There is nothing as real as death. It puts meaning to life, tragic as it appears, because it serves as the umpire who blows the final whistle at the end of the dicey game of life, thus signaling that life is nothing but an interlude between the womb and the tomb. That interlude-long and eventful life, as it turned to be, came to a solemn end for Alhaji Shehu Shagari, former Nigeria President, on Friday. Shagari died at the ripe age of 93 at the Abuja National Hospital.
Early Life And Education
Shehu Usman Shagari was born in the village known as Shagari on February 25, 1925, in Sokoto State. The village was founded by his great-grandfather Ahmadu Rufai, who would later adopt the name of the village as the family name. His father was the Aliyu Shagari and his mother, Mariamu. As was the trend at the time of his birth, Shehu’s earliest training was in a Quaranic school in his rustic but serene village. The art of rote memorization enhanced by his Quaranic training in his formative years would later serve him in good stead when he started formal education. He lost his father at the tender age of eight but this did not deter him from dreaming big. He attended Yabo Elementary School from 1936 to 1940. He went from there to Sokoto Middle School, from 1936 to 1940, and then proceeded to the Teachers’ Training College in Zaria in 1944 and became a certified teacher in 1952.
He had a spell as an itinerant teacher touring the sedate but vast swathe known as Sokoto province from 1944 to 1950.
His Political Career
Shagari veered into politics in 1951 when he became the Secretary of the then nascent Northern People’s Congress(NPC) in the Sokoto branch. He would later vie for a political post in 1954. He was elected to the House of Representatives for Sokoto West. He served as the Parliamentary Secretary to Nigeria’s first and only Prime Minister, Alhaji Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, from 1958 to 1959. He left the office in 1959 when he was appointed as Minister of Commerce and Industries. A year after, he was given a new portfolio to serve as Federal Minister of Economic Development. He served as Federal Minister of Pension from 1960 to 1962; Federal Minister of Internal Affairs from 1962 to 1965 and Federal Minister of Works from 1960 to 1962.
He was forced into abrupt political break after the first military coup in January 1966 that claimed the life of his erstwhile boss, Tafawa Balewa. However, the break was momentary because he was invited by the Military Head of State, General Yakubu Gown(rtd), in the heat of the Nigerian Civil War, to serve as the Commissioner (Minister) for Establishments, North-West State, between 1968 and 1969. Shagari rose to prominence and assumed more important posts in the post-Civil War (1967-1970) years.
At the heels of the Civil War, while trying to reintegrate the Igbo (known then as Biafrans) people into the Nigerian nation, he was made the Federal Commissioner for Economic Development, Rehabilitation, and Reconstruction. He served in the Federal Ministry of Finance and would later succeed Obafemi Awolowo as Commissioner for Finance from 1971 to 1975. Within this period, he was Governor of World Bank as well as member of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) Committee of Twenty.
Nigeria’s First ‘Executive’ President
General Olusegun Obasanjo — after the assassination of his boss, General Muritala Mohammed — initiated the transition process to terminate military rule in 1979. In the buildup to the Second Republic, a new constitution was drafted, which saw the Westminster system of government — adopted in the First Republic — jettisoned for an American-style presidential system. In September 1978, the ban on political activities was lifted. In 1979, five political parties competed in a series of elections, in which Alhaji Shehu Shagari of the National Party of Nigeria(NPN) won. His closest rivals, among other also-rans, was Chief Obafemi Awolowo of the Unity Party of Nigeria(UPN). The victory made Shehu Shagari the first elected Executive President of Nigeria. Dr. Nnamdi Azikwe was once President in the First Republic but his was ceremonial. Azikwe was a titular (having the title without the duties, functions and responsibilities expected of the office) President. This happened because Nigeria was operating the parliamentary system of government, which made the Prime Minister, Tafawa Balewa, the man who called the shots while the administration lasted. Shagari will later go down in the chequered history of Nigeria as the first and only President of the Second Republic. He re-contested and won the 1983 election before being booted out of the seat of power by a military coup by General Muhammadu Buhari.
That Mass Exodus Known As ‘Ghana Must Go’
Due to oil boom, which made Nigeria a cynosure of all eyes in the early 80s, the country witnessed an influx of immigrants from neighbouring countries. The chunk of these immigrants were from Ghana, which was experiencing economic hardship. However, due to poor management and corruption, things worsened in Nigeria. The boom became doom. And in the order to nip the dwindling of fortune in the bud, the Federal Government, led by Shehu Shagari, resorted to deportation of over 2 million Africans who were predominantly Ghanaians. President Shagari said in a statement, “If they don’t leave, they should be arrested and tried, and sent back to their homes. Illegal immigrants, under normal circumstances, should not be given any notice whatsoever. If you break a law, then you have to pay for it.” This statement emboldened most Nigerians to attack immigrants, especially Ghanaians, whom they felt were depriving them of what rightfully belonged to them. Panic gripped other nationalities and they started leaving the country in droves with or without their luggage. Those who could pack their belongings used the biggest of bags available, which happened to be the big bag now referred to today as ‘Ghana Must Go’. Some people would later ascribe the Shagari administration’s decision to purge the nation of immigration to factors other than the economic implication of their huge populations.
The Two-Thirds Drama After Defeating Awolowo
Shagari defeated Chief Obafemi Awolowo of the Unity Party Of Nigeria again in 1983, but in a contentious manner. Shagari polled the highest number of votes but a problem arose when Awolowo inquired to know whether his opponent satisfied the complementary condition given by the Electoral Act for a presidential candidate to be declared a winner, which was that the candidate must have one-quarter of votes in two-thirds of the states of the federation. Nigeria had 19 states then and Kano was the bone of contention. In the long run, after a series of legal rigmarole, the election tribunal ruled in favour of Shagari and the Supreme Court eventually upheld the tribunal’s verdict. But the verdict came with a caveat: THE JUDGEMENT MUST NOT BE CITED AS A PRECEDENT IN ANY COURT. This made Shagari’s victory at the poll suspect.
Awarding Awolowo The GCFR
The Grand Commander of the Federal Republic (GCFR) is the highest national honour in Nigeria, and exclusively reserved for past heads of state. However, in 1982, in an outright departure from the norm, Shagari gave the presidential honour to Chief Obafemi Awolowo, making the Ikene-born politician the first person to receive the award without becoming Head of State. It is believed till today, especially in the circle of Awolowo’s loyalists, that the honour was a recognition of Awo’s political savvy and superiority, and that Shagari made the decision to put a salve on his conscience having become President through allegedly foul means.
Though his administration was marred with corruption, posterity will remember him as a peace-loving man.