The Autumn of the General

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By Obi Nwakanma

This past Thursday, August 16, General Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida turned 71. He gave thanks to God. Just as the late K.O. Mbadiwe said of himself in 1983 at his official retirement from  national politics, he was no longer “K.O,” said the juggernaut, he was then, “O.K;” Ibrahim Babangida is quite OK; he was satisfied with himself, he told reporters at his Hilltop home in Minna, and it was all the doing of Allah.

It is amazing how men of enormous wealth and power insist on the partiality of God as a way of self-justification. But that’s not the point I wish to address today – the partiality or not of the divine Architect – but about the General in his autumnal years.

Babangida turned 71. He shares a birthday with my favorite poet, Africa’s greatest lyrical poet of the 20th century, Christopher Okigbo who died fighting at 37 at Nsukka during the Nigeria-Biafra Civil war. For a while, I ruminated on writing a memorial to Okigbo who would have been 82 years last Thursday had he survived.

Babangida also was in that war as a young subaltern, and he survived, with he says frequently, some shrapnel still lodged in his body. He became president and governed Nigeria for eight controversial years. The eight years of Babangida re-shaped both the values and the direction, and without question, the political and ideological landscape of Nigeria, most of his critics have continued to insist, for the worse. Some among his admirers continue to make laudatory claims on his behalf, and there is no better panegyric tome ever written of the man than Chidi Amuta’s Prince of the Niger.

My generation was the real victim of the Babangida years. We expended our youth either as University undergraduates or young professionals engaged in fierce ideological disagreement with his government over the future of Nigeria. That future came eventually, and like the proverbial chicken, was home to roost.

I say that we were ultimately right in our fights with Babangida, even if there is no real pleasure today in being proven right. Many suffered imprisonment under Babangida. Some died in prison. Some were killed. Some fled to exile. Some succumbed to madness.

Quite a whole lot became resigned and disillusioned with Nigeria. But Babangida is Ok, he says, thanks to Allah, the beneficent. If the Soyinka generation was the wasted generation, my generation which emerged in the Babangida years was aborted.

We didn’t even have a chance! At the height of his power, Ibrahim Babangida seemed absolutely indestructible – well, until the 1990 coup – the aftermath of which led to a hurried and distorted transition, and certainly of course to what has become Babangida’s greatest political albatross, the June 12 elections.

Babangida had gone under with June 12, his political life was uncertain for a while, but it was always edgy and intriguing anyway, and he is still regarded as one of the most powerful individual political forces in Nigeria to date. In 2007, Ibrahim Babangida resurfaced to try his hands once again at the presidency, and that ambition never got off the marks.

But since then, Babangida has re-emerged at the center of Nigeria’s political discourse, full time. It was I, who had the dubious honor of first calling him “evil genius” in a piece I’d written in the Vanguard in the mid-90s; a term which he then used in an ironic and self-referential way in an interview with Tell magazine, which has since stuck to
him.

There should be no doubt that Ibrahim ‘Badass’ Babangida is a master of intrigue. It was in recognition of this that Edwin Kiagbodo Clark, himself not a stranger to intrigue andMachiavellian politics accused Babangida and the other autumnal General Buhari of knowing more than they were willing publicly to tell about Boko Haram. He challenged them to publicly disown and condemn Boko Haram.

Clark’s challenge quickly led to a “Kiriji war” of words that quickly went south towards name-calling, with words like “irrelevance” and “senile” liberally used to close down Clark’s challenge, who then in a fit of pique challenged Babangida and his camp-followers to a public debate.

Finally, Babangida used the occasion of his birthday to shape that debate, enter some caveats, and make some clear attestations. It is indeed the autumn of the General, and with autumn, the season of aging, comes some wisdom. Of Boko Haram, Babangida offers his own defence. He is, he said, not behind it.

“I have been commenting on the Boko Haram issue and I have never hidden my disaffection against the sect and will continue to dissociate myself from the sect” he said. Nigerian journalists should investigate further, particularly the connection between Boko Haram and the movements of the Gwari, the Pastoral Fulani, and “other tribes” in Nigeria, the General also suggested.

It seems indeed that Babangida is alluding to the struggles of displaced communities to find settlement and integration and security of their political rights within the federation. There might be something to it. Not long ago, Babangida put his weight behind the debate to remove the “indigene/settler” clause in the Nigerian constitution that inhibits Nigerian citizenship; he also has advocated for the removal of the “quota system” and the restoration of merit as the basis of recruitment in federal jobs.

The question of course is, why did Babangida not do these things when he had the absolute power to accomplish them? He also now lends his support for the creation of “state police”- a suggestion for which once he could have publicly shot or jailed any proponent. He categorically dismissed Boko Haram’s call to President Jonathan to resign.

Of course it is a ridiculous call by Boko Haram, and it was best ignored. I think that the presidency should have been fully advised not to dignify Boko Haram’s call on the president to convert to Islam and resign, with a response. There is no basis for it.

It is on the same grounds that very thoughtful Nigerians have strenuously argued against the so-called move to open “negotiations” with Boko Haram. The question has always been, negotiate on the basis of what? No self-respecting government negotiates with a faceless terrorist group like Boko Haram, whose methods will soon most certainly be exhausted because when violence ceases to surprise or shock; when the population becomes immune to it, the terror factor which depends on fear loses its edge and its awe.

In the end, Babangida may still have to debate his “friend of 35 years,” Kiagbodo Clark to clarify other matters between them, and although he is making the right kinds of noises these days, most Nigerians still have a deep of mistrust of Babangida.

It is important, at every moment nonetheless, to see where we all meet in agreement: so yes, wisdom comes to the General in the autumn of his life. Yes, Boko Haram has no power to force the resignation of the president of the Republic. Yes, it is the right of the states to organize a state police. Yes, Babangida is right on those scores. But yes, also, Nigerians still have to take him at every moment with a pinch of salt.

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