At 90, Alhaji Shehu Usman Aliyu Shagari is the oldest living former Nigerian leader. It is a milestone that deserves the celebration going on for a man who, from a humble beginning, attained the highest possible political office in the land.
Born on February 25 1925 in the sleepy town of Shagari in present day Sokoto State, he attended the famous Barewa College in Zaria, in the now Kaduna State. His political odyssey started, expectedly, from his town, after a stint as a teacher. Alhaji Shagari was secretary, Sokoto branch of the Northern People’s Congress (NPC) from 1951 to 1956 and represented Sokoto West between 1954 and 1958 in the House of Representatives. Thereafter, he held several posts and was a member of every administration after Nigeria’s independence in 1960. In 1958, he was parliamentary secretary to the then prime minister, Alhaji Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, acting Federal Minister of Commerce and Industry in 1959, Minister of Economic Development, 1959-60, Minister of Pensions and Establishments, 1960-1962, Minister of Internal Affairs, 1962-65 and Minister of Works, 1965-66. After the civil war in 1970, he held the important post of Federal Commissioner for Economic Development, Rehabilitation and Reconstruction. Later, he was appointed member of the Constituent Assembly.
When the military hinted that they were quitting politics, Alhaji Shagari nursed the ambition to be a senator but was goaded into the presidential race, where he beat his closest contender, Alhaji Maitama Sule, to clinch the ticket on the platform of the National Party of Nigeria (NPN). In the 1979 general elections, supervised by the then military head of state, General Olusegun Obasanjo, he was elected president of Nigeria, defeating his major rival, Chief Obafemi Awolowo, by the narrow margin of a court determined simple twelve-two thirds majority. The controversy generated by this judicial decision dogged his administration throughout its lifespan and, to a great extent attenuated its effectiveness, which most political analysts misread as weakness on his part.
The domestic challenges that confronted his tenure as president were complicated by the international economic crisis of the early 1980s. However, Shagari took several steps to try to strengthen the economy – cutting the budget, calling in the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and expelling 2,000,000 aliens in 1983. These were among the notorious austerity measures he put in place in an effort to pull the chestnut from the fire. That notwithstanding, he and his party, the NPN, won the bitterly contested presidential elections of 1983 in what was pejoratively described as Alhaji Umaru Dikko’s “moon slide”, that inevitably set the stage for the Major General Muhammadu Buhari coup of December 31 1983. Shagari was arrested and detained, but was eventually cleared of personal corruption charges and released from detention in 1986. He was, however, banned from participation in politics for life. He is married with children.
We join the rest of the country in wishing Pa Shagari a happy birthday, as he carries on with his patronly service to the Fatherland.