The highs and lows of Shagari’s political career, by Isa Sanusi

Alhaji Shehu Usman Aliyu Shagari (1925-2018) was sworn in as Nigeria’s first elected executive president on October 1, 1979. His presidency brought to an end 13-years of tumultuous military rule that started from the bloody end of first republic. Power was handed over to him by then military head of state Major General Olusegun Obasanjo at a national gathering at Tafawa Balewa Square, Lagos – then capital of Nigeria. He ruled Nigeria until 1983 when a military coup brought in the military government of Major General Muhammadu Buhari. In the aftermath of the coup, hundreds of politicians and businessmen were arrested and held without charge. Shagari himself was detained throughout 1984.

His presidency was one of the most remarkable in the history of Nigeria. Ahead of preparations for 1979 elections, a lot of political intrigues and lobbying went on across political parties; with each and everyone seeking to find the platform to realize long held political ambition.

At that time Shehu Shagari made it abundantly clear that he is not interested in any political office. Infact, as nomination was going on he went to Paris, France on official visit in his position as chairman of Peugeot Automobile Nigeria. Upon his return to Nigeria, he was received at the airport by Alhaji Umaru Dikko, who asked him to immediately proceed to see Alhaji Aliyu Makaman Bida, who was at that time the kingmaker in the northern circle. He can also be described as what we now call the ‘godfather’ of northern politics. Makaman Bida was straight to the point when he asked Shagari to contest for the presidency. Shagari rejected the offer. Despite a lot of persuasion Shagari maintained his position. So much pressure was put on Shagari. Sokoto state chapter of NPN (National Party of Nigeria) was to waylay him with a message that Sokoto people have decided he should be presidential nominee whether he liked it or not. The presidency came him as he said as a ‘surprise.’

Getting presidential ticket of NPN set the scene of unfolding of the vision of Shehu Shagari. His party NPN zoned the position of vice president to the southeast zone. The search started and Shagari decided that he wanted to have a woman as his vice-president. He firmly believed women deserved more roles and were capable of playing a leadership role. After so much search and suggestions he arrived at an Owerri born Igbo woman who was a college teacher. She and her husband were summoned to a meeting with Shagari. She accepted and asked for time to go back to Owerri and resign from her job. Two weeks later, the woman’s husband returned to Lagos and met Shagari with a letter in which the woman said after long consultations she could not accept to be vice presidential candidate. Her reason for rejecting the offer was that: “cultural peculiarities of Igbo people which could harm the chances of NPN if any woman should be vice presidential candidate.”

Alhaji Shehu Shagari faced very severe opposition particularly from Chief Obafemi Awolowo led-UPN. After long legal battle; which UPN lost, the bitter politics continued. Throughout his term in office, UPN controlled state governments – Bendel, Lagos, Oyo, Ondo and Ogun did not display official portrait of President Shehu Shagari in government buildings and occasions. UPN governor of Bendel state Ambrose Alli took the bitterness further by imposing a 7-day ban on political gatherings across the state on February 16, 1980; apparently to make impossible President Shagari’s planned visit to Ajaokuta and Aladja Steel companies within the same period in then Kwara State. Visit to both steel plants was enroute Bendel state. Infact, Governor Alli ordered closure of Benin airport, just to make Shagari’s visit impossible.

His presidency saw him making many attempts to cement the unity of Nigeria. It was in furtherance of this that he hosted the first ever papal visit to Nigeria, with the visit of Pope John Paul in February 1982.

General Yakubu Gowon appointed Shehu Shagari a federal minister of his government, without knowing him. But eyeing next elections Gen. Gowon, then in exile in England became a hot political campaign item. To woo Plateau state; both Nnamdi Azikwe of NPP and Obafemi Awolowo of UPN said they will grant Gowon amnesty and bring him back home. Shagari refused to make this kind of promise despite the fact that he was keen to get Plateau state to the side of NPN. Shagari maintained that issue of bringing Gowon home is a national issue and can only be decided upon studying the matter thoroughly. The nation came about news of pardon granted to Yakubu Gowon by Shagari on October 1, 1981.

One of the biggest challenges Shagari faced was that of demand for a new minimum wage. NLC declared May 11, 1981 as a day of nationwide strike over workers demand for a minimum wage of N300 per month. Government and its supporters claimed that implementing the new minimum wage can plunge Nigeria into economic disaster and political instability. From January 1980 to May 1981 workers went on strike 265 times. Within the same period Nigeria had 416 industrial disputes.

Upon becoming President in 1979 Shagari was confronted by allegations of N2.8 billion declared missing from NNPC. This allegation scandalized the whole nation. It further got more scandalous attention when in March 1980 Dr. Olusola Saraki the senate majority leader said on the floor of the senate on March 28, 1980 that the missing money was traced to a private account. On April 16, 1980 Shagari had to set up a panel to investigate the allegation. It was so scandalous that Shagari had to address the nation. Some hinted the fact that the money got missing during transition period with the military government. As investigation went on, it was discovered that many who claimed to know where the missing N2.8 billion was had no any evidence.

Alhaji Shehu Shagari who started as a teacher in 1953 displayed ample humility all through his life. He treated his opponents with dignity and was never bitter about his overthrow, though he was detained throughout 1984. Fall of oil price in 1981 affected his government. Despite this he executed projects that are still national treasure.