Former President Ibrahim Babangida’s attempt to burnish his image, rehabilitate and re-immerse himself into the political fray by granting a rare exclusive interview to Kola Ayoola (Vanguard, 31 July 2005), raised more questions than answered. And Ayoola himself did a disservice to his profession by offering Babangida such an “out” for his maladministration. Otherwise, rather than paraphrase Babangida through more than half of the reportage, (an acceptable but weak and apologetic mode of reporting an interview), Ayoola should have quoted him verbatim throughout the entire piece, giving the reader an opportunity to fully measure Babangida’s responses, feel his pulses and gauge his nuances, especially when he responded to some very important questions.

Because of his style of reporting the interview, Ayoola failed to show us if he posed any follow-on questions to some of the obviously inadequate answers. In general, the interview came through as a PR job, sponsored by the “Babangida For 2007” bandwagon. Therefore, in this piece, I will seek to elicit a meaningful response from Babangida by posing some follow-on questions.

On Dele Giwa, Babangida passed the buck of accountability to Gen. A. K. Togun (rtd), then deputy director of the State Security Service, and Chris Omeben, a retired deputy Inspector-General of Police. These were people who served in their respective positions by the grace of Babangida. Did they have the courage and moral probity to offer a differing opinion from that wished by Babangida? If Babangida “regretted” Giwa’s death as he said, why did he not meet the indefatigable Gani Fawehinmi in the court of public opinion to answer some tough questions? Babangida said that to further demonstrate the regrets of his administration, he offered to help defray the cost of Giwa’s burial. What an insult to Giwa’s immediate family! What an insult to Giwa’s professional family at the Newswatch! What an insult to the sensibilities of those of us who knew Giwa and saw his mangled body! How much did it cost to inter a body in a village? Babangida must think that we all have forgotten.

Then there was the little matter of a lady known as Gloria Okon. For those who might have forgotten, Miss Okon was rumored to have been a drug courier for Miriam Babangida, the then First Lady. Okon suddenly disappeared from the face of the earth amidst questions by her family and friends. Suddenly, all the questions evaporated and Okon was forgotten. Did someone pay Okon to disappear? Did someone “settle” her family as well? I am not accusing Babangida of any complicity in her disappearance. However, this was a hot beer parlor issue that quickly gained currency and found its way into the mainstream media. It was never addressed by anyone in Babangida’s administration. No one dared to ask Babangida about it when he was an active duty General. But if he is marching back into politics, the day of reckoning is fast approaching.

Babangida also graciously responded to Ayoola’s question about his relationship with Muhamadu Buhari, the former president and retired General whom Babangida deposed in a coup. Babangida boasted that he, as a principal actor in the coup that ousted Shehu Shagari, led the campaign to install Buhari as President, but that Buhari himself had to be ousted because he failed to follow the pact agreed to by the principal actors of the coup. The pact, according to Babangida, was that the principal actors had to be consulted before important decisions were taken by Buhari. What a trite reason for toppling a government! The enlisted soldiers, non-commissioned officers, junior officers and innocent civilians that died during the coup apparently sacrificed their lives for Babangida’s personal aggrandizement and egomania.

Almost every Nigerian now thinks that the Buhari/Idiagbon junta was the best military government that Nigeria ever had. How does Babangida feel now, being the one that truncated the life of that government on such a flimsy excuse? In his interview with Ayoola, even Babangida admitted that he and Buhari were friends before the coup. Where was his loyalty to a personal friend and superior officer? Did he terminate the life of the Buhari administration out of greed and personal ambition, or out of an overriding interest of the nation? Exactly what point did his coup against Buhari prove? By his own admission in the interview under question, Babangida helped plan and execute two coups. Rumors have it that both he and Sani Abacha had a hand in most of the coups that have taken place in Nigeria. If that was true, what moral authority did he have to execute another of his old friends â€" Mamman Vatsa â€" for allegedly trying to overthrow him in a coup? What self-righteous indignation!

Whether it was due to lack of space or sheer tepidity, Ayoola failed to ask Babangida the “mother” of all questions: what demon possessed him to annul the June 12 elections after watching and cheering on the principal contestants? Even Bashir Tofa, the man from Kano State, who lost the presidency to Moshood Abiola, did not seem to have had any problem with the results of the elections. Who and what gave Babangida the audacity to cancel an election considered by most as the “freest and fairest” ever conducted in Nigeria? Was he again catering to his depraved quest for power, or was he tending to the interests of some very powerful Nigerians seeking to protect their loots? Chief Alex Akinyele has been quoted as promising that Babangida would soon apologize for annulling those elections. Too late for that, buddy.

Ayoola could also have used the unique opportunity he had to ask Babangida how he became so interminably wealthy. When Babangida was on active duty, even a four-star General did not earn a million naira annually. He was in office for all of eight years. From where did he get all his money? I can almost hear him retort: what about Shagari, Buhari and Obasanjo? My response is that none of these people irresponsibly display such a filthy opulence even if they stole. Babangida’s arrogant display of ill-gotten wealth is only rivaled by that of the Abacha family.

There are many more questions that Ayoola could have asked Babangida. If he ruled Nigeria as a dictator for eight years with nothing to show for it, what could he achieve by coming back as a civilian president, encumbered by the constraints of a freer Judiciary and a rapacious Legislature? What informed his thinking as a dictator when he frequently shut down media houses, universities and labor unions; arrested and re-arrested journalists, students and labor union leaders? When he “stepped aside” as president, why did he leave in place the most despotic man ever to rule Nigeria â€" Sani Abacha? Was that a convenient arrangement between both of them? Even though he was no longer in office when Abacha mysteriously died, was that also a case of eliminating one of his old friends? Did he use the execution squad machinery he left in place to kill another friend - Abiola, conveniently removing the two most powerful agitators for his departure from office?

Babangida told Ayoola that he would not lose any sleep were ex-military governors and presidents banned from elective posts. That was such a disingenuous and pedestrian answer to a question begging for a clear and concise answer. Babangida and his ilk ruled by such callous capriciousness that subjected issues of paramount importance to “ill-literate” debates. He could have told Ayoola the simple truth â€" that it would be unfair to ban ex-military rulers from elective offices simply because they ruled while in uniform. Many of them, especially the governors, received their respective postings as just another military assignment, and, therefore, could not have turned them down even if they knew that they were incompetent. Besides, how fair would it be to exclude a decent ex-military governor from elective offices while allowing a corrupt ex-civilian governor to re-contest? Is that not a recipe for another military intervention aimed at righting old wrongs?

Reading through Ayoola’s rendition of his encounter with Babangida, I sensed a new attempt at the re-humanization of the ex-president. I felt a deep sense of empathy and almost began to adulate him again. Could it be true that we have been unjustifiably accusing him of all these crimes all this time? But my better senses woke me from my trance. That gory picture of a dismembered Dele Giwa; the scramble by Newswatch to hide its nearly deaf London Bureau Chief, Kayode Soyinka, who was at the breakfast table with Giwa when that parcel bomb exploded; the toothy, wily smiles of the “Maradona” president; the arrogance of A.K. Togun; the silence - that deafening silence that permeated his regime immediately following Giwa’s death - would not let me forget. Nineteen years later, Babangida thought time would have healed the pains caused by Giwa’s death. He is dead wrong. Giwa’s death is still fresh.

For now, Babangida can continue to hide under the blanket of protection provided to him by Obasanjo’s recent comment that accusations against him (Babangida) had no foundations. Nigeria will, in my life time, have a president not beholden to any predilections. Nigeria will call Babangida to account for his actions.

Abiodun Ladepo
Wiesbaden, Germany
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