IBB Then, Now and Henceforth

Chidi Amuta

The informing spirit of the various speeches, statements and interviews gathered on this site is the frequent question and Babangida’s recurrence in Nigerian’s political and social discourse. They derive their unitive inspiration from the subject’s relentless preoccupation with the subject of Nigeria – the status of its neighbourhood, its potentials, issues in its history and the problems that confront it on the path of development. Most importantly, these issues are examined from pedestal of Babangida role in the nation history in the eight years that he presided over Nigeria as military president. But this site represents a quantum leap forward in Babangida’s thought. He tries to go beyond self- justification and revisionism in order to engage present day’s realities. Variously, these thought are explanations, justifications, projections, and explorations of possibilities in the national history. Above all, they are the thoughts of a passionate nationalist.

Beyond the wind of contemporary political arithmetic in the country, this site aims to provide some insight into the workings of the mind of a man on whom national attention has been fixated for close to two and a half decades. Here at last in his own works we encounter Babangida sometimes grappling with the contradictions of his importance first as a military officer and as a politician or better still as zoon politikon.

Abidingly cerebral, consummately refined, infinitely resourceful, endlessly affable and with a candour that shuns emotional outbursts and believes in his rocks solid self-confidence, he comes across variously as an experienced statesman, a committed patriot, an engaged politician and an emerging social philosophy. In the latter regard, his thoughts seem to have acquire greater refinement and seasoning in retirement as he may have had time to reflect on the keys issues that not only defined his stewardship but also continue to gnaw at the very root of Nigerian’s nationhood.

Those intent on ideological labels for leaders would easily spot the liberal right of centre streak in Babangida’s thinking, a streak that has persisted from his days of military President. He respects the right of Nigerians to be free, to embark on profitable enterprises, values the centrality of the private sector in the national economy, but he also believe that the Nigerians state needs to be strong in order to keep sectarian and separatist tendencies in check. Maybe the man is better seen as compassionate conservative. He is a man of the system, not the one to upset the establishment apple cart. He has the believe that every system can be reformed hence he initiated by far the most far reaching reforms in all areas of national life even through in some cases he could not follow some of the reforms, especially in political sphere, to conclusion.

Although he established a framework for the empowering of the private sector, he was arguable hesitant to cede the commanding height of the economy to a private sector that constantly and routinely resorted to a government patronage and protection. Some have argued that his pursued policies like privatization rather half-heartedly for political reasons. It is observed for instance that the northern half of the country from which Babangida hails lags behind the southern Christian half in the development of free market ethos. Therefore, it is argued, a true going policy of privatization would put the north at a disadvantage through curtailment of direct government patronage.  This has been adduced as one of the reasons why he did not embark in full scale privatization.

Spectacularly, he never shies away from responsibilities for his actions and inactions in office. In his words, ’you can delicate authority but you cannot delicate ultimate responsibility’. Characteristically self-effacing, he is ever reluctant to appropriate credit for the great gains made in his time. Rather, he speaks of his achievements in the office of the collective pronoun, preferring the ‘we’ of the collective team to the ‘I’ of the monumental hero of the messiah.

Yet, in the public mind, Babangida’s appeals resides largely in the fact that while in office, he left no one in doubt about the fact that he was in charge. It was that singular gift of displaying the ‘hidden hand’ while allowing proven hands and trusted subordinates to ride the wave of popular acclaim that further reinforces his abiding mystique. The ability to act decisively especially in situations that threatened national survival or his own hold on power while ruling the nation with compassion accounts for the dual perception of the man and the mixed emotions that he has constantly evokes.

Those who saw him as unmistakeable in charge at each time admire his strength and decisiveness. Those who do not necessarily agree with his definition of the national interest and national stability tend to regard him as different from self-serving and self-seeking autocrats in his history and this category of people have tended to despise him. But the majority who see his approach to power and governance as compassionate have always looked back with nostalgia at his tenure as a time of challenges and immense opportunities and have therefore expressed visible nostalgia for his return to power.

Over and above these random remarks on the man’s distinctive way with power, in my view, Babangida is best understood in terms of his relevance and relationship to the critical issues that have come to define Nigerian history in the post-civil war years.  These issues include the role of the national political history, the sanctity of the Nigerian nation state, the secularity of the state, the rights of individuals and groups within the polity, the role, desirable number and type of political parties and, above all, the quest for a desirable economic framework for the pursuit of rapid development.

On the matter of the role of the military in national politics, Babangida was quite clear. For him, the military in politics was clearly an aberration albeit one which was necessitated by logic of national history. Coups ignited counter coups because the civil populace had lost confidence in the ability of politicians to deliver on governance and development. Over time, the military itself had developed strong political instincts and frequently came to be judged nearly as harshly as even the worst civilian dispensations.

They could read the mood of the people and knew when to strike for maximum effect. Yet Babangida sought a means of striking a balance between the imperatives of military dictatorship and observance of basic freedoms. This was perhaps one reason why he opted for the curious title of ‘president’ on assumption of office. Although he initially committed himself to the respect of human rights and basic freedoms, he was to discover in the fullness of time that respect for fundamental human democratic rights and the dictates of military rule run at cross purposes.

Throughout his eight years in office, he had to constantly struggle between his personal liberalism and the regimental doctrine of his profession. Yet he insisted that the only way in which the military could salvage its image and justify its political role in national history was to provide leadership in the critical areas of economic ideology and a sustainable political system. His option for free market reform and liberal political re-engineering must be seen in these terms. He was however to discover, to his utter chagrin, I suspect, that economic charge and the vicissitudes of politics especially in the developing world do not obey military commands. He resorted to shifting his goal posts and deadlines as well as altering some of his original parameters. Public confidence and trust began to slip. Between the honour of an officer and the double speak of the politician, Babangida had to walk a tight rope. While his economic plan succeeded in liberating the energies of hitherto untapped areas in the nation, the machinations of politicians and interest groups ensured that his political road map was mired in confusion and ended inclusively with the much celebrated June 12, 1993 elections that almost saw the late M.K.O Abiola emerging as President.

Throughout his years in office and in the period since leaving office, his views on the sanctity of the Nigerian state have not changed. He has insisted that while aspects of the structure and certain social and political issues in the nation remain open to debate, the unity of the country and sanctity of its territorial configuration are not negotiable. This view echoes throughout his speeches, statements and interviews that constitute this site.

This is a view that is shared among nearly all military officers of his generation. This is understandable in terms of the challenges that defined their professional career. These were the officers that came to maturity in the days of the Nigerian civil war. For them therefore, the central issue of doctrine was the preservation of the unity of the country, a matter for which they put their lives on the line. Therefore, inspite of their differences, what unites Obasanjo, Babangida, Buhari and even late Abacha, for instance, is their strong belief in the unity and territorial inviolability of the Nigerian federation.

Although these officers are separated by religion, their belief in the unity of Nigeria is anchored on a strong secular foundation. Even the most Christian and Muslim among them holds the view that the best way to maintain national unity is for the  country to be governed by a secular republican constitution while the component states may be free to adopt precepts that best reflect the peculiar belief preponderance of their population. This is perhaps one reason why the adoption of sharia law in certain northern states has not had any decisive effects on the plight of the federation or fundamentally undermined the observance of the fundamental rights of individual citizens in those places.

But it is in terms of political engineering that Babangida can be said to have struck his distinctive note on the Nigerian landscape. A major plank of the military coup that brought the Buhari regime, of which Babangida was a member, to power in 1983 was the popular sense of outrage at the abuses of the ruling NPN government. It was felt that the political party lacked the sense of discipline to curb the excesses of its members and that the party lacked an ideological anchor to guide its leadership of the country.

Therefore, when Babangida succeeded Buhari, political reforms was uppermost in his agenda. Throughout a series of platforms, he instituted a series of reforms ranging from non-party to multi-party democracy culminating in a two party system. This was accompanied by a series of electoral reforms with the open-secret ballot system popularly referred to as option A4 as the most advanced and most credible. Rightly or wrongly, Babangida believed that a two-party system was the best option for the country given previous tendencies in which there was a ruling party and a coalition of opposition parties bound together more by the fact of losing the last election than any definable ideological cohesion or alternative. The fact that the two party-system that he forced into being did not deliver the democracy that he promised was not the result of an inherent falseness of the proposition but rather a failure of will complicated by the internal politics of the military ruling group. Babangida variously admits the inconclusiveness of his political reform in several speeches and interviews but insists on taking personal responsibility for that failure instead of hunting for scapegoats.

A potential redeeming feature of his political reform was his overt personal preference for a new breed of politicians, a decisive departure in personnel and method from the old politics that necessitated the 1983 change of government until political expediency and the relentless pressure of entrenched political interests compelled him to amend his original script. What the system required in his view was a rigorous insistence on two things: the reform of the electoral system and an insistence on the ideological differences between the two parties.

His decisive take on the economy was right on target and historically appropriate. Against the backdrop of the serial collapse of centralized economies all over the world, his liberalisation of the   Nigerian economy could not have come at a better time. The freeing of monopolies in banking, aviation, broadcasting and key industries corresponded with a global preference for open market economies. Even the preference for privatization endeared him to both Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher both of whom had led their national economies out of state run monopolies into privately driven prosperity. It is this trend towards far reaching reform that continues to drive the economic policies of the current Obasanjo administration. In terms of economic policy, there is a sense on which the succeeding civilian administrations can be seen as ideological and policy successors to Babangida’s original reform agenda.

Yet Babangida was acutely aware that the introduction of a free market system in a hitherto government dominated and heavily subsidized economy was bound to produce unintended consequences of economic marginalisation of the more vulnerable groups. He therefore instituted a number of palliative safety nets like the Peoples Bank, Community Banks and Directorate of Employment to cushion the negative impacts of his free market policies.

In the long run, it was perhaps the contradiction inherent in Babangida’s belief in individual freedom while being constantly reminded by his military colleagues that he was presiding over a military dictatorship that tested his statesmanship to the limit. Admired by corporate Nigeria but despised by campus Nigeria, hailed by the market women but scorned by professional rent seekers, Babangida who treasured universal acclaim was caught in an unusual dilemma.

Even today, he remains a victim of the contradictions that defined his rule most of which he could not necessarily control. Yet it is from these contradictions that his reputation has both thrived and suffered. This also accounts for the blurred division between those who passionately deride him and the majority who spiritedly champion his cause and defend his legacy.

The rest of the script will be written both by Nigerian history and the roles which Babangida carves out for himself in the years ahead.