In Memoriam: Shehu Shagari (1925- 2018)

Jan 02, 2019|Afolabi Adekaiyaoja

Shehu Shagari, the first Executive President of Nigeria who served from 1979 till he was deposed after a coup in 1983, died on Friday in Abuja. He was 93 years old. He was buried the next day in accordance with Muslim rites. 

The news was confirmed on social media by his grandson Bello Shagari and the Sokoto State Governor Aminu Tambuwal. Both confirmed that the former president succumbed to an illness at the National Hospital Abuja. 

His successor as Head of State, and current Nigerian President, Muhammadu Buhari also paid tribute to Shagari and ordered all Nigerian flags flown at half-mast for three days. 


The Public Servant 

Shagari was born February 25, 1925, in the village of Shagari in Sokoto state. A teacher by training, he received a degree from the Teacher Training College in Kaduna before becoming more active in youth politics. 

The former president is well-known for his extensive career in government, starting as the Parliamentary Secretary to Prime Minister Balewa in 1958. 

The next year he became the Federal Minister for Commerce and Industries, before being moved in a cabinet reshuffle to the Ministry for Economic Development. He served there till 1960 when he headed the Ministry for Pensions. 

Between 1962 and 1965, he became the Minister for Internal Affairs, before his final ministerial position as Minister of Works, a position he held till the January 1966 coup. 

He survived the coup and ended up in Sokoto, staying there during the Civil War that would rage on till 1970. While in Sokoto, he worked within the military administration as Secretary for the state's Education Development Fund and then later as the then North-Western State Commissioner for Establishments. After the war, then Head of State Yakubu Gowon invited Shagari to serve in his administration as a Minister of Economic Development, Rehabilitation and Reconstruction. In 1971, Shagari succeeded Obafemi Awolowo as the Minister of Finance, serving till the end of the Gowon regime. 

The Murtala-Obasanjo regimes accelerated plans for a return to democracy in 1979 and changed the presidency from a ceremonial role to the US-style head of state and government that it is today. Ahead of the transition to democracy, Shagari was encouraged to seek the Presidency on the platform of the National Party of Nigeria (NPN). His victory was marred by the constitutional crisis triggered by his failure to receive 25% of the vote in two-thirds of the states of the country. However, he was eventually sworn in as President after a decision by the Supreme Court in his favour. 


President (1979-1983)

Shagari focused on Housing, Industry, Transportation and Agriculture during his term in office. He is credited with building the Kaduna Refinery in 1980 as well as the Ajaokuta Steel Mills, regrettably both failing to deliver on the promise expected at their creation. 

Largely known for his 'Green Revolution', Shagari worked with farmers to distribute seed and fertilizers nationwide, while also pushing policies to increase the use of mechanical machinery. 

Shagari's foreign policy was equally ambitious, with an agenda to end white minority rule in South Africa and Namibia. He used his international trips, first to Washington in 1980 and then to London in 1981, to lobby foreign leaders to support his proposals there. 

Shagari's administration also made it a priority to create Abuja, a new capital that was in the centre of the country and free of the ethnic issues and affiliations of the other major hubs - particularly Lagos, the then capital. 

Domestic policies did not produce the much-needed results that the young republic needed. Shagari's administration reduced the derivation principle percentage from 30 to 2, leading to agitations from the South.

In an attempt to assuage employment concerns, his government conducted the infamous expulsion of foreigners from Nigeria, leading to the famous 'Ghana Must Go'. Up to 2 million Ghanaians are reported to have fled the country. 

Shagari also faced domestic unrest through the Maitatsine cult, often depicted as the forerunners of Boko Haram. Kano and Maiduguri were hobbled by civil unrest while religious violence increased. 

In October 1982, he was criticised for granting amnesty to 1,000 members of the Maitatsine cult, and in November fresh violence led to questions about civilian ability to deal with such unrest without resorting to the military. These issues reared their head in the forthcoming elections.

In 1983, Shagari and his Vice-President, Alex Ekwueme, ran for re-election. While the opposition could not agree on a single candidate to put forward, Awolowo and other candidates relied on the mathematical formula that had denied them power in 1979, believing that stronger showings in their power bases would result in a likely run-off between Shagari and another candidate. 

The NPN, sensing danger, reversed the election format - placing the presidential election first. The NPN won the election and carried more states in a bandwagon effect, but widespread allegations of fraud tainted the election. Facing domestic unrest, economic problems and now a deeply divided political class, the military seized power on December 31st 1983, truncating the Second Republic and the Shagari Presidency. 

Shagari and many others were  arrested and faced charges of embezzlement and fraud. In 1986, the former President was absolved of the allegations and began a life of retirement, becoming an elder statesman. 


The Shagari Legacy

In later years, Shagari became an elder statesman for the country particularly, as the eldest former living Head of State. His legacy is one that historians will continue to debate, but at a time that we prepare to elect new leaders, it is worth remembering those we have had before. 


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