By Dele Momodu
Fellow Nigerians, love him or loathe him, General Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida (IBB) is a man in a class of his own. His toothy smile and grin are a familiar trademark which immediately disarm you once you meet him. His memory, which is like that of an elephant, commends him to several soldiers of the rank and file, administrators, technocrats, politicians and businessmen who served under him or interacted with him. He is reputed to remember the birthdays and notable events in the life of his subordinates and friends and their families particularly the children and wives. It is apparently not a rarity for Babangida to call the wife of his lieutenants, aides or friends on the occasion of the birthday of one of their children, buy and send them a present or even turn up unheralded at an occasion, incognito, in a relatively ramshackle car driven by himself.
A man with several monikers, IBB, Maradona, Machiavelli or Evil Genius, Babangida was already an established figure in the Nigerian political firmament and consciousness before he captured our imagination like a quintessential spellbinder from 1985. This was when he unceremoniously sacked the dreaded Buhari/Idiagbon military junta from power and brought about an unusual variant of military administration into Nigeria. Prior to this latest daring coup plotting escapade against a duo that the country had thought invincible, Buhari had been more than a casual participant in all the main coup plots that had taken place in Nigeria apart from the January 1966 coup. Indeed, he was either the pivotal figure, main orchestrator or mastermind of the coup plot or he was at the forefront and vanguard of those crushing a rebellion. It is worthwhile just chronicling and putting his exploits in this area into proper perspective because it probably helps in defining the remarkable nature of this extraordinary soldier.
Babangida was one of the young Turks who gathered round the irrepressible leadership of the late General Murtala Mohammed to revenge the January 1966 coup which had led to the slaughter of many Hausa-Fulani politicians and military leaders and some of their Western counterparts. The July 1966 coup, also known in military circles as the July Rematch because it pitted most of the Northern military elite against their Igbo counterparts, is probably the bloodiest of all the coup plots and attempts that have taken place in Nigeria. It was a retributory reprisal with vengefulness and vengeance. It was bloody because the protagonists were blood thirsty. Seeing their leaders almost out of control set the rank and file on a course of almost no return. It can be said that they simply lost their mind. It is instructive that most of the Northern officers who took part in the coup, Babangida included never regretted their action or felt the need to apologise for it. They actually continue to justify it as being something that was required given what had gone before.
In July 1975, Colonel Babangida, as he then was, joined forces with other radical elements of the Nigerian Armed Forces to overthrow General Yakubu Gowon’s government. They were unhappy with the slow pace of the Gowon administration particularly his reluctance and unwillingness to hand over to a democratically elected government. Babangida, as commander of the Nigerian Army Armoured Corps, played a key role in this bloodless palace coup which was made easier by the fact that Colonel Joseph Garba of the Brigade of Guards was deeply and intricately involved in the plot.
In February 1976, Lt. Col. Buka Suka Dimka of the infamous ‘dawn to dusk curfew’ debacle attempted to overthrow the military government of General Murtala Mohammed. In the process that led to the assassination of Murtala Mohammed and his aide-de-camp, Lt. Col. Akintunde Akinsehinwa, in a hail of bullets. The abortive coup attempt almost led to the death of Murtala Mohammed’s Chief of Staff and Deputy, General Olusegun Obasanjo. As it was, Colonel Raymond Dumuje was mistaken for Obasanjo, who had chosen to hide in the Ijesha Lodge residence of the wealthy Chief S. B. Bakare on Queens Drive in Ikoyi, and Dumuje was badly wounded in the ensuing farce of an assassination. It was Babangida who literally snuffed out the coup and crushed the rebellion by recapturing Radio Nigeria broadcasting station from Colonel Dimka who then fled but was captured and executed.
Babangida was soon again at his government ouster antics at the end of the December 1983. He was one of the arrowheads of the coup that deposed the civilian administration of Alhaji Shehu Shagari and brought the dreaded duo of Major General Muhammadu Buhari and Brigadier General Tunde Idiagbon to power.
Upon overthrowing Buhari in 1985, Babangida tried to be the exact opposite of Buhari by running a populist government. He released hundreds of the ill-assorted politicians it had pleased Major General Muhammadu Buhari to haul into his gulag. Some of them were meant to spend several lifetimes inside prison with impracticable sentences as high as a thousand years. This singular feat endeared him into the hearts of many Nigerians because not only were the sentences too harsh, they were also in most cases unjust and unjustifiable. Babangida was indeed like a “Daniel come to Judgement” as far as millions of Nigerians were concerned. The manner and speed in which he promptly dismantled the apparatuses and appurtenances of coercion and ruthlessness that General Buhari and, his sidekick, General Tunde Idiagbon, had manufactured and concocted.
Babangida knew Nigeria like the back of his palm and hypnotized the people endlessly. He appointed Commodore Ebitu Ukiwe an upstanding and astute Naval officer as his Deputy and Chief of Staff. It is interesting that Ukiwe had served in the Biafran Army but was reabsorbed into the Nigerian Navy after the civil war and this also demonstrate the sterling leadership qualities of Babangida in refusing to let that influence his judgement. Babangida demonstrated his ruthless streak and his brooking of no dissent when he casually dumped Ukiwe because of his strident objection to Nigeria joining the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC). Babangida then appointed another fantastic Naval officer, Augustus Aikhomu, who later became an Admiral as replacement for the truculent Ukiwe. Babangida showed in his choice of deputies that he was concerned to recruit the best talents to support him in nation building at this time, and he did this with much success. He continued in this vein and mesmerised us with his cabinet appointments by attracting a star-studded team of technocrats and administrators from all parts of Nigeria. He became the ultimate showman. His “poster boys” included Jibril Aminu and Babs Fafunwa in Education, Chu Okongwu, Olu Falae and Alhaji Abubakar Alhaji (AAA) in Finance, Bolaji Akinyemi, Ike Nwachukwu, Rilwan Lukman in Foreign Affairs, Olikoye Ransome-Kuti in Health, Bolasodun Ajibola and Clement Akpamgbo in Justice, Tam David-West, Rilwan Lukman, Jibril Aminu in Petroleum, Olawale Ige in Communications, Alani Akinrinade and Gado Nasko in Agriculture, Alex Akinyele in Sports, Tam David-West and Nura Imam in Mines and Power, Mamman Kontagora in Works and Housing, Tony Momoh and Alex Akinyele in Information, John Shagaya and Tunji Olagunju in Internal Affairs, Emmanuel Emovon and Gordian Ezekwe of the Biafran ‘Samba Ogbunigwe’ bomb fame, in Science and Technology, Kalu Idika Kalu, Alhaji Abubakar Alhaji and Chu Okongwu in Budget and Planning, Wole Soyinka in Road Safety, Tai Solarin and Maria Shokenu in People’s Bank… Such a galaxy of well-respected and well-meaning stars helped him stabilize the government. He was smart enough to move these men and women imbued with great talent, dexterity and skills amongst the various Ministries so that they could bring their expertise and experience to bear in several areas of governance in the country.
His beautiful, adorable and elegant wife, Maryam Ndidi Babangida, of blessed memory, was one of the finest and most impactful First Ladies ever. Her Better Life for Rural women initiative won her accolades from far and near. In 1991, she was a co-winner of The Hunger Project Award alongside the Professor Wangari Mathai of Kenya.
Babangida is known to have introduced economic measures that welcomed IMF conditions and conditionalities after the desperate years of the Buhari government. The Buhari administration had strenuously resisted the devastating implications and effects of this poisoned chalice, but Babangida was determined to forge ahead with it believing that it was best for Nigeria at the time. He felt that the pains were outweighed by the relief it would bring to the economy and the living conditions of Nigerians. In this, he seriously miscalculated and was very gravely wrong. Rather than receive any succour, Nigerians groaned under the heavy sacrifices that they were being forced to make, and the punishments that they had to endure because of the compulsory and mandatory devaluation of the Naira which was an obligatory condition of the IMF loan. Indeed, this unfortunate economic policy to which Kalu Idika Kalu gave his imprimatur is the harbinger of the wholescale and seemingly interminable devaluation and erosion of the value of the Naira we see today.
Babangida’s government was nearly truncated by a coup led by Gideon Orkar. After the coup failed, Babangida bared his fangs, retaliated ruthlessly and showed his dark streak. One of his best and long-standing friends, Mamman Vatsa, paid the ultimate price with his life despite spirited and passionate pleas for forgiveness from the troika of Nigeria’s literati, Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka and John Pepper Clark. Babangida hurriedly packed his bags and absconded from Lagos into the warm embrace of Abuja which he set about developing at break-neck speed. It is to his credit that the capital city is what it is today as the foundation for the development was effectively laid by him. Lagos will also remember Babangida for the Third Mainland Bridge which permanently changed traffic and life in Lagos and turned it into a truly international city.
Babangida’s government was sadly dogged by some calamities and strange occurrences. Notable amongst these was the dastardly murder of the talismanic, gifted, cerebral journalist and socialite, my brother from Ife and Ugbekpe Ekperi, Edo State, Dele Giwa by a letter bomb, the likes of which had never been seen in Nigeria. The Babangida administration was suspected of being complicit in this gruesome and heinous murder but till today the truth is still shrouded in secrecy. The other purportedly linked incident was the Gloria Okon fiasco in which a lady drug trafficker, Gloria Okon was arrested at the Aminu Kano International Airport whilst trying to travel abroad. This was in April 1985 just before the Buhari administration was booted out of power by Babangida. Okon died in mysterious circumstances in police custody six days later. Speculations mounted about her ties with the Babangidas but there has never been any shred of evidence and it seems Babangida, and his wife have merely been much maligned in this respect.
It is as a result of his failed promises to return Nigeria to Democracy that Babangida’s image and reputation seems to have been much tarnished. Politicians were banned and unbanned in a game of chess in which all the officers were controlled by him and everybody else was a willing or unwilling, witting or unwitting pawn. Proper musical chairs! Babangida was also a consummate footballer who demonstrated a dexterity in dribbling all other players in the game. Ultimately, he made the mistake of forgetting the side he was playing against and began to dribble himself and others facing his own goal. It was inevitable that he would score an own goal against himself. He soon dumped the military uniform for impeccable traditional robes. After several attempts at transitioning, he was forced to conduct the 1993 Presidential election which was won by his bosom friend, Chief Moshood Abiola. For reasons better known to Babangida and his apparatchiks, an election adjudged as the best and fairest Nigeria has ever witnessed to date was annulled and the winner, Chief Abiola, eventually landed in prison where he ultimately died. This incidence continues to haunt Nigeria. Everything has unfortunately nosedived for a great country since the tragedy that unfolded following that unfortunate and terrible annulment.
All of Babangida’s innovations and legacy were obliterated by this singular occurrence. He has tried on several occasions to explain, weakly, the circumstances under which he cancelled his best moment. Many Nigerians have refused to buy his reasons while the more charitable ones have grudgingly forgiven him. What is clear is that nobody has forgotten, and nobody will forget. It is my fervent hope that history will be kinder to him than it is now because at the end of the day IBB is the exemplary Gentleman Officer, loyal to a fault to his friends, accommodating, kind and generous. As those close to him will attest, the IBB in the public glare is totally different from the IBB the loving and doting family man, the affectionate friend, the philanthropist, the effervescent and bubbly personality who can sometimes appear too good to be true. In effect, IBB is an enigma, a unique blazing comet that’s seen once in a lifetime. For good or for ill, Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida cannot be ignored.
Despite everything, he continues to be relevant in the affairs of Nigeria. As he turns 80, Ovation International magazine has produced a magnum opus on IBB that presents the most compelling story of a most complex and complicated character, generously and lavishly laced with never seen before pictures. It is a fitting documentary and special tribute to this human prodigy…
By Dele Momodu