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IBB @ 80: A Charmed Life

IBB Caricature

August 22, (THEWILL) – Military dictators in Africa seldom live up to eighty. If they are lucky enough to survive coup attempts, chances are they invariably end up in exile, far away from countries they once had secure in their pockets like their private property.

Idi Amin Dada fled his country Uganda to Saudi Arabia where he died in ignominy. He was 77. Mobutu Seseko left behind a devastated Congo and died at 67 in Morocco. Self-proclaimed Emperor Jean-Bedel Bokassa of Central Africa Republic wasted away in the French capital before returning home to be tried and sent to prison before his demise at 75.

Master Sergeant Samuel Doe of Liberia suffered a worse fate. Caught by a rival faction of the dueling forces in his country, the rebels severed his ears as part of torture to force him to reveal his loot stashed away in Swiss banks. After the amputation, his eardrums soon filled with blood such that the ex-president couldn’t hear a word of what his tormentors were saying. He was only 39.

Nearer home, General Sani Abacha died a disgraceful death at 54. It is still unclear whether the maximum ruler was poisoned, as intelligence sources insist, or expired atop or beneath two comely courtesans, as some gossips claim.

Going by that assumption, you could say that former military president of Nigeria, General Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida, who turned 80 last Tuesday is truly a lucky man. You could also say that from when he became military president in 1985 to 1993 and thereafter, IBB has lived a charmed life, a life unaffected by dangers and difficulties.

Fate dealt him a bad hand from very early on. He lost both parents at only six. Even so, he took his education seriously enough to enroll at Bida Provincial Secondary School. It was while there that the likes of Zakariya Maimalari, Nigeria’s first professional regular combatant soldier, and Kur Mohammed were used as role models “to encourage and motivate” students to join the Army. He did.

With a combination of pluck, self-application and focus, IBB rose through the ranks as a disciplined soldier, and a fearless one, too. Famously, he singlehandedly aborted the February 13, 1976. by Lt. Colonel Bukar S. Dimka against head of state General Murtala Mohammed.

Legend has it that Babangida who was a colonel at the time boarded a motorbike from Bonny Camp to Ikeja Cantonment where he foiled the coup and arrested some of the rebels. He has also actively participated in one or two, survived some more as military president, most notably the April 22, 1990 Gideon Orkar-led putsch.

There have been some personal tragic moments, also. Two days after Christmas in December 2009, his wife, Maryam died of ovarian cancer, leaving IBB a widower.

Though hobbled by age related infirmities now, Babangida is still a force to reckon with at 80 – militarily and politically. His smile is as expansive as ever, complemented with a mild voice that suggests quiet authority and a glowing skin you ordinarily won’t associate with those in his age bracket.

For much of last week, his Hilltop residence was filled with army brass and top dog politicos. Earlier, President Muhammadu Buhari sent a carefully crafted birthday greetings. Former President Olusegun Obasanjo had some private moments with IBB. And yet another ex, Abdusalami Abubakar, and some senior army officers trooped to IBB’s digs – parade ground style – to pay homage not only on his becoming an octogenarian but his professionalism as a soldier, his patriotism and steadfast belief in a united Nigeria, all of them eulogizing him in glowing terms.

Recalling to an interviewer his fond memories of Maimalari who was killed in the January 1966 coup, IBB declared thusly: Maimalari was “a rare officer and an outstanding leader of men. He was a very bright and intelligent individual who everyone wanted to emulate. He was a strict disciplinarian, but we all respected and admired him. He was very kind and jovial and assisted many of his subordinate officers in their careers, regardless of their ethnic or religious affiliations.”

Coincidentally, the same phrases have been used to describe IBB himself on his 80th. Hear Governor Udom Emmanuel of Akwa Ibom state, for instance: “This is one leader who succeeded in uniting this country. He succeeded in bringing people from diverse religious backgrounds, people from all tribes across the six regions of this country together.”

His counterpart from Sokoto state shares a similar view of the octogenarian. Aminu Tambuwal said: “President Babangida has been a great statesman, a leader who is very well respected. He has done a lot for the country, right from his days in the military. He is still being celebrated because of his experience, and he is a man of inestimable value for Nigeria.”

Even so, there are exceptions as to what IBB really represents to Nigerians or how Nigerians see him.

If you ask a certain generation of Nigerians their opinion of him, human rights activists, say, or pro-democracy campaigners, their response will be almost predictable. They will come up with a long list of a rap sheet as long as a Lee-Enfield rifle. And, if they have any chance to prosecute him, they will most certainly do so gleefully if only to hit back at a man with the uniquely distinct soubriquet “evil genius.”

There was something close to that at the Justice Oputa Panel in Lagos 21 years ago. A non-prosecutorial panel famous for its histrionics, one popular lawyer notched up his performance when he tearfully invoked the presiding judge to invite IBB to the sitting.  But the same lawyer sort of bungled his case when he suddenly became very emotional, an underwhelming performance unworthy of a legal luminary of his status. Of course, IBB saw the writing on the wall. He politely declined the invitation.

Among their grouse against IBB would have been the death by parcel bomb of senior journalist Dele Giwa; the infamous structural adjustment programme aka SAP that quickly undermined a not too buoyant economy; sanctioning the death by firing squad of a close friend and classmate, Mamman Jiya Vatsa who was implicated in a coup against IBB and finally, just finally, altering the destiny of a country, the continent and even the rest of world by annulling one of the freest elections held on June 12, 1993.

Being a Muslim president from the northern part of the country, some others, especially from southern Nigeria, would have added that his regime surreptitiously made Nigeria a member state of Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC.)

For the eight years he ruled Nigeria from 1985, IBB had his detractors and admirers alike. But it is his villainous garb that most people see and talk about most frequently, conveniently neglecting to mention some of his laudable achievements.

The story has been bandied around that the dashing editor-in-chief of Newswatch magazine at the time was blackmailing the president. Whether it is true or not has never been confirmed or denied. Early on Sunday morning of October 19, 1986, Nigerians woke up to the awful news of Giwa’s death by a letter bomb. It was novel and bizarre.

To be sure, nobody likes to be at the mercy of an extortionist because, most often, they never stop making demands, coming ever so frequently like a loan shark visiting defaulters.

“Who will rid me,” King Henry 11 of England was quoted to have asked in 1170, “of this troublesome priest?” The priest in question was Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Becket. Following that royal pronouncement, four loyal priests to the monarch travelled to Canterbury where they murdered Becket.

Whether that scenario played out in the Giwa assassination is hard to say. If there is any grain of truth in the blackmail account, then subordinates may not be disobliged to act like intelligent interpreters of their master’s wish. No express command from the boss to rubout an enemy but something has to be done, at least to silence the blackmailer, to forever shut up the troublesome individual.

Though IBB himself has said it time and again that one of his regrets is approving the death of Vatsa after a military tribunal found him guilty in the coup plot. True, he would have felt deeply about it. But the truth is that soldiers implicated in forceful change of government face the death penalty. What if Vatsa had succeeded in toppling his friend and colleague of many years?

Besides, sparing Vatsa would have sent a wrong signal to potential coup plotters.

The other issue IBB said he navel-gazed about is the annulment of June 12 presidential election which his friend, MKO Abiola won. The story has been told, also, of powerful forces in both the military hierarchy and civilian population  prevailing on IBB to overturn the June 12 election. He himself has admitted as much up until last week to an interviewer.

But what he will not succumb to is name the enforcers. Does that make him a villain? Certainly not. Instead, the man deserves a pat on the back for not ratting on those who forced him to make the announcement. In other words, his action is no less loyal than someone who takes the rap for other people’s crime. It is almost heroic.

Concerning his intention to turn Nigeria into an Islamic state by joining the OIC, analysts have theorized that it was more of a strategic move than turning Nigeria into a theocracy. As a member of OIC, there were certain financial benefits without necessarily becoming a modern-day Iran or the now Taliban-controlled Afghanistan.

IBB also pioneered recruitment of eggheads, confirmed scholars and professionals from the Ivory Tower to work in various government parastals and agencies. There was, Professor Wole Soyinka at FRSC, fellow don Humphrey Nwosu as NEC chairman, Omo Omoruyi a close confidant and adviser on political matters to IBB, etc. It was during IBB’s regime when Professor Jibril Aminu was Minister of Petroleum that indigenous oil and gas companies began to be allocated oil blocks for the very first time since crude was discovered at Oloibiri in 1956.

In a birthday tribute last week, Daily Trust mused that both “local and international writers have rated IBB as the most powerful leader in the history of Nigeria. He was a methodical ruler who was skilful and tactical in approach, but also unpredictable when his options collided with national interest, which earned him the nickname of Maradona.”

Continuing, the newspaper wrote that “IBB has always been a believer that timely decisions shape an upright leadership, and he would, therefore, not sit on the fence and allow any situation to deteriorate without taking appropriate action.

“Throughout his rule, he never relented in taking a decision when the situation demanded so. For him, it was always better to take a timely decision, and realise it was wrong, than to avoid taking any decision at all and be at a standstill, to pave way for uncertainties and insecurity to worsen.”

As for the man himself, he long ago spelt out his vision and those aspiring for leadership positions. “Each one of us, and, indeed, all those who aspire to national leadership,” IBB has said, “must bring their own visions, views and styles to the business of reforming Nigeria, and the search for solutions.”

“He who dares, wins,” so goes the motto of the British Special Air Service. Translation? If you have the cojones, courage to take risks in life, you will most certainly succeed.

Orphaned at a very young age, years of rigorous military drills, active participant in two, three or so compulsory military take overs, several professional and personal pitfalls along the way, it is hard to deny that IBB has not dared and won at 80.