By Paul Nwabuikwu (From my old column in The Guardian. Written about 16 years ago) I voted for Chief Obafemi Awolowo in the presidential...

By Paul Nwabuikwu

(From my old column in The Guardian. Written about 16 years ago)

I voted for Chief Obafemi Awolowo in the presidential polls of 1983, the second and final election of the Second Republic. Fact is, I didn’t particularly like the man and his sometimes mean-spirited brand of politics. But his accomplishments as a public servant and an administrator are undeniable. The Free Education programme which his government executed in the old Western Region is an incomparable feat of social engineering which empowered a whole generation with the knowledge and skills to frog leap from a rustic milieu into the stratosphere of industry, academia and the professions. Whatever misgivings I had about his style and his records especially with regards to the infamous £20 policy, which impoverished Igbos after the Civil War were outweighed by the conviction that Awo was a performer. And the nation, at that point in its history, needed a performer at the helm.

In retrospect, however, my decision to vote for Awolow was not primarily based on his sterling records of public office. I was voting against President Shehu Shagari, the candidate of the ruling National Party of Nigeria. The press had demonized the Shagari administration so effectively that many Nigerians considered the government in power as only marginally better than the ldi Amin regime in Uganda. The Shagari government was pilloried as irredeemably corrupt. It was dismissed as visionless. It was condemned as a mere contraption for rigging elections.

President Shagari was the new Nero who fiddled even as the nation floundered. He was the figurehead, a wimp and a mugu who looked on helplessly as Umaru Dikko and others went on a looting spree. The Tribune, Awo’s newspaper was one of the main sources of this gospel which it preached with the kind of glee that would have impressed Joseph Goebbels. I recall a Tribune photo caption which identified one of Shagari’s ministers, Paul Unongo as the Minister of Steal Development! It was a deliberate error obviously meant to underscore the reputation of the government for corruption.

Of course the Shagari administration was far from blameless. Corruption, as it has always been in Nigeria was a decidedly national enterprise. It was going on at all levels of government in all the states and councils and wards of the federation. But the NPN, with its retinue of flamboyant characters – Umaru Dikko, Sulaiman Takuma, Moshood Abiola, Olusola Saraki, Joseph Wayas and Adisa Akinloye which naturally became the face of corruption. Given this context, I simply could not bring myself to vote for Shagari and the NPN.

If the election is held today, with the same set of candidates, there is a good chance that I would still vote for Awo. But it certainly won’t be with the same deep visceral anti-Shagari mindset. As I have since discovered, Shagari was no devil and Awolowo was no saint. The truth, like most truths, is a little more complex than that.

First, the NPN did not have a patent on corruption. In the Second Republic, as in the current one, corruption was a democratic enterprise in which all the political parties participated with different levels of intensity and discretion. The NPN government, of course, had more power and access to more resources which translated to a greater capacity for mischief. But anyone who says that the UPN, NPP, GNPP and PRP were significantly more honest is either ignorant, hypocritical or both.

It took an expose in the National Concord, a newspaper set up by Abiola to fight UPN propaganda, for Nigerians to learn about the Maroko land deals in which the “late sage” was implicated. Recently, I learnt from an inside player of the era that at least one UPN state government bribed a top official of FEDECO, the electoral commission with a million naira, a king’s ransom in those pre-SAP days.

At the launch of Shagari’s memoirs last Thursday, his Vice President, Dr. Alex Ekwueme put up a spirited defence of the NPN against the widespread perception that it was gang of thieves. Ekwueme cited the example of a Shagari Minister who died of a terminal illness because he could not raise the money for treatment abroad. He also spoke about the austere lifestyle of several key players of the era after they left government.

Ekwueme is, of course, not a disinterested party, and therefore, his testimony cannot have the status of gospel truth. The government in which he served could have done much better than it did fighting corruption publicly and decisively. But the point remains: any attempt to isolate the government of the centre as the sole repository of graft in that era cannot stand.

Shehu Shagari has borne the brunt of criticism for the glaring failures which precipitated the end of the Second Republic. He deserves much of the criticism. As the number one citizen, the very symbol of the new democracy which was bequeathed to Nigeria by the Murtala/Obasanjo regime in 1979, Shagari should have steered the ship of state with more decisiveness and imagination. It was his historic responsibility to be placed at the helm at a delicate point in the nation’s tenuous history of democracy. I suspect that the man in his private moments recalls his time in the saddle with some sadness and not a little regret. Someone has said that the two most bitter words in the English language are: ‘if only”. Shagari’s memories must be peppered with quite a few of them.

Yet, it needs to be said that the man deserves some credit for his personal integrity and the grace with which he has conducted himself since he was forced out of office. I am especially impressed that the image of his government notwithstanding, there is not hint of scandal regarding his personal life. In a society where honest public servants are the exception rather than the rule, Shagari, who was the most powerful man in the country for all of four years is, in that regard, a true inspiration. He is the poorest ex-ruler we have, a point that Rev. Matthew Hassan Kukah in a recent moving tribute to the former president.

An interesting footnote: Chief Emeka Anyaoku and Alhaji Maitama Sule revealed at the book launch that Shagari was, by 1983, deeply disturbed by the terrible image of his government and the many things that were going wrong in the country. Owing to a natural reticence and, perhaps, lack of a power base, he knew had allowed some of his lieutenants to get away with all kinds of excesses. But he has made up his mind, even before he was sworn in the second time to take some strong corrective measures. He appointed Gamaliel Onosode, a respected corporate titan with an unimpeachable reputation for integrity as Director of Budget. He also appointed Sule Minister of National Guidance, a precursor to WAI and MAMSER and took other steps to right the wrongs of the first term.

We will never know if these steps would have made a difference, if the ‘new improved’ Shagari advertised in the accounts of his vice president and close aides would have turned the tide. Mohammadu Buhari came barging in on the last day of 1983, with Ibrahim Babangida hot on his heels and Sani Abacha skulking somewhere in the background. The rest is history, bitter history.

It has been said that Shagari’s government gave a bad name to democracy and paved the way for the coming of the military. That is a legitimate view and there s is some evidence to support it. But again, the issue needs to be put in its proper context. Good governance strengthens democracy, yes. But democracy is also a process of incremental improvement, little steps which translate over time to great leaps over time. Wherever this process is disrupted, the affected society pays a high price. The weaknesses and missteps of that government may have provided the excuse for its overthrow, but what really made the comeback of the military inevitable was the power-lust and greed of the soldiers.

As recently as 60 years ago, American politics was an insular and quite corrupt affair. A few men in smoking rooms decided who would run for office, who couldn’t and, to a great extent, who would win. But the coming of television, among other factors, helped to put back in the hands of the people and the stranglehold of the political mafia was eventually broken. If soldiers ha taken over the White House and announced a change of government because of the defects of the system, where would America be today?

Whatever Shagari did wrong is, in the final analysis, a much lesser tragedy than his premature removal from office. And those who encouraged the military to take-over, like those who invited Abacha to kick Shonekan out, must bear some responsibility for the consequences of their short-sighted and selfish actions.