Former President Shehu Shagari, in this interview, published in Shehu Usman Aliyu Shagari and Peter Enahoro, ‘Shagari in Conversation’ (1983), speaks on the different traits of Obafemi Awolowo, Nnamdi Azikiwe, Ahmadu Bello and others.
INTERVIEWER: ‘What were your feelings when you learned of the death and the manner in which they died, of the Sardauna [Sir Ahmadu Bello] and [Chief S.L.] Akintola? When I asked Chief Awolowo the same question, he said he thought Akintola got what he deserved.
SHAGARI: I am not surprised to hear that Awolowo said that because I knew how much he hated Akintola. For my part, of course, it was tragic to hear about the death of such eminent people. Before I left Lagos I’d heard about the death of the Prime Minister although it had not yet been officially announced.
I remember that Dr. Orizu asked me to see him and when we met he said to me: “You were the closest person to the Sardauna as well as the Prime Minister. I want to express my sympathies. I want you to understand that, although the boys who have done this were led by Ibos, this was not an Ibo coup”. I said I didn’t know who had done it. He said: “Well my fear is that if you go back home your people may think it is the Ibos who have organised the killing of your leaders.
I want to tell you that the Ibos have nothing to do with it. This Nzeogwu boy, this is the first time I have heard his name and I want you to please tell your people that it is some young soldiers who have started this thing. I want you to try and convince your people not to make this an ethnic affair”. My answer to him was: “Yes, Mr President, I understand that, but our people are Moslems and as Moslems we do not blame anybody for a thing of this nature. We take it as an act of God and we can’t blame Ibos or anybody else. But one thing we know is that according to our own religious beliefs if anybody wrongs you and you leave him to God, He will punish him for you. You don’t need to retaliate.
Dr. Orizu recalled this when we met for the first time after the civil war. He told me it had often re-echoed in his mind. At the time I had felt that there was going to be trouble because a thing like that could not happen without repercussions. I feared for the future of Nigeria. I knew that we had not seen the end of bloodshed, only the beginning, but how it was going to come I didn’t know. The immediate reaction in the North was one of shock. I didn’t hear anybody talk of revenge at that time, but I knew something was going to happen.
INTERVIEWER: If you had to choose among the leaders you knew closely, the Sardauna, Tafawa Balewa, Gowon, with whom would you again wish to work?
SHAGARI: It is very difficult to say, each of the three leaders was a good man, but they were very different in their characters. I think it would have been easier for me to work with the Sardauna, although many people may not agree with me, because they did not know the man well enough. I had known him since I was a little boy.
INTERVIEWER: It is strange because Chief Awolowo when I interviewed him, said he would have preferred to work with the Sardauna too. And now, since I asked Chief Awolowo what he thought of you, and he gave me a very forthright answer, I think it only fair that I should ask you what you think of Chief Awolowo as a man and as a politician.
SHAGARI: I have a great deal of respect for Chief Awolowo. There is no doubt that he has done a lot for Nigeria and for his people in particular. He is a very aggressive leader who knows what he wants and works hard for it. His only problem is his arrogance and his over-ambition.
If he wants something, he goes all out with some amount of ruthlessness in order to achieve it. I think he believes too much in himself and his cause. He regards this attitude as something of a quality, indeed a gift. He is too proud, stubborn and aggressive. But I do not think this is the right attitude for a politician to adopt. I also believe that he underestimates other people’s intelligence. He always tends to impose his will upon others and of course that annoys many people, even his own followers. Nevertheless, I do admire him for his ability to control his subordinates effectively. They cannot see anything wrong with any of his methods.
INTERVIEWER: How would you compare him with a man like Azikiwe—their personalities?
SHAGARI: Oh, they are different. Dr. Azikiwe is a man who has been very fortunate. I think it is his people who made him what he is, not he himself. Maybe because he was the first man to come out to champion their cause they rallied around him and idolised him. He was helped by his lieutenants and they put him up as their idol. He is a good orator and a crowd puller, but not as arrogant as Chief Awolowo is.
INTERVIEWER: Do you find in dealing with both men that with Chief Awolowo you know where you stand and with Dr. Azikiwe perhaps it is less clear?
SHAGARI: That is true.
INTERVIEWER: Does that in any way make it difficult ruling the country and wanting to reach a compromise with all sections of the country? Is it perhaps that Awolowo’s aggressive yet straightforward approach makes it easier to have a better picture of where he is going while Zik is a bit more confusing?
SHAGARI: He is. It is easier to deal with Awolowo than with Zik because with Awolowo you know straight away where he is going. With Zik one is not so sure whether tomorrow he will change gears. He has a likeable disposition and a much more refined manner of dealing with people and issues. He is also intellectually sound.’
-Source: Shehu Usman Aliyu Shagari & Peter Enahoro, ‘Shagari in Conversation’ (1983) pp. 17-18.