Lamine Okion Ojigbo
culled from THISDAY, April 12, 2005
As we celebrate your 80th Birthday, my dear Mr. President, we must continue to give praise and gratitude to Almighty Allah that He, in His infinite mercy, gave us life and good health and that we are able to witness the handiwork of His Greatness. Your presidency remains an inheritance and legacy that are noble and glorious, imperishable and incorruptible.
Those who in their coup against you, in December 1983, called themselves "the promoters and protectors of our national interests" merely showed that their coup was a betrayal of what was demanded of the armed forces. Prime Minister Alhaji Sir. Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, while formally inaugurating the Nigerian Defence Academy in 1962, told the cadets that the nation demanded of them three requisites: "loyalty to your government, patriotism and gallantry". Those coupists who overthrew Balewa were disloyal to the government. Like Balewa, President Shehu Shagari later also told the members of the armed forces, during his speech at the passing out parade of newly commissioned officers of the Nigerian Defence Academy in Kaduna in 1980: "The country demands your absolute loyalty, commitment and dedication to duty. See that you do not fail". Some soldiers again failed and betrayed the nation three years later when they similarly overthrew President Shagari.
The overthrow by the military in December 1983 of your administration and of the emerging democracy of the Second Republic, Mr. President, was a monumental tragedy and crime against the nation. Their early dawn nationwide radio broadcast of your overthrow was their dance of monstrous masquerades, demons and fiends in the evil forest. The coupists did not undo President Shagari. No! Instead, they entered their names into the bad pages of history; they showed so emphatically the clear differences between their several regimes and your administration. The 15 long years of military rule were tortuous and difficult years of pain, agony, unbelievable level of corruption and of the looting of the public treasury; of human rights abuses, denials of civil liberties; gross constitutional abuses; and the heightened rot of social and moral values--nearly a total decay of the society. They were utterly repressive regimes which showed the meaning of what the world famous sociologist Professor Hannah Arendt referred to as "the banality of evil". The nation's one hope of check against the abuses was the press.
Sadly, quite a sizable chunk of the press went all out in glee to fault ousted President Shehu Shagari and the politicians, thus applauding and goading the military regime on in all its less than humane attitude, arrogance and blatant violation of the human rights of its victims. For them, the new regime was laudable. Poor chaps! George Jacques Danton (1759-1794), one of the heroes of the French Revolution warned in 1789: "All reigns make a joyous entry, but only as a delusion". Some of our press were the praise-singers of the delusion and a willing chorus that was at the ready service of the military regime which needed all its reasons to justify and buttress its usurped power it acquired through the use of brute force from the barrel of the gun. The military wooed or turned a sizable chunk of the press into "a willing press" to service it. That was an irony.
The so-called fourth realm of the state became a contradiction, unlike its traditional role and quality of a responsible institution in nation building. Governor Adla E. Stevenson of Illinois told the press in a speech in 1952: "your type-writer is a public trust. Its sound may be the most beautiful noise you know, but it has meaning and justification only if it is part of the glorious symphony of a free society". Similarly, the role of the press was also captured by USA President John Kennedy who emphasized, in October 1963, his respect for the role of a responsible press in the process of nation building. While paying tribute to the memory of the 4-time Pulitzer prize laureate poet Robert Frost (1874-1963), Kennedy said: "The men who create power make an indispensable contribution to a nation's greatness. But the men who question power make a contribution just as indispensable- for they determine whether we use power or power uses us". That was a glowing acknowledgment of the role of a responsible press.
Ironically, the role of the Nigerian press on the overthrow of President Shagari was not particularly impressive. Mallam Adamu Ciroma- earlier Governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria, later Federal Minister in President Shagari's cabinet and, again, cabinet minister in subsequent regimes- could sigh: "poor Shagari! Whenever his Adminiatration, of which I was a member, is being discussed, reason abandons many Nigerians, certainly most Nigerian newspapers and even intellectuals. He was the victim of a political vendetta".
The politicians were hounded and dumped into jail for months without trial; some were tried by military tribunals in accordance with decree of retroactive application, an unacceptable legal principle, and sentenced many to jail terms each of over 200 years. The regime ignored the report and advice of its own judiciary panel, under Hon. Justice Uwaifo, which found that neither President Shehu Shagari nor his Vice President Dr. Alex Ekwueme had done anything wrong and, therefore, recommended that they should be allowed to enjoy all their constitutional rights and civil liberties. The regime did not care a hoot but, instead, kept them in detention and later restricted them to their respective homes in their LGA, and without the benefit of human freedom to talk to the press or the public.
The authorities were so afraid of even their own shadows and, therefore, had to keep the press on leash, even if to solicit it. Columbia Broadcasting Service (CBS) President Frank Stanton once appropriately advised, in another experience, in the USA, that "No healthy society and no government authorities worth their salt have to fear the reporting of dissenting or even of hostile voice. What a healthy society and a self-respecting government do have to fear, at the price of their vitality if not of their life, is the repression of such reporting".
The regime lied to the public, falsely accusing the politicians of looting the public treasury. Mallam Adamu Ciroma, former Governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN), told the public about the realities of the nation's financial predicament: The collapse of oil prices from $28 per barrel in 1981 to $5 per barrel in 1982 was the real explanation for our economic difficulties at the time. Our oil earnings fell from $21 billion per annum to about $7 billion per annum. But the popular, though, untruthful explanation is the politicians stole the money". And the regime continued to lie repeatedly that the politicians were responsible, deliberately keeping silent about the worldwide financial crisis. They used the press to reinforce the falsehood as a fact. And many intelligent and educated Nigerians and intellectuals were part of the deluge and onslaught of the massive falsehood.
Ciroma sighed about the plight of the politicians, victims of the military high-handedness. He said: "Even though politicians were herded into detention, their assets minutely investigated and none of the expected huge sums stashed by them were in fact found, nevertheless, Nigerians still refuse to believe the facts and figures. At that time army officers in charge of NYSC [National Youth Service Corps] were discovered to have millions in their bank accounts. [Some of their stolen money was hidden in their children's accounts]. But no, the Second Republic politicians must not be treated in the light of revelations. President Shagari", continued Ciroma, "was the victim of ambitious Armed Forces officers who mastered the art of propaganda and used it viciously to tarnish his image and in a larger sense the image of all politicians. This would be the effective way of justifying a military coup at the end of 1983".
The lies and injustices against Shagari and the politicians were legion! The maltreatment, the abuses, the extortions, the tortures and denials of access to healthcare and medical treatment were unbelievable. Major Mustapha Jokolo, the military Aide to Shagari's immediate successor, complained: "most of the things the [security] forces did were really outrageous. The way Rafindadi operated was outrageous. They wielded a lot of absolutely outrageous powers that caused a lot of disaffection. Many innocent and law-abiding Nigerians were indiscriminately arrested and locked up under very flimsy excuses and sometimes kept or left to rot away". Similarly, Second Republic Kano State Governor Alhaji Abubakar Rimi, who was a victim of the high-handedness of the period, blamed the regime and the security boss "for the hardship and the pains they inflicted on fellow Nigerians. They killed and tortured many, separated members of families, while their security agents were busy making fortunes. They are tyrants, sadists, callous and ungodly and satanic; they are an embodiment of evil. They terrorized Nigerians".
Many victims later never fully recovered from their poor and deteriorating health while in jail. And many died shortly thereafter. They included Kano State Governor Alhaji Barkin Zuwo, Benue State Governor Chief Aper Aku, Bauchi State Governor Alhaji Tatari Ali, Ogun State Governor Chief Bisi Onobanjo, Bendel State Governor Professor Ambrose Ali and Professor Sunday Matthew Essang, Federal Minister of Works, and many other victims.
The claims and charges by the coupists and their praise-singers were outrageous, contemptuous, false and copious. That was the Goebel Theory: "The bigger the lie, the more likely it would be believed". Your administration, Mr. President, adjudged in impudent and arrogant crudity, could find solace in the unshaken and glorious courage, steadfastness and in the fearless intensity of our belief that what the nation stood for was right, just and honest. Democracy remains the best form of government. And guns and military coups cannot destroy the Eternity of Truth. Nor can they "settle" or bribe history. The intrepidity was borne of the boundless belief and radiant confidence that your presidency was the opportunity to build Nigeria's "Great Society", particularly with the lessons of your first term. Your 1984 Budget speech and economic recovery blueprint spelt out the encouraging scheme for economic revamp.
But as it turned out, the hope was not shared nor appreciated by those who were consumed by their ambition for power and, therefore, wielded illegal military power while other Nigerians vigorously pursued the efforts to build a stable nation and a sound economy. Those military coup plotters, coupists and their cohorts shattered the dreams and objectives of the nation when they staged the coup at the end of December 1983. They stifled our emerging democracy, prevented the nation and the public from the benefits of a growing democracy and the learning process. You cannot create and nourish democracy by military fiat, decrees and by force. And they lied copiously. They succeeded in their coup against you and the democratic government of the Second Republic, but they remain monumental failures in their respective regimes.
President Shagari's administration was a leadership that was honest, sincere and which people could believe in. He was not economical with the truth nor was his style synonymous with deceit, double talk and cunning. Instead, it was robust and generous with truth and candour. There is nothing more dangerous in a society than a leader who treats promises and truth with levity and less than considerable respect. USA President Harry Truman likened such a leader "to a counterfeit" and added that the public will see through a counterfeit". He emphasized even more: "A liar in public life is a lot more dangerous than a full paid-up communist". Almighty Allah admonished in the Holy Qurían at Surat Tauba (Chapter 9:4): "Carry out the obligations you have assumed towards others. Allah loves those who are mindful of their obligations".
Thus, with the credibility of such regimes in shreds and tatters and their actions seemingly based on a cynical belief that truth itself could always be fabricated as well as the grossly false premise that truth is negotiable, if need be, some leaders have had monumental problems. Your leadership was not synonymous with them. Rather, yours has been praiseworthy, strengthening the belief in one of the leadership qualities which Niccolo Machiavelli stressed in his THE PRINCE, namely, that "everyone realizes how praiseworthy it is for a prince (ruler) to honour his words and to be straightforward rather than be crafty in his dealings".
These are some of the lessons we your admirers, Mr. President, and in a way your students in the lesson of leadership and good governance during your political leadership of our nation, treasure as we celebrate your 80th Birthday.
All this is unlike some regimes which were bedeviled with deceit, insincerity and embellished by the activities of well cultivated sycophants and generous leverage of largesse and "settlement" to enable them continue the lies, governmental abuses and their looting from both the public treasury and our other monumental national material inheritances. They have amassed and coveted the wealth for themselves. These national inheritances date back to the Rt. Hon. Alhaji Sir. Abubakar Tafawa Balewa years. Unlike them, your presidency had profound respect for our public inheritances and national possessions, for constitutional responsibilities and the separation of powers, even when we had as many as five different political parties- the NPN, UPN, PRP, GNPP and the NPP- in power in different states of the nation. Even one former opposing UPN politician and political activist, later elected AD Governor of one of the southwest states, publicly lauded recently this quality of your administration.
Shagari's government was not deceitful, did not have contempt for the public or public interest and persuasions. He never had the tar or fear of the poison and suspicious temptations for abuses of power and the nightmare of their engulfment of and threat to our attempt at political development and democratic governance.
You saw what the presidency should be when you said in your presidential campaign in 1979: The presidency should be a symbol of national unity and cohesion". Not surprisingly you were the president of the whole nation, irrespective of religion, sex or place of origin. You became the first ruler here in Nigeria to appoint women into your Cabinet-Chief (Mrs.) Janet Akinrinade and Chief (Mrs.) Ebun Oyagbola-even before the outburst of feminism and women empowerment, you convinced your party to enable you present a female vice presidential candidate (from former Imo State); she and her husband happily agreed and applauded you but she later reneged because of pressure from her male fellow tribesmen. All these demonstrate your commitment to national unity, promoting dialogue and interrelationships across religious lines when you, a Moslem, invited his Holiness, Pope John Paul II to visit Nigeria.
The Holy Qur'an at Surat (Chapter) 2:136 teaches: "say ye: we believe in God, and that which has been sent down to us and to Abraham, Ishmael, Isaac and Jacob and the tribes, and that given to Moses and Jesus, and that give to all other prophets from their Lord. We make no distinction between any of them and unto God do we wholly submit ourselves (in Islam)." That visit of the Pope showed us a glimpse of the unity that we are capable of; we saw most vividly the practical demonstration of our "unity in diversity". The Pope himself reminded his Moslem audience in Karachi: "Don't forget that Abraham is the father of the Jews, the Christians and the Moslems".
After his visit to Nigeria in 1982, the Pope took with him back to the Vatican, what he said in his own words, "an unforgettable memory of a country which is a credit to Africa, to the world and to the Church of Jesus Christ", and paid tribute to President Shagari and the nation "for her (Nigeria) contribution to justice, peace and development in Africa and beyond, and to support all efforts underway to build a society ever more fraternal and humane", and he later during his second Papal visit to Nigeria received the Sultan of Sokoto, Alhaji Maccido and an entourage of Northern Emirs- all Moslems.
We look back, Mr. President, and see the triumph of your government that had respect for the rule of law, truth and sincerity, and respect for the nation's constitution, its treasury as well as our treasures and inheritances. Shagari completely shunned any threat to or any temptation of abuse of his office. He never allowed any personal proclivities to compromise the Presidency and the honour of the Office. Not surprisingly, his Administration remains a great beam and sceptre of grandeur. He was, and remains, a trusted leader. His government has been a noble heritage. The great Athenian statesman Pericles, in Thucydidesís THE PELOPONNESIAN WAR, eternally captured the glory of a Noble life and the legacy of Honour when he said:
One's sense of honour is the only thing that does not grow old, and the last pleasure, when one is worn out with age, is not, as the poet said, making money, but having the respect of one's fellow man.
Happy Birthday Mr. President-- Alhaji Shehu Shagari, Turakin Sokoto
•Ojigbo was an aide to former President Shehu Shagari