Quintessentially, Ibrahim Babangida never fails to engage and fascinate. The more exciting part of his trademark personal electricity, if you like, is that he is ever ready to distance himself from himself in order to have a good laugh. At such moments, if you refer to him as Mr. President, he will correct you: ‘President in quote”. If you insist on ‘leader’ or former ‘Head of State’, he will still correct you with a bit of self mocking wry smile: ‘Dictator sounds better!’ This ability to distance himself from himself and laugh at his defining roles in Nigerian history showcases the man’s greatest strength.
Babangida is forever able to stay calm in a storm, wait out moments that would unsettle others and live to have a say in subsequent times. That way, he is able to stave off the perennial siege of personal and national tragedy. He has literally strolled casually across history’s minefields to emerge at the other end of the battlefield of life; still smiling. Simply put, then, the man endures, constantly re-adjusts and with an incredible capacity to self-repair and re-invent, thus remaining perpetually relevant in many ways. I suspect that the man’s enduring public appeal must be because he possesses a quality that his nation desires but lacks. The Nigerian nation perennially self-destructs. Babangida habitually self-repairs. He survives.
Nowadays, the man feels a certain sense of completeness. He no longer feels much need to further meddle in the political affairs of a country that, many argue, he and his generation have not quite been excellent in managing. Not very long ago, he openly declared his ‘retirement’ from partisan politics. There are many who will argue that he has never actually participated except as an occasional agent provocateur or, at best, a litmus political actor at critical moments.
There are many Nigerians who feel that men like Babangida ( and Obasanjo of course) cannot really retire from Nigerian politics. They have too much at stake. They have created too many political monsters and economic juggernauts to leave the turf open to participants who may muddy the waters and cause them troubled sleep in retirement. Whatever it is, a man like Babangida may protest to high heavens and mount billboards declaring his retirement from open partisanship. Nigerian politics and history can never leave him alone
The reason is simple. His very being makes sense mostly in the context of power and politics. He is a man of power who exudes power without saying so while appealing through a compelling personal modesty and humility. His enduring appeal is mostly restricted to the shifting grounds of power in our country, its uses, abuses, management and apportionment among competing elites and partisan factions especially at the apex of national leadership.
So, literally like a medicine man who may privately feel that he has lost some of the potency of his own patented poisons, he is still widely consulted by clients from far and wide on account of wonders previously performed and cures legend ascribe to him. You know a good old medicine man when his reputation and myth reaches beyond his immediate time and place.
I recall witnessing a Babangida moment in the precarious days when Yar’dua’s health had become terminally compromised. Then Vice President Jonathan could not assume power either. The dying man had not transmitted the required written instrument of virtual abdication. The ‘doctrine of necessity’ had not become part of our political language. There was uncertainty in the land. It was felt abroad.
Babangida had recently lost his adorable and strong wife, Maryam. The United States government sent Johnny Carson, former Under Secretary of State for African Affairs ostensibly to commiserate with Babangida over his recent loss. Carson and former US Ambassador to Nigeria, Ms. Robin Sanders, evaded airport ‘radar’ by driving all the way from Lagos to Minna with a convoy of armored Chevy suburbans under heavy but disguised Marine escort. The real mission was to confer with Babangida on the plight of Nigeria and the clear and present danger of national unraveling over the power vacuum in Aso Rock. At the meeting, Carson then revealed that Babangida was the only past leader they wanted to converse with at the time.
Prior to this visit, there had been a sort of rapprochement between Babangida and the Americans. After many years of coldness and polite denials, they had granted him a visa to attend to his wife who was undergoing treatment at a California medical facility. Contrary to viral beer parlour rumours in Nigeria, previous US administrations found it hard to forgive Babangida for his support for Yasser Arafat. Not even his subsequent tango with Israel could assuage the Americans. The times were now different. Nigeria was a nominal democracy. Arafat had died and the definition of terrorist had changed after 9/11. The CIA was revising its files.
As Babangida marks yet another birthday, it is perhaps his unfailingly felicitous and perennially engaging essence that his family, friends and compatriots should be celebrating.
Show me a leader who did not make the mistakes to which his time and place entitled him. Looking back, many Nigerians, including his most ardent admirers and close associates, today insist he squandered the opportunity to be Nigeria’s greatest 20th century leader mostly on account of June 12. Very few however deny the potency of his vision and the stridency of his reform policies as and when he instituted them. With the benefit of historical hindsight, it would seem that perhaps the Minna general was the closest we have ever come to a thinking national leader. His cabinet and core advisers were seasoned thinkers and scholars across disciplines. His policies were well thought out and clearly articulated. His solutions, imperfect as they were, were not knee jerk responses. A certain intellectual rigour must be conceded to most of Babangida’s policies even if the debate remains open as to the fidelity and sincerity of those Nigerians who were entrusted with their implementation.
The challenges of our time dictate that we take another look at Babangida’s legacy for purposes of mere intellectual fairness. The compelling appeal is really the thought processes that gave birth to some of his policies. Let us take two issues that dominate our current national life: insurgent insecurity and the imminence of a political order based on a two party architecture.
One of the most controversial projects embarked upon by the Babangida administration in its dying days was the establishment of a National Guard. The idea was unpopular. Regime opponents and ambitious politicians feared and said the project was a ploy to prolong the tenure of the administration. Administration insiders thought differently. The leader of a full-blown military administration did not need to set up another armed force to remain in power if he so desired. On the contrary, Babangida had come to the conclusion that our federation was still fragile and prone to violent inter communal eruptions as had been witnessed in Zango Kataff and other episodes.
Neither the military nor the police was equipped to deal with the kinds of violent insurgency that a large multivalent federation like ours was prone to. The police are too civil a force to be feared by determined troublemakers. The military, on the other hand, is too ferocious; trained mostly to recognise only two categories of people: friend or foe. Friends are compatriots to be protected. Foes are dangerous outsiders to be killed. Insurgents are compatriots gone toxic whose actions could unsettle the state and inconvenience everyone else. They need to be discouraged by some degree of force.
But the force required is neither the tepid one of the police nor the bloody ferocity of the military. An intermediate force was called for. That was the idea behind the National Guard. Perhaps if we had National Guard today with contingents permanently deployed in the Niger Delta and the Far north east, we may not have come to the point where we have constituted these JTFs all over the place with the horrendous casualty figures ad gross human rights infringements.
The more familiar national preoccupation now is the institution of a two party system. Babangida decreed the SDP and NRC into existence. He proceeded to build them party secretariats at local government, state and national levels. Unknown to many, he dispatched groups of bureaucrats, intellectuals and bright military officers to the United States and other places to study how a bipartisan polity works. Copious documents were prepared on the ideological underpinnings of the system. The state subsequently decreed the system into being and encouraged citizens to line up behind either the stallion or the eagle- our two dominant national symbols. He proffered a military solution to a problem that we still have with us.
Here again, there was some rigorous thinking before the decreeing. Babangida reasoned that throughout Nigerian history, the tendency had always been for the parties that are not in power to coalesce into an opposition against the ruling party. Nigerian politicians go into elections as multiple parties but relate to the outcome along a bipartisan formation. Secondly, the forces that divide us as a people are more than two in number (religion, multiple ethnicity, class, loyalty to multiple centers of power). If you allow unbridled multi -partyism, the nation will remain divided along these multiple loyalties and the idea of a united nation will remain an unfulfilled dream. Therefore, the process of national unity is best served if Nigerians exercise their democratic choice along lines that do not correspond to existing divisive fault lines.
In numerous brain storming sessions, Babangida insisted that the two parties- ‘one a little to the right and the other a little to the left’ – also coincided with the observable economic relations among most Nigerians. You either consolidate the wealth in a few hands and let the rich take care of the rest through taxation and employment or you disperse the wealth so that the empowered multitude will become engines of wealth creation.
As I join others in celebrating IBB and his retirement from partisan politics, the need for a thinking national leadership in our country has never been greater than now. Good day General, sir!