By ADEBAYO OBAJEMU
The death of Chief Ernest Shonekan, on January 11, 2022, rekindled the memories of his life and time, and the crucial role he played at a very momentous period in our national history. Ernest Shonekan! The name inspires contrasting emotions jostling for control of the mind.
Now that history, as a subject of study in our secondary schools, is today history, the name Shonekan, may not necessarily rings bell among the millennials who are enamoured of Davido, Instagram, Big Brother Naija and all the crazies that define Nigeria’s descent into existential ennui.
For the two things that may evoke associativity with his name – interim government and the United Africa Company, UAC – are unfamiliar terrains for the young generation, some of them that maintained last stand against tyranny and abuse of power at Lekki Toll gate.
Yet, Chief Ernest Shonekan, is arguably one of the best technocrats and boardroom gurus Nigeria has produced. Certainly and in spite of this, his name and the controversy around it may have nothing to do with boardroom politics.
Rather his name has plenty to do with national politics and the challenge of nationhood. He was the mascot, the deux ex machina that God used in the hand of the former military President Ibrahim Babangida to rescue the country from impending civil war over the annulment of the June 12 Presidential Election said to have been won by Chief Moshood Kashimawo Abiola, but which his friend, Babangida who was the military President, annulled.
Calm , collected, soft-spoken , Babangida brought this helluva of a lawyer into the gritty messier vortex of Nigerian politics, as head of the caretaker administration called Interim government, and since that time in 1993, controversy had never left him, even in death.
His forte and strength has always been in the boardroom, and his lifelong interest was the rulebook of management, and as an Egba man, he had natural inclination to success.
Shonekan joined the United Africa Company of Nigeria in 1964, at the time a subsidiary of the United Africa Company, a going concern which history recorded as having played a pivotal role in British colonisation and imperialism.
He rose through the ranks in the company and was promoted to assistant legal adviser. He later became a deputy adviser and joined the board of directors at the age of 40.
He was made chairman and managing director in 1980, and went on to cultivate a wide array of international business and political connections.
He built on what he met on ground when he was made UAC managing director, and through his charm, business savvy and industriousness, he made UAC a household name in the 80s.
On 2 January 1993, Shonekan assumed office simultaneously as head of transitional council and head of government under Ibrahim Babangida. At the time, the transitional council was designed to be the final phase leading to a scheduled hand over to an elected democratic leader of the Third Nigerian Republic.
He later got to know of difference between boardroom politics and the gritty national politics, learning of the dire condition of government finances, which his brilliance as a boardroom wizard could not correct.
The government was hard pressed on international debt obligations and had to hold constant talks for debt rescheduling. In August 1993, Babangida resigned from office, following the annulment of the 12 June elections. He signed a decree establishing the Interim National Government led by Shonekan who was subsequently sworn-in as head of state.
Shonekan was unable to control the political crisis which ensued following the election annulment. During his few months in power, he tried to schedule another presidential election and a return to democratic rule, while his government was hampered by a national workers’ strike.
Opposition leader Moshood Abiola, viewed Shonekan’s interim government as illegitimate. He released political prisoners detained by Babangida. His administration introduced a bill to repeal three major draconian decrees of the military government. Babangida made the Interim government weak by placing it under the control of the military.
He had lobbied for debt cancellation but, after the election annulment, most of the Western powers had imposed economic sanctions on Nigeria. Inflation was uncontrollable and most non-oil foreign investment disappeared. The government also initiated an audit of the accounts of NNPC, the oil giant, an organisation that had many operational inefficiencies. Shone kan served as an executive of Royal Dutch Shell while acting as the interim president of Nigeria.
He was widely criticised by his own Yoruba stock for accepting the position of Interim Head of State, largely viewed as a traitor go to his people.
But Professor Adeagbo Moritiwon, a political scientist said “a Shonekan was necessary at that time to pluck Nigeria back from the brink. He was a symbol of political thaw, a sort of armistice because at that time the country was virtually at war with itself.
Shonekan tried to set a timetable for troop withdrawal from ECOMOG’s peacekeeping mission in Liberia. General Sani Abacha, was the minister of defence and chief of defence staff who had full control over the military.
In November 1993, three months into his administration, Shonekan was overthrown in palace coup by Abacha.
In 1994, he founded the Nigerian Economic Summit Group, an advocacy group and think-tank for private sector-led development of the Nigerian economy.
Since then Shonekan went on to feature prominently as an elder statesman. Ever since he left office, he had kept a low profile. He was born in 1934, and died at 85.