Twenty-eight years after he left office as Military President, General Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida (IBB) remains a phenomenon in Nigeria. His home in Minna, Niger State capital, is still a Mecca of a sort, where Nigerians from all tribes congregate, to consult or pay homage.
Babangida’s 80th birthday, which is being celebrated today, served as a veritable avenue for the convergence of associates, who want to identify with him and media men, in search of news. ONUOHA UKEH, Managing Director/Editor-in-Chief, ADETUTU FOLASADE-KOYI, Editor, Nation’s Capital & the North, and PAULINUS AIDOGHIE, Correspondent, fell into the latter category, having journeyed to the famous Hilltop home of Babangida in Minna.
In an exclusive interview, Babangida was candid and frank. He addressed events after the annulment of the June 12, 1993, presidential election, removal of the Interim National Government headed by Chief Ernest Shonekan and the regime of the late General Sani Abacha.
The former president opened up on his life’s experiences, military career, tenure as head of state and on some knotty issues associated with his regime.
At 80, you have seen and experienced so many things. In all these years, what would you call your greatest memory? And what has life taught you?
My goodness! That is a tough one. My greatest memory in 80 years? That is indeed a very tough one. My greatest memory in 80 years! I think one of the things is to lose your parents when you are still young. You did not have the opportunity to interact with them. They did not mentor you, train you to imbibe some values into you, that is personal to you. I think this is the greatest thing, and the fact that they are not alive to see me grow, reaching up to this level.
So, what has life taught you?
A lot of things! There are a lot of challenges in life, but you have to be willing and determined to go through them. Life has taught me always to be patient, not to be in a hurry in taking up anything; to be patient because you are going to meet a lot of people from different cultures, from different backgrounds, people who have different beliefs from what you believe. You have to be patient to deal with them, to work with them.
When one is getting old, there are many things one cannot do. What are those things that you miss…
(Cuts in) That I cannot do?
The physical activities I used to do, like playing soccer, like travelling to see friends and people; you find that these have reduced very, very significantly.
It has been 28 years since you left office. Looking back, are there things you did then that, if you were to do them now, you would do differently?
Not much! As far as I am concerned, the sum total is: look, I believe in what I did or what we did and, after 28 years of leaving office, a lot of things have happened that gave me the impression that our thoughts were very correct. So, there aren’t much that I could have done otherwise.
Do you have any regrets whatsoever, whether as a military officer or as a military president, looking back now?
While in office, my only regret was that things didn’t seem to be working the way we wanted them and I wished people would develop different habits about the country. I feel bad that people still talk about tribe, sometimes religion. That was not what we envisaged Nigeria would be. It should be a united country and nobody should be talking about ‘my people,’ ‘my tribe,’ or something like that. It still persists. This is something we didn’t envisage would continue.
When would you say we lost it? Where did we lose it as a country?
It was caused by the inability by proponents of ethnicity to either believe or to forge ahead within the concept of Nigeria. We lost it because they were unable to compete. Anybody who is unable to compete within the system tries to create something new and thinks that he should achieve what he wants under that.
You told a television station recently that, if the June 12, 1993, presidential election was concluded, there could have been a coup thereafter. Could you throw more light on this? Secondly, why didn’t you retire those who you thought could have plotted a coup if the results had been announced?
When we set up the interim government and asked Chief Ernest Shonekan to head it, that interim government had a constitution. That constitution was drawn by experts, lawyers and non-lawyers in the country. The interim government’s tenure was supposed to be from November 1993 to February 1994, within which there would have been an election to usher in a democratically elected government. Now, what really happened? The people, that is, Nigerians, because of the anger and venom they had about the annulment of the June 12 (election), worked against it. The two political parties agreed with the interim government and we also went further to say that the two aspirants who contested for that election should present themselves for re-election in February 1994.
But you see, in Nigeria, people didn’t like it. I remember the media saying that ‘Nigerians are weary of elections; Nigerians are tired of elections, we don’t need another election.’
All the same, we set the programme and contrived it the way we did. We also called very notable people, people we thought were affected more, people who had been most vehement, vocal about that. There were consultations by Shonekan, after I had left, with them. But then there was a court ruling that the interim government was a contraption. Now, as I said, there would have been a coup. There was an interim government; it was short lived; the military pushed it aside and that military lived there with you guys for five years under the stronger dictatorship. There was no political party for people to participate, people didn’t have the right to do a lot of things that would have happened if they allowed that system (ING) to work. So, if I look back, the fact is that there was a coup! Shonekan was shoved aside! Abacha came in, got some of the strong believers of June 12 into his government to serve him; so, that gave him some legitimacy. And you had to live with him for five years and, thereafter, you started all over again. I feel bad about it that something that we envisaged could have been done within the shortest possible time in the interest of the country was not done. Nigeria wasted five years to accept the simple truth, to come back to what would have been the endpoint of interim government.
Why didn’t you retire the people who were potential coupists? Why didn’t you take them out of the system?
I would say that I knew the thinking of some of the officers at that time, but if you retire people just like that, on the slightest suspicion, you create instability within the system and, if you do that, whoever that comes is not going to find it easy at all.
It’s also curious that the constitution of the interim government said in an event that the interim president resigned, the most senior military officer would take over. Abacha was the most senior, who eventually took over government. Was it by design?
No. We left him there to stabilise the system because of the fear we had about coups. So, we said we needed a strongman who had some ideas, who knew what should be done to give that interim government the confidence that he is in charge of the military. We wanted Shonekan to have confidence that there was a military officer with him who would serve as a Defence Minister and who everybody knew. The name was known, both in the Armed Forces and in the society. So, the idea was to give Shonekan some strength and stability in the system.
Do you feel betrayed that Abacha, eventually, instead of protecting the government, took over government?
I didn’t feel betrayed because I know this is the society in which we live. I have always said that a coup succeeds in a society that is frustrated. All coups succeed when the society is frustrated. There was frustration in the Nigerian society to the extent that the frustration was openly discussed by the masses. That gave the military the courage to venture into a coup because they knew the society was saturated with all the wrong things that were done at that time.
You guys were old enough at that time to realise that there were statements against the interim government we put in place; there was a court ruling that said it was a contraption. There were political leaders who were angry about June 12, who said the worst military dictatorship was better than this (interim government). So, the society prepared (the grounds for) that coup. The military took advantage of it and stayed.
Let’s talk about creation of states. What informed your selection or decision to create 11 states? Secondly, there was a contention about Delta State, that the Igbos asked for Anioma State but you created Delta with Asaba as capital. So, what informed the decision on state creation and what would you say about agitation for more states?
Well, I will tell you something. First of all, let me clear one thing because that question will lead to that. I did not make Asaba the state capital because my wife came from Asaba. That is out of it. We listed criteria for state creation for the country and we strictly followed those criteria to create states. We started with two states, Katsina and Akwa Ibom. Why did we do that? These two states were the most prominent among agitations for creation of states. And you can understand there was no serious contention about this. Katsina used to be in the North Central, with Kaduna and so on when they were once together. So, it was easier to handle that because two provinces – Katsina Province and Zaria Province, were earlier put together to form Kaduna State. So, we created Katsina and brought it out of Kaduna. And, politically, it was a very good decision
Now, Akwa Ibom. The agitation for the state started as far back as 1938. They had been very consistent. They talked about it, they fought for it. I don’t know whether you were born when people were talking about CORE State – Cross River, Ogoja and so on. So, because of history, we had no problem in creating Akwa Ibom State. Then we realised that people would continue to agitate and we didn’t close our doors to that. We had to take a second look again to see which ones were viable.
I will tell you a very good story. I had very good friends from the South East at that time. I remember people like the late Pius Okigbo and other very prominent persons who came to me as my friends and talked about creation of Abia State. We looked at the whole thing and decided to strike a balance between the South East, South South and the South West, especially about the number of states that occupied the Yoruba and Igbo territories. They are the most dominant tribes in these regions. I think you are old enough to know that there were times when people argued that there was still no balance, that there should be balance between the East and the West. That is the greatest contention up till now. We tried to strike that balance. Unfortunately, it remains the way it is now.
I am not surprised that these agitations are even becoming more vocal now, trying to balance the South East and the South West. It is a very serious issue; I believe the next administration would have to find a solution to that. Otherwise, knowing Nigerians, there will come a time when people will like their towns or villages to be states. Right now, I think I read last week, agitation for 20 more states! So, we could get to a stage where somebody would say, perhaps, Item (the MD’s village in Abia State) should be a state!
Government needs to have a position and stick to that position. I am glad the Senate said the news of creating 20 more states is fake news, otherwise, it will be most unviable. But, whether it is viable or not, government should not close the chapter but look at it very dispassionately without interest to say ‘yes, this criteria qualify for a state.’
Let’s talk about 2023. There is a contention now, the South…
(Cuts in) You are not 60 yet? Are you?
Thank you (general laughter).
The South says it should be its turn now, in the spirit of rotation, and some people in the North are saying it will not happen that way. Where would you, in your wisdom, want the presidency to go? Secondly, the 60-year mark that you have set, what informed that, especially when we have a country like the United States whose president is above 70? The last president of the U.S. and the current one are above 70.
I think somebody who has reached that stage (60 years) in Nigeria, not in America, must have gone through a lot of things. That is why I tried to calculate it and relate it to age. You must have done some public service for the country, you must have done some work, either in your profession, in any leadership position and, as a process, you must have acquired a lot of education, experience about higher management to serve society after going through all these. If you calculate, if you add them up, you will find that anybody around that age must have gone through these processes, and, therefore, easily qualified.
I can use myself as an example. I became the military president, as you guys in the media would like to say, when I was 44. When I was 44, I had gone through a lot in public service. I must have put not less than 30 years in public service and so on. I think that prepared me a lot. However, in Nigeria, we are still a developing country; there are not many people who would have the opportunity to go through some of the things I went through when I was in public service. So, I just generalised that people who have undergone that in Nigeria, because it is a shared population and shared opportunity, must have served and they will live to be in the 60s. People who are in the 60s easily must have gone through some of these.
What of this North-South agitation on where the next president should come from? And the South East is insisting the next president should actually be from that zone.
The presidency should be claimed by every Nigerian, irrespective of where he comes from. That is number one. It is your inalienable right to aspire to be a president. So, anybody who wants to be president, I believe, should start preparing himself now. Right? The person should begin to visualise, to train, to aspire and prepare himself to make that. He must be good and have the confidence to say, look I am the right person, you chose me because I did this and that in the past. Competence is also a factor. I did say he must be a politician. That is what politics is all about, telling people, interacting with people, convincing people, saying convincingly, ‘I want to do this, elect me,’ and people will ask you, ‘Why do you think I should give you my vote?’ The aspirant should have competence and vision, not to say simply I am from Minna or you are from Item, that is why they should vote for you. They should vote for you because of yourself, because you are qualified, because of your competence and so on. This is an idea I want people to start getting, that you can aspire for that office. People should recognise that you are a good material for president of the country.
We have to take a decision, either we want to practice democracy the way the world knows it and allow it to continue as a means for us in the country so that, in the next 100 years, we are not talking about zoning or about where a president comes from, but about competence. The best time to start thinking along that line is now. If we do that now, we are going to continue doing it for the next 50, 100 years.
There is insecurity in the country and it seems we are losing it. That has led to the agitation for separation and all that. Yet, you are saying we shouldn’t talk about breakup? What measures should we take to arrest the situation?
Well, I believe the government is trying now, by what they are doing. Maybe it is not enough; a lot more needs to be done. They are doing well in terms of launching operations against the bandits or trying to arrest the bandits and so on. Maybe the armed forces are overstretched. Personally, let me tell you, the way to do this thing is to do a general mobilisation of the entire country, like we did during the Civil War. It is to mobilise the country against what is happening now and have a good plan on how to go about it and a good plan on reorganisation and, after you must have finished, there should be reconstruction and rehabilitation. If we have a general mobilisation to fight this, I want to believe it will work. You mobilise the entire country against banditry, against kidnapping.
How would you want to be remembered?
I served this country during the course of my existence in various capacities – military, for the defence of the country; I also went into politics because I found myself as a president. So, most of the things I did were political decisions and I put in my best. So, I would like to be remembered as a patriot.
Why did you step aside on August 27, 1993?
To give you, Nigerians, the opportunity to do what you believed, then, I was doing wrong.
Why didn’t you say you were retiring rather than saying you were stepping aside?
I have always given an example with the military. I was a military man. If a soldier is marching in a column, following the music and so on, normally, it is the soldier’s leg. He steps, first, with the left leg forward and then the other foot follows. It was believed that everybody’s feet were going left, while mine was going right. In such situation in the military, the man in charge of the parade will call me, shout out my name and say: ‘Look, Babangida, step aside.’
Nigerians said I was going with the wrong foot; so, I stepped aside so that you could go with the perceived correct foot. That was why I used the military term: step aside.