Babangida says he has no regrets, but he can’t rewrite history

GENERAL Ibrahim Babangida, Nigeria’s former military ruler, is a bundle of contradictions. Known as the evil genius, he did much good and much evil. Yet, in his recent interview with Arise TV ahead of his 80th birthday, Babangida said he had no regrets. He also spoke presumptuously about Nigeria’s unity. But as an architect of Nigeria’s current state, Babangida can’t rewrite history.

Take his deeds in power. Truth is, the verdict of history would be mixed, namely: he did good things, but his evil deeds cast dark shadows over his good. Let’s start with Babangida’s good deeds. First, the economy. General Babangida liberalised Nigeria’s economy. His regime was recognised worldwide for its pro-market measures.

Babangida told Arise TV: “I believe in free market economy”. He is right: Nigeria can’t succeed as a command-and-control economy. So, I applaud him for being a strong voice for economic liberalism in Nigeria. Furthermore, Babangida was a detribalised leader. Unlike President Buhari, who is only comfortable with his ethnic group and always puts their interests above those of other ethnic nationalities, Babangida was at home anywhere in Nigeria. He understood the dynamics and sensitivities of Nigerians and was overwhelmingly better than Buhari at managing Nigeria’s diversity. 

Babangida told Arise TV that Nigeria’s next president should have the following qualities: “A person who travels in this country and has a friend virtually everywhere and who knows at least one person he can communicate with; a person who is very versed in the economy, and then a good politician who should be able to talk to Nigerians”.  Babangida demonstrated these qualities in power; Buhari utterly lacks them. President Buhari can’t communicate and engage with Nigerians; can’t forge relationships across the country; and can’t build a national consensus on any issue. He’s utterly aloof and removed from Nigerians.

By contrast, Babangida sweet-talked Nigerians. He engaged them on whether to take an IMF loan; he engaged them on a political transition programme to return Nigeria to civil rule. He made dialogue and consultation the governing principle of his regime.  But here’s the rub. Living up to his reputation as Maradona and Evil Genius, Babangida acted purely for self-interested reasons. At every turn, he deceived and manipulated Nigerians. He pulled wool over their eyes, conducted a presidential election and then arbitrarily annulled it.

Even today, Babangida glibly explains away his annulment of the June 12, 1993 presidential election, presumed won by MKO Abiola. “You want me to be honest with you?” Babangida told Ngozi Alaegbu, the Arise TV interviewer. “If it materialised (that is, if Abiola became president), there would have been a coup d’etat which would have been violent”!

 My reaction was: So what? Abiola eventually died in prison. General Sani Abacha eventual seized power and ran a violent, bloody regime. It’s utterly evil and self-serving to annul a free and fair election because there would be a coup if the winner became president.  Except Babangida had a gun to his head and was forced to annul the election, which he denies, he should have handed over to Abiola and let events take their course. History would have judged him differently.

Sadly, 28 years after the annulment, the truth is still out there. In 1994, Lt-General Oladipo Diya, then Abacha’s deputy, told a different story. In one interview, Diya said: “The annulment was a disappointment. But General Babangida should be held responsible; he didn’t want to go. I was the eighth or ninth in the hierarchy of the Armed Forces at the time. Babangida won’t say he called the Armed Forces’ officers to discuss the annulment. He only called us after the annulment”.

Babangida either annulled the election to cling on to power, which is utterly naïve, or, as President Olusegun Obasanjo says, out of “bad belle”! Whichever, it was an evil deed. Then, there was the evil deed of corruption. In a World Bank book titled Voting for Reform, Professors Jeffrey Herbst and Adebayo Olukoshi wrote: “Under the Babangida regime, unbudgeted expenditure, extrabudgetary accounts and secret accounts became significant”. They argued that the regime created a patron-client network and used “side payments, bribes and patronage” to maintain it.  

Babangida is right that corruption is worse today than under his regime, but he can’t deny responsibility for hugely corrupting Nigerian politics. All of which brings me to Babangida’s views on Nigeria’s unity. He told Arise TV: “When we were in the military, we talked about certain issues about Nigeria. The unity of Nigeria, as far as we were concerned, was a settled issue; presidentialism was a settled issue”. Asked if “settled” meant non-negotiable, he said yes! He also rejected regionalism.

That’s galling. Beyond having the weapons to enforce their will, what gave the military the monopoly of wisdom to decide settled issues for Nigeria? What made them wiser than Nigeria’s founding fathers who negotiated the 1963 Constitution based on parliamentary system, regional autonomy and federal union? Let’s be clear: the First Republic failed because of political intolerance and military adventurism, not because of parliamentarianism or regionalism, which are the preferred systems in most multi-ethnic countries.

Now, when did Nigeria’s unity become a settled issue? Babangida said 51 years ago; meaning the Civil War settled it. But if the Civil War settled Nigeria’s unity, why is the military preparing for another war? Recently, the Chief of Army Staff warned secessionists: “We are more equipped now than before the Civil War”. Truth is, Nigeria’s unity can’t be settled by military force, but through a negotiated political and constitutional settlement, as negotiated by Nigeria’s founding fathers.

Babangida blamed the tyranny of the political elite for Nigeria’s current mess. But the tyranny of the military elite created Nigeria’s unworkable politico-governance structures. Nigeria must break free from the strictures of the military’s “settled issues” and negotiate an enduring political and constitutional settlement. Nigeria’s unity can’t be settled without restructuring. As for Babangida’s “no regrets”, he should reflect more on his past!

…by Olu Fasan 

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