FELIX NWANERI writes on the life and times of former Head of Nigeria’s Interim National Government (ING), Chief Ernest Shonekan, who passed on recently
The torrent of tributes for ex Nigeria’s head of Interim National Government (ING), Chief Ernest Shokenan, who passed on Tuesday, obviously justifies the conviction that the quality of life is best measured by how much and well it impacts humanity. Little wonder it has been grief over the death of a man, whose 85 years sojourn on planet earth was chequered, impactful, exemplary and worthy of a more detailed study in dedication to humanity. Among eminent Nigerians, who paid glowing tributes to Shonekan immediately his passage was announced, include President Muhammadu Buhari, former Presidents Olusegun Obasanjo and Goodluck Jonathan as well as ex- Military President, General Ibrahim Babangida.
Buhari, who described Shonekan as a peacemaker, said he became the head of government when the country needed someone to save the nation from “sinking.” A statement by spokesman for the president, Femi Adesina, read in part: “President Muhammadu Buhari has received with profound sadness the news of the death of a great statesman and former Head of the Interim National Government, Chief Ernest Shonekan. “On behalf of the Federal Government, the President extends deepest condolences to Chief Shonekan’s wife, Margaret, loved ones, as well as the government and people of Ogun State.
“As an internationally-respected statesman, President Buhari affirms that, with courageous wisdom, Chief Shonekan left his flourishing business career to become the head of government at a delicate time when the country needed someone of his calm mien and pedigree to save the ship of state from sinking. “The President notes that Chief Shonekan demonstrated to all that the love for country and commitment to its development, peace and unity transcend the trappings of office and the transient nature of political power.
“President Buhari believes that Nigeria owes a great debt to Chief Shonekan, the peacemaker, who even at the twilight of his lifetime never stopped believing and working for a prosperous and democratic country.” A man of many parts, some knew Shonekan as a British trained lawyer, while others saw him as an accomplished businessman. But there is no doubt that he was a statesman. Prior to his political career, Shonekan was the Chairman and Chief Executive of the United African Company of Nigeria (UACN), successor to The Niger Company, a vast conglomerate, which at the time was the largest African-controlled company in Sub-Saharan Africa. Born in Lagos on May 9, 1936 to an Abeokuta-born civil servant, Shonekan was educated at CMS Grammar School and Igbobi College. He received a degree in Law from the University of London, and was called to the bar.
He later attended Harvard Business School. He began his career at United Africa Company of Nigeria in 1964, at the time a subsidiary of the United Africa Company. He rose through the ranks and was promoted to assistant legal adviser. He later became a deputy adviser and joined the board of directors at the age of 40. He was made chairman and managing director in 1980, and went on to cultivate a wide array of international business and political connections. Shonekan’s political connection, perhaps, informed why on January 2, 1993, the then Military President, General Ibrahim, appointed him as head of a transitional council and head of government. The transitional council was designed to be the final phase leading to a scheduled hand over to an elected democratic leader of Nigeria’s Third Republic.
But after the painstaking eight-year conduct of a transition programme to return Nigeria to democratic rule, the then military government led by General Babangida annulled the result of the June 12, 1993 presidential election, which would have produced his successor. The election’s result was inconclusive before it was annulled on June 23. It was clear that Chief MKO Abiola of the Social Democratic Party (SDP) was leading his National Republican Convention (NRC) counterpart, Alhaji Bashir Tofa. What ensued were widespread riots, strikes and protests, particularly in the South- West, where Abiola hailed from.
On July 6, 1993, the National Defence and Security Council (NDSC) issued an ultimatum to the SDP and NRC to either join an interim government or face another round of elections, with Babangida then announcing that the interim government would be inaugurated on August 27, 1993.
The civil actions brought all economic activities in the country to a halt. This forced Babangida to announce that he was stepping aside as head of the military regime on August 26, 1993 and handed over the reins of government to Chief Shonekan, who was subsequently sworn-in as head of state.
However, Shonekan was unable to control the political crisis over the presidential election’s annulment. His government was hampered by a national workers’ strike, while Abiola insisted that the interim government was illegitimate. As head of the transitional government, Shonekan had lobbied for debt cancellation but after the election annulment, most of the Western powers imposed economic sanctions on Nigeria. Inflation was uncontrollable and most non-oil foreign investment disappeared. On November 17, 1993, General Sani Abacha, who was at the time Minister of Defence and Chief of Defence Staff, sacked the Shonekanled Interim National Government.
In his resignation address, Shonekan admitted that the Interim National Government was conceived in crisis and born during crisis but he tried his best “to bring honour to government” and took steps to tackle corruption and indiscipline. His words: “It is common knowledge that the Interim National Government is a child of circumstance. It was conceived in crisis and born in crisis. “If I may recount some of the achievements of the Interim National Government to which you have all been witnesses, we may not have recorded landmarks, but we have taken the first step.
In the social sector, we have brought back normalcy in the institutions of higher learning. “On human rights, our records are impeccable and perhaps, unbeatable in the annals of our country. We freed all jailed human rights activists, we pardoned all political offenders both dead and alive, allowed all politicians in exile to return home, and we have not restricted the free movement of any activist in and out of the country. We also took the appropriate steps to de-proscribe the newspapers proscribed by sending the Bills to the National Assembly to be repealed.
“On the political arena, we have continued to work ceaselessly towards full democratization of our dear country. We have extended our right hand of fellowship to the legislature and have put in place the machinery for local and presidential elections next February. “On the economic scene, we were able to put in place an Economic Action Agenda for the nation in conjunction with the private sector operators. Let me assure you that our seemingly tough policies have received commendation from far and beyond. Ordinarily, I would have wished that the Interim National Government would be saddled only with economic problems.
This derives from my belief that our country faces more economic challenges than anything else. “Although we have not been able to implement some of our policies, nonetheless we have started out in the right direction by curbing frivolous expenditure and working closely with the private sector of the economy. I can only hope that the successor administration will take off from where we are leaving and continue courageously with the budgetary and other reforms we have adopted as well as our campaign for debt relief.
“Distinguished colleagues, most importantly, the Interim National Government has tried very hard to bring honour to government and has taken steps to campaign against the incidence of corruption and indiscipline in the society. Several times, I have publicly acknowledged the collective transparency and integrity of this cabinet. Let me say loud and clear here that we have all made sacrifices for these past 82 days in the strong belief that our country deserves the best. I have an unshaken faith in the promise of Nigeria and I believe that the best is yet to come.
“However, I regret to inform you that in the light of recent events and after due consideration of all the facts, I am left with no alternative but to take the most honourable and dignified step of resigning, with immediate effect, my appointment as Head of State and Commander- in-Chief of the Armed Forces of Nigeria.”