By Reuben Abati
General Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida (IBB), Nigeria’s military Head of State, 1985–1993 is arguably the most controversial person to have ever led Nigeria since independence. He turns 80 next week, August 17. Ahead of that birthday, he granted an interview to Arise TV, aired Friday, August 6, which has understandably generated considerable interest.
It has been a while since Nigerians heard directly from IBB. More recent stories about him focussed on speculations about the state of his health. Given the controversial nature of his place in Nigerian history, many also obviously waited for that interview out of curiousity. There have been reactions from different quarters. The most telling reaction for me was someone making the remark that she was pleasantly surprised that IBB is still alive. I was shocked.
She added that no other Nigerian President has been more abused by Nigerians, and if curses could kill, IBB should have been long dead and forgotten. In the wake of the annulment of the 1993 Presidential election by the Babangida junta, activists in the South West rained curses on IBB. Old women stripped themselves naked, based on the general cultural belief that if an old woman curses anyone with her exposed chest, such a person is doomed for life. Hurriedly- made wooden coffins were paraded on the streets of Lagos, and mock funerals were conducted. IBB’s offence was his annulment of the 1993 Presidential election. The lady remarked that her only take-away from the Babangida interview is how God has a way of preserving the wicked. That is the kind of man IBB is. He evokes extreme passions of opposite variety with near-equal intensity. For me, the very idea of the interview alone was useful. Getting IBB to talk at all was an achievement for Arise TV, and a special career moment for Ngozi Alaegbu, the anchor.
At 80, IBB has aged quite well. His faculties remain sharp. He was articulate, and witty as ever. His responses showed maturity and diplomacy, but a closer interrogation reveals that he is still the same foxy manipulator of public perception. Nonetheless, there were parts of the interview that one could easily agree with and others that sounded rather fishy. IBB was right to have complained about how the major problem with Nigeria today is the “tyranny of the elite”. Other countries are able to move forward and achieve more than their potential, and inspire the people to greatness because of a certain elite consensus in that direction and the impact of responsible leadership. But here in Nigeria, “there is a disconnect between leadership and followership” as IBB argues. The people do not trust their leaders. The leaders themselves do not care enough. IBB blames them for sowing the seeds of disunity in the country. What I did not hear him say is how he is one of the same leaders that he blames.
On the question of the economy, IBB expressed the view that there is too much control in running the economy and that there is need to open it up further. Perhaps he is right. Government tends to ruin every investment it manages by itself in the long run. He says the Nigerian military is overstretched, and that for Nigeria to make any difference in the war against insecurity, our soldiers need to do more, believe in what they are fighting for, they must be well-trained, well-led and well equipped. He also talked about inconsistency in government policies. Well, that didn’t start today. There are critics who would trace that inconsistency back to the Babangida era. On the state of the Nigerian economy, IBB says the fact that the economy has not collapsed is an indication that the government is working. If the economy were to collapse, we would all be dead, the way we died a little when the Babangida administration introduced the Structural Adjustment Programme (SAP) in the mid-80s. It was also interesting to see the senior citizen defending the supremacy of the rule of law, when he said “nobody should disobey lawful orders in a democracy.” But should anyone do so at all, at any time? Under the Babangida junta, the courts were routinely disobeyed. IBB is now a democrat defending the rule of law!
The more common-sensical aspects of his interview should be easier for many Nigerians to deal with, but there were a few controversial points made by the retired General, and elder statesman, which have set the tone for public discourse in the last few days. He does not consider zoning or rotational Presidency a good idea, rather he defends merit and competence, and that the democratic process must produce a candidate of merit, regardless of where such a candidate comes from. The problem with this is that there are Nigerians whose geographical zone in the country has never produced a Nigerian Head of State since the return to democracy in 1999. They want the Presidency zoned to their own area also, in line with Sections 14(3) and 14(4) of the 1999 Constitution to ensure a sense of common ownership and to allay fears of marginalization. Is IBB aware of the conversation around this? Is he aware of the Igbo agitation for Presidency? Or the position of the 17 Southern Governors in the South who have specifically demanded that the Presidency of Nigeria in 2023 must be zoned to the South? The future of Nigeria depends in part on how the matter of common rights under the law is resolved democratically and not through the mechanism of the tyranny of a minority elite.
He thinks that a “one-party state” cannot happen in Nigeria because Nigerians “will not allow it to happen”. Fact-check: the country is already drifting towards a one-party state system with the gale of defections from other political parties into the ruling All Progressives Congress, and the looming implosion within the major opposition party, the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP). The relevance of the two-party system that IBB recommends as the best option for the country is belied by the crisis in the country’s two major political parties. The view that the various other political parties do not really matter contradicts his other views about the need to practice democracy the way it is done elsewhere. In the United States, two political parties may be dominant but there are so many other political parties representing the views and beliefs of others, including minority groups and it is the existence of such pluralism and diversity that democracy is all about. We should understand where General IBB is coming from. He was the architect of a political system that limited Nigeria’s democracy to two political parties: the SDP and the NRC, but that experiment failed because the reduction of Nigeria’s political system to a vague synecdoche: “a little to the left and a little to the right” made it possible for the military and civilian elite to manipulate and violate the people’s will in the 90s. Nigeria is yet to recover.
General IBB struggled to use the interview to defend his legacy and rewrite history, and he made quite a spirited effort in that direction. His repeated references to the importance of democratic rule and the supremacy of the rule of law are at best ironic and revisionist. He tells us that the Structural Adjustment Programme (SAP) of 1986 was a sound economic policy and that his administration has been proven right. When his attention was drawn to how SAP created problems for the country, his quick response was that “other people took advantage of what we did.” SAP was the beginning of our economic woes and the root of other ills in the Nigerian society. After the introduction of SAP, which was meant to be a life-saving economic policy, Nigeria began a journey towards the precipice. The first major fuel price increase in Nigeria was under SAP in 1988. Three decades later, IBB speaks of SAP so proudly. He can do so because Nigerians tend to forget so easily. We are so tied to the present, and so troubled, memory is a burden. But anyone who lived through the period of the 80s should not forget the SAP riots of 1989. The many, including students and unionist that were murdered in cold blood. The collapse of the education system, and the gradual impoverishment of Nigerians. By the time IBB decided “to step aside” in 1993, Nigeria was no better than an accident victim on life support, with broken limbs.
It is again one of those ironies that IBB can boast that he and other members of his junta were saints compared to the present administration. He talks about how his government fought corruption. “So tell me who is better at fighting corruption?” For the benefit of those who may have forgotten, once upon a time in this country, General Babangida was considered a villain. In fact, the 1989 riot was in part a protest against institutionalised corruption! It is a sign of how bad things have become since then that the same leader can look straight into our faces and tell us that the epithet, Maradona that was used to describe him was an acknowledgement of his “deft, political moves”. He even laughs at the oxymoronic description of his persona: “the evil genius”: “I marvel at that. The contradiction – you can’t be evil and then a genius.”” To tell ourselves the truth, yes, a genius can be evil in the deployment of his talent, and the corresponding impact. The term “Maradona” referred to his foxy and manipulative tendencies. In the quarter final match between Argentina and England in the 1986 FIFA World Cup, Argentine football genius, Diego Maradona scored a goal with his hand. He later called it “The Hand of God” goal. In these days of VAR technology in soccer, that goal would have been disqualified, but he got away with it. IBB as Nigeria’s leader was infamous for such devious manoeuvres.
But perhaps the most astonishing part of the retired military ruler’s revisionism is his excuse for the annulment of the June 12, 1993 Presidential election. He says “If it materialised, there would have been a coup d’état – which could have been violent. That’s all I can confirm. It didn’t happen thanks to the engineering and the “Maradonic’ way we handled you guys in the society. But that could have given room for more instability in the country.” Afenifere and NADECO chieftains and others have appropriately taken up General Babangida to remind him of the truth. Nigerians elected Bashorun MKO Abiola, as Nigeria’s President. The election was free and fair. For the first time in Nigerian history, a Presidential candidate secured majority votes in virtually every part of the country. It was a truly historic, myth-defying election with a high voter turn-out. But IBB and his friends truncated the process because of the fear of a coup. These were Generals who were master coup planners. IBB was so good at planning coups it was said he had taken part in every coup in Nigeria since July 1966. In 1985, he decided to take charge directly by removing Major-General Muhammadu Buhari from power.
IBB himself would not tolerate any such act of treason and treachery. When his friend, the soldier and poet, General Mamman Vatsa was implicated in a coup against the Babangida administration, IBB got him killed. The same man now tells us, he was afraid of a coup so he annulled a people’s election. He staged a coup against the people of Nigeria. MKO Abiola was his friend too. MKO died in that struggle. And now IBB dances on his grave. And on the graves of many other Nigerians who lost their lives, leaving behind widows, widowers and orphans. If this is meant to be another Maradonic move, it is important to call it out for what it is: cruelty. It would have been better if MKO Abiola had been allowed to claim his mandate. Even if a coup was organised against him, IBB owed him and the people of Nigeria a duty to make that coup impossible. Even if MKO Abiola died in that imaginary coup, it would have been on record that he died in the palace of democracy not in the hands of tyrants. How does IBB feel today, now that Buhari has recognised June 12 and MKO Abiola?
Today, General IBB is the same man now prescribing criteria for Nigeria’s next President in 2023. Hear him in his own words: “I have started visualising a good Nigerian leader. He should be a person who travels this country and has friends in every state of the country; a person who is very vast in the economy, a person who is a good politician who is ready to talk to Nigerians. I have seen about three already. The person should be in his 60s and I believe if we get such a person, Nigeria will get it right.” I disagree with his emphasis on an age bracket. It amounts to needless politics of exclusion. The problem with Nigerian leaders is not their biological age. It is the age of their ideas. In the United States, Bill Clinton became President at 47. President Barack Obama at 48. But after Obama, Americans elected Donald Trump, a 71-year old man. Current President Joe Biden came into office at 78.
We need a mixture of every demographic category to move Nigeria forward from the old order to a new place. But IBB is right about the knowledge of economic issues and the need to have a bridge-builder and a nationalist in office. My only worry is that Bashorun MKO Abiola met all the criteria outlined by IBB. In 1993, when he won the Presidential election, MKO was 55. He was also a man who had a great knowledge of the economy having established himself as a global entrepreneur. He was in addition, a Chartered Accountant. He also had friends from all parts of Nigeria and the entire world. No Nigerian before now fits IBB’s criteria better than MKO. As the General turns 80, is his conscience beginning to prick him, hence he recommends a future President in Abiola’s image?