On August 17, General Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida (IBB), joined the ranks of Octogenarians. And even among that lucky species in Nigeria, a few elder statesmen stand out; that’s the group that should welcome IBB into their fold.
Interestingly, in a nation where sycophants are two for a kobo, a few of them may want to keep their distance from him. Why? They would regard him as a heroic failure because of the tragic loss of his last battle. That war was fought on the political landscape between 1985 and 1993. Yet, this is a well-decorated General, a civil war hero, who single-handedly thwarted the bloody coup of February 1976 in which General Murtala Muhammed, then head of state, lost his life.
Nine years later, in August 1985, Babangida staged his own palace coup from the vantage position of Chief of Army Staff. The man he toppled, General Muhammadu Buhari, had been in power for just 20 months. But it was 20 months of unbridled terror. Though not a few thought Buhari meant well, what with his war against indiscipline, which later metamorphosed into tyranny. He was simply draconian in the manner his regime went about their self-given mandate. He set up tribunals that jailed politicians from a part of the country hundreds of years for corruption which details were very opaque; he used the Nigerian Security Organisation to detain all manner of people without trial, and the icing on the cake on Buhari’s excesses was the execution of two drug couriers with a retroactive decree.
That was the atmosphere of despair from which IBB’s coup rescued Nigerians. Thankfully, the coup was bloodless. As he settled down in the office, IBB’s style immediately set him apart from his predecessor. While Buhari was taciturn, Babangida is a smooth talker who expresses himself with candour. Against the backdrop of his predecessor’s draconian style, Nigerians initially regarded him as a humane leader. However, time later unraveled the real IBB. He spent eight years in office, during which he embarked on an endless transition programme, which finally ended in a cul-de-sac. Thus when he exited power on August 25, 1993, according to him, by “stepping aside’’, his tail between his legs. It was a sad day for a man “trained to dominate my (his) environment.” For once, he was thoroughly dominated.
Babangida recently granted an interview to Arise TV. It was, in the main, a good interview. The only hiccups being the many follow-up questions that the interviewer spared him. Had those questions been put to him, IBB would perhaps have faltered at what he knows best to do, his pontifications. The interview succeeded, though, in burnishing the image of a General who was not only outsmarted but also disgraced in his final battle. Despite numerous rumours on social media of late about his poor health, at the interview, IBB looked good. That interview would remain in the public domain for a while.
On why he annulled the results of June 12, 1993, presidential election, Babangida claimed if he had not annulled it, there would have been a coup, which would have been bloody and destabilising for the nation. The General is free to continue in his daydreams in his twilight years. He is entitled to them. Discerning Nigerians knew for sure there was a coup in 1993. The first leg of the coup shooed him out of power on 25 August 1993. Babangida’s so-called stepping aside was a face-saving strategy. The man who toppled IBB was General Sani Abacha, the then Chief of Army Staff, his alter-ego, long regarded in their circle as the Calipha. To fool Nigerians, Ernest Shonekan, a respected businessman, was made an interim head of state with a directive to organise another presidential election in 1994. However, there was a provision in the decree setting up the ING, that in the case at any point, if Shonekan was unable to continue as head of state, the “most senior minister” should take over from him. A cursory glance through the cabinet list showed that Sani Abacha was the one to whom the document referred. And exactly 83 days after Babangida’s exit, Abacha shooed Shonekan out of Aso Rock and became head of state.
Before sending Shonekan packing, Abacha, in private discussions with Moshood Abiola, the June 12 presidential election winner, allegedly hinted the latter about the coup. The main purpose of which was to quash the annulment of Abiola’s mandate and swear him in. It was all a fool’s paradise. Abiola believed Abacha so much that he was said to have recommended some names for Abacha’s cabinet. Late human rights lawyer and the scourge of dictators, Chief Gani Fawehinmi, was offered attorney general and minister of justice’s post. He turned down the offer. He argued that if the coup was about swearing in Abiola, there was no need for a new attorney general of the federation. A few days later, Olu Onagoruwa, another human rights and constitutional lawyer, accepted the position.
Back to IBB. His transition programme was largely a smokescreen. Chief Obafemi Awolowo was one of the first few people to see through that smokescreen. Early in 1986, a few months into his tenure, Babangida set up the Samuel Cookey Commission, otherwise known as the Political Bureau. Its mandate was to design a new political and social order for Nigeria. Awolowo declined the invitation to him by Cookey to be a member of the Commission. Part of his letter read thus, “Something within me tells me, loud and clear, that we have embarked on a fruitless search. At the end of the day, when we imagine that the new order is here, we would be terribly disappointed.” And that was exactly what happened in 1993, seven years after the sage’s prediction. By which time the political colossus had transited to glory.
Perhaps, when Babangida took over power, he was the most prepared intellectually for his adventure in power. He had not only trained in the best military academies in the world; he had distinguished himself in several command positions, culminating in his appointment as Chief of Army Staff. Thus, when he sacked Buhari, ably supported by Abacha and others, from power, he knew exactly what he wanted to do with the self-acquired mandate. His role models were Egyptian and Libyan military dictators Hosni Mubarak and Muammar Gadaffi. The latter, who was in power from 1969 to 2010, when he was killed, came up with the Third International Theory, outlined in his Green Book. Perhaps, that was the goal Babangida had in mind with his political bureau. Professor Bolaji Akinyemi, who was Babangida’s foreign affairs minister, founded the Concert of Medium Powers. What’s not in doubt is that no matter their claim to the contrary, military dictators have the penchant for wanting to rule for life. And that was Babangida’s goal.
In his case, though, he had a challenge, keeping to the letters of the said unwritten accord between him and Abacha, the anointed successor. And Abacha was not ready to forfeit that opportunity to become head of state. Thus, as IBB did all kinds of permutations, banning and unbanning politicians to clear the way for his self-succession, the relationship between him and Abacha became frosty. They started playing cat and mouse games. And Babangida, who was labeled Maradona for his antics on the political landscape, finally dribbled himself into the June 12 hole with the annulment. The ensuing anarchy gave Abacha and those of his ilk in the military who no longer cared for a life in the Barracks the weapon they needed to kick out Babangida, who prides himself as the evil genius.
While surely IBB cannot be denied his place in Nigerian history, many Nigerians are convinced that if he had not annulled the June 12 election, Babangida would have gone down in history as the founder of a new Nigeria. That presidential election remains the freest and fairest in the Nation’s history. All the six presidential elections we have had since then had fallen short of its high standards. On June 12, 1993, Nigerians ignored ethnicity and religious differences to elect Moshood Abiola and Babagana Kingibe, two Muslims, as President and Vice President, respectively. And it was in recognition of the injustice done to Abiola, a Yoruba man, by Babangida that led to the emergence of two Yoruba men, General Olusegun Obasanjo and Chief Olu Falae, getting the tickets of the two major political parties in the 1999 presidential election. Obasanjo won. It’s doubtful if these two scenarios would ever be repeated in Nigeria presently torn apart by ethnic and religious differences.
Perhaps, if the failure had not been IBB’s final legacy in office, there would have been a sequel to Chidi Amuta’s book, “Prince of the Niger”, a compendium on the Babangida years published in 1992. That such is not known to be in the works 28 years after his exit from power speaks volumes. Though going by his pontifications in his recent interview, IBB may want Nigerians to believe there is a lot to learn from his leadership style, nationalism, and fighting anti-corruption in his years in power. Methinks, the lessons are not positively impactful. However, there is a lot to learn about how he became a heroic failure when victory was within his grasp in his final battle.
Akinkuotu, a Founding Editor of TELL Magazine, was also Executive Editor of the newsweekly.