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The Chinua Achebe Foundation Interview Series #25(b)

A Meeting of the Minds
(President Shehu Shagari in Conversation with Pini Jason- Part 2)

The Chinua Achebe Foundation







Alhaji Shehu Usman Aliyu Sahagari,

Chinua Achebe

Prof. Chinua Achebe


Former President Shehu Shagari

President Shehu Shagari

Executive President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria from 1979 to December 1983, is easily the most understated, but vastly experienced Nigerian politician. He might appear to be a conservative, but his autobiography,
Beckoned to Serve, betrays a streak of radicalism. He has been a science teacher at the Sokoto Middle School, holding his own in English, History and Geography. Since his solitary detention which ended in 1986, he has not read Nigerian newspapers as a protest against the bad press he received after his overthrow and his period in solitary detention. Until this interview with the Chinua Achebe Foundation, he had also not granted a full interview in twenty years.


President Shagari who turned 81 in February 2006, was born in 1925, in Shagari Local Government area of Sokoto State. He was educated at the Yabo Elementary School, 1931-35, Sokoto Middle School, 1935-40, Kaduna College, 1941-44, Teacher Training, Zaria, 1944-45. He became a teacher at the Sokoto Middle School, 1945-50, headmaster, Argungu senior Primary school, 1951-52, and senior visiting teacher, Sokoto Province, 1953-58.


He was elected member, Federal House of Representatives for Sokoto West, 1954-66; parliamentary secretary to the Prime Minster, Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, 1958-59; acting Federal Minister of Commerce and Industries, 1958; Federal Minister of Economic Development, 1959-60; Federal Minister of Pensions, 1960-62; Federal Minister of Internal Affairs, 1962-65, and Federal Minister of Works, 1965-66. After the 1966 coup, he returned to farming from 1966-68. He then served as secretary to the Sokoto Province Education Development Fund, 1967-68, as Commissioner for Establishments in North Western state, in 1968-69, as Federal Commissioner for Economic Development, Rehabilitation and Reconstruction, 1970-71, and Federal Commissioner for Finance, 1971-75.


He became chairman Peugeot Automobile Nigeria Ltd and was member of the Constituent Assembly, 1977-78. He was elected the President of Nigeria in 1979, re-elected in October 1983, and was overthrown by the military in December 1983. He was arrested in January 1984, and detained from 1984-86. When he was released in 1986, the military government of Gen Ibrahim Babangida restricted him to his village, eventually granting him unrestricted freedom in 1988.


President Shagari was secretary of the Northern People’s Congress, Sokoto, 1951-56, and a foundation member of the National Party of Nigeria, 1978-83; member Federal Scholarship Board, 1954-58; governor World Bank, 1971-75, and member, IMF Committee of 20, 1971-75.

Alhaji Shagari holds the traditional titles of Turakin Sokoto, Ochiebuzo of Ogbaland, Ezediala of Abuocha and Baba Korede of Ado Ekiti.

He was awarded honorary LLD by Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria in 1976.


He is an accomplished farmer who loves gardening and table tennis, and also the author of Beckoned to Serve, an autobiography  published by Heinemann Educational Books in 2001; Wakar Nigeria, a collection of Hausa poems  published in 1948, and Shehu Usman Danfodiyo: Ideas and Ideals of His Leadership  published in 1976. He is married with several children.


About Pini Jason

Mr. Pini Jason is a columnist for Nigeria’s Vanguard newspaper, Associate Editor of New African, London (1987-2004), author of A Familiar Road and publisher/Editor-in-Chief of the Examiner newspaper. Mr. Jason has several years of experience in major Nigerian newspapers as well as international publications.



Q. Did the bitter aftermath of the Twelve-Two-Thirds controversy that followed the 1979 election, and the sustained slogan of “stolen presidency” by the Unity Party of Nigeria, affect your confidence and performance in office?


A. Not at all! I knew they were talking nonsense! Everybody knew it. It did not deter me at all,

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because it was of Awolowo’s making. But if you look at the results, he had no right, because I beat him flat out, even without the support of the NPP or anyone else. And the matter went to the highest court -- the Supreme Court -- and the decision was in our favour. What else could one do? All this is thoroughly discussed in my book:
Beckoned To Serve.


Q. You had political big guns like Zik, Awolowo, Waziri Ibrahim, and Aminu Kano as opposition. In fact, you are the last of the Five Titans of the Second Republic. Did your political differences affect your relationship with them in any way?


A. No! And they knew that very well. I never regarded these worthy men as enemies. And all of them, to some extent, cooperated with me as far as politics was concerned, except Awolowo! Awolowo was very, very rigid. I remember even before the elections, General Obasanjo, who was the Head of state, invited all the political leaders and candidates to see him at Dodan Barracks. So we went, and on that day, Chief Awolowo came in with a bandage on his hand, saying that he had an accident and couldn’t shake hands with me! Just because he didn’t want to shake hands with me! (Laughter)


Q. So it really happened?


A. It did!


Q. It is generally assumed that the story was made-up by the media!


A. No! It is true! It is true! He came with bandage! (Laughter) Can you imagine!


Q. Well, you should have hugged him!


A. I did! There was a time I hugged him publicly; when I gave him national honours at the National Theatre. Yes, I gave him national honours, and hugged him in front of everybody.


Q. Well, would you say today that the political opposition is regarded as the enemy?


A. Well! It is not a new thing. And as I said, Awolowo and his supporters started it.


Q. Did you regard him as an enemy?


A. Not at all! I

Former President Shehu Shagari

Former President Shehu Shagari

will tell you another story. When Aminu Kano died, I went specially to
Kano to condole with his family, because he was my personal friend, long before he became the leader of NEPU. We were teachers together. Aminu used to stay in my house whenever he came to Sokoto, and I stayed in his house whenever I went to Kano, even when he was the leader of NEPU. So we were on very good terms. When he died, I went there to condole with his family. (Abubakar) Rimi was still the governor, so he came to the airport to meet me, with the Emir of Kano, as well. The commissioner of Police came to me at the VIP lounge, and said, Sir, we have a problem. I said, yes? He said Governor Rimi insisted that he would follow me to Aminu Kano’s house. You know, at that time, Aminu Kano was not on good terms with Rimi. And Aminu Kano’s supporters said that if Rimi got there, they would kill him! They made that quite clear to the Commissioner. They told Rimi this, and he refused, saying he would go; let them kill him! I was then asked to intervene. So I called Rimi aside, and I said: “You know I am here on a private visit. Thank you for coming to meet me; I will meet you in your house, but I am going to Aminu Kano’s house, first. He said, “No; I am going with you!” I said: “No, I don’t want you to go with me.”


But, he insisted that he must go with me. I am the governor of this state,” he said. (General laughter) You can’t go anywhere without me! You are the President. I am the Governor! I said: “Look; I have not come here to cause trouble.” He said: “I know that! When I saw the Commissioner of Police talking to you, I knew what he was going to tell you. Tell him it is his duty to protect my life!” (General laughter) We agued and argued! At the end I begged him; I said: “Look; I don’t want to cause trouble; I have come to condole these people. Everybody knows that Aminu was my friend. Even if I were not a President, I would have come. Take it as a private visit, please! I appreciate what you have done, and I respect you for that. When I finish, I’ll come to your house.”


It was a great trouble, but he eventually agreed! And I went without him. When I returned to the airport later that day, I organized a small ceremony in which I was to change the name of Kano airport to Aminu Kano International Airport, in honour of late Aminu Kano. There was a big crowd there, including, of course, our supporters. When I came, the Commissioner of Police again came and spoke to me. He said, “Sir, you see that helicopter? Awolowo is inside. He said he came for a campaign. That he had been campaigning around Kano. But he had landed when you were coming in, so we told him not to come out, until you leave.” I said, “Why is that?” He said: “Because there would be trouble. Once your supporters see Awolowo, they will begin to shout abuses on him. And some of them may attack him. We don’t want a show. That’s why we are leaving him inside his helicopter, just until you finish the ceremony and leave for Lagos; then he can come back to the airport.” But, I said, “No! I don’t agree with that.” So, I stood up, and said: “Gentlemen, please excuse me; I shall be back soon.” I walked with the Commissioner of Police to the helicopter, and climbed inside. I greeted Chief Awolowo, and said: “Sir: I didn’t know that you were here. We are having a big ceremony where I am going to change the name of this airport to the name of my friend Aminu Kano.” He said: “Oh, that it is good! Very good! Very good!” I said, “Sir; I am inviting you please, if you want to come and witness the occasion.” He said, “Yes, with pleasure!” So, he came out, and we walked together. And I held his hand, and we were walking hand-in-hand. So our supporters saw this, and there was nothing else they could do. He sat down with me, and the ceremony was completed, and I said: “From here, I am going to Lagos; if you want to join me, I have a few more seats.” He said, “Yes, with pleasure!” So, he joined me, and to the surprise of our supporters, they saw me ride in the same plane with Chief Awolowo!


Q. You have spoken about Awolowo. You have spoken about Aminu Kano. What impression did you have about Waziri Ibrahim, the leader of the Great Nigerian Peoples’ Party?


A. (Chuckles) He is a different person politically. Waziri was my friend also. We were colleagues

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together in the senate of the
First Republic, and he always visited me whenever he came to Sokoto. We were good friends, indeed. He started the Nigerian Peoples’ Party, NPP, which later became GNPP. When he founded his party, he came to Sokoto and I went to see him. He asked me: “Shehu, why are you joining this useless party; this NPN?” I countered, “Why are you joining your own?” He said: “I created my own party.” I said, “Well, I may not have created the NPN, but I like it as a party.” He said to me: “Tell me what you want, and I will do it for you in my party.” I told him I didn’t want anything. I was not joining any party to gain anything. Then he offered me money, and I said, “No; you know me. You can’t buy me!” Then he said it was just a joke!


That happened between us all the time. He never stopped visiting me even when I became President. But he was always hand-in-hand with Awolowo in trying to destroy whatever my party had accomplished. Of course, he was not like Awolowo; he could tell me anything, and I could tell him anything, because we were friends.


Q. What of Zik?


A. I had a great deal of respect for Zik. There was never a major disagreement between us. Even where there was, it was my duty, being junior to him, to try and settle it just between us. So there was no major problem between us, throughout.


Q. You earlier spoke about your working relationship with your Vice President, Dr. Alex Ekwueme. I ask this particularly, because this time it has become a national issue. What was your relationship like?


A. Well, Alex was very faithful to me. I liked him very much, because he had a great deal of respect for me. And he appreciated the way I brought him in, even though he was not among the candidates for Vice President. First, the Vice Presidency was allocated to what is now called the South-South. The President of the Senate was allocated to the South-East. But later, the party had to reconsider all that when Zik became a Presidential candidate. We knew that the Igbo would choose Zik; however we knew he would not win, so we changed and agreed to give the Igbo the Vice Presidency, and the South-South the President of the Senate.


We planned things very carefully, and discovered that our assessment of Zik was not entirely correct. We would send independent investigators to go and find out how the people felt in every sector, in everything. They would come back with a report, and we would do our assessment of that area. And so when they came with a report that we had a good chance in the East, despite Zik  -- we saw that some of his closest collaborators had joined the NPN; people like Collins (Obi), (Ozuomba) Mbadiwe and (Chuba) Okadigbo. So, we decided to give them the Vice Presidency.


The trouble with the South-South fielding a candidate was that they had major problems. They disagreed on who would be chosen for a position. Every one of them wanted a position, and none would give way. That is one of the problems of the area, up till now.


But when we decided to have the Vice President come from the South, we asked them to bring us three names. They gave us three names, but I rejected it. Because I knew them, I said no. Of course it was the party that was to nominate three people out of which I would choose one. They did that about eight times, and I was still not satisfied. Then I came up with an idea. I said: “Look: why don’t we choose a woman? That would be a new thing; people think we are conservative and don’t care about women’s rights. Why don’t we have a woman from the South-East?” And they agreed. So we dropped all the candidates, and started looking for women candidates. We came up with one lady, who was a member of the Constituent Assembly with us and whom I knew. I sent a delegation to go and talk to her and her husband. And they agreed.


Bit when we were on

Former President Shehu Shagari at a Press event

Former President Shehu Shagari at a Press event

the point of announcing the candidate, she suddenly came with her husband saying that they wanted to see me. I met with them, and they said they had considered my offer, and thanked me very much. “But perhaps,” they said, “I didn’t know their situation in the East?” I asked, “What is your situation? They told me that their leaders; the big ones, would not accept a woman as Vice President. I was surprised. “We thought you Easterners were progressives? (General laughter) The couple then explained that the big leaders in the East had been going round, trying to change the new decision; trying to get the support of traditional rulers and other important leaders to circumvent the decision to make a woman vice president. The candidate and her husband said that their leaders would not accept a woman, and that the move was so strong against them that they didn’t think they would survive, if they continued. So in their own interest, they thought they should withdraw. That was very shocking to me! That was exactly what happened. They just withdrew out of the fear that something would happen to them if she accepted. So we were back to square one!


Some of the people I had rejected, they brought once more; again, I said no. Then, they brought two people. First they brought the former President of the Senate in this regime’s first term…what is his name? Anyway, he was a candidate…with Ekwueme.


Q. Do you mean Enwerem?


A. Yes, Enwerem! But I didn’t know him, at all. However, I told the party that although I didn’t know the man, at all, from his credentials, he seemed to be the type of man I could work with. He was a young man, very learned. From his credentials, I knew he had no connections at all with the old establishment, and so would be helpful to me, because most of my party leaders belonged to the old brigade, and we wanted a fresh young man who would tell us the views of the younger generation and balance our progress in government. The East agreed, but I said that I would want to see him first. So they sent for him. I was very impressed. So I chose him and the party was happy. That was how we came to work together, and he did not disappoint me at all!


Q. If the military did not, in December 1983, interrupt your second term, would you have had any problem with your Vice President, Dr Alex Ekwueme, succeeding you?


A. No! I wouldn’t!


Q. Now, in 1999 and 2003, Dr Ekwueme contested for the presidency, and he didn’t seem to get the support of the North. People thought that that was a betrayal of the traditional political tie between the North and the East as well as a betrayal of Ekwueme who served you dutifully.


A. It is true! He came to see me about his situation. I said, “Well, I am sorry, Alex; but I’m no longer in control.” And from reports I got, his problem was not a recent one, but originated within the Constitutional Assembly (1994), where many people had expected him to change their mind. It was his attitude during the constitutional assembly; I was not a member, but it was from there they started to see how much inclined he was towards regionalism. And they were very surprised. They brought so many complaints about him, even brought the speeches that he made which were hostile to the North. I told him there was nothing I could do. He was no longer under me, and he was far away from me. But his inclinations contributed to the attitude of those who were against his campaign. In any case, I did support his candidature myself; but unfortunately, he could not wipe out that feeling from the Northerners. Whether they were right or wrong, he would know because he was in the middle of it. And I was away here in Sokoto. A lot of things were said to have happened that I wasn’t aware of.


Q. Why is the North uncomfortable with President Obasanjo’s administration, knowing that the North championed his emergence in 1999?


A. I don’t know. I cannot speak for the North now. You have been reading the newspapers. I don’t read Nigerian newspapers! (General laughter)

And they are seeing more than whatever I am going to see. There are complaints, right or wrong that Obasanjo has betrayed them; that they chose him as leader, and brought him out of prison, but that he has been very unfair to the North. Whether they are right or wrong, I wouldn’t know. His first action, which they didn’t like, was to retire Northern senior officers in the army. They didn’t like that. But, I thought that it was Army tradition, even in previous regimes. Whoever came to power retired the others! So the North didn’t like that. They also said that, at the time (1999), the West where he belongs, did not like him. They had become his greatest enemies, until he was in power, and they came back supporting him. They even urged him to disregard the North. I am not telling you my feelings. I am just telling you some of the things that made them hostile to him.


Q. I understand!


A. As, I said, there is hardly any Northern voice, so to say, because unfortunately we have not

Former President Shehu Shagari

Former President Shehu Shagari

been able to emerge with a real leader who we listen to. I tried my best, under the military, to bring them together, although secretly. I organized what we called the Turaki Committee. Turaki Committee was created with a view to bringing back the North together after they separated, because of the creation of the states. Everyone fell away. I tried to tell them that our strength was in our unity, that we had a common purpose which was to progress, and reach the level of our brothers and sisters in the south. There is a wide gap; they have progressed far, more than we have, educationally and otherwise. So unless we worked together, we would be behind all the time. So we have to work together. And I organized this meeting, which included former leaders during my time, because I could only work with people I knew. Of course, we had a few younger people. We were meeting in secret.


We used to meet, first in Abuja, before the government moved to Abuja. Then later, we moved to Kaduna. We were always meeting at night, from 9 pm and sometimes going up to 1 or 2 am. And in Kaduna we would meet in the farmhouse of Aruwa, who is now a senator. His farm is on the way to Abuja, outside Kaduna. Leaders came from all parts of the North, and we were meeting for close to ten years, after I was released from detention. It consisted also of former military leaders, including Gen. Hassan Katsina, Shehu Yar’adua, and others. I did not call on just the politicians; I called former military officers, businessmen, civil servant and traditional rulers. Things were going on all right, until the time of Gen Abacha. Of course, the military government had security reports about our meetings, and they didn’t like it. But they also knew of the support we had, and that it would be difficult for them to stop us.


So, one day, Gen Babangida sent a message to me that his administration knew all about our meeting, and that it was high time we stopped before it was too late. I thanked his emissary, and told him to thank Babangida, because he knew about what we were doing when we first started, and did not stop us. And now that he wants to stop us, I agree. But I asked the emissary to please tell him that the people that I called from all parts of the North came at their own expense and time; they paid for their transport. I never gave any one of them one kobo. So it was difficult for me to tell them now, that they should disperse. I told him that since Babangida knew the times when we met, I would be very happy if he sent armed police or soldiers to disperse us. When that happened, the people I invited would know that I was not responsible; that it was the powers that be, and that would be the end of it. I had no objection if he wanted us to stop, but this was the way to do it. (Chuckles) And he was not able to disperse us.


Q. That was a great challenge! (General laughter)!


A. But Abacha had an answer

Former President Shehu Shagari and Chief Ernest Shonekan

President Shehu Shagari and Chief Ernest Shonekan

when he came to power! (Laughter) What he did was try to divide us. He called some of the important members among us and talked to them. Some of them he made Ministers or Commissioners in their own states then asked them to break away and form another group. Divide and rule! So by the time we knew it, there were three groups, each claiming to be speaking for the North. That was the end of the effort. But I fought back. I didn’t give up. I invited all the former Heads of State from the North. I invited Emirs, some of the important ones among them, and some leaders, to meet in
Kaduna. I told them the problems and what we have been able to do in the past ten years, and that it was time now that I handed over to someone they thought could do better.


I had done enough. I wanted all the factions that had emerged to come back; but not under my leadership. I felt it was time they appointed a leader of their choice. But we needed to have the factions working together, so we could speak together as elders. And after a long discussion, they agreed that a new organization called Arewa Consultative Forum, ACF, should be established. But they were not able to find a leader to take my place. They tried to convince me to continue, but I refused. I felt I had done enough; ten years was enough for me. After what I had gone through, ten years was enough! Then it was suggested that I assist in finding a suitable man for the moment. I suggested that the Emir of Ilorin should act as interim chairman, and when they form the group, they should look for someone. That was what happened. So after all this, I felt it was time for me to retire.


Q. You were close to the former Prime Minister, Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, and Sir Ahmadu Bello, the former Northern Premier. What were their leadership qualities and personal attributes that make them unforgettable?


A. They were great men! Very great men! You see, it is very difficult to describe either of them. They were leaders who were worthy of being called leaders. They were very selfless. They gave selfless service to Nigeria. Each man was known for his integrity; they were people who, although they became very powerful, were not after material gain. Each of them died leaving nothing at all, hardly anything! They were just interested in serving the nation. Well, it is not for me to tell you their backgrounds. You should know all about that.


Suffice it to say that they died poor people! They just didn’t leave anything. Anything! And if one can be like them, such a person would run a respectable government, because they would not be greedy; they were honest. They served the country diligently and courageously too. They had courage, which is also a very good asset. We celebrated the 40th anniversary of the demise of Sir Ahmadu Bello, the Sarduana and Tafawa Balewa. I was the chairman. I didn’t bother to check whether it came out in the papers or not.


Q. It did. I can assure you it did. (laughter) It was well covered.


A. So, that will tell you what we feel about these leaders. They were great men. Really, we are very proud of them.


Q. There was an incident at that event, of young men heckling some of the Northern leaders, saying that they are not like any of these past leaders they had come to celebrate.


A. Yes, the people were right, and they cannot be! It is a different world altogether. If the Sarduana came back today, he would not win an election in Nigeria! (General laughter). It is a different world that we live in, these days.


Q. I want to go back to the issue of security in this country, namely, the emergence of ethnic militias. Just recently, the Federal Government quarreled with Abia and Kano state governments for setting up vigilante groups. You were once a Minister of Internal Affairs; you know that apart from the tension national insecurity creates, it is also a disincentive for foreign investment. We have policemen threatening to go on strike! These are things that never happened in the past. If the federal Government asked for your advice, what would it be?


A. The matter of security has deteriorated so much in Nigeria that is has almost come to a point where the government can no longer control it. And the way to control it is to tackle corruption. Corruption is now rampant in our country. Everybody is corrupt, and it is taken for granted. Everybody accepts it as a necessary evil. The people who should work against corruption, who are on the frontline are the police. But the police are now the most corrupt body in the entire country. There is nothing you can do about it, unless you can do away with all them, and perhaps only the military remains. Gen. Buhari tried to do so, but he did not succeed. He became ruthless as a person. But you need to tackle this problem of insecurity, which is caused by corruption. The people who are supposed to check all these things are also corrupt! So, what do you do? That is the entirety of the problem.


I was telling some people, the other day, that each time I travel on the road I am disgusted with the behaviour of the Road Safety men. Everyday, I find the police and Road Safety men on the roads; however, I have not seen them arresting anybody, even if they are driving vehicles that are overloaded. They are just ordered to park on the roadside, as if they were being arrested, but, instead, I have seen them give the police and Road Safety men money in plain sight of the public! Everybody can see what is happening! The drivers all know that all these people want is money, so they just throw money at them like you throw things to a dog. They (the drivers) don’t even stop. They just slow down, take ten Naira, and throw it at the policeman. And shamelessly, the policeman would stoop down to take it! I have seen it with my own eyes! So when we have come to this stage, what do we call it?


Q. The police rationalize this behaviour you refer to. In fact a former Police Minister pleaded with Nigerians to understand why they do that; that it was because of their poor welfare.


A. Why not tackle that problem? Why not? It is the task of the government!  If the police are corrupt, everybody will be corrupt. Look at the example set by their own chief; the IG, himself, (Tafa Balogun) who was jailed for corruption!


Q. Another area of concern in this country today is education. You were an educationist yourself. Your party, the NPN was advocating “qualitative education” while the Unity Party of Nigeria, UPN was advocating “free education.” Both “qualitative” and “free” have eluded us. Things are so bad today that the rich are sending their wards to Ghana for university education, because of the drop in quality! How can we arrest this decline in the quality of our education?


A. It is all about corruption again. Corruption, corruption! That is the source of all the trouble in our country today. The same excuse of “poor welfare” we give about the Police is also the way the teachers feel, including lecturers and professors. When they see the people they taught becoming big men with big cars and big houses, and so on, and they are still very poor, what do you expect? So, they accept bribes, too; to give certificates and other things, which people do not deserve, because of corruption! This is inexcusable, no matter the situation; that’s the trouble we are in! It is a very vicious cycle!


Q. Why did you take to teaching when you could have become a soldier?


A. I would never have become a soldier. I never aspired to be a soldier at all. I even became a teacher by accident! But when I went into it, I went with all my heart. Throughout my career, I have always been asked to do something or the other! It’s funny that I never chose for myself what it is I want to do. And if I did, I never succeeded (laughter). People would say, “We think you are good at this thing; come and do it.” I would do it sincerely, with all my heart, and succeed! So, that is why I titled my book: Beckoned To Serve.


Throughout my career I have been beckoned. I had no intention to become a teacher, but in my final year at the college, our science teacher in Sokoto died. At that time, there was only one science teacher in every Middle School, as it was called in the province. I was in Barewa College in Kaduna, and they sent a message from Sokoto to say, any final year student, whoever he was, should be retained in the College, and he should be given special coaching to be trained as a science teacher. That was an order. I happened to be the only person from Sokoto in the final class in that year. So, the principal called me and said, “This is the message; what do you think?”  I replied I had no option, and so he said: “Okay you will stay here.” Our science master was British; they called him and said: “Take this young man to your laboratory, and give him a thorough training; he is going to be a science teacher.”


So, I stayed in the Boys quarters in his house. In the morning we went to the laboratory. He taught me how to perform various experiments and so on, and he would teach students in my presence. Sometimes, he would ask me to teach. That was how I started teaching the boys I was in the same school with; people like Maitama Sule, Waziri Ibrahim. They were in the lower classes. I started my teaching practice with them, and before I could finish my training there, in Zaria, the science master, Abdulrahaman Okene resigned, and there was no science teacher in the final year class.


I was sent to Zaria. The education officer there also specialized in sciences, but he was in charge of education in the whole province, so he couldn’t teach. I was transferred to him, and while he coached me, I taught the students until they took their exams. You remember Yahaya Dikko, who was my Special Adviser on Petroleum? He was one of my students in Zaria. And people like the former Secretary to the government, the Wazizi Jemareh, mmmh, what is his name now? Never mind! Anyway, this was how I went to Zaria, and when I passed my exams, I was sent to Sokoto to teach science. I was very keen on it. But I had spent only two years teaching science, when suddenly, by order from Education department in Kaduna, which was in charge of education in the whole North, science teaching was banned in the whole North!


Q. Really!


A. Yes! Banned! To my greatest surprise, the education officer came into my laboratory, together with the doctor who was in charge of the General Hospital and the pharmacist, to take all the laboratory chemicals that could be of use to them. The science laboratory was closed. No more science! It was shocking to me! And I didn’t know what to do. They did not sack me. But they said they knew I could teach other subjects; that while I was in school, I was good in English, History and Geography. So they said I should teach these subjects instead of leaving. I changed, and started teaching these subjects.


Q. How long did this ban of the teaching of science in the North last?


A. I think, almost ten years. You know, at that time, there was agitation for independence and so on. The South was very vocal about it, and the strategy of the British, at that time, was to separate the North from the South, their reasoning being that if you allowed the North to be like the South, then there would be problems, and the British would be out. That was why they chose to keep us down! It was deliberate.


Q. So it was really a British decision to hold back education in the North?


A. That’s right! That’s true! I said it in my book (Beckoned to Serve). You can see that Barewa College, where I studied, was the only full-fledged secondary school, and no more than a secondary school. And it was the only one in the whole North! All the others were junior secondary schools that fed Barewa College. One or two students from each province would be sent to the college. Now, my number on the register when I was in that College was 394. The college started in Katsina in 1921! And I came to Barewa College, Kaduna, in 1941; that was 20 years after it was founded. And after 20 years, my number was 394! It had not even reached 500! For 20 years! From that, you would know the discrimination against the North. But many people don’t know it!


Q. But people generally believe that the British favoured the North!


A. This is because we didn’t know what we were doing until it was late! That was our problem. Now, I mean the amount of progress that has been made in the North is enormous. Many people are not even aware of that. You know at the time when I was at the college, the only senior civil servant in the entire Northern Region was A.B Dikko! And that was in the forties. Only one person with a degree!


Q. Now, with the conditions of schools today, if you cast your mind back, what is it that crosses your mind?


A. The standards now are very low indeed, because the equivalent of the Middle Schools then is what the universities are today. And since they were very small in number, they couldn’t make much of an impact. But what saved us was that those who were fortunate to go as far as Barewa College turned out to be the leaders of the North, including Tafawa Balewa, the Sarduana and the rest. They were the people who saw the danger, and who saw the plan of the British, and started to work very hard to bring up the North so that it would catch up. That was why so many people in the North were annoyed with the Sarduana when (Chief Anthony) Enahoro moved the motion for independence. They said to him, independence? Hey, if they give us independence now, we are finished! We are finished completely! It would be another state of colonization! The British would go, and the Southerners would take over all the senior posts in the North! Once they take over where would we be? If you brought anyone from outside the North because of his experience to work, say, in the hospital, he would bring along his brothers. If you put him in the school, he would bring his own people. And because they know the value of education more than our own people, they would do better. And where would we be? That was why the people in the South thought that we were being too selfish; but it is because they did not understand us.


Q. There is still this gulf between the North and the South; gulf of misunderstanding, gulf of not appreciating really who the others are. How do we bridge this gulf?


A. I think we’ve tried very much, indeed; but many people do not see that. You know why our leaders preached what they called Northernisation? It was because they had to do it; there was no alternative. Otherwise, we would have been finished in the North. When independence was in sight, we couldn’t apply Northernisation in the Federal Government, because it belongs to everybody. But we were concerned. The entire Federal Civil Service was dominated by people from the South. You can’t run government like that; without our people being represented! And our people didn’t even want to go there, because there were very few educated people in the North. There were enough jobs in the North for the few who might have been tempted to go to the South. For instance, if a person was working in the NA -- the Native Authority -- which was the local government then, it was hard to persuade him to come and work in Lagos. He would not, because he was happy where he was. He had good salary. He was a big man. So our task was to go group by group to bring our people into the Federal Service. That was our duty. And that was why the Prime Minister chose to put me in the Ministry of Establishment and Training, the so-called Ministry of Pensions. He knew of my interest with the campaign of bringing our people out.


When I was his parliamentary secretary, I used to go to the North on tour to persuade Northerners to come into the Federal Service. It was not easy. I had to visit every secondary school, and talk to the final year students in the whole of the North. I had to persuade local governments, and even Regional government to second their people to the Federal Civil Service, sometimes against their wish. And because he appreciated what I was doing right from when I was his parliamentary secretary, the prime minister made me minister in charge of the Civil Service so that we could try, at least, to bring a few Northerners into the Federal Service. That was a very interesting task, but it was not easy at all.


Ironically, when states were created, the situation repeated itself in Sokoto. When Sokoto province and Niger were merged into one state called North-Western state, during the military regime, I was no longer Minister. I was here in Sokoto when I was appointed, first Commissioner of Establishments, and then Commissioner of Education. My task was also to bring Sokoto people out to work in Sokoto province! At the time, we were dominated here by the Nupe from Niger in our own Sokoto here! So it was the same experience I had in Lagos that I had to face here again. It was not easy at all!


Q. Shall we go back to your time as President? Which of your Ministers was the most controversial?


A. (Chuckles) The most controversial Minister was Umaru Dikko. He was! Umaru is a very fearless fellow. He likes power so much that he does everything to remain powerful, even if it hurts. And for that reason, many people thought that Umaru Dikko controlled everything in the Federal Government while I was President. Of course Umaru was close to me; but there were many things, which were happening in the government, which he did not know anything about, until he heard of it. However, people did not believe this, because he went about boasting that he had done this, he had done that; even things he did not know anything about. It is his nature. That was why he became so unpopular with people. And he is still like that. It is his nature.


Q. And that controversy rubbed off on your Government. Many people formed their opinion about your government based on their feelings about Umaru Dikko.


A. Yes! This happened again at the Political Conference. He was the leader of the Northern delegation at the Political Conference, and his South-South counterpart, a man who is like him, (Chief Edwin) Clarke, (General laughter). How can you put these two people together? (More laughter) That was why there was trouble! So, when I was trying to reconcile them, they disagreed with me. Umaru and Edwin Clarke refused to come to my meeting!


Q. I saw a letter to you by Edwin Clarke advertised in the papers, refusing to attend your meeting.


A. That’s right! But Umaru did not write a letter. I came to Abuja for the meeting. When I arrived at the hotel, thirty minutes after, I saw Umaru. He said he came especially from Kaduna to see me. “I saw your letter inviting me to this meeting,” he said to me. “I have come to seriously advise you to stop it. It will not work!” I asked him why? He said, “Well, you were not at the Political Conference. What we did there, in the interest of the North, was hailed by everybody in the North. And people will think that you are now going to undo all what we have done. And you will not be popular at all! I don’t want you to be abused by the people in the North.” I said, “Umaru; it is too late. I have come for this meeting. It is going to hold today, tonight! Why didn’t you tell me on the phone, if you thought it was so important?” He said it was not something to be discussed on the phone. I said: “So you think you can now convince me to call off the meeting? I said: “I can’t call it off; but I excuse you. Please don’t come!” And he went away.


Q. If you had a second chance to be President and Commander-In-Chief of the Federal Republic, is there anything you would want to do differently?


A. But I will not come back! (prolonged laughter).


Q. You are apparently the only ex-President that is not fighting to come back!


A. No! I am not interested at all!


Q. Looking back, is there anything you wish you had done differently?


A. I will give you my book. Please find time to read it.


Q. I will, Sir… (I began the book on the flight out of Sokoto)


A. All these questions were answered in much more depth than what I am trying to do now; because, I told you, it took me ten years to write it. I started it while I was in detention, and it had gone a long way when I came out. It was completed, but I went back from the beginning, because at that time (in detention) I was just writing without reference, no books or materials to verify. So I went back to make sure everything that I said was correct according to the dates and details. I went over and over again. Some things in which I had some doubts, I sent them to people I know who knew about it for their comment.


Q. You are a member of the National Council of States. Apart from that, do you have any other channel for expressing you views to the President of the Federal Republic?


A. Yes, of course, from time to time. But our biggest chance is during the Council of States meetings. He has a habit of inviting former Heads of State on everyday of that meeting to come ahead of time. So, we sit down with him in his office and discuss matters. And of course, every one of us has the privilege to ask for appointment if there is something important to discuss with him.


Q Can you share your reflections on why this country continues to drift when we have people such as you around?


A. That is a very good question. We are not progressing as fast as we would wish; but we are, indeed, making some progress. The pace may not be to my liking or to yours, but the fact is that we are making progress in some areas. Normally, for countries to progress, it is a struggle. Everybody struggles to move forward. So this is my opinion.



Q. In what areas would you rate Nigeria as having made progress?


A. The money market, which is the fulcrum of the economy, progress is being made...Telecommunications… May be not to the extent we would have wished, because there are still obstacles in the way. And that is most natural. But if one should sit down, and count his blessings and say: “well, what have we achieved, what have we not achieved”; that will certainly make a book.


Q. Where have we not done well?


A. (A prolonged pause) I think we have made some progress, but not as much as I would like in the efforts to build a nation. All of us should join hands together to make our country great. And we can only make our country great, if we are united. Unity is the answer. Without it, we can do very little. We haven’t made much progress in our effort towards real unity, which will make the country a nation. And that is unfortunate. Of course, it is difficult with our history of the British finding us in little groups and tribes. And one can say, Nigeria, with over 250 different ethnic groups, languages and so on, is a very difficult place, politically, to regard our selves as one. So, one can say that some progress has been made, even if not to our satisfaction. It is time by now that every Nigerian had a feeling of being a Nigerian other than belonging to one ethnic group or to some religion, organization, association, or something, which divides us. We should try to reduce all these differences in the interest of nation building. Nation building brought us the chaos of the civil war, which is most unfortunate. That is also a lesson to every one of us! Should be a lesson as the civil war has been to the Americans! That past has taught them a lesson; ours should teach us a lesson too.


Q. How do you see the prospect of democracy in Nigeria?


A. I think we still have great hope for democracy. Of course, not because of us, but because the trend now in the world today is towards democracy, more than at any other time in the history of this world. And that, in my opinion has been greatly helped by the end of the Cold War between the two great powers. Previously, they were fighting each other, and didn’t care about democracy in Africa or elsewhere. Every one of them wanted to have his way. And now, there are better chances for democracy in the entire world, and not just Nigeria. In Nigeria, our past experiences have taught us that there is no better alternative than democracy. Even if there will be an accident like we had before, we will still revert to democracy. I think it is still well accepted by Nigerians, though of course, it needs a lot of modifications.


Q. My last question; have you forgiven those who overthrew you?


A. Yes, of course. I said it publicly during one of the launchings, though not of my book. But

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after my book, some young men said they wanted to write my biography in Hausa so that everybody would understand, not just a translation. When they came to ask for my permission, I said yes; but warned them that I was already writing my autobiography. They said they were going to write it in Hausa. I said I would give them permission on two conditions. One, I was not going to give them my own book as a reference or to simply translate. They should do their own research, and write their own book in Hausa while I wrote my own. The second condition was that I would publish mine before theirs. Even if they finished before me, they would have to wait. They agreed. And that was how it was.


Now during that launching, just two years ago in Kaduna, Gen. Buhari was present. And while I was speaking, I said that I did not hold any malice against anybody who was involved in the overthrow of my government, because I believe they acted out of their own conviction. And that I respect anyone who would give up his life for whatever cause, if it comes to that person risking his own life in order to serve the country in whatever way. If that is his belief, I respect it. And I don’t have any grudge against him, not against any one.


Q. How do you spend your time, these days?


A. Well, I spend my time like I have spent it with you, now. Every time, people want to come and visit me. Or I am invited to attend a conference or to be the chairman of this or that. I’m not allowed to rest. And now I am over 80, I deserve to rest. But look at me now (looks up at the wall clock which reads 15 minutes past midnight); you see?


Q. Then I must wrap things up. On behalf of Chinua Achebe Foundation, I must thank you very much for your time, Mr. President.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the interview are not necessarily those of the Chinua Achebe Foundation. The Chinua Achebe Foundation, an intellectual and cultural organization, believes in the right of every Nigerian to express their opinion.

Chinua Achebe Foundation Interview Series: President Shehu Shagari in Conversation with Pini Jason- Part 2