The past is prologue: On the passing of Alhaji Shehu Aliyu Shagari

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The death of a notable statesman cannot be described as fortuitous by any stretch of the imagination. But there is something nationally fortuitous about the passing of the great statesman last week at the ripe old age of ninety two. It affords us an opportunity for what we propose as retro-perspective.

Unflappable, cool, calm and self-effacing to the end, Shagari was a class act among the old political class. But he was not anybody’s wimp. Soft spoken and cultured, he could also reach for the big stick when necessary. While thanking Chief Awolowo for drawing his attention to the woeful plight of the economy, he ended with a caustic putdown, noting that as it was characteristic of the Ikenne titan, what was meant as a private correspondence was already in the public domain before reaching him.

His death marks a watershed in Nigerian political history. Virtually all the great political actors of the First Republic and in particular, the NPN camarilla of the Second Republic have now joined their ancestors with the exception of Joseph Wayas, the Senate President of that fabled republic.

Augustus Meredith Adisa Akinloye, the wily and redoubtable chairman of the party, Dr Abubakar Olusola Saraki, the majority leader, Alex  Ekwueme, the urbane and cultured Vice President together with party functionaries and intellectuals such as Umaru Dikko, Mallam Adamu Ciroma and Dr Ibrahim Tahir have all gone to answer the call of their creator.

On October 1st this year, it will be exactly forty years when Shagari took over the reins of power from the departing military with this star-studded team brimming with political, intellectual and political distinction. The opposition, led by the seminally cerebral Chief Obafemi Awolowo, was no less star-spangled bristling with the best and brightest of the land.

These were the men of timber and mahogany that the shy, diffident and provincial former school headmaster from Shagari village had to preside over and put under some leash. Yet Shagari himself had openly confessed that his highest ambition was to be a senator rather than president. But to the shadowy power brokers, this was the man they were looking for precisely because the best qualification for the presidential job was lack of presidential ambition.

It was to end in a dire fiasco. Four years and a few months later at the tail end of 1983 even as Shagari was still savouring a controversial triumph in a presidential election widely believed to have been rigged, the military kicked down the entire edifice. There was open jubilation throughout the length and breadth of the country.  Cries of “happy new year; happy new regime” rent the air. There were harsh words for a regime widely adjudged to be corrupt, irresponsible and utterly bereft of any noble vision.

President Shagari himself did not escape the bitter public recrimination. Although absolved of personal corruption and self-enrichment, he was nevertheless widely dismissed as weak, indolent, incompetent and vacillating, in short a poor presidential material for a nation in a hurry to develop and deepen democracy. It was said by quarters close to him that Alhaji Shagari was so badly wounded by these nettling barbs that he vowed never to read Nigerian newspapers again.

But by the time he completed his earthly sojourn last week, Shagari has been completely rehabilitated in public esteem. The entire nation rose as one to pay homage to a departed political colossus; a statesman of unrivalled personal dignity and uncommon humility.  In some quarters there was even open condemnation of the military coup that terminated the fledgling democratic experiment and renewed calls for the trial of the perpetrators.

The million dollar question is this: was military intervention in the Nigerian polity an unnecessary detour and diversion simply to sate the appetite of adventurers in uniform and satisfy their whim, or the inevitable working out of some historical logic at play?  To take the latter perspective is to take the longer view of history in which military rule is seen as a virus that had to work its way through the Nigerian system just as it has happened in many other countries.

From this point of view, military rule must exhaust its political and historical possibilities before proving itself manifestly unviable as a rational mode of conducting the affairs of a modern nation-state, more suited to the pre-dawn of political modernity rather than its later stages.

For proof of the inevitable degeneration of professional ethos and the progressive deterioration that must accompany military rule in a modern nation-state, seek no further than a comparison of coup day broadcasts in Nigeria to gauge the stage the dialectic of self-demystification has reached. Whereas the Nzeogwus, Mohammeds, Abachas, Buharis, Babangidas were upbeat, full of patriotic fire and thunder and bristling with gung-ho messianism, the Abdulsalaam Abubakar midnight address in 1998 betrayed terminal weariness and professional disorientation.

The military had its back to the wall and had reached the end of its historic tethers.  It will be foolish to rule out anything in Africa but twenty years after, despite ever present temptations and objective conditions that would have been considered tailor-made for military intervention, nobody in his right sense would dare call for a military intervention. And the military institution appears to have learnt its lesson.

What is at play in all this is not some historical mystery or some working of some inscrutable metaphysical deity imposing rationality on the affairs of humanity but what we propose as the spirit of the modern nation-state which brooks no absolutist diktat or feudal chicanery.

The spirit of the modern nation state is the spirit of human liberation and of political and economic emancipation for those confined to its territorial canvas. Wherever its seed is buried and no matter by whom, it germinates to overwhelm all obstacles on its way to fulfilling its manifest destiny of pushing humanity to a higher telos. It is to its working out in Nigeria that we must now turn.

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