For Turakin Sakkwato, It’s 90 Hearty Cheers
A PITILESS sun, untempered by howling winds of the Lagos Island covers Tafawa Balewa Square, Onikan, Lagos. The handing over ceremony is on, and martial music serenades guests at the parade ground. The 54-year old man looks innocent, as he takes oath of office. His face brims in sheer excitement. He didn’t look like a belligerent provocateur, but definitely, not your schoolboy. He wears a set of thick glasses, cap and babariga. A string of innocence registers, as his voice resounds into the deep, while the Chief Justice of the Federation administers the oath of office: “I, Usman Aliyu Shehu Shagari, do solemnly swear…”
Since October 1, 1979, when Alhaji Shehu Shagari was sworn in as the country’s first executive president, his minted image is still permanently etched in the minds of Nigerians. And for many reasons, but mostly positive. His good values cancel out the negatives and vice versa.
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 has risen to the pinnacle of life. He has 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.
Paradox Of Life
BORN the son of a village chief on February 25, 1925, he became a schoolteacher, 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.
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.
Though Shagari, has aristocratic background, and currently holds the exalted title of Turakin Sakkwato, he had a humble beginning. The sixth child of Magaji Aliyu and Mariamu of Shagari village, Sokoto State, 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.
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.
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.
He was called on to become the new pupil-science teacher of Sokoto Middle School. Shortly after, he was appointed the science teacher for Zaria Middle School.
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.
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.
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.
By nature a team player, he was ready to trade his ambition for the general good. It was his commitment to the liberation struggle that helped in the building of bridges to accommodate the diametrically opposed North and Southern Nigeria.
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).
NPN was regarded at that time as the most appealing in terms of national character. Small wonder Shagari attracted huge votes from north and from minorities in southern Nigeria.
Umaru Dikko, who was Shagari’s campaign manager during the 1979 and 1983 elections, was to become a symbol of corruption in later years. During his campaign across the length and breadth of the country, Shagari spoke eloquently of ‘One Nation, One Destiny’ that was to be betrayed in later years.
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 Alhaji Maitama Sule, 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 technoly 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 useof modern inputs such as high yielding varieties of seeds, fertilizers 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.
The Federal Government immediately disbursed 18.3 million naira to specific funds for the improvement of food, livestock and fish production. However, the project suffered some setbacks in opposition states, and also provisions to motivate high end farmers to make large scale investment were met with mixed results as a result of the Land Use Decree, the same provisions were also criticized as creating growth opportunities for wealthy investors without relief for small farmers.
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.
FOR over 70 years of his productive life, he has assiduously provided selfless service to Nigeria and humanity. As a student, he was often called upon by his class teacher to assist in teaching his fellow colleagues — some who were his age mates and some older than he was. And as an administrator and bureaucrat, he laboured tirelessly to investigate and find solutions to human misery.
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. Apart from occasional travels out of town, Shagari spends most of his time in Sokoto Township and the Shagari village, where he has a modest farm and runs a school. He grows only millet and corn and has some livestock. He is loved and admired by his neighbours in his Sokoto township residence on Shagari Crescent, such that the entire neighbourhood is named ”Gidan Shagari”, meaning Shagari compound.
His popularity in Sokoto is attributed to his continued support of, and promotion of religious harmony. His main possessions consist of two houses located in Sokoto and Shagari village. He rides around in two cars – a Mercedes Benz.
Shagari’s genuine love for Nigeria, his sincerity and determination to steer the nation away from crises, as well as his clean records during and after service is commendable.
He is not a card-carrying member of any political party, neither does he support the candidature of any politician.
Known for his proven integrity, and his reputation as a distinguished nationalist and elder statesman, one of his children, said, “Shagari treats every Nigerian politician equally irrespective of his/her political party, tribe, ethnicity or religion with highest regards.” 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.
Shagari currently serves as a bridge between a relatively golden era in Nigeria’s political journey and the present tortuous 4th Republic riddled with daunting socio-political challenges. His presence evokes a feeling of nostalgia in the nation. A pleasant reminder of the sacrifices of architects of modern Nigeria in the First Republic; the political activism and exciting ideology that characterised the Second Republic; and, indeed, the evolution of contemporary political system in the country.
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.”
SHAGARI best exemplifies the aphorism that the world needs heroes and heroines, even more than it needs celebrities. The veneration that followed his birthday shows how he is loved and still regarded 32 years after his exit from office. That someone, who has been in obscurity for so long could exercise such influence suggests a remarkable personality.
General Abdulsalami Abubakar described Shagari as not only his mentor, but also an adviser and a confidant, whose service to the nation will forever be remembered.
On his part, Ernest Shonekan, while congratulating Shagari on attaining the age of 90, said Shagari has and will continue to “contribute his quota to the development of the nation.”
In the words of General Ibrahim Babangida, Shagari was the reason for his becoming a General and even a head of state of Nigeria.
“In 1979, Alhaji Shehu Shagari was advised that I should be kicked out of the Nigerian Army, the reason being that I was involved in all the coups in this country. But Alhaji Shehu Shagari said no. Therefore, I want to specially thank him at his 90th birthday for allowing me to rise to the rank of a General, and to become the chief of army staff and subsequently, a military president,” he said.
While recognising the uprightness of Alhaji Shehu Shagari, General Yakubu Gowon said he brought Shagari into his government as minister of finance because of his credibility.“ He performed exceptionally well for this country as minister of finance in my government,” Gowon affirmed.
“It is not easy to endure 90 winters, especially in a country where attaining 50 is not even easy. Even at the age of 90, Alhaji Shehu Shagari is still very, very committed to contributing his quota to the development of Nigeria,” President Jonathan observed.
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.”
Happy 90th birthday Turakin Sakkwato and many more years of blissful existence!
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