President Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida, fondly called IBB, is an enigma. He was born on the 17th of August, 1941. Chinua Achebe wrote in Things Fall Apart that when a man says yes, his Chi (Personal God) says yes and when a man says no, his Chi says no. However, he noted that there are circumstances when a man’s Chi will say yes and the man will say no, while some periods will arise when a man’s Chi will say no despite his own affirmation. Col Dangiwa Umar was once asked why he supported the overthrow of General Muhammadu Buhari as Head of State and enthroned General Ibrahim Babangida as Head of State, he said, you don’t understand, General Babangida is one of the most charismatic army officers Nigeria has ever produced. Lt-Col Tony Nyiam (Rtd), one of the coup plotters that wanted to overthrow IBB in 1990 Orkar’s coup, is still perplexed how IBB escaped from Dodan Barracks when the plotters besieged it. He said, contrary to public belief, there was no bunker in the Barracks through which the General could have escaped. Like any other average African will think, he jocularly attributed his escape to probably the use of juju by the General to dissappear from the barracks. Alao Aka-Bashorun, who believed he was not in the good books of IBB, because of his socialist tendencies, was reported to have attended a dinner with IBB and wondered how IBB asked about his children, calling their names individually, even without having met them for the first time. After that encounter, he escaped to Republic of Benin on self exile and declared that IBB had a hidden agenda. A Nollywood actress once told me that she doesn’t want to have anything to do with politicians except IBB. I asked her why, she replied, I don’t know, I just like him. It’s obvious from the above that IBB can be described as likeable, charismatic, intelligent, a great manipulator of people and a schemer. He earned himself the name Maradona to explain his deft political dribbling skills. His one and only career is the army.
IBB is a genius, give it to him. His regime paraded the best of the intelligentsia, activists and professionals working for him. He convinced the likes of Prof Wole Soyinka, Prof Bolaji Akinyemi, Prof Olikoye Ransome-Kuti et cetera to work for him. The one that surprised the whole world was how he convinced Tai Solarin, a renowned socialist of the old communist block, to work for him. Babangida was a known capitalist who rejected the suggestion of socialism by a political bureau he set up to determine Nigeria’s political and economic future. Tai was one of the main engineers of the SAP riots that nearly toppled Babangida’s regime. Babangida knew he loved poor people and enticed him with the establishment of the People’s Bank for him to run. He fell for it. Tai was a man known to wear only kaaki shorts and shirts as dressing style. When he started working for Babangida, he started wearing agbada to functions. He never recovered his position as the conscience of the nation after that. Even his best admirer, Gani Fawehinmi separated from him. You will agree with Dangiwa that IBB is charismatic. He comes after his opponents with a carrot and a stick. Reject the carrot and receive the stick. Great activists like Gani Fawahinmi, Femi Falana, Beko Ransome-Kuti, Tam David West rejected his carrots and received good doses of his sticks. They were detained in prisons uncountable times without trial. David West was the Minister of Petroleum under Buhari. His tenure was terminated under Babangida but he would not keep quiet. He was jailed for receiving a wrist watch and a cup of tea from a company abroad.
Babangida has a large heart. He is generous. There were certain acts of charity to a lot of indigent people in his regime. His wife even established a foundation to cater for rural women. If you are in the good books of Babangida, you lacked nothing. However, his lovely smiles, decorated by his gap tooth, hides a stern heart. His best friend, Gen Vatsa, was alleged to be involved in plotting a coup against him. The coup was never carried out. He simply tied him up and killed him by firing squad. When Orka carried out an unsuccessful bloody coup against IBB and was caught, Orka refused to talk because according to him, “dead men don’t talk”. He was shot alongside all his co-plotters. Meanwhile, Babangida was a General, who partook in all successful coups before him and foiled most of the unsuccessful coups. We must acknowledge that this man’s kernel must have been cracked for him by a benevolent spirit. Babangida himself told us about how a younger army officer was caught by his senior officer reading a book on how to plan a coup. The senior officer encouraged him to read the book thoroughly but when he comes to the consequences of plotting a coup, he should cram it. When IBB was asked which name he preferred to be called, he said he preferred the name some of his critics call him, “the Evil Genius”.
IBB introduced many innovations in Nigeria. He built the longest bridge in Nigeria, the Third Mainland Bridge. He liberalized broadcasting and this gave birth to the first independent private radio and television stations in Africa, Ray Power and AIT. He is responsible for the structure and configuration of modern Nigeria. Out of 36 states of Nigeria, he created 11. He met 19 and left 30. He met the regime of import licencing and left with liberalization of the currency exchange system which in turn liberalized the import system regime in Nigeria. He took over power from an unelected junta without a single gunshot and handed over power to an unelected civilian without a single gunshot. By the end of the regime of IBB, Nigeria was turned into a huge experimental laboratory.
However, these inventions were more prevalent in his political transition. I can remember how in one of his political broadcasts of his unending transition, he said, “can’t we be original?”. He was indeed original throughout his political transition. Immediately he took over power, he announced that he will hand over power in 1990. He embarked on an incremental system of political transition and effectively enthroned diarchy in our political history. He conducted the local government and gubernatorial elections through open ballot system and made the local government chairmen and the governors govern together with him as military President. He banned all the old breed politicians whom he dubbed corrupt and this led to a period of the emergence of the new breed politicians. When he believed that the politicians could not organize themselves very well in the formation of political parties, he abolished all the political parties they formed and created two political parties, namely, National Republican Convention and Social Democratic Party, for them. He wrote their manifestos for them and ordered them to join in what he called equal joiners and owners. He built headquarters for them in all the local governments of the country. It is important to note that all the local and state government elections organised by IBB were adjudged free and fair and none was cancelled after the contestations by the two parties. There were few gubernatorial primaries that were cancelled but no inter-party election was cancelled.
Then came the Presidential election that ought to replace IBB. It was shifted from 1990 to 1992. The reason given was that IBB wanted to mentor the new breed politicians to govern under him for a while before transferring power to a President. Then the National Assembly election was held and the winners sworn in when the Presidential election was postponed. The Presidential primary elections of both SDP and NRC were held by the parties and won by Gen Shehu Musa Yar’Adua (Rtd) of the SDP and Alhaji Adamu Ciroma of the NRC. At the end of the exercise, IBB cancelled them for alleged irregularities. By this time, Nigerians have become sceptical of Babangida’s unending transition and accused him of a hidden agenda of not wanting to leave power. He postponed the elections and swore to handover power on August 27th, 1993.
The next presidential election was fixed for June 12th, 1993. The primaries were held and won by Alhaji Bashir Tofa of the NRC and Alhaji MKO Abiola, who was IBB’s good friend. The election was held on the D-day. The best election so far in Africa. Free, fair, credible, open and violence-free. It shattered all ancient prejudices about Nigeria. The myth that the North didn’t want the South to have power evaporated as Northerners voluntarily voted for a Southern Presidential candidate. The idea that religion was our problem was defeated as Christians voluntarily embraced a Muslim-Muslim ticket. IBB was an instant hero worldwide. Unfortunately, on June 23rd, 1993, IBB annulled the election for no reason. His fortune immediately was reversed. The whole world, including the army turned against him. Dangiwa Umar became ashamed of the conduct of his beloveth boss and decided he should be forced out if he refused to go voluntarily. For the first time in Nigeria’s political life, Babangida initiated another presidential election and no politician indicated interest to contest. He knew his time was up and hurriedly assembled an interim government led by Ernest Shonekan and handed over power on the 26th August, 1993.
The world must learn a lesson from this great man. This is a man God made a genius, but he turned it the other way. This is a man God made a hero, but who made himself a villain. This is a man who organised the freest and fairest elections, but at the end of the exercise cancelled it. This must be a man whose Chi said yes to his greatness, but who himself said nay. If IBB had concluded that election and handed over to MKO Abiola, I guarantee you he would have come back to govern us as a civilian democratic President. When he came back to contest for the Presidency of Nigeria, he acknowledged that Nigerians will query him about the cancellation of June 12th, the death of Dele Giwa, Vatsa and so on. Nigerians actually did and he didn’t make any breakthrough politically. If IBB has judged himself, then nobody else should judge him. God said judge yourself that you may not be judged. We say happy birthday to IBB and pray that all of us should end well.