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Shehu Shagari, elected leader who was deposed by Nigeria’s military, dies at 93

Mr. Shagari was president for just over four years, winning two elections.
Mr. Shagari was president for just over four years, winning two elections.(Associated Press/file)

NEW YORK — Shehu Shagari, the former president of Nigeria who sought to revive democratic rule only to be deposed by military officers impatient with his seeming inability to confront endemic corruption and economic crisis, died Friday in Abuja, the capital. He was 93.

Mr. Shagari died at the National Hospital after a brief illness, his grandson Bello Shagari said on Twitter.

It was a token of Nigeria’s long tug-of-war between the barracks and the ballot box that President Muhammadu Buhari — who, as an army general, removed Mr. Shagari from power in 1983 — returned to office in the 2015 elections. It was the first peaceful transfer of power between civilians of different political parties since Nigeria’s independence from Britain in 1960.

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By then, Mr. Shagari, patrician and mild-mannered, had become what his followers called an elder statesman as his country grappled with challenges that had become familiar: an almost reflexive recourse to graft; an economic malaise relating to falling prices of oil, Nigeria’s dominant foreign-currency earner; and a fierce divide between its northern Muslims and southern Christians that became ever more stark with the rise of a bloodthirsty jihadi movement called Boko Haram.

On his 90th birthday in 2015, President Goodluck Jonathan and five previous presidents came to visit him, Nigerian news reports said.

“I mourn the departure of a patriot, who served Nigeria with humility, integrity and diligence,” Buhari said Saturday on Twitter.

Mr. Shagari was president for just over four years, winning two elections, both of them disputed by his opponents. He was criticized by his adversaries for his meekness in governing Nigeria, sub-Saharan Africa’s most populous nation. Indeed, with his scholarly manners, the undemonstrative Mr. Shagari, a former schoolteacher raised as a devout Sunni Muslim, sometimes seemed an unlikely figurehead for a nation that projected itself as Africa’s colossus.

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He was the first civilian leader to take office under a constitution modeled on that of the United States, with an executive president, a bicameral legislature, and significant powers given to the governors of the country’s 19 federal states.

While most postindependence rulers were high-ranking soldiers bent on enforcing their will with scant regard for consensus-building, Mr. Shagari, in his flowing Islamic robes and distinctive beaded headgear, described himself as a conciliator who operated above the daily joust of Nigeria’s politics.

But he could not remain aloof from a global glut in oil that sent prices tumbling in the early 1980s, just as the people who had voted him into power were expecting better lives. In 1983, as economic troubles seized the land, he presided over one of his country’s most dramatic peacetime upheavals, ordering the expulsion of foreigners who had been drawn to Nigeria by its oil wealth.

Up to 2 million people, many of them Ghanaians, fled the country in what was seen as one of modern Africa’s biggest population shifts.

It was not the only sign of turmoil. In northern cities such as Kano and Maiduguri, followers of an Islamic cult rampaged for three successive years, sacking churches, attacking religious rivals, and threatening authorities’ ability to deal with sectarian passions.

In October 1982, Mr. Shagari was criticized by his foes for granting amnesty to 1,000 members of the Maitatsine cult — sometimes depicted as the forerunner of Boko Haram — who had been imprisoned since 1980. A month later, a fresh convulsion of violence killed hundreds of people and challenged the government to restore calm without calling on the military, an action that would have been seen as a tacit acknowledgment of civilian failure.

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It was on Mr. Shagari’s watch, too, that the authorities made it a priority to proceed with the construction of a new capital in Abuja to escape the chaos and tribal affiliations of Lagos, which remained the commercial heart of the country.

In theory, the location and design of the new capital were emblems of unity among the dominant ethnic groups, lying roughly equidistant from the Yoruba heartland in the southwest, Ibo strongholds in the east, and the largely Hausa Fulani north. The grand project, however, was slowed by the economic crisis and became a byword for lucrative construction contracts.

When Mr. Shagari was reelected for a brief second term in August 1983, shortly before his ouster on Dec. 31, Pat Utomi, a political scientist and commentator, remarked: “Nigerians see Shagari as a nice man, a gentle man, but not as a particularly strong man.”

Shehu Usman Aliyu Shagari was born Feb. 25, 1925, in a thatch-roofed house built of sunbaked clay in the village of Shagari, founded by his forebears near the city of Sokoto, according to “President and Power in Nigeria” (1982), a biography by British journalist David Williams. Sokoto, in northwest Nigeria, sits on a broad, arid savanna.

In later years, the honorific Alhaji was added to his name to denote his participation in the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca, which began in 1960.

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As permitted by Islamic law, Mr. Shagari was a polygamist, and he fathered numerous children. Nigerian news media said he had three wives, though Williams’s biography said he had four. Information about surviving family members was not immediately available. Mr. Shagari was the fifth child of Aliyu and Mariamu Shagari. His father was a farmer and a trader before he became the village’s headman.