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The Chinua Achebe Foundation Interview Series #25(a)

A Meeting of the Minds
(President Shehu Shagari in Conversation with Pini Jason- Part 1)

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. The issue that keeps creating problems for this country is the issue of leadership, especially the contest for power and power sharing. Recent events, as is evident, have brought Nigeria to a kind of North-South confrontation. Does this mean that “1914” is a “mistake”?


A. No! Far from it! It is not a mistake. It is a blessing! Without the events of that year, there would

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be no
Nigeria.  The different ethnic groups would have become very little countries such as is the case in other parts of Africa. We have managed, in spite of all our problems, to build a great country; the envy of other countries in Africa, at least. We want not only to keep that, but also to improve on it. And we should be proud that we have been able to build this nation, in spite of historic obstacles. Unless one looks back, you cannot really assess the amount of progress that has been made towards unity. And all these experiments -- joining various groups into one since 1948, and after our Independence when we were able to form a Federation of states -- have been very good for Nigeria, in that every state was given the autonomy to do what they could for themselves under the auspices of one united federal government.


And in relation to the power games you refer to, I think it is not peculiar to Nigeria; it is everywhere. But what brought us this problem, which aggravated it, is the interference of the military in our progress. The military has disturbed the running of a democratic government. And it is only through democracy that you can solve all these various problems that we have. The interference of the military stopped this progress. If we had run a democratic government right from 1960 up until now, we would have come a long, long way. But this military interference has caused a great deal of problems for us and we are still trying to solve them.


Q. Many people agree with your assertion and still believe that our current experiment in democracy continues to be problematic, because of the overbearing presence of the military; especially those who are retired and in the political arena.


A. That is right. This is what I am talking about. It is the interference of the military that brought about this state of affairs. If there had never been coup d’etats, since 1960 it would have been a very different story. Of course the power game would still continue, but in a civilized manner.


Q. The debate now is that we must amend the constitution; that the constitution is a problem. Of course since 1999 when that constitution came into existence, it was apparent that a lot was fundamentally wrong with it. But now we have less than two years to hand over, and suddenly there is a stampede to amend the constitution. Are you satisfied with the manner in which this amendment is being pursued?


A. No, I am not! The normal

Former President Shehu Shagari

Former President Shehu Shagari

procedure [for constitutional amendment] is being ignored. The normal procedure is that a democratic government is led by political parties. And all big ideas, programmes and so on, originate from the political parties; that is why they struggle for power. And once they are in power, they try to implement their promises to the public, including amendments to the constitution, if any. Of course, since we are experimenting with democracy, we are bound to attempt to bend things, amend this or that part of the constitution. There is nothing wrong with that. But it should be an on-going process. As I said our democracy is being disturbed, and that is the cause of the problems.


If, for example, there were real democratic campaigns by political parties, and the parties were successful in selling their ideas to the public, after an election, the winning party would implement what it promised the people, because it was elected on that premise. If the ruling party is in the majority in the House, whatever they bring forward is most likely to sail through, even if it has to do with amending the constitution. But in a Federal set up, the various states in the federation have a say. And unless the provisions for amendment of the constitution are met, it cannot be done, and cannot be forced! We should follow the normal procedure, and not just wake up one morning to announce that the constitution should be changed. There have been constitutional conferences in Nigeria, which accomplished more than mere amendments, and that will continue to be done. But there would have been no need for constitutional conferences if there were no disruptions by military regimes. These things are normally done in the parliaments.



Q. The surprising thing now is that we had a National Political Reforms Conference from whence proposed amendments should have emanated. The conference clearly failed to produce conclusions that could have served as guidelines for future constitutional amendments, did it not?


A. Well, in my opinion, even the concept of the Reform Conference was somewhat abnormal. You remember, when it was proposed by the President, the first people to oppose it were the members of the National Assembly. Now, this is very unusual. And the President went on to establish it despite objections by the very people who were going to approve it in the end. That is one anomaly. In the first instance, there should have been a public demand for such a political conference before it is convened. Of course, I know people were saying that this was the wish of Nigerians; but I preferred it to come from those representing the political thinking of the public, and that is the parties.


Q. The parties are so weak…


A. (Cuts in) Very weak indeed!


Q. They are so weak that the elections cannot be said to be credible. And this is because the choices of the people were completely subverted, largely because politicians have perfected other means of capturing power. So the parties are a far cry from parties in the Second Republic


A. A great pity! A great pity!


Q. Still on the constitutional amendment; which would you prefer as the federating units, the states or the zones?


A. Ideally it should be the zones. But it is a bit different now, because we should have been building from smaller entities to a larger one. However, the reverse is the case in Nigeria. We began with Northern Nigeria and Southern Nigeria; just two, which were governed under a unitary government. And then there were the governments of North and South in a federating arrangement. We continued to break these into smaller pieces. In other cases, in history, the reverse happened; the small ones joined to create the central government. But we built a block, and then began to break it up! Still, people are never satisfied, and continue to ask that we break, break and break!


Q. And the states have become so small that in the event of devolution of power, people argue that the states cannot handle the powers they want devolved to them.


A. (Cuts in) Exactly! They are so small. And this is one of our biggest problems; that is, starting from the wrong side.


Q. Another issue is the recommendation for two Vice Presidents. How do you see that?


A. I don’t know if it is not going to only complicate matters. The Nigerian pattern has been that Vice Presidents are a misnomer as far as the Chief Executive’s work is concerned, which should not be the case. They should work as colleagues. They should work together in harmony and in unison. But in most cases it has not been so. But my presidency showed good example; I’m sure you will agree that during my time, I worked with the Vice President as a colleague, and there has never been any disagreement between us. We worked in harmony. That’s what it should be. But in other cases, it has not been so.


Q. I will get back to your working relationship with your Vice President. You were very experienced in the parliamentary system, and you were also the first Executive President under the presidential system. Now people are clamouring for us to go back to the parliamentary system. What, in your view, are the merits and the demerits of the two systems?


A. Now let me bring you back to the first constitutional conference of 1978/79. Before that

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conference, I was in support of the parliamentary system, because I understood the parliamentary system better than the presidential system. Later on, it surprised many of my friends, especially those who were in the conference, that I had changed my mind, and was now supporting the presidential system. In fact in 1958, I was sent by the Prime Minister to study the parliamentary system at
Westminster, and after that I came back, and became parliamentary secretary to the Prime Minister. So I can claim to know a lot about the parliamentary system of government, and I respect it very much.


My friends were actually very surprised when I changed my mind. However, I explained to them that upon reflecting on the happenings in Nigeria, I did not want a repeat performance of our experiences during the civil war. From the experience of the civil war, we know that up to that time, there had been no national leader in Nigeria, in the real sense of the word; we had sectional leaders. Of course, they were very well known and respected personalities like Dr Azikiwe, the Sarduana of Sokoto, Chief Awolowo and Prime Minister Abubakar. But they were regarded as sectional leaders, and not necessarily as national leaders. Of course the constitution tried to establish them as such; but those who had not elected these leaders persisted in viewing them as representing only those people who had elected them into office!


The Prime Minister Tafawa Balewa, for example, was elected in his own constituency, Tafawa Balewa. How would you expect the man from Cross River or from Adamawa to regard him as his own leader? Because, of course, they had no hand in electing him; and that means that if you want to produce a truly national leader, everyone should have a stake in his or her elections. And the same thing at the state level; the Governor should be elected by the entire electorate in a state, so that everybody will feel that he has a stake, and that he took part in electing the Governor. That was what really motivated me to change my mind to support an executive presidential system of government. And I saw it, myself, during my own election; that after I had gone round (the country), people really accepted me as the national leader. So at the conference, I was not sorry to change my mind about the parliamentary system.


Parliamentary system has its own advantages. But it is my fear, you know, that under the parliamentary system if the government is defeated on any issue, the government will have to resign, and there will be a new election. Knowing the trend in Nigeria, if that happens, there will be chaos! (General laughter) Perhaps each year you will have a new government, and a new election!


Q. And on the other hand, for as long as someone continues to win elections, he continues to be Prime Minister; at a time when we are worried about the sit-tight syndrome of our leaders.


A. You see!


Q. I don’t know if I should call it a mistake or not; but it seems that in taking this wonderful decision to change to an executive Presidential system, we have gone overboard, and given too much power to the center, even in the states. This is producing a dictatorship at the center, and emperors in the states.


A. Well, it is still the military influence that brought us to this mess. The military is not used to the federal system of government. They ruled us -- although under the so-called federation – but, really, in a unitary government. Because the man at the top gives the commands; he appoints the governors, and gives them orders; they have no real autonomy. And anyone who does not do as the man at the top wants is transferred to another state, and another person posted in his place. So, we did not have any experience in running a federation during the periods of military rule. And unfortunately, also, when we came back to civilian rule, it remained the same. Soldiers became civilians (laughter); but they just dropped their uniforms, and went on doing the same thing.


Q. One other contentious issue concerns revenue allocation, especially on the issue of derivation. Incidentally, it was during your administration that another 20 percent was shaved off the derivation. Now we have a major crisis in the Niger Delta; how can we share our resources so that there can be equity and justice, and everybody is satisfied?


A. Well, it is not easy. My own

Former President Shehu Shagari at a Press event

Former President Shehu Shagari at a Press event

point of view is that what caused the problem is oil money. Without oil, we would have gone a long way as far as running the government is concerned, and particularly in the case of revenue allocation. It was a military government, not my own, that reduced the shares of the states, particularly, the oil-producing states, in the belief that the offshore oil should belong to the federation. In some way, they were right. But that caused a lot of complaints. Secondly, even if the Federal government did not take that which accrues from the offshore, the nature of the oil-producing area, that is the Delta, is a very difficult situation. With all the money in the world, development there is very, very difficult, because of the nature of the environment there. And you can spend the whole money accruing from oil without bringing the Delta people to the position of, say
Lagos state or Oyo state, because of the geographical and environmental situation.


And without people really trying to play politics in the case of oil, the share (of oil revenue), which was given to the people in the Delta before was not enough. Still, it has been reviewed from time to time, and the people have received a bit more, each time. I think, that is much better progress than trying to cause trouble in order to starve non oil-producing states. It is always my belief that you can do things in a civilized way, and achieve what you want.


All we can do is to tell the people of the Niger Delta to be a little more patient. And with each increase they get, the more progress they make. But they should also remember that the mineral wealth is a federal matter. Although every state has its own share, the federal government is in control. So this is the problem, and it will continue like this until people really begin to think, not just of the small area they inhabit, but of the entire country. The interest of the country is paramount to everybody else’s. But it is difficult for our people to realize that. Even so, on the sharing of oil revenue -- despite all the increases they have been getting of recent -- there is hardly any development going on there! You want to see what they have achieved with what has already been given to them. But you can’t see much when you go there. That is the problem!


Q. The people of that area believe, especially from what happened at the National Political Reforms Conference, that the North has not shown sufficient sympathy to their cause, given that that area usually supported the NPN and the North.


A. Yes I agree! That is the impression that they got. But unfortunately, in my opinion, it was due to the way they approached the whole issue. Both sides were wrong, in my opinion. Each side tried to be very selfish, and not accommodate the other. And it does not augur well for our country, at all. It is a matter of give and take, and of tolerance. That is why I have taken the initiative after this quarrel between the South-South and the North, to bring them back together.


Q. What progress have you made in your bridge-building meetings?


A. A lot of progress. But I want to do it quietly, not by shouting. I don’t want the press to interfere with my efforts. But am very happy with the progress we are making, so far. But because I want it to succeed, I won’t publicize what we are doing, until we succeed. I think, though, that we are making a lot of progress.


You see, in that Political Conference, there were too many radicals. And our people think it is a good thing to be a radical. Well, sometimes it helps, but in other cases, you will get negative results. It is not about being a good debater or arguing your case to no end, despite the fact that you are not winning! It is a question of give and take and persuasion; with each trying as much as possible to persuade the other to see his side of the story. But when you bring it to the point of quarreling, then you don’t achieve anything. So I am trying to bring the two groups together. We had several meetings. I choose to do it quietly. In fact we usually meet at night in order to escape the press (laughter).


Q. With the success of this effort, will support for the South-South’s quest for the presidency become part of the issue?


A. No. It is not a matter of supporting anybody. I want everyone to see the other person’s point of view so that there will be a compromise. You know, during our time, before elections, our party -- the National Party of Nigeria, NPN -- sat down and considered its chances in the election. It was the decision of the executive, and not the entire party. The executive sat down and examined the situation and said -- this is the first election after 13 years of military rule. In reality, it was still not too long after the civil war, so we felt that our party had a greater chance to produce a president than any other party. And from our own assessment of the NPN, we saw that if the candidate came from the North, we would get elected quite easily. If he didn’t, we would fail. After we agreed on that, we had to persuade the others to agree that this was the right course of action, and not that NPN was a Northern party. It was a national party. And it had a presence in all parts of Nigeria. And any other party may make decisions based on its own influence. So the NPN did not ask the country, in the first instance, to agree that our presidential candidate should come from the North. That was the decision of the party itself. 


Provided that every zone belonging to the party had its own share of political office, and provided that the decision was not going to be permanent, it was going to rotate. So we came to the decision that if everybody agreed that the presidential candidate was going to come from the North, then, of course, the Vice President should come from the South. And we agreed that the South should be divided into two; the East and the West. The West should have the Chairman of the party, the South-South should have the president of the Senate, and the Speaker should come from what they call the Middle Belt. So various areas were allotted particular offices; this was a party decision, not a national decision! If they had taken this decision on party basis, there would have been less tension, although now the situation is different as you rightly observed. Now individuals manipulate the parties. At the time when we took this decision, I had no intention or even, no idea that I was going to be a presidential candidate, and I didn’t want to be a presidential candidate!


Q. Yes, I understand you wanted to be a senator.


A. That is true! If you read my book (Beckoned To Serve) you will become aware of the struggle I put up in order to escape being a presidential candidate, and the reasons for this. So while my party was making this decision, I had no idea that I was the chosen one, and I didn’t want to become a presidential candidate. When people began discussing the situation, I said, “Look, don’t misunderstand me; but when I changed my mind, and supported the presidential system, I had no idea they were going to recommend me. I didn’t want it.


Q. Your party, the NPN, was the first, in a democratic government in Nigeria, to impeach a Governor -- Alhaji Balarabe Musa of Kaduna State. People say it was simply because the NPN had a majority in the State Assembly, and the Governor was elected on the platform of a different party -- the People’s Redemption Party, PRP. Was there really a compelling need to impeach Balarabe Musa or was it just bad politics?


A. There was a great need. Balarabe Musa was very rigid. Very rigid, indeed! He had no political experience, even though he was a civil servant, and experience in government as a civil servant is quite a different thing. And so he took the attitude of a civil servant, and was very rigid. That could not help him in a democracy, especially without the support of a majority, and he was refusing to cooperate with the State Assembly. Of course he couldn’t succeed when he refused to cooperate with the State Assembly, which was in the control of another party. I tried very much to reconcile him to them, but he was adamant. He wouldn’t give up. I appointed a small committee to reconcile them where the late Dr. Chuba (Okadigbo) was a member…and the other gentleman from NEPU, what’s his name now…


Q. Barkin Zuwo?


A. No, no. He was also from the East…


Q. Dr S.G Ikoku?


A. Ikoku! Yes! He was also there. So there was no alternative, but to impeach Balarabe Musa.


Q. Now impeachments, like ripe paw-paw, are taking place all over the place. Are you satisfied with the way the instrument of impeachment is being used?


A. (Cuts in) No, no. I am not.


Q Especially with the vague definition of what constitutes “gross misconduct” in the constitution…


A. But you can see the difference. In our time, the impeachment that was on record was Balarabe Musa’s. And Balarabe never had any quarrel with me! He had his quarrel with his own Assembly in Kaduna. The quarrel was between them, not between us. We knew that we were in a majority in the country; but we couldn’t impose things on a Governor who did not belong to our party. I can understand that. But the State Assembly had the right to impose their will on the Governor, because they were in the majority. That’s the first point. I had a lot of trouble with them, and I called their leaders, talked to them, and said -- look, you should not impeach him. But they said there was no alternative, that the man was just cantankerous. And I gave up. But in the cases nowadays, it is the reverse. It is the Chief Executive who starts the whole trouble, and then engineers the impeachment process!


Q. Given your insight as a former Minister of Economic Planning, Rehabilitation and Reconstruction, can you reflect on the ironic situation of a rich country like Nigeria having such an incredibly poor standard of living for its citizens?


A. Well, let us start from the beginning. When one compares the days just after independence to

Former President Shehu Shagari

Former President Shehu Shagari

the present, many people will not agree, because the condition of the ordinary man is completely different from what it was in the sixties to early seventies. There has been some progress, some developments and our people, even in the remotest areas, are better than what they were in those days. That is a fact, but people don’t want to believe it. Why? Because there are only a few fortunate ones who have become very rich, and when you compare them to others who are much poorer, the gap seems very wide. This is definitely not as it should be, I agree!


Even so, I don’t agree that our people are as poor as they were before. They are much better off, if you look at the situation very carefully. At least I know from my own villages, because I come from one. When I was in school, few villagers had a set of clothes like we are wearing now. In some areas, some people were still using leaves to cover themselves!


Q. Like in Koma?


A. Yes! And they didn’t bother to wear shoes, because they couldn’t afford them. When they wore shoes, at all, in my village, raw hides were cut and we made slippers out of them. That’s all. And for those who could afford clothes, they had one outfit only. They would not wear it until there was a feast! Otherwise they went about in loincloths. That has now changed! In fact in the villages, there are well-to-do people who have cars of their own. They have good houses; mud and thatched roofs are now disappearing, and even those who would have been considered poor, in the past, now own houses with corrugated iron sheets, and so on. That is change!


Q. Mr. President, the argument is that perhaps, with better management of our resources, we would have done better than at present. Here we are, the light went! It was not so in the sixties, and it has become more scandalous now! And more money has gone into power generation, anyway. This is the point!


A. Of course you are right. That is true.


Q You have been a governor of the World Bank and a member of the IMF Committee of 20; Nigerians hold these two institutions responsible for some harsh economic reforms such as privatization, retrenchment - which they call right-sizing – and the removal of subsidies. Only a few days ago, a UNICEF report indicated that there are seven million Nigerian children of primary school age, and yet, there are not enough schools to accommodate them. What is the philosophy behind the kind of recommendations these two institutions make to African countries, including Nigeria?


A. One must understand that the World Bank and IMF are organs of the United Nations, which itself is controlled by the West. This is the fact. And of course, although we may speak in terms of a world economy, those who have more shares or more investments in an organization, controls it! In a company or in a bank, the biggest shareholder does as he pleases! And that is how I take it. The big powers or the economic giants in the world take control of the economy of the entire world, because they provide the funds, and they give it on their own terms. That is a fact. Nobody can argue that!


But during the time when I was in the membership of the IMF, we were not in such a difficult situation as later on, because this was during what was called the oil boom, and Nigeria was rich and not bound to accept IMF terms. In fact, during my time as a member of the World Bank, I was Minister of Finance, under General Gowon’s administration. At the time, we even contributed to the funds of IMF, instead of borrowing from it! This is because, we had enough! Now the situation has changed. Although our oil profits are higher, our demands have increased much more than what they were before. I think we also learned from our experiences during the civil war when we could do without many things. But later on with the oil boom, there was more demand to spend money.


Thus, if you solicit the support of the World Bank and the IMF, you have to comply with their terms! Of course, it is not compulsory. One can refuse it. But, as I said, they are the main shareholders who control the affairs, and there is nothing anybody can do about it.


Q. You have been a Minister in charge of pensions. How did our pension become such a scandal that those who have served this country well are dying in queues waiting for their pensions?


A. It is very unfortunate! Any way, I will tell you about the period when I was the Minister of pensions. On Independence Day, 1st October 1960, after the midnight ceremonies, the Prime Minister said he wanted to see me in his house. And so, I went; I was then the Minister of Economic Development. He said to me: “Shehu, there is going to be a minor cabinet re-shuffle, and I want you to be Minister of Pensions.” “Pensions?” I said, “Sorry Sir; I am not an old man (general laughter).” He then asked: “You don’t want to be Minister of Pensions? I said, “Sir, I don’t want to be in Pensions. It’s a job for old people (laughter); go and ask Musa Yar’Adua, (father of late Gen Shehu Musa Yar’Adua) who was then Minister of Lagos Affairs.”


So I really protested! And he said, look! Sit down! Minister of Pensions in England (at the time, we were just copying whatever they were doing in England) is in charge of the entire civil service. He is concerned with the affairs of the entire civil service, and he controls, not just pensions, but their terms of service and training, too. And the Prime Minister said that he was interested in bringing Nigerians into the civil service after Independence to take the place of the British who were leaving. I continued to insist that I didn’t want to be called Minister of Pensions, and he said: “Okay. There is nothing in a name. You go and find out an alternative name, and let me know...”


At the time, all our permanent secretaries were British. The following morning, I called my permanent secretary, who was British, and asked him – “What other name does the Minister of Pensions go by, if any?” The man said: “Well, the Minister of Pensions is just the Minister in charge of Establishments…” So I suggested renaming the post, Minister of Establishments, and the permanent secretary added: “Minister of Establishment and Training,” and I said, “Fine!”


Q. That certainly sounds better!


A. Yes! (laughter) So I went back to the Prime Minister,

Former President Shehu Shagari and Chief Ernest Shonekan

President Shehu Shagari and Chief Ernest Shonekan

and I said to him: Sir, I want the name to be changed to Minister of Establishments and Training.” He said: “Good, approved!” That was how I became Minister of Pensions. So it was just a small part of the responsibilities of the Minister of Establishments.


But to come back to the question of pensions; of course, the situation is different now from what it was, because the service was not as large as it now is. And there are now more services. And even as there are new pensioners, there has to continue the pay of the previous ones until they are dead! And some people live very long. Then, there are organizations now that are really in bad shape. They used to take care of pensions by themselves, but now they no longer can, like Railways, for instance, and the Armed Forces, Police; which have doubled, and trebled, from what they were before. And the pensions are still to be paid! No adequate arrangements have been made for their welfare. You have to have a pension scheme, and contribute to that scheme in an organized way so that there is more income, not just enough to be allocated to pensioners. Investments should be made so that funds can grow and meet various commitments. But organizations did not take that into consideration.


Q. Did the mass retrenchments and the purge of the seventies not contribute to the chaos? People were being thrown into pension positions without any preparation!


A. Oh yes! It is true. That certainly contributed!


Q. And yet, government wants to retrench more now!


A. Yes! And also a lot of Armed Forces people were retired. Hundreds of them!


Q. You must have heard of the so-called pension reform, which some people say is another privatization of pensions. Are you satisfied that that can solve the problem?


A. Yes. Of course, if you have money, you invest that money so that it will grow. But if you do nothing to invest it, yet keep on paying it out, it will simply dry up! That has been the problem.


Q You were also once the Minister of Works.


A. Yes.


Q. It has been a long time since then. Billions of naira have gone into our roads, yet we don’t see the evidence!


A. (Cuts in) It is a disaster!


Q. Gen Abacha had to create the Petroleum Trust Fund to intervene urgently. Now we have something similar to PTF called the Federal Road Maintenance Agency, FERMA; yet there are still no roads! Would you agree with people who say, perhaps, that the Federal government should get out of the building of roads, and transfer them to the governments in the geo-political zones they are located? Also, funds should be transferred to them in proportion to the kilometers of road that passes through a zone? 


A. Hmm, I am not sure...


Q. For example, in the North-West, the governments take care of the Federal roads in that zone without Federal government reimbursement. The advantage is that, at least, people in the North-West can hold the governments there responsible! They are closer to them.


A. Some of the state governors are good. Some are not.


Q. Just recently, the chairman of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, EFCC, was tracing the history of corruption in Nigeria, and he mentioned your government as part of the beginning of corruption. First, what do have to say for your government? But may I ask how a man everyone agrees is a good man can run a corrupt government?


A. He cannot! He cannot! I disagree that my government was corrupt! It is not true. Of course there were a few mistakes, here and there. Yet, we tried as much as possible to do the right thing! I won’t say that I didn’t have trouble with some people who were not doing very well. But, I didn’t go all out openly, like the present regime, to expose them. Wherever we found cases of corruption, we tried to correct them. And we quietly asked the person concerned to give way by resigning or retiring quietly, without any fuss. And a lot of things were done that way without any trouble.


But corruption was not as widespread as it is nowadays. Everybody wants to benefit from corruption; make a lot of money. In every situation, there are people who are not doing the right thing. It is the duty of the leader to see that such people measure up, or are sent out. We didn’t make a lot of noise about it, because the opposition was very strong then. We had to keep them out of it, because they would have raised a storm, and quite rightly, if they knew. So in any case we did it quietly, without anybody knowing, in order to put a stop to the trend of corruption being accepted as the order of the day. I never accepted that.


Q. What is your assessment of the current anti-corruption war?


A. I believe it is a very good move. But I want the actors to be really sincere about it, and ensure that it is not used as a kind of blackmail. Some people are being blackmailed, because of politics. But, of course, if some people have nothing to hide, why worry? Still, blackmail is blackmail. It means that you can punish those you want to punish, and then leave others. This is not right. There should be an all-out campaign to remove corruption in our country. Unfortunately, the case has not been proved yet that this is being pursued honestly. If you want things to be transparent and sincere, the anti-corruption war too must be transparent.


Q. What were the post-military problems that you had to wrestle with?


A. (Prolonged pause) One of the problems was that when democracy was re-introduced after several years of military rule, we didn’t have many people with experience in parliamentary practice or in political parties. And most of the people who went into government and into the assemblies had no previous experience! So they were all learners. It was very difficult, and the very few people who had some experience, most of them were not in government or in parliament. They chose to sit aside and criticize rather than help to resolve the situation. The first parliament really gave us a lot of trouble, especially when we didn’t have a majority in the House. That was not easy at all!


From the very beginning, even before we started, the so-called progressives, whose parties were not in government…at their meeting they decided that once the National Assembly was inaugurated, they would appoint all the officials of the National Assembly from parties other than the ruling party. That is, the President of the Senate, the Speaker, majority leader and others would be appointed from their parties, and nobody from the ruling party. This was so that once they gained control of the House nothing from the government would pass through, except what they wanted. Fortunately, this was leaked by one of the people who took part in the meeting who came secretly, and told me what was to happen.


At that time, I had won election, but I had not been sworn in. I was going to the present President’s office for briefings, however; a sort of handing over. I used to go there each morning to discuss with Gen. Obasanjo. And when I came to one of these meetings I told him: “Mr. President, I want you to help me; I’ve got a very big problem before us. This is a story that I have received, and I believe that it is true. Now, if what I have been told happens, our government will fall as soon as it is inaugurated. The only thing I want you to do for me is to change the date of the inauguration of the parliament.”

Already, General Obasanjo had said, in a published gazette, that the National Assembly would be inaugurated on the second of October. I said: “If you do that, then we are finished!”


 In fact, with all due respect, it shouldn’t have been Gen Obasanjo who should have issued this proclamation. It should have been my duty after I had been sworn in, to appoint a date for the inauguration of the parliament. But he had gone ahead and done it. All I wanted was for him to kindly withdraw his decision and give me the time to organize, in order to form a government that would last. And he agreed! His declaration was withdrawn, and he announced that the next President would appoint a date for the inauguration of the Parliament.


So I organized to go and talk with the other parties, to invite then to come and join my

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government. I wanted to let them know that I intended to form a coalition government with all the parties. I sent emissaries to all the parties. The Nigerian People’s Party, NPP, which was led by Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe accepted to join. Of course, from their experience with the First Republic NCNC and NPC coalition, there was no problem with them. The Unity Party of Nigeria, UPN under the leadership of Chief Obafemi Awolowo said, yes, as well; they would join. But provided we would use their manifesto to run the government (general laughter). And Waziri Ibrahim (leader of the Great Nigerian People’s Party) said he would join, provided the other two parties also joined. The same condition was given by the Northern Elements Progressive Union, NEPU.


So, since these three were not forthcoming, we decide to work with the NPP. We offered them the position of the Speaker and some other positions. Even while negotiating those positions, Zik himself visited me. He flew all the way from Nsukka to see me, and we sat down. He had a list of people he wanted to be Ministers and so on. We gave him, I think, allocation for eight Ministers, and some positions in the National Assembly. We conceded to make them ten, and they agreed. Then they said they would provide the names of those to be made Ministers and their portfolios. I said no. That is my prerogative. I was not going to allow anybody to allocate portfolios to the Ministers. It was to be at my own discretion. So, anyway we agreed and we signed an agreement and implemented it. That really helped to break the unity of the opposition in the parliament. With the members of the NPP, we were then in a majority, and in a much better position. Without their help, we would have been thrown out quite easily. That was one of the major problems I faced.


Q. Why did that accord between the NPN and the NPP collapse?


A. It collapsed, because they (the NPP) were asking for too much. They had a wrong notion of the whole accord. They felt that having helped us, they were, therefore, entitled to ask for more and more. And it came to a point where I could just not accept it any more. I said, “Look, you have done your part. You helped us and you helped the country. Otherwise, there is no guarantee that even if the government failed, that you would form the government yourself. You’ll need our support too.” But they wouldn’t see reason. Everyday, they would come with new demands. There were those of their members who come from the Middle Belt, so-called; the Northerners on their side -- Solomon Lar and others. Everyday, they would come with names for appointments, and I would say: “You can go to hell! I am not going to accept any more!” They threatened to leave the government. And I said: “Go! You can leave!”



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 1