The IBB Legacy, By Jibrin Ibrahim

“Anybody who headed a military regime subverted the wishes of the people… We all subverted the wishes of the people.”

Gen Ibrahim Babangida, interview with Tell Magazine, 7/12/98

In preparation for his 80th birthday celebrations, General Ibrahim Babangida is back in the news working hard to craft a positive image for himself. In an interview with Arise News, he took up the issue Nigerians have against him – annulling a democratic and credible election. In his words: “Do you want me to be honest with you?… If it materialised (If the election had gone through), there would have been a coup d’état which could have been violent. That’s all I can confirm.” In other words, he sacrificed democracy to stop a coup against his regime – this is the only explanation for his argument that I can see. This begs the real question because he was supposed to be transiting out of power so why remain to stop a coup that would remove him out of power?

The real purpose of the interview however appeared to have been to seek to change the memory Nigerians have of him as the President who turned Nigeria into one of the most corrupt countries in the world. To counter the idea, he attacked the current regime led by the same General he had removed from power so he could rule without encumbrance – Muhammadu Buhari: “From what I read, from analysis, I think we are saints when compared to what is happening under a democratic dispensation”, he said. “Today, those who have stolen billions and are in court are now parading themselves on the streets. Who else is better in fighting corruption?”. The message is – Babangida is better than Buhari. Maybe in the next interview, the issue might be that Babangida is better than Obasanjo. My view is that all of them, as coup plotters, subverted the will of the Nigerian people for democracy and we should avoid the trap of who was less subversive.

The Military ruled Nigeria for almost 30 years and has impacted strongly on the country’s culture and institutions. Their rule has impacted negatively on society by generalising its authoritarian values, which are in essence anti-social and destructive of politics. Politics in this sense is understood as the art of negotiating conflicts related to the exercise of power. Military regimes have succeeded in permeating civil society with their values – both the formal military values of centralisation and authoritarianism and the informal lumpen values associated with “barrack culture” and brutality that were derived from the colonial army. The contemporary Nigerian elite has been acquiring a lot of “barrack culture” over the period. Why for example do Nigerian elite starch and press their clothing in a very military style? Many within the aging ruling class we have today have spent a lot of their younger days in army barracks – major social centres at that time for sports, discotheques, consumption of alcoholic beverages, gambling and prostitution. Yes, my young compatriots, the elders in power today did all that also. The decline in civility and a rise in violence in social interactions that we have today has its origin in the orientation received under military rule. The specific legacy from the military is therefore neither corruption nor authoritarianism, much as they took both to new heights. The military legacy is the fabrication of a political culture oriented towards the imposition of a command and control structure on the political process that is destroying the residual democratic values that have survived in the Nigerian society.

At the time of the 1999 transition, the Nigerian military, serving and retired, was the major segment of the power elite. They occupied the summit of the most powerful organisations in the country’s polity and economy. In May 1999, there were forty retired generals in the leadership of the ruling party, the People’s Democratic Party (Thisday, 22/2/99). The elected President, General Obasanjo was from the military. Four other retired generals were elected senators – Tunde Ogbeha, Ike Nwachukwu, Brimo Yusuf and David Mark. Others elected people from the armed forces included Senator Group Captain Haruna Aziz, Senator Nuhu Aliu, former Deputy Inspector General of Police and the Governor of Kwara State, a retired army officer. In the economy, many banks and other financial and economic institutions were owned by retired and serving military officers. The military, with its high concentration of corrupt and crass individuals, hedonists and putschists have wielded power for so long and were so wealthy and influential that they became some of the most respected members of their communities and were thus capable of winning democratic elections, which they had guided over a long transition period to be money-based politics.

The current generation of Nigerians are young and have no memories of military politics. Let us remember that the Gowon regime sought to perpetuate its rule and repudiated its promise for a quick transition to civil rule after the civil war. It was the Murtala coup that led to the acceptance of the agenda of civil society and eventually to the Second Republic. The Buhari regime that ended the Second Republic sought to impose on Nigerians a clearly military value system – that discipline and force, applied in a military manner could resolve the numerous problems confronting Nigeria. The Buhari regime could be considered to be a sincere attempt to militarise Nigeria and Nigerians abhorred it. Don’t ask me how he came back to power, that is for another day. The negative responses of Nigerians to the culture of militarism created the conditions for the emergence of the Babangida regime, who took the title of <president> and embarked along a trajectory of personal, as opposed to the tradition of collegiate military rule. For example, he dissolved and reconstituted the ruling military council at will and informed his military colleagues of his decisions rather than consult with then in the official decision-making bodies.

The Nigerian military transformed the country’s body politic in a very significant manner. They entrenched the culture of public corruption established by earlier civilian regimes. It was a major change in the country’s political culture, before the military, corruption was corruption – unethical or illegal advantages procured through official positions. Gradually, the military became power drunk and started believing they could generalise corruption and use their monopoly of force to prevent Nigerians complaining about it. The turning point in this regard was Gowon’s attempt to prevent the swearing of affidavits containing accusations of corruption against leading members of his regime. Under the Babangida and Abacha Administrations, what used to be known as corruption become the art of government itself. There was a complete prebendalisation of state power and virtually all acts by public officials involving public expenditure or public goods of any kind led to the looting of the treasury. The routine operations of government were subjected to prebendal rules. It was widely known for example that officials of state governments and parastatals had to pay, as they put it, <up front> a percentage of their statutory allocations to the Presidency, Ministry of Finance and Central Bank officials before their allocations were released. They in turn simply take their own personal shares, <up front>, from so-called government coffers.

Secondly, the military succeeded in destroying Nigerian federalism, sacrificing it on the altar of over-centralisation. The military are structurally incapable of running a federal system of government. Their unified command structure is incapable of accepting that a state government, which they consider to be hierarchically subordinate to the federal government, could have domains over which she is sovereign, which as is generally recognised, is the essence of federalism. Nigeria’s geopolitical realities have been completely modified. The tripartite structure which had become quadripartite with the creation of the Mid West in 1963, has changed drastically as a result of the multiplication of states whose number, now stands at 36. The multiplication of states has produced a Jacobin effect that strengthens the centre by eroding the autonomy of the states. Nigeria thus finds itself now with a so-called Federation that is for all practical purposes a Unitary State with some limited devolution of power to the states. As we wish the amiable General IBB happy 80th birthday, let’s not forget.