The first time I met General John Shagaya was about 20 years ago, in Jos naturally. I was a pimply 14 year old and had gone along with my late uncle, Samson Ocholi (who at the time was a Sales Manager at WAMCO Integrated Dairy Farms) to the Octopus Golf Club in Rayfield.
I remember WAMCO had sponsored an event there that day. It was late afternoon and the city’s elite were winding down with beer and banter; people I knew from television, parents of schoolmates, and those they clearly knew. That evening, our attention was drawn to the fairway somehow, the way a momentous event does, and we all saw a caddy make a near impossible birdie shot. General Shagaya, who was there, was enthusiastic and remarked how the caddies basically grew up in the village surrounding the golf course and lived and breathed golf.
I was drawn to him, a tall man with the furrowed forehead but very kind words. My uncle told me, “That’s General Shagaya” and went to say hello. I mumbled through it. It breaks my heart to hear the General died in a car accident on his way to Jos yesterday.
The second time I met him was two years ago, while I was on the staff of Brigadier General Saleh Bala while he was Chief of Staff/SSA at the Ministry of Interior. I worked on a think tank called the MSG set up to do strategy management for the Minister, Lieutenant General Dambazau. One of the projects we worked on was on a draft policy on Public Safety and Security in partnership with the US Africa Centre for Security Studies (ACSS). General Shagaya, who was well respected by General Bala, was one of our panelists at the Strategic Leaders Seminar on the draft policy, along with Professor Femi Odekunle, who winged in and was clearly not prepared.
General Shagaya’s talk came off the cuff and he spoke from his experience as Minister of Internal Affairs from 1985 to 1990. Both the Ministry of Interior/MSG and our American partners were clearly impressed by his helpful thoughts and suggestions on how to work at interagency coordination and cooperation in truth as being critical to the success of such a policy.
After the event, I introduced myself, told him my father had worked at Lion Bank where the General had been a director for many years. We talked about his presentation and about Lion Bank, which had been subsumed into Diamond Bank much to the disappointment of most people in central Nigeria where it was considered a flagship local bank. I also told him about my novel, City of Memories, set in Jos, Plateau State, and the civil crisis that inspired it. He gave me his number and said, “Save it as Mallam Shagaya.” I did. I sent him a text message later that night which he kindly replied. I sent another a few months ago, when he was named to chair the board of the National Institute of Policy and Strategic Studies (NIPPS), Kuru. I felt the appointment was a perfect fit and said so. It is hard to believe General Shagaya is no more.
My last e-interaction with him was a few weeks ago, on the pages of Daily Trust, where he gave the most informed weigh-in on the sedentary farmers versus pastoralist herdsmen conflict wracking central Nigeria primarily. As far back as June 2016, the MSG had worked on a stakeholder’s meeting on this conflict, long before the intensification of hostilities and casualties. The Daily Trust interview itself was only four questions long, but General Shagaya delivered a thoroughly brutal and informed analysis of the situation. Over the last few months, I have been struck by the reductionism and irresponsibility that has attended the issue in the Nigerian public space, but I have lacked the strength to engage with what I felt was willful self-immolation. But General Shagaya had it in him still. It is pertinent to quote extensively from his answer, his very last words to us:
“We must understand the dimension of the kind of crisis we are facing through the movement of herdsmen either migration, if I will call it that. This is because anybody of my age will know that in the part of northern Nigeria where we come from there is an annual migration of what Ghanaians later modified as trans-human migrant Fulanis. In Langtang for example, you know the dedicated routes of the particular movement every year running from Wase through Garkawa through Yelwa through Shendam all the way to the south. We know when they move down south and up north. And if for any reason the migrant Fulani have to be in any place for a week or more, they will send a delegation maybe because they have some weak ones among them or women who may likely deliver. No quarrel. So we were brought up with that understanding. In the 50’s when we were in primary school, there was this big radio which we used to carry when our parents went out. We will go to the Fulani routes and sit under the tree and when the Fulani women are passing with cow milk, we will say ‘look, these people are tasty’ we will switch off the radio and say the people inside the radio are tasty and the Fulani women will be happy to give us milk so that they people can keep talking. So that was the kind of peaceful things that we knew that is why I am advising that we have to be very careful.
In this current dimension in migration, there are three things involved. The first is that there is desert encroachment. With this and with the drying of Lake Chad which used to accommodate quite a lot of them, the Cameroonian authorities had blocked the source. So, it means more numbers would have to trample in an attempt to find within the Benue and Niger trough for feeding. It requires a very serious planning. With the experiences that things were changing, Mrs Mary Lar and Prof. Jibril Aminu came up with the programme of Nomadic Fulani Education and Mary made her PhD with it. In that study, if we do understand it, we could create some kind of a habitable stopping area for the migrant Fulanis on their migration routes. Today, it is nice for somebody to call it colony. But they were stopping in places when they were moving, it was never given a big English name, now that you are magnifying the name, you are magnifying the problem.
The second dimension is what happened in 1984 after the ‘Ghana Must Go’ exercise. Between 1984/85, what we are witnessing today took place in Sierra Leone, Ghana, Benin Republic and Togo. They decided that all the migrating Fulanis must leave and that was where the word trans-human came from. They gave a marching order to all the Fulanis and their cows saying they were Nigerian Fulanis. So, today in Ghana, you find ranching existing only, you don’t find migrant Fulanis. They came to Nigeria and I had left the Military Secretary’s office and taken over the command of 9 Brigade. I was sent to establish tents, receive them, document them and know where they were going, whether truly they would settle in Nigeria or go to Mali or wherever they came from. They were treated nice by the administration at the time. There is a tripartite point between Togo- Nigeria and Benin Republic, very close to Kamba. That area of Kamba running all the way down to Kainji through Babana through Kayama, Digidiru pearl, very rich, beautiful area along the River Niger. So we received them and they were spread there for months. While government was deciding on what to do, they all left in their groupings. Some went back through their normal route of migration. The next thing government said is that there should be a leadership within the Fulanis, hence the encouragement of the registration of Miyetti Allah Cattle Breeders Association. I signed the certificate.
The intention of government then was to say; if we were faced with any minor problem, there should be a leadership that government can hold. But today, they themselves have broken into various factions and the migrant Fulanis have refused to have anything to do with local Fulani and that is part of the problem. We have to study these things well before we start condemning ourselves, they have to be taken into confidence in the discussions and that was the comment I made to the Governor of Benue State, that there must be a constructive engagement with all the stakeholders, you must know the reason.
The third dimension is arms and banditry and what have you. With the fall of Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi, we must remember that a lot of soldiers of fortunes who came from Chad, Niger and Nigeria who found themselves making good money in Libya. Some of them are still being deported today. Some went as soldiers of fortune to work to defend Libya and when that government was dismantled, some of these very serious weapons fell in the hands of some fellows that moved down to Niger and Chad and mingled with the militants. You find there were already some trained soldiers of fortune, they had these weapons and I believe it could be part of the build-up that today we face in the North-East. You will notice that within the first few months of this administration, the President had to make some tours of these friendly neighbours in order to know which direction the problem was coming from and not limiting and pretending it was only within Nigeria. That is what has helped us and many people don’t understand that.
The other dimension could be the politicisation of the issue by whichever ethnic group and I think a lot of propaganda has to be carried out by government. Nigerians have to start seeing certain national problems as a problem of the country and not a problem of one religion or a problem of Buhari because he is a Fulani man and a Fulani man entered a farm. We have to outgrow that, after all, down in the South-East, South-South where kidnapping became an industry, it wasn’t done along religious line and yet there are governors there who come from some of these communities. So why don’t we go round there and say it is this community that is perpetrating it because they come from this governor or that governor’s area is shielding these people. It is not a problem. But if it happens in the North then it is a Hausa Muslim or Christian issue, I think those are issues that we must outgrow.”
Even at his very last, the General was educating us, arguing for a nuanced engagement with Nigeria’s problems, identifying the pettiness we must outgrow and correcting with kindness. This is the man we just lost. I am devastated. Plateau, central Nigeria and Nigeria as a whole has lost a truly remarkable man.
John Nanzip Shagaya was born in 1942 to the Miri-Wazhi family, he was a member of the Taroh ethnic group of Plateau State. He attended the Nigerian Military School from 1960 to 1964 and was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant just as the Civil War broke out. He was in the 3 Marine Commando unit through the war and after that, rose to be the General Officer Commanding the 1 Mechanized Division, Kaduna. He served as the Minister of Internal Affairs from 1985 to 1990 and was the ECOMOG Commander from October to December 1993 before being discharged from the Army by the vindictive Abacha junta. He held several titles, most notably Danburam Langtang, and served as a Senator for Plateau South from 2007 to 2011.
In an archived 2013 interview, General Shagaya said: “One thing my upbringing dictates for me to do is to be upright, be truthful in whatever I do. In my relationship with other beings and lesser mortals. One has to do so with fairness. And in carrying out the challenges of duty and responsibilities, one should do so as a good ambassador. This has been all I have tried to do-hard work, truthfulness, honesty—sometimes to a fault. I also set very high standards and expect that subordinates and colleagues would take on and achieve results.”
This is the man I have written this tribute to mourn. Farewell, Mallam Shagaya, we shall continue to strive to carry on your principles and Nigerian vision. Good night, sir.
Richard Ali is an Abuja-based Nigerian lawyer, novelist and public affairs analyst. He is presently the Programme Manager for the Association of Nigerian Authors Preventing and Countering Violent Extremism (ANA PCVE) programme. He tweets @richardalijos
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