Goodbye to IBB
By Reuben Abati
GENERAL Ibrahim Babangida was the other day, a guest on Mosunmola Abudu's Moments with Mo, a successful lifestyle magazine programme on television, and according to reports, by newspapers which monitored the interview, IBB, as he is known, used the opportunity to make a number of useful declarations. Some of these are so weighty and instructive, the General who once ruled Nigeria, should not be allowed to get away without the benefit of a response.
First, General Babangida tells us that he has no plans whatsoever to run for the position of president in 2011. Can someone please shout Alle-lu-ia? Since 1993 when General Babangida purportedly stepped aside from office, so much brain matter has been expended on speculations that the man "stepped aside" (not retire, not resign), so he could return to power some other day in the future. As every election approached, the spectre of IBB's ambition hung ominously in the horizon, as commentators and political pundits saw his shadow in Nigeria's political firmament and configurations. Much of this, as I had argued before now, was the product of invented and contrived mythology.
But in the run up to the 2007 presidential elections, that shadow was almost assuming a human and physical form. There were reports of meetings and actual manouevres by IBB acolytes, with the real intention of bringing their man back to presidential office. There were IBB for president billboards in parts of the country, especially in Lagos. The scare-mongering was so much, the only missing link was IBB himself showing up on the podium. It would have been tragic if he did. It would have been disastrous, and most unfair to Nigerians, if he had been allowed to return.
IBB in his Moment with Mo, had noted that by 2011, age would no longer be on his side, and so, on the grounds of age, he would not want to seek presidential office. Born on August 17, 1941, IBB will be 70 in 2011. By saying 70 is too old an age for anyone to seek the office of president, IBB was probably speaking tongue-in-cheek. Isn't it often the case in Nigeria that the older a man is, the more of a hustler he becomes? We have seen in the past 10 years, old men who falsify their birth records or who tout old age, and experience as evidence of their ability to perform, and deliver and make a difference. IBB has a much bigger baggage, and it is his record of performance as Nigeria's Head of State and later President.
IBB's supporters through publications, seminars and other activities that have been organised to launder his image insist that chroniclers of contemporary history have been most unfair to him. Their position is that with IBB as president, there was greater purposefulness to the governance process, not the kind of cowboy assertions of the Obasanjo era, or the soporific attitude of the Yar'Adua era. IBB, they say, recruited the best and the brightest and put them to work in the nation's interest. Opinion is divided on this. They grant him further credit for astute political engineering. And they point out insouciantly, that under IBB the Naira was relatively stable and that the stock market did not crash. With the passage of time everything in the long spectrum of history tends to appear acceptable, and so it is with revisionism in Nigeria. What IBB's friends fail to point out however is that he prepared the foundation for Nigeria's woes. His government elevated debauchery to the level of high art. Deception too. And favouritism and cronyism. And First Ladyism. His wife was the most glamorous as well as the most expensive First Lady in Nigerian history. And it was IBB who demonstrated that it was possible to hand over the national economy to a few persons, and make it look like a legitimate right to do so. Obasanjo years after IBB tried to copy this, and ended up turning Nigerians into slaves in their own country - slaves of oligarchs in banking, importation, and oil and gas.
Ever so quick footed, (they didn't call him Maradona for nothing, or Evil Genius as he referred to himself), IBB also pointed out that by not seeking presidential office in 2011, he'd be doing Nigerians a favour. In a sense, yes. My words, not his. But his justification is instructive. He says: "You know, I give it a lot of thought, there are things I would do to correct certain things which a lot of you would not like". IBB had the chance to change and correct certain things between 1985 and 1993 when he was President and the Commander-in-Chief. But did he? Every Nigerian leader gives the impression that he is a Messiah of sorts. The truth is that in 2011, Nigeria would not need a retired military leader pretending to save the country. Nigeria will need someone with the heart, the will power and the physical strength to transform our lives. What many Nigerians would not like to see is IBB mounting the rostrum in 2011, and claiming to have a 10-point agenda that will save Nigeria. By ruling himself out of contention, we thank him for accepting at last, that the road to Nigeria's future is in the future, not the past.
IBB's declaration should make many of his associates unhappy. The step-aside, step-back politics that developed around this particular General soon became an industry for many self-confessed admirers who turned General IBB's politics in the context of Nigeria into a primary business. They organised seminars and symposia. They turned IBB into a subject of intellectual enquiry. They sought to convert him into an icon. Now they have heard from IBB himself: by 2011, he intends to retire effectively from the politics of ambition. IBB's consultants would have to find other clients. He is one former leader whose home fortune-seekers continued to visit, in the firm belief that his return to the politics of office would serve their own purpose. Added to this is the general belief that he is a most generous man. And so like beggars by the roadside, everyone expected a share of the IBB cake. Hopefully, his declaration that his "stepping aside" is now final, would drive the bees away from his home.
But the politics of 2011 notwithstanding, IBB since 1993 had always been confronted with the annulment of the presidential election of June 12, 1993 - the election that was "widely believed" to have been won by Chief Moshood Kashimawo Olawale Abiola. Whatever the 6th President of Nigeria elects to do now, or in the future, he will forever be haunted by the ghost of June 12. Naturally, the issue came up in his interview with Mo. And unlike in previous interviews, he offered a mere explicit explanation of the reasons for the annulment.
According to him, "June 12 was accepted by Nigerians as the best of elections in Nigeria. It was free and fair. But unfortunately we cancelled that election. I used the word unfortunately for the first time. We were in government at the time and we knew the possible consequences of handing over to a democratic government. We did well that we wanted ours to be the last military coup d' etat. To be honest with you, the situation was not ripe to hand over at the time. Forget about the wrong things that happened in politics. The issue of security of the nation was a threat and we could have considered ourselves to have failed, if six months after hand over, there was another coup. I went through coup d' etat and I survived it. We knew that there would be another coup d' etat. But not many people believed what we the military said. They would have allowed me to go away and then they (coup plotters) would regroup and stage another coup. This is how coups are staged - one man will always come to complain. And he will try to convince you about his complaints".
The foregoing argument is specious. As President and Commander-in-Chief, IBB was in a position to arrest the coup-plotters, since he had intelligence reports that they were planning to scuttle the democratic process. He was also in a position to set up structures to protect the democratic order. Rather than vote for and defend democracy, he chose to know-tow to coup-plotters. What kind of morality is he espousing? He had to annul a free and fair election in order to prevent a coup d'etat. He should have handed over power to the legitimate winner of that election. The same IBB who was afraid of a coup still handed over power to a civilian, in a manner that even encouraged a coup taking place. Chief Ernest Shonekan was made Head of an Interim National Government. But he was not the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces. The Service Chiefs did not take him seriously. And of course, in due course, General Sani Abacha drove Shonekan out of office, without having to fire a shot. Was this a coup or not? So, what coup was IBB trying to prevent? And has he forgotten that he only recently endorsed the coup in Guinea? The biggest coup against the people of Nigeria was the annulment of the June 12 presidential election. Collectively, we have had to pay a heavy price for it.
Babangida's place in Nigerian history will be defined by that singular act of annulment of a democratic process. In 2006, he had actually collected a nomination form for the 2007 presidential race. But he allegedly withdrew from the PDP nomination process because he didn't want to compete with Mallam Umaru Musa Yar'Adua, who he considers "his brother". His planned return to power was originally designed as an opportunity for him to rehabilitate himself in the public sphere. Power politics doesn't work that way.
Former President Obasanjo had a divine second chance, and later, a third chance. But he blew it all. As IBB prepares for life as an old man ("...I am not getting younger. I am an old man", he says) he should search his conscience more carefully. On the question of June 12, he owes Nigerians an apology, not excuses.