•Explains how he almost lost his life fighting to keep Nigeria one

Says it was devastating fighting his course mates on the Biafran side

Insists Nigeria doesn’t need new states

Former Head of State, President Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida, has said he was involved in the fiercest battle in Enugu during the civil war of 1967 before the city was captured. 

Explaining why the battle was tough in Enugu, Babangida, who turns 80 today, told Vanguard in an interview in his Hilltop Mansion in Minna, Niger State:  ”I was in Sector one of the 1st Division of the Nigerian Army in Kaduna and as such we started from Otukpo and then moved into the axis going to Enugu.

”It was our formation that eventually captured Enugu. We fought through Nsukka, Okigwe, Ninth Mile corner and other towns. That was the initial stage of the war but as the war raged, we changed from Enugu to Umuahia, Ubilagwu and Uzuakoli. I was badly hit at Uzuakoli.

”Uzuokoli was very fierce but getting into Ninth Mile in Enugu, the fiercest because of the terrain. That was very difficult because of its humid and undulating topography. Climbing and coming down from it with heavy weapons was very challenging.”

Babangida, remains a phenomenon on the continent. Although he has been out of office for nearly three decades, IBB as he is fondly called, remains a major force in the nation’s polity as the country’s political leaders often consult with him before launching out or taking far-reaching decisions. He is also a newsmaker as whatever he says makes instant headlines and stirs debates across the media space.

When the former military president sat down with Soni Daniel, Vanguard’s Northern Region Editor for a conversation, he spoke on issues that touch the heart, revealing the enormous sacrifice he made as a young Nigerian military officer fighting on the frontlines during the civil war to keep Nigeria one. IBB equally explained how he dodged bullets with God’s help to escape death in the hands of Biafran fighters during the war.

As he clocks 80 today, the highly decorated former Nigerian leader reflects on life, the military, politics and Nigeria’s future, giving rare insights into why he joined the Nigerian Army, how his parents felt about it and why he stays in Minna, his state capital, rather than sojourn in Maitama or Asokoro in Abuja after retirement.

Above all, IBB leaked information on how he would want to be remembered when he is dead and gone.

“If I were to write my Epitaph, I would like to say: “Here lies Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida, a former General in the Nigerian army, who served his country diligently for the benefit of other generations,” he said.

Read on!

How do you feel living up to 80 years, despite the challenges you faced as a Nigerian military officer and leader?

Well, I cannot thank God enough for sparing my life despite all the odds I went through in the course of my service to Nigeria. There was a lot of instability while I served in the army, including the civil war and many military interventions in the country. As a military officer, I fought many times, many of my colleagues were killed in the battlefields but God spared my life and kept me till today. For all these, I remain grateful to the Almighty God.

But why did you join the army in the first place? Was it on purpose or accidental?

The truth is that at that time in the Northern part of Nigeria, joining the army was more of a political decision taken by the government of the day. There was a deliberate decision by the government of the day to enlist as many young boys as possible since there was a feeling at the time that the North was underrepresented in the Nigerian Army. For that reason, young men from the North were encouraged to enrol in the Nigerian Army.

Fortunately, the minister for the army, who happened to be from Niger State, went from school to school talking to young men to join the military as part of his schedule. And the army too was given the task to go out for campaign and recruit young officers from this part of the country. It was when the minister came to our own school to preach to us on the need to join the army. At that time too, General Yakubu Gowon also came to our school and tried to convince us that there was a career in the army and pleaded with us to join the military. That was how I joined the military along with many other boys from the north.

How did your parents react to your decision to join the army: were they excited or worried?

Initially, they had the fear that going into the army was dangerous and that one could get killed along the way. To them, it was a very risky job as far as they were concerned as one could get killed.  They were a bit apprehensive but one of my uncles held a different view and that was what saved the situation and allowed me to go.

What was the greatest challenge during the wars you fought during your military career?

Let me talk to you about the civil war of July 1967. The first thing that killed my mind was seeing myself fighting against my friends and course mates in the war front. When I was in the war front, I saw many of my friends on the other side.  These were my very close friends. We used to interact together without talking about tribes or religion and suddenly when the war broke out we had to face each other with bullets and guns. We were barely 19 or 20 years old. The experience was very demoralising to me. I saw one of my classmates killed during the war and there was nothing I could do about it. It was very traumatising. And, this may help in shaping our minds not to fight any war again.

Was that Duba, your friend, who was mortally wounded and you went to rescue him?

It was a risk we had to take in order to save him because we schooled together from form 1 to form 6. He was a very close friend of mine. One of the things we enjoyed as very young officers was to be in front. We had to do that so as to encourage the soldiers behind us to follow us once they see their commanders in front. It was a very painful situation seeing my friends being killed in the battle field. I saw even a worse situation than that. I was travelling with one of my aides and by accident; a stray bullet came and hit him just by my side not up to five feet away from me. He got hit and could not shout and dropped dead but we had to continue.

At which particular location did you fight during the civil war?

I was in Sector one of the 1st Division of the Nigerian Army in Kaduna and as such we started from Otukpo and then moved into the axis going to Enugu. It was our formation that eventually captured Enugu. We fought through Nsukka, Okigwe, Ninth Mile corner and other towns. That was the initial stage of the war but as the war raged on, we changed from Enugu to Umuahia, Ubilagwu and Uzuakoli. I was badly hit at Uzuakoli.

So in all of these, where was the fiercest battle before your troops broke through?

Uzuokoli was very fierce but getting into Ninth Mile in Enugu the fiercest because of the terrain. That was very difficult because of its humid and undulating topography. Climbing and coming down from it with heavy weapons was very challenging.

When the name IBB is mentioned, some Nigerians are happy while others are upset claiming that you introduced the Structural Adjustment Programme, which led to the devaluation of the Naira and brought hardship to them. Why did you introduce SAP when the Naira was stronger than the Dollar and almost at par with the Pound Sterling at that time?

Well, do not forget that when we came into government in 1985 the world was changing politically, economically, all dogmas about economy and politics were dying. The whole concept of socialism was going away and democracy was taking roots in Eastern Europe and Latin American countries and so on. So the entire world was changing at that time and I thought we should not be left behind in Africa and Nigeria.

READ ALSO: Otedola recounts how IBB asked Jonathan to sit on Yar’Adua’s chair

So we started talking about democracy, getting power back to the civilians because virtually all of the developing countries in Asia, Africa had embraced military rule. Eastern and Western Germany ended their war and became one. So, the whole world was changing rapidly. We knew that when I came there was a lot of debate in this country about the value of our currency and even before our intervention, economists were talking about the value of the Naira, everything about the economy, the control and so on. We wanted to go along with changes that were happening in the world because we wanted to relate with the other parts of the world in politics, in trade, in everything. And there are good economists in the country who started talking about the overvaluation of our currency when it comes to trade and so that encouraged us to look at it as it affects Nigeria. You would remember that we allowed a debate for the country to talk about it and what was interesting about Nigerians is that even the market woman was talking about the Naira and Dollars devaluation. And, even the market women who did not understand the dynamics of this talked about the exchange rate. It was very healthy, we monitored the debates and the discussions, we reported it and then we took a decision.

But did that action help Nigeria?

I should ask you.

But if your motive was to save Nigeria, why did you not take the IMF loan, which was reported to be $2 billion to ease the liquidity situation in the country?

I did not take it because of pride. We did not want the IMF handout because we felt that as a sovereign country, Nigeria should not subject itself to any loan and conditions that could hold us down. There were many opinions by experts on it and we had to stay focussed as an independent nation. We wanted to do things in our own way without handing over our independence to anybody. In a nutshell, self pride as a nation made us not to take the IMF loan.

But why then did you accept the conditions attached to the loan which you rejected?

Of course, it might interest you to know that even some of the conditions were put in place to rescue our economy after rejecting the loan. These were home-grown policies put in place to strengthen the Nigerian economy and not to punish Nigerians. Of course, you know that we had knowledgeable Nigerians who had worked with the World Bank, the IMF and other international financial institutions with us.

What were the home-grown policies?

It was done by the Nigerians themselves not by IMF or World Bank.

Let me take to you to one other thing you did which some people said was good while others said it wasn’t. Why did you try to shrink the political space by limiting political parties to only two?

We set up a committee to examine the political history of this country, what happened, and to come out with the best way forward for the country. In the process, we discovered that Nigerians generally tended to gravitate towards political parties. So when the report came out, we set up a committee to look at it again for the purpose of making recommendations to us.

We limited the parties to only two because we knew that Nigerians would feel comfortable with the idea and be happy to work with them. The argument we had then was that democracy is about choice and that the two parties would give each Nigerian a choice between them. With the two parties, one could choose party A or B and still be able to fulfil their political aspirations and values without losing anything. That was what informed our decision.

Given your understanding of the Nigerian political terrain and given the rising tensions in the country today, what political structure would you recommend for Nigeria in order to make progress as a nation?

Honestly, I would still insist on Nigeria operating two political parties with a provision that as time goes by, a third political party or parties with different ideologies, beliefs and concepts can emerge but with strict conditions to ensure effectiveness. That is how it is done in America where the citizens join parties of their choice after meeting the set standards. In Nigeria, the two major political parties can operate effectively with provision for independent candidates so as to ensure strict discipline and management of the country with a sense of seriousness and control.

Nigeria is currently battling with relentless agitations for secession, which is against the ideals of its founding fathers, who wanted a united, indissoluble and indivisible country. What can be done to achieve that?

We have to instil into every Nigerian the spirit of unity. We fought a war because we wanted to remain a united country. During that war, no fewer than one million people were killed on both sides; a lot of people were wounded on both sides. So it is imperative for all Nigerians to live in peace and ensure that the country continues to remain one united and prosperous nation. If Nigerian is broken now, the people who fought and died to keep Nigeria one, would have suffered in vain. The best way to reward those who died is to keep the country united and in peace. That is why it is necessary for the inculcation of the ideals of our founding fathers into the minds of Nigerians especially the young ones through education, beliefs, history and education.

Given your experience about Nigeria, does the country need more states to make progress?

The answer is capital No. We cannot continue to agitate for states because we may end up having a house as a state if the quest does not stop.  Where we are today as a country has given everyone some sense of belonging since each Nigerian belongs to a particular state he can call his or hers. It is also good that no matter how things are, each Nigerian should be proud of their state, work for them and ensure that they succeed.

We created Akwa Ibom and Katsina in 1987 even though the agitation for Akwa Ibom State started as far back as 1938.  When we came on board, there were records of agitations for new states and we took a critical look at them and we set parameters for them largely in terms of viability, history and so on and we decided that Akwa Ibom should be carved out of Cross River State.

You seem to prefer spending your retirement in Minna than Abuja where other great men retire to when they leave office. What is the attraction in Minna?

I was born here in Minna but as time went by I had to leave Minna for Bida and then joined the army. So, I have not really stayed in Minna, my birth place, having had to move from place to place throughout my military career. As a result, I have been missing my local community and everything relating to my culture and environment right from my tender age.  One of the decisions I took was that I would return to Minna at the end of my military service so as to connect with my people, serve them and give back to them in my own little way as a means of appreciating where I was born. I am also happy that I was able to convince some of my school mates and friends to come and live in Minna instead of other cities.

So, how do you spend a typical day from when you wake up till when you retire to bed?

I spend my day talking to people as I am doing with you now. Indeed, I find it very interesting sitting and talking to people on a daily basis. I enjoy the company of these people who visit me. And, as you can see, most of these people are those I grew up with, schooled together, worked with them and retired with some of them. So, each day, we sit down and talk, move around some days and visit others but we always return to my house to conclude our meetings here.

How would you want to be remembered as a former military officer and Nigeria’s leader?

Well, if I were to write my Epitaph, I would like to say: “Here lies Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida, a former General in the Nigerian army, who served his country diligently for the benefit of other generations.”

Vanguard News Nigeria

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