Remembering Shehu Yar’Adua 20 years after

General Shehu Yar’Adua was a wonderful man who was cut down in his prime. I have no doubt that he would have made an excellent President of Nigeria. He died a true martyr for Nigeria. He was a thoroughly untribalised man, who never forgot to remind all who came to him and spoke Hausa he would reply to such people in English and remind them that there were other non-Hausa speaking people around.

This he specially did when Yoruba or Ibo or people from any other ethnic group who think that by speaking Hausa to him they somehow ingratiated themselves to him at the expense of those who did not speak the language. He would be extraordinarily blunt but mostly he was polite even when he was blunt. He was a born peacemaker, the ultimate politician, always looking for the common ground, the compromise. Even so, those compromises never for once tarnished his integrity or principle. He was a bundle of contradiction, tough as nails but amiable and full of jokes.

Shehu was totally untribalised, eager to learn and he understood the complexities of Nigeria like no other. At the time Chief Obafemi Awolowo had almost no Northerner speaking to him, Shehu understood not only the political giant and patriot that Awolowo was but also his genius as an economic planner and administrator.

Shehu sought him out and drank deeply from that fountain of Awolowo’s wisdom. Shehu understood that all Nigerians came from somewhere and these may colour or distort their perception but there was an underlying goodness in men, an underlying meaning as a Nigerian which ought to be recognized, respected, nurtured and exploited. This was the core of his belief which he translated to the first political association he founded: neither East nor West, neither North nor South.

Shehu was an extremely successful businessman and through all the years I knew him I did not see him behave in any way other than trustworthy and transparent.

In the bank of which he was chairman, Habib Bank, he left the professionals to get on with the business without interference. One Bello, one-time Managing Director (MD), several times wanted to go but Shehu would not agree and Bello stayed.

M.K.O Abiola and Shehu Yar’Adua set up the African Ocean Shipping Line and made Raymond Dokpesi the managing director. As usual, they left the company to be run by professionals.

There were several religious and political flare-ups during his time as Minister of Transport and Chief of Staff, Supreme Headquarters. He dealt with each crisis as cold as a cucumber, never flustered, always polite and consummately disarming.

He was the quintessence of simplicity, cool-headedness. He drove himself to work and in London, if I brought my car, he insisted on driving it. (Maybe he did not trust my driving which was sometimes hair-raising and risky. He loved life too much to have his bones broken in an accident by a thoroughly unpredictable driver!!

The general’s organisational ability was legendary. He set up the carpet factory in Katsina, now defunct. It was that carpet factory that produced all the original carpet at Abuja NOGA Hilton Hotel; carpet better than any that has now subsequently replaced the original. What he did not know he asked and assimilated the knowledge. When setting up the newspaper’s presses in Abuja he meticulously asked about the printing machines and printing processes: the editorial segments of the papers and never once did he interfere in the running of the newspaper which came probably long before its time – The Reporter, The Sentinel and Tafikwabo. He organised our first political party after 1990 – The Patriotic Front, which metamorphosed into the People’s Democratic Movement and eventually to the PDP. He knew that a party was as strong as the individuals who led it. He chose these carefully and wisely.

In the SDP although he had no post in the structure, it was evident who the leader of the party was. He put around him a small coterie of trusted members, whom he knew were not going to run away when the so-called big guns joined the party, M.K.O, Jim Nwobodo, Michael Afolabi, Abdullahi, Saleh Jambo, Abubakar Rimi and Arthur Nzeribe, Chuba Okadigbo to name a few. He was able to massage the ego of innumerable people and thus prevented schisms in the party. Our conventions were thoroughly planned because that was where we elected officials of the party. We used to go to these conventions with a slate of candidates for official positions within the party. Our job was to get as many as possible elected. The only time we failed to have our man through was when our candidate was defeated by Sule Lamido as Executive Secretary. Even so, we worked with everybody. We recruited delegates from the grassroots and groomed them for a long time. At conventions, we bussed these delegates to the convention centres; sometimes we kept them way out of the cities so that our opponents could not poach them. Every 10 delegates had a leader; we met each delegation with his or her leader: listened to their wishes and suggestions, adapted policies where necessary. But the hold on the delegates was firm because of Shehu’s ability to inspire loyalty: Chief Afolabi, Tony Anenih, Abdul Azeez, Babagana Kingibe, Lawan Keita and others were all with him.

I hardly ever showed my face at these conventions. I had a small committee to help me as the paymaster during these conventions, conferences, etc. Senator Bode Mustapha, Peter Oweredeba, Engineer Ken Emechebe, Chris Ngige and countless others helped me. At the convention, after voting, the delegates all came to say thank you and I thanked them. In Jos, we had a crisis because our movement was threatened by some defections from the West. Shehu had been in Jos earlier and went back to Kaduna. I was staying in Ambassador Kwande’s house, in a nearby cave in the house. By 10 p.m. we ran into an underpass: the Western Delegation would not move. Shehu had barely reached Kaduna when we phoned him to come back. He did, arriving Jos as 3 a.m. We smoothened everybody’s feather before he left again for Kaduna at about 7 a.m. or 8 a.m.

To be continued on Sunday.

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Shehu Yar’Adua
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