The last Annual General Meeting of the Barewa Old Boys Association was held in Sokoto. Annual General Meetings of the Old Boys of Barewa College have always been held in the College campus in Zaria. But in preparations leading to its Centenary celebration in 2023, the 2017 Annual General Meeting was held in Katsina where it was first established. The 2018 Annual General Meeting was held in Sokoto and one of the reasons for that, was that it was home of our First Executive President, Alhaji Shehu Usman Aliyu Shagari, GCFR, President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria (1979 – 1983). He was not able to attend the meeting, of course, but he was able to receive the Old Boys.
The news of his death filled the television screens on Friday, 29th December, 2018. It did not come as a great surprise. He has lived to the ripe age of 93 and has not enjoyed good health for quite some time. While writing this piece, a friend reminded me of a conversation we had with the former President. He told us that when he was very young, it used to be said in his village that men generally died at forty. He constantly prayed that he would reach 40. But when he was approaching forty and was still in perfect health, he changed his prayer that he should reach a riper old age. He lived until the ripe old age of 93. Nevertheless the death of the revered and respected leader evoked deep memories and emotions in the nation especially among the men and women of many generations that shared the lives and times of such great and respected souls.
I knew the name of Shehu Shagari long before I met him in Mina, on the Holy Pilgrimage of 1963. We shared the same tent and my bed was next to his for the few days of the pilgrimage. He was very humble and very simple. He was a good conversationalist. He was already the Parliamentary Secretary to the first Prime Minister of Nigeria, Alhaji Abubakar Tafawa Balewa and was well on his way to playing great historical roles in the future of the emerging Nigeria.
At critical moments of the evolving Nigerian political scenery, one of the names most often heard was that of Shehu Shagari. It was a name heard but the face hardly seen. He shuttled between Lagos and Kaduna and interacted directly with the Prime Minister, the Sardauna and the powerful Defence Minister, Muhammadu Ribadu.
However, I only came close to him during the Military Era of General Yakubu Gowon, immediately after the end of Nigerian Civil War in 1970. He had been appointed a Minister in the Gowon Cabinet but had not been allocated a Portfolio. My Minister of Information, Chief Anthony Enahoro was ill and in hospital abroad. I needed to have important decisions taken and I went to the Head of State, General Gowon and told him that I needed a Minister to authorize certain actions to be taken.
The Head of State asked that I should communicate with him direct. I suggested that while this way of action may be right, it is not normal. It would be better if he assigned a Minister already in the Cabinet to act in the absence of my Minister. This, in fact, was the normal practice. The Head of State asked which one. I said Alhaji Shehu Shagari who is already there but was without a portfolio.
Alhaji Shehu Shagari was informed by the Secretary to the Government of his assignment on the telephone and I went to brief him in his house. He asked me for his letter of posting. For some reason it took quite some time to extract the letter without which Shagari would not come to Office. When he came, it was not quite the usual Minister I had been used to. He asked too many questions and far far more detailed briefings on every matter. We had to adjust for the short period that he acted; but I had learned to enjoy working with him. He was direct, could be rather abrasive but always very civilized. Later still I was to get to know him better and more closely after the overthrow of General Gowon at the end of July 1975. I went to more or less commiserate with him at this time of uncertainty, the second in his public service; the first being the January coup of 1966.
He was unexpectedly cheerful and did not seem in any way perturbed by the turn of events. He talked about the politics of independence, the various political crises. He talked to me easily about the 1964 election crisis and the formation of the broad-based government brokered between the President, Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe and the Prime Minister, Abubakar Tafawa Balewa.
During the prolonged going backwards and forwards between the President, the Prime Minister and the Northern Leadership, certain lines of negotiations were adopted. The Northern Ministers, especially the younger and more radical, among whom I guess was Shagari, supported. They wanted very radical solutions to the National Question. The Agreement reached was far from what they had adopted as a strategy for the North.
The outcome, the broad-based government that was announced was not what they expected or hoped for. So a group of them, among the Northern Ministers met and decided to call their leader, the Northern Premier and the Sardauna of Sokoto to demand for an explanation, the meaning, the content and the implications of the announcement they had just heard on the radio. They wanted particularly to know whether he was aware of and whether he subscribed to what was announced.
The Sardauna had calmly answered that he was fully aware of every detail of the agreement that led to the broad-based government, but advised that if they required further explanation, they should meet the Minister of Defence who was willing to receive them any time they were ready.
They trooped to Alhaji Ribadu’s house at Ribadu Road. They found him seated outside in the courtyard. He was praying. It took him a long time to finish and to “demand” of what brought them. They explained that they had heard the Terms and Conditions of the resolution of the political crisis and they were not happy with it.
“You say you are not happy?” “Yes,” they chorused. Where upon, the Minister shouted the name of his valet by the name of Jauro, a giant of a man, who arrived stumping heavily on the concreted courtyard. “Jauro”, the Minister called his name. “Go to my room. There are some sheets of white plane paper on the table bring them with the pen also on the table.” Jauro soon returned and the Minister, speaking to the assembled Ministers, seated on the large mat upon which he himself was seated said to them that, “those of you who do not support the agreement and who no longer wish to be part of the Government should simply write their names and sign. The resignation letter will be attached. Good night”. So saying, he left them to decide their next line of action. That was the end of the matter. Leadership at work, Leadership authority asserted.
The Military that took over Government in January 1966 certainly did not trust the politicians they took over power from, but otherwise just kept them well away from any active participation in politics and political power games. Shagari quietly went back to Sokoto and resumed his role as the Turakin Sokoto with a seat in the Sultanate Council; playing the role he loved most. Teaching, where he made his name and for which he contributed immensely all through his life.
During the early days of the Nigerian Civil War, when Nigeria had a bad international press and was under attack throughout Europe and the Americas, the Military Government in late 1967 into 1978 engaged some of the now retired politicians of the First Republic to tour Europe and to interact with their old friends in politics, in Business and in Church affairs to quietly revive old. Arrays of the former political giants of Nigeria were assembled.
They were approached and briefed. I remember that Shehu Shagari was one of them. Some of the others included Zanna Bukar Dipchrima and Bola Ige. We gave them Economy air tickets and gave them money enough for them to stay in Three Star Hotels. Three of the more than thirty people wrote detailed reports. They were Shehu Shagari, Bola Ige and Dipcharima. Shagari not only wrote the most detailed report but submitted full and detailed rendition of all his expenses with all receipts attached.
When the Military was persuaded to engage the old politicians on the sidelines of governance, Shehu Shagari was made Chairman of the Peugeot Automobile plant in Kaduna; a position he held until he resigned in 1978 to contest the Presidential elections in 1979.
When he became President – Elect, he made me Chairman of his Transition Committee and subsequently a member of the Board of NNPC.
Although his Presidency was marked with rising levels of corruption, until his death no one has accused him of personally being corrupt. But there was little doubt that some of his more powerful Ministers were becoming more and more reckless and were getting power drunk and his government becoming unpopular.
He was overthrown on the 30th of December, 1983. In a conversation after his release from solitary confinement, he told me his condition in his detention, first in a house in Lagos and then in Benin. He was in a house alone, except for a young likable military guard for company. The curtains were always drawn.
When at first he would draw the curtain to have some light, the young military guard would pull it back together.
He said he feared he was getting gradually blind and wished that he was in prison with his fellow detainees. When his doctor, Dr. Tafida was allowed to see him, he broke down and wept. He was telling his story in a manner of a grandfather telling his grandchild about to go to sleep and was smiling all the time. He was without bitterness.
Shehu Shagari was a man of a large family. In spite of his family size: wives, children, grand and great grand children and his many hundreds of thousands of friends and followers, he knew them by name, loved and cared for them. One example: he once sent me a hand written note asking me to help someone, a young lady with close relations for a job. I managed to fix the person. He was so full of gratitude when a few years later I went to pay him a courtesy visit in Sokoto he called the person concerned and said this is the girl you helped and she is grateful to you. The girl by now had a baby. At that moment, tears swelled in my eyes.
My emotional tears were aroused not from the fact that I had helped to play a positive role in the life of someone, but from the fact that a person who had attained so much in life could be so concerned with the welfare and well being of the lowly in society and so willing to assist to the extent of asking for assistance from people so much lower in society and demonstrating so much humble gratitude.
May his great and noble soul rest in perfect peace.
–Joda, an elder statesman, sent this tribute from Yola