A Birthday Gift For Babangida


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A Birthday Gift For Babangida



Reuben Abati



culled from GUARDIAN, August 20, 2006


If the organizers of the 65th birthday celebrations of General Ibrahim Babangida, Nigeria's former President, 1985-1993, wanted to use the event which lasted for four days in the week that has just ended, to test the waters about the prospects of a Babangida candidacy in the forthcoming 2007 Presidential elections, they got more answers than they bargained for. But as they embark on a post-mortem, which should be useful for their purpose, I hope they would be sincere enough to confront the General with the truth about his place in emerging political calculations. If they won't tell him the truth, we will. I begin by noting that the organisers did a wonderful job of turning the 65th birthday ceremonies (you may ask: what is special about 65?) into a big carnival, which no one could ignore.


Many newspapers made a lot of money from advertisements that were placed by admirers of the General and members of a group called Initiative for Equal Co-Existence and another group: IBB for President Organisation. In the Daily Trust of Thursday, August 17, page 36, a total of 169 members of the National Assembly published an advert titled "Happy Birthday to an icon". In the same newspaper, one Dattijo Aliyu, described as Honourable Commissioner for Health, Niger State, wrote a hagiographic piece that was dripping with syrup and purple patches. "The people are proud of you, and so we are!", Aliyu enthuses. "They trust you and so we do", he adds. Haba! In its adverts in the Daily Trust, ThisDay, Punch, Tribune, and Daily Independent, the Initiative for Equal Co-existence sought to defend IBB and his ambition, and in one particularly curious piece in The Punch, the group compared IBB's 2007 ambition to Saul's conversion on the road to Damascus, and also to Cardinal Ratzinger who had a Nazi past, but is now Pope Benedict XVI. Catholics surely won't like this.


But it is fairly illustrative of the kind of sentiments that the pro-IBB group fed the public with. At a lecture in his honour in Abuja and at his home in Minna, General Babangida was serenaded by persons who called on him to come and save Nigeria, run for President and continue the good work that he started, before "stepping aside". The Abuja lecture was delivered by Professor Bolaji Akinyemi, former Minister of External Affairs, who used the opportunity to raise fundamental issues about Nigeria's democracy and the challenges of consolidation, including the independence and funding of INEC, the reconstitution of the Council of state, the urgent need for a re-negotiation of the derivation formula, the value of consensus... These issues, I am afraid were overshadowed by the politics that surrounded IBB's outing service as it were, the substance of which was contained in Babangida's birthday speech and his chest-beating show of pluck in other declarations thereafter.


The text of his speech and reports of his statements in the newspapers from Tuesday to Friday indicated General Babangida's eventual confirmation of his interest in the 2007 Presidential ticket. Before now, he had only spoken in parables while his supporters and strategists told everyone that indeed the General was merely bidding his time. But why does Babangida want to be President? The answer can be found in his veiled and open accusation of the Obasanjo government of incompetence. He could not resist the temptation of comparing the present government with the one that he led, noting cynically, that all the problems that his administration had managed to resolve have all now returned as major problems for Nigeria.


He wants to return in 2007 so he could make Nigeria whole again. Here is Babangida presenting himself as a miracle worker, as a saint, as someone who has the answers to Nigeria's problems. In Minna, he was reportedly happy to see the large crowd of supporters who had turned out to honour him. For all I care, that crowd could have been rented. He told his audience: "... because the needs of our peoples remain basic and mostly existential, our new democracies are challenged to pursue strategies of economic development that sometime violate some of the fundamental principles of democracy in a bid to deliver dividends quickly and to the greatest majority. If there is any nation that embodies these contradictory demands and mutually reinforcing imperatives in very stark form, that nation is Nigeria. I believe the Nigerian experience with democracy in the last seven years especially has thrown up the major issue and problems of democratic transformation in present day Africa....I also see the pain of dashed hopes, the agony of thwarted dreams and the regrets of expectations not met. Therefore, over and above the various prescriptive models for future leadership that are now being variously canvassed in the popular media, I would rather simply define the challenge of our immediate next national leadership as this: to make whole again. To that I am committed".


It is nonetheless curious that the same IBB who had used the occasion of his 65th birthday to rubbish the Obasanjo government in the foregoing words, could now show up on the pages of ThisDay newspaper by yesterday morning to tell Nigerians that "I am not at war with Obasanjo.". He says: "I can't go to war with the President. That is a media creation". It is cheap to blame the media for IBB's problems. Babangida says he is not at war with Obasanjo and that his family accepts the arrest and investigation of his son, philosophically. If he is not at war with Obasanjo, can someone please tell him that Obasanjo is at war with him? And that Nigerians are happy about that.


He says he learnt as a child not to undermine people who have been kind to him at one time or the other, and that if he has anything to say to the President, he has direct access to him to do so. Well, will someone tell IBB that his speech at his 65th birthday clearly undermined President Obasanjo, and if he doubts this, he should ask Obasanjo himself. Or is it likely that IBB's speech was written for him and he just collected it, and read it publicly before realising the extent of the malice contained therein? How does IBB explain the confrontational statements that have also been made on his behalf by his close associates?


Hassan Jalo, the Kaduna State Chairman of the National Democratic Party (NDP) is quoted as having said for example, that the government of the day is sponsoring people to discredit Babangida (ThisDay, August 17, p.7). The General's Chief of Staff, Colonel Habibu Shuaibu also reportedly said that his boss is being persecuted by state agents but that they will not succeed. ThisDay editors asked IBB a question about late General Mamman Vatsa whose widow visited Aso Villa, to protest that her husband was murdered by the Babangida government in 1986 on the false ground that he was involved in a coup plot against the government of the day. She and her children want justice; they want the man who killed their breadwinner to be brought to book.


General Babangida is waving this away as a non-issue. According to him, Vatsa was his friend. "Everything I did, I protected him. I still saw him as a friend". Everything you did? Including signing his execution warrant? The Vatsa family, Hajia Safiya and her children hold a different opinion. Their frustration, anger and disappointment have been captured poignantly for record purposes in a documentary titled "A Widow's Pain, A General's Burden" produced by a North Central Democratic Vanguard. It was aired repeatedly and discussed on Africa Independent Television during the week. It is a devastating assessment of General Babangida by those who are supposed to know him. The voices of Hajia Safiya and the words of the late MKO Abiola, and Vatsa, friends of IBB through the years, present a picture of this Presidential aspirant that is radically different from that painted by his sponsored propagandists.


The opposition to Babangida during the period of his birthday celebrations was therefore just as pronounced, if not more than the support that he purportedly received. Forty eight hours to the event, his son was arrested by the EFCC, questioned and released. There were threats that his bank accounts could be frozen. The Vatsa family also rose against him. The businesses of Otunba Mike Adenuga, a man who deserves honours not vilification for entrepreneurship, were raided by the EFCC ostensibly in search of documents that may be linked to the Babangida family. The heat being put on General Babangida and his family has become a major item in the political arena.


One Mahmud Abdullahi writing from Minna in the Vanguard of August 17, p. 20 has however, asked: "Who is Afraid of IBB?" If he wants an answer, let him go and read another advert in The Guardian of August 17, p. 72 placed by a group called Citizens for Nigeria/AgainstBabangida.com and titled, most instructively, "Babangida? Never Again". This particular advert is meant to mobilise ordinary Nigerians against Babangida's search for Nigeria's Presidency in 2007. It says the people are afraid of Babangida, they are not proud of him; they don't trust him. The Nation newspaper has also accused IBB of being "cynical, cavalier and self-serving" in a scathing editorial assessment of his birthday speech which the newspaper says bore "a cargo of mischief" (August 17, p. 17)

I have gone to this length to attempt a review of the aforementioned details in order to provide General Babangida with a balanced picture of public reactions to his recent dance in the political arena. His strategists may not tell him the truth. They may be busy deceiving him that the attacks on him are politically motivated. They are bound to urge him on and reassure him that his return to the Presidency is certain. Let him not be deceived by the likes of one Ahmed Usman who declared on the pages of Champion newspaper yesterday that "They want to shake him. It is mere politics, watch out, you will see what will happen. The moment IBB enters in full force, all these other Presidential pretenders will eclipse because we know that IBB is still the issue".


I am sorry, General, what you are up against is not mere politics but the burden of history. You are being haunted by ghosts from the past. By daring to show interest in running Nigeria for a second time, you have woken up all the ghosts from the past and they are determined to make you account for your past deeds. Knowing that you are unpopular with the public, the Obasanjo government and its agents will not stop hounding you. Seeing that government is trying to probe you through the back door, all the victims of your past government would show up, using the platform of civil society to "persecute" you. The biggest opposition to you will yet come from civil society: human rights groups, the media, and professional associations. We will put a searchlight on your legacy. We will ask questions about Dele Giwa, about SAP, about MKO Abiola and June 12, about your contempt for due process, and about Abacha, the phenomenon that you left behind. And we shall ask: if you love democracy so much, why didn't you allow it in 1993? I am not sure that you will always like what the people will come up with; the placards that they will carry or the pain in their hearts. Don't mind the praise-singers who are telling you that you are the messiah that Nigeria needs. Shakespeare's aphorism is most apt in your case: "the evil that men do live after them..."


The only difference is that you are alive to tell us about the good that you did. And although we may listen and read your statements and interviews, out of respect for your rights as a citizen and human being, you cannot blame us for agreeing with you that this country needs quality leadership and that we the people have a right to make a choice that will lead to true transformation. But not the kind of choice that will return you and those hungry masquerades who have been dancing around you to power. I am sure you will respect our right as a people to do this. And this is not about being a "genius" or a Maradona. So, if I were you really, I won't bother. I won't tempt fate....


What is clear is that Nigerians are no longer going to accept just anybody who shows up in the political ring as a leader. We have seen too many thieves, liars and murderers in high places. Now our duty is to subject all political aspirants to close scrutiny and interrogation. It is also obvious that the struggle for power ahead of the 2007 elections is causing a serious intra-class war among the power elite. The so-called big men of Nigerian politics are turning against each other. Nigerians must encourage this clash in order to destroy the conspiracy that has held Nigeria down thus far and to gain an idea of the truth about our lives.



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