As IBB Tests The Waters


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As IBB Tests The Waters



Olatunji Dare



culled from PUNCH, April 05, 2006

It was designed not merely to capture the front pages and the headlines for one day, but to dominate them for the entire week. And the strategy bore the imprint of a grandmaster of the ignoble art of subversion. Undercut President Olusegun Obasanjo while on an official trip to the United States, stoke discontent on the home front, and offer yourself as the alternative for whom everyone is yearning.

That, as I see it, was the purpose of former military president, Ibrahim Babangida’s parley with some editors last week. Mercifully for a populace still traumatised by memories of his corrupt, manipulative and vindictive rule, and by the destruction of its value system under his watch, the agenda gained little traction.

It was chased off the front pages and headlines by reports of the escape of Liberian warlord, Charles Taylor, from his exile home in Calabar while President Obasanjo was away in the US, and by hostile reactions from Nigerians who had vowed, “Never again.” The parley showcased the Maradona of Minna on the top of his form: the affability, the candour, the sure-footedness, all of them contrived through and through. Fake. Only the Napoleonic conceit and the will to ruthlessness were genuine.

Babangida plotted his own way to power in 1985. His rhetoric was that of a liberator. He had come to deliver Nigerians from the iron rule of Gen. Muhammadu Buhari and Tunde Idiagbon, he said in his maiden broadcast. The Third Eye, one of many shadowy organisations that came to emblematise and speak for the regime, was closer to the mark. In a newspaper supplement, it declared that Babangida had seized power to save a friend and colleague who was being persecuted. The truth is that he seized power primarily to save himself.

No regime had ever assumed power in Nigeria with greater public goodwill. But Babangida squandered it in double quick time. The regime charged Babangida’s childhood friend and longtime competitor, Mamman Vatsa, with plotting what may well have been a phantom coup and had him and his alleged co-conspirators executed with indecent haste.

To appease the Caliphate and clear doubts about his faith and his antecedents, he secretly enrolled Nigeria in the Organisation of the Islamic Countries. That singular act subverted Nigeria's status as a secular state, gave religion an unprecedented salience in national affairs, and set the scene for the religious riots that rock the country ever so often.

Dele Giwa was blown to pieces by a parcel bomb delivered to him in an envelope that reportedly bore the seal of the president. “This must be from the president,” he had said, on receiving the package. A senior intelligence officer had called Giwa earlier that day to tell him to expect a message from the president.

Advance fee fraud or 4-1-9, to designate it by the section of the criminal code that prohibits and penalises it, became a growth industry. Banking became a gigantic swindle, a racket.

Babangida’s “subversive generosity,” to employ Chief Anthony Enahoro’s felicitous coinage, contaminated every institution it touched. It did not even spare the fount of justice. On the high bench and the high bar, timidity, sophistry and susceptibility to unwholesome influences sat decked out in ermined robes as justice was mocked openly.

A pathological delusion of grandeur led Babangida to subordinate the National Day, October 1, to the day he seized power, not minding that it is at bottom the anniversary of a crime against the Constitution. It also led him to adopt a manner of travel more suited to the President of the United States or a potentate than to a usurper lording it over an impoverished Third World country. By the time he arrived at a foreign destination, his official limousine would have been airlifted there by transport planes of the Nigerian Air Force.

Babangida spent eight years and an estimated N40billion devising an obstacle race that he called a political transition programme. At the heart of the programme lay a maze compared with which the Labyrinth of ancient Greece must have seemed like a chessboard. He drew not a little pleasure and amusement from banning, un-banning and re-banning those seeking elected office.

When, against his designs the programme reached its culmination, the presidential election of June 12, 1993, Babangida annulled the results and embarked on crack-brained measures and brazen illegalities that almost plunged Nigeria into another civil war. No sane person could have expected Nigerians to troop to the polls again six months after the presidential election in which they have registered their choice firmly and unequivocally was set aside brusquely. But that was exactly what Babangida did.

The Nigerians he claims to know so well proved him not merely wrong but deluded. They will do so with even greater force if he should offer himself for election as president. He must be obsessed by a delusion of the most consuming kind if he believes that 14 years after he rudely substituted his ambition for their collective wisdom, they will see his candidacy as anything but a wanton provocation.

In his eight years on the saddle, Babangida was so busy scheming and temporising that he built no institutions of enduring value. Perhaps that was what it meant to be a “visionary realist,” the label he bestowed on himself. On the economic front, Babangida instituted a Tokunbo culture. With brand-new goods beyond their means, Nigerians who rank among the most discriminating consumers anywhere, had to settle for second-hand or even third-hand merchandise. In a rare moment of candour, Babangida actually expressed surprise, tinged with disappointment, that the economy had not collapsed.

Under him, the teaching hospitals he said his predecessors had allowed to degenerate into “consulting clinics” became ordinary clinics, the consultants having flocked to Saudi Arabia and other climes in search of fulfilment.

Even judging by this necessarily sketchy review, the first in a series I am preparing, it would be hard to imagine a legacy more baleful. Yet it is in part on this legacy that Babangida plans to ground his candidacy for president.

If he is serious, his first step must be the recognition that he has a great deal to account for. Having come to that recognition, he should then proceed to address forthrightly the questions that have been raised here and elsewhere about his time in office, as well as others that will doubtless follow. His accustomed wilful obfuscation will not do.



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