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For Turakin Sakkwato, it’s goodnight at 93

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Shehu Shagari

Since October 1, 1979, when Alhaji Shehu Usman Aliyu Shagari was sworn in as the country’s first executive president, his minted image remains permanently etched in the minds of Nigerians.

Many of those who heard his voice at the swearing ceremony would think that was just coming into national limelight, but would be shocked to know that the man had seen it all.

From the downstairs, all the way up, life has remained a bloom for him. From an ordinary class teacher, he rose to the pinnacle of life.

He climbed all through the different levels and layers of administrative, bureaucratic, parliamentary and executive positions at village, town, province, division, local government, state and national levels. His story is told within the context of the transition from colonial rule to independence and the struggle to build a stable country with democratic institutions and values.

And for 93 years, his good values canceled out the negatives and vice versa of his life.

Born the son of a village chief, Alhaji Magaji Aliyu, the village head of Shagari and Mariamu, the daughter of Sarkin Kebbi Riskuwa, the district head of Yabo, on February 25, 1925, he was given the middle name, Usman, which means ‘Companion’.

He lived out the true meaning of his name, having been raised in a polygamous home. Aliyu’s death compelled the young Shehu to seek the companionship of members of the wider Shagari family. Bello Shagari was also handy to guide him.

Before emerging as the Magajin Shagari, a very highly revered title for the head of a village in Fulaniland, Shagari’s father, Aliyu, was a farmer, trader and herder.

However, due to traditional rites that prevented rulers from participating in business, Aliyu relinquished some of his trading interest when he became the Magaji, or village head, of Shagari village.

Aliyu died five years after Shehu’s birth, and Shehu’s elder brother, Bello, briefly took on his father’s mantle as Magajin Shagari.

The soft spoken and unassuming gentleman spent his early childhood in his village of birth located 50 kilometres Southwest of Sokoto, the state capital.

Living in the serene environment among the austere but dignified people was said to have shaped his personality, which is characterised, by the qualities of patience, humility, selflessness, kindliness and friendliness.

Nonetheless, more than any other child of his age in the village, Shehu was a boy for books. He was outstanding, and at his age, he endured being tested in lessons, especially in the knowledge of the Quran.

Apparently, that knowledge had a great impact in his life: the high standards, values and virtues. He first started in a Quranic school at the age of four, from where he proceeded to an elementary school in Yabo.

From there, he attended the Sokoto Middle School and later, Kaduna College, where he trained as a teacher.

His introduction to western education was also not different from the experience of other aristocratic families in the then Northern Region of Nigeria. The colonialists usually asked traditional rulers to send their children to school to be educated.

Kaduna College, originally, was created to be a teachers’ training school.

There were few high level civil service professions open to indigenes of Northern Nigeria and coupled with the lack of a post-graduate school except the Yaba Higher College; the teaching profession became the dominant career path early graduates of Kaduna College took and Shagari was no exception.

In 1945, after the end of World War II, he moved back to become the science and also history and geography teacher of the Sokoto Middle School.

There, he was re-united with his extended family that lived nearby. Six years after, he was posted to Argungu as the headmaster of the new primary school there.

Even while a teacher, he kept on the alert, any other skill he could learn.

As a classroom teacher, he excelled in all the subjects he was trained to teach and even going on sojourn in other subjects, for example, poetry and written Hausa songs laced with philosophical messages.

He wrote poems about people and places in Nigeria that up till 1960, Alhaji Shehu Shagari and Alhaji Umaru Wazirin Gwandu were the two notable Hausa poets in Sokoto Province.

Many children in primary schools throughout Northern Nigeria recited his poems such as, Wakar Nigeria and Wakar Hankuri, Song of Patience, among others.

Wakar Nigeria, which made him a household name in Sokoto Province and beyond has been translated into English and German languages with the title, Song of Nigeria.

Even when Shagari became a political activist and committed democrat and nationalist, his fame was largely confined to his hometown.

He remained largely anonymous until he was elected to represent the Sokoto Southwest constituency in the then northern regional parliament when the organisation became a political party, and by the late 1950s; he had won a national parliamentary election.

Like most great men, whose natural calling was to lead others to the Promised Land, Shehu was already determined to make a change, especially in the political landscape. The former president, in fact, cut his teeth in politics in the late 1940s alongside one Gambo in the ‘Youth Social Circle’, a political organisation in Sokoto.

Noble men such as, Ahmadu Bello, Ibrahim Gusau and Mallam Ahamdu Dabbaba supported them. By 1948, a consolidation idea was initiated in the region to merge all the nascent political organisations under one group.

In 1958, he was appointed Parliamentary Secretary to Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, the country’s then prime minister; and subsequently, assumed the positions of minister of economic development in 1960, minister of internal affairs in 1962 and minister of works and survey in 1965.

In 1970, he served as the minister of economic affairs, and later, finance under the military government of General Yakubu Gowon. Some military officers later overthrew Gowon’s government as part of a military putsch.

A new democratic return timetable was initiated by the new administration. As part of its preparation for democratic return, the government of Obasanjo established a constitutional conference.

Within the conference, a national organisation was formed among some members, the organisation was called National Movement, and it later metamorphosed to become the National Party of Nigeria (NPN).

To Shagari, politics is both a game and call to serve. He initially nursed the ambition of being a senator in the second republic, but was goaded into the presidential race, where he beat the late Alhaji Maitama Sule, the late Mallam Adamu Ciroma and the late Senator Olusola Saraki to clinch the ticket of NPN, under whose platform he contested the 1979 presidential election, won and was sworn in as president.

His administration made agriculture, housing, industrialisation and transportation its cardinal priorities; as well as attempted the diversification of the economy.

The Shagari administration completed the Delta Steel Complex in 1982, and tried to stabilise Ajaokuta Steel Company, and complete the Jos, Kaduna and Osogbo steel rolling mills among others.

Some other prominent achievements include, construction of road networks across Nigeria, introduction of mechanised farming and also established universities of technologies in the country such as, Federal University of Technology, Yola, Federal University of Technology, Akure, Federal University of Technology, Minna and Federal University of Technology, Owerri.

Three other universities of technology that he founded were rationalised in 1984 and merged with other schools.

But in 1988, two of the schools were demerged to become University of Agriculture, Abeokuta and University of Agriculture, Makurdi, while Michael Okpara University of Agriculture, Umudike, came in 1992.

The Green revolution programme was a major agriculture policy of the Shehu Shagari administration and the Fourth National Development Plan.

It was introduced in April 1980 and was intended as a programme to ensure self-sufficiency in food production and to introduce modern technology into the Nigerian agricultural sector, largely through the use of modern inputs such as high yielding varieties of seeds, fertilisers and tractors.

The programme encompassed a wide range of projects supportive to the nation’s agricultural development, this included 11 river basin development authorities, the ministry of Water Resources, National Food Production Programme, and the Agro Service centers.

When oil prices began to fall in 1981, the administration initiated an Economic Stabilisation Programme to help secure the economy, which led to the reduction of import licences, government spending, and an increase in customs’ duties.

Although, he worked very hard to improve on housing, industries, agriculture and transportation, which were the primary goals of his administration, allegations of corruption, religious violence, political unrest, the fall of the price of crude oil and reduction in national revenue drastically reduced the popularity of the government that was already accused of electoral fraud in the 1983 election.

In and out of government, his sincerity of purpose, commitment to the upliftment of human welfare, dignity and prosperity and above all, honesty, transparency and accountability have never been in doubt.

He founded the Shehu Shagari World Institute for Leadership and Good Governance (SSWI) to advance and promote the basic and fundamental principles of responsible leadership, good governance and multi-party democracy in Nigeria, Africa and the rest of the world.

He, however, maintained a dignified silence on the allegations of corruption, indecision, ineptitude and economic mismanagement levelled against his administration.

Several years after the military interregnum, Shagari came out with an autobiography, Shehu Shagari: Beckoned To Serve, where he shared his experience from early childhood through his period as president in 1979-1983, and beyond.

The autobiography defended the actions of his government and exposed the follies and fantasies of the junta that kicked him out of office.

“You see, what happened is that what the people were saying were lies. Those people they talked about were not very rich as being bandied about by those persons. I ask you to tell me here now who among my own people came out very rich and still rich? Tell me now? I know that the people they normally talk about… You see all these were propaganda, rubbish … completely rubbish,” he had said in an interview published in Africa Forum Vol. 5. Nos. 1 & 2, August 2001.

“They wanted to run us down and that in fact made me so sad and so angry with them. Yes, because while I was in detention, I had the opportunity that the other detainees did not have. I read everything because they were sending me papers everyday, all the papers. So all the things being said were lies. They were lies and liars! It was all complete favouritism. Each one of them was out to destroy us. After all, we had been overthrown and detained. What more did they want? But these people still went around; they thought propaganda could be done with our stories. They painted the stories, which were complete lies. And what happened after? I mean the people could see at the end of the day, who the culprit was so it was all lies, complete lies against us.”

On what he would like to be remembered for, Shagari said, “I will like to be remembered as a servant of the public. Throughout my life I have served the public and I am still serving.”


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