A PRESIDENT AND HIS REGIME

B.Y Muhammad


“When leaders are ordinary, public discourses resort to issues; when they are very bad or (very) outstanding (as IBB), the focus tends to be on the leader, and for them the man becomes the issue while issues revolve around the man”.


 The regime which ruled Nigeria between August 27th, 1985 and August 26th, 1993 under the presidency of Gen. Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida, was the President’s personal regime in many senses. He intended it, he prepared for it, he chose the moment to launch it, and for eight years in the main, he planned its course in an effort to create a modern egalitarian economy and a model democratic polity.

Until his regime bowed out of power in 1993, following the nullification of the June 12th, 1993 presidential elections, he had successfully transformed the political, social and economic landscape of Nigeria. Though, the failure of his pet project, the transition to civil rule program led, unfortunately, to the failure of other well intentioned programs, the aims which he sought to realize were modern nationalist aspirations, and the policies and the strategies for their realization had been imposed by him. Therefore, if he had succeeded, it would have been a personal success. Consequently, when he failed too, the failure was his. So obviously his that, today, almost all the blame for the omissions and commissions of his regime are directed towards his personality.

Certainly, there are reservations to be made. The course of the AFRC, even in its earliest most successful years, did not exactly correspond with Babangida’s preconceived plans. It could not, because his plans, though fixed in their ultimate purpose, were always elastic in detail. Always, up to the last moment, Babangida nursed alternative projects, and his final choice of method would depend on circumstances. And as these circumstances varied, so his plans varied too. They varied particularly in relation to the attitude and reactions of Nigerians.

For instance, when he came to power, his main priority was to reform the socio-economic and political institutions of the country through a package of reforms, which were constructed on two pillars, namely, the Structural Adjustment and the Transition to Civil Rule Programs. He could have set out to achieve his objectives by imposing his ideas or will on the nation; rather he adopted the consensual approach, by allowing public debate and intellectual discourse to guide him. When the Political Bureau, which he established in the early years of his administration to chart a new political course for the country recommended the system of two parties as a panacea to the chronic political instability in the country, he was of “the sincere hope and belief that Nigerians would embark upon the process of forming political associations on the basis of philosophy, policies, issues and programs”.

To his surprise, however, “these new breed associations, which were expected to
transcend those lines of cleavage and promote issues – based politics, instead,
relapsed into debilitating in-fighting, each group within itself…. Healthy debates over policies and programs gave way to conflicts over the sharing of party offices and government posts. Thuggery, which was the bane of our past political experiments and which has been specifically outlawed by the 1989 constitution, surfaced this time as early as during the pre-registration phase”.

He was of the view that Nigerians, as civilized and hospitable as they are, could not allow an unlimited “number of political misdeeds that can be perpetrated with impunity in the name of being a developing nation experimenting with democracy”.

With this development, he proscribed the thirteen political associations that had applied for registration, and instead, created two government sponsored parties, the Social Democratic Party, SDP, and the National Republican Convention, NRC, and provided their modus operandi. The inability of the political class to follow the modus operandi of this system led to series of nullification of elections. The climax of all these was the nullification of the June 12th, 1993 presidential election, which was presumed to have been won by Chief Moshood Abiola, now late. The crisis that followed the nullification also led to the establishment of an Interim National Government to conclude the transition program. All these were changes of circumstances to which he responded.

It is not true, as has often been said that the whole transition was designed to ensure his regime’s tenure elongation or personal succession, thus designing stringent conditions, which were almost impossible for politicians to satisfy. General Babangida argues that the rules “were simple and straight forward and there was enough time to satisfy them. Granted, the guidelines required hard work and seriousness before they could be satisfied”. Any honest observer knows that the struggle for power in Nigeria has been the struggle of the rich, and not of ideals, the powerful and not of the downtrodden, the oppressor, and not of the oppressed. This norm was in sharp contrast to the political order he wanted to establish.

The General could not have envisaged the idea of creating a two-state sponsored parties and handing over power to an Interim National Government on his assumption of power on August 27, 1985. He had hoped that the new-breed politicians he nurtured would work harder and seriously to fix themselves in the orbit of the new political order he hoped to bequeath Nigerians. If they had lived up to his expectations or aspired to his world view, there would not have been SDP and NRC; there would not have been option A4; and possibly, there would not have been June 12, let alone, an Interim National Government.

Babangida took account of circumstances and was ready for change. For this, his critics may argue that he did not follow a consistent policy. He merely followed events, Of course, Babangida followed events. But all events are products of ideas; without ideas there cannot be events; and while it takes time for ideas to mature, events move faster, faster sometimes than time. No man, whatever his power or his genius can control all events. Every politician makes use of them. But if Babangida’s policies were elastic, if he was always up to the last moment of decision, had three strings to his bow, these were always alternative means to the same end, and that end was constant.

The realization of these grandiose ambitions entailed the banning or disqualification of certain categories of Nigerians from participating in the politics of the transition, the proscription of thirteen political associations which applied for registration as political parties, and the establishment of two grassroots parties, which operated under very strict guidelines. The re-designing of “the institutional base of governance and development in the country required the establishment of such critical and indispensable agencies as the Directorate for Social Mobilization (MAMSER)” and etc. He restructured the civil and public services, deregulated the system of governance from the federal to the local government levels.

Babangida believed that if he wanted to restructure the Nigerian economy within the shortest possible time, there were strong practical reasons for working as closely as possible with the prevailing global economic system, and if doing so would produce the results he wanted – economic recovery and social justice – in the short – run, he saw no reason why he should throw the economy into turmoil by adopting untried radical theories which were irrelevant to the Nigerian situation.

And this meant the “establishment of a realistic external value for the local currency, the Naira through the operation of a foreign exchange market; the adoption of measures to stimulate domestic agricultural and industrial production, including non-oil exports; the rationalization of tariffs to grant protection to local industries and, thereby, facilitate industrial growth and diversification; movement in the direction of improved trade and payments liberalization; and simultaneous reduction of complex administrative controls, with greater reliance on market forces for purposes of resource allocation”.

As a General, Babangida saw the military as an instrument of power in which the qualities to be valued were discipline, unity and sacrifice, and therefore, wasted no time in its re-organisation in the image he deemed suitable for a modern army. The main thrust of the re-organisation was to make the military responsive to the Nigerian society, re-organise its command structure, retirements, broaden its
professional outlook, and re-equip it to become one of the most highly mobilised armies in the African continent. Babangida, recognised the need to broaden the knowledge and worldview of the officer corps of the military beyond their narrow field of military specialisation, and therefore, worked to ensure that the Nigerian Defence Academy (NDA) was elevated to a University to offer them training in the civil disciplines of knowledge.

Babangida was no push over in military science and his experience and talents in military matters cannot be adequately described here. A lifetime’s career and interest in the military had led him to read widely in the history and science of war, and he had developed a remarkable memory for details.

Babangida’s commitment to radical reforms in the military could be noticed in his position as the first commander of the Nigerian Army Armoured Corps between 1977 and 1979. His grasp of the technological revolution in warfare opened his mind to the significance of the armoured corps in a modern Nigerian Army. Before his tenure, the Nigerian Army had only some poorly equipped recce regiments, which relied on outmoded and obsolete Saracen and Saladin scout cars for their recce operations. Babangida’s primary task was to replace the obsolete scout cars with the modern Panhard, Fox and Scorpion scout cars. He revolutionised the armoured corps by establishing an armour school in which armoured officers were trained like their artillery counterparts. This single major strategic innovation produced highly trained and disciplined armoured officers, who became way ahead of their counterparts in other armies in Africa in any professional opinion. He realised that the greatest weakness of the army was its lack of modern mechanised equipment, and therefore, for the first time, modern tanks like T55 and modern Vickers main battle tanks were introduced into the arsenal of the armoured corps. He also encouraged the training of officers of the armoured corps in training institutions abroad in order to expose them to modern tank and armoured warfare and tactics.

Such was Babangida’s programme, as he planned it, and as he came out in the years leading up to 1993. He did not, like his predecessors, blunder into power; he came into power with an open eyes, having served as a member of the Supreme Military Council, under the regimes of Generals Murtala Muhammed/Olusegun Obasanjo between 1976 and 1979, and under the Supreme Military Council of General Muhammadu Buhari, and since his eyes were open, and that of his colleagues half-shut, or smarting from the dust which he himself had thrown in them he was determined that he alone should control his administration. He alone understood his whole policies; he alone could vary its details to meet circumstances, and yet keep its ultimate aims and essential course constant. He believed that politics and governance was far too serious a business to be left in the hands of his generals, ministers and governors, or indeed, to anyone else. There is a rumour that when he came to power in 1985, Babangida told his colleagues in the AFRC that he wanted to be designated as “President”, instead of the traditional “head of state” common under military regimes. Few, if any suspected that the type of president he wanted was not the contemptible ceremonial and lame-duck type, but the type of president who would dominate not only his immediate environment – AFRC and the military – but the external environment – the entire country, if not the entire West African sub-region.

Those who could see – it is plain some did see -thought that being a president would be a limitation to Babangida’s powers, and would be an opportunity and added responsibility for them to be running the major affairs of the state on his behalf. How fatal it would be to let such men prescribe strategy!! It was thus essential for him to control strategy, as it had been to control policy. By assuming to himself the position of President and Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces, he created a powerful presidency unparalleled in the history of Nigeria with various specialized agencies and extra-ministerial departments, staffed by carefully chosen supporters and critics alike. It was through this powerful machinery of the presidency that he applied his ideas and controlled his policies throughout his reign.

The presidential machinery was necessary if he was to realize his ultimate ambition to re-construct Nigeria, politically, socially and economically. Such an ambition could be a very serious matter. It could not, Babangida believed, be left in the hands of his ministers to carry out unmonitored. Only him, he believed, had the qualities for such a herculean task; the vision, the combination of military and political will power. Therefore, he must personally supervise the whole program of genuine democratisation of the polity and socio-economic reconstruction from beginning to end. Nor could it be left in the hands of his subordinates, his ministers and generals, who as careerists and academicians, and as professional soldiers disliked the prospects of great social and political upheavals, whose consequences could undermine, if not upturn their social and political class.

Indeed, to ban the political heavyweights of the first and second republics, serving and retired generals from politics; to devalue the over-valued Naira; to withdraw subsidies on petroleum products; to abolish the import license system, which hitherto was the monopoly of a privileged class; in short, to take bold political and economic measures were dangerous prospects which could alarm anybody. The violent Anti-SAP demonstrations, labour crises and bloody coup attempts during his reign were all consequences of the bold political and economic measures he implemented. To undertake or envisage such an ambitious program with confidence, one ought not to be a conservative general, but a reforming revolutionary and nationalist, able to command an obedient, if reluctant, nation; certainly, a Babangida and Maradona.

This does not however, imply dictatorship of a sort. For, whatever his convictions about his own political and strategically genius, he did not necessarily prefer the use of force to implement his policies. He counted himself first, a political genius, and the way he took the nation with him in all his political and economic experiments, despite their harsh and bitter consequences on the average citizen, can well confirm him in that estimate. As a strategist, Babangida was never lacking in imagination, as his constant search for ways of taking his opponents and admirers by surprise shows. Certainly, he had a characteristic display of uncertainty and surprise, which preceded so many of his major decisions.

It was also characteristic of Babangida that he did not impose his ideas on Nigerians. Much as he desired a revolutionary change in the political, economic and social structures of Nigeria, he nevertheless left the means and methods of achieving his objectives to the dictates of public opinion. Babangida was too astute a leader to recognise that nothing would do more to write home his success as a leader than economic success. At the same time, he knew from historical experience that a successful socio-economic revolution would be meaningless unless it is complemented with a political revolution. Babangida was aware of the importance and possibilities of manipulating public opinion and he used it to maximum advantage to transform the consciousness of Nigerians to correspond to his constantly respected belief that it was only the modernisation of Nigeria’s political, economic and social structures that would be the determining factor in Nigeria’s history.

This explains the enthusiasm, which his invitation for a debate on the economic and political future of the country generated across the country. The debate, among other policies and measures, which Babangida took in the early days of his regime, demonstrated his ability to tackle the problems of a huge and complex country like Nigeria. Besides, the cunning and manipulation deployed in these political maneuvers won him the hearts of Nigerians. And for the first time in the political history of Nigeria, there was a general enthusiasm and belief among Nigerians of all classes that they had finally got a leader and a government which listened and acted with decisiveness and confidence in the future, and did so not by repudiating but reasserting faith in the traditional Nigerian values of regard for justice, order and security and respect for morality and religion.

Babangida was always conscious of his place in history, and for that reason attempted too much within a shorter time, thus becoming a prisoner of history. The mission he set for himself and his administration was no doubt historic, and when one attempts to turn history round, as he did, one has to forget the time factor altogether. The new Nigeria he wanted to build could not have been accomplished within a period of eight years. His inability to appreciate this fact was probably, his greatest failure.

Perhaps, no Nigerian leader has attempted so much in a short time as Babangida did; certainly, no Nigerian leader has adversely or positively altered the lives of so many as he did; and no Nigerian leader has inspired widespread adoration and has become the hope and ideal of millions as Babangida. Today, among his faithful followers, he is the national hero; to his opponents he is the evil genius.

To achieve what he did, Babangida needed – and possessed – talents out of the ordinary, which in sum amounted to political genius. His mastery of the irrational factors in politics, his insight into the weakness of his opponents, his gift for simplification, his sense of timing, his willingness to take risks, left nobody in doubt. Showing both consistency and an astonishing power of will in pursuing his aims, he retained an unshaken belief in his historic role in Nigeria’s development.

The fact that his transition failed to give birth to a democratically elected government in 1993 that would have “obviated the need for any further military intervention in the political life” of Nigeria, does not by itself detract from Babangida’s greatness. The Babangida administration, like the great revolutions of the past, whatever its ultimate fate, has been identified with the release of certain powerful ideas in Nigeria.

His mission was to destroy the old socio political and economic order of Nigeria, and reconstruct in its place a modern and progressive one, the mission he has never ceased to believe in; and in this, the most deeply felt of his purposes, he did not fail. It remains a fact that regimes, either democratic or military may come and go, certainly, the pre -1985 Nigeria has gone forever. The emphasis which the various Nigerian regimes in succession has placed on privatization and the deregulation of the economy as the only solution to the country’s present economic problems bear testimony to this fact.

In order to properly situate the IBB era in Nigerian history, it may be convenient to divide up Nigerian history into distinct periods with their respective defining characteristics. Thus, we can identify the Pre-Independence Era, the era of colonial bondage; the immediate post-colonial era (1960-66) coinciding with the First Republic, the era of political nationalism, self-determination and republicanism. This was followed by the period between 1966-79 characterized by the advent of military rule, civil war; national reconciliation, rehabilitation and reconstruction. This was followed by the period 1979-83, a period which the country experimented the American system of democracy under an elected civilian administration. This was followed by the period. 1984 – 1985, a military interregnum during which the military, having come to power was groping for political and economic solutions while entrenching militarism. This was followed by the IBB era (1985-93), a period in which the military tried to resolve its crisis of mission in the political and economic life of the nation. This period was characterized essentially by far reaching and very fundamental economic and political reforms with a view to laying the foundations for enduring political and economic structures. This was followed by the post-Babangida era (1993 to the present), a period during which the reform process initiated in 1985 were continued with the resultant completion of the democratization process and further extension of the process of economic reform and liberalization.

It is clear that the IBB era stands out as distinctive in Nigeria’s national history in terms of the decisive departure it made in the direction of national policy and orientation. It was the currents unleashed in that era that have largely determined the subsequent course of Nigerian history in the succeeding periods.

As Mr Audu Ogbe rightly observed in an interview published in the Sunday Times of 26th August, 1990, p 17 ……history may find Babangida an enigma too difficult to unravel, a political manual apparently simple to read, but difficult to comprehend, a political event which profoundly touched every Nigerian’s life for joy or pain.