The news that President Shehu Usman Aliyu Shagari died in the evening hours of Friday December 28, 2018, was a huge shock to the whole nation. It came just two months to his 94th birthday. His life spanned virtually the entire history of Nigeria, a nation he loved and served whose history was inextricably entertained with his life history. If anyone could be said to have seen it all President Shagari could qualify as such person. He was born barely 10 years after the British formed Nigeria and rose to be one of its key pillars as a teacher, administrator, parliamentarian, minister in different ministries at various times and finally the first executive and only President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria during the Second Republic.
He has his tutelage and mentorship under the best: Premier of Northern Nigeria, Sir Ahmadu Bello, and Prime Minister of the Federation, Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa. He was one of the youngest ministers at independence and was very loyal to his superiors, supportive of his colleagues and patient with his subordinates. No wonder he was very close to both the premier and the prime minister who both saw in Shagari a future leader worthy of being properly groomed and thus gave him sensitive assignments.
Alhaji Shehu Shagari survived the first military coup of January 15, 1966, a coup that saw the elimination of virtually all the first generation northern and western political and military leaders. He went back to his Sokoto base and continued serving his community quietly. With the counter coup of July 29, 1966, General Yakubu Gowon assumed the mantle of leadership. He assembled some of the most experienced hands into his cabinet. Such leaders like Chief Awolowo, Mallam Yahaya Gusau, Chief Joseph Tarka and Mallam Aminu Kano were all in that cabinet. It did not take long before Alhaji Shagari was again invited to serve Nigeria as Federal Commissioner (Minister) of first, Economic Development and Reconstruction and subsequently Finance. He was finance minister when Naira and Kobo were introduced as national currency replacing the pounds and shillings in 1973.
In 1975, the Gowon administration was overthrown by General Murtala Mohammed in a bloodless coup. A Special Investigation Panel (SIP) was set up to probe the Gowon administration officials who were accused of corruption. Asset declaration forms were issued to them. Shagari and late Shettima Ali Monguno who was Gowon’s minister of Petroleum and Mines incidentally during what was called the oil boom, declared all they had including the mats, books and carpets in their personal homes. The SIP officials invited them to come and explain why they did not declare their shares in companies like the rest, especially given the fact that indigenisation took place during the Gowon regime. Alhaji Shagari replied that by his upbringing, culture and religion if one is a public figure he or she cannot have private interests, and so there was no way he could be in government and at the same time buy company shares even if he had the money, which in any case he didn’t have. They were all surprised.
Three years later, when the military lifted the ban on politics, it did not come as a surprise when the largest party then, the National Party of Nigeria (NPN), nominated Alhaji Shehu Shagari, Turakin Sokoto, as its presidential candidate. He got subsequently elected, beating old hands like Chief Obafemi Awolowo, Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe, Mallam Aminu Kano and Alhaji Waziri Ibrahim. He was sworn in as the first executive president of Nigeria on October 1, 1979.
President Shagari ran one of the most inclusive governments in the history of Nigeria. There was virtually no part of the country, however remote, that was not carried along in terms of projects and appointments. Agriculture and housing were given priority as per the manifesto of his party. Knowing the importance of steel to a nation’s technological take-off and development, Shagari was the first to create a Federal Ministry of Street Development. He built Abuja such that the movement of the Federal Capital from Lagos to Abuja became irreversible and inevitable.
President Shagari was the first to appoint women as federal ministers when he swore in Mrs. Janet Akinrinade and Mrs. Ebun Oyagbola into his cabinet to underscore the importance of women in national development. Shagari also took special interest in youth and sports; in fact, it was during his time that Nigeria won the African Cup of Nations Cup for the first time in 1980 and he was there personally for the finals in Lagos National Stadium. He created seven more universities to cater for the teeming youth yearning for higher education.
Recognizing the importance of the military in safeguarding the territorial integrity of the nation and projecting the national interests abroad, President Shagari adequately equipped and trained Nigeria’s Armed Forces. They never had it so good before or even after that. The Police were similarly equipped, trained and well remunerated. He raised the national minimum wage from N60 to N120 per month to boost productivity and raise the morale of Nigerian workers. Shagari left no one in doubt that he wanted only the best for Nigeria.
During his time, party supremacy was practised in reality. There was weekly party caucus meetings during which the party chairman presided and both leaders of the Executive and Legislative arms of government took part. Any grey areas or conflicts or disputes were quickly settled before they got out of hand. Shagari never considered political opponents as enemies. That was why he gave the nation’s highest national honour, GCFR, to his main rival, Chief Obafemi Awolowo. He honoured, respected and consulted all the other party leaders.
President Shagari had enormous powers as president but he never used it except for the common good of all. For the four years and three months he was president, he did not even change the furniture in his house. When the military overthrew him on December 31, 1983, they investigated him thoroughly and found only N64, 000 in his accounts. Shagari was integrity personified; he was humility personified; he was nobility personified; he was dignity personified. He endured all the insults of the media and opponents; he was perhaps the most patient leader in Nigeria’s history.
The last time I personally met him was here in Abuja when he honoured the invitation of one of the embassy’s National Day. I knelt down to greet and pay my respects. He stretched out his hand which I clasped with my both hands, raising my hands with his and blessing me. President Shagari loved younger ones and always enjoyed their company. We have lost a great father to all of us, a true patriot, a true democratic, a loving and caring mentor.
In many ways, it was the end of an era, being the last of that generation who sacrificed for us, lived their lives successfully and died honourably. He was a peaceful and peace loving leader. May the Almighty God forgive him his mistakes and grant him external rest in the Garden of Eden. Amen.
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