IBB: What Heritage?

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IBB: What heritage?

By Reuben Abati

 

THIS is not yet a review of the latest publication on former President Ibrahim Babangida, entitled IBB: A Heritage of Reform, Vols 1& 2, edited by Bala Yunus Mohammed and Chidi Amuta. That review will come later. IBB: A Heritage of Reform, was launched with great fanfare at the Kaduna International Trade Fair Complex on Tuesday. It is essentially a compilation of the presentations at a conference on IBB, on the same theme, last year. This of course is not the first publication on General Babangida. There has been quite a few, each one of them seeking to reposition IBB in the public consciousness, ascribing to him more credit than he truly deserves. In this developing IBB bibliography, perhaps the more notable efforts are Chidi Amuta's Prince of the Niger: The Babangida Years (1992); Foundations of A New Nigeria by Sam Oyovbaire and Tunji Olagunju, and Transition to Democracy in Nigeria (1985-1993) by Tunji Olagunju, Adele Jinadu and Sam Oyovbaire (Spectrum, 1993).

Considering the compulsion with which General Babangida seeks to document himself, and sponsor occasional publicity programmes about his place in the scheme of Nigerian affairs, there can be no doubt that he remains a man of ambition, obsessed with the public perception of his intervention in our lives between 1985 and 1993. I suppose this is more out of guilt, rather than the love of argument and ideas. In the pursuit of this enterprise, General Babangida has never been in short supply of contractual historians and professional revisionists who are determined to turn darkness into light, and truth into another truth, simply by employing rhetoric, marketing gimmicks, and by inflicting IBB on the public continuously as a brand that must be recognised. I seek to argue that this enterprise is flawed, because of who IBB is in the popular domain, and on account of the true substance of his so-called heritage. Reform? I shall come to that presently.

I propose that we should adopt as our entry point, General Babangida's speech at the book launch in Kaduna. He has been widely reported as having used the occasion to lament the continuing crisis of governance in the Nigerian state and society, particularly the spread of poverty, mutual distrust and antagonism. But is IBB in a position to offer a lecture on governance? He also spoke about the imperative of democratic rule. Now, if IBB were so much in love with democracy, would he have organised a coup? Would he have staged another coup against the Nigerian people by annulling the Presidential election of June 1993? He was said to have attempted an indictment of the Obasanjo administration, by lacing his speech with innuendoes. And when he made the point that people like him can no longer afford to be in retirement because the challenges of national self-renewal, and rejuvenation have become more urgent; a rented crowd of cheer-leaders was said to have shouted: "Now!" I have no doubts that the various persons who attended the IBB book launch, had a good time restating their loyalty to a man who is regarded by many, as the Godfather. IBB had beside him, his wife, once the Imelda Marcos of Nigeria, having been a most colourful First Lady. At the level of semiotic signification, the couple looked, really, as if they intend to come out of retirement.

Now? What now? In 1993, General Babangida had introduced a dubious phrase into the Nigerian political lexicon when he said that he was "stepping aside". Was he resigning? Or was he just leaving for a while, to allow things to cool a bit, so that he could return? There was so much speculation within the media. However, as preparations for the 2003 elections gain momentum, certain groups and persons have been orchestrating what appears to be a popular demand for the return of Babangida from retirement. Posters of IBB 2003 have been pasted, distributed, produced in different parts of the country. Political parties and even aspirants, now on the field, have been labelled products of a "John-the -Baptist" strategy by the IBB political machinery. This week, a group placed an advert in the papers, suggesting that Babangida as President in 2003 will address the Niger Delta question, and do something positive about the vexed question of onshore/offshore dichotomy and its proposed abrogation. There can be no limits to opportunism in Nigerian politics. But what is instructive is that beyond innuendoes, and grand gestures, General Babangida himself has not declared any political ambition towards the 2003 elections. If persons have been testing the waters for him, obviously, he is also not doing anything to restrain them. The IBB for 2003 campaigners are seeking to work on the public psyche: They are also appealing to General Babangida's ego. A man who continues to insist that he did what he had to do as a military leader, and that we should disbelieve the evidence of our eyes must have a large ego indeed.

But the scare-mongering has gone on for too long, it should stop. Who is trying to scare who? These days, wherever you turn, you are bound to be told: "IBB is coming out". "Or he is not coming out", followed by a detailed analysis of what this means or not. My candid opinion, expressed earlier, now restated for record purposes, is that General Babangida is grossly overrated. I was a guest on a TV show the other day, and the presenter had drawn my attention to the fact that General Babangida had just paid a visit to President Obasanjo at the Aso Villa. My host now added that according to reports, IBB did not greet the horde of waiting reporters with his usual toothy smile; instead he frowned. Did I think anything went wrong between President Obasanjo and IBB? What are the implications of IBB's frown? Just imagine! Of course, I threw away the question. Are we all supposed to shake in our boots, once the man's name is mentioned? All things considered, who is IBB anyway?

Candidly, if the fellow wants to run, let him come out and do so. Fortunately, there are 30 political parties; he shouldn't have any problems becoming a Presidential candidate. Hopefully, he would be able to pass INEC screening and answer questions that may be raised, in the nick of time, by the ICPC. One immediate lesson that General Babangida would be forced to learn as a Presidential candidate, is that this country has changed a lot since 1983. The public is no longer as docile as he may probably think. The only way General Babangida can step back as President of Nigeria, is if he and his agents rig an election. And if they do so, they would still have to contend with civil society. For too long, our leaders have taken advantage of us. There was a time in this country when government tried to scrap the teaching of history in schools. When a people embrace or study history, they are bound to ask questions about the past. Unfortunately, many of our rulers prefer to write their own history, and inflict their lies on the public; in the expectation that a lie repeated so often, is bound to acquire the status of truth. I do not see IBB in the future of this country as an elected leader. He belongs to the past, let him stay there. It is strange that anyone or any group at all would continue to propose that Babangida should take advantage of the present democratic process" the same process which he aborted in 1993, only to boast afterwards that he is an "evil genius". The notorious IBB campaigns ought to confront civil society with a special challenge, namely the need to set performance benchmarks for accessing power in the public domain. Our society's rewards and sanctions system has failed; hence all kinds of persons are bound to see politics as an arena where virtually anything is possible and anyone can organise a rally, or a book launch, and assume that the people will forget so soon. Now, is the time to prod the memory of the public. This is the only appropriate context for the chorus of "Now!" that issued forth from the halleluia crowd at IBB's book launch in Kaduna.

Reform? The so-called IBB heritage of reform exists only in the imagination of the Babangida apologists. It is to be noted that General Babangida loves the word "Heritage". He is said to be the chairman of a company called Heritage Publications Ltd. But the only heritage in his politics is a heritage of pain and disappointment. No amount of reconstruction would erase the cumulative disaster of the Babangida years. If they like, let them publish a book in 10 volumes. Here is a man who rode roughshod over Nigeria. He turned corruption into a national ethic. He rewarded sycophancy and insulted the rest of us with his "Maradonic manoeuvres." His disciples say he is a good student of Macchiavelli. Nonsense.

And I am surprised, that Dr. Chidi Amuta is one of the editors of IBB: Heritage of Reform Vols. 1&2. Following the crisis of the June 12 elections, and the traumatic aftermath, Dr. Chidi Amuta, author of Prince of the Niger had written a widely circulated piece in which he practically renounced his book, and proceeded on a critical appraisal of General Babangida. In fact, he disowned IBB. So what happened? At what point did Amuta disconnect with that past? He owes us an explanation about how he re-discovered his Prince of the Niger. General Babangida as President had the largest collection of intellectuals in his court. They were all over the place. But what should be the role of the intellectual in society? To prop up evil geniuses with volumes of prose, or to speak the truth to power at all times, without fear or favour? The other question has to do with the value of power. General Babangida used power as his whims dictated. He must be eternally held responsible, for making the Abacha nightmare possible. On his head should remain a big if: what if he had acted differently? The Nigerian people suffered for his omissions while he took off to Minna to enjoy what he had accumulated. The present democratic process, problematic as it may be, is the product of our collective struggle. General Babangida should not be allowed to partake of its benefits. These truly, are strange times. Mohammed Abacha, son of General Sani Abacha, now offers ideas about human rights! General Jeremiah Useni has also been quoting the Constitution! General Babangida is now a democrat? And yet, he snubbed the Oputa panel and got away with it. And yet, he caused the tragedy of the Abacha years. And yet he has his hands in the rot that we find around us. Even if he becomes President in a democratic setting, would he able to sleep peacefully in Aso Rock? Would he not be haunted by the ghosts of MKO Abiola, Kudirat Abiola, Ken Saro-Wiwa, and many others who died so that we may reach this moment? Where is the moral content of Babangida's politics?

Those who are promoting the idea of IBB's heritage of reform should be careful where and how they ply their trade. If they and their master have forgotten, we the people still remember. The Obasanjo government may be failing in many respects. Take for example, the silly statement by the Presidency that President Obasanjo did not seek to veto the onshore/offshore bill. The President's men are also surely forgetful. Where were they when President Obasanjo explained his position to the public? Was he not categorical? And if he now wants to change his mind, must his office do that by lying to the public? Too many blunders, yes but General Babangida is not an alternative. Forget it. Stop the campaign. "Now!"

 

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