He worked as a teacher for a brief period before entering politics in 1951 and in 1954 was elected to the federal House of Representatives.
Shehu Usman Shagari was born in 1925 in the northern Shagari village founded by his great-grandfather, Ahmadu Rufa'i, who was also the Village Head, and took the name Shagari as his family name. His father's name is Aliyu and his mother's name is Mariamu.
His name, Usman, means "companion". He was raised in a polygamous family, and was the sixth child born into the family. Prior to becoming Magajin (magajin means village head) Shagari, Aliyu, Shehu's father was a farmer, trader and herder. However, due to traditional rites that prevented rulers from participating in business, Aliyu relinquished some of his trading interest when he became the Magaji, or village head, of Shagari village. Aliyu died five years after Shehu's birth, and Shehu's elder brother, Bello, briefly took on his father's mantle as Magajin Shagari.
Shagari started his education in a Quranic school and then went to live with relatives at a nearby town, where from 1931-1935 he attended Yabo elementary school. In 1936-1940, he went to Sokoto for middle school, and then from 1941-1944 he attended Kaduna College.
Between 1944 to 1952, Shehu Shagari, matriculated at the Teachers Training College, in Zaria, Kaduna, Nigeria. From 1953-1958, Shagari got a job as a visiting teacher at Sokoto Province. He was also a member of the Federal Scholarship Board from 1954-1958.
Shehu Usman Shagari entered politics in 1951, when he became the secretary of the Northern People’s Congress in Sokoto, Nigeria, a position he held until 1956.
In 1954, Shehu Shagari was elected into his first public office as a member of the federal House of Representative for Sokoto west. In 1958, Shagari was appointed as parliamentary secretary (he left the post in 1959) to the Nigerian Prime Minister, Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa and that year he also served as the Federal Minister for commerce and Industries.
From 1959-1960, Shagari was redeployed to the ministry for economic development, as the Federal Minister for Economic Development. In 1960-1962, he was moved to the Pensions ministry as the Federal Minister for Pensions. From 1962-1965, Shagari was made the Federal minister for internal affairs. From 1965 up until the first military coup in January 1966, Shagari was the Federal minister for works.
In 1967 he was appointed as the secretary for Sokoto province education development fund. From 1968-1969, Shagari was given a state position in the North Western State as commissioner for establishments.
After the Nigerian civil war, from 1970-1971, Shagari was appointed by the military head of state General Yakubu Gowon as the federal commissioner for economic development, rehabilitation and reconstruction.
From 1971-75 he served as the Federal commissioner (position now called minister) of finance. During his tenure as the commissioner of finance for Nigeria, Shagari was also a governor for the world bank and a member of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) committee of twenty.
In 1978, Shehu Shagari was a founding member of the National People’s Party. In 1979 Shagari was chosen by the party as the presidential candidate for general election that year, which he won becoming the president and head of state of the Federal Republic of Nigeria.
Shagari ran for a second four year term in 1983 and won the general election, however, on 31 December 1983, Shagari was overthrown by major general Muhammadu Buhari.
Shagari won the 1979 election with the help of his campaign manager, Umaru Dikko. The campaign had the support of many prominent politicians in the North and among southern minorities. The party's motto was "One Nation, One Destiny" and was seen as the party best representing Nigeria's diversity.
During the oil boom, Shagari made Housing, Industries, Transportation and Agriculture as the major goals of his administration. In transportation, he launched some road networks across the country. He also initiated a program to foster the use of mechanical machinery in farming. It favored large scale farmers in order to produce mass products. Shagari created a low cost housing scheme.
In 1980, with the oil revenue, Shagari finished building the Kaduna reﬁnery, which started operation that year. Also with the oil revenue, Shagari concluded the construction of an additional steel plant and three rolling mills at Ajaokuta, Nigeria. Shagari completed the Delta Steel complex in 1982. In 1983, Shagari created the Aluminum Smelter Company of Nigeria at Ikot Abasi, Nigeria. However, Shagari reduced the share of oil royalties and rents to state of origin from 30 to 2 percent.
Shagari's government embarked on a "Green Revolution", distributing seed and fertilliser to farmers to increase nationwide productivity in farming.
The fall in oil prices that began in 1981 affected the finances of the Nigerian government. Shagari initiated an Economic Stabilization Program to help protect the country against a hard landing from prior highs of the 1970s and to steer the economy towards positive growth. Key objectives of the program were to limit import licenses, reduce government spending and raise custom duties. However, the result from the stabilization program was minimal.
The Shagari administration was plagued by allegations of corruption, including allegations of electoral fraud in the 1983 election. This, coupled with a decline in world oil prices, and a deterioration in the national finances, hardship, lead to the regime becoming deeply unpopular with citizens. Shagari was overthrown by General Muhammadu Buhari in a military coup on December 31, 1983.
Shehu Shagari married three wives: Aishatu, Amina, Hadiza Shagari. He has many children.
On 24 August 2001, his wife, Aisha Shagari, died in a London hospital from a brief illness.
Grand Commander of the Order of the Federal Republic (GCFR)