Farewell to Ernest Shonekan

Posted by Igwebike Ifeanyi Mbanefo | 10 months ago


Cropped from KS

If you can dream - and not make dreams your master, 
If you can think - and not make thoughts your aim; 
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster 
And treat those two impostors just the same; 
If you can bear to hear the truth you've spoken 
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools, l
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken, 
And stoop and build 'em up with worn-out tools:

If you can make one heap of all your winnings 
And risk it all on one turn of pitch-and-toss, 
And lose, and start again at your beginnings 
And never breathe a word about your loss; 
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew 
To serve your turn long after they are gone, 
And so hold on when there is nothing in you 
Except the Will which says to them: "Hold on!"

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue, 
Or walk with kings - nor lose the common touch, 
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you, 
If all men count with you, but none too much; 
If you can fill the unforgiving minute 
With sixty seconds' worth of distance run, 
Yours is the Earth and everything that's in it, 
And - which is more - you'll be a Man, my son!

Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936)

No other Nigerian leader, except perhaps, the Siamese twins – Generals Ibrahim Babangida and Sani Abacha – has ever been overtaken by “infodemic “as Chief Ernest Shonekan, GCFR had.  Infomedic is a word coined by the World Health Organisation to describe — an overabundance of information and the rapid spread of misleading or fabricated news, images, and videos. Like a virus, it is highly contagious and grows exponentially.

No other Nigerian leader had so entirely borne the anger of his ‘people’ with equanimity. No other Nigerian leader has borne the intrigues and betrayal by friends, with equability. No other Nigerian Leader has borne deliberate and massive misinformation against him without flinching. 

Yet, till he breathed his last, Ernest Shonekan remained a first class patriot. A generation of politicians were defined by their relationship to him—some to a point almost self-destructive, measuring themselves against the Abese of Egbaland in ways that were not entirely appropriate; that he didn’t exactly welcome but couldn’t exactly prevent. 

Shonekan first appeared on the national stage in 1980 when he became chairman and managing director of United African Company (UACN) a successor of The Niger Company, which played a prominent role in British colonization of Nigeria.  UACN was at the time, a vast Nigerian conglomerate, and the largest company in Sub Saharan Africa. He was by default the heir (some call him stooge) to the British legacy and inheritor of a wide array of international business and political connections that lofted him to greatness. At Eighty-five and a little slowed but not visibly ailing, he curtailed his public appearances. 

Think what you may of him, Shonekan understood Nigerian politics. He was one of two, well three persons, if you count Goodluck Jonathan, a waka pass, as Nollywood Actors would say, who had no hand in his rise and fall from power.

The other was Chief MKO Abiola. These were men of foresight who knew that their only route to power was through the army. Whilst Abiola sponsored coups and became a paymaster to the officers, Shonekan played endless squash with them and introduced them to the British High Command. 

His legacy is one that will be debated and argued over as long as people cared about Nigerian politics. The lineaments of Shonekan’s ascent are part of political legend: how he opened his house to the Nigerian military high command and regularly hosted them to squash and dinners, sometimes with visiting dignitaries; how he became Britain’s barometer on the state of the army and Nigerian politics; how he became a trusted guide and counselor to our ill-prepared military leaders on matters of business, economics and international relations. 

It was a hard climb, assisted, as all such are, by perseverance, and the occasional orneriness of those who refuse to be nice at the expense of their own ambition.  

My first encounter with Shonekan was in 2003. I had criticised his long and uncomfortable silence; criticized why he was not telling his side of the story 10 years after he was forced out of power. I had explained why Nigerian history would be richer for his intervention. I had urged him to write his biography. 

And he sent an aide to my house! At first, I thought it was a bad joke, but after repeated visits, I decided to honour his invitation. “I wasn’t planning on writing anything, but I have been thinking lately about a biography. Your note got me thinking”, he said. 

The night we first met, he was still formally dressed in a grey suit and red tie. His tone was measured but with audible hints of urgency. We chatted whilst I took a first measure of him. He came across as solid, and substantial. The type you call the salt of the earth. He listened carefully to all my questions, but did not answer all of them. 

I could deduce that he expected the book to embody his quest to recover his past; a blend of personal exploration and passionate historiography that exposes and challenges two different forms of government, (Military & Civilian) or, rather, three (representative democracy) — and it’s the third kind that is most ubiquitous and insidious, I joked citing party hierarchies, specifically the National Executive Committees, NEC, the highest policy making organ of the parties comprising of the privileged who hold parties hostage. NECs, the highest policy making organs in the parties, had completely marginalized women and children. 

Shonekan wanted a convergence of family lore and the public record – historical events, their implications, and the long-unchallenged mythologies and silences that have unjustly and dangerously accreted around them. 

He was willing to share documents from his sojourn in Aso Rock that leapfrogs us back in time to explore the stories of his time in UACN, in power and relationships with Babangida and Abacha and the mysterious, unsolved silences. He was grateful to Abacha for making laws to straighten and consolidate all he did in power. 

Shonekan was concerned about his image and his intention to stop human rights abuses. He told of how he released labour leaders; how he returned Olisa Agbakoba’s passport and it occurred to me that as Head of State, he resisted the most overt kind of human right abuses by the military junta.  

Shonekan’s reconstruction of his time in power brought his artistry and analytical sensibility to heights of ironic audacity. It was clear that he fought abuse of state power and brutal policing. He was independent minded, a freedom fighter, though unsung and unrecognized.

Yet the third type of governance, has become an insidious and ongoing campaign of representational and cultural oblivion, the evaporation of memory and dissolution of history in the daily media onslaught and the officialized miseducation that accompanies it. 

The Shonekan went back, once again, into the hiding places of everyday life. But aided, he would have embarked upon a political project of cultural reclamation, of doing justice to the silenced past—without which, there’s little hope for justice in the present and future. 

When Nigeria LNG Limited enlisted his help in its lobby for Train 7. He championed it alongside General Yakubu Gowon, the Head of State who proposed building LNG plant in Nigeria. But before then, Shonekan had made vital contributions to the efforts to build LNG plant in Nigeria.  As Head of the Interim Government and a member of the Board of Directors of Shell, he was instrumental to reviving the project after Babangida failed to take Final Investment Decision in 1991. 

Nigeria LNG Limited once hosted Shonekan, Gowon and Babangida to an event – The Grand Award Night – to award Science and Literature prizes. The event was perhaps the most greeted by any audience in Nigeria with an emotional intensity that was tidal in its ferocity and duration. It was, without exception, the most overwhelming tribute to these leaders that I have ever experienced. Now that moment is sealed as history, with Shonekan no longer be available for such a pageant. I will always remember his occasional calls to check in on me and my family. He was the ultimate networker. 

Shonekan’s book, had we written it, would have been the trace by which disconnections and disappearances may become presences, the severed threads of history may be reconnected to the future.

Shonekan understood the nation’s challenges as part of a continuous narrative; that Nigeria is work in progress; that a narrow view of Nigeria’s past could imperil its future. He was the man who stood in the gap for Nigeria, when lesser men ran for the hills. His overthrow was a brutally consequential coup, not just against him, but against our country. His government was not among Nigeria’s most liked, but it is among the most revelatory. His removal was the beginning of our final descent into hell. 

Igwebike Mbanefo, was formally, Manager Corporate Communication, Nigeria LNG Limited.

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