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Shehu Shagari as president, with trademark long cap

A brief look at Shehu Shagari’s presidency

30 December 2018

The death of Second Republic president Shehu Shagari on Friday has kicked off quite a bit of historic revisionism from some quarters. Shagari was president from 1979 until his government was overthrown in a military coup on 31 December 1983 that installed Muhammadu Buhari as head of the ruling junta.

Some have argued that Nigeria could have made significant strides if not for this misguided military intervention. Well, no one knows how things would have panned out if the military did not step in. But this doesn’t mean that we don’t know how the Shagari regime performed, or failed to perform. One of Shagari’s most strident critics in those days, Abubakar Rimi, said that the then president thought politics was just about wearing long caps. It was Rimi’s way of highlighting that Shagari was a case study in cluelessness.

The book “Nigeria: A new history of a turbulent century” by Richard Bourne should help those with short memories remember what Shagari’s rule meant for Nigeria. We reproduce some relevant extracts from the book below.

The most federally inclusive [of the major parties] was the National Party of Nigeria led by Shehu Shagari, who came from Sokoto and had had, under the patronage of the Sardauna [Ahmadu Bello], a big career in the NPC [Northern Peoples Congress] in the first republic. But its base was in the north. Starting as parliamentary secretary to Tafawa Balewa, Shagari had gone on to hold three ministries before the war. He was brought back by [Yakubu] Gowon in 1970 to be successively Minister for Economic Affairs and then Minister for Finance. Giving a nod to the party’s federal character, although its political heart lay in northern conservatism, Shagari was the presidential candidate, Alex Ekwueme, an Igbo and architect by profession, was his vice-presidential running mate…

There were few genuine policy differences between these parties that were based on personalities, calculations as to who was most likely to deliver spoils and ill-disguised ethnicity…..

Shagari’s government had no coherent domestic policy, apart from its willingness to spend money on education both at the primary level and on establishing new universities in the states. It invested heavily in the Abuja project for a new capital, and in new steelworks at Ajaokuta in Kwara State, built with Soviet help, and Aladja near Warri, erected with German and Austrian assistance. Three steel rolling mills were built in other locations, scattered across the country. But the steel projects were expensive, uneconomic, dependent on foreign ore and technology, and never delivered industrial benefits. Much money was wasted in contracts for Abuja. Recollecting this era, an Indian High Commissioner at the time thought that the Shagari government was more incompetent than corrupt. But such investments reflected political pay-offs, and corruption had grown with the need to repay loans amounting to $11.9m advanced by rich businessmen for the NPN campaign in 1979.

A sense of cluelessness was exacerbated by conflict in the north where there was an uprising in 1980 by followers of an Islamic leader known as Muhammadu Marwa: the Maitatsine riots were put down by the military but resulted in 5,000 dead, including Marwa. Debates about sharia prior to the 1979 constitution had led to increased Christian/Islamic frictions in religiously mixed cities in the north, where southerners in sabon gari quarters were visible targets. In 1982 there were clashes in Kano, which spread to Kaduna and Zaria, with deaths, churches burnt and damage to southern-owned businesses. Shagari annoyed the military by increasing police numbers tenfold, to 100,000, and giving the police arms. The increasing authoritarianism of his government – involving use of state media and security services – sharpened hostility in opposition media and in a civil society that would grow in importance in the 1980s.

A key factor in the undoing of the second republic lay in economic mismanagement, and the government’s failure to respond to the oil glut of the early 1980s. It had been misled into extravagance by a doubling of the oil price from $19 a barrel in 1979 to $38 a barrel two years later. It thought it was sailing into office on a tide of oil revenue. But this was followed by a sharp fall in demand, and although Nigeria and other OPEC and non-OPEC producers reduced prices and output the country saw its annual revenue from oil drop from 12.9m naira in 1980 to 7.8m naira in 1983. GDP fell by 8.5% in real terms between 1981 and 1983, while consumer prices rose by over 20%. Foreign currency reserves were run down, and talks for a loan from the IMF, embarked on as a last resort, broke down; Nigeria and its western creditors were far apart in a dispute over the amounts owed in debt and as usual the IMF was pressing for a drastic structural adjustment programme. Meanwhile the public sector and poorly managed parastatals continued to expand, and new agencies were set up to promote presidential initiatives that merely duplicated existing bodies.

This was an era of capital flight, extensive cross-border smuggling, and manipulation of the prices of key commodities such as sugar and rice – where a Rice Task Force under Umaru Dikko was to become notorious. Dikko’s corruption had already been exposed when a 1975 tribunal looked into his misuse of FESTAC [Festival of Arts and Culture] monies, and it was typical of Shagari and his party’s carelessness about probity that he was ever employed in such a post. As a consequence of changing diets, and a weakening of domestic agriculture, many Nigerians had come to depend on imported rice. The government tried to reinvigorate domestic agriculture, with a Green Revolution Programme that took over from Operation Feed the Nation, and sought to combine self-reliance with multinational and World Bank investments. Analysts dispute how far local food production was damaged by the oil boom, but imports declined as austerity hit after 1982.

Umaru Dikko

When in April 1982 the government introduced a belated austerity programme, involving import controls and monetary restrictions, it opened the door to corrupt misuse of licences of many kinds. Its approach was more statist, and more reluctant to remove subsidies and privatise parastatals, than the prescriptions for austerity plus privatisation that were becoming the donor formula of the ‘Washington Consensus’. In particular it responded to ordinary Nigerians’ view that, as a major oil producer, they should enjoy cheap petrol – a subsidy issue that led to demonstrations again in the second decade of the 21st century.

For the man and woman in the street the reality was one of inflation, and recession, while those who had their tongues in the political gravy-train were getting richer. The son of a senator under Shagari – the senator was murdered and his funds in Switzerland were never located – told the author he remembered toting bags of half a million dollars along London’s Oxford Street. After a considerable struggle by the Nigerian Labour Congress the minimum wage was raised from 70 naira in 1979 to 125 naira in 1981, but this was inadequate. [Tom] Forrest commented, ‘The rule of the politicians was disastrous for the material advancement of Nigeria and for the living standards of its citizens. The real income of urban households declined by 34% between 1980 and 1984.’

The Shagari government launched diversionary tactics in the face of the economic crisis – expelling two million ‘illegal aliens’ in 1983, and purporting to promote a hardly credible ethical crusade. Half of these foreigners were English-speaking Ghanaians, some highly qualified but many working on construction sites or as petty traders; another significant group were from Niger. These expulsions were not unprecedented, for Nigerians had been expelled from Ghana by Dr Busia in 1969, but they damaged the country’s status as a regional good neighbour and founder and pillar of ECOWAS, with its commitment to the free movement of labour. Shagari’s ethical crusade carried little conviction because it was obvious that his party people were feathering their own nests, and there was no systematic crackdown on misbehaviour.

The economic decline in the second half of Shagari’s first term also hit one of the country’s most prized resources, the education of its children. Some teachers were unpaid for months and, unable to survive if far away from their families, were forced to return to their villages. State and local budgets, suffering cuts and misuse, failed to maintain schools and other essential services…..

Two small border disputes, with Chad, where a Nigerian peace-keeping force had to be withdrawn, and with Cameroon, where there was a simmering quarrel over the Bakassi peninsula, led to the deaths of Nigerian soldiers and embarrassment for the military. In late 1983 one officer, disobeying Shagari, led an unauthorised attack on Chadian troops who had crossed the border and were holding Nigerian soldiers hostage; he was Muhammadu Buhari, soon to become a military ruler and, in 2015, an elected president….

Buhari the military dictator who overthrew Shagari

On 31 December 1983 Brigadier Sani Abacha went on the radio to announce that ‘I and my colleagues in the armed forces have – in the discharge of our national role as promoters and protectors of our national interests – decided to effect a change in the leadership of the Government of the Federal Republic of Nigeria and to form a Federal Military Government.’ In a New Year broadcast the new head of state, Muhammadu Buhari, who had been a Petroleum Commissioner and chaired the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation under the previous military regime of which he said this was an offshoot, justified the coup on grounds of corruption, economic mismanagement, and election rigging.

What followed Shagari was 16 years of military rule that ended up making many Nigerians look to the Shagari years with rose-tinted spectacles. The military cure ended up being worse than the disease, but Nigeria was not heading in the right direction under Shagari.

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