The Other Side of Nigerian Leaders (I)

When a delegation of Arewa Consultative Forum (ACF) recently visited Senator Bukola Saraki, he was quoted by the media to have advised the north to contribute more to the Nigerian GDP. Coming from a medical doctor, his statement is not surprising. Bukola did not know the difference between revenue generation/foreign exchange earning (to which oil is the major contributor and, for now, mainly in the south) and agriculture (which is the mainstay of Nigeria’s economy, contributing 42 per cent to the nation’s GDP and in which the north has absolute comparative advantage). No human being created oil; it is nature’s gift. But only human beings grow crops and raise animals. And only those who have land can do agriculture. The oil industry is dominated by foreigners who have monopoly of capital and know-how, and that is why petroleum has very little linkage to the domestic economy, hence its little contribution to the nation’s GDP. This is just a digression but it shows how ignorant some leaders could be about basic national issues.

The main issue of discussion today and next week is about the other side of our leaders which hardly gets mentioned. For the sake of space, the discussion will be restricted to only those who are alive as this is not the time for tributes. Also, President Buhari who is currently in charge will be exempted from the discussion for obvious reasons. This discussion is intended to shed light on the positive aspects of Nigeria’s contemporary leaders who have contributed immensely to the development of the nation. It will also prove that most of the leaders are good; they are only, in some cases, surrounded by bad people, and if the leader is weak, these bad ones take control.

General Yakubu Gowon is today the doyen of the Nigerian leaders – Murtala, Obasanjo and Shagari were all members of his cabinet. He has the longest single tenure, nine years, and is the youngest leader in Nigeria’s history to date. He was overthrown by the firebrand Murtala in 1975 for, among others, being lenient on corruption and corrupt officials. It is to his credit that, to this day, no one has ever accused Gowon of any corrupt tendencies. He presided over during the nation’s oil boom of the 1970s but he has no oil block, fleet of cars or chains of houses. One of Gowon’s governors, who was brought before the Special Investigation Panel (SIP) investigating officials of the Gowon administration, made this prophetic statement in 1975: “You are accusing us of taking 10 per cent bribe from contracts. It means 90 per cent of the resources are being used to work for the people. A time will come when it will be the other way round – 10 per cent will be used and 90 per cent will be stolen.” How prophetic!

Anyone could say anything about Gowon but one thing no one can take away from him: the fact that but for him and his style there would have been no Nigeria as it is today. He fought the civil war to keep Nigeria one and the reintegration process was one of the most remarkable in the world. Gowon left enduring legacies – the unity schools, the second-generation universities, the states he created, the NYSC scheme, the massive infrastructure across the country and the peace and prosperity that Nigeria enjoyed during his time. Gowon is Nigeria’s Abraham Lincoln. I hope he will write his memoirs for posterity, since he is an active participant in the nation’s history.

With the demise of Gen. Murtala, Gen. Obasanjo took over the reins of government in February 1976. Obasanjo’s history is inextricably intertwined with the history of Nigeria. It was he who gave the nation its post-colonial National Anthem which is still in use. He did the local government reforms that effectively made it a third tier of government. He laid the foundation for the nation’s agricultural development when he launched Operation Feed the Nation and personally retired into agriculture. He was in the forefront for the decolonization of Africa and even nationalized the British Petroleum and the Barclays Bank to press the point and make freedom for Africa irreversible. He was the first Nigerian leader and the second African to voluntarily hand over power when he handed over to Shagari in 1979, after a most transparent transition.

When Bauchi State was created in 1976, most of the senior military officers turned out to be from the Gongola State side of the defunct North-eastern State that Bauchi was part of. A delegation from Bauchi visited General Obasanjo in Dodan Barracks to complain that the state was not represented adequately in the organs of government. Obasanjo listened to them attentively. He informed them that he was going to work with the cabinet he inherited from late Gen. Murtala and that it was impossible to appoint a suitable military officer from Bauchi as they were not senior enough then. He then told them that if they accepted he would be the representative of Bauchi in the government. They were very happy and indeed it was Obasanjo, as representative of Bauchi, who influenced the siting of Steyr Motor Assembly plant in Bauchi, among others.

President Shehu Shagari is perhaps the most experienced Nigerian leader as far as governance is concerned. He served in the Native Authority before getting elected to the Federal House of Representatives. At a very young age, while he was still in his 30s, he was a member of the Federal Cabinet in 1960 at independence. He served in various ministries as minister and undertook many difficult assignments for the late Prime Minister Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa before the military overthrew the government in January 1966.

With the creation of the defunct North-western state by the military, he served as state commissioner for education before Gowon appointed him federal commissioner (minister) of finance. It was during his time as finance minister that naira and kobo were adopted as the nation’s currency. It was during his time that Nigeria experienced the oil boom, but it is to his credit that no one has ever accused Shagari of corruption, throughout his eventful public career.

When the SIP investigating the Gowon administration gave forms for Gowon’s ministers to fill their assets, Shagari and the noble Shettima Ali Monguno, Gowon’s petroleum minister, when there was no queue and no importation of petroleum products, declared everything they had including mats and books. A member of the SIP then asked them why they did not include the shares of companies they must have owned and these two replied that they didn’t have shares in any company and that, in their culture, when you are in public office you cannot have private interests! The SIP person, who is still alive, was shocked. In fact, when the military overthrew President Shagari three months into his second term in December 1983 they found only N64, 000 in his account! Can you imagine?

Keep a date next week God willing. History is on the side of the oppressed.




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