By Rotimi Fasan
He was just over 40, precisely 44, when he became head of state on August 27, 1985. It was during an Eid festival and the country was in a holiday mood of sorts. Splashed across the media in the days ahead was a photograph of him, stolid and thick-set, in the uniform of a Major-General of the Nigerian Army, about to enter his official Peugeot and be driven off, at Bonny Camp, Lagos.
Even in these early hours of his regime, he already cut the picture of a man of the people- wearing a friendly look that was a long distance from the forbidding looks of the typical military man, not to say his predecessor in office. That photograph would become iconic down the years.
It was the first post-coup photograph of Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida aka IBB (the first Nigerian leader to be identified by his initials – a practice that has since been normalised) who had in a bloodless (also the first of its kind) palace coup swept his colleague and, perhaps, not so close friend, Muhammadu Buhari, from office as head of the junta that took over power from the civilians on December 31, 1983.
Earlier that day or the day before, Joshua Nimyel Dogonyaro, a Brigadier who died a few months ago at the age of 80, had announced the ouster of the Buhari/Idiagbon regime. Ibrahim Babangida who is reputed to have taken part in every coup that preceded his ascension to power had first gained recognition among his colleagues and superiors as the man who played the major part in foiling the bloody coup of February 13, 1976, that ended the regime of Murtala Muhammed and brought Olusegun Obasanjo into office.
He approached, without arms and at great risk to himself, the Radio House in Ikoyi Lagos where Bukar Suka Dimka, the supposedly drunken colonel and IBB’s friend that had announced the coup, had been holed up. There IBB got him to abandon his scheme and talked him into surrendering by escaping out of the Radio House.
It was that same Babangida of 1976 and 1985, now considerably laidback, mellowed by age and perhaps a lingering leg injury (radiculopathy) sustained during the Civil War that appears to have mostly confined him to a chair, that turned 80 last week. This milestone birthday was in some way a choreographed media event of his admirers to celebrate him, redefine his legacy and place in history. The Ibrahim Babangida administration was one of the most remarkable, if not the most remarkable, military regime in Nigeria’s history. Most of this is due to the person of Ibrahim Babangida himself. He was one man who came into power apparently with a long-nursed ambition to lead the country in a military regime with something of a civilian veneer.
He seemed prepared and ready with his own kind of answers for the many questions that plagued Nigeria. Which was probably why he was quick to dub himself a military president, the first and only head of a junta to adopt that title. Babangida, wanting to beat a path different from other military regimes and, particularly, his immediate predecessors, consciously courted the Nigerian people, beginning with the media, even if he was at the same time killing them ‘softly’.
He is no doubt a very intelligent man with clear leadership traits. This fact was attested to by his fellow Nigerite (they are both from Niger State), a former classmate in school and retired head of state, General Abubakar Abdulsalami. In a footage from the Channels Television interview, one of a few that featured Babangida in the last couple of weeks, General Salami said IBB was their class monitor and later head boy of the Bida Provincial College, later named Government College, Bida.
In the interview anchored by Ladi Akeredolu-Ale, IBB was quietly alert. With dark, age-induced patches on the sides of his eyes, his skin glowed and he did look very healthy for his age. He was measured and appeared typically prepared for the interviewers’ questions. Nobody who has ever led a country could leave office and remain the same in knowledge and experience. Not even the most supposedly clueless of Nigeria’s leaders that have had that epithet hung round their neck like a necklace. Much less so an IBB.
He downplayed some of his celebrated acts like his heroic encounter with Dimka in the Radio House; his generous elevation of Sani Abacha to the rank of General at a time he was also a General; and his involvement in virtually every coup before he became military president. This last one he put down to his strategic positioning as an officer trained in the use and handling of armoured armament, a demolition instrument highly useful in the execution of coups.
His original orders before going to the Radio House, according to some previous sources, was to reduce the Radio House to rubble. But he applied wisdom and chose the path of dialogue in order to avoid collateral damage.
He trusted in friendship, good faith and his opponent’s training as officers and gentlemen to see him through that perilous moment. Babangida spoke freely and openly without any obvious effort at hedging or parrying off questions, not even the June 12 election issue that an interviewer could only fail to ask about at the peril of their professional integrity. The one aspect that stood out, like a sore thumb, uncommented upon by both interviewer and interviewee was IBB’s family – his late wife and children. Otherwise, nothing was foreclosed.
For him, Nigeria’s unity, like other similar questions, should be an issue already settled and beyond any question. Perhaps, that would have been so, had IBB not taken one of the most controversial decisions ever to make national unity a matter of perennial debate. This was the annulment of the June 12, 1993 election. Like in the past, he took responsibility for this decision even while he alluded to its collective origination. Yes, what were the contribution of other politicians and military leaders to that decision?
Babangida no doubt would like to be remembered for a lot more than the June 12 election- and he deserves to. His life, and the regime he led, is more storied than the single narrative of the monumental annulment of an election that has been adjudged the freest in the country’s annals.
But he is philosophical and being relatively well-read (he has always come across as a reader), he is full of both native and formal wisdom and has apparently come to peace with himself and an acceptance of his place in history, which he thinks might yet adjudge him better than today’s pundits would concede. And so, he soldiers on, hope aloft, reading the times and tides ahead.