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Babangida’s legacy: Matters arising from his birthday interview


General Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida (IBB), Nigeria’s former military ruler, will be 80 tomorrow, August 17, 2021. Congratulations are in order. Happy birthday, IBB! That said, this piece is about the issues he raised in his birthday interview with Arise TV, aired on Friday, August 6.

First, General Babangida said he had no regrets about anything he did in power; second, he spoke presumptuously about Nigeria’s unity. These views deserve a response because, as a major architect of Nigeria’s current state, Babangida cannot rewrite history.

Let us start with IBB’s legacy. In power, Babangida, known as the evil genius, was a bundle of contradictions. Thus, the verdict of history would be mixed. He did good things, but his evil deeds cast dark shadows over his good. So, what are Babangida’s good deeds?

First, the economy. General Babangida liberalised Nigeria’s economy, with far-reaching pro-market measures, including trade and investment liberalisation and privatisation of public enterprises. Babangida told Arise TV: “I believe in a free market economy”. He said that “there is too much control in the way the economy is being run”, adding: “We should open it further”. Babangida will be remembered as a strong driver and voice of economic openness in Nigeria.

Read Also: IBB: Corruption worse under civilian leaders than military rulers

Furthermore, General Babangida was a detribalised leader. He said in the Arise TV interview: “I feel comfortable wherever I am, whether in Minna or Lagos, and I quickly make friends”. That’s true. Babangida understood the dynamics and sensitivities of Nigeria’s ethnic groups and was overwhelmingly better than President Buhari at managing Nigeria’s diversity.

Babangida told Arise TV that Nigeria’s next president should have the following qualities: “A person who travels in this country and has a friend virtually everywhere and who knows at least one person he can communicate with; a person who is very versed in economics, and then a good politician who should be able to talk to Nigerians”. Apart from the limit he put on the president’s age – in the 60s – these are truly qualities a Nigerian president should have. Babangida demonstrated these qualities in power, but Buhari utterly lacks them. He’s too aloof and removed from Nigerians.

As leader, Babangida smooched and sweet-talked Nigerians. He engaged them on whether to take an IMF loan; he engaged them on a political transition programme to return Nigeria to civil rule. Indeed, he made dialogue and consultation the governing principle of his regime.

But here’s the rub. Living up to his reputation as Maradona and Evil Genius, Babangida acted purely for self-interested reasons. At every turn, he deceived and manipulated Nigerians. He pulled wool over their eyes, conducted a presidential election and then arbitrarily annulled it.

Read Also: 2023: Who will rebuild Nigeria?

Even today, Babangida glibly explains away his annulment of the June 12, 1993 presidential election, presumed won by MKO Abiola. “You want me to be honest with you?”, Babangida told Ngozi Alaegbu, the Arise TV interviewer. “If it materialised (that is, if Abiola became president), there would have been a coup d’etat which would have been violent”! In other words, had Abiola become president, he would have been killed in a violent coup!

My reaction was: So what? Didn’t Abiola eventually die in prison? Didn’t General Sani Abacha eventually seize power and run a violent, bloody regime? Except, as some speculated, Babangida had a gun to his head and was forced to annul the election, which he denies, he should have handed over to Abiola and let events take their course. History would have judged him differently.

Sadly, 28 years after the annulment, the truth is still out there. In 1994, Lt-General Oladipo Diya, then Abacha’s deputy, told a different story. In one interview, Diya said: “The annulment was a disappointment. But General Babangida should be held responsible; he didn’t want to go. I was the 8th or 9th in the hierarchy of the Armed Forces at the time. Babangida won’t say he called the Armed Forces’ officers to discuss the annulment. He only called us after the annulment”.

Let’s face it, Babangida either annulled the election to cling on to power or, as President Olusegun Obasanjo says, out of “bad belle”! Whichever, it was an evil deed.

If the Civil War settled Nigeria’s unity, why is the military preparing for another war?

Then, there was the evil deed of corruption. In a World Bank book titled Voting for Reform, Professors Jeffrey Herbst and Adebayo Olukoshi wrote: “Under the Babangida regime, unbudgeted expenditure, extra budgetary accounts and secret accounts became significant”. They said the regime created a patron-client network and used “side payments, bribes and patronage” to maintain it. Babangida is right that corruption is worse today than under his regime, but he can’t deny responsibility for hugely corrupting Nigerian politics.

All of which brings me to Babangida’s views on Nigeria’s unity. He told Arise TV: “When we were in the military, we talked about certain issues about Nigeria. The unity of Nigeria, as far as we were concerned, was a settled issue; presidentialism was a settled issue”. Asked if “settled” meant non-negotiable, he said yes! He also rejected regionalism.

But beyond having the weapons to enforce their will, what special intelligence or monopoly of wisdom did the military have to settle issues for Nigeria? How were they wiser than Nigeria’s founding fathers who negotiated the 1963 Constitution based on parliamentary system, regional autonomy and a federal union? In case anyone asks, the First Republic failed because of political intolerance and military adventurism, not because of parliamentarianism or regionalism, which are the preferred systems in most multi-ethnic countries.

And when did Nigeria’s unity become a settled issue? Babangida said 51 years ago; meaning the Civil War settled it. But if the Civil War settled Nigeria’s unity, why is the military preparing for another war? Recently, the Chief of Army Staff warned secessionists: “We are more equipped now than before the Civil War”. Truth is, Nigeria’s unity cannot be settled by military force, but through a negotiated political and constitutional settlement.

Babangida blamed the tyranny of the political elite for Nigeria’s current woes. But the tyranny of the military elite created Nigeria’s unworkable politico-governance structures. Nigeria must break free from the strictures of the military’s “settled issues” and negotiate an enduring political and constitutional settlement. Nigeria’s unity can’t be a settled issue without proper restructuring.

As for Babangida’s “no regrets” comment, he should reflect more deeply on his past!