Captain Muhammad Bala Shagari (Rtd), is the eldest son of the late Second Republic President, Alhaji Aliyu Shehu Shagari who passed on two weeks ago. He is also the District Head of Shagari, the hometown of his father and holds the traditional title of Sarkin Mafaran Shagari. In this exclusive interview with Saturday Sun, the retired Army officer opens up on the late Turakin Sokoto’s lifestyle and his travails in the military which began soon after his father was overthrown by the then Major General Muhammadu Buhari. It was conducted by TUNDE OMOLEHIN, in Sokoto.
What was growing up like as the first son of former President Shehu Shagari?
I think among my siblings, I have lived with my father longer than any other person. I have one older sister, of course, but she didn’t have the closeness I had with our father that could make her understand him very well. I started my closeness with him since he was a teacher, though I was a very young boy then.
What was your observation about his personality then?
Well, he was always exhibiting himself as a typical educationalist. He brought us up in a formal manner. I saw him at first as a teacher and later he became an administrator. He was a classroom teacher and later became Assistant Headmaster when I was yet to enter primary school. I went to primary school as far back as 1956. So, you can see how long the closeness started.
Was he soft on you and other siblings in all approaches or otherwise?
I can say he was quite tender on us. Not really the harsh type. I can recall that since I was born, it was only once my father lifted his hands to beat me. And that was the time I did something he disliked. I was still very young then, when somebody who was a known drunkard came and took me from the house and I followed him without my father’s permission. The fellow took me to a bar and ordered for a bottle of beer. He also ordered a soft drink for me, which was Cola. In those days, the Cola is like Coca Cola of today. That outing and the beating that followed was an evergreen lesson and a blessing in disguise. Out of curiosity, when the man excused himself to urinate, I used the bottle’s cap to taste its liquid content with my tongue, which tasted bitter to my dislike. And I hated anything bitter. That was the beginning of my dislike with anything alcohol. My father was not comfortable with that outing, believing if I continue following the man I may end up like him. He gave me the beatings for that. That was the only time I can remember he took a cane and followed me round the house to beat me. However, I always watched out and ensured that I follow his commands and deeds.
What do you really cherish most about him?
Well, what I really cherish most about him is honesty and his true sense of purpose. You know, a lot of people have this misconception about him that ‘the man is weak’. But those who had worked closely with him will tell you the contrary. He was a person with high sense of responsibility. If he believes in a course, he will definitely fight for it to the end. My father has also been a revolutionist from the beginning of time. In those days, he told me a story about when he was in the middle school after his primary education. The middle school was like junior secondary school and had expatriates as their teachers. One of the teachers gave his class a task to write an essay on any topic in English. Apparently, it happened to be my father’s first ever essay. My father’s essay was on the need for colonial masters to go back home. When the white man read the essay, he couldn’t believe it because as far as he was concerned, my father came from a remote village and couldn’t have learnt fast on the negative impacts of colonialism on his fellow citizens. He (White man) took the letter (essay) to the District Officer (D.O) and showed him what a mid-one student had written about them. The D.O. enquired about my father’s background and the teacher said he came from Yabo, a remote village then. He couldn’t believe that someone from such a village could write such essay. The essay was later passed over to the Resident Officer of the province who was like a Governor of today. The Resident Officer couldn’t believe it also, and decided to invite my father. He asked him where he got the idea of his topic from. One thing I discovered from the story was that, my father started reading very early in his life. Because, that was only where he could have gotten the idea of his essay, that is, if he had been reading newspapers or stories written on Nnamdi Azikiwe and other nationalists who were fighting against colonial rule. So, he had been a revolutionist from the beginning of his time. I can also remember that when he was a teacher, there was a newly built library in Sokoto by colonial masters. It was a standard of its kind and the colonial masters were very proud of it. My father used to visit the library for his reading. One day, a white man came to the library and was asking everyone their experience about the ‘high class library’. When he got to my father’s turn to respond, he told the white man that he had read all the books in the library. The white man was surprised and called the librarian to confirm what my father just told him. And the librarian said he wouldn’t know whether my father had read all the books but he was sure that my father had borrowed every book in the library. The white man couldn’t believe, he decided to test my father by picking the books randomly and asked him the content or story inside such books, which my father responded to perfectly. The white man was impressed and invited my father to his house to check at his personal library for more books. I really cherish his reading culture. Even, as a teacher, he was into journalism by writing articles for publication in the Citizen and its Hausa version newspapers namely Gaskya Tafi kwabo, an Hausa version and Citizen newspaper, an English version. There was a time when a white man came to Shagari town asking for him to give him compliments because he had been reading his articles in the newspapers and that got him interested.
Many know him as a politician rather than an educationist you talked about. Can you recall how he eventually joined politics?
Well, before coming to that. Let me start this way. When Zik and other nationalists were going round the country campaigning for revolution against colonial rule and seeking independence, my father was the only civil servant then, as a teacher to attend Zik’s rally and listening to his messages. Everybody was afraid that the white men might not be kind to them if they are caught attending such rally. As a teacher, he was so informed to the level of challenging colonial masters on some issues that affected his community. There was an incident when some people were quarantined in Shagari because of meningitis outbreak. And the outbreak had not affected Shagari town, but the white men decided to use its outskirt as quarantine camp. When a white man came to sensitize the villagers over the epidemic, my father asked him if it was right to camp people infected with meningitis in a town that the outbreak has not reached. The white man said no, and asked about my father’s name. He was popularly called Malam Shehu. The white man then ran to the Resident Officer to report him. He informed him that one troublesome man had challenged the rationale behind camping infected people near his village. That was how they quickly moved the quarantined people out of Shagari town. He was later invited by the Resident Officer who begged him not to write any article on the issue. That was how he spent his youthful life. He was always on the defence of his people, as an educated fellow.
Then, coming to how he joined politics. I will say my father was a reluctant president. He had no ambition of becoming a president. He just wanted to be a Senator. And if you had seen his autobiography, the book he wrote, he titled it ‘Beckoned to Serve’. What that means is that, he has never asked for a position before he gets it. Any position he might have occupied, he wasn’t the one that lobbied for it. He was always called to serve. He went to House of Representatives, he became a federal minister and many more. He never asked for them. When the issue of presidency came, he had no intention to run for the position. He made it clear in the media that he was only interested in going to the Senate. When the NPN was formed, they started it together with his contemporaries and the party zoned presidency to the north. At a zonal convention, the north was supposed to bring three aspirants to the Lagos General Convention for the national delegates to choose a candidate. My father was in his lodge in Kaduna, the venue of the zonal convention resting when some delegates from Plateau State came for him and declared their support for him. They asked him to join the presidential aspirants. The delegation was led by Alhaji Isyaka Ibrahim. He outrightly rejected their suggestion and pleas. They left after much persuasions without success and mobilized for more delegates from other states. I think they succeeded in including more states like, Niger, Sokoto. I can’t remember the other two states. They came again and pleaded for him to throw his hat into the race. He equally declined. They said okay, ‘We will go and call Alhaji Makama (whom he respected most).’ They left again. But before they came back, my father out of frustration decided to turn on his radio. Incidentally, an Islamic preacher was preaching a sermon about leadership. And he said ‘do not give leadership to anybody that asked to be given leadership because he may not be just. But on the other hand, Allah is angry with anybody that people come for to lead them but who decline.’ That sermon hit my father so hard to the extent that his body started shaking for a while. After sometimes, when he regained himself, the set of delegates came back with Alhaji Makama. And the man (Makama) started talking to him. They all pleaded with him and that was the turning point of his presidential bid. After the convention, he secured the highest votes and they picked six of them to Lagos for the final convention and he still emerged the winner. He once told me when giving insight on his Kaduna convention’s experience where he recalled that a delegate borrowed his pen to tick another candidate’s name on his ballot paper and returned back to him to show him that he didn’t vote for him, just to upset him in the process. But later when my father won the election and eventually became the president, he appointed the fellow chairman of a federal parastatal.
At the time he became president, where were you and how did you feel as son of the President?
When he became president, I was already in the Nigeria Army. I can recall that when he was President-elect, my promotion also came as Lieutenant, and traditionally you cannot wear your new rank until you go back to your unit. At that time, I was in Lagos for official engagement because I was also a sportsman in the Army. I was playing snooker game for my Division, 1 Division, Kaduna. So, I was in Lagos for the game when the Supreme Court decided the case between him and Chief Awolowo. It was about the same time that my promotion came as Lieutenant. I saw it in newspapers, but I couldn’t wear it until I went back to my unit when my C.O. decorated me. Jokingly, the C.O said my father was a President-elect and I was a Lieutenant-elect. We all laughed. So, I was in the Nigeria Army when he became the president. During his tenure as president, none of his children ever went out with bodyguard or fleet of cars. We moved around freely and mixed with people freely without fear or sense of insecurity to our lives. We all feared our father for his principled lifestyle. We were so conscious of what we do as his children and what people will be saying about us. When I saw children of president maybe during Babangida regime and so on going around in presidential jet, it made me remember an incident. I came to Lagos one day because I was serving in Zaria. So, I took a commercial flight from Kaduna airport to Lagos, and when I was going back to Zaria, my father’ Aide de camp (ADC) bought me a flight ticket to return back to Kaduna, it was about N21 or so. But when my father saw the ticket he was furious. He then queried the ADC on why he should buy me a ticket because I wasn’t a staff of State House. Why should he buy a ticket for me? So, you can see the difference between then and now. He wouldn’t even allow State House to buy you a ticket talk less of you taking a presidential plane around. I also remember when his two wives wanted to go for holiday. They wanted to go to London for a few days and later move to Saudi Arabia for prayers. My father denied them to be flown in the presidential plane. He insisted that they must fly in a commercial plane or they abort the trip. He said the presidential plane can take them within Nigeria and not outside the country. So, when I see the children of these days doing things the way they like because of their fathers’ influence or position, I laugh it off.
Where were you when he was overthrown and how did you feel?
I was still in the Nigeria Army when he was overthrown. Though, I was later retired compulsorily by the Buhari’s regime.
What was your sin(s)?
For being the son of President Shehu Shagari. That was all. That was my only sin, I think. I can recall that the retirement letter states that ‘by the power vested on me as Chief of Army Staff, you are hereby compulsorily retired and your service is no longer required.’
Who was the Chief of Army Staff?
The then military secretary signed the letter while General Ibrahim Badamosi Babangida was the Chief of Army Staff. The letter was his directive. Immediately they served me the letter, that was where they also picked me up and detained for six weeks. Though, it was a house arrest in Sokoto, not in a prison yard. They took me to Kaduna, I passed a night in Kaduna and they later brought me back to Sokoto, to NSO office which we call SSS now. When they brought me, I slept a night in their office. The next day, they prepared one of their guest rooms and put me there for six weeks.
What were you doing when the news was broken to you that your father had been overthrown?
I remember on the day of the coup d’état, I was in Jos playing polo. And I came back in the morning trying my horses because I had another game in the evening. I was with two of my Lebanese friends who played polo too. They were also from Zaria. They called my name repeatedly asking me if I have not heard the news that my father had been overthrown in a coup d’état. I merely responded to them and continued rolling my ball. They were surprised the way I responded to them. My mates were also surprised to see me calm throughout the period.
When you were moved to Sokoto, did NSO officials later brief you the offence you committed?
Not at all. Well, maybe the new government felt I was a threat to them because I didn’t look worried at all when my father was overthrown.
Before you were retired, what was your mood like, at least for taking orders from those who overthrew your father?
I didn’t have any mixed feelings about the whole thing. I was a young officer and well nurtured in the military. I always see myself as serving the nation. In fact, there was another polo game I went for in Lagos, and I met with Babangida. I believed he must have been thinking of me by saying ‘see this boy again, only God knows what he is planning against us.’ When they discovered that my mood wasn’t changed, at one time, Colonel Aliyu Akilu, the then Head of Directorate of Military Intelligence (DMI) called me to confirm if I have any problem. And I said no sir. He then said if I am not comfortable again in the military, I can put in my resignation letter. I said no sir. I am okay. He called me again to know if I have made up my mind to tender my resignation letter from the Army. I repeated the same no sir, and assured him that I am alright. I said ‘when I joined the Army, my father was not a president. Now because he is no more a president doesn’t mean I should also quit the Army. So, I will not resign but if you people felt you cannot work with me, you can ask me to go.’ That is what I told him. Later I was served with compulsory retirement letter. That was all.
After successive governments, did the military hierarchy reach out to you to compensate you?
Not at all. Nothing was done since I was retired as a captain, and I had not stayed long to earn pension. In those days, you have to be in the service for at least fourteen years before you can be on pension benefits. I was less than ten years before I was retired. Even my gratuity, I didn’t take it.
Did your father encourage you to join the Army?
No, I picked interest in it without any external motivation. When I was in Barewa College, I was a member of cadet unit of the school. So, I joined the Army on my own.
Did you or your late father have any bad feelings against these actors you have identified in the course of your travails?
To be honest and as far as I am concerned, my father never had any bad feelings against them. If you are talking of General Babangida and President Buhari, my father never talked bad about them. We are trained to believe in destiny. After the whole thing, people around me always wondered how I could be so calm? But I just have to be calm.
After the demise of your father, there are lots of tributes by eminent Nigerians that confirmed him as incorruptible leader. But, there is this general belief that your father was surrounded by people with corruption tendency during his tenure as President. How do you react to this?
You see, you cannot rule out such misgivings. But to be honest, there are other people that have been misjudged by the public. For example, Umaru Dikko. The only thing about him was that Umaru Dikko is a workaholic fellow but people turned this against him. He is a very hard working man. Umaru Dikko can attend to people until 2am mid-night and he will still wake up by 7am to resume office. He was always working with my father overnight. My father like him because he was very hardworking. But because he was so close to my father, a lot of people became envious of him. And you know a lot of negative stories were said of him. There was a time he made a statement and that statement pitched him against Chief MKO Abiola. The statement was that ‘presidency is not for sale’, and because Abiola was very ambitious at that time, he thought Umaru Dikko was talking to him. So, he decided to stage media war against him because it was Abiola’s newspaper, The Concord that promoted the One billion pound he was accused of. When my father came out of the detention and read the story that Umaru Dikko had Oone billion pounds, he was so surprised about such narrative. He said the whole lifetime of Rice Task Force programme where the people thought Umaru Dikko got the one billion pounds, he was only given four hundred million Naira. So, how can four hundred million naira translate to one billion pounds. Another instance that proved that the whole stories were just propaganda against them was when I was in a car with one of the chief security officers of this country. The fellow forgot that I was in his car and was talking to his friend that Senator Uba Ahmed wrote to them from exile asking them what he did wrong because he wanted to come back to Nigeria but before then he wanted to know his offence. The man told his friend that even Umaru Dikko that they have been shouting his name, up till then, they did not have any evidence against him. So, it is better he stays there because when he returns back to Nigeria, they will be ashamed of themselves because they will have nothing to hold against him and people will know that they just lied against them.