Nigeria Triumph of The Troublemaker

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Nigeria Triumph of The Troublemaker

The man beyond many coups finally puts himself in power

 

By

 

John Moody

 

 

culled from TIME MAGAZINE, September 9, 1985


Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida, a general in the Nigerian army, is a man who always seems to be at the center of the action. In 1975 he and his fellow officers ousted General Yakubu Gowon, who had taken power soon after the outbreak of the bloody four-year Biafran war. The following year, an unarmed Babangida confronted rebellious army officers in Lagos during an attempted coup and persuaded them to surrender. It was he too who masterminded the army coup that, on the last day of 1983, toppled Shehu Shagari, the civilian President whose winking acceptance of endemic corruption had helped plunge oil-rich Nigeria into a still continuing spiral of poverty. Last week Babangida was in the vanguard of yet another takeover, only this time he took the prize for himself. In a carefully planned coup, the short, stocky general from central Nigeria was installed as President of Africa's most populous country. It was the sixth coup since Nigeria gained its independence from Britain in 1960.

The announcement that Army Chief of Staff Babangida, 44, had deposed the government leader Major General Mohammed Buhari without bloodshed caused only moderate surprise among Nigeria's 90 million citizens. Deposed with Buhari was his top aide, Brigadier Tunde Idiagbon, who occupied the unofficial post of Vice President. Nigerians had watched despairingly as the Buhari regime's promises to revive the economy and wipe out rampant corruption withered during 20 months of heavy-handed, largely ineffective rule. Last May, Buhari ordered the brutal expulsion of 700,000 illegal immigrants from neighboring African states, jailed hundreds of political opponents and muzzled a once aggressive press. He also soured Nigeria's relations with its former colonial master, Britain, with a clumsy attempt in July 1984 to kidnap President Shagari's brother-in-law, former Transport Minister Umaru Dikko, and ship him from London to Lagos in a wooden crate.

Babangida, a career soldier trained at U.S. and British military schools, declared in his first address as head of state that Buhari was "too rigid and uncompromising." Later the new President repealed a law that banned criticism of the government, released several journalists from prison, reviewed the cases of an estimated 500 political prisoners jailed by Buhari, and promised to curb excesses by the secret police. Radio Lagos reported he had also approved the appointment of 28 military and police officers to the governing Armed Forces Ruling Council. Perhaps the most important promise made by the new military leaders was to reopen stalled talks with the International Monetary Fund on rescheduling Nigeria's unmanageable foreign debt, now estimated to be $22 billion to $25 billion. Half of all Nigeria's annual oil revenues ($12.4 billion in 1984), which account for 95% of its total export earnings, are believed to be sucked up by interest payments on the debt. Moreover, as the world price for crude oil has declined over the past four years, Nigeria's revenues have been cut in half. Buhari had been seeking an IMF loan of $2.5 billion to $3.5 billion to help deal with the growing economic crisis, but he had refused to accept the international agency's demands that Nigeria first devalue its currency, the naira.

During the 1970s, on the strength of its oil revenues, Nigeria launched ill- planned, multibillion-dollar public works projects, such as the construction of a proposed new capital city at Abuja and numerous petrochemical plants. When the country's foreign debt ballooned, many of these were left unfinished. Once Africa's leading food exporter, Nigeria became a net importer as farmers abandoned the land for the promise of lucrative jobs in the oil industry. As a result, shortages of basic commodities quickly developed. The Shagari regime's tolerance of corruption only added to the country's woes. In 1983 alone, according to Oil Minister Tam David-West, $1 billion in petroleum was secretly diverted from state oil terminals to foreign tankers, with Nigerian businessmen and politicians taking the profits. Some reports say $1 million a day was skimmed from the public treasury. Transport Minister Dikko reportedly amassed a $1 billion fortune, much of it outside the country.

Although Shagari permitted a multiple-party political system and won re- election in 1983, his overthrow on New Year's Eve was welcomed by Nigerians. Despite Buhari's increasingly repressive regime and his mismanagement of the economy, his fate may not have been sealed until earlier this year when he ordered the dismissal of 30,000 soldiers as a cost-cutting measure. The cashiered troops reportedly began terrorizing and looting the countryside. Babangida indicated his dissatisfaction with Buhari in a rare speech this year in which he warned, "Those who advocate less spending on defense cannot win." He also proposed supplementing oil revenues by turning Nigeria into a major arms-manufacturing country.

A Muslim, Babangida waited to make his move until the religious holiday of Id al-Kabir, when Buhari returned to his native town of Daura in Kaduna state, and Idiagbon was on the hajj to Mecca. In July, Babangida had made a visit to army troops around the country, during which he is said to have gathered support for the takeover. Some Western diplomats believe that Babangida's ability to hold on to power depends on his success in turning around the Nigerian economy. Whatever his plans, he knows he must act quickly and | decisively. He has only to look at his own role as coup maker and coup breaker to know that in Nigeria unpopular or ineffective leaders do not last for long.

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