Two great friends and political allies died peacefully a few hours apart. One in Abuja, Nigeria's capital city. The other in Accra, the capital city of neighbouring country, Ghana where he had gone for a short visit. One from the aridity of the peaceful sub-urban town of Shagari, close to the headquarters of the Sokoto Caliphate in Nigeria's extreme northwest. The other from the swampy creek town of Abonnema, once a vibrant base for Europe's “Legitimate Trade” in agricultural produce in the aftermath of the abolition of slave trade, but today in the heart of the famous Niger Delta. More, one was a professional public servant who at a time ruled the country. The other, a business mogul and strategist, who dexterously controlled the political machinery that brought his friend to power.
So, while Nigeria's first democratically elected President, Alhaji Shehu Shagari died on Friday, 28th December 2018, his friend once Africa's 40th richest man, High Chief OB Lulu-Briggs, preceded him few hours earlier on 27th December 2018. They were of good old ages of 93 and 88 years respectively. The remains of President Shagari were interred, swiftly but methodologically, in line with Islamic injunctions. But that of his partner in death, High Chief Lulu-Briggs will wait a few more days for proper consultations between the family and the church as well as with the Kalabari traditional hierarchy in a manner befitting an Ijaw 'Opu Alabo'.
Fate and fortune brought them close when General Olusegun Obasanjo, kept to his promise to return Nigeria to democratic government in 1979 after 17 years of military rule. The military rule itself which began on 15th January 1966, had decimated a number of the country's founding fathers; especially from the north, who had ruled the country at the time.
Shagari was a Minister and power broker from the same Sokoto as the great Sir Ahmadu Bello, Premier of Northern Nigeria and de facto strongman in Nigeria at the time. The Prime Minister, Sir Tafawa Balewa was more than a boss to him but also a brother with whom he had the pleasure of being teachers in the past. These eminent personalities were comrades-in-arms with Shagari as well as his closest associates. Indeed, after that bloody coup, in which he divinely emerged unscathed, he was one of the few northern leaders invited for dialogue to save Nigeria from splintering at that critical time in our history. Obviously, the desire for an early return to civilian rule was of a great emotional burden to him.
When the ban on political activities was lifted in September 1978, NPN, a centre-right platform soon emerged out of a meeting held in a hall in Satellite Town, in the outskirts of Lagos on September 20, 1978. Led by one Alhaji Makama Bida, a prominent first Republic northern politician and by virtue of age, the most senior, this new political group had national character pulling its strength mainly from the crème-de-la-crème of the political remnants of the First Republic. The nascent party actually recruited its initial membership from the Constituent Assembly (CA) which the General Olusegun Obasanjo administration had convened to draw up a new constitution for Nigeria. Interestingly that document which became The 1979 Constitution of Nigeria, jettisoned the parliamentary system inherited from the British and took Nigeria to the American type presidential model.
It was not NPN alone that was formed. As political activities heightened, some political leaders from the rest of the country started viewing the NPN as the apparition of the erstwhile pre-1966 ruling party, the Northern Peoples Congress Party (NPC) and its alliance of friends and associates. Hence, Former President, Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe, the great Zik of Africa, formed the Nigerian Peoples Party (NPP), with a strong base in the South East, but having with him some other heavy-weights from elsewhere such as Chief Adeniran Ogunsanya, Mr Ademola Thomas and Chief TOS Benson. Others were Chief Solomon Lar, Professor Ishaya Audu, and Dr Paul Unongo from the Middle Belt.
On his part, former Premier of Western Region, Chief Obafemi Awolowo, formed the Unity Party on Nigeria (UPN), drawing its strength from the South-West but had such names as Chief MCK Ajuluchukwu, Chief Philip Umeadi. Alhaji Waziri Ibrahim, the exponent of 'politics without bitterness' who was initially with Dr Azikiwe but broke away to form the Great Nigeria People's Party (GNPP), which had a stronghold in the North East. In the same manner, the radical and proletarian Mallam Aminu Kano, initially part of the NPN, left with his core elements such as Abubakar Rimi, Balarabe Musa and Sule Lamido, all of who became Governors around the Kano, Kaduna and Jigawa axis to form the Peoples Redemption Party (PRP).
In true and objective reminiscence of the political trajectory of the country up to the 1966 military putsch, most of the new political aggrupations in 1978 showed that little had changed as the parties simply rehashed the status quo ante. However, the newly formed NPN had wider national spread and reach. The party was brimming with heavy-weights, such as the flamboyant Ibo politician, Dr Kingsley O. Mbadiwe, better known as KO or “man of calibre and timber” donating an office block at Jibowu Street, Yaba, Lagos for use as secretariat.
On October 5, 1978, the party met in Lagos, in a night of great horse trading to share elective and party offices with the objective of having all zones represented. It was agreed amongst others that, President (North), Vice President (South, preferably Ibo), Party National Chairman (South West), National Vice Chairman of Party (Southern Minorities), National Secretary of Party (South East) etc.
It was against this backdrop, that the First National Convention of NPN was held on December 12, 1978, at the old Casino Hotel, Yaba, Lagos. Expectedly, the who is who in mainstream and centrist political persuasions in Nigeria showed up. Although a few upcoming political hawks were noticeable, the conservative northern political apparatchiks showed their strength. Besides the presidential hopefuls, first republic ministers and leftovers from the NPC establishment such as Sule Katagum, Nuhu Bamali, Inuwa Wada, Kaloma Ali, as well as Umaru Dikko, Ibrahim Dasuki and Bello Maitaima Yusuf were visibly active. After many years of political exclusion, the Yaba Convention was, expectedly, another night of horse-trading. The best from the north, old and new, presented themselves to contest for the presidency. Prominent were, Alhaji Shehu Shagari, Alhaji Adamu Ciroma, Alhaji Maitama Sule, Dr Olusola Saraki (father of Bukola Saraki) and former Police helmsman, Alhaji Kam Selem. Others were Middle Belt leader, Dr. Joseph Tarka, Professor Iya Abubakar, Dr Ibrahim Tahir, etc. Eventually, Shagari emerged as the consensus candidate after an inconclusive first round of elections.
Shagari's emergence was quite appropriate. Although he lacked the allure of Maitama Sule or the doggedness of Adamu Ciroma, he was by far the most qualified in terms of experience in governance. He had in the past held numerous government positions. More than any other Nigerian of his day, he truly represented the aphorism, "Government Pikin". Apart from participating in all the constitutional conferences, from 1950 to 1959, he was at the very core of decisions on events in Nigeria for many decades. He had held ministerial positions in at least seven different government departments during his political career. These included critical sectors as Commerce and Industries, Economic Planning, Establishment and Pension, Works (including infrastructure) and ultimately, Finance. He was a member of the House of Representatives for almost ten years, secretary of the NPC, which consistently ruled Nigeria till the 1966 military coup.
In the rest of elections, the Ibadan strongman, Chief Adisa Meredith Akinloye, emerged National Chairman of the party. Other big names that were present to take these momentous decisions were Chief Remi Fani-Kayode (father of FFK), former Western State Governor, Major General Adeyinka Adebayo, industrialist, Prince Adeleke Adedoyin, legal luminary, Richard Akinjide, and industrialist, Chief Akin Deko. Also present were the younger crème of politicians such as Alhaji Lamidi Adebibu, MKO Abiola and many others from the west. From the southeast, the show of strength included such names as First Republic Ministers, Dr KO Mbadiwe, Dr J.O.J Okezie, former Anambra Governor, Chief CC Onoh and young firebrands such as Dr Chuba Okadigbo, Dr Walter Ofonagoro, Prof. Madubuike, and Chief Nnia Nwodo.
Of more significance to our work here was the team from the Niger Delta, where Chief Lulu-Briggs emerged as National Vice Chairman. A very successful businessman, Chief Lulu-Briggs, had been a major financier of political activities in Old River State. At the Constituent Assembly, he easily emerged as one of the main leaders from the present south-south. Others with him included such personalities as the once Awoist, Chief Anthony Enahoro, who at a youthful age, moved the motion for Nigeria's independence in 1953 (he actually chaired this historic convention in Yaba). Others were, Melford Okilo, Clement Isong, (both of whom later became Governors), Dr Joseph Wayas, who emerged Senate President as well as Edwin Clark, Victor Akang, Victor Mazi and Donald Etiebet.
The bond between President Shehu Shagari and Chief Lulu-Briggs was sealed when the latter, as National Vice Chairman of the Party, played a very critical role in the Presidential Campaign Council. Being younger than the National Chairman, Chief Akinloye by at least 10 years, it behoved Chief Lulu-Briggs to accompany the Presidential candidate to every nook and cranny of Nigeria. In today's south-south where he hailed from, this was particularly tough. The present-day Akwa Ibom, Bayelsa, Cross River and Rivers were part of the former Eastern Region and therefore under the strong influence of the great Zik of Africa. Similarly, Delta and Edo were for a long time part of the Western Region and therefore still had strong Awoist elements entrenched. On Election Day, Shagari captured two-thirds of votes in the entre south-south states, except for areas today known as Edo, where Chief Awolowo's UPN produced the Governor. All other Governors from the area were NPN. In the final analysis, it was votes from what is today the south-south that gave President Shagari the clear winning edge, despite the legal fireworks which followed that election.