For the record: Ahaji Shehu Shagari (1925-2018)

c / AFP)

Politically, in the first two years of his administration, Shagari enjoyed reasonable amount of goodwill. His ruling National Party of Nigeria (NPN), which called for a government of national unity, succeeded in getting Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe’s Nigerian Peoples Party (NPP) to join it to form a government. This relative support and goodwill, which Shagari received from the electorate, despite legal arguments in court about the validity of his victory at the poll, was partly due to the Nigerian people being genuinely fed up with the military rule of the past 13 years and wanting to give civilian rule a chance. Unfortunately, it turned out that Shagari, despite all the years he had spent in the country’s public service, both as a senior politician and in government, with several key ministerial feathers in his cap, really had little inkling of modern politics and economics.

Lacking a sense of history or of Nigeria’s destiny, the Shagari government threw overboard the cost-cutting measures of its predecessor and began to wallow in profligacy. “The financial recklessness of federal and state governments inevitably resulted in the depletion of an already low revenue (resulting from a fall in oil production and price of crude), high debts, inflation, unemployment, factory shut-downs, food scarcity and general disenchantment,” wrote Nigerian commentator Ray Ekpu in the October 1984 edition of Africa Now.

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In short, Shagari’s NPN government of October 1, 1979, to December 31, 1983, was the epitome of political and economic mismanagement in Nigeria of that era – a government that had killed the country’s economy and politics in its first four-year term. What made matters totally hopeless was that the government engineered an incredible elections fraud in 1983 to ensure his re-election.

It was no surprise therefore when Nigerians woke up on the last day of the year 1983 to discover that Shagari’s government had been swept away, there were few mourners. The new military government of General Muhammadu Buhari needed no great oratory to convince Nigerians that the fallen government had been a monumental disaster; almost everyone, except for a few party faithful who profited from the decadence, had felt the rottenness of the government in his bones. As the soldiers broke open warehouses and stores of essential commodities, rice, milk, sugar, cooking oil came tumbling out in large quantities and Nigerians began to dance in the hope that an era had come when such commodities would be both available and affordable.

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Even in the last period of his reign, luck was still on Shagari’s side. It had been said that a certain section of the military actually contemplated removing his government as early as March 1980, but that wiser counsel prevailed, namely that the 1983 elections should be allowed to go ahead. What happened during those elections finally provided enough justification for the removal of the government. In his second coming, Shagari provided further evidence of his lack of will and direction. To say that the massive corruption by members of his party and government was the reason for the New Year coup is to miss the point; that was just the symptoms of the cancer that was killing the country. Shagari was just an inept leader and uninformed.

Wrote Dr Ibrahim Gambari, Nigeria’s Foreign Minister under General Buhari: “The issue of large-scale corruption severely damaged the reputation of the operators of the political system. Although this was not a new issue in Nigeria, the nature of the new presidential system and the increase in oil-based revenue accruing to the federal and state governments, especially in the early 1980s, helped to elevate corruption to new heights. Corrupt practices became pervasive at local, state and federal levels, especially in the award of contracts and the manipulation of the import-licensing system. When these practices continued without much regard to declining government revenue, they poisoned the social and political climate, since ever fewer funds were made available to maintain, let alone develop, social services and related institutions. It was not long before essential medical services and the educational systems degenerated and were on the verge of collapse. Social tensions were heightened and antisocial behaviour of the underclass increased very rapidly.”

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