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Yes, Babangida Is Serious by Oghene Omonisa


Yes, Babangida is Serious

 The Historian is a prophet looking backward   -         SCHLEGEL

 It was thrilling reading the online interview granted by General Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida (rtd.), former Nigerian military president, to The People’s Magazine/pointblanknews.com. Like every objective admirer of the former president, it was yet another exciting opportunity for me to have further insight into his personality and the historical period of 27th August, 1985 to 26th August, 1993. As characteristic of every Babangida interview – brilliant with facts and figures and concise with reasoning – he answered  questions put to him in ways to deflate any contradiction. I expectedly looked forward to reactions, mostly counter, from some so-called newspaper wise-men acting the role of sole custodians and analysts of modern Nigeria history. So, it was not surprising reading Dr. Reuben Abati’s opposing commentary in The Guardian of Friday, 25th January, 2008 titled, ‘IBB can’t be serious’, which spurred this essay.

 Since the early 1990s, I have been following nearly every national columnist, inclusive of Abati since he joined The Guardian. And if I may digress a little, Abati must be given the credit for first using the phrase, ‘the evil genius’, in describing Babangida in a commentary after the general stepped aside in 1993, and which so amused Babangida that, when asked of the best description of himself, he had told the team of Tell interviewers that he preferred that phrase among many others because (still in a light mood) he could not understand how somebody could be an evil and still be a genius at the same time. But, thankfully, Abati has never taken credit for the phrase because this writer had first come across it in the introduction in an old edition of Jonathan’s Swift’s classic, Gulliver’s Travels.

 As common with some of his commentaries, Abati attempted a deconstruction of the interview and emerged with a so-called ‘main thesis’, which he concluded was Babangida’s intention. He itemized it as, one, ‘I may be bad but Obasanjo is worse’; two, ‘I am better than Obasanjo and the facts show this to be true’; and, three, ‘inevitably, history will be kind to me’. Then Abati destroyed one of the elementary rules of logical argument, argument ad hominem, when he posited that Babangida lacks the moral standing to point out Obasanjo’s shortcomings. Abati wants his readers to take a critical look at Babangida’s alleged bad deeds and not at Babangida’s argument. Talking of integrity and morality, if one may follow Abati’s lead, this writer is not alone among enlightened and studied followers of socio-political events and commentaries that it is Abati that lacks ‘the moral status to pontificate on the subject of integrity and good governance’. This will be made clear soon.

 To this writer, the most memorable commentary Abati ever wrote on Babangida’s presidential ambition is that which has his infantile suggestion to his Egba kinsman to ensure Babangida never emerged as Obasanjo’s successor for the simple reason that it would go down in history that Obasanjo governed Nigeria for twelve years while Babangida, if he had emerged president in 2007 and 2011, would have ruled for sixteen years, beating Obasanjo’s record. Abati has been able to sneak in subtle (sometimes not so subtle) ethnic jingoistic commentaries in his column, under the guise of objectivity. His commentaries can pass for brilliancy, stylishness but surely not devoid of tribalism, except for those who cannot read between the lines. While his sharp criticisms of former Lagos State military administrator, Brigadier Mohammed Marwa (rtd.) throughout his government, is tolerable, likewise those of former Vice President Atiku Abubakar when he was alleged to be warming up to challenge Obasanjo in the PDP presidential primary in 2003, and his preference of Obasanjo to Chief Olu Falae in 1998/99 is forgettable, but his preference of Obasanjo to General Mohammadu Buhari (rtd.) in 2003 is neither tolerable or forgettable. One can easily recall his commentary titled,‘No, not Buhari’, where he recalled every single alleged sin of Buhari and why he was not fit to return as civilian president, forgetting every single good legacy of the general, simply because Buhari was challenging Obasanjo. But Buhari’s second attempt in 2007 did not elicit a commentary from Abati because his Egba kinsman had already secured his two terms. How can one forget Abati’s commentary titled, ‘Obasanjo, Obasanjo and Obasanjo’, where he could not contain his excitement and glee over Obasanjo’s victory at the PDP presidential primary in 2003, praising the Chief Tom Ikimi-led electoral panel – the same Ikimi who the press highly reviled in Abacha era – and not making mention of allegations of blackmail against the panel, chief of which was that the ballot papers used were numbered for each state delegate so that, afterwards, it could be easily detected who each delegate voted for. And what about Abati’s loud silence in 2003, following the monumental fraud that was the presidential and gubernatorial elections, which produced Obasanjo? He conveniently lost his critical pen in his column after the result were announced and the nationwide condemnation that ensued, and found solace in comedy, recalling humorous incidents associated with the elections, chief of which was Chief Gabriel Igbinedion’s comment that if his son had failed the Edo people as governor in his first term, he should be allowed a second term because if a student fails an examination, he is asked to repeat it.


 It was instances like these that provided Professor G.G. Darah, Abati’s immediate predecessor at The Guardian editorial board, who would later become ex-governor James Ibori’s aide, weapon with which to attack Abati in a rejoinder to Abati’s objective commentary on Ibori’s ex-convict saga in 2003. Though both Delta State gubernatorial contestants were Urhobos, but Chief Great Ogboru was vying under Alliance for Democracy (AD), which was largely seen as a Yoruba party. Darah had to use it against Abati, warning him not to use The Guardian, owned by an Urhobo man, as a platform to fight a Yoruba cause against the Urhobos. (Darah’s allegation.) Darah, who obviously had influence at The Guardian at that time, even insinuated at the possibility of Abati being fired if he did not retrace his steps. Of course, no ex-convict commentary emanated from Abati’s pen thereafter.

 This essay is not on Abati, but it becomes necessary to draw his attention to the fact that when it comes to ‘morale status’, he is not qualified to comment on the Babangida interview. This essay is on his commentary. Abati hinged his commentary on the thesis he drew up. So, if I may counter him accordingly. Now, his argument on Babangida’s government being bad but Obasanjo’s being worse. Abati wants his readers to believe that while the N565 billion allegedly accrued to the federal government during Babangida’s eight year era could be small compared to the more than times eight (x8) which accrued to Obasanjo in a single year, Babangida should have considered inflation rate and other analytical indices in his comparison before drawing conclusion, and that, even at that, Babangida should have emphasized on what he (Babangida) achieved with such money. Also under the first item, Abati posited that Babangida‘ended up being regarded as the most corrupt leader in Nigerian history’.

 Only one explanation will clear those two positions. In an interview after he had left government, Babangida had acknowledged the rumour that, indeed, together with his friend, Otunba Adekunle Ojora, and former President Shehu Shagari, he was mooting the idea of setting up a private university that would measure up to Oxford and Cambridge Universities. But Nigerians anxiously waited for a university that never came because Babangida realised he could not afford it. But ten year after, and only four years in government, Obasanjo who was so broke that friends had to contribute his donation at a PDP fundraiser in 1998, had built a multi-billion naira private university, likewise his deputy, Atiku Abubakar, who only wanted to be a governor in 1998. Now, if Babangida, even teaming up with two others, could not build a private university in the early 1990s, and ten years later, former Nigerian first and second citizens had each built a university, that goes to show the minor role of inflation on the naira, and the value-equating or -corresponding monumental fraud the past first and second citizens must have committed to have built those two universities. Nobody should tell me Babangida might have simply changed his mind for other reasons. Private university is a status symbol of super rich Nigerians, and for Babangida to admit mooting the idea, that means he actually desired it. And his incapability to set it up shows Babangida does not have the money. But Abati wants to brain-wash his readers with the popular refrain of ‘Babangida is the most corrupt leader in Nigerian history’. I sincerely want to meet somebody who does not know of an Egba columnist who is secretly pleased that Obasanjo has established a private university in their land, the source of funding notwithstanding.

 It was this same ‘most corrupt leader’ chorus Nigerians were fed with by a section of the media throughout Babangida’s reign till he left office. Then followed by the rumour that his Minna home had fifty bedrooms only to be revealed afterwards that it is a regular duplex, a modest home, so modest the reception for his eldest daughter’s marriage had to hold at his wife’s private secondary school for lack of space. But Obasanjo whose Abeokuta country home was upgraded preparatory to his return from Aso Rock last year, realised there was too much money lying about, so decided to build a new palatial home, at the age of seventy, and moved in. There are presently allegations in gossip magazines that the new house is the most expensive private house in Nigeria. What about the rumour held for long that Babangida owned Global Communications (Glo), and that Otunba Mike Adenuga was just a front? That rumour received presidential acceptance when Mallam Nuhu Ribadu got orders from above to witch-hunt Babangida by investigating Glo in search of indictive evidence to prevent him from contesting for president. And what was discovered? Nothing except 12.5 percent ownership traced to an alleged associate of Mohammed, his eldest son, for which Mohammed was arrested for questioning. (That was the same percent EFCC alleged Atiku Abubakar also owns.) And what about Adenuga, the so-called front? Controlling shares!

 Still on corruption, Abati, much afterwards, alleged that Babangida made many Nigerians wealthy, with ‘dubious wealth’. Which government does not have appointees and contractors? Jesus Christ! Somebody is saying his government is the most investigated in Nigerian history, and that his ministers are still ready for probe, and Obasanjo’s unofficial spokesman is feeding his readers with cock-eyed argument. Abati also alleged that the present crop of governors and ex-governors generally believed to be corrupt, are the children of Babangida era. Indeed! One of the ex-governors presently on trial, recently alleged that Obasanjo is so corrupt that he is presently the richest African. That makes Obasanjo the eldest child of Babangida era. And if Obasanjo, who was, as Abati gleefully reminded his readers, ‘IBB’s senior in the army’, allowed himself to be negatively influenced by his junior, then Obasanjo ought to be demoted in retirement.

 Abati recounted some alleged sins of the Babangida government. But most, if not all of them, are regular tools for Babangida bashers, recycled all over again. For the purpose of objectivity and clarity, it will be paramount to look at some relevant ones. On the economy, he acknowledged that Babangida had a good economy blue-print, which he carried out but that most problems were in its execution. But those ‘major reforms’ were hinged on Structural Adjustment Programme (SAP), which many Babangida bashers had hoodwinked ordinary Nigerians into condemning with their criticisms. It was these same SAP-based reforms that laid the foundation on which Nigerian economy is presently heading to. If given the appropriate forum, it will be shocking the number of anti-SAP commentators who cannot explain the ordinary merits and demerits of SAP let alone display in-depth understanding. And Abati inadvertently acknowledged that Babangida spent the excess money realized from overpriced oil during the Gulf war. Not a few Nigerians had thought  he had pocketed it.

 On 12th June presidential election, it will be pertinent to tell the story as it really happened, especially for those who find it convenient to follow the crowd because they do not read and cannot reason independently. From reports, interviews, commentaries and other literature on the election, its background and its aftermath, it can be seen that, in annulling the election, Babangida took the best decision in the prevailing circumstance.

 On assumption of power in 1985, Babangida had promised a transition programme that would lead to a democratically elected government, and subsequently announced the handover date as 1990. But as we approached 1990, he had claimed that the date was no longer feasible as there were many things to be put in place first. Thus, the goal post was shifted to 1992. Eventually, elections were conducted for council, state governorship, and state and national assemblies, but he had to cancel the presidential primaries and banned the contestants in both parties, following allegations of widespread malpractices, protests and tension. Those elected were sworn in, and 12th June, 1993 was fixed for the presidential election. Chief Moshood Abiola and Alhaji Uthman Tofa had emerged presidential candidates of SDP and NRC respectively.

 Security reports available to Babangida were overflowing with evidence of alleged anomalies from the primaries of both parties. But Babangida himself was exhausted from cancellations, bans and postponements. Besides, the media, controlled by the south, which saw the possibility of a southerner emerging president in the person of Abiola, and which also considered Babangida to be acting too smart by his antics, played it down, praising the primaries. Then 12th June, 1993 came. But even before then, more security reports had over-flooded Babangida’s desk, revealing alleged possible military revolt should the election hold because it (the military) did not want Abiola, the likely winner. After the election, results being released indicated clear victory for Abiola. And the pressure on Babangida became intense, with damning revelations of threats, not only his life, but also that of Abiola, should he hand-over to him. Rumours of coup were in the barracks. To avoid a repeat of Obasanjo’s 1979 transition to civilian rule programme whose successor government was overthrown four years after, Babangida had to stop further release of the results, and eventually annulled the election. (It should be recalled that in the online interview, Babangida revealed that they, the coup plotters, had informed Obasanjo of the coup that overthrew Shagari government in 1983. And the approval by silence goes to show Obasanjo’s acknowledgement of the structural defects of his transition programme that produced Shagari. Such were the shortcomings which Babangida was avoiding in his own transition programme)

 Babangida had to announce a new presidential election timetable, which would be conducted by an Interim National Government (ING) which would be headed by Chief Ernest Shonekan, head of then transition government, and the ING was to last six months. Because the generally held opinion then was that Babangida did not want to relinquish power, he had promised he would still leave on 27th August, 1993 as earlier scheduled.

 There were nation-wide protests, especially in the south-west region, where it was believed the election was cancelled because Abiola was Yoruba, and the first elected southern president. From unofficially released results, it was clear Abiola had won. And he had vowed to protect his mandate by actualising it on 27th August, 1993. Rumours of a possible civil war were abound. And many Nigerians headed for their native land for safety in the event of a civil war. The country was in disarray. There were palpable threats to Babangida’s life, from within and outside the army. So scared for his own life, where everyday he survived was like a miracle, Banbagida had to hand-over power to Shonekan on 26th August, a day before the scheduled date, and practically had to race to Minna, his home town.

 But who was the brain behind it all? Late General Sani Abacha, Babangida’s trusted friend and muscle man. And who was Abacha before Babangida’s departure? In an interview after Abacha’s death in 1998, Babangida had described Abacha as his friend of more than thirty years. Babangida liked and trusted Abacha, a loyal and a naturally strong man. Abacha was his de facto No. 2. They had planned Babangida 1985 coup together. Abacha was known to be so loyal to Babangida that during the Major Orkah coup of 1990, he personally took charge, leading the crush and taking personal protection of the former first family.

 While Babangida was the brain behind that government, Abacha was the muscle that was feared in the military. But he was fanatically loyal to Babangida. And Abacha’s limitations were legendary in the army, chief of which was that he believed in the solution of violence to every problem. He never believed in the finesse of politics. In an interview in the early 1990s, Obasanjo had referred to Babangida government as a fraud. Based on that interview, at an AFRC meeting, Abacha was alleged to have advised Babangida to arrest Obasanjo for his pseudo-statesmanship. But Babangida had allegedly refused on the ground that arresting him was not the best solution to his sharp criticisms. The UN secretary general position, earlier allotted to Africa, became vacant following Boutrus Boutrus-Ghali’s failure to secure a second term. Babangida then nominated Obasanjo for the exalted position. Though he did not win, but Babangida’s backing brought silence in Obasanjo.

 But when Abacha came to power and Obasanjo did not realize that there was a different man at the helms of affair, Abacha had to jail him on a trumped-up charge of coup plotting to silence him. It was these obvious limitations that made every of Abacha’s colleagues, including Babangida, not to expect him to dream of becoming the commander-in-chief someday, and Abacha never showed any inkling of ambition. But Abacha out-witted Babangida and others. Due to Babangida’s trust in Abacha, when the Abacha-orchestrated over-blown intelligence on Abiola, military revolts and coups reached him, he believed them, not knowing that the reticent and dark-goggled general had his scheme. In a statement during Obasanjo government, Colonel Abubakar Umar (rtd.), though a strong Babangida loyalist but who had worked with Abacha to see an end to the 12th June empasse in the heat of the crisis, had admitted that one needed to possess the power of clairvoyance to have been able to judge Abacha otherwise because Abacha displayed so much patriotism that he did not arouse suspicion.


 Eventually, Babangida had to hand over power to Shonekan, retiring every service chief but leaving Abacha behind as defense secretary. After Abacha’s death, when asked why he did not retire him, Babangida had admitted that the ING needed muscle to survive, and Abacha was that muscle. Invariably, Babangida was saying that, after stepping aside, he had expected the uproar to die down, allowing Shonekan to conduct another presidential election, with Abacha there to contain any military uprising or coup. Babangida may want Nigerians to believe that he was not so naïve as to assume Abacha could not take-over government, that, afterall, Abacha had been involved in both Buhari and his (Babangida) coup, and had got to the peak of his military career as defence secretary; and Babangida may blame the media and the political class for creating the enabling environment for Abacha to take-over by their open call for the military to come to the rescue, but Babangida was conned by Abacha. Babangida may be brilliant, tactful and cunning, but he is only human. His argument does not hold water. He cannot say he expected Nigerians to keep calm, waiting for another presidential election when he did not explain why the last one was annulled. The gospel truth is that Babangida had expected Abacha to resist every pressure to take over government and to support the election that was to be conducted by Shonekan, ensuring the victorious candidate was sworn in.

 Abacha eventually forced Shonekan to resign and he took over power, shocking the nation by taking it to what the BBC headline read the next day, ‘Back to square one’; disbanding NEC, both parties, dissolving all the state assemblies as well as the national, and putting an end to the office of all elected politicians. Because nobody knew Abacha’s antecedents, Nigerians were still hoping for something. So, when Abacha had a meeting with Abiola, the nation was agog with speculations that he might set up a government to be headed by Abiola. That was when Babangida, responding to questions from airport correspondents, had alleged that those who caused him not to hand-over to Abiola were those who then wanted to give him power. Babangida had obviously become aware he had been out-witted but, like most Nigerians, he still did not understand Abacha’s mind-set. Abacha did not know Babangida from Obasanjo, neither did he care for Abiola or Tofa. He just wanted power and control it. And either you were for him or you were against him. And if you were against him, then, in the words of Dr. Alex Ibru, The Guardian owner and Abacha’s first interior minister who survived a government-sponsored murder attempt, ‘God help you’.

 Babangida’s fears that the hawks, both in the military and the elite civil society, who saw an end to military rule as an end to their power and influence, as personified by Abacha, would have killed Abiola if he (Babangida) had handed over to him, were confirmed a year later when Abiola declared himself president on the first anniversary of 12th June. He was arrested for treason, denied bail, where did not come out alive. After Abacha’s death, when asked why he did not simply complete the announcement of the results, declare Abiola winner, swear him in and ensure his own personal safety, damning the consequences, where history would have judged him upright, Babangida had explained that high level decisions of that nature are not taken based on impulse but on important factors, considering the fact that his government was military with vested and varied interests. And when asked if, with the benefit of hindsight, given what he knew now, he would still annul the election, he had responded that he would be an ‘ass’ to do that.

 That is the story of 12th June, 1993. Babangida played his role in the prevailing circumstances, a role that required a man of decisiveness, courage and patriotism, a role that history will judge aright. And Abati knows this. But, like every Babangida basher, it is convenient to use it to bash him.

 On the assassination by letter bomb of Dele Giwa, founding edition-in-chief of Newswatch, that was a deep dent on the image of Babangida’s government, perhaps the deepest. It is too obvious that there was official knowledge of the murder. But as characteristic of most military leaders, Babangida had played it down. Most Nigerians have argued that Babangida should have used the opportunity of the Oputa Panel to clear his name on it, instead of the court injunction he had secured to stop his appearance at the panel. But it is not unusual for military governments, serving or former, to avoid forums to present official positions on tricky past government actions or inactions. Babangida’s decision found precedence in Obasanjo’s sought and granted court injunction preventing his appearance before the Irikefe Panel during the Shagari government, which it set up to inquire about the N2.8 billion missing oil money during Obasanjo regime.

 Finally, Abati alleged that the main reason why Babangida dropped his presidential ambition was because the civil society revolted. Which civil society? That was not reasoning. That was rubbish: absolute rubbish. Either Abati is naïve, ignorant, engaged in cheap propaganda, or all of the above. How could a columnist in a leading national newspaper such as The Guardian blabber that much? Although Babangida is too diplomatic to admit it, but every discerning Nigerian knows that the major reason why Babangida dropped his ambition was that he saw the hand-writing on the wall that Obasanjo did not want to hand-over power to him, and considering the level of our electioneering process, it would have been stupid of him to have been engaged in a fruitless fight. If the civil society, nay the electorate, was the determining factor in the 2007 presidential election, then Obasanjo should have left the field open for both Babangida and Atiku Abubakar to slug it out instead of inviting Umaru Musa Yar’Adua. Besides, if Obasanjo had so desired Babangida to be his successor as he did Yar’adua, what role would Abati’s so-called civil society have played?

 When Babangida came to power in 1985, I was an eleven-year-old primary five student. By the time he left in 1993, I was approaching twenty. I cannot in anyway he accused of being a direct or indirect beneficiary of Babangida’s alleged largesse. I rely on materials in drawing my conclusions. In coming to independent and valid conclusions, the political science student goes to the library and the internet to source for materials, likewise the economics student, and students from other disciplines. They get information from the internet, year-books and old newspaper reports. And from old published commentaries, they decipher objective commentaries from biased and ethnic jingoistic ones. Those are the people that will define modern Nigerian history. Babangida is not a saint. Nobody is. Babangida is a man who was opportune to have led this country for eight years during which he impacted positively on the system, redefining statesmanship. More than any other Nigerian leader, and nearly fifteen years after leaving office, Babangida commands the highest percentage of genuine and eternal admirers, from politics to the economy, to the academia and the arts. Brilliant, genial, urbane, gentle, charismatic, suave and with a great sense of history, Babangida’s noble place is assured in modern Nigerian history. And it will be of eminent disservice to the act of comparison to equate Babangida’s rulership with that of Obasanjo (both as military and as civilian), let alone rate it under. No ethnic jingoistic commentary can alter it.

By Oghene Omonisa

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