BABANGIDA AND THE WESTERN BYPASS (Political Debts the South West Owes Babangida)

Chidi Amuta

Published in ThisDay, September 2, 2010

This piece is deservedly a tribute to my friend, former president Ibrahim Babangida, on his 69th birthday a few days ago. I enter the observations hereunder for three reasons. First, as a public service, a way of further enriching the various reflections and interpretations that will attend this occasion as in previous years. Second, because the man was last in public office over 17 years ago and his most vociferous critics and commentators are either in their late twenties or early thirties and may not have experienced first-hand, the high points of his contributions as a leader. It is dangerous to leave national discourse of a historical nature in the hands of people with inherited prejudices and second-hand wisdom. Third, assessments of his eight year tenure as President of this country between 1985-1993 need to be grounded in fact, not partisan fiction and fashionable impressions.

I choose on this occasion not to rehash Babangida’s numerous reform initiatives, initiatives that others have either built upon, out rightly obliterated, mischievously disfigured or cleverly stolen and renamed or brazenly appropriated or misappropriated. I also choose not to enumerate the various landmark achievements of his administration. There is also no point in increasing the literature of professional cynics on Babangida as a historical subject since that area has sustained some individuals’ claim to public attention for more than a decade. Criticism of or fascination with IBB has also sustained some publications in our media pantheon, in terms of copy sales for almost two decades. I think the man should begin to augment his retirement benefits by asking the media to pay him royalties for increased copy sales each time he appears, for good or ill, on their front pages!

There is also no point in dwelling on those errors of omission and insulated. Equally over documented is the controversial essence of the man himself, his political method and indeed his overall relationship with the various realities that he has had to deal with in the course of an eventful life. Again, Babangida is easily the most documented past Nigerian leader, weighing in almost equally in both positive and negative directions. Passionately loved and viciously despised, almost in equal measure, but never comfortable to ignore.

Of specific significance to me on this occasion from point of view of the geo-political arithmetic that often dictates the judgements that we as media and public make on aspects of national history, is the relationship which Babangida has had with and the influence he has had on the political fortunes or misfortunes of the Yoruba nation.  I believe this is an area of strategic importance in view of the dominance of anti-Babangida literature from along the Western by-pass of our public opinion.

The Yoruba with whom I have more than a casual acquaintance are a very sophisticated people. The profundity of their contributions to the economy, culture, politics, judiciary, academia, journalism and nearly every other aspect of our national life is everywhere in evidence. In the context of our national politics, their perception and pursuit of group self-interest remains one of the most sophisticated among the major nationalities in the land. Their history as well as the complex mythic strands around which it is woven is universal knowledge.

But in the evolving history of the Nigerian state, I believe it is about time the Yoruba nation began to take stock of how they have fared under successive administrations, be they military or civilian. This process, in my view, has become imperative given the distortions that are likely to be passed down to younger generations by powerful voices with vested interest in specific episodes of national history. The oppositional history and character of the Nigerian print media which is incidentally located in Lagos, the heartbeat of the Yoruba nation, has complicated a true appreciation of the Yoruba interest and subsumed it under the oppositional agenda of the media.

Incidentally, the most loud and vociferous condemnations and indictments of the Babangida years have come from the Lagos press often at the instance of the Yoruba elite. Yet, I can state, without any equivocation, that no other single national group occupied such central stage and benefited in the long term from the Babangida administration than the Yoruba nation. Some of the most strategic positions in that administration were occupied by some of the best Yoruba sons and daughters. A random list:  Bolaji Akinyemi, Olu Falae, Michael Omolayole, Wole Soyinka, Tai Solarin, Alani Akinrinade, Akin Mabogunje, Ojetunji Aboyade, Olikoye Ransome Kuti, Tunde Adeniran, Bola Ajibola, Duro Onabule, Maria Sokenu, Tola Adeniyi etc.

In return for the often exemplary services of some of these good Nigerians, Babangida treated the Yoruba nation with unusual reverence. He related the late sage of Yoruba politics, Chief Obafemi Awolowo, with utmost respect and privately sought his counsel on crucial state matters. Similarly, he paid due respect and ensured appropriate restitution for Yoruba leaders and sons like the late Chief Adeniran Ogunsanya and Fela Ransome Kuti who had been ruffled by the Buhari/Idiagbon Gestapo. Through his friend and National Security Adviser, General Aliyu Mohammed Gusau, he constructively engaged the elite of the Yoruba press and public opinion establishment : Felix Adenaike, Segun Osoba, Yemi Ogunbiyi, Peter Ajayi, Ebenezer Babatope would readily testify to the respect which the administration had for their views on critical public policy issues. In many instances, the views and contributions of these men significantly influenced public policy and government action on a number of issues.

Babangida recognised and sought to put at the disposal of the nation’s economy, the business expertise of the Yoruba hence his economic advisory team was led by the late great economist Ojetunji Aboyade while prominence and sometimes immense patronage and direct empowerment went to such illustrious citizens as Ernest Shonekan, MKO Abiola, Mike Adenuga and a whole new crop of younger sons and daughters of the Yoruba nation.

This is in addition to his extensive network of personal friendship with key Yoruba traditional rulers and opinion leaders- Oni of Ife, Awujale of Ijebu and Alake of Egbaland among many others. When it was time to activate his political transition programme, he looked most intently in the direction of Yoruba land without however alienating the rest of the country. Incidentally, most of those who have shouted loudest about the injustice of the cancellation of the June 12 election know very little or nothing about what really happened.

I can assert here, with the fullest confidence of all the facts at my disposal and without fear of contradiction, that the candidature of the late M.K.O Abiola was largely a product of and enjoyed the highest all round support from Babangida. The possibility is quite high that there may have been no Abiola candidacy without the level of support he enjoyed from Babangida. What historians and commentators should try to figure out was how a leader who worked so hard to advance the emergence of his friend as a presidential candidate could take the dramatic decision of cancelling the elections. National history is full of such dramatic and tragic twists. Only Babangida can provide the definitive insight into what happened.

Perhaps, nothing in the details can obliterate the inherent hubris and historical tragedy of that decision. Incidentally Babangida is the type who insists on bearing the burden of history, insisting that as a leader you cannot outsource responsibility for your actions or indeed the actions of those who travelled the road of power with you. In recent times, he has had cause to express regrets and even apologise for that very unfortunate episode. Even after the cancellation of the June 12 elections, Babangida, mostly out of a sense of natural justice, opted for Ernest Shonekan to head the Interim National Government perhaps to the discomfiture of other major national groups.

After the Abacha interregnum, Babangida contributed in no small measure to engineering a new transition programme that was to continue the process of restitution to the Yoruba nation which he started with the Shonekan appointment.  He encouraged the General Abubakar transitional government to register AD even though the party did not meet the prescribed criteria of national spread. It can also be said that IBB actively supported a new transition programme in which the nation was made to choose between two Yoruba candidates for the highest office in the land: either Obasanjo for the PDP or Olu Falae for the NPP.

He actively worked for the prompt release from prison of Mr. Obasanjo. In the ensuing process, IBB almost single-handedly marketed, promoted, partly sponsored and literally installed Obasanjo as president in defiance of reservations of close friends, associates, professional colleagues and even family members. So strong was Babangida’s sense of historical restitution and natural justice that he felt that the best way to begin to atone for the hubris of June 12 was to ensure that the Yoruba came into and controlled the main stream of national politics. He worked for this restitution and helped, more than anyone else in Nigerian history to bring about that outcome. In sum then, so high has been Babangida’s high regard and profound respect for the Yoruba nation that in quick succession, he caused one of them to lead an interim national government, another one to virtually win an election that was later cancelled for reasons of higher national security and yet another to become an elected president who ruled and reigned over Nigeria for eight years. The late sage, Chief Obafemi Awolowo, laboured so hard to attain power at the national level on behalf of the Yoruba and the nation. He died as ‘the best president Nigeria never had’’ without fulfilling this dream.

It took Babangida to bring the Yoruba into the main stream and put one of their sons (Obasanjo) at the summit of national politics and power for the first time in our national history. Even against powerful reservations from the North, Babangida supported Obasanjo’s presidency for eight years until the Third term debacle. Chief Olusegun Obasanjo as the prime beneficiary of the IBB contribution to Yoruba ascendancy in national politics has the burden of justifying or betraying the confidence, respect and admiration which Babangida had in the Yoruba nation.

It is perhaps too early to pass judgement as to whether Obasanjo justified or betrayed this unprecedented ascendancy. Did he impart on the nation, the exemplary attributes and clear distinction of the Yoruba race in his eight years in elected power or indeed his earlier outing? For now, I think the burden of the place of the Yoruba in national history rests squarely on the shoulders of Mr. Obasanjo. It is either he squandered a historic opportunity or justified the high regard and confidence which Babangida had in the ability of the Yoruba nation to heal the nation and uplift our people.

Yorubas will have to accept Obasanjo either as an illustrious hero or a tragic and despicable traitor. Interestingly, the South West is gradually ossifying into a political by- pass. Because of the oppositional essence of its politics in the great Awo days, the train of central political power always passed the zone by even though it made the greatest strides in economic self-determination and authentic social welfare development. In the election that almost got Chief Abiola into the presidential villa, the vast majority of votes came from outside the South West. In 1999, literally everybody else other than the critical majority in the South West voted for Mr. Obasanjo to become president. There again, even when one of their own was on the podium, the outcome by-passed the South West hence Obasanjo had to wage a ‘a do or die’ scorched earth political operation to garrison the South West for the PDP.

We are at yet another critical juncture. The south west is once again challenged to re-examine its growing role as a political bypass. Statistically, the zone is six states out of thirty six. That is not exactly the most enviable status. Its most vociferous political elements are comfortable elite. Most Nigerian elite do not go out to vote. They either travel abroad or sit in front of television sets to await the results. By the constitutional provision, Nigerian presidents can continue to be elected in perpetuity without votes from any six states wherever they may be located. The challenge of the South West in 2011 is, in my view, to ensure that it does not provide those six states.

Babangida has recently underlined the politically strategic importance of the zone by insisting that it is a vital corridor to power at the centre. In IT terms, the South West houses the information server of national information infrastructure and traffic. In political terms, it Is essentially libertarian and noisy public opinion enervates our national discourse. Its legal and judicial prowess points us all perennially in the direction of the primacy of the rule of law. To convert these assets into permanent political advantage, the zone must now align its rhetoric to its permanent interests and depart from the role of a permanent political bypass. It needs to search Nigerian history to discover its true friends.