Former military president, Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida, is on the spot. His 80th birthday is providing the canvass upon which his era is being spotlighted. It is an elementary fact that Babangida has a controversial place in Nigeria’s political history. As military president, Babangida gave Nigerians something called June 12. From being a mere date, June 12 has crystallized into something momentous. It has become a phenomenon of sorts.
Ordinarily, Nigerians cannot really forget the very many mutations and dimensions of June 12. But the ongoing rehearsal has reminded them the more about the political crisis that engulfed the country for five years following the annulment of the June 12, 1993, presidential election. Where does June 12 place Babangida in Nigeria’s history? That is part of the story that is being told at moment.
There is no doubt that any human being who attains the ripe age of 80 deserves to be celebrated. Babangida has hit that threshold, and attention is, expectedly, being focused on him. His family, friends and associates have stepped out to package or repackage him for posterity. One of the vehicles being deployed for this purpose is the newly established Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida Legacy Dialogue. The forum is a veritable platform for practical analysis of how it was under IBB. The story has begun. Last week, some eminent Nigerians took turns to present us with the Babangida they know. They spoke from the heart. They regaled us with epithets about a man who, while donning the toga of militarism, ran the country as if it were a quasi-civilian order. As the speakers dissected the Babangida era, one common thread ran through their submissions. They were unanimous that Babangida ran an inclusive government. He built bridges of unity and understanding by making the entire country his constituency. That was the verdict.
If those who came up with these testimonies were talking about a dead Babangida, many would have sneered at them, knowing full well that Nigerians are adept in eulogizing the dead. But they were talking about a man who is still very much with us. They could not have been flattering the former president. His station in life is way beyond such cheapness. To imagine that this glorious verdict is trailing a man who ignited the most momentous political controversy that the country has experienced is in itself puzzling. While time and tide will take care of the niceties of the Babangida years, practical experience teaches us that no saint has ever walked through the seat of power in Nigeria and anywhere in the world. Babangida was not one. But it is instructive that if he is being celebrated while he is alive as a good leader, it means that Nigerians have compared notes and have come to the pleasant realization that the man has something to commend him.
The speakers, while reflecting on the Babangida years, regretted that presidential governance has sunk very low under the present order. The country is on tenterhooks at moment because we have a president that has not spared sufficient thought on our differences. Our president is not interested in national integration. That is why separatist agitation has become the most defining character of our existence as a country today.
The feeling out there is that if an IBB were to be in the saddle, he would have known what to do about the ongoing distemper in the country . He would not resort to force of arms. He would engage the aggrieved in a most ingenious way . In the end, the outcome of the engagement would be in the overall best interest of the country. Such impressions of Babangida easily remind me of 1987. That was the year Babangida created two states in Nigeria, namely, Akwa Ibom and Katsina, bringing the total number of states in the country to 21. The exercise was long in coming. The one before it took place in 1976 under the regime of Murtala Muhammed. Murtala’s successors, namely, Obasanjo, Shagari and Buhari, did nothing about state creation. When, therefore, Babangida ventured into it, the action was considered daring and courageous. He was commended for taking the bull by the horns. But the bold step by Babangida had a major drawback. The Igbo were ill at ease with it. They drew Babangida’s attention to what he probably did not take note of before he went into action. That was that the creation of an additional state from the eastern minorities while leaving Igboland the way it was amounted to a structural devaluation of the Igbo nation. While commending IBB for the creation of Akwa Ibom, the Igbo reminded him of the overriding need to correct that structural imbalance that he had, unwittingly, wrought on the East.
Even though IBB had issued a stern warning that the action, creation of two states, was final, he, nonetheless, made sense out of the outcry of the Igbo. Four years after, Babangida assuaged the feelings of those who felt shortchanged when he rolled out nine new states to bring the figure to 30. That was a monumental leap. Babangida had to do it to ensure that no part of the country felt left out. That was leadership. It was statesmanship.
As Nigerians reflect on the Babangida era, they cannot but worry about what their country has become under the present arrangement. The elder statesmen who situated Babangida at the legacy dialogue were practically asking President Muhammadu Buhari to borrow a leaf from Babangida. Just as separatist agitations, terrorism and banditry are the problems of Buhari’s Nigeria, June 12 was Babangida’s own headache. But Babangida did not deal with June 12 through grandstanding and strong-arm tactics. He tackled it through engagement and dexterous management of the country’s diversity.
On the contrary, Buhari is not interested in any form of engagement. Unlike IBB, he has not sat back to understand why the country is boiling over. Rather, he is interested in talking tough and acting tough. The president’s approach is compounding the situation we have on our hands. Well-meaning Nigerians, including the elder statesmen who are carving an enviable place for Babangida in Nigeria’s history, are simply asking Buhari to learn from the likes of IBB who know what to do at all times to keep the country united. The way to achieve a united and progressive Nigeria is not through force of arms. It is by engaging the issues bedevilling his administration constructively with a view to finding solutions that will work and endure.