IBRAHIM GORBACHEV (Prospects of Babangida’s Transformation to Civilian President)


Published in Daily Times, November 27, 1989

Unusual times beget strange thoughts. Strange happenings find expression in esoteric tongues. And since we are living in an era of the unexpected, we might as well enthrone heresy as the most appropriate form of discourse in these times. One thing with heresy, though, is that it is a very relative and temperamental concept. The heresy of yesterday may, in fact, end up as tomorrow’s gospel! As the year draws to an end, it would appear that Nigerians are divided in their expectations. The broad majority of the populace are waiting to hear what president Babangida has to say in his 1990 budget about the economy. For them, the economy as it translates into food, clothing, shelter, school fees, house rents and transport fares, is the real matter on the agenda.

On the other hand, there is a fever of political expectation that is currently plaguing that tiny but all powerful segment of the populace who have been identified as the elite. That fever, though subdued for obvious reasons, is nonetheless potent. It is informed basically by the urge to succeed the Babangida administration even if just for the sake of it. On the surface though, the politicians – old and new alike want us to believe that liberal democracy can thrive here and now.

I have my doubts about this line of thought. Primarily, the minimum requirements for liberal democracy are economic wellbeing, a reasonable level of public awareness, freedom from state control and bureaucratic blackmail as well as a vibrant and nationalistic private sector which produces enough in real terms as to create an  environment in which freedom of political choices is possible. I am afraid that these conditions do not yet exist in today’s Nigeria. At best, the Babangida administration has just begun to lay the foundations which, I am afraid, may not attain maturity as early as 1992. More importantly, I cannot yet see any civil democratic movement that cuts across Nigerians irrespective of geo-political and religious affiliations. There is neither a visionary Pan- Nigerian civilian leadership in the making nor an enthusiastic followership united by a common cause. I cannot see the tumultuous crowd that trooped out daily in Manilla to ask Ferdinand Marcos to leave the presidential palace in favour of Corazon Aquino. Nor can I see the multitude of students and workers who trooped out to Tiananmen Square in May to demand that the Chinese leadership should give democracy a chance. Even in Pakistan, Benazir Bhutto commanded a tremendous national followership which preceded the bomb blast that sent Zia the way of all mindless dictators.

Quite to the contrary, I am prepared to cast my lot with the vast majority of ordinary Nigerians whose dream of freedom is predicated on economic wellbeing as a pre-condition for freedom of political choice. In this regard, if we look at the Third World countries that have achieved the kind of economic breakthrough which we desire, there is hardly any of them that is led by a democratically elected leadership. Brazil, Taiwan, Hong Kong, South Korea, Malaysia, etc, all have achieved economic success under leaderships not necessarily chosen through the ballot box.

If we are looking seriously for the prospects for political stability and economic prosperity, all we can see for the moment is Ibrahim Babangida. Here is a man whose surname should have been Gorbachev if Russian were spoken in these parts! At no other time in Nigerian history has a leader recognised the organic linkage between economics and politics in practical terms. The option for grassroots democracy is the political equivalent of SAP. One may not like the origins of the latter but its informing logic is irresistible. Under Babangida, the business of governing Nigeria is no longer a rule of thumb matter. The actions of state are now informed by a coherent theoretical anchor. We may not like the kind of theory that informs the thinking of Dodan Barracks but we cannot ignore its sheer consistency and rigorous articulation.

There is, of course, a multiplicity of response to the man’s style. If he is stubborn, it is because he is convinced. If he is flexible, it is because he recognises that politics is a humane calling. If he occasionally gets touchy, it is because he is human. If he is unpredictable, it is because he is a General! I am not so sure that the man agrees with every measure that his government has had to introduce. But the “reason of the state” may well make demands that precede his individual predilections.

Most importantly, Babangida has shown an impeccable understanding of power. His leverage among the rank and file of the armed forces places him in a unique position to guarantee the kind of political stability which we need to free our people from the grips of poverty and desperation. In short, Babangida is the only Nigerian that I know who can command soldiers, cajole civilians, wrestle with opponents and still emerge unscathed and smiling. So, what to do? Those who have been looking for the centre in the new political equation may not like this: It may be wise to test the new grassroots civil democracy at the local government and state levels for now.

But given the nature and extent of the economic and political reforms which Babangida has set in motion, it would be unpatriotic of him and the military to quit power at the centre as early as 1992.