General Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida

Being an address on the occasion of Launching of an appeal fund for the Zik Foundation in Abuja

An invitation to participate in an event that is associated with any of our founding fathers is for me a call to duty. It is a call to duty, indeed a quick summons because for me, despite our imperfections as a nation, the idea of Nigeria as the single largest federation of black people remains one of the boldest socio-political projects upon which the black man has embarked in recent history. Therefore, to those whose dreams and efforts gave us the Federal Republic of Nigeria, our founding fathers, we must remain eternally grateful.

In the case of the late great nationalist and statesman, Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe (Zik of Africa), the duty becomes a compulsion. Ordinarily, my assignment on this occasion would be simple. As an indigene of Niger State, I would merely savour the singular privilege of being invited to deliver a goodwill message from the state where Zik was born to this august gathering. But this is no ordinary occasion. And Zik is no ordinary person. You must permit me the immodesty of claiming that Niger State is no ordinary state either!

In many ways, Nigerian history and providence have been quite generous to Niger state. Indeed, there would seem to be a rather symbolic significance in the relationship between Niger State and the Nigerian nation in terms of leadership. Probably on account of the fact that both myself and my brother, Gen. Abdulsalam Abubakar, happen to hail from Niger state, the state is regarded as a power house of some sorts as some call it “the power state”. I wouldn’t know whether this is a way of ignoring Gen Abubakar and myself and instead conjuring the power generated by the Shiroro Dam! But if we add the fact that Zik, who is perhaps the greatest nationalist and patriot that our country has known, was born and had his early childhood in Zungeru, Niger State, then the significance and unique contributions of Niger state to our country become even more striking. I am not about to inaugurate a national contest between Niger state and Ogun state on this matter! Over and above everything else, I would in fact argue that Niger State is seen as ‘the power state’ more on account of Zik’s origin in the state than anything that happened subsequently. It is perhaps more appropriate then to say that the great Zik was delivered in Zungeru and bestowed on Nigeria.

And yet, we must go beyond the symbolism of Zungeru and the central position of Niger state in our leadership culture in order to fully appreciate the decisive import of the great Zik of Africa for our national project. I imagine that the erudite scholars that have been gathered for this event will x-ray the multi-dimensional contributions of Zik to African renaissance and Nigerian nationalism in his time.

I am more inclined to share my thoughts on the contemporary significance of Zik as both an idealist and realist with you. I recall that when our administration was confronted with the problem of proffering a leadership model for our country as part of the transition to a new democracy, we offered the model of the ‘Visionary Realist’. We defined this model then as the leader who ‘appreciates the realistic constraints before him. This model stresses the ability for effective implementation of vision rather than one that wallows in demagogic appeal. This model also calls for the leader who should consider himself as part and parcel of the social/political order rather than a figure situated above that social and political order’.

More than a decade afterwards and with the return of elective democracy to our country, I remain convinced in that leadership model which, I daresay, the great Zik largely embodied. Zik was a visionary in the sense that there is hardly any of our present difficulties that he did not prefigure in his writings and ideas. And yet he cherished and championed a higher vision of a united Nigeria governed by the rule of law in which ethnic and divisive factors played little or no role in determining the opportunities open to the individual Nigerian.

This is of course fortuitous and clearly an unintended consequence of our historical evolution. In his multiple undertakings and multi-faceted engagements, Zik was the quintessential humanist, the classical Renaissance man, a man of many parts. He was at home in the football pitch as in the newsroom, at home among the eminent and in solidarity with the ordinary folk. Knowledgeable in philosophy, law, politics, ethnography, religion etc. Above everything else, he possessed that single most essential ingredient which most successful leaders benefit immensely from: personal charm and charisma. His presence was electrifying as his oratory was captivating and informed. His aura inspired a tradition of mystique and myths were woven around his name, thus amplifying his already immense capabilities and stature

The reason is that for me as a person and as someone who has sustained an interest in the plight and direction of our national project, the great Zik remains an irresistible fascination and a formidable influence. In periods of national upheaval and in times of political difficulty, I have drawn inspiration from what I may describe as the Zik spirit. In my view, the essence of that spirit is the spirit of irrevocable commitment to the ideal of one nation under a constitution. A nation in which the rule of law guided by an appropriate constitution is supreme, a nation in which individual Nigerians are free to ply their trade in any and every part of the federation without fear of discrimination and harm. Zik believed in a nation in which people are free to practice their faith without losing faith in our common patrimony, a nation of proud men and women able to hold their heads high among humanity because as Africans they possess a certain dignity.

At the tactical level, his belief in compromise meant that he survived major political battles in order to fight the next battle. With regard to the evolution of democracy in our country, our present experience can benefit immensely from politics as it was played by Zik and his contemporaries. In this regard, one thing that marks out men like Zik, the late Sardauna of Sokoto and Obafemi Awolowo is that they believed in something. Their political activities was informed by certain core values which subsequently grew into a body of beliefs which largely inspired their politics. Those who followed them understood that they had to abide by those beliefs. In other words, the politics of ideals and ideas which is so glaringly lacking in our new democracy was the guiding principle of our founding fathers.

In the case of the great Zik, it became fashionable among his adherents and supporters to be a Zikist. But interestingly, Zikism was not synonymous with an ethnic ideology nor did it champion a divisive cause. Instead, Zikism was more an ideology for African renascence emphasizing the restoration of the dignity of the black man after centuries of colonial imposition and exploitation. It sought to empower the black man in general and the Nigerian in particular to attain great heights especially in the pursuit of knowledge which, for Zik, was critical to the emancipation of the black man. Yet Zikism did not degenerate to the level of a theology or an ideology for a personality cult. This in fact is one of the refreshingly intriguing facets of Zik’s political legacy.

In terms of his approach to politics and the practical application of Zikism to power and politics in pre and post-colonial Nigeria, what stands out is the adherence to the rule of the game. Constitutionalism, due process, parliamentary decorum and procedure were all followed. Because Zik saw Nigeria as one and indivisible, he regarded the entire nation as his political canvass and demonstrated that belief by being politically at home in all parts of the country. He made alliances in the North and across the nation, stood for election in Lagos and the West, addressed campaign rallies as much in English as in Hausa, Yoruba and Igbo.

There is therefore a great deal that the present generation of political actors, and indeed the entire political process needs to learn from our founding fathers in general and Zik in particular. In this regard, I feel this is an appropriate venue to express my personal concern for trends and tendencies in the present political atmosphere that could betray the vision of the founding fathers and endanger the Nigerian nation.

First is the easy recourse to primordial ethnic and sectional feelings to advance private political interests and aspirations. In the present setting his tendency has in fact been complicated by the division of the country into six geopolitical zones. Political aspirants, when they cannot find a homogenous ethnic base now appeal to the solidarity of their geo-political zone. As an unwholesome addition to this ugly trend, politicians are encouraging the strengthening of ethnic associations for the purpose of getting their endorsement in contests for national office.

There is also the rise of politics of means to the detriment of politics of substance. I believe that while democracy should empower all to aspire to public office, the business of governance is far too serious to be entrusted in the hands of inexperienced persons or persons with questionable character and track record.

Appeals by politicians to less than noble issues and sentiments cannot make up for a lack of ideas which in any case our politics needs to nurture a truly democratic culture. I believe in the politics of ideas. I believe that those who aspire to high political office must found their aspirations on concrete philosophical approaches to reality. This should inform the policies and programmes on the basis of which individual contestants for public office canvass for popular support.

In my view, the starting point for the enthronement of politics of ideas is the party. Our parties must begin the process of founding themselves on definable ideas. Human history is far too advanced for the business of state to be done in an ideological vacuum. Nigeria is too important in the African world and in fact in the march of human civilisation to be governed by rule of thumb. Where our parties fail to rise to the occasion of graduating to the politics of ideas, the vacuum will be filled by the personal beliefs and whims of individual political leaders. The result would be a certain inconsistency of policy and orientation that will continue to subject our traumatised polity to all too frequent shocks. Too many policy shocks are not conducive to the process of nation building in a diverse polity that is already lagging behind its peers in matters of development. As we contemplate the enduring legacies of the great Zik of Africa, I leave you to ponder these modest observations. Our nation has a rich history. This generation of Nigerian leaders is blessed with the benefit of this rich past. We must now begin to distil from that historical treasure the ingredients for our social and political progress and for the fulfilment of the most fundamental needs of all our peoples. I thank you for the honour of your kind invitation. I wish us all fruitful deliberations.