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The Reluctant Leader from Sokoto: Lessons for President Tinubu

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By Ahmed Yahaya-Joe

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” – George Santayana (1905)

Ahead of the 7 July 1979 National Assembly elections, most on Alhaji Shehu Shagari’s political mind was how to effectively mobilize his primary constituency to get duly elected as one of the five distinguished senators from the old Sokoto now Sokoto, Kebbi, and Zamfara states.

Instead, as political events played out he ended up being the chief beneficiary of the August 6 presidential election.

A lot of political water had passed under the bridge for the erstwhile senatorial hopeful to emerge the flag bearer of the leviathan political machinery, the National Party of Nigeria (NPN) which Dr. Chuba Okadigbo his book entitled, The Mission of the NPN (1980) describes as encompassing, “men of fibre and integrity, young radicals and old reliables.”

Not surprisingly, due to its broad-based composition and attendant organizational genius, NPN emerged as the only association out of 52 applications to fulfill the stringent conditionalities of the Federal Election Commission (FEDECO) on political party registration.

Alarmed at the prospect of a one-party dominated civilian dispensation, the Supreme Military Council (SMC) compelled Chief Michael Ani (1979-1985) the umpire chair to scale down the selection criteria which subsequently allowed Unity Party of Nigeria (UPN), Nigerian Peoples Party (NPP) and Great Nigeria Peoples Party (GNPP) to narrowly pass through the proverbial eye of the needle.

The General Obasanjo-led SMC based on security reports still had a Kano problem which earned the Peoples Redemption Party (PRP) an eventual FEDECO nod to expand the political playing field.

The potential danger of “No structure” did not start in 2023.

4 January 1966 was a particularly busy day for Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa who had flown in early in the morning from Lagos to see off his principal, Sir Ahmadu Bello at Kaduna airport en route for the Lesser Hajj. The Prime Minister then flew to Enugu and thence to Onitsha to commission the River Niger Bridge.

Unfortunately, due to the sour political environment pervading back then chiefly as a result of the controversial fallout of the 1964 Federal Election, no delegation of the Eastern Region government participated in the ceremony.

The Premier of the Mid-Western Region, Chief Dennis Chukude Osadebey (1911-1994) politely restricted his participation to the Asaba end of the new bridge perhaps not to offend the “No structure” sensibilities of his cousins on the Onitsha axis.

The first lesson for President Tinubu is therefore to never underestimate any toxic political atmosphere. This is because less than a fortnight after the throwback picture of the Federal delegation arriving at the River Niger Bridge commissioning, Nigerian politics continued by other means on 15 January 1966.

Recall that Nigeria was then under the thumb of a one-party domination by the Nigerian National Democratic Party (NNDP) with quantum political grievances simmering behind the scenes. 

L-R: Chief Festus Okotie-Eboh (1912-1966), Prime Minister Balewa (1912-1966), Alhadji Waziri Kolo Ibrahim (1926-1992) and Alhaji Shehu Usman Aliyu Shagari (1925-2018)

The second lesson for President Tinubu is to possess that innate ability to carefully read and interpret the political antics of former President Olusegun Obasanjo.

Winning a presidential election is a different ball game from successfully wrestling an old crocodile, a consummate agent provocateur at that as we shall later see.

The third lesson from Nigeria’s Second Republic leader to President Tinubu – do not be seduced by popularity. It is dangerously ephemeral and overtly superficial. The grandstanding support of stalwarts and loyalists is too unreliable in the face of the complexity of political realities.

The lack of robust opposition by “wailers” is so politically isolationist even dangerous in such a diverse and complex entity as ours. Kudos to the SMC of yore for fully understanding the need for such dynamics.

Most Nigerians didn’t have any personal grouse with Baba Shagari irrespective of partisan differences. The fundamental issue was the political superstructure in its overall context. The main challenge is that not much has changed since then.

Lest we forget, the Second Republic kick started on 1 October 1979 with 7 NPN governors, 5 for the UPN, 3 for from the NPP stables with 2 each for GNPP and PRP.

At the National Assembly, the NPN had 36 seats in the Red Chamber of a total of 95 senators with 168 seats in the Green Chamber that had a total of 450 House of Representatives members.

Opposition save for a brief spell of an NPN/NPP gunshot marriage was robust. However, after the 1983 cycle of elections, the NPN claimed “a landslide victory” with 12 governors, 60 senators, and 306 House members in its kitty.

That was when Nigeria started a precarious trip along the path of a one-party labyrinth with a passport of no return.

While the NPN claimed a growing popularity and increasing acceptance the opposition wailed widespread electoral malfeasance with judicial collaboration.

The ruling party titans and hangers-on in return accused the combined opposition of having, “No structure.”

If that lexicon sounds familiar it is because according to Karl Marx’s argument in The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, “History repeats itself.”

In conclusion, the following excerpts are former President Shagari’s own words in his must-read 2001 memoirs.

They are concerned about what might likely metastasize into PBAT’s own political Achilles heel without the delicate handling of a gradual slide into one-party political domination of Nigeria under APC.

As they say in the Niger Delta region, “Advice no bi curse.”

Paradoxically, the recurrent lack of political ventilation is what has always created the enabling environment for the C-word in Nigeria;

“Throughout 1983, the aura of suspicions had prevailed among the members of the armed forces, and the government found it difficult to ascertain the loyalty of officers since rumours and mutual suspicions were rife.

There were also allegations of the involvement of some retired Army officers, including the former Head of State, General Olusegun Obasanjo, in a coup-baiting, but these could not be confirmed with any degree of accuracy, except that there were reported visits by some army officers to Otta Farm which were not unusual. However, some public statements by General Obasanjo severely criticizing (my) administration seemed to point to at least a tacit incitement of the military against the government.

I had for long wanted to invite General Obasanjo for a discussion on the current situation, especially on the national economy about which he showed some concern, but I had observed that he did not like the idea of visiting the State House since he left it on October 1, 1979.

For example, he never agreed to grace my usual luncheon at the State House, Marina, with members of the National Council of States (of which he was a member), after each sitting of that council. I therefore resorted to sending my emissaries to Otta Farm to convey my respects and bring back any advice he might wish to offer. I knew that Alhaji Shehu Musa, the Secretary of the Government, was his personal friend and he, among others, occasionally visited the General at my behest.

Yet for some strange reason, this soldier-statesman had developed some kind of deep malevolence for me, despite the very high regard and respect I have always had for him, as was demonstrated by the highest national honour I awarded him and which I still believe he richly deserved.

 I understand from someone close to him, however, that he had expected me to be constantly consulting him on all matters of government since he had an obsession with being a super-administrator, super-diplomat, and of course a military genius. With all due deference, however, I believe that as a politician who had been in government for a much longer time than he, I would have very little to learn from a leader who had never in his lifetime had the privilege and the burden of even participating in a democratic government.

Running a democratic government is quite a different problem from running a military dictatorship. General Obasanjo would appear to have failed to appreciate this simple fact.

 As a matter of fact, I observed as early as September 1979, that General Obasanjo had taken me for a novice who, according to his book; Not my Will, “was pushed into power by those who wanted to make use of him and was unfortunately too weak and somewhat ill-prepared for the trappings of political power to check the abuse of his power by those who made use of him”.

It is true that I “did not court power and wanted to be nothing more than a Senator” but I am proud to have been “pushed” by millions of Nigerian voters (with 25 percent of the total votes cast in thirteen states) while General Obasanjo was pushed by only a band of military officers in the Supreme Military Council after the fall of Gen. Murtala Mohammed in February 1976 when he reluctantly accepted the offer, even though he was definitely ill-prepared for “the trapping of political power”.

It is doubtful, however, whether, in fact, he was strong enough, as he implied in his book, “to check the abuses of his power” by those who made him what he was. As for me, I was, without doubt, more than adequately prepared and equipped for the job and knew exactly the scope as well as the limitations of presidential powers in a democratic system.

Regrettably, it turned out after the 1983 elections that some of my opponents did not see things in that light. First, Chief Obafemi Awolowo, out of frustration, declared that democracy was dead in Nigeria and decided not to go to court this time. However, acts of arson and murder of his opponents became rampant in his former stronghold when his party was defeated at the polls.

 Then there was Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe, the Owelle of Onitsha and presidential candidate of NPP who, after suffering defeat for the second time, decided not to weep this time. Instead, he shouted hoarse and promised fire and brimstone to his opponents. He swore and cursed when he and his henchman, Jim Nwobodo, were rejected at the polls in their own strongholds.

 The entire news media under the control of these leaders was directed towards running down my administration and recklessly pouring out venom and vitriol to every action of government on a day-to-day basis to the extent of courting military intervention. Indeed, this was exactly the kind of situation that coup planners eagerly waited for.

Rumours about probable military intervention were rampant and our security outfit became strained as professional rumour-mongers and crooks started to cash in on the situation.”

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