Shonekan’s life and ‘interim’ honour in politics
Until he breathed his last yesterday, at the age of 85, former Head of Interim National Government (ING), Chief Ernest Shonekan’s life depicts different images to segments of Nigerians. While some saw him as a patriot who accepted to head the interim government, hurriedly contrived by former military President, Ibrahim Badamosi Babangida after annulling June 12, 1993 election, won by Bashorun Moshood Kashimowo Abiola, many Nigerians saw Shonekan as a game spoiler and pawn in the political cheese game of the military junta to perpetuate themselves in power.
The former chairman and chief executive of the United African Company of Nigeria (UACN) was never known in the political circle until January 2, 1993, when Babangida appointed him as Head of all civilian transitional council and head of government. The council was designed to head the administration including the economy of the country and saw to the smooth handing over of military government to the democratic leaders of the Third Republic.
His appointment to lead such a critical organ that will end military government did not attract suspicion among Nigerians; indeed, his apolitical mien convinced many that he was a good man for the job.
But unknown to Shonekan, Babagida, who had severally changed his date of quitting government and allow for democratic government had hidden agenda and plan of handing over power to one of his lieutenants and master coup plotter, General Sani Abacha.
Babangida’s government had June 12, 1993 for the presidential election that was supposed to end the staggered transition programme. Two political parties created by Babangida’s government – Social Democratic Party (SDP) and National Republican Convention (NRC), keenly contested the election. While Abiola was the presidential candidate of SDP, Alhaji Bashir Tofa, who died penultimate weekend ago was the candidate of NRC.
The much-awaited presidential election was held under a clement weather throughout the country without crisis or casualty recorded in any of the polling units. Counting of votes had been completed and Prof Humphery Nwosu–led National Electoral Commission (NEC) had released results in some states, showing that Abiola was coasting to victory. There was jubilation across the country and celebration of what many called the freest and fairest election in Nigeria.
But that joy was short-lived and hope of return of democratic government was dashed as military junta ordered the electoral body to stop further announcement of election result. The whole country was in a standstill and apprehensive of what the military government had up their sleeves.
The uproar and civil disobedience that hallmarked the era forced babangida to announce the ING as a face-saving measure.
Shonekan was unable to control the political crisis, which ensued following the election annulment. During his few months in power, he tinkered with the idea to schedule another presidential election and a return to democratic rule, while his government was hampered by a national workers’ strike. Many Nigerians viewed Shonekan’s interim government as illegitimate. He released political prisoners detained by Babangida. Shonekan’s administration introduced a bill to repeal three major draconian decrees of the military government. But Babangida made the interim government weak and unacceptable to Nigerians by placing it under the control of the military.
As head of transitional government, Shonekan had lobbied for debt cancellation but, after the election annulment, most of the Western powers imposed economic sanctions on Nigeria. Inflation was uncontrollable and most non-oil foreign investment disappeared. The government also initiated an audit of the accounts of NNPC, the oil giant, an organisation with much operational inefficiency.
Shonekan tried to set a timetable for troops withdrawal from ECOMOG’’s peacekeeping mission in Liberia. But Abacha was the minister of defence and chief of defence staff who had full control over the military.
For 82 days Shonekan spent in office as Head of government, the country was not at peace, it was one day, multiple crises and when Sani Abacha sacked his government in November 1993, Shonekan lacked moral authority to raise a finger or resist the palace coup.
Perhaps, by that moment it must have dawned on him that he was used as a stop-gap between Babangida and Abacha’s regime that retuned the country’s government to full dictatorship.
Delivering his resignation address on November 17, 1993, Shonekan admitted that the ING was conceived in crisis and born during crisis but he tried his best “to bring honour to government” and took steps to tackle corruption and indiscipline.
He said, “It is common knowledge that the ING is a child of circumstance. It was conceived in crisis and born in crisis”.
Giving account of stewardship, the businessman who was dragged into politics said, “If I may recount some of the achievements of the Interim National Government to which you have all been witnesses, we may not have recorded landmarks, but we have taken the first step. In the social sector, we have brought back normalcy in the institutions of higher learning.
“On human rights, our records are impeccable and perhaps, unbeatable in the annals of our country. We freed all jailed human rights activists, we pardoned all political offenders both dead and alive, allowed all politicians in exile to return home, and we have not restricted the free movement of any activist in and out of the country. We also took the appropriate steps to de-proscribe the newspapers proscribed by sending the Bills to the National Assembly to be repealed.
“On the political arena, we have continued to work ceaselessly towards full democratization of our dear country. We have extended our right hand of fellowship to the legislature and have put in place the machinery for local and presidential elections next February.
“On the economic scene, we were able to put in place an Economic Action Agenda for the nation in conjunction with the private sector operators. Let me assure you that our seemingly tough policies have received commendation from far and beyond. Ordinarily, I would have wished that the Interim National Government would be saddled only with economic problems. This derives from my belief that our country faces more economic challenges than anything else. Although we have not been able to implement some of our policies, nonetheless we have started out in the right direction by curbing frivolous expenditure and working closely with the private sector of the economy. I can only hope that the successor administration will take off from where we are leaving and continue courageously with the budgetary and other reforms we have adopted as well as our campaign for debt relief.
“Distinguished colleagues, most importantly, the Interim National Government has tried very hard to bring honour to government and has taken steps to campaign against the incidence of corruption and indiscipline in the society. Several times, I have publicly acknowledged the collective transparency and integrity of this cabinet. Let me say loud and clear here that we have all made sacrifices for these past 82 days in the strong belief that our country deserves the best. I have an unshaken faith in the promise of Nigeria and I believe that the best is yet to come.
“However, I regret to inform you that in the light of recent events and after due consideration of all the facts, I am left with no alternative but to take the most honourable and dignified step of resigning, with immediate effect, my appointment as Head of State and Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces of Nigeria.”
Having managed the country’s economy for several months and saw how bad the economy had been plummeted under the military, in 1994, he founded the Nigeria Economic Summit Group (NESG), an advocacy group and think-tank for private sector-led development of the Nigerian economy
It was his belief that one of the essentials to resolving Nigeria’s economic problems was the creation of a forum, which would enable key players in the private sector to dialogue with top government officials. His idea, which was put into place in anticipation of a successful transition to democratic governance, was facilitated by a core group from the public and private sectors.
The Summit has remained consistent in proffering solutions to several economic challenges facing Nigeria. It has consistently advocated changes in government and has helped government initiate policies that had been implemented to drive the economy.
For instance, on deregulation/sector reform, NES was unequivocal in its focus on deregulation of the economy so as to rescue it from suffocation and free private resources itching to flow into potential areas of profitable investment. Summit advocacy led to positive responses in many sectors of the economy.
It is also on record that the Summit made significant impact on the issue of long-term vision for the country. This gave birth to Vision 20:2020 and Mass Participation. NES was able to market the need for a long-term vision for the country. In doing this, the Summit took cue from the Malaysian experience where long term vision and planning has proven a success.
The acceptance of the idea led to the establishment of the Vision 20:2020 Committee, which spent nine months producing its proposals. The committee had representations from a cross-section of Nigerians. Although subsequent changes in administration affected implementation of the Vision, its recommendations are still useful till date.
Investing in infrastructure has also been one other area of serious concern to NES. On this, the Summit advocated economic liberalization and increased competition that paved the way for the explosion of the telecommunications industry.
The advent of the global system for mobile telecommunication greatly increased the country’s teledensity and is still flowing. It also created employment, attracted substantial inflow of investment and revolutionized the telecommunications industry. It is an achievement, and an evidence of the good ends of deregulation that can be replicated in other sectors.
Paying tribute to Shonekan, the group in a statement signed by Mr. Asue Ighodalo on behalf of NESG’s Board of Directors, said, “We join the entire nation to mourn the passing of our founding father, Chief Ernest Shonekan who was for us not just an elder statesman but also a visionary thought leader, patriot and reform advocate. Chief Shonekan’s keen intellect and tireless efforts helped birth NESG. He was also an astute and committed private sector player who joined the United Africa Company of Nigeria in 1964 and rose through the ranks in the company to become Chairman and Managing Director in 1980.
“Chief Shonekan was notable for his vision of a Nigeria without ethnic or religious prejudice that is secure, peaceful and prosperous. He contributed to this by leading diligently and serving passionately in the national interest throughout his lifetime of service.
“At the NESG, we rededicate ourselves to advancing Chief Shonekan’s mandate in the national interest. Despite the odds, we remain committed to his enduring legacy. We find inspiration in his forthrightness and tenacity, which continue to pave the way for a globally competitive and inclusive Nigerian economy.
“Our thoughts and prayers are with Chief Shonekan’s beloved family at this time. May his soul rest in peace…”
Shonekan rose through the ranks in UACN and was promoted assistant legal adviser. He later became a deputy adviser and joined the board of directors at the age of 40. He was made chairman and managing director in 1980, and went on to cultivate a wide array of international business and political connections.
He was born in Lagos on 9 May 1936. The son of an Abeokuta-born civil servant, he was one of six children born into the family. He attended CMS Grammar School and Igbobi College. He received a law degree from the University of London, and was called to the bar. He later attended Harvard Business School.