Ernest Adegunle Shonekan and Nigeria’s Unending Tale of Three Masters

Ogunsakin Mustapha
11 Min Read
The late Chief Ernest Shonekan

By Chidi Anselm Odinkalu

This title is not original. When he published his memoirs in 1995, Jerome Udoji, the distinguished Nigerian public administrator whose name became synonymous with the failed inflation-proofing of public service earnings following Nigeria’s discovery of petro-dollars in the aftermath of the Yom Kippur War, titled it Under Three Masters. The book, a tale of his encounters in succession with colonial masters, post-colonial civilian wannabes and their military usurpers, lends its title very much as a template for the Nigerian story.

As the country sets out on the foothills of an election in 12 months, one man whose public legacy is defined by the rubbles of another election nearly three decades ago, made a characteristically quiet earthly exit. The story of Ernest Adegunle Oladeinde Shonekan, the self-effacing lawyer and corporate insider, who died on 11 January, is a testament to the resilience of Udoji’s three masters who continue to hold the fate of the country in their hands. 

Nearly 32 years ago, the African Bar Association (ABA) organized a conference in Abuja, Nigeria’s capital city. Barely out of my teens, I attended the conference as a cub lawyer. At the registration, I found myself in somewhat of a sandwich between two quite compelling figures. On the one side, in flowing three-piece African gown was Bernard Muna, leader of the Bar Association in Cameroon and the central African region, and scion of the best known political dynasty in Anglophone Cameroon. Predictably for a man who grew up in a political family and had run for elective office in many capacities, Ben Muna knew how to work a room, even around a conference registration table. 

On the other side was a man in dark pin stripes. He said very little and, when he did, spoke with quiet deliberation. This man, who could not have been more different from Ben Muna if he had auditioned for the role, simply introduced himself as Ernest Shonekan. He was the chairman and chief executive officer of the United African Company Nigeria, (UACN) at the time, the richest conglomerate in Nigeria. 

Registration was slow. Computers were very new then and the software was nothing like today. As the process wound its slow way to completion, Ben Muna kept us all talking. We covered a lot of ground, mostly around law in Africa. Lawyers have always had an ambivalent relationship with the supernatural, whether of the African or imported hue. On this, Chief Shonekan had clear ideas. Long before the Pentecostals made a revenue stream of the art, he had a testimony.

26 years after joining the staff of UACN in 1964, Shonekan succeeded Chief Chris Abebe as the Chairman and Managing Director of the company in 1980, a 43-year-old lawyer trained in the best schools in the world, including the University of London, where he took his degree in law. Chief Abebe was General Olusegun Obasanjo’s father-in-law. Shonekan and Obasanjo were not just contemporaries, they were also both from Egbaland. 

On his first day as the Chief Executive Officer, he recalled, he arrived the office, ready to begin work from his assigned office. As he opened the door to step in, he toppled over, smashed face first to the floor as if by the unseen hand of an irresistible force. He promptly beat a retreat in order to fortify himself with knowledge of unseen African masters. Having taken the time he needed to master those forces, his return to work and tenure at the apex of UACN passed without incident, exactly as he likes it.

Shonekan’s enforced mastery of the forces of African science, however, did not prepare him, it appears, for his encounter with the soldiers who took the country hostage. As Chief Executive Officer of UACN, he naturally mixed with presidents and their minions. Less than three years later, on 2 January 1993, Shonekan accepted the invitation from Ibrahim Babangida, self-appointed military “president” of Nigeria at the time, to head a transitional cabinet, with a mandate to mid-wife the handover of power to an elected civilian administration in June of the same year. It was not accident. Since August 1985, Shonekan had also moonlighted as Chair of an informal, nine-person Advisory Council to the Babangida regime. This appointment more-or-less formalized that role.

Lured out of the familiar world of the Boardroom by soldiers, Shonekan always seemed far from comfortable in the Piranha Pond of Nigeria’s public life. After eight years of transition without end, Ibrahim Babangida appeared to have succeeded on June 12, 1993, in organizing what looked like a credible election to precede the formal termination of military rule. Then out of nowhere he contrived to wrest ignominy from the jaws of immortality. 

10 days after the vote and with final results still to be announced, Babangida’s second-in-command, Augustus Aikhomu, sent out a hand-written release by his press secretary, Nduka Irabor, announcing the nullification of the election. 

Having exhausted the political elite, Babangida had finally driven the country into a ditch with no exit plan. With both his authority and his nerves shot, he hastily announced that he would was “stepping aside” on 27 August, 1993 as military ruler, to be replaced by Chief Shonekan at the head of an Interim National Government (ING). Obasanjo was the principal advocate of the ING. 

As was the wont of the military, all of this had to be accorded a veneer of legality. So, on the day preceding his stepping aside, Babangida signed four decrees. One of them was the Constitution (Suspension and Modification) (Repeal) Decree No. 59 of 1993, which was supposed to end military rule. Another was the Interim Government (Basic Constitutional Provisions) Decree No. 61 of 1993. Chief Moshood Abiola, whose election Babangida had nullified, was, like Obasanjo and Shonekan, also from Egbaland. 

In Suit No. M/573/93, Abiola sued before the High Court of Lagos to challenge the legality of Shonekan’s ING. On 10 November 1993, Dolapo Akinsanya, a judge of the High Court of Lagos State then who died on 8 November 2020, ruled that after divesting himself of powers as military ruler in Decree No. 59, Babangida lacked the powers any longer to constitute the ING with Decree No. 61. So, the ING was unconstitutional. 

That was all the excuse General Sani Abacha needed: seven days later, Shonekan resigned characteristically without fanfare, paving the way for Abacha to assume powers as Nigeria’s Maximum Ruler. Shonekan had been in office for all of 84 days from 27 August to 17 November 1993. He was the first, last and only Nigerian Chief of State who was not invested with powers as Commander-In-Chief of the Armed Forces. He was also the only Nigerian Head of State who did not appoint himself by a coup or win an election. His error was to allow someone to appoint him to such a position. Presidents are not appointed by another.

Toppled by military usurpers, Shonekan’s exit from office ended a dalliance between the UACN and Nigeria that had been nearly 115 years in the making.  The relationship started when George Taubman Goldie, who himself attended the carve up of Africa at the Berlin Africa Conference between November 1884 and February 1885, founded the UAC in 1879. Seven years later, in 1886, he won a Royal Charter, renaming the company the Royal Niger Company, (RNC). He was the man who hired Frederick Lugard with the brief to rampage his way to territorial expansion in what would become Nigeria. He was also the inspiration behind Lord Selborne’s Niger Committee Report of 1898, which largely invented Nigeria. 

At the end of 1899, when the Royal Charter was revoked, the Brits paid Sir George and his shareholders in the RNC £865,000 in compensation. Sir George ceded his mistress, Flora Shaw, to his staffer, Frederick Lugard, and what was left of the company became the Niger Company Limited, without the “Royal”. 29 years later, it returned to UACN and in the following decade, entered into the orbit of Lever Brothers. In the same decade, in 1936, Shonekan was born.

When UACN’s Chief Executive Officer, Chief Ernest Shonekan, assumed office as the Chief Executive of Nigeria in August, 1993, installed by soldiers, it was a remarkable fusion of the interests of the corporate, colonial and martial masters that were present at the invention of Nigeria nearly a century earlier. The soldiers toppled him because they wanted it clearly known that they were in charge of apportioning the booty. 28 years later in 2022, the soldiers are still in pole position as the undisputed masters, and guess what? Another election is in the offing. In Nigeria, history repeats itself over and over under three masters.

A lawyer and a teacher, Odinkalu can be reached at 

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