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Babangida: Shall we hear the General?

By Rotimi Fasan
ON 26 August, 2010 it would be exactly seventeen years to the day since Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida or IBB, as he is otherwise known, ‘stepped aside’ as Nigeria’s military leader.

A soldier in the armoured corps, Babangida rose to the apogee of his profession as a general and Nigeria’s first and only military leader that went by the oxymoronic designation of president in a military regime. That Babangida preferred the title of ‘president’ to ‘Head of State’ that military leaders had been known to bear was an early pointer to the fact that he was one leader that would rather blaze a trail than follow the trail blazed by others.

He ascended the ‘presidency’ on a  groundswell of public goodwill having overthrown the authoritarian duo of Muhammadu Buhari and his fearsome deputy, Tunde Idiagbon, in a palace coup on 27 August, 1985. A consummate populist if ever there was one, Babangida seemed to have had Nigeria wrapped round his little finger: he had many, literally millions, eating from his palm and wherever  he turned, the country seemed to follow.

IBB appeared to know Nigeria so well that he could well do with her what he pleased. He was a lovable character, whose charm practically lured many unlikely, intellectually unequal and ideologically unidentical players together.

It was with full awareness of this near-complete control of Nigeria, many believe, that Babangida embarked on the hubristic act of annulling the June 12, 1993 presidential election believed to have been won by his friend, Moshood Abiola.

This heady awareness of control  is perhaps not  unexpected in a man who famously confessed to a propensity to dominate his environment. Long before he became  Nigeria’s president, Babangida had been a well-known face on the national scene.

Aside being a consummate coupist, one reputed to have taken part in all but one of Nigeria’s coups including the one that inaugurated his ‘open door’ regime twenty-five years ago, Babangida, is believed in certain quarters to have single-handedly foiled the bloody coup led by the drunken Buka Suka Dimka in which then head of state, Murtala Ramat Mohammed, was assassinated.

Thus, long before he happened on Nigeria that August afternoon in 1985, IBB had started a long affair with the motherland- an affair and later marriage that would end in a divorce but eight years after it started.

For a man who had come to take Nigeria for granted, Babangida’s undoing was his annulment of the June 12 election. Thereafter, it was a swift slide down the slope of public goodwill. But in the many years since he returned to the public, there have been speculations as to the role Babangida would play.

While many had blown off their heads either flying or shooting down the kite of a possible return by Babangida to Aso Rock Villa, the man had himself maintained studious silence. His mystique was to increase to the extent he appeared, at some point, to have stepped out of the shadows finally only to fall back. In a manner reminiscent of what he said of Chief Obafemi Awolowo in 1987, Babangida has been the main issue in Nigerian politics in the last twenty-five years: you are either for or against him.

But despite all attempts to draw him out into open confession of interest in public office, specifically, the presidency, Babangida had been content to remain the kingmaker while testing the waters of public opinion. This until a couple of weeks back when, unlike in previous cases when he spoke through the mouth of surrogates forever reading his lips and anticipating his every move for the slightest sign of interest in public office- Babangida for the first time made the clearest statement as to his political future.

Asked if he would be considering any public role again, the man (in)famous for his penchant for hedging simply said he was consulting on the matter.

In Babangida’s peak this statement is as good as an admission on the part of the man that he would be contesting the presidency in 2011. But forever the political aristocrat who disdains soiling himself in careless brawls, it is not beyond Babangida to pull a fast one on Nigerians and  beat a  tactical retreat if the auguries again look unfavourable. It happened in the immediate past election that brought the missing president, Umar Yar’Adua, into office.

Then Bababgida had pledged kinship to Yar’Adua and respect for the memory of his father as reason why he couldn’t join the race. But it must be said that for a man now in his seventies, time  is  not very much on  Babangida’s side. Which is the same  thing as saying that he might well be having his last shot at public office in Nigeria- now or never.

That Babangida would own up to consulting has understandably got Nigerians worked up. While some have rushed to applaud the announcement others have vowed it would only come true over their  dead bodies.

At a time when alignments are being made and remade and carpets are being crossed with the alacrity of crossword puzzles and politicians return to estranged homes in the manner of the prodigal child, the Babangida announcement has decidedly ruffled feathers.

The welter of opinion would on the surface seem unfavourable to Babangida who seemed for a long time to have lost his charm. But the spontaneous show of admiration and heartfelt grief at the passing of Mariam, his wife of over four decades and Nigeria’s most colourful ‘First Lady’, would suggest the Babangida charm still remains for many.

It’s therefore a moot question how much of IBB’s decision to ‘consult’ now is motivated by his reading of that show of admiration for his deceased wife and, by extension, to him.

So far there has been little attention paid to what, if anything, Babangida has to say. But should we hear him out? That for me is a question I’ll like to see answered by Nigerians before we go on to examine the merit  or lack of it of IBB’s new song.

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