As long as she was alive, their marriage was like the wedlock of the gods that the late Professor Zulu Sofola portrayed in her classic novel. For the 40 years the marriage lasted, they were inseparable. Wherever you saw one, there would the other be also. They shattered all obstacles together; and beautified as they impressed.
But on Sunday, December 27, 2009, time stopped forever for the personable former First Lady and founder of the Better Life for Rural Women project, Dr. Maryam Babangida. She died. On that black Sunday, the Asaba, Delta State-born ex-First Lady succumbed to ovarian cancer at the University of California’s Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center, Los Angeles, aged 61.
The late Maryam Babangida was born on November 1, 1948, to Hajiya Asabe Halima Mohammed, a Hausa woman from Niger State, and Mr. Leonard Nwanonye Okogwu, an Igbo from Asaba, Delta State. Sultry Maryam got married to the then Major Ibrahim Babangida on September 6, 1969, shortly before her 21st birthday. The marriage was blessed with two boys and two girls––Mohammed, Aminu, Aisha and Halima.
On the day Maryam went to meet her Maker, the world stood still for her husband, General Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida, Nigeria’s former military president. The cancer had sliced off his better half and his world momentarily became a huge dark void. Every glittering thing became gloomy. Ten years on, the General is still struggling to fill the vacuum.
In this exclusive interview, General Babangida, who was at his wife’s bed side when her life ebbed, went down memory lane and revealed that though the passage of time had reduced the pain, the tragic loss has not totally healed. He recalled some of the high and low points in his union with his late wife, disclosing, perhaps for the first time, why he stuck to the highly fashionable former First Lady till death separated them that fateful Sunday in December of 2009.
Babangida didn’t stop there. He also spoke on life without his better half, her immortality and legacies. Then, he dropped this bombshell: despite his advancing age, and regardless of his present state of health, he wants to marry again. And he didn’t say that for the sake of headlines. He meant every word of it.
Well, as they say, the taste of the pudding is in the eating. Please, sit back, relax and enjoy the interview. Excerpts:
It would be 10 years on December 27, this year, since your wife, the former First Lady, passed on. How has life been with you without Dr. Maryam Babangida?
It hasn’t been easy, I must say. But thanks be to God. Her children and my friends try to take away that burden off me and they have been very successful so far.
What have been the pains?
That you lose somebody very close to you; somebody very dedicated to the family, you, the children and so on. Another one is not having a companion to talk to when you are in a distressed situation. Those are the pains.
Those are what you miss most about her?
What is the greatest problem you face as a widower?
Somebody who would instantly correct me when I make a mistake. Somebody who would say without mincing words that: ‘this is right’ or ‘this is wrong’. This is important, especially for those of us in the limelight. That is what I miss most.
There was an interview we had with you in this same room when I asked if you were going to remarry, and you answered me in the affirmative. Years down the line, nothing has happened. I don’t know whether you really meant it or you were just joking. What is your final answer?
It will still be in the affirmative. The answer is yes. This is because I am still thinking.
Are you sure sir?
Yes, I am quite sure. I’m searching and I’m hoping. But the longer I wait, maybe, the more problematic it becomes. If it drags, I would be too old and the whole idea of having a partner would seem to diminish. But I will make sure I do it before reaching that stage.
You will make sure you do what?
Have a partner.
That presupposes that there is somebody at the corner?
So far, no.
If it is going to happen, when and how are you going to start the process if it hasn’t started by now?
If somebody is in the corner, you could organize that in three or six months. And because it must be somebody you have known for a long time, or somebody you have been in contact with for a long time, you don’t just tell them look this is for marriage. But as time passes, and relationship building continues, it could end up in marriage.
However, I have to be fair in my search. I really want to be fair. For instance, you don’t expect me to take a wife much younger than I am because that will be a problem for her and for me. I have to be fair. Secondly, I do wonder if she (the chosen one) would be able to live the way Maryam and I did, which is not easy these days. So, I keep on praying; and I think it will happen.
Do you think the children will be receptive to that idea, having waited these 10 long years?
They will be happy that their father got what he wanted. His happiness is their priority.
Especially the ladies, Aisha and Halima?
Yes. After all, this is what daddy wants and if it makes him happy, so be it. We want him to be happy.
As Africans, we believe that when we lose loved ones, we could still communicate with them in our dreams. In the past 10 years, how many times has Dr. Maryam Babangida appeared to you in your dream?
Very few times; and I think that is fine. As far as I am concerned, that takes a lot of burden off me. But if I see her every day, I wouldn’t wake up to this idea (of wanting to marry again) because seeing her regularly brings back all the memories. But since I don’t see her, it strengthens my resolve.
How would you celebrate her at 10?
I am working on a programme dedicated to her. I hope it will be ready by the tenth anniversary.
What kind of programme sir? Could you let us an insight into it?
We are trying to work on some of the things she did, especially around women and in the society, here in Niger State.
There has been very little effort towards what she was doing while she was alive. Are you not pained that nobody has taken up the Better Life for Rural Women Programme from where she signed off?
It is not easy. Her daughter is trying fairly well. She is trying to get into educating the local people in the villages so that they can make life better for themselves in terms of economic development. The daughter is doing that. She seems to be doing fine.
If despite all you have been through, you still look this way, handsome, soft-spoken and all that, one could imagine how you were at 17 or 19. How did you deal with the girls?
I knew you would come with that conclusion. But let me give you a story to answer your question. When I told my wife to let’s get married, she looked at me and said: ‘You can’t be serious’. I said: why? She said that the impression she had was that we (soldiers) were playboys. I said I had decided to stop being a playboy and I wanted to settle down. I think I convinced her that I really meant I was going to settle down.
How did your love life start, especially at a time when inter-tribal marriages were not common, especially in your part of the country? How did your parents and hers take it?
Fortunately, the two parents knew each other. They were more or less friends and I also became friends with her cousins, aunties and uncles. They didn’t have difficulties accepting me.
You really played before you eventually made your mind to settle down…
Yes, I did…
I asked that question because I interacted with a couple of your friends who told me about the way you people used to rock at Bobby Benson’s Caban Bamboo night club in those days…
He (Bobby Benson) was a good friend of mine. I knew him very well.
What was your relationship with the late Brigadier Benjamin Adekunle? He frequented the night club too…
He and I were from different divisions. I got to know him closely when the war broke out. He was in Third Marine Commando while I was in 1 Division of the Nigerian Army. But, later in retirement, I got closer to him because he visited me here in Minna. He also visited me when I was in office and when I was out of office.
Still talking about relationships, how did it eventually happen after you told your wife and she said you weren’t serious? How long did it take you to convince her?
To be honest, less than a year.
How did you deal with the other girls?
Well, they had to accept the reality that there would be a time they would have to leave me and I had to leave them.
Did you actually leave them completely?
I tried to…
How do you react to this notion that when Delta State was created by your government, you chose Asaba as the capital because your wife was from there? Critics said geographically speaking, Asaba was not at the centre of the new state. (Delta State was carved out of the former Bendel State on August 27, 1991. The state was born out of agitations by the Urhobos and Anioma for the creation of separate and distinct states from the region.)
It was not because of her. Before we created a state or local government, we studied everything-the history and the politics of that area; then, settled on one. I made a lot of consultations. I was fortunate to have people like Sir Dennis Osadebe, who, I think, was a Premier of the Mid-West. I went to him and he told me the whole history of that area. Historically, during the British era, the town was seen as an important town in terms of location, commerce and the rest of them. So, from all the consultations, we made up our minds that we will make Asaba the capital. It just happened that my wife was from there.
It was said that on the eve of your announcement, the military administrator went to Warri and was looking for a place…
(Cuts in…) It was a Nigerian thing. For instance, before the announcement (for the creation of new states), somebody in Niger (State) had also gone to another town and started saying that that will be the capital. But we knew it was going to be Minna. Then, we were accused. Like I said, it is a typical Nigerian thing.
For a man of great accomplishments like you, and as a Muslim, your religion permits you to marry as many as four wives, if you like. But you stuck to Mrs. Maryam Babangida till her death on December 27, 2009. Before the marriage eventually happened, what were the traumas you went through?
(Laughs) That is the advantage of being a playboy. It gives you an opportunity to explore and learn, such that by the time you make up your mind to settle down, you have learnt all the good and bad things in a relationship. When you now decide to settle down, you try as much as possible to avoid all those pitfalls. Maryam and I had a very short courtship because she had everything I was looking for in a woman. She possessed them.
Accepting me for what I am.
And what are you?
Just a human being. I had my faults. I made mistakes. Like every human being, I am not perfect. And if you are prepared to accept me for what I am, then, we have no problem. She exhibited that a lot and that kept us together. I can tell you that in 40 years, we quarrelled only twice. She was a very tolerant person and the parents were very understanding. They supported me on most issues.
Would it not have been otherwise if you were not General Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida-very high up there, highly visible, known all over the world? Would she have been that tolerant?
I think she would still have been. During the war, for example, I was away most of the time. We were in the war front, and there was a lot of anxiety. Anxieties like: would he come back? Would he be killed at the frontline? You know that sort of thing. But she was a very strong-willed person and she was always firm in her hope that I would return to her alive, and not in a body bag. Her optimism enlivened the spirit in the home and helped the children, and so on.
Was there a time in your 40 years of marriage that she got angry and said: ‘what the heck, I’m leaving!’?
No, we never had that. That is why I said we quarrelled only twice and they were ordinary things we could sort out.
How did you handle your problems anytime confusion came?
We allowed tempers to cool down. That is rule number one. We also applied that thing called common sense. Then, we initiated a discussion, involving just the two of us, on the subject that brought about the quarrel. That way, the problem was easily resolved. Again, I never felt too proud to say ‘I am sorry, I was wrong.’ I always said that. She, too, always said: ‘I’m sorry, I was wrong’. That was the end of the problem.
Does ‘the other room’ play any role in resolving such problems?
(Laughs) We always solved our problems in the dining room.
I’m talking about the ‘other room’.
Which is the other room? Please, enlighten me.
What is the highest point of your life? At 78, what are the highs and the lows?
The first is when I was commissioned into the Nigerian Army, as a young officer from the Indian Military Academy. Fresh from the Academy, I was full of life, coming to provide service to the country. The second is: while rendering services to the country, you meet people who operate either in defence of the country or in aiding people to provide for safety of lives and properties in the country. The third is when I was given a command during the war. The high point (in that) is that here was a young Major Babangida, and I had over 500 soldiers under me. Their lives, their welfare, depended on me. That was a huge responsibility.
You have to be concerned about how you make them have the confidence that you would not lead them into any disastrous situation; you have to be concerned that they would follow you to war. I’m glad they developed that confidence because I mingled with them. I trained and ate with them. We played together. And if they knew that we were going to war, fear was no longer in them because, as an officer, I was capable of doing what they could do. As an officer, I could do what a corporal could do. So, they just followed. That is a good point in leadership; and it has been very successful.