Chidi Amuta

Very few Nigerians or indeed African leaders have managed to sustain such attention as Babangida both in and out of office. And the Nigerian public’s fascination with the man and the administration over which he presided is not about to end.

Among the vast majority of Nigerians, he is fondly and variously referred to as ‘Oga,’ ‘Baba’ or ‘Mai Gida,’ in short, ‘the boss’ even by those associates and sundry others who are by far older than him. This is variously a way of acknowledging the man’s inherent ability to take charge of nearly every situation in which he finds himself and to protect his own. His political and ideological opponents are ready to interpret the ‘Oga’ as indication of fear of the man’s ability to battle his adversaries to the hilt. It is those with this perception that quickly came up with the epithet of ‘evil genius.’

This underlines the central contradiction between the man’s intrinsic goodness and the popular perception of him. But in this contradiction Nigerians are prepared to see the man as a reflection of their own collective identity as a people. I have not stopped being perplexed by this contradiction. Here is a man who is essentially urbane and refined, kind and humane to a fault, compassionate, intrinsically non-violent and very liberal in disposition. But because he presided over a military regime which, by its very nature, is essentially repressive and hostile to the finer points of human rights, he has largely been associated with at best a benevolent dictatorship.

We can only attempt to explain this enduring fascination which is deepened by the man’s essentially shy, self-effacing and almost invisible hands in the affairs of his countrymen. Beyond his military career and his subsequent eight-year tenure in power, Babangida has not erected a political machinery of his own nor did he consciously cultivate a personality cult in the manner of African strong men while in office. And yet, he is regarded as a one-man political machinery on account of his extensive network of associates and friends across all known divides in the country. Even his silence is given political interpretation while his utterances reverberate with meaning and elicit responses ranging in intensity from outright hostility to unquestioning acceptance.

Explanations can be variously proffered as to the reason for the enduring fascination with an administration that left office about nineteen years ago. First is the fact that Babangida instituted by far the most fundamental and far reaching economic and political reform measures in post-colonial Nigerian history to date.

In the economic sphere, he broke decisively with the concept of mixed economy and stifling state control of the economy, which had been the lot of the country since independence. In place of state monopolies, he opted for privatization. In place of centralization and over regulation, IBB opted for deregulation and decentralization. Because his economic policy emphasized self-reliance, he challenged the creative and entrepreneurial ingenuity of Nigerians who in turn responded with an explosion of new initiatives and enterprises. This implied a fundamental restructuring of the foundations of the economy. The exchange rate was liberalized, strategic industries and sectors such as airlines, banking, oil prospecting, financial services were similarly thrown open to competition by operators irrespective of their background for as long as they met the requisite guidelines. Similarly, the system of price controls for both imports and domestic produce was abolished, thereby opening up the Nigerian market to international competition with the attendant benefit for local industry and the international trading profile of the country.

In the political field, Babangida was bold enough to identify the ills of previous civilian political dispensations: ethnic and religious bias of parties, the domination of national politics by an old generation of players, electoral malpractices and the undue emphasis on money as a ticket for vying for elective positions. In place of these, IBB instituted far reaching political reforms which included the drafting and adoption of a new constitution, realignment of the number and geo-political equation of states in the federation, registration and adoption of a two-party structure with state sponsorship of party infrastructure, the setting up of the Centre for Democratic Studies as well as the conduct of elections using the relatively more transparent Open – Secret ballot system.

Contradiction and irony are inevitable elements of the historical process. The Nigerian media which witnessed its largest expansion and diversification under Babangida has been most trenchant in criticizing his legacy partly out of obvious political interests. Yet, it was under Babangida that the largest number of newspapers and magazines were established. It was also during this period that legislation was enacted for the liberalization of television and radio licensing.

By far the most important reason for Babangida’s contemporary relevance and controversial stature is his personal charisma and strong personality. In spite of his self-effacing and almost shy carriage, the man dominates every given situation even in silence. His instinctive generosity and very amiable nature add to this personal appeal. More importantly, there is a certain complexity implicit in his political method. He has no permanent foes but has permanent friends. He places a very high premium on friendship and loyalty. Most remarkably, he has confessed to an abiding sense of loyalty to his subordinates. For instance, he has up to date insisted that he accepts responsibility for the annulment of the June 12, 1993 presidential elections in spite of abundant evidence to the effect that he annulled the election because of intense pressure from some of his influential subordinates. While in office, he took charge of affairs and left no one in any doubt as to who was the boss. Out of office, he has stood resolutely to defend his actions in office, blaming no one else for his mistakes.

Beyond this factor of his force of character and strong personality, the nation continues to be pre-occupied with him for reasons that are extraneous to Babangida himself. I dare say that as a feature of human collective behaviour in – general, societies tend to remember more insistently those eras or leaders under whom society suffered either the greatest pain or derived the greatest pleasure in the past. Even Babangida’s most unrepentant adversaries and critics would concede that the man affected the greatest number of Nigerians either for good or for ill in the eight years that he held sway in the land. It is therefore possible that the Babangida years would remain the most memorable period of Nigerian history until another more momentous era supersedes it.