by Abba Mahmood
I am not a historian but I like history. A good understanding of history is very important for any society and its leadership. History is a very good guide to avoiding the mistakes of the past and being wise based on the experiences of the past. It is also a good indicator for comparison.
The last full-blown democracy when the presidential system was introduced was during the Second Republic. President Shehu Shagari and Vice-president Alex Ekwueme were the first to be elected under this American presidential model. They were elected in 1979 under the platform of the defunct National Party of Nigeria (NPN).
Nine years after the civil war, the establishment wisely looked for a cool-headed, patient and humble personality to be the nation’s leader. They found that in President Shagari, an experienced administrator who was minister in various ministries under various administrations from independence to that time and who was never found wanting in his entire public career. Shagari got nominated during a convention that was free, fair and transparent. Everything was done in the open and not by the endorsement of any godfather, godmother or any sectional grouping!
The NPN manifesto was very clear. The party wanted to give priority to agriculture and housing. Shagari therefore concluded that, with him as a teacher and farmer, he wanted an architect to complement him. That was how he chose Dr Ekwueme, an architect, as his running mate. They ran one of the most inclusive and best civilian administrations in the history of Nigeria.
Agriculture was given the priority it deserved. All the river basin development authorities were functioning; fertilizer was available at affordable prices; seeds, particularly maize seeds were distributed in time all over the country; tractors were available at subsidized rates: N13,000 per new tractor at that time. Any surplus agricultural product was purchased by the government; good extension services and good distribution networks were available. With regard to houses, the federal government low-cost houses were constructed all over the nation, popularly called the Shagari low-cost houses. The annual fees of federal government colleges were slashed by 50 per cent to N60 per term, and textbooks and exercise books were available.
There were very few presidential assistants and only about 10 special advisers in the presidency. Each presidential adviser was appointed based on merit, competence and experience. People like Dr Chuba Okadigbo on political affairs; Dr K.O. Mbadiwe on National Assembly; Prof Odenigwe on economic matters; Engr. Yahaya Dikko on energy; and the technocrat — when a technocrat was technocrat — Chief Phillip Asiodu was also presidential adviser. When the advisers spoke it was like speech from the throne. They enriched the decision-making processes because they were authorities in their fields.
At that time, there was no adviser on media. A competent professional was appointed chief press secretary, not a sectional columnist who has nothing to do except creating more enemies for the president elevated to adviser on media and publicity. There was nothing like “senior” special assistant. One was either special assistant or special adviser to the president or the vice president. There was the weekly caucus meeting of the party headed by the ruling party’s national chairman, Chief Adisa Akinloye, which the heads of the federal executive and legislative arms of government attended to review programmes. The party was supreme then as even the president deferred to the party leaders.
There was not any “Nigeria” governors’ forum. Governors were running their shows in their states. The main opposition Unity Party of Nigeria (UPN) controlled Lagos State where the seat of government was situated but there was no friction between Governor Lateef Jakande and President Shagari; their relationship was based on mutual respect and recognition. It was only the opposition “progressive” governors that had periodic meetings on how to challenge the ruling NPN.
There were flamboyant politicians who held their audience spellbound with their oratory. People like Nnamdi Azikiwe, Maitama Sule, Suleiman Takuma, Ibrahim Tahir, K.O. Mbadiwe, and Abubakar Rimi were listened to every day on any issue in their articulate and eloquent presentations. Dr Umaru Dikko was very scientific in his political calculations, being an accomplished mathematician himself. It was an ideologically based politics with every party having a clear stand on any issue.
There was mutual respect between the opposition and the ruling party. Whenever Awolowo spoke everyone listened, since he criticised objectively and proffered solutions. Hence the government was always alert, responsible and responsive. In fact, it was President Shagari that conferred the nation’s highest national honour on his main challenger, Chief Obafemi Awolowo. It was the era of politics without bitterness, in the indelible words of Alhaji Waziri Ibrahim, leader of the Great Nigeria People’s Party (GNPP) of that era.
President Shagari was the most criticized leader of Nigeria as at that time. But he was very tolerant and one of the most patient leaders this continent has ever produced. Dr Ekwueme was one of the most loyal deputies in the history of Nigeria; their relationship was based on mutual respect. No one ever heard of any dispute between the two of them. There was real democracy then. Every decision was based on proper consultations. Shagari never interfered with any legislative or judicial matters. The Nigerian judiciary was one of the most respected in Africa then. There were proper checks and balances among the three arms of government.
When the military overthrew that administration, Vice President Ekwueme was found to be poorer than when he took office. He had a very lucrative architectural practice before he joined politics. But he did not try to enrich himself. He belonged to the original tradition of the past when leadership was based on values and not wealth, the reason he went to acquire knowledge and not do 419 to get wealth at all cost. No one has ever accused him of being corrupt.
At the time that Shagari was overthrown, the military probed him thoroughly. He had only N64,000 in his account (after being president of Nigeria for over four years)! He did not change even the furniture of his personal house in the over four years he was president. The governors of his era such as Ige, Rimi, Nwobodo, Aku and Onabanjo were being convicted for enriching their parties with less than half a million naira! Can you beat that?
It was not the era of any agenda – 7-Point Agenda; Transformation Agenda — that has no meaning. It was the era of peace, progress and stability. The slogan of the ruling party was “one nation, with one destiny under one God!” Not empty slogan of power that creates powerful godfathers with powerless people whose strength has been sapped by hunger, malnutrition, poverty, insecurity, corruption, indiscipline and decay. Now, the more they shout power the less power there is and the more darkness we experience.
The cabinet was a blend of the young and the old so that the wisdom and experience of the old is harmoniously blended with the radicalism and energy of the young. Presidential visits were what people looked forward to with excitement: Shagari and Ekwueme visited every nook and cranny of this country. Everyone had a sense of belonging. There were national dresses of every section of Nigeria. Governors were using real traditional outfits of their states and not bowler hats of slave masters.
Nigeria was admired all over the world. Nigerians had dignity and pride. It was an era of great accomplishment. Like the First Republic we still remember with nostalgia, the Shagari era was truncated by the military a great setback for Nigeria and indeed Africa. Whatever it is, ours is the most resilient nation on earth. God save Nigeria.
– This Best Outside Opinion was written by Abba Mahmood