After a dozen years dictatorship, the military in 1978 made preparations to hand-over power. The main challenge was the registration of political parties. Over fifty political associations sprang up. Eventually, only five were registered. The Unity Party of Nigeria (UPN) was built around Chief Obafemi Awolowo and it was common knowledge that he would be its Presidential Candidate. Same with Alhaji Aminu Kano who founded the Peoples Redemption Party (PRP) Unlike the UPN with its base in West and the PRP with base in the North-West, the Nigerian Peoples Party (NPP) was built with solid base in the East and parts of the North. But internal politics led to the main Northern group led by Alhaji Waziri Ibrahim withdrawing and leaving Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe firmly in charge of the party and as its unchallenged Presidential Candidate. Waziri went on to found his own party; the Great Nigerian Peoples Party (GNPP) and was automatically its Presidential Candidate. The fifth registered party, the National Party of Nigeria (NPN) seemed more national in spread and the party to beat. It appeared that whoever emerged its Presidential Candidate, would become the next President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. But the NPN did not have a dominant figure like the four other registered parties. However, Alhaji Yusuf Maitama Sule became the aspirant to beat.
Everything seemed right about him; he was urbane, educated, brilliant, humble, untainted by corruption scandals and had a long record of service including being a Minister in the First Republic. In 1976, he was Federal Commissioner for Public Complaints; an ombudsman whom the oppressed and the repressed could cry to and get a listening ear. He seemed well suited for this job as he was the son of a servant who rose up to become a leading nationalist and political figure in the country. When Maitama Sule spoke, sincerity rang out like chiming church bells and many Nigerians could identify with him as a champion that would lead them towards a great Nigeria.
His chances of picking the NPN Presidential ticket were further enhanced when the party zoned the position to the then ten Northern States. It seemed the ticket was already zoned to him.
But there was panic in some elite circles, possibly also amongst the ranks of the departing generals; Sule seemed too independent-minded and they might be unable to control him. However, the dilemma was, how to stop him. A vicious campaign started; not against his impeccable credentials or record of service, but his origins. Since this was not having the desired effect, they went out shopping for an aspirant they can successfully pitch against him.
They zeroed in on Alhaji Shehu Shagari, who shared some characteristics with Sule in terms of being humble, simple, with long years of untainted public service. But he hadn’t the empathy for the poor like Sule and was not assertive. Also, unlike Sule, he had no oratorical skills or the liberal attitude on issues like religion. In fact, Shagari carried the baggage of being one of the leaders of Muslims at the Constitutional Conference who wanted Sharia placed at par with the Supreme Court. When this failed, they staged a walkout which threatened the entire transition process.
The main problem of the people who went shopping for Shagari was that all he wanted was to be a Senator. He did not want to be President, so he declined to run. The North was asked to pick three aspirants and present them to the scheduled NPN National Convention, and the Zonal meeting for that was called for Kaduna. Since he was not interested, Shagari travelled to Paris as Chairman of the Peugeot Automobile of Nigeria (PAN) returning only on the eve of the meeting. He said when he arrived at the Kaduna Airport, Alhaji Umaru Dikko was waiting for him with a message that Alhaji Makama Bida wanted to see him. He said he rejected Bida’s pleas to contest. However, on meeting a delegation from his Sokoto State base which apparently had been primed to pin him down, Shagari while still refusing to run, agreed to a compromise; that they could put his name up for nomination.
Next day, the NPN Northern Caucus picked Shagari, Sule and Alhaji Adamu Ciroma, former journalist and ex-Governor of the Central Bank who was regarded as the Chairman of the shadowy ‘Kaduna Mafia’ There was concern that only aspirants from the Northwest and North East were picked leaving out the large North Central which has since colonial times complained of being marginalized in the Region. So two North Central aspirants, Mr. Joseph Tarka (Benue) and Dr. Olusola Saraki (Kwara) were added, along with Professor Iya Abubakar from Gongola State who was added because he scored more votes than Tarka and Saraki.
At the NPN National Convention held at the Casino Cinema, Yaba-Lagos, there was no clear winner in the first ballot forcing a run-off between Sule and Shagari. Immediately, another powerful lobby was put in place with some powerful delegates from Sule’s Kano group decamping and putting pressure on him to save the party a second ballot and a possible split. He eventually caved in, Shagari was declared the candidate and the party went on, as predicted, to win the Presidential elections.
Sule was sent to the United Nations (UN) as the country’s Permanent Representative where he made waves as the Chairman of the UN Anti-Apartheid Committee. In the period 1980-83, the Shagari administration came down heavily on student unionism in a number of campuses. The heaviest blows were dealt at the Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria where in 1981, 21 student leaders including eight in the final year were expelled. These included committed leaders like Abdulrahman Black, Jibrin Bala Mohammed and Isa Aremu. Same year, the Bayero University expelled the founding President of the National Association of Nigerians Students (NANS) Tanimu Kurfi. With student unionism so threatened, committed students across the country came up with the alternative idea of establishing the Youths Solidarity on Southern Africa (YUSSA) and informed Sule of their intention. He took up the challenge as a missionary work; he came down from New York and went round campuses in the country, inaugurating YUSSA Chapters.
He was Minister for National Guidance in the short-lived Second Term of the Shagari administration. He continued to inspire the country until he passed away on Monday July 3 in Cairo, Egypt. It is a matter of conjecture if Nigeria would have been a better country under a Sule administration; whether the country would have had a better course than the Shagari one that led to renewed military dictatorship which lasted fifteen years. Whatever be the case, Maitama Sule was a unique Nigerian politician and committed patriot; a President we never had.