THE EIGHT HORSEMAN: BABANGIDA IN CONTXT
“I grew up as an orphan and so I was my own man as early as 14. As a soldier, I was taught to dominate a situation either by observation or by superior fire. It is not enough to lament the past; it is more important and more notable to do something today in order to reshape the future.” Ibrahim Babangida
The central curiosity that informs this piece is about nineteen years after he left office, Babangida has continued to be an object of irresistible fascination for the Nigerian collective psyche. This is important because Nigeria is blessed with six fairly active former heads of state. One of them, Yakubu Gowon, ruled Nigeria for a slightly longer (9 years) and even historically more significant period in national history than Babangida’s eight years of peace time rule.
The others Shagari, Buhari, Shonekan and Abdulsalami Abubakar presided over no less critical stages in the evolution of the Nigerian polity. Yet, no one of them has managed to excite nearly as much controversy and public attention as Ibrahim Babangida. And yet Babangida himself has never staked an interest in being relevant in the here and now. If anything, both while in office and since afterwards, Babangida has relentlessly insisted that the import of his actions in office will be felt and appreciated more by posterity than by his contemporaries. Somewhere in September, 2000, Babangida re-echoed this preoccupation with ultimate historical relevance in an interview with a weekly magazine, The Source.
“The present generation may not be able to paint a proper picture of what I have achieved in office, but the generations that will do that will come, perhaps after we’ve all gone.”
Yet in spite of this obsession with history, Babangida is far from being a museum piece in the contemporary Nigerian political setting. For a man whose gaze is so intently focused on being right with history and posterity, it is curious that the central issue in today’s politics in Nigeria is the question of what will Babangida do next? On what side is the Minna man? Consequently, no week passes without the popular press featuring an opinion article or a news item on some aspects of Babangida’s role either in the past or in the present. Hate him or love him, the simple truth in today’s Nigeria is that it is difficult to ignore Babangida as a factor in Nigerian politics. Nor is it possible to ignore the historic import of the Babangida regime in contemporary Nigerian history.
Variously, he is acknowledged, even if reluctantly by his adversaries, as perhaps the most prepared and charismatic leader that Nigeria has had so far; others insist that his regime intensified the process of moral devaluation because of the relative freedom which he allowed for the Nigerian spirit to thrive. And yet others prefer to permanently vilify the man on account of the single hubristic incident of the annulment of the June 12, 1993 presidential elections. Many regard him as the champion of both a kinder gentler Nigeria as well as inaugurating the faint beginnings of the terror state.
Other more charitable voices credit him with giving great impetus to the process of liberalization of the Nigerian polity, society and economy. While none of these assessments is totally right or totally wrong, there is inherent in all of them taken together a certain appreciation of the contradictory and complex nature of both the man and the society over which he had to preside. Very few great leaders in history escape such contradictory interpretation. In fact, the tendency is that the greater the leader the bigger the trail of controversy he leaves behind because, on balance, it ends up affecting the greatest number of people both positively and sometimes negatively.
I would like to suggest that Babangida’s enduring and recurrent relevance can be located among the following possibilities:
- Of all our former leaders, his eight years in office witnessed by far the most fundamental shifts in policy in our history, shifts which jolted some of the sacred assumptions of Nigeria’s social, political and economic traditions. There was a decisive shift from mixed economy to a free market oriented one; the rise of economics as a subject for discussion in markets and beer parlors as well as in board rooms and the academia; the deregulation of the Nigerian economy and the devaluation of its currency; the decision to distinguish among Nigerian politicians in terms of their generational differences coupled with the attempted imposition of a two party structure etc.
- Of all our military regimes, his embodied the greatest number of contradictions: a general who wanted to be judged as a president, a man whose roots lay in the barracks but who committed himself to the observance of fundamental human rights.
- At a personal level, Babangida is perceived as a good man who sometimes allowed terrible things to be done by his subordinates in defense of him. Therefore, he is both feared and admired but neither loathed nor loved intensely. Above all, he is the urbane Muslim army officer with refined sartorial tastes who staged a coup during Ramadan and felt most comfortable among intellectuals and capitalists while exhibiting compassion for the poor and deprived.
- Of all our former leaders, he has easily the largest and most complex network of friends and allies across all known divides throughout the length and breadth of our country.
- Because Babangida was involved in one capacity or the other in changes of political administration and actual governance from 1966 to 1993, there is a feeling that he spent more time as a politician in uniform and can therefore not be indifferent to the political development of Nigeria.
- At the level of collective psychology, there may be a certain yearning in most Nigerians for a type of leadership that is less boring and more exciting, a leadership that elicits contradictory emotions of admiration and fear which
Machiaveli is famous for advocating.
Born on August 17th, 1941 in Minna in today’s Niger State to late Muhammadu and Aishatu, lbrahim Badamosi Babangida was orphaned quite early in life. At the age of 12, he lost his mother a sad event which was followed only 2 years later by the even more debilitating blow of the death of his father. Thus, at the age of 14, young Ibrahim was already an orphan. In reflecting on his experience, he said in an interview with News Watch magazine, “I grew up as an orphan and so I was my own man as early as 14. It was a combination of the responsibility of concerned uncles, namely, Aliu, Hassan and Mohammed, and the care of his paternal grandmother that saw young Ibrahim and his surviving sister, Hajiya Hannatu Gambo, through the pangs of early deprivation of parental guidance. Babangida credits his grandmother with instilling in him the discipline which has helped him in life.
What can safely be said is that the reality of growing up as an orphan left its imprint on the young Ibrahim. Peers and childhood acquaintances recalled that quite early in life, Babangida had learned to leave no-one in doubt as to where his rights began and the license of others ended. There is the oft repeated anecdote of how difficult it was to try and pry an object from the hands of the young Babangida once he was convinced that the object was his as a matter of right. The recollections of friends and school mates tell of a young man who displayed unmistakable leadership traits as evidenced in his being appointed the Head Boy of his school in his final year at Government College in Bida in 1962. There are also exciting stories of his deftness in soccer and his general physical resilience. As a child, Babangida had a point of view on issues which he would try to make the next person realize through persuasion. Shortly after a disagreement with a peer, he was known to turn suddenly warm towards the adversary of a few moments earlier, leaving no perceivable traces of any lingering grudges.
He was not known to be quick to anger but could react quite violently when provoked. He frequently recalls an incident full of symbolism: a peer who had been taunting him incurred his ire on the way back from school and Babangida threw him into an incinerator without realising there was fire in it. He felt very sorry afterwards even though the lad was rescued without much injury. His sense of remorse and subsequent compassion for the fellow overwhelmed his original anger.
As president of Nigeria, Babangida acquired the reputation of an enigma, a political maverick, one with undoubtedly outstanding statesmanship qualities. There is not likely to be a consensus on his character precisely because he is essentially a complex and engaging personality even if his conditioning influences are fathomable. One needs to watch him at close quarters to piece together the elements that make the phenomenon called IBB.
Babangida is an intensely religious man. Even in public and while still in uniform, he occasionally appeared with his prayer beads in hand, fiddling with them while engaged in serious state matters. As a devout Moslem, he is not known to consume any alcohol. It is perhaps his deeply religious character that made him accord undue prominence to religious issues to the extent that such matters took on a life of their own and threatened the rather secular basis of the Nigerian federation. Although as a Muslim, he believes in the will of Allah, Babangida is not superstitious. He would rather prefer that Allah takes care of the unknown and the unimaginable. But he never left the known and the possible to chance. Those who seek to understand the high premium which Babangida as president placed on his personal security must try to understand his rather humanistic attitude to religion.
He is, however, not a fanatic. If anything, part of his political philosophy was conditioned by the political dimension of Islam. For instance, during the 1991 Katsina religious uprising led by some fringe sect of Islamic fundamentalists, the president was insistent that no religion prescribes violence and disruption of public order as a means of advancing matters of faith. He also recalled that even in Islam, it is quite in order to visit violence on a minority whose activities threaten the peace and order of the larger society.
To further illustrate this attitude to religion, he cared about the fine prescriptions of Islam as they relate to symbols generally. When, for instance, he paid an official visit to Ondo State during the tenure of Governor Olabode George, an impressive statue of him had been erected at the Akure city center mainly as a mark of appreciation of the benefits which the people of Ondo state in particular had reaped as a result of his export promotion drive in the heydays of SAP. Cocoa farmers in the Western states, especially Ondo State, some of whom had committed suicide in the past over dwindling earnings from the cocoa trade, breathed a new lease of life following the abolition of marketing boards; a policy which enabled them to sell their produce to the highest bidder, mostly in foreign exchange.
Babangida was of course appreciative of the gesture of his obviously overzealous governor and his grateful hosts. But he did not particularly like the idea of the statue. Islam, he observed nicely, is not in support of statues being erected of persons who are still alive. The statue had to be dismantled in due course, for although the president was expressing a reservation based on faith, he was also issuing an order to the Governor of Ondo State who was first and foremost a military officer.
Yet, even this seemingly devout spiritualism was no less subject to the contradictory nature of his overall conduct. Although he did not like the idea of statue of himself in the middle of Akure, he nevertheless had in the entrance lobby of his Dodan Barracks residence a nice artistic bust of himself. On one occasion, two good friends of his asked him why he should have the bust there in spite of turning down the Akure statue. His response was quite revealing: although as a Muslim the idea of an image of him while still alive was revolting, he valued the bust in his home for its artistic profundity. He cherished the art over and above the prescription of faith.
Apprenticeship for Power
In Nigeria, frequent violent changes in government through coups have created what some call a coup culture in the military. To have been actively involved in most of the coups that have occurred in Nigeria meant that Babangida was most equipped to smell even the rudiments of dissent and also had a working knowledge of the way these matters work.
His period of apprenticeship in power was, therefore, considerably long. There is also evidence that he spent time and resources improving his mind on the fine arts of power politics. Moreover, he was for quite a long time deeply concerned with the problems of Nigeria out of a patriotic commitment and consulted widely, even before coming to power, with those who ought to know about the multidimensional nature of Nigeria’s socio-economic and political problems.
More importantly, Babangida’s military training gave him the kind of global exposure which, for a politically minded officer, was enough to equip him with a cosmopolitan outlook and a variety of cultural and historical experiences that would further condition his consciousness.
At various times, Babangida attended professional courses in different parts of the world and it is likely that he was influenced by developments in these places along the line. He was in India in 1964, soon after Nigeria’s independence and it is a well known fact of Third World history that perhaps more than any other country, ideas and trends from India exerted tremendous influence on the consciousness of people in parts of Africa either still struggling for independence or newly independent. There is a very strong streak of nationalism in Babangida which emphasises the dignity of the black man and our capacity for greatness if only we could adopt strategies of self reliance.
By 1966-1967, he went to the Royal Armoured Centre in the United Kingdom at a time when the legacy of British colonialism in Nigeria was manifesting itself in the bloody convulsions of the civil war. Between 1972-1973, he attended the army Armored School in the United States, returning there again in 1980 to attend the Naval postgraduate school. Undoubtedly, exposure to American society and politics in the 1970’s and 1980’s, in the heat of the Cold War, may have deepened his rightward inclination.
Similarly, the various military postings, training programs and political appointments that Babangida held at home provided further preparation for his later role as President. As a newly commissioned officer, he was a Squadron commander up to January, 1966, when the first military coup took place. There is also evidence that he not only knew Nzeogwu but also admired his brilliance and political nationalism but he has nonetheless expressed reservations about the manner of execution of the coup that toppled the First Republic. Subsequently, he formed and commanded the Rangers in 1968, a role in which he experienced combat during the Nigerian Civil War.
Many of his aides and subordinates remember him most fondly as a good teacher while he was instructor and commander at the Nigeria Defence Academy. His attention to detail and relentless striving for excellence as a teacher were still evident in his approach to matters in his office, his penchant for going through drafts in enlightened exchange of ideas. Many of those young officers whom he was later to appoint governors in his administration were either former students of his or subordinates in the various command positions that he held before becoming President. In this list are names like Tunde Ogbeha, Idongesit Nkanga, Abubakar Umar, Lawan Gwadabe, Joshua Madaki, Chris Garuba and John Mark Inienger, to name only a few.
He was commander of the Army Armoured Corps, a position he was still holding while still functioning as a member of the Supreme Military Council under the late General Murtala Mohammed, a man whom Babangida admires immensely and credits with having protected his military career by insulating him from direct political office much earlier. Murtala insisted that he did not want his best officers to get into politics in the interest of the military as an institution. It was in this role that he first came to public limelight when he intervened to disarm and neutralize Colonel Dimka, the coup leader soon after the assassination of General Mohammed.
Senior staff courses at Jaji and the all influential National Institute of Policy and Strategic Studies provided further preparation for his subsequent roles and responsibilities. At NIPSS, he met and interacted with key intellectuals whom he later appointed to positions in his administration. There is also abundant evidence that Babangida’s extensive social network included many key political figures and businessmen. All through his various tours of duty and training programs, Babangida invested heavily in cultivating friendships and acquaintances from across the country as well as internationally. His various decorations and honours testify to a military career that was quite distinguished.
The effective background to Babangida’s emergence on the political scene are located in the failings of the Shagari era, the deliberate and single minded sacking of the national treasury, the enthronement of authorized hooliganism and the clear absence of a program of action that looked beyond the four- year term of the government of the day. The debts were mounting even though the people could not see some of the projects on which the debts were being incurred. In spite of the mood of anger and despair which spread through the nation, it was practically impossible to change the political order through the electoral process.
Through the media and other organs of public outcry, Nigerians wept aloud for something to happen. The political opposition then, namely, the Unity Party of Nigeria in the South West specifically argued that those who make peaceful change impossible, make violent change inevitable. In this sense, therefore, the return of the military in December 1983 was widely acclaimed by most Nigerians. It is also in this sense that one can safely argue that over and above the civilian government of 1979-83, the military had by far a greater and more overwhelming mandate at the time to come to power. Those were days in which military regimes were still the vogue in most of Africa and the Third World.
But the Buhari/Idiagbon duo squandered that mandate. They misread the mood of the Nigerian people. Nigerians quarrel with the Shagari regime was basically hinged on the devaluation of democracy under that administration. There was nothing to indicate that Nigerians desired a more draconian state. But Buhari and the late Idiagbon thought differently and proceeded with an unsmiling barrack approach to public issues. In spite of their tough guy attitude, they were ready to spend 44 per cent of the nation’s foreign exchange earnings paying debts, mostly unverified. They even paid a couple of hundreds of thousands of British pounds as pension to British colonial officers who had served in Nigeria!
Politicians were massively jailed, in some cases, for periods that amounted to two or more lifetimes! Journalists were routinely harassed, jailed and hounded under the infamous Decree 4. For the first time, the scarcity of raw materials for industries compelled Nigerians to queue endlessly for the most basic commodities. The saviours were whipping the people with scorpions.
Of course, that administration was concerned about discipline. The War Against Indiscipline (WAI) did produce long queues of Nigerians waiting in the sun for buses that would not come. By mid 1985, it had become obvious that the messiahs had seen in the very people who literally invited them the victims to be abused. It was time for Nigerians to look up to heaven for yet another form of salvation. It could not come from a civil society badly battered by a debilitating encounter with democracy followed by a more frightening embrace with mindless authorianism of medieval kind.
August 27, 1985, the day Babangida seized power in a bloodless coup was celebrated as the coming of the sunshine state. Babangida smiled into the saddle and with that bright visage reassured a nation frightened into apathy to look forward to the future with hope. In identifying the problems of the economy, polity and society, he was dealing with fundamentals the way visionary statesmen do. But in attaching programmed deadlines to these objectives, he was being a typical soldier, impatient for results. In the process, he was displaying the kind of political naivety that abounds in our barracks. This is the crux of the contradictory perception of Babangida’s achievements and failures in his eight years at the helm. Because he was a soldier ostensibly on a limited intervention in governance, Nigerians expected results, especially in the economic sphere, to come with immediate effect. But time, it seems, proved to both the soldier and his audience that the problems of society, especially of the nature and magnitude that confronted us could not be commanded away.
With the benefit of hindsight, perhaps the most glorious moments of Babangida’s era were the first few months of the administration. Through a barrage of measures aimed primarily at engineering legitimacy for the new administration, Babangida posited a refreshing alternative to the draconian heritage of his immediate predecessor and brought back a smile of optimism to the face of a nation that was beginning to die in an imposed state of collective guilt.
By the second day of his coming, Babangida abolished the obnoxious Decree 4 under which journalists were routinely harassed and detained. Two journalists from The Guardian Newspapers, Nduka Irabor and Tunde Thompson, who had been jailed under the decree were released to the acclamation of the Nigerian press and public. On the same day, the new regime began the process of releasing political prisoners and other persons who were held incommunicado in different detention camps all around the country. The following day, August 29th, 1985, the new administration threw open the detention holes of the then Nigerian Security Organisation, exposing the organisation as a veritable instrument of torture and repression. The lingering question over whether the country should take an IMF loan facility as an instrument of economic recovery was thrown open for public debate.
These moves were quickly followed in October by the declaration by the President of a 15-month period of economic emergency during which the President would have a free hand to take whatever measures he and the Armed Forces Ruling Council deemed necessary to facilitate the process of economic recovery. In a most symbolic gesture, the president reviewed the Independence Day parade at Tafawa Balewa Square in the heavy rain, turning down the offer of an umbrella, saying; the boys have been waiting in the rain.
By the same token, the new government followed up with a liberalization of the law previously making it an offence to import and export foreign currencies on the 29th of October, 1985. A judicial commission of inquiry was set up to review the cases of persons convicted under the Exchange Control anti-Sabotage Decree. Another judicial commission was similarly set up to review the cases of Second Republic politicians who were serving various jail terms.
For a brief moment, there was a near unanimity of view among Nigerians that someone had emerged at last who most closely approximated their long standing yearning for humane and purposeful leadership. Perhaps more than even an elected President, Babangida had an overwhelming mandate backed by the tremendous goodwill of a vast majority of Nigerians at this point in time.
Babangida himself complemented this gesture of goodwill by taking measures which seemed to accord with the aspirations and wishes of Nigerians; these were largely populist gestures which nevertheless endeared him increasingly to the hearts of the populace. He appointed ministers, especially the civilians, strictly on merit from among men of substance whose track records as professionals, intellectuals and patriotic citizens was hardly in doubt. Among such early appointees were names like Bolaji Akinyemi, Jubril Aminu, Olikoye Ransome Kuti, and Idika Kalu. What was even more striking from the point of view of Nigerians, sense of objectivity and selfless service was the manner in which most of these appointments were made. People were simply called up by the new President, sometimes in rather surprising circumstances, and asked to join the team of those whose lot it would be to help in salvaging the nation. There was then so scandalous lobbying and jostling for political appointments.
One evidence of the goodwill which the new administration enjoyed was in the number of suggestions which daily .poured into Dodan Barracks from all corners of the country and even from Nigerians abroad on how to improve the condition of the country. At last, so it was felt then, there was an administration in the country which was ready and willing to build a broad consensus on issues of national interest and to listen to the suggestions of Nigerians on how to make their country a better place.
Thus, the IMF debate, the Political Bureau debates and those on issues of public interest in general received overwhelming response by way of memoranda and contributions in the popular press from the public. On literally every issue that mattered to Nigerians, Babangida had either a judicial commission or a committee with membership of people of proven integrity and reputation. As the committees reported their findings, action was taken on the side of justice and fair play. For instance, popular musician, Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, who had been jailed by the Buhari/Idiagbon regime under the Foreign Exchange Anti-Sabotage Decree of 1984 for possessing a meager amount of British pounds was released on legal technicalities, an indication that the era of miscarriage of justice was over. Similarly, Second Republic politicians jailed sometimes for upwards of three life times were progressively released after due clearance by the review tribunal headed by Justice Uwaifor.
Clearly, these first few months represented Babangida’s finest hour. Everyone wished they could last forever. But in matters of power and politics, especially when the central actor is intent on a path of reform, such moments never last forever. Sooner than later, Babangida was to begin to taste the bitter pills of power and in the process his symbolic sunshine smile became dimmer and dimmer as he remembered that he was first and foremost a soldier in a political role. If he was going to leave any permanent meaningful imprint on the Nigerian landscape, it was going to be through clear acts of statesmanship, not transient populist gestures.
In subsequent years, the moments of glory were to derive from clear acts of hard work and statesmanship. After the first few months, specifically from the :ragic incident of the Vatsa coup attempt, Babangida could no longer take the goodwill of his constituency for granted nor could he afford to ignore the fine distinction between the demands of a gentleman officer and those of the president of a worldly kingdom called Nigeria.
We can only extrapolate on Babangida’s politics from the peculiar political method which he adopted in his 8 years at the helm of Nigeria’s affairs. That politics is a study in the creative use of power for personal survival and in pursuit of what he perceived as the common good. His conception of the common good derives from his idea of the ideal Nigerian society which he enunciated in an address at the National Institute of Policy and Strategic Studies on 26th October, 1985, barely two months after coming to power.
“I would like to see us build a society which guarantees the individual freedom of thought, speech and action; and protects society as a whole from threat to security of persons, family and property. In such a society, the individual should be free to seek and attain self-fulfillment within the limits of the law, while at the same time voluntarily subsuming self to the wider and greater claims of the overall good. In material terms, all citizens should have the opportunity to lead useful and satisfactory lives and make their contributions to the common good in fields of their own choice, according to their ability. In such a society, there should not exist wide disparity of wealth such that the affluent and poor classes cannot live together.”
No one single set of political doctrines would seem to exhaust the possibilities which he explored not only to survive politically but also to sustain his reform agenda. His conception of the most critical component of power derives from Mao’s classic axiom that power flows from the barrel of the gun. Therefore, Babangida recognised and exploited the value of his primary military constituency, Babangida was a democrat at heart. He created various fora for the rank and file and the officer corps to exchange views and articulate their concerns about the programs and general direction of his government. The Armed Forces Consultative Forum is a case in point. And during visits to various parts of the country, he made it a point of duty to meet, often behind closed doors with representatives of military formations wherever he went to get a first hand feel of their problems and views.
Yet in the deployment of power to maintain political and social stability, Babangida was largely Machiavellian in his sense of maintaining a balance of opposing values: between compassion and coercion; between moderation and extremism; between generosity and prudence and between stubbornness and compromise. Even then, his choice was often the middle ground.
He had a great sense of political drama. He knew when to inject specific events to catch or divert attention. For instance, on the day that his former Petroleum Minister, Professor Tam David West was being convicted for allegedly enriching an American oil company, eleven NEPA officials who had been jailed for sabotaging the national power system in labour related protests were granted pardon and released. Similarly, in late 1991 when his government detained influential politicians of the Second Republic for flouting the ban on old breed politicians, the government ensured that the politicians remained in custody till after the governorship elections when they were released and allowed to participate in future political activities.
At other times he would unleash so many currents into the political air as a way of preparing to launch a major political missile or just allow contending currents to cross themselves out. At some point, he was appointing new ministers just as the nation was getting ready to elect civilian governors; at some other time, he would retire senior military officers at very short notice while undertaking a major step in the political transition program so that civilian elation would counterbalance disquiet in the barracks. For each senior military officer that was retired, however, a Babangida loyalist was being appointed in his place.
It was extremely risky to assume the position of an unrelenting Babangida opponent. He would fight sworn enemies to the hilt and quite relentlessly but could quickly make his peace with them if they also did an about-turn. He was quick to identify people who did not necessarily share his views but whose integrity in holding their own he respected. He needed such people to enhance the integrity, credibility and respectability of his administration just as he also needed to appear to be tapping all the known human resources of the country towards the success of his reform program. This would largely explain his involvement of men like Tai Solarin and Wole Soyinka in his administration. For one thing, Babangida knew the enemies he did not need to make but also made quite a few that he could have avoided. It is debatable whether his handling of the Ukiwe matter or the Bali affair was the best way to approach matters of self assertion and self preservation in a military political situation involving high placed colleagues and very sensitive constituencies. It is equally debatable whether these colleagues reciprocated his good will or displayed the political maturity that their high offices dictated.
Here it needs to be interjected that quite a few of the political indiscretions that took place under Babangida may not have been his direct handiwork. A few ambitious and overzealous subordinates may have hidden under the umbrella of protecting the president’s interests to embark on their own personal missions which, however, ended up embarrassing the man at the top. It was difficult for him to denounce these people openly, especially when they also occupied high and sensitive positions. There was a point, after 1989, when it seemed that the president had become a hostage of his close aides and powerful subordinates. Such moments never lasted too long.
In a good number of his political moves, Babangida made use of the weapon of surprise. Many have unduly credited him with this quality as a mark of genius. I doubt that there is any soldier worth his salt who does not understand that surprise is a potent instrument in dealing with an opponent who also understands the game as well as you do. Babangida understood that the Nigerian public and indeed his political adversaries were as well equipped as he was and in some cases more sophisticated than himself. It was only sensible that he employ the element of surprise at those moments when too much deliberation would have either cost him his job or his life. Thus, much of Babangida’s tenure as president was largely a tale of the unexpected. This increased the aura of unpredictability and enigma that surrounded him. “Surprise is one of my attributes”, he once told interviewers. In reality, what the man did most of the time was to keep most of his cards close to his chest and sometimes placed the wrong cards face up! On a number of occasions, he and his security apparatus made very good use of misinformation and disinformation as a tool of decoy in managing public expectations and public opinion. Nor was he oblivious of danger. He was sensible to avoid senseless martyrdom.
Once, his aides had prepared a program for him to visit Oyo state, the hotbed of the Nigerian Wild West in the heat of the governorship elections. Babangida refused to accept their date. He said he did not want to run the risk. Similarly, he was never too willing to pay a long official visit to the former Bendel state, then the home of violent crimes.
His steadfastness on policy matters has been mistaken for stubbornness. Once he was convinced about a particular position. It was difficult to unhinge him from it. (There is no alternative to SAP). This is a trait which any substantial leader must possess if his actions are to command credibility and his policies endure. He remained on the course of his chosen reformist path, especially in the economic sphere, in spite of buffetings now and again by the winds of’ the Nigerian political tempest. It is only fair to say that Babangida was firm and determined; but he also knew when to be flexible even though his judgement in this regard was not always the best from the point of view of public interest. For instance, the fact that popular organisations like ASUU and NANS continued to be banned and unbanned and banned again in spite of public outcry to the extent that many thought the administration was presiding over the demise of the nation’s tertiary educational system, cannot be regarded as a credit to the man’s sense of firmness and enlightenment.
Contradiction was the essence of his politics. He sought to be seen to be tough as a soldier but at the same time cherished the populism of the politician. Most times, these two are mutually exclusive. The effect of this on the public psyche was quite appropriate in the Machiavellian sense of the ideal ruler as one who is
both feared and loved. I do not know that the relationship between Babangida and the majority of the Nigerian people could be described in terms of either love or hatred. Instead, he elicited contradictory responses from different segments of the society. Students and radicals were not particularly in love with him for his anti- radical position.
Those segments of the political elite, especially the major actors of the Second Republic, whose political ambitions he constantly scuttled, were not amused by his insistence of ushering in a new political order desirable as that may have been. Within the business community, those who were used to the business of patronage through import licensing and the regime of regulations which he dismantled in favour of a competitive open market system remained bitter throughout his tenure while the small to medium scale industrialists of Nnewi and its environs benefited from his self-reliance campaign. But history played on his side in the sense that the gamble he took in insisting on a free market economy and a people oriented democracy coincided with a world historic consensus which followed the dismantling of the former Soviet Union and former communism. The Cold War ended in Babangida’s favour.
Among the Ulama he was received with mixed feelings as a prince of the world as opposed to the clerical prince which the rather theocratic mindset of the average Muslim would have preferred. Moreover, he was Hausa not Fulani, a factor which kept him busy trying so very hard to impress this powerful group with his religious piety. But they never seemed to forget that he came to power during the Holy Period of the Ramadan. Nor were they at ease with his wife’s high visibility.
On the contrary, the Christians held him in perennial suspicion following his early gamble of involving his administration in the unnecessary controversy over Nigeria’s membership of the redundant Organisation of Islamic Conference (OJC). Nigerian Christianity under Babangida assumed a more fundamentalist complexion.
The passage of time has not and will not diminish the interest which Babangida elicits from his fellow countrymen. For scholars, the subject will continue to generate interesting discussion for quite some time as more information and insight continues to emerge on the finer points of his administration. It will be difficult for him to retire into irrelevance. He may have had enough of formal public life. It is a different matter whether the Nigerian public will let him enjoy his retirement even at a relatively young age of under 69. As Karl Maier observes in his recent book The House Has Fallen: Midnight in Nigeria, ‘it is doubtful that Nigeria has heard the last of him (Babangida).’