Pini Jason, a seasoned Nigerian journalist, once asked Ernest Shonekan what he thought was hindering Nigeria from attaining greatness.
His response was apt, spot on, and a summary of the many unfortunate things that could befall an entity destined for greatness but falls short after bouts of misfortunes.
“The task of nation building in an underdeveloped multi-ethnic state has never been easy anywhere in the world,” Shonekan began. “When you consider the fact that Nigeria has had issues with good governance, it will become clear why it has been rather difficult to set Nigeria on the path of greatness. For one reason, the rot went very far, and for too long.
“The nation has regressed disastrously as a result of years of bad governance. It will take some time to recover lost ground and move forward on the path of greatness. Institutions have broken down, age-long values have been eroded, and we are lacking in consensus as a nation. Nigeria in short, is not that easy to fix.”
Shonekan succeeded General Ibrahim Babangida as head of the Nigerian government on August 24, 1993, and served in that capacity until he was removed from office in a bloodless coup led by the late General Sani Abacha on November 17, 1993.
First, he was a lawyer.
FROM LAWYER TO HEAD OF STATE
Born on May 9, 1936, in the ancient city of Abeokuta, Ogun State, Shonekan attended CMS Grammar School, Bariga, and Igbobi College, both in Lagos, as a teenager. He studied law at the University of London, where he bagged a degree in 1962.
Shonekan joined the legal department of the United Africa Company (UAC) in 1964. He became the company’s chairman and managing director in 1980.
As UAC chairman, he cultivated a wide array of international businesses and political connections, and in 1992, he was appointed head of a transitional government by the Ibrahim Babaginda-led military regime.
After the annulment of the June 1993 government, Babangida stepped aside, and Shonekan was first appointed the country’s head of Interim National Government. Subsequently, he was sworn in as Head of State and Commander-In-Chief of the Armed Forces of Nigeria.
In November of the same year, and after spending just three months as Head of State, Shonekan was overthrown in a coup led by Sani Abacha, the most senior Nigerian military officer at the time.
After Shonekan’s appointment as Nigeria’s interim head of state, he became the scorn of the country’s annulment-era politics.
Many pro-democracy and interest groups that had sprung up from the southwest, casted diatribes at him and labeled him an obstacle on the nation’s path to democracy and social justice. Shonekan was a kinsman of Moshood Kashimawo Abiola (they were both from Abeokuta), who is believed to be the winner of the 1993 election.
During his three-month tenure, he consistently sought debt cancellation from countries and international bodies Nigeria owed. However, none of the requests was granted. The refusal to grant his request also came with sanctions from world powers like the United States and the United Kingdom.
Incessant workers’ strikes also marred his short tenure. Frank Aigbogun, in his November 1993 article for the Washington Post, wrote:
“Shonekan was believed to be a puppet of Abacha, a key figure in the military coup that ended the civilian government in 1983 and in the coup that put Babangida in power two years later.”
DISPLACED BY ABACHA
During his few months in power, Shonekan tried to create a new timetable for a return to democracy by holding a fresh general election on February 9, 1994, but Sani Abacha displaced him in November 1993.
Ibrahim Babangida, in an interview on his 80th birthday, said the following about the incident:
“…The interim government’s tenure was supposed to be from November 1993 to February 1994, within which there would have been an election to usher in a democratically elected government. Now, what really happened? The people, that is, Nigerians, because of the anger and venom they had about the annulment of the June 12 (election), worked against it. The two political parties agreed with the interim government and we also went further to say that the two aspirants who contested for that election should present themselves for re-election in February 1994.
“… There was an interim government; it was short lived; the military pushed it aside and that military lived there with you guys for five years under a stronger dictatorship.”
REAPPOINTED BY ABACHA IN 1996
Interestingly, Shonekan took up another appointment with the Abacha-led government in 1996. He was made the chairman of the Vision 2010 Committee, a group of 248 members, saddled with the responsibility of developing plans to guide the country out of poverty and other challenges at the time.
After Abacha’s demise and the subsequent return to civilian rule, Shonekan withdrew from limelight, occasionally playing the role of an elder statesman.
On Tuesday, he died at a hospital in the Lekki area of Lagos State.
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