BABANGIDA AND DOMESTIC POLITICS

Dahiru Yahaya


The Babangida regime is inseparable from the Babangida personality. To understand one it is necessary to understand the other. This is the case with all regimes and at all times. That is where the enigma lies. Objectivity eludes those who are too close to Gen. Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida because they are likely to be mesmerized by that compelling personality. To be far away from him one may be tempted to be prejudiced against him on account of his dwarfing image. Even though scholarship precludes insensitivity and temptation, I accept to write on him partly because I am not too close to him to be dazed by his personality or too far away to be bewildered by his activities. Babangida’s personality is in fact coded. It has to be deciphered by a careful analysis of his activities in life so as to establish its impact on the problems and perspectives of the interpretation of his regime.

Gen. Babangida has an essentially brilliant, broadminded, cosmopolitan personality. He can however, be provincial in outlook. His mind is always in Minna; never in Kano, where he rightly belongs or Lagos, where he lived most of his working life. He inspires confidence but he can be elusive and not easily impressed. He is as generous as a mystic is, but, like a woman, he cannot be taken for granted. Feminists should note that in the intellectual tradition to which I belong, meanness, is a desirable quality in women. And for the mystic woman is divine as Divinity is feminine. He is chivalrous and courageous on account of others, but can be weak and irresolute on account of himself. Gen. Babangida is polite in comportment, but can be brazen in action. He rarely says no; that most important word in human diction, but his yes must by necessity be most often a very tortuous and tormenting no. The real affirmation for him is followed by prompt action; the unreal one by meandering pledges and calendar searching. He is certainly a dependable and faithful friend, but could be a very ruthless comrade. He stings and soothes at the same time, for it is not in his nature to be offensive. Hercan build hopes in others and then dashes them without a wink for probably good, but undisclosed reasons. He has stepped aside from authority, but he is very much in the limelight of political activities.

It would appear that all these human complexities which reside in that deeply human heart of Gen. Babangida informed all his acts of commission and omission while in office and delineated his achievements and failures and, in fact, his public relations and personal life. These complexities are now at struggle with each other to keep him perpetually on a pendulum swinging between survival and extinction, between the possibilities offered by tremendous achievements and the limitations imposed by truncated ambitions, between fulfillment and betrayal and between triumph and despair. It is only the victory of intelligence over cleverness that can swing that pendulum permanently fixed in favour of this politically young Madawaki of Minna, our brother, Gen. Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida.

Gen. Babangida is certainly not an-evil genius. If anything he is closer to being a saint of some sort. This is the reason some of those who know him well fondly hail him as the father of Muhammed were it not for your acts of suspense you would have become a saint. This is the man who dominated the underworld of the Nigerian military and exude influence on the Nigerian polity for almost thirty years. He ruled this country single-handedly for eight years and still remains a veritable political factor. And now for him the sky is the limit -subjected and subject to himself.

The personality of Gen. Babangida did not alter but rather illuminate the patterns the Nigeria’s military regimes had established by which they justified their entrances, their raison d’etre and planned their exits. Soldiers become impatient with the strains and stresses associated with social progress and the convulsions that accompany political process in nation building. Unlike civilians, they could not release their frustrations in breast-beating and shadow chasing. They struck directly eliminating the operators of the system because they felt they had a mandate to protect the integrity of the country and because they thought they had a better solution, which they could deliver with military dispatch and would have immediate effect on society. Man is now wise enough to realize that he can neither speed up nor slow down the march of history; he can only exalt or blemish it. The Nigerian military have also taught us that man, whatever his profession, is essentially the same. He has the capacity to rise very high and the cupidity to fall very low. This is an unassailable angle of perception and a rational scale of interpreting regimes.

Three crimes have always been advanced as the reasons for the overthrow of a government in Nigeria. The first crime is an attempt at self -perpetuation of regimes. The second crime is state corruption and personal aggrandizement of leaders. Ethnic, religious and regional marginalization or structural imbalance in government is considered as the third crime governments commit. Gen. Babangida’s inability to effect a transition to a legitimate democratic process is however a ‘crime’ he shared with Prime Minister Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, Gen. Aguiyi Ironsi, Gen. Yakubu Gowon, President Shehu Shagari, and Gen. Muhammadu Buhari. The only exceptions were Gen. Murtala Muhammed and questionably General Sani Abacha both of whom died prematurely in office. The others were Gen. Obasanjo and Gen. Abddulsalami Abubakar who were the watchdogs of the transition programmes of their illustrious predecessors and completed them successfully. Gen. Babangida can claim the credit of being the only chief executive who effected a peaceful transition to a non-democratic civilian government by consensus and without the attendant political convulsions.

The democratic regimes of Prime Minister Tafawa Balewa and President Shagari lost their legitimacy when they used foul methods, including electoral malpractices and wholesale disenfranchisement of individuals and communities, in order to gain a second term in office. The result was a bloody coup d’etat which led to the derailment of the democratic process. The balkanization policy of Gen. Ironsi was seen by some sections of this country as the desire of another section to perpetuate itself in the rulership, hence the demise of that regime. Gen. Gowon and Gen. Buhari felt they could stay on in power indefinitely since Nigerian civilians were not ready to shoulder the responsibility of civil rule. Gen. Gowon felt that the country was too discordant to have a coherent civil administration and therefore reneged on his pledge to hand over to civilians. Gen. Buhari, on the other hand, felt Nigerians were too corrupt and it would take as long as it would to cleanse them and hand over government to them. Both regimes were overthrown.

This attitude is not however, unconnected with that permanent human tendency for self -perpetuation. Vested interests as well as men of goodwill around the heads of state always exploited this attribute to convince them against the imminent danger to the nation of handing over to unworthy successors. Of course the ideas of vested interest may not be necessarily intangible or opposed to overall national interest. In the case of the two civilian regimes, it was the handiwork of the two political parties, the NNA and NPN. Gen. Ironsi’s desire to stay on was not unconnected with the Ibo ideologues that surrounded him while Gen. Buhari was accused of being surrounded by intellectual purists of northern extraction. For the reversal policy of Gen. Gowon, the permanent secretaries and the Federal establishment were accused. The Ta zarce movement under Gen. Abacha, which he did not stop, was designed and executed by his security and intelligence network.

Accusations of corruption and ineptitude were levelled against all regimes except those of Gen. Ironsi, Gen. Murtala Mohammed and Gen. Buhari. But these were also the regimes that were opposed vehemently by the liberal intelligentsia on the grounds of imbalance, arbitrariness or human rights violations. Corruption and indiscipline continued to grow in the body politic and society in spite of the ephemeral intervention of these regimes. Nigeria has now attained the number one status on the corruption scale of Transparency International.

The malignant tripod of ethnicity, regionalism and religion could becloud any policy initiative, however laudable, that regime might launch the campaign. It would appear that for Nigerians it is not really the policy that matters, but the people behind it or the events, which gave rise to it. For example, the Ironsi and Buhari regimes were perceived as representing narrow interests. In fact, the regimes were overthrown irrespective of their unflinching belief in Nigeria. They pursued nationalistic policies with such uncompromising zeal that they became unmindful of the necessity of pragmatic considerations. Gen Ironsi had a vision of a united Nigeria where tribes, regions and religions would not matter. Gen. Buhari was uncompromising on a disciplined efficient Nigeria where there would neither be sacred cows, privileged classes nor rogues. Both regimes appear to have been betrayed by the fact that Gen. Ironsi was surrounded with what was considered as fascist Ibo intellectuals and Gen. Buhari with ultra conservative northern intellectuals. The two regimes might have exceeded the limit of patriotism when Gen. Ironsi unilaterally effected a fundamental change in the structure and constitution of the country without involving the people. Gen. Buhari’s regime declared a large section of the elite guilty of corruption until they proved themselves innocent. He had thus upset a well-recognized principle of law. There were other policies of these two regimes, which proved them, to be insensitive to the complexity of Nigeria’s malignant tripod.

Military regimes appear to have pursued a pattern of counter policies by which succeeding regimes dissociated themselves from the politics of their predecessors in order to consolidate themselves even in situations where there was no reason for a break in policy. For example, Gen. Obasanjo and Gen. Abubakar departed radically from the principle of foreign policies of their predecessors. Where there were violent changes of government the break in policies could be total. Gen. Ironsi opted for a unitary system of government in place of the regionalism he inherited. Gen Gowon returned to federalism, but with a strong central government. Gen. Murtala’s and Gen. Buhari’s sense of urgency and discipline contrasted with Gen Gowon’s and Gen. Babangida’s liberality. A major characteristic of military rule was its lack of policy continuity and political orientation. Its major drawback was the absence of established guiding principles and public institutions. Military rulers could only rely on perceived public opinions, sectional interest and the vagaries of their states of mind to formulate and execute policies. The major victims are public participation, national interest and sound public policy. Under democratic dispensation political parties provide public policy initiatives by which public interest is protected through unhindered debate across, within and beside the political parties and by which genuine public opinion emerges. Leaders are thus guided along established principles.

Government, whether civilian or military, cannot dispense with the people, at least, at the levels of public opinion, service and legitimacy. Under democratic dispensation the ballot guarantees legitimacy. The elected representatives of the people directly monitor public opinion and service is provided on the basis of party manifestoes. Military regimes could only attempt, often unsuccessfully, to reach the people through traditional ruler-ship institutions legitimized by traditional customs. Vested interests, represented by the intelligentsia, provided input on the substance of public policy and service. The irony of this arrangement was that the traditional rulers, the intelligentsia, and especially the people around government, were all entirely dependent on the regime. Such arrangement could only produce dictators. The long journey from Gen. Ironsi to Gen. Abubakar has produced a number of them with varying qualities of perception and unequal determination.

Gen. Babangida was remarkably exceptional in the game of politics. He learnt by experience, by perception and by that rare gift of intuition, which few human beings have been endowed with, that for one to rule one must first survive. He knew why, how and when every Nigerian head of state was ousted and Gen Ironsi and Gen. Mohammed were gunned down. He also seemed to have clearly understood the public dimensions of those events. Consequently, Gen. Babangida is unsurpassed in his love for people, information and research. He was able to build a vast network of friends in the military, in the intelligentsia and in all sectors of socially active society. With that electric mind he keeps every name, remembers every event and reads every shade of opinion and nuisances in the behaviour of his associates, friends and acquaintances.

The survival of Nigeria’s military governments depended on a number of factors. One of the most important factors, as the cases of Gen. Ironsi, Gen. Mohammed and Gen. Buhari would indicate, was the military base of the governments. All of these leaders came from areas that were peripheral to the power base of the Nigerian military. The longest surviving regimes of Gen. Gowon and Gen. Babangida were fully entrenched in the Middle Belt, an area, which by accident of geography produced the bulk of the fighting men. The very soldiers who killed Gen. Ironsi and refused to obey his second in command, a Yoruba General, were the ones who hailed Gen. Gowon to office. They were also the ones who gunned down Gen. Mohammed so as to restore Gen. Gowon. They were indeed the ones who shouted “Sai Baba ” on the face of the incumbent Head of State, Gen. Buhari to herald the coming of Gen. Babangida. Gen. Babangida exploited this factor to pacify the military and so established and consolidated his regime. The destabilization of the Middle Belt military factor by the trial of the assassins of Gen. Mohammed, now a national hero, and its containment by the statesmanship of Gen. Babangida ensured the survival of the regimes of Gen. Obasanjo and Gen. Abacha respectively.

Patronage has been the most crucial factor in Nigerian politics. The oil wealth raised its premium. It sets religion against religion, region against region, tribe against tribe and individuals against individuals. It figures in all changes of government. It was certainly a factor in the overthrow of even the well-entrenched Gowon regime. The young officers who planned and executed the coup d’etat against Gen. Gowon were in agreement with most Nigerians against the failure of congenial Gen. Gowon to change his governors and commissioners (ministers), who had apparently overstayed in office. It was also a factor in the overthrow of Gen. Buhari who tilted more towards the older generation of officers. The dexterity with which Gen. Babangida handled patronage did not only save his regime but ensured greater stability in the Nigerian polity arid the society while he was in office. He schemed a deterrent against the legions of ambitious young men armed with guns who were too ready to shoot their way to national destruction. These were the young men who looted our treasury after the exit of Gen. Babangida and thus destroying forever the credibility of military rule.

Young go-happy military officers and civilians too, were nurtured and appointed to “lucrative” political posts where they messed themselves up. Their excesses were overlooked and they were thus kept in permanent obligations and gratitude. There were others down the ladder whose admiration and devotion could be maintained through generosity, kindliness and good impression which Gen. Babangida had in no small measure. Those who made good impressions were in turn favoured and the type of Majors Orkar and Al-Mustapha emerged and developed the audacity to treat their generals with indignities in order to keep these generals humbled. To ensure greater state security the military was starved of funds and equipment. Discipline sank and professionalism disappeared. The military had no option in the final analysis, but to make its exit from politics and governance.

Liberalism appears, in spite of its corrupting tendencies, to have greater potentiality of preserving the integrity of government than a disciplinarian dispensation. Gen. Babangida might have calculated that the disciplinarian orientation of Mohammed and Buhari regimes could have contributed to their early demise as against the elongated life of the liberal Gowon regime. While the Buhari regime was eager to establish its roots in the Mohammed regime, the Babangida regime sent out a terse statement disclaiming any connections to the policies of Gen. Mohammed. That position was carried to its logical conclusion. The inaugural policies of Gen. Babangida became popular; for they brought relief after the harsh disciplinarian world of Gen. Buhari. Prisoners of conscience and political prisoners were released. Prohibitive laws were abolished. Society was released and every issue was discussed publicly and freely as intellectual and political life was restored. Gen. Babangida was soon to discover that liberality itself has its own sharp edges.

Gen. Babangida created a democratic environment without emphasizing corresponding legal imperatives or measures to contain its fallout. Neither government nor the people seemed to know their limitations. The rules of the game were not clearly spelt out. Even where laws existed, they were contingent, rather than constitutional. In other words, they were partly meant to protect the regime against the contingencies emanating from the democratic process and partly to protect the democratic practitioners against themselves. There were laws which banned certain age groups from participation. There were laws that cancelled primaries on account of far reaching mal-practices. There were laws which restricted the number of parties or created them etc. At the end of the day, Gen. Babangida must have faced the grim reality of a fully mobilized country without reliable politicians to give it leadership. One must have noticed that the frantic effort to mobilize the old breed that had earlier been banned to join the race at the last moments. Leadership, old or new breed; does not however; emerge overnight. The Babangida regime had to contend with the problem of syncretism, which whether political or religious is that; the gains in one are defeated by the gains in the other.

No regime has succeeded in handling our malignant tripod in the manner the Babangida regime successfully did. Gen. Babangida -was able to confront adequately the forces released by ethnic, religious and regional rivalry. The first step he took was to make his ethnic and regional identity a mystery. A Middle Belt minority status appeared at the beginning to be more beneficial. So it was encouraged. It would at least, apart from keeping his military base stable, dampen Southern Christian hostility often directed against the Muslim Far North.

Certainly, like a true Northern Muslim he has some marital connections to the south of Benue and Niger rivers. In the case of Gen. Babangida, it was to the east of Niger and it was fully exploited. A well-cultivated Lagos man, the Yoruba elites admired him to no end. But the people to the north of the Middle Belt were not fools. They took serious offence at what they regarded as a monumental betrayal by their own son. The Far North has and will always remain a very serious political bloc. Gen. Babangida had to invoke his Islamic identity to carry the far North along and he launched Nigeria into the Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC).

Nigeria’s entry into OIC swung the political pendulum violently. Gen. Babangida got the North and Muslims on his side almost uncritically and lost the Christian South equally uncritically. The prime victim was his Eastern Christian second in command whom he dismissed for making uncritical comments on the issue. Unlike President Shagari and Gen. Buhari, Gen. Babangida refrained from offending the sensitivities of Muslims either in his speeches or in his policies. He remained faithful to Islam and promoted it without encroaching on the liberty of Christianity and kept his government equally balanced between Christians and Muslims.

Gen. Babangida had perfected the art of micro domestic politics. He cultivated the traditional rulership institution by raising it high, by courtesies and gifts, and left it there deluded, until it came down crushing after his exit. For example, his patronage of the sultanate eventually led to its demise and the re-routing of the custodianship of Islamic values to the democratic institutions as witnessed in the correspondences he kept away at safe distance from the conspiratorial Northern radical elements engaging the services of only a few of them. He, however, drew close to himself the Southern radicals and their press until the likes of Wole Soyinka and Tai Solarin became thoroughly messed up in government. Gen. Babangida, like some leaders in Nigeria and around the world, subscribed to the services of Mallamai. He did not however, unlike some other leaders, fall under their control. Mallamai have a wide and unwavering, popular constituency which no political or military leader can afford to ignore. Mallamai are also the custodians of information about the past, the present and the future and on, against and for political players. For the believers; there is the psychological impact of prayers, if not their guaranteed immediate efficacy both on the subject and object of the prayers.

The last important decision taken by the Babangida regime before the stepping aside of the President was the cancellation of the elections of Chief Moshood Abiola and Alhaji Babagana Kingibe as President and Vice President of Nigeria. The cancellation was probably the most important decision the regime had ever taken for many considerations. In the first place it was morally and constitutionally wrong to ban some citizens in order to pave way for some others to emerge. Secondly, the Muslim-Muslim candidature did not reflect the reality of Nigeria’s multi-religious status. Christians, it could be recalled, complained bitterly about Buhari-Idiagbon combination. Muslims would have, however, been the worse for it because the Christian Association of Nigeria had already begun to press for unconstitutional concessions, which could have, led to serious national crisis. Finally, the competence of Chief Abiola and Alhaji Kingibe was not reassuring and it would have been irresponsible to hand over this country to the uncertainties of political opportunism.

Without the benefit of the democratic dispensation, Gen. Babangida had effectively brought together all sections of society across regions, tribes and religion and all sectors from scholars to opinion leaders to participate fully in his administration on the basis of equality. He has also, by commission or omission laid down the basis for democratic society and a united country in which possibilities were created. Some mistakes have been made which are either inevitable or avoidable, but do not necessarily detract from the national objectives. There was certainly an increase in corrupt practices during his era and he did not seem to have taken concrete measures to curtail them. However, after his exit, it can be observed that rulers became looters. In the present democratic dispensation, the reverse is the case. Looters now become rulers.