On 31st December 1983, President Shehu Shagari, on a short holiday in Abuja was woken from his Akinola Aguda abode by some commotion going on within the precincts of the Presidential guest house.
If his close aides are to believed, the first question he asked was “have they come?”
Certainly, they had come. The soldiers whom he had received persistent reports of their attempts to overthrow his government were at his doorsteps. Led by one of his trusted boys in the military, Brigadier Bako, the soldiers did not wish a violent overthrow of his government. The choice of Bako was strategic; he was very close to the president, had uninhibited access to him and would be able to effect his arrest under some pretext even at that unholy hour. Tragically, he lost his life in the bargain.
That it was his trusted generals and one of his own that tried to arrest him when the chips were down demonstrates one trend that trailed Shagari’s government from the beginning to the end – betrayal.
The 1979 – 83 democratic experience was nothing but a betrayal of our national cause. Shehu Shagari himself, a very modest man whose ambition as the military tried to get back to the barracks in 1979 did not go beyond being a senator was unfortunately made to carry the watering can of this national malady. He had to because as Sabo Bakin Zuwo, the inevitable governor of Kano State put it, when a lorry gets involved in an accident, you do not blame the motor boy. The driver is the one you hold responsible.
Shagari was a well informed driver. Many attempts were made to overthrow him and he nipped all in the bud. If he wanted, he would have busted this one too. But with the benefit of hindsight, when we sit down now and examine our conduct between 1979 and 1983, do we convince ourselves that we were ready for the type of government we were running? Certainly not.
Look at the posture of the opposition, led by Chief Obafemi Awolowo’s Unity Party of Nigeria, UPN. The pattern of support was that the UPN was boxed into one corner, what has become known as the South West. The National Party of Nigeria, NPN with its base in the North extended its tentacles into some parts of the East and what has become known today as the South/South.
The NPN Presidential candidate scored 5,668,857 votes; the UPN got 4,916,651. The NPN had 204 members in the National Assembly, the UPN had 139. In all fairness, how did the UPN believe it was better placed to form a national government than the NPN?
The UPN approached the judiciary for an interpretation of what was essentially a constitutional dispute. The judiciary performed its role, all the way to the apex court in the land – the Supreme Court. But was the verdict of that court accepted by the opposition? Certainly NO. For a long time, the pictures of Shagari were not displayed in government offices in UPN states as protocol demanded.
The UPN media led by the Nigerian Tribune never referred to Shehu Shagari as President or published his picture on their pages except the one in which he looked sad and melancholic. Hack writers, led by the otherwise respected Tai Solarin continued to write and heap personal insults on Shehu Shagari referring to his presidency as “stolen” even after it was confirmed by the Supreme Court.
Shagari’s initial response to these acts of hostility was to offer his hand of friendship, proposing a government of National Unity, a notion that was roundly denounced by the UPN. Then he enticed the UPN leader with the highest National Honour in the land. The man came to the ceremony with a hand tied up in a massive POP, pretending he had an accident. All this to avoid shaking Shagari’s hand. What better way could there have been in rejecting an extended hand of friendship or carrying opposition politics to a dangerous, even juvenile limits?
If the opposition could be accused of rough tactics, so were Shagari’s party men. Most were not content with their President’s father figure disposition to the opposition. They encouraged a tougher approach, leading to such avoidable political mis-adventures like the deportation to Chad of Alhaji Darman Shugaba and the impeachment of Governor Balarabe Musa of Kaduna state.
Then the 1983 elections were in certain cases so blatantly rigged that they triggered off instant violence. For instance, in Ondo State, where I worked in Adekunle Ajasins Governor’s office for one whole year (1979-1980) out of his four years in office, I knew that it was impossible for Akin Omoboriowo, his estranged deputy who jumped ship to the NPN to defeat him as announced by FEDECO, the electoral body. But the NPN hot heads who wanted a check on UPNs hostility were urging such lines of action which were completely unhelpful.
The result was wholesale violence in some parts of the country. The violence gave rise to calls by some vocal elements in the society like Wole Soyinka for military intervention. These short- sighted calls were answered on 31st December 1983, leading to events that have since become history. The tragedy of it all is that the election rigging and corruption, two of the principal reasons given by the Nigerian military for the overthrow of Shagari’s government in 1983 have not only become our national culture but have reached a proportion that has made the rest of the world look at us with scorn.
At the celebration of Somolia’s independence on July 1 1960, Mr Julius Nyerere of Tanganyika had said to Shagari jealously: “I would like to come to Nigeria to see how with such a big and diverse country you can unite while the whole of East Africa, smaller than Nigeria, all speaking English and Swahili, sharing common services, still cannot come together: it’s a miracle!”
Shehu Shagari has lived long to see this miracle up to now. Nyerere has long gone and Somalia on whose land he expressed admiration for the ‘Nigerian miracle’ has become everything else but a country.
First published On Sun, Mar 1st, 2015 in the People’s Daily. President Shehu Shagari died December 28 2018.