By Sunny Awhefeada
Last Tuesday, precisely 17th August, General Ibrahim Badamosi Babangida (rtd), Nigeria’s former military president, joined the octogenarian bracket as he clocked eighty years on mother earth. On a personal note and as a human being, I was happy for him and his family. I congratulate him and wish him well. However, the event does throw up a lot of contention about Nigeria, Nigerians and the place of Babangida in our national history.
There was a deliberate attempt to manipulate our history, but that attempt collapsed like a pack of cards. What Babangida and his ilk do not know is that public or collective memory cannot be manipulated or subverted. People choose to remember differently for different reasons. If Babangida and his friends chose to remember wrongly, the rest of us will remember correctly and tell the story of Babangida, the story of Nigeria and our story as it truly unfolded. No matter how sweet-tongued and persuasive Babangida’s griots and the hagiographers are, they can neither blind nor befuddle us about the events of August 1985 to August 1993.
Babangida seized power on 27th August 1985. His emergence was greeted with approbation. The man whose job he just took as head of state, Major General Muhammadu Buhari, was draconian. Buhari rode roughshod over Nigerians to the extent that the significance of the ideals that propelled him to power eased into nothingness. Human rights abuse, repression of the media, economic hardship and other ills which he couldn’t combat became his undoing.
So, when the smiling Babangida emerged as military president in the maze of the all-round hardship that buffeted Nigeria and Nigerians, he was seen as the redeemer figure that has come to redirect Nigeria’s ship of state. As foxy as they come, Babangida identified and highlighted the ills of the Buhari administration as the reason for his own coup and take over. In his address to the nation, he promised Nigerians a new direction and a new social order of progress, fairness, justice and equity founded on the wish of the people. He spoke populist lingo. His tone was deliberate and measured. His words were well chosen for effect as he uttered them one after the other. It was honey moon for Nigerians, albeit short lived.
Then things began to unfold. In just less than two years in office, Nigerians discovered quite painfully that Babangida was not the redeemer he pretended to be. The crises instigated by his smuggling Nigeria into the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC), the ruckus caused by his attempt to obtain the International Monetary Fund (IMF) loan and the eventual introduction of the badly managed Structural Adjustment Programme (SAP) were to put Nigeria on tenterhooks. What followed was dissent from the populace. Cross sections of Nigerians who saw through Babangida’s guile took him to task. Having earlier promised a government that runs at the instance of the people’s preference, Babangida initiated debate after debate to sound out options and buy time. At the end of each debate, he discarded consensus and opted for his own duplicitous preferences. He had started taking the country for a ride.
By 1986, the nation was already tensed up having been subjected to unacceptable antics. Massive job loss, rising poverty, economic hardship, lack of national direction and other policy somersaults were to provoke Nigerians, especially university students under the aegis of the National Association of Nigerian Students (NANS) to anger. A students uprising reminiscent of the 1978 Ali Must Go riots followed. Babangida bared his fangs and quelled the riots with “military precision”.
Whatever thin veil of innocence or friendliness attributed to the regime was shred into pieces and what followed was a series of manifestations of military dictatorship. Babangida outdid Buhari who he abused of human rights violation.
Babangida became hostile to the press and then began a season of media clampdown. He assailed the university system and banned and unbanned the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU). The nation gradually descended into turmoil. Babangida could not proffer solutions to any of the problems that had become intractable under his watch. In a famous interview he granted in 1992, Babangida lamented that his economists failed him and confessed that he didn’t know why Nigeria’s economy hadn’t collapsed. But did he throw in the trowel? No! He had more mischiefs under his sleeves.
Babangida was a wastrel in power. He set up the ECOWAS Monitoring Group (ECOMOG), a military force to save his embattled alter ego, Samuel Doe of Liberia, but he made it appear that the Force was intended to restore peace to Liberia and other West African countries. Through ECOMOG, Nigeria lost lives, limbs and lucre. ECOMOG wasted the nation’s N40 Billion. A report also indicted him for misappropriating $12 Billion Gulf War windfall. Just as his unending transition to civil rule cost the nation unspecified billions of naira. Babangida made corruption, duplicity and deceit dominant elements of statecraft.
There are also many unanswered questions for Babangida. The death of Dele Giwa, the execution of his childhood friend Mamman Vatsa and others over a phantom coup, the death of over 150 young officers in a plane crash and more. Babangida’s smile did carry poisoned daggers that speared nobody. By 1990, the adulation that greeted Babangida in 1985 had mutated into condemnation. Thus one morning on 22nd April 1990, some young officers led by Major Gideon Orkar staged a bloody coup to terminate Babangida’s regime. Babangida who claimed to have foiled Dimka’s coup in 1976 couldn’t wait to confront Orkar and co. He fled through an obscure gate and hid in an even more obscure location. Soldiers angered by the coup’s excision of some parts of Nigeria moved against the plotters and the coup failed.
If Babangida could be forgiven for his other atrocities against Nigeria and Nigerians, he will never get absolution for aborting the nation’s hope through his annulment of the 12th June 1993 presidential election. After taking the nation on a transition to civil rule rigmarole, he eventually conducted what was adjudged to be the freest and fairest election in Nigeria. Nigerians not only saw the election as a harbinger of hope, but the charting of a new dawn. June 12 emblematize what should have been the Nigerian dream that will enable a Yoruba man to win an election in Kano the home state of his political opponent. But Babangida aborted that hope. He annulled that dream. That act of perfidy to the nation became his albatross. Babangida’s awareness of the enormity of his crime against Nigeria continues to hunt him and it will remain so for as long as he is here and even beyond.
It was that awareness of the fatwa of history that made Babangida to want to manipulate our history and memory. His response as to why he annulled June 12 was that a bloody coup could have taken place had the winner of the election been sworn in. It took Babangida almost thirty years to tell us this. Why then did he not arrest the plotters the way he did Mamman Vatsa? Bunkum is what the claim is. Babangida had an opportunity for atonement at the Oputa Panel, but hubris and part fear of the verdict of the people made him to shun the Panel. He even went to court over it. Let Babangida spend eternity trying to adjust historical truths, he will continue to fail.
His book For Their Tomorrow We Gave Our Today failed to convince Nigerians who rightly believe that Babangida stole out tomorrow for his today. Babangida is already in the court of history. Sadly for him, unlike Fidel Alejandro Castro, he will not be able to say historia me absolvera because history will never forget because Nigerians will never forget Ibrahim “Badman” Babangida (IBB) did to us!