmed. The Senate of that era awarded several privileges to its members who in turn bought an aeroplane for the Senate President without the approval of the executive arm of government. As it was then, so is it now except that in terms of privileges and benefits the present Senate has set a new record in profligacy.

The Shagari government was accused at the time of looking the other way while grass was growing under his feet in terms of corruption. Even though no one accused Shagari of corruptly enriching himself, the view held at the time was that he was weak and failed to call his corrupt compatriots to order.

In particular, there were allegations of corruption in the importation of rice, tons of them, which Nigerians christened the “rice armada”. Dikko, the Minister of Transport, was the king of rice.

He used it to gain and keep the loyalty of party followers. Some of it got smuggled and sold in neighbouring countries. Many people wondered whether it was not a better idea to produce the rice locally than to import loads of them which brought about a huge congestion at the ports and the flight of our scarce capital. In politics, decisions are not necessarily always right or reasonable because politicians almost always prefer that they must be largely politically correct. That is the dominance of politics over propriety.

The election of 1983 was the second one held since Nigeria adopted the presidential system. Many analysts were convinced that the election was neither fair nor free and that there was massive rigging. This messy conduct of the election and the allegation of corruption were seized upon by the military to overthrow the government of Shagari. Many commentators have said that, if the military had not intervened in 1983, our democracy might have been better strengthened by now than it is now. But this is in the realm of speculation. Even at the time of the overthrow, many Nigerians were happy that the soldiers had thrown out the Shagari government. But it was not too long before they realised that they spoke too soon because all the subsequent military dictators were worse in every material particular than the Shagari government. That, I believe, is why at his death Shagari got rave reviews and commendations.

Shagari had several admirable qualities. He was a simple, amiable, modest and mild-mannered man who had a commanding presence. He was always elegantly dressed with a cap that seemed ready to touch the sky. It came to be christened Shagari cap. He was a chain smoker but he did not do so in the full glare of the public.

He was a man who understood the meaning of diversity and worked hard to build bridges between the various units that make up Nigeria. He believed fervently in Nigeria’s unity and in governance he promoted bipartisanship and respect for the rule of law. He had the rich voice of a well-trained broadcaster and used it up to good effect. His easy manners gave him the persona of a refreshingly warm and friendly person. Even as President, he had no airs about him. He looked simple, as simple as the guy next door. He was not avaricious and even after he left office as President, he went back to soil his fingers in his farm. He continued to work in his farm until his strength failed him.

The most important tribute, I believe, that can be paid to him is that he was a patriot obsessively devoted to service to his fatherland. The many offices he held are a testimony to this view. For him who was clearly a very patriotic leader, work or service was a logical necessity. Those who work like him because they believe sincerely in service and not in the reward that it brings are rare in our country. In that respect, Shehu Shagari remains a shining beacon.

Let’s celebrate not mourn Shagari – Obasanjo