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IBB And the Verdict of History

This Day (Lagos), 18 October 2000

Lagos—Last weekend former military president, Gen. Ibrahim Babangida, came on the centre stage, once again. In Jos, Plateau State his associates put together a three-day symposium with the theme, The Babangida Regime: Problems and Perspectives of Interpretation.

At the symposium were those men who served in Babangida's government. Leading the orchestra was the then chief of general staff turned vice president, Admiral Augustus Aikhomu. Then there were Hamza Abdullahi, Alex Akinyele and Uche Chukwumerije, all ministers in that government. There were also retired military officers some of whom did say they could follow Babangida to battle blindfolded - John Shagaya, John Inienger, Tunji Olurin, etc. Not left out were palace advisers like Sam Oyovbaire and a coterie of court historians. The purpose of the symposium was simple - to defend the programmes and policies of the Babangida administration, revise the nation's history and reposition the self- styled Maradona as a leader with vision.

The temptation was there to ignore the symposium considering the fact that the participants therein were yesterday's men who have been so completely forgotten, if not irrelevant, that they are today looking for attention and relevance. A symposium to reclaim Babangida if not the devil himself could only provide a convenient platform to get the needed attention. But then Babangida's signature was too prominent on the symposium to be ignored. The former president was not physically present at the symposium; he delivered a dinner speech entitled, We have reengineered Nigeria. A master of philosophical obfuscation, Babangida attempted very strongly to explain away the present democratic dispensation as the consummation of his administration's vision and the realisation of its goals. Nigeria is today a democracy. I am happy... that our vision for which I had invested all of my energy and tasked my colleagues even beyond endurance, has been fulfilled, he asseverated in self-glorification.

Babangida made some other claims. He said his government did not deliberately go out of its way to abridge anybody's rights. Whenever an infringement of rights occurred, it must have been an error, not deliberate. He said his vision was to build a democracy that would endure. He asserted that his presidency has changed Nigeria irrevocably, that the country has been so reengineered that today we all live in a new Nigeria. He contented that his regime faced so many challenges some of which generated the kind of momentum that were neither fathomable nor within human control. Statecraft in essence is about taking decisions and solving problems. Both require courage, resolve and nerves; but more especially foresight and fortitude, Babangida said. He gave the impression that while he was not lacking in all these, his administration did make some mistakes, just as any mortal would have done. In accepting responsibility for every mistake of his government, he said he expects the understanding and magnanimity of Nigerians. In every line of his speech Babangida valiantly tried to rewrite history, using a combination of half-truths, meaningless phrases and outright lies.

Babangida's desperation is hardly surprising. Throughout his eight-year reign, he was very concerned with his place in history. Everything he did and said he had an eye on the verdict of history. Luckily for him, as military president he had enormous goodwill. He charmed the nation with his toothy smiles and confused the people with the constant twists and turns in his social engineering policies that Nigerians practically ate from his hands. But then Babangida mistook his heroism for immortality; he assumed that popularity was synonymous with sainthood. He overreached himself, dribbled the people once too many and annulled the June 12, 1993 presidential elections. It is a measure of Babangida's perfidy that not once in his Jos speech did he mention the annulled election and why it had to be done. He conceded that his administration's endless tinkering with the political transition programme almost brought the country to the precipice. His words: What followed was an earthquake of a scale close to the events of the early years of Nigeria. We were only a hair's breath from the brink.

Despite the confession Babangida did not still think that Nigeria deserved an explanation. And apology. It is legitimate that after seven years out of office Babangida should expect our understanding for the mistakes of his administration. It is equally human that after so many years out of office he deserves some magnanimity. But then there can be no forgiveness without atonement. The process leading to forgiveness is simple - acceptance of guilt, confession, penance, then restitution. Babangida has accepted that he made mistakes. But he has not confessed what those mistakes were. He has to publicly admit that his annulment of the June 12, 1993 presidential election put Nigeria through five years of trauma. Then he has to apologise. It is after this he can begin to ask for our understanding and magnanimity. If indeed his mistakes, as he claimed, were unintended then why has it been so difficult for him to say he was sorry? Isn't an apology from a leader to his people the greatest measure of courage and self-worth?

Babangida should not expect our understanding by telling us that his government changed Nigeria irrevocably. If it did then it changed the country for the worse. It destroyed the civil service through some hare-brained reforms. It institutionalised corruption by introducing the settlement culture as an art of statecraft and corrupted the political process by banning and un-banning politicians. It destroyed the education system by under-funding and closing down universities for six months. It politicised the armed forces through the creation of the boy syndrome and the selective retirement of apolitical officers. Babangida's regime did many other things that destroyed the very fabric of this nation. Seven years after he left office the evidence of his work can be seen in the many ruined homes and displaced families. They can be seen in the confusion on the faces of those who lost their houses or their businesses to the many riots and demonstrations resulting from the annulment of June 12. They can be seen from the bitterness and anger of those who lost their loved ones to the same annulment. They can be seen on the faces of those who had their tomorrow truncated by those who supposedly gave their today. They can be seen in the growing menace of ethnic militants.

Babangida should not expect our understanding by saying that those human rights abuses his administration was famous for when he was not only in office but in power were not deliberate. So the closure of media houses was an error? The arrest of pro-democracy and civil rights activists was an error? The detention of known opponents of government was an error? Those constant harrassments and seizure of travelling documents were errors? Gani Fawehin's long stay in Gushau prison, was that an error also? What kind of leader commits the same error over and over again? Why can't Babangida deploy the armour of truth for a change? How does he expect our magnanimity when he lies so smoothly?

It is interesting to hear Babangida talk about courage and resolve and nerves and foresight and fortitude. Babangida's spin doctors have at various times given the impression that the former military president was forced to annul June 12 by certain elements in the armed forces. How come he didn't have the courage to resist those elements? What happened to his nerves when he was being threatened to either annul June 12 or get killed? Did he not have the foresight to see that such an action will destroy him politically and take away his place in history? What happened to his resolve when he was stepping aside; why did he leave behind a man like Gen. Sani Abacha who as army chief had shown he was a thieving and murderous bitch? Having worked with Abacha closely for eight years, did Babangida's foresight take flight that he failed to realise the goggled one was not a person to be tempted with governance?

It appears perhaps that Babangida is so besotted by the verdict of history that his memory is playing him tricks. That is why he could say that the democratic government in the country today is a fulfilment of his government's vision. If Nigeria had democracy today it was not because of his initiative. It is rather in spite of it. It is dubious and fraudulent for the general to claim credit for this democratic dispensation. We know the people who fought for whatever we have today. We know those who were detained. We know those who were dislocated. We know those who were exiled. We know those who were killed. And we know those who were assassinated. We know that neither Babangida nor any of those his associates at the Jos symposium lifted a finger in support of democratic struggle in Nigeria. Every attempt by Babangida to rewrite history will fail. He should rather come down from his high horse and show penance. That is the only way history can even begin to smile on his legacies. That is the only perspective of interpretation that can bail him out. Every other thing can only be a waste of time.