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My encounter with late Shagari – Esogban of Benin

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Chief David Edebiri, a foremost nationalist and the Esogban of Benin spoke on his encounter with late former President, Alhaji Shehu Shagari

By Alemma-Ozioruva Aliu

First contact My first physical contact with Alhaji Shehu Shagari, first civilian President of Nigeria, was during the inaugural conference of the National Party of Nigeria (NPN), which took place at Satellite Town, Lagos in 1978. Before then, I knew Shagari only by reputation because of the public offices he previously held in the country. During the conference, something happened that brought Alhaji Shehu Shagari and I talking to each other.

The attendance at the inaugural meeting was drawn from various political associations and was held under the aegis of the National Movement of Nigeria (NMN). During the morning session of the conference, the proposed offices in the new party were shared among the various political associations present. The post of Publicity Secretary was zoned to Mallam Aminu Kano’s group. There was a lunch break. At the resumption of the afternoon session, it was observed that Mallam Aminu Kano, who was present at the morning session, was conspicuously absent.

•Chief David Edebiri, the Esogban of Benin Kingdom

This was a source of worry to the leaders and elders of the emerging political party. Hon J.S. Tarka and Dr. Chuba Okadigbo immediately volunteered to go to Mallam Aminu Kano’s hotel with a view to persuading him to return to the conference. As the two activists set out, I joined Chuba Okadigbo in his car. Another member rode with J.S Tarka. Getting to the hotel, we met a multitude of Aminu Kano’s loyalists making frantic preparations, apparently for the registration of their own political party. Although Mallam Aminu Kano promised to join us later, it was obvious that he was no longer interested in what we were doing.

We came back to our location and as the two activists reported back to the elders, Alhaji Shehu Shagari beckoned on me and inquired if Mallam Animu Kano was serious with the promise to rejoin us at the conference. I told him my observation. However, with or without Mallam Aminu Kano, the conference proceeded to formally launch the new party with the name National Party of Nigeria (NPN). That was my first personal contact with the former president Alhaji Shehu Shagari.

Coming down to the Bendel State level, the new party was adopted at a state convention held at Urhokpota Hall, Benin City, with the election of my leader and mentor Chief Anthony Eronsele Enahoro as the Bendel State Chairman of the new party. I was elected the Publicity Secretary of the party.

How Alhaji Shehu Shagari emerged the presidential candidate of the party

The national caucus of the new party had zoned the presidential slot to the northern part of the country, the office of Vice President to the eastern part while the chairmanship of the party was zoned to the western part of the country. When later that day elections were held, Alhaji Shehu Shagari clinched the coveted presidential ticket of the NPN with 975 votes. He defeated five other aspirants whose scores were as follows: Maitama Sule – 504 votes, Adamu Ciroma – 293 votes, Dr. Olusola Saraki – 214 votes, J.S. Tarka -104 votes and Professor Iya Abubakar -92 votes

The Bendel delegation to the convention was led by Chief Tony Enahoro. I was a very active and vocal member of the delegation. Before leaving Benin City for the convention, Dr. Samuel Ogbemudia, who was not then a partisan politician, came to canvass our support for Adamu Ciroma. Many of the delegates were set to vote for Adamu Ciroma. However, on getting to Lagos, all the aspirants, except Shehu Shagari came to solicit for our support. Dr. K.O. Mbadiwe came to canvas our support for Shehu Shagari, who he said would surely appoint him as his vice president. It was a very busy night of intrigues and political horse trading. When, however, our leader, Chief Tony Enahoro came to the camp at about 2.30 am after attending national caucus meeting to inform the delegates that the northern caucus had taken a stand to present Alhaji Shehu Shagari as their preferred candidate, previous positions and permutations taken by groups and individuals automatically changed. The Bendel delegates unanimously resolved to go along with their Northern counterparts.

The next morning, before the convention which took place at the Casino Cinema Hall, Yaba, Lagos, resumed, Chief Enahoro asked me to accompany him to Shehu Shagari’s hotel apartment. Alhaji Shagari took the opportunity of the short meeting to explain to Chief Enahoro why he did not come personally to address the Bendel State delegates. He said he had no plans to contest for the presidency adding that his desire was to go to the Senate and that the present decision to run for the presidency was imposed on him by the northern caucus of the party. That was my second personal contact with Alhaji Shehu Shagari.

In the days and weeks running down to the presidential election in 1979, I had reasons to meet and relate more intimately with Alhaji Shehu Shagari. I was the leader of a five-man panel appointed by the Edo group to represent them at the National Executive Committee (NEC) and Elder’s Caucus in the lingering crisis which trailed the nomination of Chief D.E. Okumagba of Urhobo Group as gubernatorial candidate of the party in Bendel State. Chief Okumagba was declared the winner of the nomination contest between him and Barr. Osazee Evbuomwan of Edo Group.Chief Okumagba had won with two votes, in a most suspicious and controversial circumstance. During the crisis, which lingered on till the eve of the election, the flag bearer, Alhaji Shagari, displayed a most humane, honest and impartial disposition towards the issues involved. But, he was not always on the same page with the National Chairman of the party, Chief A. M. A. Akinloye, who obviously had a personal interest in the Bendel crisis. The NPN lost the Bendel gubernatorial seat to its rival UPN on account of a mishandling of the crisis

1979 Presidential Elections

The campaigns that preceded the 1979 presidential election were very tough and memorable. My interpersonal relationship with the flag bearer Alhaji Shehu Shagari became very robust, especially during the period the presidential campaign train traversed the nooks and crannies of the then Bendel State. On the land, in the creeks and all the riverine areas of the State, I was with the presidential team and in many cases acted as the campaign arranger. At the conclusion of the election, Shehu Shagari was declared the winner and became the President and Commander- in-Chief of the Armed Forces of the Federal Republic of Nigeria.

As President of the country, I met Alhaji Shehu Shagari on several occasions. One of such occasions was when he paid a maiden visit to Bendel State. This visit became controversial when the State Governor, Prof. Ambrose Alli of the UPN, announced that the President was not welcomed to the State. The President arrived at the Benin airport without the usual airport reception by the State Government. Meanwhile, the police barricaded the airport doors, preventing the large crowd of supporters from getting near the presidential jet that brought the President. After this initial hiccups, President Shehu Shagari alighted from the aircraft to the warm embrace of his party supporters. He proceeded to the Government House where the State Governor was waiting to receive him. While the airport melee lasted, the president calmly sat in dignity, smiling and waving intermittently to his teaming supporters waiting to receive him.

I also served as the Director of Publicity for Bendel and Ondo States during the second term election of Alhaji Shehu Shagari in 1983.

The next time I saw Shehu Shagari after leaving office was in 2006. On that occasion I visited Sokoto as a member of a six man delegation sent by Omo N’Oba Erediauwa on behalf of Edo State Council of Traditional Rulers and Chiefs to convey a message to the Sultan of Sokoto Alhaji Muhammadu Sa’ad Abubarkar III. After the activities at the caliphate, I took time off to visit my leader, former President of Nigeria, Alhaji Shehu Shagari, in his family home. On getting there, I was told that he was away to Shagari town. I asked for an escort who took me to the country home of the Shagaris where again, I was told that the former President was in his farm. The escort and I, accompanied by my Personal Assistant, proceeded to the farm where I met Alhaji Shehu Shagari looking vivacious and extremely in his full elements. We spent the next two hours together during which he showed me the different sections of the farm. It was indeed a memorable meeting. Alhaji Shagari expressed joy and happiness at seeing me for the first time in my traditional chieftaincy regalia. I became a titled Chief in 1985, two years after Alhaji Shehu Shagari left office in a military coup.

Shehu Shagari was a man of immense wisdom, high integrity and impeccable character. He lived all his life for others to be able to enjoy the good things of life. No wonder, he was divinely blessed with good children, robust health and a gift of longevity of life.

Shagari, a quintessential leader of his people, prudent administrator and a man of pious heart, took the regal flight on Friday 28th December, 2018 at the National Hospital, Abuja, to join the saints above, after 93years of fruitful sojourn on planet earth. A devout Muslim, Shagari could not have chosen a better day to travel out to eternity.

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