The Sun, was the first newspaper he granted an exclusive interview when he decided to open up on his administration, the key issues and actors that defined that era.
First civilian president, Alhaji Shehu Aliyu Usman Shagari, who died on Friday December 28, granted few interviews in his life time.
Your favourite newspaper, The Sun, was the first newspaper he granted an exclusive interview when he decided to open up on his administration, the key issues and actors that defined that era.
For over one hour in his Shagari village, Sokoto State, Shagari spoke on the coup that toppled him, his relationship with Buhari, Obasanjo, Ekwueme, Awolowo, Azikiwe, among other issues in this engaging chat.
When we cornered President Shagari for an interview, he was 78 years old, and hadn’t as at then, spoken to any news medium for 20 years on the coup that sacked him and his colleagues from office.
The interview was conducted in 2003, 15 years ago, but his views are as refreshing as if it was done only recently.
He had earlier vowed not to speak to the press or read Nigerian newspapers and magazines because of, what he described as their “inaccurate reports” about him and his government during his years of incarceration.
But Shagari opened up in a rare manner to The Sun, and in the process, threw light on issues Nigerians have always wanted to know about his administration.
For example, was it true they were “stinkingly corrupt,” the reason given by the military for sacking them? Did Umaru Dikko amass stupendous wealth for which he was almost crated to Nigeria? why did he embark on so much globe-trotting during his time? And on a lighter note, where are his famous Shagari caps which nearly kissed the sky?
Shagari spoke on all these and a lot more. His relationship with Awo and Zik, two of his opponents during the Second Republic, how he received news of his overthrow, his views on the Obasanjo government, Ekwueme’s failed presidential bid, among other issues.
At 78, Shagari is definitely an old man and he is also aging fast. Gone is the lustre and agility of youth. These days, he sits quietly in his modest sitting room, devoid of any ostentation, at his Shagari Village, reading his Quran and other literary books and political literature, occasionally traveling out to Sokoto and Abuja when invited for meetings. Shagari also now has some strands of grey hair on his chin, which was clean-shaven while he held sway.
His sitting room paints the picture of a man living on a shoe-string . For this reporter, it is difficult to believe that this is the home of an ex-president, a man who once ruled Africa’s most populous nation for four years and three months.
The old Sony gramophone perched at a corner of the living room is not functioning. It is easy to guess that it hasn’t worked for a long time, so also is one of the air-conditioners.
The sitting room itself is sparsely furnished with worn-out blinds. Asked how rich he is, Shagari admits: “I am slightly better than a church mouse,” adding: “In our time, we believed more in service. We didn’t steal. We were not interested in amassing wealth. We were more interested in service.”
Naturally, we kicked off the interview with how he was spending his retirement and how old age is treating him.
Shagari: “I am enjoying my retirement. The detention in which I spent 30 months gave me a very good opportunity to reflect and it was the only time that I had to reflect on what really was the purpose of my life.”
Yes, I am aging. I am 78 now and of course, I am retired but not tired. At my age, you can’t do what you used to do as a young person, even if you will like to do them. But right now, I am more interested in intellectual work. I have not always been an academic. But I like to read and write and also discuss issues with people who are interested in listening to me. That I will continue to do without rest.But there are a lot of physical things which, because of my age, I cannot do. But I still go to my farm. You can’t for example eat all the things you would want to eat or drink what you like.”
My best food is tuwo with miakuka. Of course, because of my age and my illness, I have been restricted by doctors as to what I can eat. But I think there are things that I like very much which the doctors don’t allow me to eat.
As a growing man, I always wanted to have milk, ‘meshanu’. But now, I am not allowed to do that and I am not allowed to eat meat. I only eat chicken and fish. But this is not because of my age, but because of my illness. So these are some of the things I enjoyed before which I can’t enjoy now, including of course, exercise.
Do you watch soccer since, as president, you gave the then Green Eagles national honors and houses?
I watch soccer on television. I don’t go to the stadium to watch.
Which player excites you most?
I like Maradona.
He makes you happy when he is playing?
Yes, yes, he is my best.
What of the local scene, local footballer?
Kanu Nwankwo, I like his style so much.
Do you take soft drinks?
I don’t take anything with sugar.
Do you love cars?
Not very much. Now that I am getting older, I don’t like traveling by car because it makes me feel very tired. So I try to reduce my traveling by road.
Whenever you want to be driven around, which car do you like most?
Because it is heavy, it doesn’t shake much and it is fast.
During your tenure, people said you travelled too much. Now, we have a president (Obasanjo was in office when the interview took place) and he is also accused of traveling too much. Did you hear such criticism of you then?
Yes. In this day and age, people in positions of leadership, especially of a country like Nigeria, have to travel. But of course, there is a limit to what traveling one can do. One cannot travel at the expense of his own responsibilities at home. Like some of these travels are really necessary for the good image of our country and the president of Nigeria does not go outside just to enjoy himself. He goes there to work for the interest of his country.
You were noted for long Shagari caps and as a power-dresser in your time. What is your idea of fashion?
That is my nature since I was young. I like to dress properly and I don’t like wearing foreign dresses. I want to look Nigerian every time and that is why I wore what I was wearing. But even the Shagari cap is now getting shorter, perhaps with age.
From the light issues, interview soon moved to the serious. The ex-president was asked to describe his detention experience shortly after his overthrow, and he replied: “Painful.”
“Yes, it was a painful experience,” he admits. “Very painful. But as I said, I learnt a lot of lessons from that experience. I had time to really think and concentrate on my religion, go in-depth into religion and the purpose of my own life. So that by the time I came out, I was a different man altogether.”
Even though he harbours no bitterness in his heart against the man that showed his administration the exit door, Shagari still believes that they were wrong to have terminated his government.
“They said we were corrupt. But what happened in the other regimes that came after ours? The truth is that they had no good reason for our overthrow. That’s why I said Buhari should apologize to us. Not just to Shehu Shagari, but to all the people who were in government at the time.”
Although the two men had met several times after his overthrow, the former president says the issue of 1983 coup plot has never cropped up in their discussion.
“During his campaign for presidency (2003), he came twice to Sokoto to see me. He wanted me to give him my blessing. But I didn’t do that, because I didn’t want to be partisan.”
Shagari’s transport minister, Alhaji Umaru Dikko was accused of stealing billions of naira by the Buhari regime, shortly after the fall of the civilian regime. Was Dikko really in charge of the then government’s purse and just how rich was the once- powerful chairman of the defunct presidential task force on rice?
The ex-president is amused at the description of Dikko as a rich man.
“Umaru is a pauper. He has nothing at all,” he says. “He is as poor as a church rat. He is the man who was most unfairly treated. I know him very well. I know very much about Umaru. Umaru has nothing, nothing at all. He never amassed wealth,and he was not interested in wealth. Umaru was only interested in power.”
Why did he give him so much power during his regime?
“I didn’t give him power. He just grabbed power. That is his own nature. But all those things about amassing wealth were just fabrications.”
Even if he had emerged flag bearer of the Peoples dEmocratic Party in the April 10 polls, second republic vice president, Dr Alex Ekwueme, would still have been a hard-sell to the North, says ex-President Shehu Shagari. speaking with the Sun in a serial which begin yesterday.
Ekwueme, in the thinking of his former boss, is believed to have injured the feeling of some ‘powerful elements’ in the North with his views during Abacha’s Constitutional Conference of 1995.
Shagari recalls telling Ekweme: “Alex, if at anytime you are interested in contesting for the presidency, you will have a lot of work to do. You have to mend fences with the Northerners. Many of them either don’t understand you or you don’t understand them.” That was my frank view. That he had to work hard. Because during the Constitutional Conference, he did a lot of things which the Northern delegates did not like and they were saying it. It was not for me to correct it, it was for him to mend fences with them and if he was able to do so, my own is to say go ahead.”
However, when Ekwueme finally decided to run for the presidency, he did not exactly consult with his former boss, even though he visited him in his Shagari village.
“I would say, yes and no,” the former President replies, when asked if his former deputy intimated him of his plans to contest the presidential polls.
“He came here to see me. He used to come on friendly visits. And after a long discussion like I have had today with you (The Sun), he said he must go back to Sokoto because he was flying back the next day. So, as he stood up to leave, I said to him,”you have not said anything about your candidature or no candidature for the presidency. He said yes, he deliberately avoided that discussion because he had not made up his mind yet. I left it like that.”
The ex-president said he was later shocked to hear on the radio that his former No.2 had not only declared his interest, but did so in far away Minna. “I said what! What took Alex to Minna to make this kind of declaration when he had told me that he would consult me when he makes up his mind. So, why should I hear from the radio and from MInna? Even if he decided to make his announcement in Enugu or Abia, I won’t bother, but I didn’t know why he should do it in Minna. so, I was really worried. Later on, we met in Kaduna when Babangida was launching his book, so I raised it with him. I said, “Alex, what happened? I heard that you are interested in the presidency? He said “no, I am not going to say anything to you here. I will come and explain, just as I came last time to you. I will not say anything until I come to you.”
Two days later, Ekwueme boarded a charter flight with two of his friends en route Sokoto. It was then he broke the news of his intent to run against Obasanjo in the 2003 polls. He also explained to the ex-President how he had visited Minna on a different mission and the press had “ambushed” him when he was leaving the Government House (Minna) and asked if he had withdrawn from the race and he replied “who told you?” Having denied his ambition earlier in Enugu, he could not keep doing so, since he was truly keen in running. He solicited the ex-President’s assistance.
Shagari said he would have supported Ekwueme if he had emerged his party’s flag bearer, even though he initially did not consult him. He maintained however, that it would have been extremely tough for the ex-vice president to make an in-road into the north or win election in that part of the country.
“He would have had a lot of work to do in the North,” Shagari insists. “The Northerners don’t seem to understand him, especially his views during the Constitutional Conference (of Abacha).”
After the failure of Ekwueme in the presidential primaries, does the ex-president believe an Igbo man can be president of Nigeria some day? “Yes, I do.
In many quarters, Shagari is seen as a supporter of President Olusgun Obasanjo. Is it because he was the one who handed over power to him in 1979, the ex-President was asked? Shagari: “No, no, I am not supporting him as the president. I am supporting the truth. People think I am supporting President Obasanjo because I intervened in the fight between him and the National Assembly when they threatened to impeach him. But I was not doing it for Obasanjo’s sake. I was doing it for the sake of Nigeria. And I knew that the way things were going then, if something was not done and quickly too, we would be back to square one. We will be inviting military to come back. so, it was for the sake of Nigeria that I did it, not for the sake of Obasanjo.”
I DIDN’T WANT TO BE PRESIDENT
Despite ruling the country as first executive president for four years and three months, Shagari says he never had the intention of being president.
All he wanted to be was senator. But he was literally “ambushed” by the north to run for the highest office. He regards that period of drafting him for the presidency as one of the toughest moment of his life. “It was a tug of war before I eventually agreed” Shagari says. “I made it public, very early, even before the Constituent Assembly in 1978 that if politics returned, I want to be a senator. People asked me you don’t want to be president? I said no. I want to be a senator, and I meant it! Many people did not believe me but people kept saying to me that I had the good chance of becoming president and they will back me and so on and so forth.
“I said sorry, but I don’t want to be president. So one day, while at the Constituent Assembly, a man came straight from Sokoto, from the Sultan, not the present Sultan, his father, and told me that the Sultan wanted to see me. I didn’t know why he wanted to see me. And of course his word is an order to me, so I had to leave the Constituent Assembly, went to the airport, picked a plane and went to Sokoto, but I still don’t know why he wanted to see me.”
At the airport, Shagari met Sultan Maccido and a mutual friend, the late Alhaji Aminu Tafida who intimated him of the reason of his summon. “They said before we take you to the Sultan, let’s go and have a private discussion at Aminu Tafida’s house. We are going straight to that place, not your house, note to the Sultan’s palace. So we went there and they told me that there has been a lot f pressure on the Sultan to persuade me to be a presidential candidate and these pressures were not coming just from Sokoto but from many parts of Nigeria and that he felt that since they had been sent to meet me, they wanted me to please re-consider my position. I said well, thank you very much, but I will tell you why I am not accepting, even before seeing the Sultan. So I told them that I had seen what happened to our past leaders. I have seen how hard they worked, and how genuine they were. BUt that I had also seen how their own people misled them, people nearest to them misled them, and I know that I am not as strong as anyone of them; people like Sarduana or Tafawa Balewa, and if they can be misled, there is no reason why I cannot be misled. And I didn’t want a repeat performance, I wanted to remain in the background. We spent about three hours discussing this issue but they were not able to convince me. One of them said “look, what the Sultan asked us to do is to discuss with you and if you are still adamant, he will not force you, you can go back, he doesn’t need to see you.”
But all the same, the ex-president still insisted on seeing the Sultan who had sent for him in the first place. “I said well, I am sorry, but I have to see the Sultan, since he sent for me and when I see hi I will tell him that I don’t want to do it.”
Of course, before we went to see the Sultan, Maccido who brought us to the place told the Sultan that we had discussed and I was not yielding.So when we came, the Sultan did not even raise the matter because he already knew I will say no and he wouldn’t want me to say no and he also feared that I would say yes sir, because of my respect for him, not because I wanted to do it. So, the best thing was not to speak about it at all. So when I went there, we just discussed generally. He said “how is Lagos and so on? I sent for you, I wanted to see you and I have seen you but you can go, thank you.
And Shagari left, thinking he had won and that nobody else will be able to convince him if the Sultan was not able to do so. He was wrong.
“Something happened after that. Aliyu Makama Bida who was number 2 to the premier who was then the Interim Chairman of the NPN sent for me one day in Lagos. He said he wanted to discuss a matter with me. He said they had a meeting of the Executive Council of the party and they gave him an assignment, they said he should go round, because the north was asked to produce a candidate, but we are going to produce three candidates to the convention and then the convention will vote and the man who gets the highest votes will be the parties presidential candidate. So the Executives sent Makama to go round the north, all the states of the north to consult NPN leaders there to tell him privately who was their choice. He said I have gone round, and I can tell you now, before I have consulted and I have been to all the northern states. I said I am sorry sir, I am afraid I cannot accept it. He insisted that I am the choice and the north has been asked to produce me, that I have no alternative than to accept. I said well, I am sorry sir. He said let me tell you, we are going to have a meeting in Kaduna and all the states have been asked to send their delegates to produce three names, and your name is one of them. I said no sir, I don’t accept. I am not going to be a candidate, he said okay. After I left him, we were invited to this Kaduna meeting and the day before the meeting, Umaru Dikko met me at the Kaduna airport and asked me to go and see Makama. That Makama wanted to know my position. I said my position remains the same. I saw Makama who asked if I had seen the delegates from Sokoto, because I was coming from Lagos, I said no. He said well, they came to tell me that I am their candidate, whether I like it or not and the Sokoto delegation said if I don’t agree I would be denying them their choice of presenting their presidential candidate.
“I said kai, this is another challenge. So I said ‘sir, I would ask you to please give me until tomorrow to think about it’ but he said tomorrow will be the primary election, that he will come to my house before early morning.”
That night Shagari could not sleep, “I was thinking of what to do,” he recalls. “When I came in the morning I said to Makama ‘because of your pressure I accept, but on condition that if we go to the primary, if there is anybody that wins, then I will concede to him and then I am out.”
He didn’t know that Makama had already lobbied the other delegates on his behalf.
“When we came, every states was asked to bring the name of their candidate and they did. When Sokoto was asked they wrote my name, Shehu Shagari. But to my surprise when Niger, where Makama comes from was asked they said their candidate was Shehu Shagari, Kaduna State said their candidate was Shehu Shagari. so I was the only candidate who was nominated by states other than my own. The thing came to me as a big surprise, but I didn’t know that Makama had already organized it. He called people from all these states talked to them and said they should not bring any candidate other than Shagari. Of course, Umaru Dikko who is very close to me is from Kaduna, Abubakar from Niger and Ishaku Ibrahim, those were the people who were the agents of Makama Bida. So in short, I was just trying to tell you that this was the most trying time of my life because everybody was on one side and I was on the other side. Nobody was on my side.”
And thus began for him his sojourn as Nigeria’s first executive president!
Awo was a tough opponent
In his four years as president of the country, Alhaji Shehu Shagari had many testy moments, as well as vocal opponents of his style of administration.
But the man he would never forget is the late Chief Obafemi Awolowo, leader of the defunct Unity Party of Nigeria, UPN.
The ex-president describes Awo as an implacable foe who saw nothing to commend in the programmes of his government. “I respected him as a leader. But Awo was a very stubborn opponent,” Shagari says. Shagari also recalled how Awo and Zik broke the peace pact leaders of the three political parties then had, shortly before the 1983 presidential polls, which eventually led to the sack of the civilian government, three months into a new tenure.
“I remember before the end of my first term, I invited Chief Obafemi Awolowo and Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe who were our topmost leaders at that time to a private lunch at the State House, Marina. Only three of us, without any aides. I asked them not to come with their aides because I was not coming with mine. So, we sat down. I told them that it will soon be election time very soon we will start attacking one another and by the time we know where we are, our followers will come out in battle gears dying to finish one another. They will not remember that whatever we do, people are watching and the military is there wanting to see if something will happen so they can come in.
“So, I said we have to sit down to think how best to prevent the military from coming back. I told them I needed their genuine advice on how to keep away the military. How do we maintain peace during the next election? How do we reason? How do we prevent the military from coming back? And we had a long discussion. It was very intimate and since there were no people watching us, we talked freely. Then, they agreed that we should all speak with our followers, to tell them to take things easy, not to come down harshly on one another. That in whatever we do, we must remember the future of our country, that we must live in peace and must show good example of leadership, otherwise the military will find excuse to come in, drive away all of us.
“I told them that I only thought of bringing the two of you because you are our elder statesmen. But you know there are other parties, I want your advice. Do we bring them in or we just leave them out? Zik said he thought we should bring the others in. But Chief Awolowo disagreed. He said if we bring people like Waziri Ibrahim in, he will talk too much and will go and bring the military boys. So, we now agreed to keep it to ourselves. That even if we are going to tell others, we should not tell them as if we had discussed previously.
Then Zik said we should consult the chiefs, Emirs and others, but Chief Awolowo was against it. He insisted that we should just leave it amongst ourselves. The reason why I am relating this discussion is that this was a very serious discussion. We were very frank with ourselves and we outlined strategies on how to save Nigeria from another trouble.”
The crucial discussion and pact turned out to be a fluke. It was broken by the leaders who had sworn to abide by it. Shagari says: “In the heat of the elections (1983), these leaders seemed to have forgotten the agreement or pact that we had. We started quarreling and castigating one another in the public, on the soap box. And before you knew it, we were back to square one.”
The former president believes this acrimonious relationship amongst the party leaders was partly responsible for the military coup of 1983.
“The break in the pact was painful to me,” he says. “They (Awo/Zik) violated the pact.”
Another testy moment for the former president was Nigeria’s feud with Cameroun, when Nigerian soldiers were allegedly killed by Camerounian gendarmes and the mood was for war in the country.
“The defence council had met and all the ministers said we can’t take this. “We have to go and attack Cameroun.” They were mad about it.
Everybody I consulted said there is no alternative, we have to go and punish them. But I was very restrained.”
For his restraint, the ex-president says he was lampooned and called names. But he didn’t want to be a war leader.
“Yes, they said I was weak. But I knew the consequences (of war). You can only know the beginning of a war, you can never know the end of it. And we had just come out of a civil war and for us to go into another war would not help matters. And I will be put on record as the leader who led Nigeria into war against her neighbours. I didn’t want to be that kind of vicious opponent at the time, and even though they supported the idea of war, at a point they would have turned round to say “look at where you have put us.” So, I was very careful.”
Two other critical events the ex-president would not forget in his life include the deaths of his political leader and mentor, Sir Ahmadu Bello, the premier of the North and his wife.
On Sarduana’s death, he says: “I don’t want to remember that incident. It was very painful. I was in Lagos as minister when I heard. I was shocked.
‘My wife’s death was also painful. She died two years ago.”
Did he love her more than the other two wives? “It is not fair to say so,” Shagari says. “If you are a polygamist, everybody knows you must be fair to all your wives and even if you love one more than the others, you must not show it. You are not allowed to show it.”
Two other issues: Why did he have a bloated cabinet: ‘ministers for and ministers of?” Shagari reveals that he couldn’t trust the civil servants to implement his policies. “They could always sabotage you. I needed my own ministers to implement our programmes.”
Why did he refuse to amass wealth despite holding strategic positions in the Fist Republic and being president for four years and three months?
“That’s not my attitude (amassing wealth),” he says. “Otherwise, I would have grabbed as much as I wanted even before I became president. I am not a kid. I have had several experiences. I was Minister of Works in the First Republic. I was Minister of Internal Affairs. I was Minister of Finance under Gowon’s government. I was Commissioner of Education in Sokoto here, but throughout all these experiences, even before I became president, I never had any money at all. I don’t want to grab money.”
Shagari describes Paris as the city he loves most, while Lagos tops the list of cities he doesn’t quite fancy. His reason? “I don’t like Lagos,” he says. “Yes, I lived in Lagos as minister. I had no choice. But I don’t like it at all. Too fast and rowdy for me.”
He says of Paris: “It is a beautiful place, well planned, with history and very clean too.”
When the end comes what would he want written on his epitaph? “I want to be remembered as a teacher,” he says simply. A simple man indeed!