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

c / AFP)

The Buhari regime put the main blame on the politicians for the ravages on Nigeria’s treasury and on one man in particular: UMARU DIKKO.

Failed attempt to fight corruption

When Shagari’s victory at the polls in the 1983 Presidential election had been declared, it was widely expected that he would do something about corruption under his administration. From the beautiful plateau holiday resort, the Yankari Games Reserve, in northern Nigeria where he had been in retreat, Shagari made a speech strongly condemning corruption. The speech came to be known as Shagari’s “Sermon on the Plateau” and it was widely thought that some heads would have to roll among his ministers. All eyes were particularly on Dikko who had by then gained notoriety for his presumed corruption. But only lightweight ministers were eventually sacked from the cabinet. Dikko not only remained in the cabinet, he retained his very powerful political influence, authority and power on the Presidency and government. The New Nigeria, with a characteristically slick paraphrase of a cliché, dubbed the sacking as “The Night of the Short Knives”.

Shagari had set up a Code of Conduct Bureau to, in his own words, “maintain high standards of probity in the conduct of public officials;” he had appointed a special Tribunal of Enquiry into the alleged misappropriation of N2.8 billion from the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) under the Obasanjo regime. But, for all his good intentions, perhaps he should have paid more attention to a famous Islamic reformer of the early 19th century who founded and lived in his own hometown and state of Sokoto and with whose works he was certainly familiar. This was Uthman Dan Fodio whose advice to any Caliph (high in the ruling hierarchy) included: “It is quite likely that it is about his officials that people wish to complain: he must therefore listen to them. If he doesn’t then he can be compared to a herdsman who, rather than guarding his herd, holds the cow (in this case, the people) by the horns to help the thief (his officials) steal the milk (his people’s wealth.)”

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Shagari never believed all the accusations of corruption levelled against Dikko or, for that matter, against any of his top ministers. For him to have acted decisively against any minister, he needed cast-iron evidence of that minister’s corruption, which nobody was able to produce. Despite the fact that a minister like Dikko had become increasingly unpopular in the eyes of the people, Shagari found it difficult to drop him from his cabinet. President Shagari trusted his ministers as surely as he trusted his own integrity. As President, his own honesty was never in doubt. He could be compared with Sir Milton Margai, the late Prime Minister of Sierra Leone who, when he died in 1964, owed money to the bank – he left an overdraft. Indeed, as Commissioner for Finance under General Gowon, Shagari himself had sought and obtained an overdraft. The bank manager had actually written asking him when he intended becoming solvent again. If a Nigerian Federal Commissioner for Finance, at the time his country was enjoying an unprecedented oil boom, had incurred an overdraft, which he was having difficulty in settling, surely he must have been an honest man.

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But Shagari, while he was President, was deluded into trusting people whom others viewed as dishonest. His tragedy was that, had he survived his second term of office, he might have proved that he was his own man instead of being the prisoner of his party, as he undoubtedly was during his first term.

But Dikko, his campaign manager in the Presidential election of 1983, is one man who would defend the former president till the last. “Whatever any Nigerian may say, no matter how biased he is, one thing he would have to admit is that Shagari is a good person. He was not a dictator. He is a fair-minded man who meant well for Nigeria. Under his regime, whether or not you voted for him, you were not denied your entitlement as a Nigerian. He did not win in all the states of Nigeria but, despite that, there is no state where they can say they were totally excluded from the affairs of the country. Under Shagari we had the greatest chance in Nigeria, the best opportunity that ever came to us, to be welded into a nation, where you don’t think of yourself as a Yoruba or as Hausa/Fulani or as an Ibo; where you think in terms of belonging to this or that party. That is called advancement, politically. That was the road on which Shagari put Nigeria, only to be treated the way he was treated,” Dikko told me in an interview while in exile in London.

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The views expressed in this piece are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect News Central’s editorial stance.

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