The Babangida Mystique-Review of Dan Agbese’s Book By Clem Baiye



IBB BOOK COVEROpinions about General Ibrahim Babangida, Nigeria’s military ruler from 1985 to 1993 tend to be polar opposites. Some see him as a brilliant, personable leader; others reserve for him more unkind epithets. The toothy smile, and the glad-handing pointed to one pole; the political somersaults pointed to another. How could a leader who promised so much and arrived as more than a breath of fresh air, leave office in such an untidy manner after the annulment of the June 12th, 1993, presidential elections? To say the writing of the biography of such a personality would be difficult is an understatement.

Indeed, it would require a healthy dose of courage to set about the task. But if anyone has what it takes to embark on this arduous responsibility, it should be MR DAN AGBESE, formerly Editor, New Nigerian, longtime Deputy Editor-in-Chief and an ace columnist of the storied Newswatch weekly magazine. The journalist in Agbese, the masterly prose writer, combined with the equable commentator to produce a splendid biography-diligently researched, forthright but objective. From the list of interviewees and topics covered, this book could have easily stretched beyond its 448 pages, but it is just meaty enough.  

The book dwells at length on the life and times of Babangida; how he came to power and his economic programmes, foreign policy, including Nigeria’s military involvement in Liberia and the Technical Aid Corps. Though it covers many grounds, a vital omission is the Oil Mineral Producing Areas Development Commission (OMPADEC). In Eighteen Chapters with a prologue and an epilogue, Agbese tells of Babangida’s early years from his father’s roots in Wushishi to his own birth in Minna, his father’s adopted town. He seemed to have had a flair for popularity and generosity from childhood. Though Babangida describes himself as “compact and sturdy”, he tended to pull a crowd around him. The late Kere Ahmed, his boyhood friend said of him, “He was the most agreeable person for all of us to converge around.”

Interviews were conducted with over 50 persons stretching as far back as Babangida’s boyhood in Minna and Bida right up to the Nigerian Military Training College and beyond. But, like the complex character most people have adjudged him to be, Babangida promised to deliver documents relating to June 12th, 1993 to his biographer but later reneged.

“Anyone writing a biography is certain to confront tough challenges and frustrations. I had my fair share of those. Babangida was the main source of my frustrations. He gave me several appointments but failed to keep them after he left office. He promised me documents but failed to give them to me.”

Agbese says he set out to explore the “Babangida mystique” which he attributed to his “complex character” with “towering contradictions.”  Undaunted, Agbese’s intention is to present “a definitive biography”; bypassing the Babaginda cottage industry of “criticism, more uninformed than informed.”

Clem Baiye

(Picture left:Mr Clem Baiye-The Reviewer)

How did he fare at Government Secondary School, Bida? He registered as Ibrahim Badamasi only changing to Babangida, his father’s name on his return from India’s military academy. He rather liked the initials IBB- a good one for sub editor’s casting headlines but it would be a vaporous stretch to infer that newspaper headlines mattered to the young officer. At Bida, he played hockey, cricket and football. For his centre half defensive skills he was nicknamed Block Buster, one of several monikers he gathered. His teachers were reasonably happy with him. One described him as “humble, good in sports and very neat in appearance.” His command of spoken English earned him another nickname, MR BILL after the English teacher, Mr Bill.  Nigerians were later to become familiar with that pacy style with which he delivered his presidential broadcasts. To be fair, one of his classmates believed strongly that Babangida was unduly favoured by the English language teacher!

Two very important visitors called at Babangida’s high school, Government Secondary School, Bida. First, was the Northern Region’s Premier, Alhaji Ahmadu Bello, Sardauna of Sokoto, and later the Minister Of State For Defence, Ibrahim Tako Galadima. These guests were in Bida to encourage the students to take an interest in pursuing careers in the military, particularly the army. Tako Galadima pointed the way to a military career for Babangida and many of his contemporaries. Four of his seniors were already in the army. Therefore, 14 boys (himself included) opted to travel to Kaduna to sit the entrance examination into the Nigerian Military Training College. Some had misgivings as to whether they were merely infatuated or had sustainable interest in the army as a few preferred “more glamorous careers such as medicine, engineering, and law” thinking that the army was for “school dropouts and average students.”

Babangida’s principal, Mr Skillbeck wrote: “He has had a very good academic career and has usually been top of his class… and he would be a very good army material.”  

If he was fated to join the Army, then some things conspired to place odds against him: First, was his inability to enter the Boys School (Nigerian Military School, Zaria) as his uncles vetoed his admission. Hence, he went to Bida for his high school education. Secondly, reports by his tutors at NMTC were not exactly glowing. The Chief Instructor was of the opinion that Babangida was “lively and conscientious” but an “average cadet” with an “unimpressive classroom performance”, placing 41 out of 60 cadets at NMTC. And when his report from India Academy rated him “average”, his commanding officer, Brigadier Samuel Ademulegun was not pleased. But better assessment followed as the battalion commander, Colonel J.V. Pinto rated him highly. “He exercises command effectively. He is tough and can stand up to sustained mental and physical effort.”

Babangida chose the armoured corps because the officers had a “peculiar way of dressing” which attracted him. But on return to Nigeria from India he had to settle for Recce because there was no armoured corps. Years later, Babangida was to set up and head the armoured corps in a reorganization which he had been assigned by the Supreme Military Council under General Murtala Mohammed. But before then he had to pass through the probationary period ordered by Brigadier Ademulegun. After two reports, Ademulegun concluded; “The officer will, no doubt, prove a success and will certainly be up to the required standard.” His career in the army had found a good anchor as the plaudits started coming in. “A very cheerful officer who is always smart and alert….he has a bright future in the Nigerian Army” wrote Major Hassan Usman Katsina, later to be Chief of Army Staff under General Yakubu Gowon, in a confidential report.

The military incursion into Nigerian politics paved the way for Babangida’s involvement in the political life of the nation. For someone who had ambition to be an engineer, political power, either through the barrel of the gun or the ballot box would have been far from his thoughts. Was it therefore serendipitous that Babangida was assigned the task to crush the coup led by Lieutenant Colonel Bukar Dimka on 13th February, 1976? His friend, Colonel Abdul Wya was one of those executed for their involvement in the Dimka coup. Babangida’s bravery in the putting down of the Dimka putsch spawned several stories. But his classmate and friend from Bida, Colonel Sani Sami who was Commander of the Brigade of Guards felt that stories about Babangida went over the top. No matter, Babangida assumed a larger than life image which stood to his benefit when in August 1985 he toppled Major General Muhammadu Buhari’s regime. Nigerians, who thought the military had gone for good in 1979, welcomed the coup which deposed the civilian President Shehu Shagari. Shagari’s administration was beset with economic and political crises which came to a head with the grotesquely rigged 1983 elections. So, when the stiff duo of Buhari and the sober-sided, Brigadier Tunde Idiagbon took over on December 31st, 1983, much hope was placed on the regime. But the draconian decrees of Buhari soon made the regime unpopular. The cleavages within the hierarchy of the Buhari regime was an open secret as increasingly, Babangida, who was Chief of Army Staff, was sidelined to the extent he and his loyalists had to move to preempt being retired by Buhari. The difference between Buhari and Idiagbon on the one hand and Babangida on the other could not have been more stark. Babangida was genial and folksy as opposed to the forbidding twosome. What was more, he promised to be different not only in style but also in substance. “Babangida took on the trademark of the constant, toothy smile. Nigerians found his smug disposition wonderful and refreshing. He was evidently generous with his friendship. The doors to his office and home were opened to all comers.” writes Agbese.

Twenty three officers drawn from army, navy and airforce planned and executed the coup which brought Babangida to power. Agbese interviewed some of them, including Brigadier General Haliru Akilu, and Major Abubakar Umar. Both officers argue that their senior friend was reluctant to seize power from Buhari. Umar added that Babangida’s reluctance led to the coup date being postponed several times. Agbese has a different but credible view. “Babangida played the reluctant leader to a dramatic effect. He gave the impression he was allowing his subordinates to pressurize him into staging the coup. He did not want the coup to be seen as a solution to his personal problems with the administration. …..He wanted the coup to be seen as a patriotic act.”

Unfortunately, though Agbese spoke to many people relevant to the coup, one of the most important, and by most accounts, the closest officer to Babangida, Lieutenant General Aliyu Mohammed Gusau declined to be interviewed for this book. It is believed that Buhari’s firm decision to retire Gusau was the signal for Babangida to act perceiving that he could be next. He took on the title of president and restructured the Armed Forces Ruling Council (AFRC). General Dimkat Bali; a rather quiet officer from Plateau State was appointed chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff. Crucially, Commodore Ebitu Ukiwe, a naval officer was appointed Chief of General Staff, head of government. 

“There was every indication he had planned for this carefully; evidence that he had studied other leaders before him, learned from their mistakes and inadequacies, evidence he knew how to approach Nigerians and win them over to his side. The Babangida mystique which was but a tiny seed in Minna and Bida, had now begun to blossom in a thousand petals with the colours of the rainbow.”

In his early days as President, Babangida went on a charm offensive. He mollified the Nigerian Bar Association by appointing Prince Bola Ajibola, its president, as attorney general and minister of justice. Traditional rulers were cock-a-hoop as he bridged the gap which arose from the suspension of the Emir of Kano and the Oni of Ife by Buhari’s regime. But it did not take too long for challenges to erupt. Barely four months after he seized power, Babangida’s friend and erstwhile colleague, Major General Mamman J. Vasta, was arrested for plotting a coup. Vatsa and his alleged co-conspirators were tried by a Special Military Tribunal. On March 5th, 1986, Vasta, and nine officers were executed by firing squad.   What did Babangida make of the execution of his boyhood friend?

“Deep inside me, I knew that if I should be given the chance, I would not have put him (Vatsa) on the stake to get him fired….. It was one of the most painful things I have ever done, God knows. So painful…”

As part of its “listening” attitude, Babangida’s administration set up a panel headed by Alhaji Abubakar Abdulkadir, Chief Executive of Nigerian Industrial Development Bank to collate the views of Nigerians on whether to take a standby facility from the International Monetary Fund. Any recourse to the IMF usually came with austere measures which included a slash in public spending, withdrawal of subsidies on food, petroleum and electricity, where applicable. It could also mean a cut in wages and in number of workers in the public sector. It usually portends industrial and political unrest.  There was a rigorous public debate between proponents and opponents of the IMF and its solutions for tackling the nation’s economic woes. Though Babangida discontinued negotiations with the IMF because it was “clearly against the will of majority of our people” he launched the Structural Adjustment Programme (SAP). He had declared a 15 month economic emergency to coincide with the IMF debate. His economic emergency was a precursor to “touch economic measures as enunciated in his 1986 budget. The three main planks were restructuring and diversification of the nation’s productive base to reduce the dependence on crude oil exports and on importation of consumer and capital goods; fiscal rectitude and insurance of a consistent growth and an increase in the role of the private sector.

It seemed as if the IMF and World Bank’s ideas were thrown out through the front door but let in through the back door. In particular, the devaluation of the naira was welcome in the corridors of the two institutions. Criticism of SAP became more and more trenchant even as Babangida and his close advisers continued to defend it. General Obansanjo, a notable critic, said “adjustment must have human face, human heart and milk of human kindness and must not ignore what I call human survival, and dignity; issues of employment, food, shelter, education and health.” 

As anti SAP riots broke out in Lagos and other cities, Babangida claimed that “the prevailing situation in Nigeria is far better than in any African country.”

As Agbese points out, SAP had its political price as labour and students’ leaders battled the regime on the streets and the airwaves. “By 1989, the main planks of SAP had become rusty.” Babangida decided to pursue his political agenda. Clearly, the failure of the structural adjustment programme to address issues of poverty and the elimination of the middle class meant the further enshrinement of crony capitalism. Those who had friends in high places were shielded from the harsh economic climate.  

What is more, the various organs birthed by the programme, Directorate of Foods, Road and Rural Infrastructure (DFRRI), the Federal Urban Mass Transit Programme, the National Economic Reconstruction Fund (NERFUND) and the Peoples’ Bank failed to meet expectations. Babangida admitted that “we had problems in implementation” He felt, nonetheless, that the anti-SAP riots were attempts “to destroy the credibility of the military institution.” Some policy measures which had long-lasting positive impact included the abolition of import licences and the scrapping of the commodity boards.

What is Agbese’s assessment of the various organs set up under Babangida’s economic programme? The Federal Urban Mass Transit Authority (FUMTA) “joined a long list of wonderful national developmental efforts that died, taking the dreams of millions of people down with them.” The Directorate of Food, Roads and Rural Infrastructure (DFRRI) did not fare better as

“Exaggerated claims and, in many cases, outright falsehood put out by officials of the directorate showed first how desperate they were to mollify public disenchantment with a programme which promised so much but was giving the public disappointingly very little.”

Babangida’s political programme with its whiplash-inducing fits and starts, also promised so much but ended in the repugnant annulment of the 12th June, 1993 presidential elections. Agbese writes: “[his] great gift was in his ability to convince the country, at each stage of his political engineering, to trust him… He was a great political salesman.”  The political programme went into a free fall soon after the ban on political parties was lifted and the politicians acted more like gladiators with daggers drawn. He had this strong belief that for the new politics, “old” politicians had to be kept severely away. The Nigerian Tribune referred to it as “authoritarian supervision of a democratic order.” He wanted to be the last military leader hence he set out an elaborate if confusing process to elect the new breed politician into power at all levels of governance.

The question of why the presidential election of June 12th, was annulled will continue to be asked of Babangida. Agbese asked him. He did not support Alhaji Bashir Tofa presidential candidate of the National Republican Convention (NRC), because he was “not a winning candidate.” Babangida said that he contributed to Abiola’s campaign. He told his biographer that though “he would have been a happy man” if Chief Moshood Abiola had been sworn in as president, he claimed that both the military and some politicians were not comfortable. “Nobody was (comfortable). The military wasn’t; the politicians were not.” Professor Omo Omoruyi, a close adviser to Babangida claimed that the former president feared that had he sworn-in Abiola as president, his life and that of Abiola would have been at stake.

“They will kill me; they will kill the president-elect, Chief MKO Abiola”, Babangida once said to Omoruyi. Should not one look to Babangida’s past statements to decipher why the presidential election was annulled? Did not Babangida hint that he would not hand over power to certain people or persons? Agbese writes that he would “not hand over political power to any person or persons, no matter how distinguished or wealthy but to a virile political organization which is openly committed to the proper use of power in the national interest. Those who think otherwise and who are now parading themselves as aspirants in 1992 would be disappointed in the end.” Agbese interviewed many close associates of Babangida but he did not talk to Dr Tunji Olagunju, one of his closest political advisers. This is a significant omission.

This absorbing biography does not shy away from unresolved controversies, including the murder of Dele Giwa, the popular columnist and colleague of Agbese’s at Newswatch. “That question dogged Babangida…. And still dogs him, and may, indeed, do so for the rest of his life… Nothing has yet ended the suspicion that his administration was to blame for it.”On his part, the former president in an interview with Newswatch in June 2000 blamed the media for not helping the police with their investigation. “The press and individuals should help the police, but I am not sure that, you are helping them. You are not helping them to do their job.”

Agbese writes about the so-called “Babangida mystique.”  Here was a man who would lay out a good and supposedly well-intentioned agenda but he would “willingly sacrifice principles for expedience.” He wanted to run an inclusive government but some young elements of the army led by Major Gideon Okar felt so alienated they nearly toppled him in April 1990. The abortive coup “gave me real shock…” and “I became more individualistic”, said the former president. He yearned to have a military that was not riven by power blocs as in Latin America but ended up with “Abacha and Babangida factions of the Armed Forces.” A departing Chief of Army Staff, Lieutenant General Salihu Ibrahim observed that it was “an army of anything goes”

Babangida believed that his regime would probably be the last to be run by the military as his new type of politics would foreclose the military’s involvement in politics.  But, as he himself said in a speech at Jaji two months after the Gideon Okar putsch.  “The attraction of political power for young elements in the military put the future of the military in jeopardy.” Indeed, the damage, done to the military’s esprit de corps due to its involvement in politics was long-lasting, if not irreversible. There are more benign elements of the Babangida mystique. His well acknowledged knack for remembering names and faces, and his ability to influence his friends and close associates, for which he was nicknamed THE BOSS. His civil war comrades recall his bravery. Brigadier John Inienger said Babangida took risks, “risk which some of us under normal circumstances would be scared to take.” Babangida’s teacher, Mr Akande, who supported his nomination as head boy at Bida mentioned his unpredictability.

“I have always thought that this is young man who is most calculating and who will surprise anybody. I think Nigerians have really got a dose.”

For a meticulous planner, Babangida’s transition programme turned out to be a mishmash which ended in the doomed Interim National Government headed by Chief Ernest Shonekan. The elaborate plans for the 1993 presidential elections went hand-in-hand with the sleight of hand of the Association for a Better Nigeria, the Justice Bassey Ita Ikpeme ruling against the conduct of the election and subsequent annulment which Agbese described as an “insensitive political decision.”  He added “June 12 became and remains Babangida’s Albatross.”

In the wake of the many crises faced by his administration, Babangida said, “we must not let the military as an institution be humiliated or be disgraced out of office as was the case in some countries.” Yet, he must carry enormous responsibility for the failure of the ill-fated Interim National Government and the seizure of power by General Sani Abacha and the squalid dictatorship of the Abacha years in power.

Agbese concludes, “The ship of [Babangida’s] greatness foundered on the rocks of June 12. June 12 sabotaged him and erected a permanent wall between him and greatness. And because of June 12, history is compelled to take an unkindly view of Babaginda’s place in the political history of Nigeria.”

This is a serious book, with no place for tittle-tattle. It is a profound statement about Agbese skills as a biographer. Critical but fair, it is deserving of a wide readership by all who are interested in the political history of Nigeria and the role of the military. For me, it is not only useful for scholarship, it will enrich our political culture and will, arguably, become a standard by which other books about the life and times of Ibrahim Babangida are assessed.

*CLEM BAIYE, a business executive, is based in Lagos.


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