General Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida

Address at the inauguration of the Murtala Mohammed Foundation in Abuja on 13th February, 2003.

I feel a sense of personal elation in chairing today’s occasion. In retirement, one gets invited ever so often to preside over or be present at many occasions. For me, this is not just another occasion. It is an annual act of remembrance and of veneration of one of modern Africa’s most illustrious leaders. I can modestly claim to have been part of the dreams and ideals for which the late General Murtala Mohammed lived and died.

As I look in this August assembly, I am encouraged that many of our compatriots still value those ideals and the promise they held for our country several years after the tragic loss of General Mohammed. As I look among the audience today, I see the face of one harmonious nation which in spite of our diversity is united and held together by a sense of optimism about the future of our great country. It is that sense of optimism that was awakened by the late General Mohammed. I believe that this gathering is yet another occasion for us as a people to show our collective sense of gratitude for the hope which General Mohammed symbolised not only for our nation but also for Africa as a whole.

I am emboldened by the fact that I am surrounded by two of Africa’s foremost statesmen: my brother former President Masire of Botswana and our own President Olusegun Obasanjo. The organisers of this event could not have made a better choice of a guest lecturer than President Masire. He is a living witness of those days when in the fight against apartheid Nigeria was regarded and indeed acted as a ‘front line state’. That status was earned through the practical leadership of General Murtala Mohammed.

In many ways, General Murtala Mohammed lived ahead of the conflict in the Middle East. It is that in the calculations about the possible repercussions of such war, Africa is hardly mentioned nor are we being consulted in the run up to a possible conflict in a part of the world with which Africa shares a hemispheric and cultural closeness.

I have only pointed this out as a way of emphasising the crucial challenge that today confronts Africa. It is the challenge of becoming relevant in the shortest possible time. The world cannot wait for Africa. Africa must leap frog to meet a world that is changing by the second. We may not seek to equal the technological wizardry of the West but we should at least uplift the standards of living of our people so that they can realise their humanity and dignity.

Ours is therefore not strictly a challenge of development but one of rapid modernisation. This modernisation must begin in our mindset, in the methods that we adopt towards solving the problems that hold our people hostage. We must be impatient with the lot of our peoples. We must reject the status of perennial victims of the worst calamities that afflict humanity. We must replace the guns that we do not need with the ploughs and laboratories that we must have now. We must reject the repeated cycle of providing the rest of the world with photo opportunities and television images of the famine and senseless bloodletting that constantly afflict us.

These challenges are even more strident today as more and more African countries embrace formal democracy. Democracy without modernisation and genuine development is a farce. A society can only be truly democratic when the people to whom the heritage of democracy ultimately belongs understand the rights to which they are entitled under democracy. Such an awakened populace is the best guarantee for the sustenance of democracy and its perpetuation.

Yet the pursuit of modernisation and economic development must not be at the expense of those values and attributes that distinguish us as a different people. Africa’s material culture, our artefacts, our cultural displays, our indigenous social institutions and organisations add colour to the emergent rainbow that is today’s time. The actions he took in those days anticipated the challenges that confront Africa today. He was perhaps unconsciously developing a model of leadership for today’s Africa. He insisted on probity and accountability at a time when those words were still alien to African leadership and public officers.

He underlined the need for efficiency in all spheres of life ahead of the triumph of free market economics and the attendant capitalist work ethic. He emphasized fairness even in his firmness. His insistence on the principle that the innocent should not be made to suffer with the guilty echoes the classic democratic belief that a just society can only be built on the principles of equity and fairness in the context of the rule of law. Above all he bridged the ideological divide of the Cold War years by embracing people from both sides of the divide in the pursuit of the national interest.

He understood the national interest in very strategic terms by linking the destiny of Nigeria to that of the rest of Africa. For him, therefore, no African country could be considered free while any part of Africa was under colonial or racist tutelage. Thus was born an Afro-centric foreign policy for Nigeria.

His vision was that of an Africa that had a proud heritage, and that had come of age in spite of overwhelming external influence. He insisted that our actions as individual nation states must revolve around the larger interests of Africa. This pointed to the situation in today’s world where once again Africa is being challenged by the attitude of the rest of the world to look inwards and master its destiny.

Above all else, General Mohammed was impatient with Africa’s slow pace of development. He believed in the possibility of quick, decisive and positive change in all spheres of African life. Underlying his optimism and impatience was the belief that Africa could attain modernity in the life time of the contemporary leadership.

As we reflect today on the legacy of this illustrious son of Africa, we are invited to ponder the current crisis of development in Africa. As we speak, the world is at the brink of a major war in a strategic part of the world. The interesting point however, is not that there is likely to be It is precisely because he approximated this ideal that we are here gathered to remember and honour the late General Murtala Mohammed.

I thank you all your patience.