THAT General Ibrahim Babangida is a Nigerian living legend is beyond debate. Legends are not necessarily saints. They are people who leave footmarks that are the stuff of legends. Twenty-eight years after he left power, Babangida remains a relevant figure in Nigeria’s contemporary politics.
He plotted for power and quit after exactly eight years (August 28, 1985 to August 27, 1993). Babangida had clear ideas of what he wanted to do with leadership. As soon as he seized power, he surrounded himself with some of the best brains in the academia, the so-called “philosopher kings” who imparted art and science to governance. This was only witnessed again during Olusegun Obasanjo’s second term as elected president (2003 and 2007).
From his earliest days, Babangida launched an economic model which quickly restored essential supplies to the empty shelves left behind by the Major-General Muhammadu Buhari regime. He shifted the state control of the economy to the private sector through a massive privatisation and commercialisation programme, reflecting the World Bank/IMF models as encapsulated in his Structural Adjustment Programme, SAP.
He also re-laid the foundation of Nigerian politics, pioneering the dominant two-party system, retiring the old order and creating what he called “new breed” political leaders and the political godfatherism that still hold sway. Babangida’s elaborate transition programmes eventually resulted in the best general election in Nigeria’s history – the June 12, 1993 presidential election.
His annulment of that election, no matter what excuse he proffers, also reflects the triumph of selfish and sectional interests of the ruling class over those of the nation, which continue to bedevil our country. Had that election stood, Nigeria would have evolved into a united, progressive democracy.
Babangida ran a liberal and inclusive government. All parts of the country were comfortably accommodated, unlike now when extreme nepotism is the order of the day. This he did through his creation of states and local governments, spread of federal presence, appointments and economic patronage. He also moved the seat of power from Lagos to Abuja and laid the foundation for what the Federal Capital has become.
Apart from ending the scourge of military coups, Babangida’s foreign policy focus brought much prestige to Nigeria, having firmly established the country as the dominant economic and military power in West Africa.
On the flipside, Babangida was criticised for running a government that shed much blood, with dozens of alleged coup plotters executed – more than any other regime. He was also accused of recklessly spending the $12bn Gulf War oil windfall and pioneering the culture whereby leaders retire in great material comfort.
Babangida made a lot of enemies, but there is no doubt that he is much loved by a lot more Nigerians. He left the legacy of intelligent and strong leadership with a human face. He remains a father figure and a “main issue” in Nigerian history. We wish him a happy 80th birthday.