Was President Shehu Shagari overthrown because of corruption?

After President Shehu Shagari was booted out of office on December 31, 1983, the military government which took over power described his administration as “inept and corrupt”.

Was that so? Was the Shagari administration really corrupt? We shall find out in this article.

Shehu Shagari: A Beginning of the End

President Shehu Shagari was Nigeria’s Head of State when Chadian soldiers invaded Borno State. He then ordered the deployment of troops from the 3rd Armoured Division of the Nigerian Army to the borders of Nigeria’s North East.

However, this action did not last long as smugglers in Shagari’s government reportedly mounted pressure on the president to order the withdrawal of the troops, because the presence of the soldiers was preventing them from smuggling.

Image of President Shehu Shagari
President Shehu Usman Aliyu Shagari, First Executive President of Nigeria, 1979-1983.

Surprisingly, President Shehu Shagari then ordered the withdrawal of the troops but the General Officer Commanding the 3rd Armoured Division of the Nigerian Army, based in Jos, knew it was not a wise decision to take, he declined until he was ordered to withdraw his men by the Chief of Army Staff, General Inua Wushishi.

The GOC reluctantly withdrew his men and that marked the beginning of the end of President Shehu Shagari’s administration. That GOC was Major-General Muhammadu Buhari.

Early Life and Education

Shehu Shagari was born on February 25, 1925, in Shagari into a Sunni Muslim Fulani family. He was raised in a polygamous setting and was the sixth child born into the family. His father, Aliyu Shagari, who was the village head, died five years after his birth, and his elder brother, Bello, took over his father’s position.

After his education at a Qur’anic school, Shagari lived with relatives in a nearby town from where he attended Yabo elementary school from 1931 to 1935. From 1936 to 1940, he attended middle school in Sokoto and then Barewa College from 1941 to 1944. Shagari later went to Teachers’ Training College in Zaria, present-day Kaduna State, and got a job as a visiting teacher in Sokoto Province.

Political Career

Shagari’s first stint in politics was when, in 1951, he became the secretary of the Northern People’s Congress (NPC) party in Sokoto.

However, he had earlier founded a youth group called “Youth Social Circle” in Sokoto in 1945 when he was still teaching. The organization became one of the smaller groups that came together to form the NPC in 1948.

Image of young Shehu Shagari
A 25-year-old Shehu Shagari as a young schoolteacher, 1950.

In 1954, Shehu Shagari was elected as a member of the Federal House of Representatives for Sokoto West. This was his first public office. He was later, in 1958, appointed as parliamentary secretary to the Nigerian Prime Minister at the time, Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, but he left the post in 1959. He also served as the Federal Minister for Commerce and Industries.

After the fall of the First Republic which was as a result of Nigeria’s first military coup on January 15, 1966, Shagari was one of the cabinet ministers who reportedly handed over power to the military leadership of Major-General Johnson Aguiyi-Ironsi who then became Nigeria’s first military Head of State.

With the suspension of the constitution and banning of political parties by the Ironsi regime, Shehu Shagari then returned to the North to encourage education, while serving as the Executive Secretary of the Sokoto Province Education Development Fund, he built many provincial schools.

Following the Nigerian Civil War, Shagari was invited to serve under the Federal Military Government of Yakubu Gowon as the federal commissioner for economic development, rehabilitation, and reconstruction. He supervised the reconstruction and rehabilitation of schools, hospitals, and other infrastructure in the South-Eastern part of Nigeria.

Shehu Shagari also went out of his way to persuade the South Easterners to rejoin the civil service while also clamoring for the release of Biafran political prisoners. Shagari then later served as Nigeria’s Federal Commissioner for Finance.

After General Yakubu Gowon was overthrown in a bloodless coup, Shagari returned to Sokoto and became the chairman of the Sokoto State Urban Development Authority during which period, he started building the Sokoto Modern Market.

As part of local government reforms under General Olusegun Obasanjo, Shehu Shagari was elected as the councilor of Yabo local government in 1976. Shagari was part of the 1977-1978 constituent assembly which drafted the 1979 constitution of Nigeria.

Olusegun Obasanjo was both Nigeria’s military Head of State (1976-1979) and civilian Head of State (1999-2007).

He was later chosen by his party, the National Party of Nigeria, of which he was a founding member, to be the presidential candidate for the general election, held in 1979 which he subsequently won.

Shehu Shagari’s achievements as President of Nigeria

As president, Shehu Shagari has some quite remarkable achievements while in office.

In 1979, President Shehu Shagari established the Ministry of Science and Technology which, according to the president, would develop policies to be reflected throughout Nigeria’s educational system.

In agriculture, his government embarked on a “Green Revolution” with the aim of increasing nationwide productivity in farming. Seeds and fertilizer were distributed to farmers and the use of farm machinery was encouraged.

During the oil boom, Shagari opened the Kaduna Refinery on October 25, 1980, after he had launched the Ajaokuta Steel Plant a few months before on February 18, 1980. The president also opened the Delta Steel Complex in 1982.

Other accomplishments in terms of the industry include the creation of the Aluminum Smelter Company of Nigeria at Ikot Abasi, and three other Rolling Mills at Osogbo, Katsina, and Jos. The president also established the Petroleum Training Institute.

Shehu Shagari was the only democratically elected President of Nigeria’s Second Republic.

Motor vehicle plants such as ANAMMCO in Anambra, the Volkswagen Assembly Plant in Oyo, Peugeot Automobile in Kaduna, Fiat in Kano, and Styer in Bauchi state were constructed.

In the area of housing, Shagari completed 32,000 units in 1983. Although his target was 200,000 housing units, it is the largest public housing project that had ever been seen in Nigeria.

The transport sector was not left out as the Shagari administration launched many road networks across the country including the ones leading to the prospective federal capital, Abuja.

He also built and improved some inland ports and seaports including Sapele Ports Complex and started the Federal Ocean Terminal in Port Harcourt. A new river port was also commissioned at Onitsha and another to serve the Ajaokuta Steel Mill.

President Shehu Shagari created the Ministry of Aviation and built three airports in Minna, Bauchi, and Akure. Nigeria Airways also received a boost as new passenger aircraft were acquired.

The former president did not leave out his field, which was education. His first four years in office saw a great improvement in the educational sector. A mass literacy campaign was launched in 1981; and in 1982, a 6-3-3-4 system of education was introduced.

Shagari’s government built a lot of secondary schools, teaching colleges, and tertiary institutions. New Universities of Technology were established in Bauchi, Benue, Adamawa, Ondo, Imo, and Osun states. He also upgraded seven other existing Colleges of Education to degree-awarding institutions in Abraka, Ondo, Kano, Ado Ekiti, Bida, Port Harcourt, and Zaria.

Eight other Federal polytechnics were built in Ado Ekiti, Bida, Bauchi, Idah, Uwana, Yola, and Ilaro. The Federal Open University which offered scholarships for students studying abroad was also established in 1981.

Shehu Shagari was also a firm believer and supporter of the role of women and youths in nation-building. He had earlier chosen a woman from Imo State as his Vice President while campaigning for the presidency but she later opted out due to a lack of support from major stakeholders in the South East, which was where the Vice-Presidential ticket was zoned to.

In spite of this, the first female ministers and diplomats in Nigeria were all appointed by Shagari. The youths were also not left out. He either appointed them as Ministers or Economic Advisers. Notable among them is Pat Utomi, now a professor, who was 29 years of age when Shagari appointed him as an Economic Adviser.

Was Shagari overthrown because of corruption?

Despite Shagari’s achievements as an elected president, he was booted out of office on December 31, 1983. The military government which took over power described President Shehu Shagari’s administration as “inept and corrupt”.

Was that so? Was the Shagari administration really corrupt?

Of course, there was corruption during Shagari’s time in office; although the president has never been found wanting, the people around him were accused of looting the country’s resources right under his watch. This was an excuse for Shagari’s detractors to take over Nigeria’s highest office.

The president had been lulled into a false sense of security because he probably never thought that his own people, that is, northern officers in the army, would betray him and overthrow his government.

President Shehu Shagari (GCFR)
President Shehu Shagari, GCFR, in a full military outfit at an official function, 1982.

Shagari had even said at his swearing-in ceremony that the military had succeeded in large measure in unifying the country. Even though the military had voluntarily paved the way for democratic rule, the threat of its interference loomed over Shagari’s time in office. His predecessor, General Olusegun Obasanjo had passed security reports to the incoming presidency of an impending coup right from the time the Shagari’s party, the NPN, had won the presidential election in August 1979.  

Obasanjo, the outgoing military head of state, had passed the information through Chief Michael Ani, the chairman of the Federal Electoral Commission, FEDECO, that a possible coup could be carried out even before Shagari was to be sworn in on October 1, 1979.

Thus, if the military had been carrying out their plans since 1979 to take over power, even when Shagari was yet to begin his tenure at all, why did Major-General Muhammadu Buhari describe the Shagari government as “inept and corrupt” in his maiden speech on January 1, 1984?

The answer is simple. It is giving a dog a bad name just to hang it. Was the Shagari government clean? Certainly not. Was there corruption even at the highest level? Of course, there was.

As a matter of fact, every military takeover since 1966 has based its reason majorly on corruption but the next regime was always more corrupt than the one it booted out. In plain English, the Buhari regime did not overthrow the Shagari government to stamp out corruption. In fact, it made it worse.

For example, in July 1984, while chasing corrupt Nigerian officials around the world, especially Umaru Dikko, Shagari’s embattled minister for transportation who was then in self-exile in London, Margaret Thatcher, Britain’s Prime Minister threatened to publish the names and account details of all Nigerians with bank accounts in the United Kingdom. However, Buhari, now head of state, and his military officers bowed out as this would have certainly destroyed their credibility as many of them were believed to maintain foreign bank accounts, especially in the UK.

Image of Umaru Dikko
Umaru Dikko (December 31, 1936 – July 1, 2014) was an influential cabinet member during the civilian administration of President Shehu Shagari.

So, Shagari was overthrown because these military officers who once held important political positions in the previous regime felt it was too early to leave these positions for the civilians. So, within four years of leaving for their barracks, they returned with guns to snatch political power from the center with Buhari leading the charge.

Ghana Must Go

However, other underlying causes, as seen in the mainstream media at the time, would back the excuses of the military takeover.

One of these causes was the sharp drop in global crude oil prices which led to economic suffering and fueled discontent. Signs of turmoil began when, to curb the overflowing economic troubles caused by the global glut in oil, President Shehu Shagari, on January 17, 1983, ordered the expulsion of some undocumented West African immigrants from the country. These immigrants, about 2,000,000 people, most of them Ghanaians, were deported from Nigeria on February 2, 1983. This action led to the popular phrase Ghana Must Go.

Also, about 1000 followers of an Islamic cult, Maitatsine, who had rampaged the North for three successive years, attacking religious rivals were granted amnesty by President Shagari. This move was highly criticized by his enemies.

Image of Muhammadu Buhari
General Muhammadu Buhari, Nigerian Head of State, 1983-1985. Issued Decree No. 20 in 1984/Corbis.

What would then turn the tide again Shagari was when Muhammadu Buhari, as the GOC of the 3rd Division in Jos, blatantly disregarded an order from the president to reopen the Chad border which he had closed in order to cut off food and fuel supplies to Chad.

At the time, 19 islands on Lake Chad were suddenly occupied by Chadian troops and the Nigerian military got a chance to hit back.

Although Buhari and his men prevailed, recapturing all Nigerian islands, his units penetrated 50 kilometers into Chadian territory, once again disregarding strict orders not to cross the border.

The military’s confidence in the competence of Shagari as the Commander-in-Chief began to wane even as Buhari was neither reprimanded nor redeployed for repeatedly disobeying the President. All of these contributed to the successful military takeover on New Year’s Eve of 1983.

Writing a review on Shagari’s biography, ‘Beckoned to Serve’, Guardian Newspaper Editor, Chukwuma Nwokoh wrote that one lesson to be drawn from the biography is that no serving military person can be believed to be loyal to a government as the military is the most treacherous institution ever created by man. Major-General Buhari had been hinted at as a coup plotter but he denied the allegation twice and even threatened to resign.

President Shagari was overthrown in a coup by senior Northern officers he had helped nurture and trusted so much. The announcement of the coup was made by an unknown Brigadier – Sani Abacha.

Brigadier Ibrahim Bako was given the responsibility of arresting President Shagari. Anticipating a peaceful surrender, he arrived at the Presidential villa but got caught in a firefight which led to his death.

Image of Major-General Muhammadu Buhari as Nigeria's Military Head-of-State
Major-General Muhammadu Buhari as Nigeria’s Military Head-of-State, 1984.

Participants in the coup included Major-Generals Muhammadu Buhari, Ibrahim Babangida, Brigadiers Ibrahim Bako, Sani Abacha, Tunde Idiagbon, and Lieutenant-Colonel Aliyu Mohammed among others. Businessman and philanthropist, Chief Moshood Kashimawo Olawale (MKO) Abiola was said to have financed the coup.

Vice President, Alex Ekwueme was thrown into prison while President Shehu Shagari was placed under house arrest for 30 months at the Federal Government Guest House in Ikoyi, Lagos.

Shagari was later cleared of any wrongdoing and became an elder statement who lived peacefully in his hometown, Shagari, Sokoto State, until his death on December 28, 2018, in a hospital in Abuja. He was 93.

The aftermath of the Buhari Coup

Shehu Shagari was the only democratically elected President of Nigeria’s Second Republic. The post-civil war military government led by General Olusegun Obasanjo had handed over power to him after he had won the presidential elections in August 1979. General Obasanjo received much credit, both home and abroad, for allowing the military to voluntarily relinquish power to a civilian.

President Jimmy Carter and Lieutenant-General Olusegun Obasanjo during arrival ceremonies for the President’s state visit to Nigeria, April 1, 1978/Wikimedia Commons

However, Nigeria’s journey into democracy was short-lived as the military seized power once again. On December 31, 1983, Major-General Muhammadu Buhari overthrew Shagari and became the Head of State while Brigadier Tunde Idiagbon became his de facto deputy.

The economic problems that had plagued the nation continued under Buhari’s regime and hundreds of politicians and business officials were tried and convicted on corruption-related charges.

Buhari launched and authoritatively enforced the “War Against Indiscipline” program which sought to promote positive morals and values in society. The Head of State also instituted restrictions on the press, political freedoms, and trade unionists.

Nigerians initially welcomed Buhari’s efforts at fighting corruption and improving societal values but the repressive measures used by his regime along with the unending economic troubles led to discontent among the people.

After a year and eight months in office, even his military colleagues who helped him to snatch power from Shagari were fed up with him, and his government was overthrown by his Chief of Army Staff, Major-General Ibrahim Babangida on August 27, 1985. You can check out the full story here.

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Campbell, J. (2019, January 3). Shehu Shagari, President of Nigeria’s Second Republic, Passes Away. Council on Foreign Relations. Retrieved from

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Omoigui, N. (2015, August 4). History of Civil-Military Relations in Nigeria (5): The Second Transition (1979-1983, Part 2). Retrieved from

Opejobi, S. (2018, December 30). 1983 Coup: What Shehu Shagari Did to Buhari for Overthrowing His Govt. – Family Reveals. Daily Post. Retrieved from

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