By ABBA MAHMOOD /March 29, 2018—
It was a shocking piece of news — the demise of General John Nanzip Shagaya which occurred as a result of a ghastly road accident along the Langtang-Pankshin road in his home state of Plateau on February 12, 2018. He was buried on Friday, March 16, 2018, in Langtang, his ancestral home. It was a national loss, for he was one of the longest-serving internal affairs ministers in Nigeria’s history whose tenure witnessed monumental achievements. It was also a personal loss, for I have known Gen. Shagaya since I was in school when he was already a member of the Armed Forces Ruling Council (AFRC) under military president Babangida.
Born on September 2, 1942, to Mallam Sikji Miri Wazhi and Mrs Maryamu Zwancit Shagaya, the late John Shagaya attended Junior Primary School, Nyer, and SUM Primary School, Langtang, from 1952-1959. He then attended Nigerian Military School, NMS, Zaria, 1960-64. Upon graduation he joined the Nigerian Army where he was subsequently commissioned as second-lieutenant. He fought the Nigerian civil war, 1967-70, with the 3rd Marine Commando under General Benjamin Adekunle, the “Black Scorpion”. He had earlier participated in the counter-coup of July 1966 while serving in Abeokuta.
Being a first-class patriot, he chose for a career the most national of institutions – the military. In his eventful military career he had served in the Nigerian Army School of Infantry, Jaji; Nigerian Defence Academy, Kaduna; Armed Forces Command and Staff College, Jaji; Commander, 9 Mechanized Infantry Brigade, Lagos; Military Secretary, Army Headquarters, and General Officer Commanding (GOC), 1 Mechanized Infantry Division, Kaduna. He was a courageous soldier who never failed in any task he was assigned. He once said that every soldier must remember that his first mistake could be his last.
According to Chinese Premier Chun Enlai, “Enemies at home and abroad all understand that the easiest way to capture a fortress is from within.” No wonder Nigeria’s security threats have always been internal. Because Shagaya was a trusted officer with great efficiency, it did not come as a surprise that President Ibrahim Babangida, on coming to power in August 1985, appointed him as internal affairs minister and member of the Armed Forces Ruling Council, to ensure that those social and political changes which were needful for political stability were not blocked by vested interests. His time as minister saw him involved in drafting the main protocol for the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), and also helped in resolving boundary disputes with Benin and Chad republics. Nigerians watched with admiration as then Col. Shagaya coped with all the problems, pressures and challenges that the country faced during the Babangida regime. And Shagaya was one of the first ministers to move to Abuja, the new federal capital.
The takeover of power by a rebel movement led by Yoweri Museveni in Uganda in 1986 marked the entry of rebel movements as platform for taking over power rather than the conventional military coups or the traditional democratic means in Africa. It inspired the formation of some rebel movements in Liberia, here in West Africa, the largest being Charles Taylor’s National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL). The NPFL itself was not an independent actor but a microcosm of Liberian politics, representing the different ideological trends as well as the interests of the states who supported the different factions within it.
The conflicts within the African countries had weakened the Africans, diverting their attention and economic resources from the more important objective of development. To compound matters, the Liberian civil war erupted at a time the attention of major global powers was focused on developments in the former communist countries. And as Efraim Halevy once wrote, “In order to triumph we shall have to understand that diplomacy is the art of the possible, that intelligence is the craft of the impossible.”
In the true spirit of African brotherhood and to stem the tide of Liberian disintegration, the ECOWAS member countries set up the ECOWAS Monitoring Group (ECOMOG) which was the first sub-regional military peace support operation in Africa. The risks of military intervention were great, but the dangers of inactions were considered to be even greater. It represented the last stand of authority against the advancing forces of disorder. The formation of ECOMOG also dovetailed with Nigeria’s regional interests and more specifically with its desire to counter the advancing danger of the proliferation of rebel movements in Nigeria’s immediate sub-region.
ECOMOG certainly served Nigeria’s interests. It restored the respect of the superpowers as the UN Security Council eventually endorsed it; it revived the strategic understanding with the Anglophone, Francophone and Lusophone countries of West Africa; and it underpinned the centrality of Nigeria in regional politics. It was a dynamic move of momentous importance by the Babangida regime.
What President Babangida sought to achieve with the ECOMOG initiative was, to paraphrase the former Israeli Prime Minister, Shimon Peres, to create a new Africa which “would be dominated by banks, not tanks, ballots not bullets; and where the only generals would be General Motors and General Electrics”. To underscore the importance IBB attached to the ECOMOG initiative, some of Nigeria’s finest generals were posted there to command: Malu, Olurin, Dogonyaro, among others. The late General Shagaya’s last military posting before retiring was as field commander of ECOMOG in Liberia.
Most people sink into insignificance when they quit office. It was not so with General Shagaya. He had a simplicity which very few other public people of the highest distinction possess. He never considered an adversary or an opponent an enemy. He was serious, painstaking and methodical. With maturity he became calm, cautious and calculating. It was not difficult for his people to see the good in him and to vote for him as senator representing Plateau South senatorial district. He was respectful of his elders, loyal to his superiors and inspiring to the younger generation. General Shagaya was proud of his Tarok, Plateau, heritage; in fact he was Danburam Langtang; proud of being a northerner, in fact he was vice chairman of the Arewa Consultative Forum (ACF) Board of Trustees; and proud of being a Nigerian and an African. As a true gentleman, he would accept many things but not dishonour.
Just last year, General Shagaya lost his beloved wife Philomena after a brief illness. What she did was to provide her husband and family with a domestic anchor that helped him cope with the strains and stresses of his public life. President Buhari recently appointed him chairman of the Governing Council of the National Institute for Policy and Strategic Studies, Kuru, Jos. He combined humility with humanity and exceptionally gracious manners.
My special condolences to his eight children, especially Col. John Shagaya Jnr and his 13 grandchildren, Plateau State and Nigeria. May his gentle soul rest in perfect peace. Adieu General Shagaya — a man among men and a leader among leaders.