Chief Ernest Adegunle Shonekan provided the confluence in which the two rivers of Nigerian history met. For him, power was a reward of a lifelong acquaintance with influence. He had climbed the totem pole for many years as the career technocrat in the giant United African Company (UAC) until 1980, when at the age of 44, he combined the two most powerful offices of the company as the Chairman and the Chief Executive.
He shifted base to Abuja in 1993 as the Head of Government during the final lap of General Ibrahim Babangida’s tortuous transition to civil rule programme. Then he became the Head of the Interim National Government (ING) at 57 in 1993, an unprecedented experiment in national politics and statesmanship.
Shonekan was a highly successful man. His widow, Mrs. Margaret Shonekan, was the equally powerful former head of national office of the West African Examination Council (WAEC). Together, they formed a formidable power couple.
But nothing could prepare the normally unflappable Shonekan for the maelstrom of his months in power when he was head of the ING. When he died on January 11 at 85, it was his brief incursion into the sanctum of national power that dominated discourse about his passage.
He was the viceroy of the old Royal Niger Company, the chartered establishment that hired Lord Frederick Lugard, the hardy colonel who helped the company to conquer Nigeria. The company bought the right to this territory from the British crown until the turn of the 20th Century when the government decided to become the employer of Lugard.
Members of the company became members of the government and Lugard was named the first Governor-General of the new country, which he was privileged to give a name. But the company soon renamed the United African Company (UAC), metamorphosed into a parallel government. It was the ultimate British company; prim and proper in its ways and conservative in its love of rules and precedent.
By the time I met Chief Shonekan in 1986, he was at the pinnacle of his power and influence. He had become the primus among the aristocracy of the Nigerian boardroom elite. As the Group Chairman and Managing Director of the UAC, he was presiding over the largest conglomerate in Black Africa and one of the largest in the world. My employers at the Newswatch Communications Ltd had invited Shonekan, along with other dignitaries, to participate in the company’s first year anniversary.
In a ceremony witnessed by the likes of Chief Emeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu and Stella Obasanjo, Shonekan presented me with the Journalist of the Year Award. All our directors were present including the late Dele Giwa, Ray Ekpu, Dan Agbese, Yakubu Mohammed, and our chairman, Alhaji Abdulazeez Ude. That event remains one of the most cherished milestones of my journalism career.
Shonekan’s career moved into a different trajectory when Nigeria’s military ruler, General Ibrahim Babangida appointed him the Head of Interim Government to oversee the final lap of the ill-fated transition to civil rule programme. He had a star-studded cabinet, made up of some of the brightest among Nigerian elites.
At last the original Royal Niger Company, now known as the UAC Plc, is moving back into the epicentre of Nigerian politics. The company that founded Nigeria has now sent its most important ambassador back to the mainstream of Nigerian affairs. It was to prove a turbulent ride.
Shonekan’s involvement in politics was supposed to end with the successful handover of power to an elected President. Babangida had restated severally that he was “irrevocably committed” to handing over power to an elected successor by August 27, 1993, the eighth anniversary of his successful palace coup against his old friend and classmate, Major-General Muhammadu Buhari. Chief Anthony Enahoro complained that the date was picked mainly for the ego of the military dictator who was determined to substitute the traditional October 1, Independence Day with his own date. Everything unraveled when Babangida annulled the victory of Chief M.K.O Abiola in the June 12, 1993 presidential election. It was to throw the nation into a maelstrom.
Shonekan’s assignment was supposed to end on August 27, 1993, but it was not to be. With Babangida’s blatant refusal to quit power, some top Nigerians moved in to save the situation. A posse of retired military officers under the leadership of General Olusegun Obasanjo, corralled support within the military and civil space to force Babangida to keep his earlier promise of leaving power by August 27, 1993.
It was an adroit act of political brinkmanship that this was achieved without bloodshed, thanks to the efforts of the troika made up of Obasanjo, Lt. General Theophilous Yakubu Danjuma, and the late Major-General Shehu Musa Yar’Adua. Their collaborator within the military was the staid General Sani Abacha, the Minister of Defence. With this formidable array against him, Babangida was forced to step aside on August 27, 1993.
It was not exactly clear how Shonekan was persuaded to stay on as the Head of the Interim National Government (ING). Was he appointed by Babangida as stated by the decree that set up the ING, or was the creation of a shadowy group? We never had the opportunity of hearing Shonekan’s side of the story. He came in at a time when there was a void in power. It was strange to have a man who came to power neither by the bullet nor the ballot box. After Babangida’s exit, the denizens of Aso Rock presidential villa would not admit Shonekan into the residence of the President. They claimed they were renovating the place! The Head of the ING then moved into an adjourning villa.
Yet Shonekan was determined to make a difference. He set out machineries to hold another presidential election so that he can have a legitimate and elected successor. A colleague and I met with General Obasanjo in his lair at Otta and he canvassed support for another presidential election. We already had all offices occupied by elected leaders except the Presidency.
“Shonekan’s government is a reality,” Obasanjo said. “Support him to conduct another presidential election so he can leave in peace.” Then he added sternly: “The alternative would be another military coup which would be worse than what you are complaining about.”
I took Obasanjo’s warning to Chief Abiola who replied tersely that he was not ready to be a presidential candidate for another election. “You cannot repeat an exam you have already passed.”
Abiola regarded Shonekan government as illegitimate. Few days later, Justice Dolapo Akinsanya of the Lagos State high court declared the ING illegal. On November 17, 1993, General Abacha summoned the hapless Head of the ING and informed him that he had been sacked. Shonekan carried his briefcase and returned home.
After that, he kept a busy low profile. We have met on some social and church occasion. He wears his enigmatic warm smile and remains affable and approachable. He wrote the Foreword to our book, Chrisland, the Story Behind the Glory, which we did to memorialise the 40 years of Chrisland group of schools founded by that remarkable matriarch, Mrs. Winifred Awosika. He knew a lot about Nigeria and he would not disclose most of what he knew. He remains an unsolved riddle till the very end. My condolences to Mama Margaret and the family.