Shehu Shagari: A life of significance
His place in the nation’s history is defined not only by the fact of being the first elected executive President but by his austere life style typical of many leaders in the immediate post-colonial period.
At this time, it is apt that his sterling qualities should be highlighted as a reminder of the standard required of those who aspire to truly serve this nation even at this time.
There is a discernible pattern in earthly existence that places a new arrival in circumstances that contributed to the evolving and achievements of the person. Shagari’s mother and father hailed from ruling houses.
He did not experience much of his father, who died a few years after becoming head of Shagari village.
His first education was in the Quranic school; credited with his imbibing high moral values of patience, humility, selflessness, kindliness and friendliness.
In the way life works, Shagari progressed to elementary school in nearby Yabo, then to Sokoto Middle School and was trained as a teacher in Kaduna College.
At the end of Second World War in 1945, he became the Science, History and Geography teacher in Sokoto and later headmaster at Argungu Primary School.
All through, he had honed his skills as a writer of poems. His incursion into politics started with his election to represent his constituency in the Northern Region House of Assembly in Kaduna.
In 1958, he was appointed the Parliamentary Secretary to the Prime Minister Abubakar Tafawa Balewa.
In rapid progression, he served as Federal Minister for Economic Development at Independence in 1960, Internal Affairs, 1962 and Works and Surveys in 1965.
In the Gowon Military Administration, he was the Minister for Economic Affairs and later of Finance when Chief Obafemi Awolowo resigned from the cabinet.
The First Republic rested on a political tripod structure, anchored on the three regions.
In the second election of 1964, the two political parties in Western and Eastern Nigeria formed the United Progressive Grand Alliance (UPGA) while the main party in the north aligned with a splinter group in the west to form the Nigerian National Alliance (NAA).
However, in 1978, when the Military Government lifted ban on politics, the first group to step out was the Unity Party of Nigeria (UPN) and then the Nigerian Peoples Party (NPP); thus bifurcating the Grand Alliance.
However, National Alliance remained and emerged as the National Party of Nigeria (NPN). That shaped the outcome of the 1979 elections in which Shehu Shagari emerged President.
Critics of his style of governance would do well to consider his rites of passage. Like many others from the first republic, Shagari could be excused for having the mindset of the parliamentary form of government.
From October 1, 1979, it was a transitional experience, as the concept of an executive President was a novelty.
Unlike his erstwhile mentor and boss Tafawa Balewa, he did not have to sit in parliament to explain and defend the programmes of his administration.
Before the election that brought Shagari to power, the Think Tank of his party countered the “free education” of the UPN by coining the term “qualitative” education. It was a misnomer for their intended “education of quality.”
After winning the election, however, neither the ruling party nor the administration gave any definition or the elements of that terminology which, technically, is a mathematical term.
It is said that when prayers go wrong, the primary blame is on the Imam or Pastor. Therefore, every leader bears a vicarious responsibility for the misdeeds of his subordinates.
Shagari’s seemingly laisser-faire demeanour was blamed as causing the glaring excesses by some members of his party and his cabinet.
At that time, it was a great insensitivity on the part of the leader of his party to have imported the elitist drink, Champagne, branded in his own name.
In a society of pervasive poverty, the attainment of billionaire status was openly proclaimed and celebrated. His minister of Transport headed a Presidential Task Force on rice importation, an assignment in which he carved a fiefdom.
It has been alleged that rather than lead by driving the system with his own vision, Shagari allowed the system run itself.
The consequence was the scandalous greed of a few in his inner circle, given the sheer volume of government business. This generated the question: “Must a decent leader have a hit man?”
Shagari’s perceived simple nature did not do justice to his steely interior, broad exposure in governance and personal competence.
As a close aide to the Prime Minister, he had been groomed in the enclave of power. In the days leading to civilian rule of the Second Republic, he had wanted to be a senator.
Yet he was selected by the party caucus, in a primary election, which included Yusuf Maitama Sule, Adamu Ciroma and Dr. Olusola Saraki, all highly educated both in the UK and at the country’s premier university.
Shagari fitted the bill of an appropriate leader for a multi-ethnic society where a heady person would lack the humility to handle power with the necessary humility and wisdom.
Contrary to the message in billboards advertising a tyre brand, that, “power is nothing without control,” power without humility can be calamitous.
Shagari was a victim of three military incursions into government. His death compels a searchlight into that aberration that has corrupted the country’s development strides.
He had worked directly with Tafawa Balewa when the military struck on January 15, 1966. He was a minister under Gowon when the military took over in 1975. He was the prime target of the military putsch of December 31, 1983, which brought General Muhammadu Buhari to power.
Coincidentally, the same Buhari is still in power as an elected president as we bid Shagari goodbye!
It is quite instructive that economic mismanagement and corruption were the major reasons the military had often claimed triggered their incursions into government.
After maintaining a dignified silence for years, Shagari wrote his autobiography in which he dismissed as “lies” all the allegations against him and some of his associates in government that the military overthrew.
He challenged those who terminated his administration to name a single member that was very rich among people who served in his government. No one answered him until he breathed his last the other day.
However, our experience as a nation has revealed monumental corruption during successive military administrations.
The worldwide penchant of conquering armies to plunder played out in every military administration.
It is unfortunate that 36 years after the coup against Shagari the country being led by the same Buhari, is still fighting corruption as a bad ulcer that feeds on medications applied to it.
Meanwhile, military incursion could not obliterate the significance of the leader, Shagari. Asked what he wanted to remembered for, the Turakin Sokoto said he would like to be remembered as a servant of the people: “I have served throughout my life,” he said.
At a cabinet meeting in Doddan Barracks in November 1983, he said from the time he embarked on working for the pubic as a school teacher, he had always lived in official quarters.
On a condolence visit of past Nigerian leaders to Olusegun Obasanjo on the death of his wife, Stella, Shagari spoke on behalf of them and said: “We brought nothing into this world and we will take no material thing away from here. Our problem is that we forget, that we will die any day and have to render account to Almighty God.”
Shagari fulfilled the obligations in all his rings of responsibility: family, village, state, nation and the world. His departure from this world compels us, individually and collectively, to reflect on the qualities of a true leader. Those in power now must be mindful that they will be judged by the legacies they bequeath.
Shagari’s exemplary life in selflessness, peace-loving, meekness, large-heartedness, etc speak to our consciousness; especially at this time when some people are jostling for elective positions.
We would like to say, ‘farewell’ to a leader who believed that the art of wielding power doesn’t have to involve intimidation of the vulnerable and the opposition elements who speak truth to power. That was precisely what the leader in Shagari illustrated then when he as president honoured his main challenger in those days, Chief Obafemi Awolowo, with one of the highest national honours, GCFR. Such statesmanship is curiously rare these days.
In the main, we will continue to remember the teacher and servant-leader Shagari for teaching us about the significance of simplicity and authenticity while in and out of power.