Late Shagari

By Wale Okediran

Life is not what one lived, but what one remembers and how one remembers it in order to recount it – Gabriel Garcia Marquez (Living to tell the Tale)

The road to Shagari village from Sokoto takes you through the Shagari-Jega road. This is the link road that was supposed to connect Sokoto, Yauri, Kontagora, Iseyin to Lagos. Abandoned since 1977, the Sokoto-Lagos expressway is a major commercial project still begging for the Federal Government’s attention.

From Sokoto, you will pass through Farfaru, Bodinga, Lambar Mazuru and Dagawa before reaching Shagari. It is a good road and with the very sparse traffic on that April afternoon, we were expected to make the fifty kilometer trip in about thirty minutes.

I had come to Sokoto state on an official visit as the head of a delegation of the Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA). And as our air- conditioned bus glided down the well paved road, we were shielded from the intense heat and dust which the region is well noted for at that time of the year.

Outside, hot dusty villages and farms with their ubiquitous small huts (bukkoki) flew past as peasant farmers tended their millet and guinea corn among other crops.

In the distance was an enormous and vast expanse of land that stretched into the horizon as far as the eyes could see. The sight prompted one member of the group to suggest that Nigerians from other parts of the country with inadequate land could be relocated to the region. Expectedly, this observation became the focus of the discussion in the bus for the next few minutes.

As the journey continued, I found my thoughts playing hide and seek between the beautiful scenery around me and the depressing one back in the nation’s capital city. For me, it was not the best of times to travel out of Abuja. Apart from the numerous bills and meetings begging for our attention as Legislators, the ghost of the “3rd term” ogre that had descended on the National Assembly had placed the Legislators under an unusual and intense pressure. Things were so bad, that the previous camaraderie between the lawmakers had now deteriorated to that of suspicion and acrimony. As a member of the beleaguered but resolute “anti 3rd term” group, I needed to be back in my base to give my fellow compatriots the necessary support so badly needed in such a difficult time. At the same time, I was bound by duty as the National President of the Association of Nigerian Authors to make the Sokoto trip.

Suddenly, my thoughts were interrupted by our arrival at the residence of our host, Alhaji Shehu Usman Aliyu Shagari (GCFR) the former President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. I had never met him. Now as he rose from his seat under the shade of the trees in front of his residence to welcome us, I was immediately mesmerized by the aura and quite dignity around this 81 year old statesman. Not for him the arrogance and grand standing that has now become the hallmark of many of our so called leaders. In spite of the years, he was in good health and his lucidity was intact. And although he appeared very humble and quiet, his brown limpid eyes that danced with excitement gave him away as a man who has not only experienced life in all its ramifications, but has also endured in order to tell the tale.

It was a lovely house, enormous and quiet with high ceilings, memento-adorned walls and sparse but tasteful furniture. As he welcomed us, he spoke of his experience as a school teacher and poet. He reminded us that his book of Hausa poetry, has been in use as a secondary school text book in the north since the 60s. I was impressed by the naturalness with which he interacted with us. His speech was deliberate, understanding and witty. However, despite all attempts by the journalists in our team to draw him into making any political statement, the Turakin Sokoto declined. Rather, he referred us to his autobiography Beckoned to Serve (Heinemann Educational Books PLC 2001). “I have said all that is needed to say in that book” he added.

It was in this well written book that I  discovered that Shehu Shagari is on record as the only Nigerian President with the longest and most diversified administrative executive experience spanning 25 years from the 1950s to 1975. Having made his entry into the Nigerian political scene at the age of 20 years, Shagari rose through the ranks from a Member of Parliament to Federal Minister in several ministries before his election as the nation’s President in 1979.

The former President also acknowledged the fact that during his tenure, his regime made some mistakes. Among these were the Bakalori Riots were several people lost their lives, the Shugaba Darman affair, the Maitatsine riots, The Import Licensing Scandals and the Dr. Wilmot episode among others. In his explanation, Shagari blamed the unfortunate incidents on the exuberance of officers who went beyond his directives. As he put it in his biography, “one of the difficulties of being the Chief Executive of a country as vast as Nigeria is the inability to make sure that your directives are correctly carried out by those in charge of such decisions”

It could be his difficulty in effectively controlling those under him that made Shagari appear like a very weak and naive President. However, Shagari disagreed with this perception. On page 453 of Beckoned to Serve, the former President complained of  the then retired President Obasanjo’s referral to him as a “weak president who was pushed into power by those who wanted to use him” in his book Not My Will. As Shagari explained, “it is true that I did not court power and wanted to be nothing than a Senator, but I am proud to have been “pushed” by millions of Nigerians voters while General Obasanjo was pushed by only a handful of military officers into power.”

And although it was the duo of Obasanjo and Yar adua that handed over power to him, Shagari also complained in his book of Obasanjo’s expectations to be consulted on every issue of national concern. As Shagari put it, “I understand from someone very close to him, however, that he had expected me to be constantly consulting him on all matters of government since he had an obsession of being a super-admnistrator, super-diplomat and of course a military genius” It was however Shagari’s belief that in spite of the high regards and respect he had for General Obasanjo, as a veteran politician of over 25 years experience, he did not see what he could learn from someone who never had any political experience.

It is this aspect of the well written book that I disagreed with. As I have said before in several lectures on democracy, the art of governance is too important to be left only in the hands of politicians. Apart from former public office holders, members of the Civil Society, among others all have a role to play in ensuring that our elected leaders play by the rules of the democratic game. It is very obvious that some of the gains of this present democratic dispensation particularly the struggle against the obnoxious ‘third-term’ agenda could not have been achieved without the support of those outside the political class.

Twilight was setting when we finally took our leave of this remarkable and respected statesman. And as our bus drove out of Shehu Shagari’s compound,I looked back to see him standing and waving. He stood there in the last glows of the fast receding daylight, slim and distant like a famous statue with all the aura of a man who has lived to tell his tale.