General Ibrahim Babangida, IBB for style, has some special dates in August. He was born on 17 August 1941. He is marking his 81st birthday today, Wednesday, 17 August 2022. On 27 August 1985, he overthrew Major General Muhammadu Buhari in a coup. It will be 29 years this month when he stepped aside from office (on 26 August 1993).
For eight years that he ruled, his regime was characterised by high dribbles (for which he was nicknamed Maradona), brutality, deceit and Don Corleone or Godfather type of generosity. And 29 years after he left power, many Nigerians still remember his government with love or hate, depending on which side they belong.
How did IBB get the ideas that gave his regime its notoriety or popularity? In the following feature, TheNEWS reveals how he and his August 1985 to August 1993 regime were greatly influenced by Niccolo Machiavelli’s classic, The Prince. We present two pieces written by Adebayo Williams (IBB: The Lonely Long Distance Runner) and Ike Okonta (The General’s Tactics):
1. IBB: The lonely long distance runner
By Adebayo Williams
Plotting scheming, neutralising and tirelessly maneuvering, Ibrahim Gbadamosi Babangida, a.k.a. Maradona, is Nigeria’s most nimble and politically sophisticated ruler. No one can be said to have ruled the country with a firmer grasp of its confounding intricacies or a steadier insight into its profound, unsettling dynamics. In a country of reluctant rulers, President Babangida appeared to have prepared himself for office with a calm deliberation and unflinching resolve. He is a man with an astonishing will to power.
Yet to many of his countrymen, the general remains a perplexing enigma, an impossible bundle of contradictions. No one can claim with infallible authority that he really knows the Minna-born soldier that he is privy to what goes on in the dark recesses of his infinitely resourceful mind. And here is a man who, by his own admission, has been kingmaker behind the scene and a king on the scene for a whooping twenty seven years of our chequered history: Like the celebrated Janus, Babangida is all manner of things to all manner of men. To his fawning band of adulators, he is princely here. To members of the charmed magical circle that surrounds him, he is the nearest thing to a secular saint. To many of his military colleagues, he is the embodiment of patience and understanding. But to others not so well to disposed, Babangida is a ruthless and vindictive schemer, a megalomaniac on an epic ego-trip and worst political pestilence to have been inflicted on the country.
And yet there are others who see him as a misunderstood reformer, a much maligned patriot. One thing stands out in these assessments: Babangida is a strong character who evokes strong passions.
Perhaps, then, the key to unlocking the Babangida mystery lies in the greater Nigerian mystery. If Babangida is a confounding paradox, Nigeria itself, as several commentators have notices, is the ultimate paradox. Like Nigeria, Babangida is a combination of astonishing strengths as well as astonishing weaknesses. Nigeria is a richly talented country which perpetually runs in the opposite direction to greatness. Like oil, a natural blessing which has turned out to be a source of profound embarrassment for the country, General Babangida’s own considerable natural endowments, his guile, his cunning, his breath taking daring, his will to dominate, his penetrating insight into the seemingly defective constitution of his fellow countrymen, may ultimately have proved an embarrassment of riches.
As a ruler, General Babangida is the most compelling embodiment of the Nigerian mystique. This perhaps is the key that unravels the riddle of the original romance. After an initial coolness, Nigeria suddenly warmed up to its new ruler in an unprecedented upsurge of affection and admiration. It was as if the country had suddenly discovered the hero it had been searching for. The summer of 1985 was unforgettable as it was memorable. Die-hard critics, age-long malcontents and the professional opposition began falling over each other to pay homage and pilgrimage to the new king. For those interested in the semiotics of official patriotism, and of power with responsibility, the image of a rain-soaked Major-General Babangida taking the national salute at that year’s independence celebrations remains fetching symbol of national rejuvenation.
But if that was a dream honeymoon, the marriage itself cannot be said to have lasted much longer. The cosy association appeared to have disintegrated in a nightmare of recrimination and mutual disenchantment. As it happened in Things Fall Apart, a Chinua Achebe’s celebrated classic, hero and society seemed to have parted ways, the falcon can no longer hear the falconer, anarchy looms. Perhaps what is unfolding before our very eyes, is one of those epic historical tragedies. And it is not an occasion for caustic virulence but an occasion for sober reflection and a reassessment of what Aeschylus, in a moment of supreme insight, has called the fundamental unhappiness of a society in search of heroes. For not even his worst detractors will deny the fact that there was a time when Babangida had virtually the whole of Nigeria eating from his palms.
It is the task of sober historians of the future to determine what went wrong. All we can do is to hazard a few guesses. Perhaps there was really no foundation for the optimism. It may well be a case of a tired, despoiled nation ready to clutch at any straw. Or it may be that in the long run, the general might have been manipulated by his own manipulations. How else does one explain the elementary mistakes, the bizarre miscalculations, the penchant of self destruct even when supreme glory seemed in sight? The overarching vision was wrecked in a jungle of primitive struggle and murderous power play. Afterall, you can only execute your grand vision if you stay afloat-and -alive-in the shark-infested and turbulent ocean of the Nigerian polity. And as the pidgin wisdom has it, there is no paddy for jungle. In that case, history may return the verdict of brilliant tactician and poor strategist on the esteemed general.
For an orphan from a lonely outpost of the country who has lifted himself to the very pinnacle of power by the bootstrap, this may not be a damning verdict afterall. Babangida’s career is a classic study in survivalist instincts honed to precision and a phenomenal will to dominate. Perhaps in more stable societies, he would have made a distinguished and world-famous tank general. But even here, the analysis shipwrecks. The greatest tank generals the world has known, from the illustrious Patton, through Lord Montgomery and Field Marshall Rommel to the latter-day Abrams were crusty, caustic eccentrics and a political rebels. The urbane and supremely political general from Minna does not quite fit the classic billing. In temperament and outlook, he is miles apart from these distinguished warriors. Where then do we place our man?
There are many Nigerians, in no mood for charity, who will argue that here has been no fundamental vision or strategy to the game all along. That the whole thing had been one grand trick whose sole aim is to remain in power for a long time and at all cost. If you point at such fundamental programmes as DFRRI, MAMSER, PEOPLE’S BANK, BETTER LIFE and even the uniquely baleful SAP, they are won’t to retort that all these are ad-hoc schemes hastily and clumsily grafted on as the occasion and opportunity demand. In other words, rather than being well thought out initiatives, Babangida’s reforms are nothing but desperate responses to desperate political pressures.
A harsh verdict, no doubt and one that may yet be tempered by the passage of time. But in what looks definitely like the autumn of power, the grandmaster of power play must have come to realise the utter loneliness of the long distance runner. As General Babangida, in the stupendous solitude of Aso Rocks, calmly contemplates a grand architecture in virtual ruins, he might be inclined to conclude that there is afterall some architecture in the ruins, as he himself has said of the efforts of his predecessors. But what many others see beyond the great chessboard is a huge mausoleum of discarded pawns and sacrificed knights.
2.The General’s Tactics
By Ike Okonta
It was the beginning of 1983 and General David Jemibewon, the Adjutant General of the Nigerian Army was preparing to retire voluntarily. But he had a little problem. Jemibewon wanted to buy a Mercedes Benz car that would befit his status as a retired general, but he did not have the money to pay for one. He therefore sent word to Lieutenant General Mohammed Wushishi, then Chief of Army Staff and a good friend of his, for assistance. General Wushishi arranged for the procurement of the car and asked Jemibewon to pay an amount quite below the market value of the car. Jemibewon was still unable to come up with the money. He sought the assistance of some of his fellow officers, among whom was Ibrahim Babangida. General Babangida promptly came to Jemibewon’s rescue and in a matter of days he paid for and took possession of the car. Interestingly, Babangida was General Jemibewon’s junior in rank but he was widely perceived then, while he was Director, Army staff Duties and Planning, as a man of considerable means.
The previous year, Mohammed Haruna, former editor of the Kaduna-based New Nigerian newspapers had run to General Babangida for help. Haruna was getting set to study for a master’s degree in Journalism at Columbia University in the United States on Federal Government scholarship. Prior to his departure, he had entered the bad book of the civilian government of President Shehu Shagari which felt uncomfortable with his critical editorials and articles. The Federal Government promptly stopped his scholarship. A desperate Mohammed Haruna ran to General Babangida. He readily obliged him and paid the required school fees to enable Haruna complete his studies at Columbia.
These acts of generosity are vintage General Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida, Nigeria’s military President since August 1985. It’s an attitudinal disposition for which he is renowned, one habit he carried over to Nigeria’s presidency. Having been schooled in the tactics of the Italian Prince, Nicolo Machiavelli, President Babangida while on the outskirt of power had imbibed the lessons that generosity as a virtue had crowned many personages in history.
Caesar came to power by virtue of his generosity and many others, because they practised and were known for their generosity, has risen to their very high positions.
Babangida lived and practised generosity as a virtue and his beneficiaries cut across the gamut of the society. The Prince of the Niger, as one of his biographers described him was building bridges of loyalty and commitment across the board, even as far back 1983. In 1985, he would reap a bountiful harvest.
Before he siezed power that fateful morning, the conventional wisdom was that Nigeria was too large and complex a country for one man, a soldier or a politician, to dominate completely and put under his thumb. The popular belief was that the interplay of social forces and the peculiar geopolitical composition of the country would render such an enterprise impossible.
Eight years into his military presidency, General Babangida has exploded all such assumptions about the Nigerian character. He has also gone ahead to amass so much power for himself that he can confidently say, like the inimitable French King Louis XVI, “I am the state”. Indeed, General Babangida is the embodiment of the Nigerian state as it is presently constituted. Having sacked the Armed Forces ruling council, AFRC, in late 1992 and put in its place the National Defense and Security council, NDSC, ostensibly the highest law-making body in the land but which in reality is subject to his whims and caprices, General Babangida at present straddles the country like the proverbial colossus answerable to no one but President Babangida. All key organs of state – the Police, the armed forces, the judiciary even the fledging National Assembly function at General’s whim. He is the patriarch and he is the imperial presidency, wielding an assortment of power over the citizenry. Firmly, Nigeria is under the jackboot of General Babangida.
Independent observers and paid hagiographers alike have sought, in the past few years, to unravel the secret of General Babangida’s staying power, his dominance of the landscape, his overwhelming influence and his nurture of a burgeoning Babangida cult. Puzzling or perhaps not so puzzling is the armoured General’s tactics and methods.
In two of his profound public statements, General Babangida has said that he understands Nigeria inside out and that by training; he is spruced to dominate his environment. After almost eight years in office, it must be graciously conceded that this General from state of Niger really understands Nigeria. And to boot, he has been able to dominate it effectively. His method of domination has come way of a panoply of strategems: the elements of surprise and unpredictability, sleight-of-hand, the atomisation of all the pockets of resistance and opposition, the weakening of the civil society and the army, the recruitment of a band of loyalists, viscerally committed to him, the extensive use of patronage, sanctions, rewards and punishment, the age-old instruments of the carrot and the stick.
In Babangida’s arsenal, surprise is perhaps his greatest tool. This, he often uses to the perplexity of aides and his nation. He’s often had to mask his real plans and intentions. He’s often had to do things to shock even his closest advisers. Even in his bid for power, he’s had to keep his ambition to himself. Perhaps he was acting the fox. Perhaps, himself in one testimony, General David Jemibewon told TheNEWS: “I never met anybody who said anything terrible about General Babangida before he became President”
In another testimony published by the Daily Times last year, Professor Ojetunji Aboyade reported General Babangida as a good listener, except that he comes out publicly to announce an agenda different from what he has been counseled. When Babangida stepped into power in August 1985, surprising was the reaction his choice of title elicited. He chose to be addressed as President and Commander-In-Chief, instead of being called Head of State. In those far-away days, Babangida was given a signal that he did not just want to take charge; he wanted to be in control. His compatriots did not take any notice.
Immediately, thereafter, he set about consolidating his position, using as power-base, a clique of younger military which over the years has come to be known as Langtang mafia, deriving its name from a town in a Plateau State where many Generals and key commanders in the Nigerian army come from. Thus, when General Babangida announced the names of the twenty-eight member Armed Forces Ruling Council, the new military body which replaced Buhari’s SMC, on 28 August 1985, General Domkat Bali, Brigadier Joshua Dogonyaro and Colonel John Shagaya, all from the Middle Belt featured prominently. The Hausa-Fulani, traditionally the dominant power bloc in the military as well as in politics, did not like this. The bloc did not wait too long to make its grouse known.
On his own part, he was already feeling uncomfortable with the dominant presence of the leading lights of the Langtang mafia in his government.
Machavelli, bad counseled: “A man who becomes prince with the help of the nobles finds it more difficult to maintain his position than one who does so with the help of the people. As prince, he finds himself surrounded by many who believe they are his equals”
Babangida’s solution to the problem was simple: reshuffle his cabinet as well as the AFRC. He approached this delicate and potentially-explosive exercise with caution. First he made five of his ministers, to swap offices.
The exercise was largely symbolic but Babangida’s message was nevertheless clear: nothing is permanent when it come to appointments. The military governors turn came later in September. General Babangida appointed eight new governors and retained 11 others, five of whom were redeployed to other states. There followed a game of musical chairs the culmination of which was the sacking of the entire AFRC on 6 February 1989 and its reconstitution a week later. The whirlwind of reshufflements and sackings had its own inner logic which only the man at the centre of it could decipher. By the time the raging wind calmed relatively, following the trimming of the new AFRC to nineteen members, from the former 28, the Hausa-Fulani no longer had anything to complain. In fact, Junaid Mohammed, a medical doctor who had voiced their resentment now sits on the board of a Federal Commission in Port Harcourt.
One factor General Babangida has in his favour is that his foes, soldiers and political alike always tend to underestimate him. While they rushed into battle with all the ammunitions at their disposal, certain that the encounter would be a one-day skirmish, Babangida thinks ahead, conserving his ammunition like a General out on a long and arduous military campaign.
When he took over power, General Babangida was confronted with three major problems: how to endear himself to the populace; win over the politicians who were getting restive two years after General Buhari booted them out, halt the economic decline. Beyond these however, his mind was already working on the ways and means to remain on top of the situation and perpetuate his rule for as long as he pleased. As he himself has often said, he understood Nigeria and Nigerians perfectly. And his first action as military president was to dorm the toga of populism. General Babangida threw open Buhari’s infamous NSO dungeons and treated the entire nation to the spectacle of Nigerians rotting away in several stages of degradation in these cells. The media were of course, conveniently on hand to capture this ‘sad’ moment in the nation’s history. The response was instantaneous and exactly what Babangida sought: widespread condemnation of Buhari and Idiagbon and implicitly, praise for his (Babangida’s) gesture in setting the hapless prisoners free.
Incidentally, he had his first broadcast to the nation on taking over, promised to make human rights a cardinal principle of his administration. In place of the Buhari scowl, Babangida offered a winning smile to the nation. Although stocky of build, the General has a comely face, complemented with soft, well-rounded cheeks and he exploited these attributes to the extreme. Soon, the IBB smile became the favourable caption in newspaper photographs depicting the new Head of State. The media also received their share of the carrots.
Meanwhile the deadlock over whether the country should accept a loan facility of N2.8 billion naira from the IMF along with its stiff conditionality of currency devaluation, removal of oil subsidy and deregulation of the economy was still in place. Again, playing the populist to the hilt, General Babangida threw the IMF loan open to public debate and appointed Abubakar Abdullahi, managing director of the Nigerian Industrial Development Bank, NIDB, head of a nine-man panel to organise public lectures and debates on the issue. This was on 2 September 1985. After several weeks of rancorous debate, the mass of Nigerians rejected the IMF pill. Ever the wily General, Babangida read the public mood and came out with a “patriotic” speech of his own: “The path of honour and essence of democratic patriotism lies in discontinuing negotiations with the IMF. We have decided to face the challenges of restructuring our economy, not through an IMF loan but the determination of our people to make all the necessary sacrifice to put the economy on the path of sustained growth”
Professor Wole Soyinka, the Nobel Laureate and Dr. Sam Aluko, the economist among other prominent Nigerians hailed the speech as a landmark in the annals of military intervention in the nation’s politics. Declared an exuberant Soyinka, “at least this regime listens”
But Babangida was playing the game the way Roman Caesars did. In his independence anniversary speech on 1 October, 1985, Babangida declared a 15 month economic emergency period during which wages could be frozen and the importation of certain items banned in a bid to turn the economy around. Three months later, on 1 January, 1986 he spelt out the major thrust of Structural Adjustment Programme and by the time the actual implementation began later in the year, Nigerians discovered to their cha`grin that their ‘beloved’ leader had brought, via backdoor, the conditionalities attached to IMF loan in additional to even stiffer conditionalities, albeit dressed in ‘man-made Nigeria’ robes. It was too late to protest however, as General Babangida had consolidated his grip on the key power centre. Thus aided by officials of the World Bank and IMF and their local counterparts in his cabinets, Dr. Kalu Idika Kalu, Minister in charge of Finance and Dr. Chu S.P Okongwu, the brilliant Havard economist and Minister for National Planning. Babangida unleashed an economic therapy on Nigeria and Nigerians, the end result of which has been a hopelessly battered naira, a national economy on the brink of collapse and a citizenry so pauperised that the World Bank, in its 1989 Report, declared Nigeria as the thirteenth poorest country in the world.
After over seven years in power, the general pattern of the Babangida method has crystalised. Intimidation, flattery, cronism, divide and rule, blackmail and “settlement” these are the major ingredients of the Babangida method, the tools with which he has navigated so skillfully through the tempestuous Nigerian political terrain. Nothing is too sacred. Religion was used to divide Nigerians. Politicians were converted.
The OIC affair proved a watershed in General Babangida’s power calculus. It signaled the death of innocence and things were never to be the same again between the General and the people of Nigeria who were beginning to see through his populist posture. The December 1985 Mamman Vatsa ‘coup’ attempt, or so Nigerians were led to believe, provided the regime a badly needed respite.
On 20 December, 1985, the Defence Minister, General Domkat Bali announced to the nation that a coup bid, led by Major General Mamman Vatsa, Minister of Federal Capital Territory had been foiled. According to Bali, the coup plotters had earmarked strategic public buildings and military facilities as targets and were angry that the Babangida regime rejected IMF loan. There cries of outrage against Vatsa and newspapers reported spontaneous public demonstrations in support of Babangida’s government in Kaduna and Ibadan. Vatsa and the other coupists among them Lieutenant Colonel Mike Iyorshe and Squandron Leader Martin Luther, the president’s pilot were subsequently tries and executed 5 March, 1986.
The shock that greeted the event, especially from Nigeria’s literary triumvirate, Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka, Chinua Achebe and J.P Clarke Bekeredemo, who made a last minute intercession on Vatsa behalf was not unrelated to the execution of someone perceived to be the president’s close friend from childhood, his age-long classmate and the best man in his wedding. Babangida had told the trio, “you are Nigeria, we shall certainly look into your request” A few hour after they departed, Bali announced that “they have been executed few hours ago”
Was someone reading Machiavelli all over again? The restless Venetian philosopher had written that “when he has the chance, an able prince should cunningly foster some opposition to himself so that by overcoming it, he can enhance his own stature”
But in the quest of environment so central to power politics, Babangida’s most fascinating gift is the confident ability to situate a man’s weakness even as he exudes heroic strength. Only few great men in history had conquered the ruthless force of flattery and the legendary nationalist, Chief Obafemi Awolowo who was no exception.
On his 77th birthday in 1986, the old man received an unusually heartwarming card bursting at the seams with a saccharine encomium.”My dear papa” the writer opened and proceeded to described the elder statesman as “the main issue in Nigerian politics during the last 35 years.” The card was from Babangida.
Awoist at the ceremony recalled to TheNEWS that an ecstatic chief Awolowo read the letter several times over to his political lieutenant who had gathered in his home in Ikenne to mark the day with their leader. An increasingly embattled Babangida, recognising Chief Awolowo as the founding head of the organised political opposition in the southern part of the country, followed up with an invitation to the elder statesman to visit Dodan Barracks. A date, 9 March 1987 was agreed on. Chief Awolowo, thinking it was a quiet and private affair, walked into a horde of newspaper reporters who the General’s protocol officers had tipped off earlier that morning. TheNEWS learnt that General Babangida had a private discussion with Chief Obafemi Awolowo that morning and passionately solicited his support in the difficult task of governing the country.
While TheNEWS is not privy to the elderly politician’s reply, it was however a new Awolowo, reluctant to make his view known on Babangida’s Structural Adjustment Programme (SAP) and sundry issues of national importance that Nigerians encountered. And this was how he remained until his death two months later. Before his death, one Awolowo aide said last week, Awolowo told his lieutenants to watch Babangida as he did not appear someone in a hurry to leave. Interestingly, it was the Nigerian Tribune, Chief Awolowo’s newspaper that Babangida first granted an interview on ascension to power. After Awolowo’s death, Babangida extended his tentacles to other members of Awo’s family. First was the deceased politician’s daughter Dr. Tokunbo Dosunmu. TheNEWS learnt that General Babangida encouraged Dosumu into politics in 1987, a presidential persuasion which made the governorship race in Lagos seem like a mere walkover.
Whatever Babangida had hoped to achieve with this, he surely ended up causing dissension in the Awolowo political family. And he succeeded in this, brilliantly, putting Alhaji Lateef Jakande, former governor of the state who saw himself as inheritor of Chief Awolowo’s mantle against latter’s daughter who felt that the time had come to challenge Jakande’s suzerainty in Lagos State. Both lost mouth, leaving the field of play open for a third dog to pick the bone away. Yet the General was not done with Awolowo political dynasty. He reportedly made efforts to get Segun, Chief Awolowo’s grandson to declare for the NRC in Ikenne, his grandmother, Mrs. Dideolu Awolowo and Chief Alfred Rewane, Awo’s long time political ally, saw through the game however and forced Segun to beat a retreat.
The containment strategy so central to Babangida’s response to the politics of power blocs found its most classic illustration in his answer to the Northern oligarchy.
After the ouster of Buhari, a Fulani, Babangida speedily assuage the ill-feeling he perceived had been generated by gradually sacrificing the bulk of the Christian Middle Belt officers who helped him to power. Of the lot, the last to go was General Domkat Bali who was humiliated out of office as Minister of Defence in December 1990. The Head of State followed by bringing in several Hausa-Fulani military officers into his cabinet and the AFRC. He also gave members of its civilian faction plum jobs in Federal establishments. Still, the uneasy relationship between Babangida and northern religious and political leaders persisted.
At the level official policies, he has been hitting right at the heart of their very existence: SAP, the economic miracle formula only complicated the poverty and socio -religious fanaticism deriving essentially from unemployment and hopelessness.
The decision to privatise the NNDC, and many public institutions left a handful of northern millionaires to sweep off the collective heritage of a people, while the policy to take over Kaduna Polytechnic as a federal institution slowed down efforts at developing a northern techno-structure at their chosen pace. In theoretical terms, this was how the issue was posed, so much so that young northern elites started worrying what would become of their kith and kin at the end of the private sector capitalist revolution Babangida is feverishly prosecuting.
When the Sultan of Sokoto, Alhaji Abubakar Siddiq, died in November 1988, the popular will favoured Muhammed Maccido, eldest son of the deceased Sultan. Shehu Malami, a London-trained prince of the Bello ruling house and Ibrahim Dasuki, Babangida’s old friend of the Buhari ruling house were also in contention. Evidently, acting on superior orders, the then military governor, Colonel Ahmed Daku, ensured the victory of Ibrahim Dasuki, as a result of which a violent protest enveloped the state leading to mass destruction of property and loss of many lives. But the Dasuki installation also introduced the Babangida factor into the influence of the Sultanate and a foothold in the Othman Dan Fodio power ambience. At least, it could be assured that in the official religious matter of the moment, the interest of the president could be assured with Dasuki in power.
However, nowhere has Babangida come full blown to achieving the intellectual outline of his philosophy than in his home-base, the military. After the civil war years, a youthful Babangida, then a captain, landed at the Nigerian Defence Academy in Kaduna as an instructor. There he carefully laid down the blocks of a future political edifice. By a combination of attitudinal warmth and a perfect vision of the architecture of power-bases, Babangida attracted a constellation of young, bright cadets who would later become the anchors of the officer corps of the army. Among them were Chris Abutu Garba, best all round cadet of the NDA third set, Idowu Olurin also one of the outstanding students of that set and the likes of Tunde Ogbeha all brigadiers now. There were other juniors like Abdul Mumuni. Lawan Gwadabe, Fidelis Makka, John Madaki, and Abubakar Umar, now all colonels.
After the botched coup against the Murtala government in 1976, Babangida had another grand opportunity as chairman of the Army re-organisation committee to understand the workings of the army and the men best suited for specific roles. It was a perfect Peronist scenario which became a useful opportunity when Babangida had to overthrow, a heady but brilliant infantry general who was his senior in the army. The boys of yerster-years now manning strategic sections of the army simply moved into action at a whistle call.
The lesson was Peronist but the inspiration was Machiavellian all over again. Concerning the ruler’s relationship with the military, the Italian had counselled: “he must never let his thoughts stray from military exercises which he must pursue more vigorously in peace than in war.” Babangida understood this perfectly.
He helped to whip up a slumbering militarist consciousness by constantly appealing to their macho-instinct anytime the civil society snapped. Describing them as experts in the art of management of violence, he would appeal to them not to allow themselves to be disgraced out of office. At the peak of this appeal has been the dispatch of troops of the Nigerian army to various troubled spots of the world – Angola, Yugoslavia, Somali and the problematic Liberia.
Then, internally as he has done externally, he found work to engage their minds. An intricate politics of appointment and dismissal became a huge encyclopedia that compelled rigorously study for edification.
On assumption of office in 1985, Ebitu Ukiwe, then a naval commodore was military vice president but apparently his appointment generated a lot of rancour. Sani Abacha for instance, who was Ukiwe’s senior didn’t accept his new political seniority. The matter had to be settled by votes. Babangida voted for Ukiwe but went ahead to disgrace him out of office on 6 October 1986.
Ukiwe had demonstrated as the months passed that he was nobody’s errand-boy, and that he possessed a no-nonsense visage that soon blossomed, turning him into something of a folk-hero in his own right, especially following the OIC controversy in 1986 when he declared unequivocally that he was not aware that the country had joined the OIC. On 6 October of that same year, Commodore Ukiwe was shown the door as Rear Admiral Aikhomu was welcomed in.
The ensuing power game and the attendant moral miasma in the society had its toll on the military. The first military quality therefore to be compromised was the very basis of the military in government – the anti-corruption and corrective ethos. Officers jostled for political appointments at morally despicable terms, and once there, they unleashed a regime of fierce and aggressive kleptomania that belittle the crimes of the civilians of yester-years.
Thus, some Babangida military governors turned the treasury of their various states into their own private property while Augustus Aikhomu was always on hand to exonerate them of charges of corrupt enrichment and financial recklessness.
So accommodating to corruption is the government that no one in its eight years in power had been prosecuted or openly disgraced for the act. Indeed, what became popular was the art of compromising critics or potential opponents with favours and facilities too generous to be defined outside the meaning of corruption.
To date for instance, the military president has expended over one billion naira in car gift to officers. The official explanation is that it was only a loan but the truth is that the pay back terms is less than N100 per month, or to speak in the language of the season $5.
Along with the emergence of a new class of business elites created by Babangida’s economic miracle has also come the class of military millionaires. Whether this development will help to give new life to the military is yet to be seen but there are strong views like those recently expressed by former Head of State, General Olusegun Obasanjo that this development is actually destroying the army.
As Chidi Amuta, one of his multiple biographers effusively claimed in his Prince of The Niger “IBB pursues stability through a process of organised instability.” If this is true, it is probably a means to an end that must be seen through the institutional and human victims of his regime.
Radical critics of the regime, continue to insist that Babangida’s often-quoted hidden agenda is the terminal goal of this process of systematic desolution of the military and civil junctions of revolt in a neat Nasserite formula. If Babangida evolves into a de jure military president superintending over the National Assembly as Abdul Nasser did in Egypt of the fifties, it would have confirmed claims by Lt. Col. Tony Nyam, a former aide to the president that he once commissioned paper on the Nasserite model of government.
Babangida’s biographers, commentators and close watchers have been restrained in developing the Nasser imperative but it is true, the mass purge of generals in the army after the Okar coup of April 1990 may well be the prelude. Working under the guise of restructuring the Armed Forces, General Babangida retired Vice Admiral Aikhomu and nine other generals who were members of the Federal cabinet. Twenty-two air force officers were also retired. The sole survivor of the cyclone was Lieutenant General Sani Abacha, Defence Minister and Chief of Defence Staff who Babangida said would continue to serve alongside him until the end of the transition programme.
With the spate of retirements, General Babangida has emerged as the most powerful military ruler in the history of the country. Undoubtedly, Babangida knew where he was going right from August 1985 when he enacted Decree 17 which gave him sweeping powers to single-handedly appoint the Chief of General Staff, chairman, joint Chiefs of staff, the service chiefs and Inspector General of Police.
Said General Domkat Bali in a 1991 interview: “He must have known what he was aiming at. If you now take those powers of the president as civilian and you now put it on an army officer who then sits with other army officers in the name of the Supreme Military Council who are useless to him who he can change tomorrow, which means that the name is not supreme at all”
In case there was a doubt about the workings of the AFRC, Bali said the President dominated the proceedings and rammed decisions down the throat of other members. This was merely acting true to philosophy. Niccolo Machiavelli himself had cautioned that the prince, while affecting to listen to the opinion of others ultimately make up his own mind and execute his decision. In hunting down the participants of the April 1990 coup, in executing those he could find and incarcerating their relatives, Babangida was merely serving notice to other military officers that he was not to be trifled with. In his eight years as military head of state he asked for no quarter and given no quarter in matters of absolute power, especially where it relates to his constituency.
To give full complement to security, General Babangida has also set up the National Guard, an elite corps seen in military circles as an Army within the Army, lavishly provided for and loyal only to the prince himself. He has also dropped hints of relocating the headquarters of the Army to Minna, his hometown and the Air-Force to Kano.
If these developments have any merit, they could not be said to be helpful in strengthening the joint services demand of the military, a gap which the ECOMOG operations in Liberia have so openly revealed as the major weakness of the military.
If the military provides no difficulty for Babangida to run over, the civil society fell without a whisper. To conquer the civil society – the press, academia, traditional rulers and labour groups, the students, Babangida deployed a complex webs of complementary and even antagonist strategies, all targeted at the inner recesses of the human psychology: greed, opportunism, hunger, revenge, lust for power, and even love.
He exploited the opportunism of the political class when he slammed a ban on the so-called “old breed”, and the younger elements were unmoved to question the principles involved. They refused to insist on justice because this would make the terrain wide open for them. But myopia had always been the Siamese twin of opportunism and greed. The new politicians did not reckon with the National Electoral Commission’s (NEC) long chain of decrees tying up the transition programme into a confusing maze of political hurdles, the disqualification and outright ban on some of their members, the endless revisions of the transition time table and General Babangida’s penchant for electoral rules that are generated only to breed chaos and throw up ‘politicians’ with dubious credentials.
One example best illustrates the duplicity of this class. In the run-up to the 1992 presidential primaries, General Babangida had invited Alhaji Lateef Jakande and Dr. Olusola Saraki, presidential aspirants on the platforms of the SDP, to Abuja. To each he promised the SDP ticket and a generous amount of money to see his ambition succeed. By the time the two ‘seasoned’ politicians realised that the General was enjoying a joke at their own expense, the harm had been done. TheNEWS also learnt that General Babangida funded the campaign of most of the presidential aspirants of both SDP and NRC, ensuring that no one candidate was as strong as the other so that they would inevitably find themselves at logger-heads. To every aspirants that called at the Presidential villa, Abuja, the promise of the Presidency was waiting meanwhile NEC and its leadership under chairman Humphrey Nwosu have their vision of what goals to pursue.
When the time came for reckoning all the presidential aspirants were consigned to the political wilderness, after portraying them to the Nigerian public as an irresponsible lot. The presidency, it seems, after all, was not in contention, the office being sought was not vacant.
This intriguing style in statecraft was also to prove fatally effective in coralling the intelligentsia, ostensibly the mouthpiece of the civil society. In the words of the patron philosopher, Machiavelli, “a prince should also show his esteem for talent, actively encouraging able men and honouring those who excel in their profession” For his ends, Babangida took these words in cherished humour. He horded into government and around government such big names as Wole Soyinka, Jibril Aminu, Bolaji Akinyemi, Tai Solarin, Olikoye Ransome-Kuti, Ojetunji Aboyade, Gordian Ezekwe, Nkena Nzimiro,Tam David-West, Jerry Gana, Tunde Adeniran, Junaid Mohammed and Isawa Elaigwu. In the language of Amuta, his biographer, this was to “make up for his modest intellectual preparation.”
By this association, Babangida drilled a hole on the intellectual canvas of the nation and the policies he churned out only left the academia in an anaemic state. The government too tended to treat the intellectual community with contempt and in the words of Dr. Yemi Ogunbiyi, former drama teacher and chief executive of the government-owned Daily Times Plc this was so because of “academics who go prostrating to drop-outs in the military”
Ogunbiyi’s fate too become a good illustration of the shabby treatment the academic had suffered under this government. After re-invigorating a putrescent Daily Times, the government unceremoniously fired him and put in a security operative, Tola Adeniyi, to take over the paper.
Ogunbiyi, with Amuta, now runs the Tanus communication, a public relations outfit in Lagos that published Babangida’s biography and is currently participating in the N50 million publicity blitz by NNPC to educate Nigerians on its rationale for removing petroleum subsidy.
Like Ogunbiyi, Soyinka was a close friend to the presidency and was offered a national honour in the wake of his Nobel award in 1986 and after he was allowed to introduce the Federal Road Safety Commission. Since then snide comments have dogged his heels over alleged compromise in the barbed edge of his commentaries on national issues. Has Soyinka also become a specimen in the bottomless pit of academic victims of a capricious regime?
In the reading of the popular press, defanged was Kongi, the lion, that dressed scourge of military tyrants, who had begun to avoid the press ostensibly because “reporters are want to misquote you”
How much then has the intellectual input around him helped to define and re-define a new Babangida? Not much said Professor Ojetunji Aboyade, renowned economist and chairman of a dormant Presidential Advisory Committee (PAC). “He juggles several balls at once… (and) when he says yes to you don’t take it as yes because it may or may not be yes”
Speaking the frustration of the long train of intellectuals in Babangida’s cabinet and kitchen cabinet, Aboyade acknowledges Babangida’s incredible capacity to listen (“He is a very good listener”) but a puzzling instinct to ignore all he heard and implement decisions designed from a mind-set not as collectively agreed.
All said, Babangida is a man of his own will and the coterie of advisers serve no more props and decorative in the presidential panoply. The result has been programmes and policies noble and beautiful on paper but disastrous in implementation.
On the receiving end then is the mass of Nigerians whom the General has turned into experimental guinea pigs as he pursues social, economic and political programmes the gains of which only he can see.
Three groups which have given the General a good run for his money are the print media, the human rights organisations and the academic community, including university students. Early in 1971, an attempt was made to lure Dr. Beko Ransome-Kuti, chairman of the campaign for Democracy into Babangida fold. Dr. Kuti was appointed chairman of the Lagos University Hospital (LUTH) Management Board. The usual perks and perquisites of office were made available to the new chairman. But Dr. Ransome-Kuti proved more than a match for the General. He ran the affairs of LUTH conscientiously, shunning the perk but also taking care of step up work as chairman of Campaign for democracy. Dr. Ransome-Kuti and the CD vigorously protested Prince Bola Ajibola’s candidature for the world court, arguing that Ajibola was the chief architect of General Babangida’s draconian decrees. A few week later Dr. Beko Kuti was quietly relieved of his job as chairman of LUTH.
Radical critic and mathematician, Edwin Madunagu reasoned in Lagos last week that “There is segment of the elite in Nigeria that Babangida has not been able to penetrate”.
The deep passions of pain and distress that have affected the civil society under Babangida’s eight-year rule has its ironic reference in man’s desire to beloved and appreciated. His biographer, Amuta, says Babangida had always wanted to “be cherished and loved” and that is perhaps why he has assaulted the moral platform of the society by amazing chieftaincy titles (he now has no fewer than 40). He can hardly be blamed for this. Machavelli had warned: the best fortress that exist is to avoid being beaten by the people. if you have fortresses yet the people hate you they (the fortresses) will not save you.
In the difficult tension between the imperative of economic adjustment and populist longings, Babangida has had to walk a tight-rope without a balancing pole. While such projects like Better Life, DFRRI, People’s Bank and MAMSER had laid the premise of a populist platform, their twin reference of privatisation, and deregulation had wiped out any possible gains.
To shore this up, the General had reached out unconventionally to other groups in society through extra-budgetary spending in a most profligate manner. This had stridently gone on while the productive capacity of the economy is on a frightening nose-dive.
Why are Nigerians so blest? Ebenezer Babatope, former Director of Publicity of the banned Unity Party of Nigeria (UPN) blamed the failure on the pervasive poverty in the land, a consequence of Babangida’s economic policies.
Even this situation has proved useful in Babangida’s effort at controlling his environment. The case of Dr. Bala Usman, the radical history teacher at Ahmadu Bello University is illustrative. His son was ill and needed urgent medical treatment abroad. Using a surrogate, General Babangida made the money available, hoping by this act to soften Dr, Usman’s stance against his regime. The lecturer did not budge, though. Babangida the master surgeon was however able to find out the soft underbelly of Nigeria’s radical left, which he swiftly domesticated by engaging them in such organs like DFRRI and MAMSER, where their radical interests found enough space.
It was also from this rank that a vocal and noisy class of agitators and propagandists of the regime emerged to play the role of professional sycophants. That tribe seems to be in decline with the dwindling credibility of the regime.
Professor Wole Soyinka once described General Babangida as a man who is very conscious of his place in history. The Nobel Laureate also likened Babangida to a consummate chess player, likening him to Gary Kasparov the Russian Grand Master. But which chess champion would allow himself to be boxed into a corner? Is this a tactical ploy or a strategic collapse? In the twilight of the regime, a new opponent has joined the fray: The National Assembly, which passed a resolution that the regime must hand over on 27 August. Come hell come shine. However, faced with the possibility that power post-August 27, 1993 may shift to either M.K.O Abiola or Bashir Tofa, all President Babangida’s friends, who knows? Perhaps the General may spring yet another surprise. But what will he offer a hungry and angry people? Machiavelli was unequivocal on this – not fortress.
— Reported by: Alex Kabba (Abuja), Jide Otitoju (Kano) Timothy Bonett, Bagauda Kaltho (Kaduna), Akin Adesokan in Lagos.
This piece was first published in TheNEWS magazine of 24 May 1993