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Babangida On the Block

By Bamidele Johnson, Tempo (Lagos), 23 October 2000

Lagos—With its swishy confines, Hill Station Hotel, Jos, capital of Plateau State, and the temperate weather of the tin city, former president, Gen. Ibrahim Babangida and his associates were provided a most conducive backdrop for the three-day seminar held in the city, last week.

Babangida and his friends converged in Jos for a the symposium organised by Open Press Limited and the African Centre for Social and Political Research. Entitled, The Babangida Regime: Problems and Perspective of Interpretation, the seminar featured five sessions during which series of papers, on various aspects of Babangida's eight-year reign, were presented. In attendance was a shoal of associates and former lieutenants of the general who were invited from various backgrounds and sections of the country. The participants were largely made up of representatives of the political class, retired generals, former ministers in his regime and academics. Notable among those whose names were advertised as participants were Chief Ernest Shonekan, head of the defunct Interim National Government (ING) and Admiral Augustus Aikhomu, Babangida's deputy. From Babangida's former constituency-the Army-were Lt-Gen. Joshua Dogonyaro, Maj-Gen. John Shagaya, Maj.-Gen. Adetunji Idowu Olurin and Brig-Gen. Raji Rasaki, former anchors of the IBB's regime who were once referred to as Babangida Boys.

There were also Alhaji Maitama Sule, frontline Northern politician and former Permanent Representative to the United Nations; Chief Alex Akinyele, one-time information minister and chairman National Sports Commission; Comrade Uche Chukwumerije, information secretary under the ING created by Babangida; Senator Albert Legogie, former deputy senate president, Prof.

Bolaji Akinyemi, former minister for external affairs; Chief Duro Onabule, Babangida's press secretary; Mr. Pascal Bafyau, former labour leader and Hajiya Gambo Sawaba, fiesty northern politician and woman activist. There were four serving state governors. They were Chief Joshua Dariye (Plateau), Engr. Abdullahi Kure (Niger), Rev. Jolly Nyame (Taraba) and Alhaji Abbah Ibrahim (Yobe). Very few of these advertised participants eventually missed on the guest list in Jos.

The three-day talk shop was rounded off by a lavish dinner, in honour of the former president who was all smiles at the perceived success of the seminar.

Babangida had every reason to be happy. For one, the seminar was well attended, offering him the opportunity of having around him a good number of the architects and implementors of his regime's widely despised programmes.

Besides, the series of papers presented during the seminar, offered not only justifications and defences for those policies which still have enormously dismal ratings among the populace. In his address at the dinner, Babangida mouthed a flattering description of his policies. Our vision was to carry the nation forward in a constructive engagement with destiny. No short-cuts were taken. Hardship were not avoided. Social scientists would perhaps credit us with a scientific approach to state craft. We first produced original ideas and then tested them against the realities of life. This was, of course, with very few examples and very few precedents, the man, famous as IBB, said of his reign.

The joy of the former president was, however, made fuller by the seminar which highly reliable sources say was a platform for a re- launch into politics. Like an ailing brand with flagging sales, TEMPO learnt, Babangida' s friends, at his prompting, gathered at Jos to begin a subtle aggressive selling of Babangida to Nigerians with the 2003 presidential election in mind. Former Vice-President, Admiral Augustus Aikhomu who delivered the first speech at the seminar, described the leadership of his former boss as brilliant. IBB was doing the best for the nation but unfortunately, he was misled by others. And IBB regime still remains the best today, Aikhomu said. Aikhomu cautioned Nigerians against castigating the nation's leaders adding that whatever mistakes IBB made were unintentional. Aikhomu's speech brought a little smile of contentment to Babangida's lips. However, greater satisfaction was still on the way. It did not take long in coming, off the mouth of Chief Alex Akinyele, chairman of the Open Session on the Babangida Regime. It had the sound of a sales pitch. Undisguisedly condescending and garish: IBB is my mentor up till tomorrow. In fact, I will die for IBB. Let the press go to hell. I repeat, I will die for IBB, Akinyele declared exuberantly. Instantly, the room rocked with laughter. But Akinyele was not done yet. Facing the journalists covering the session, the former minister spilled another comic remark, saying; yes, I agree to be called IBB boy any day. Yes, pressmen, IBB is my mentor. You can write whatever you want, it's your papers. Though comical, Akinyele's remarks fitted into 'advertising objective' of the organisers of the symposium.

Other discussants took turns to air their observations on the presentations in the various aspects of the Babangida regime. Not surprisingly, Chief Duro Onabule; Alhaji Gambo Jimeta; former inspector-general of the police; Mr.

Pascal Bafyau; Maj-Gen. John Shagaya; Alhaji Shehu Musa, former chairman of the National Population Commission and numerous others, scored the Babangida regime high. Prof. Bolaji Akinyemi and a few others, however, differed on the prevalent position among the participants. Akinyemi who broke ranks with Babangida after the annulment of the 1993 presidential election, shocked the gathering when he spoke. The chieftain of the National Democratic Coalition (NADECO) called for the convocation of a Sovereign National Conference with a view to redressing the nation's structural imbalances. He also advocated cancellation of zoning political offices to the detriment of candidates being elected on merit. Office holders should be elected on merit and not through this zoning process. But, Akinyemi shied away from directly attacking the Babangida regime's policies. Comrade Uche Chukwumerije, former information secretary and a spirited defender of Babangida, however, threw in a few harsh words on the Structural Adjustment Programme (SAP) of the regime. Only the rich could withstand SAP and not the poor, he said.

Overall, it was smooth-sailing for the former president who was endlessly showered with sweetheart presentations by participants at the seminar. It could not have been any other way. It was exclusively gathered that the seminar, from planning to execution, was Babangida's idea designed to present him to Nigerians, preparatory to his running for the presidency in 2003.

The first objective of the seminar, an analyst said, was to soften the hearts of those who were opposed to his regime. This objective, the analyst explained, is two legged. The first leg is to aim for Northern hearts which have been sufficiently poisoned by anti-Obasanjo and Northern marginalisation propaganda, by sprucing up Babangida's legacies which many of the Northern political elites had once condemned. Babangida is believed to be keen on tapping into the deep well of Northern resentment of Obasanjo as a veritable tool in his bid for 2003 presidential race. A Northern source told this magazine that the forum was just a strategy to pave the way for Babangida to be president in the country's next election. Soon, said the source, a new party will be formed by Babangida. Senator Femi Okunrounmu is one of those who believed that the Jos seminar is a harbinger of a probable Babangida return to Aso Rock. In a chat with TEMPO, Okunrounmu described the seminar as an attempt to launder the former dictator's mouldy image. He noted that Babangida assembled 'unscrupulous' members of the nation's ruling elite and scholars who worked for him during his era.

The other leg of the Babangida ploy, it was learnt, is making of a truce with the South-Western part of the country which harbours a near- eternal hatred for him on account of the annulment of the 1993 presidential election won by the late Bashorun M.K.O. Abiola. Already, Babangida has set in motion the machinery to pacify the South-West whose leaders view Babangida as a pathological Yoruba hater, a reason some advance for the cancellation of the election, seven years ago. Sources say that because Babangida dreads a highly likely physical attack if he visits the South-West, he has recruited some trusted friends both within and outside the South-West zone. One of these is Alhaji Aliko Dangote, multi-millionaire commodity merchant, who is regarded as a very close friend of some young South-Western politicians. The effort is targeting some groups which have already broken ranks with the mainstream Yoruba leadership. The arrowhead of Babangida's bid to pacify the South-West, this magazine gathered, is the grandson of a prominent Yoruba politician. The scheme's potential of success, perceptively, remains lean.

Lack of adequate clout by the young politicians, particularly the arrowhead of the Babangida plot. The arrowhead is believed to have the benefit accruable from a huge political name but lacking in commensurate political standing to make sufficient in-roads into the heart of the South-West.

However, these deficits are said not to be a deterrent to the Babangida scheme. According to sources, Babangida's scheme is the product of painstakingly meticulous planning, part of which was the seminar in Jos. It was reliably gathered that it was Babangida who commissioned the organisers of the seminar-Open Press Limited and The African Centre for Social and Political Research-to work out a way for him to inch his way into politics.

According to investigations, The African Centre for Social and Political Research is a non-governmental organisation (NGO) headed by the famous radical Northern intellectual, Dr. Bala Usman. Usman is believed to be paying back an I.O.U he was granted when the abangida regime offered to pick up the hospital bills of the university teacher's sick child a few years back. The resultant drought of incisive criticisms, of Babangida's policies by the radical teacher was thought to have been occasioned by Babangida's master stroke wrapped in sensitivity. It was, therefore, quite easy for Babangida to reach out to Bala Usman whom he (Babangida) had once helped.

For a successful organisation of the Jos seminar, Babangida paid the organisers an initial sum of N25 million. The money was collected with a cheque from the Kaduna branch of Inter-city Bank, located at Leventis roundabout in Kaduna. Like a ventriloquist desirous of having a good show, Babangida, sources insist, was prepared to invest unabatedly in his political re-launch scheme. A few days to the take-off of the seminar, the 'organisers' needed more funds which the immensely rich general was quite willing to provide. To this end, another instalment of N25 million streamed into the hands of the organisers. Despite the money already sunk into the come-back bid and a flood of political promissory notes, the former president is said to harbour heavy doubts that his bid would meet Nigerians' approval. Babangida was overheard expressing his fears in private discussions with friends. What, however, keeps him going, a source said, is the prospect offered by the revolting young politicians of the South-West, the zone with the fiercest anti-Babangida sentiment.

In a bid to further cultivate friendship with the groups, Babangida is said to have been working on Femi Fani-Kayode, son of the late first and second republic politician. The relatively young politician has since been encouraged to relocate from his base in Ghana in the pursuit of the assigned goal. Babangida's ace is said to be a resurgence of the 'newbreedism' which he almost succeeded in selling during his old transition programme. He is said to be keen on harping on the need for the younger generation to dislodge the older one from which Babangida believes he is unlikely to obtain a hugely derived political pardon. To give his 'newbreedism' some teeth, Babangida at some point, a source told this magazine, offered to fund the activities of the revolting groups. To reap the best dividends from his political investments, Babangida decided not to give the money straight to the rebellious youths in the South. Rather, a typically wily Babangida opted to funnel the money through Alhaji Aliko Dangote who is chummy with the various groups. Babangida's reason: The bulk of the revolting youths may not be seduced by his ambition. Desperate to secure a reasonable degree of political assurance, the former president is said to be prepared to polarise the ranks of the groups in the South. A few days back, a prominent member of the 'rebellious' youth (not the mentioned arrowhead) met with Babangida to discuss the general's proposed plans. The former president was said to have insisted on the polarisation of the groups as a sure way of tapping into the political resources of the South.

The hurdle that may come from the South-South and the South-East zones are not evident yet. Babangida is believed to be banking on the alleged ill-treatment of these zones as a political ammunition. The sources of the ammunition are said to be the removals of former senate president, Chief Evan Enwerem and Dr. Chuba Okadigbo as well as last year's military expedition in Odi, Bayelsa State. Undoubtedly, the two incidents have unique political implications for President Obasanjo. The South-East views Obasanjo as an Igbo hater while the South-South sees the incumbent president as a conniver with the North, in the mindless exploitation of the petroleum resources from which the nation derives the bulk of its revenue.

For now, Babangida's political stocks, especially in the North, are soaring.

With pro-Obasanjo sentiments largely expressed by the leadership of the South-West, the former president may be having a not-too-blurred view of Aso Rock. This is accentuated by the fact that the Middle-Belt, despite a sudden tilt towards self-determination, still appears to be undecided on which direction to follow. Geographically, Babangida, an indigene of Niger State, is a Middle-Belter. In spite of his well-known tilt towards the North, he could garner a proportion of the votes from the zones, even if the zone's aggrieved leaders decide to team up with the South-West. Given the core North's search for a leader who would redress the perceived imbalance against it, the political zone appears all sewn-up. For one, Babangida has enormous financial resources to take on any aspirant. He is believed to be the largest individual contributor to the successful bid of President Olusegun Obasanjo. Also, his contacts in the military, security services and among opinion leaders are highly rated, despite his sullied image. Even some Northern opinion leaders who once criticised Babangida are already queuing behind him. One of these is Alhaja Gambo Sawaba, a Northern woman activist of very radical bent. Hajiya Sawaba, a follower of the late Alhaji Aminu Kano, was one of those present at the Jos seminar. For long, Hajiya Sawaba did not attract the attention of those present. She sat quietly at a corner at Hill Station Hotel, until about 4.10 p.m. on the opening day, when Babangida surfaced in the company of co-former head of state, Gen.

Abdulsalami Abubakar. In his characteristically ingratiating manner, Babangida, on sighting Hajiya Sawaba, greeted her warmly with a respectful bow, calling her mama. The former president then offered to pose for numerous photo shots with the radical female politician. Babangida's decision to openly identify with Hajiya Sawaba is thought, by political observers, to suggest the former president's readiness to court politicians of all lines, including those on the extreme left, as a way of worming his way into their hearts.

For somebody trained to dominate his environment, Babangida seems to have made a good job of his training. The Northern political environment-not reckoning with the obvious presidential ambition of vice-president, Atiku Abubakar-seems dominated already. Dr. Bala Takaya is a big name in the politics of Adamawa, Atiku Abubakar's home state. As a mater of fact, the two politicians remain arch-rivals, a product of their tussle for governorship under the Social Democratic Party (SDP), in 1991, under the transition programme of the Babangida regime.

As a result of a stalemate, the radical Takaya who also attended the Jos seminar, was disqualified with Atiku Abubakar, by the Babangida regime.

Takaya's romance with Babangida, observers believe, may chafe at Abubakar's support base come 2003. Last year, TEMPO had exclusively reported that the former president was nursing a presidential ambition. He is believed to have pushed hardest for Obasanjo's release from jail for two reasons. The first being that he was not comfortable with Chief Olu Falae and Chief Bola Ige (SAN), the two leading candidates of the Alliance for Democracy (AD).

Babangida was believed to have worked against the two because he felt that Northern interests, nay his personal protection, would be safer in an Obasanjo presidency. Secondly, sources told this magazine then that IBB wanted to test Nigerians' reaction to the candidature of retired military head of state running for the presidency in an election. The first objective, presumably, failed, Obasanjo, within a few weeks, shunned Northerners by decimating the their hold on the military through a weeding of many officers of Northern extraction. The weeding exercise had then led to the abridgment of the careers of nine Major-Generals, 16 Brigadiers-General, 20 Colonels, 8 Lieutenant Colonels, 4 Rear-Admirals, 6 Navy Commanders, an Assistant Inspector- General of Police and one Commissioner of Police. On the other hand, the Babangida's acceptability test appears successful. Despite vehement initial opposition, particularly from the South-West, Obasanjo's home base, he was elected. Hence, his election convinced the 'evil genius' that he could successfully make a comeback.

Though, yet to really take off, the prospect of Babangida's envisaged return is already nudging some Nigerians into 'combat- readiness.' One of these is Chief Gani Fawehinmi, lawyer and human rights crusader. In a chat with TEMPO, Fawehinmi said Nigeria will be in trouble in the event of Babangida's return to power. If he comes back, there would be chaos. There would be insurrection by the people of this country. This man traumatised the political life of this country for too long. For such a man to attempt to come back, he should be ready for blood, Gani threatened. In the same vein, Senator Femi Okunrounmu believes that Nigerians would resist any attempt by Babangida to return to power. He considers Babangida a discredited figure with whom the citizens associate the nation's current travails. Also, the Yoruba socio-cultural group, the Oodua Liberation Movement (OLM) has called the police to arrest the former president. The group claims it is in possession of incontrovertible evidence that Babangida, Gen. Muhammadu Buhari and former civil president, Alhaji Shehu Shagari are involved in subterranean plots to derail the country's democracy.

Even so, Babangida can afford to relax on the cushion of Northern support offered by figures like the immediate past head of state, Gen. Abdulsalami Abubakar. I cannot do anything without Abubakar. In fact, we are two and we do things in common. That is why I intimidate him when I want to do so. Some times I ask who is older, Babangida jocularly said. Babangida as a brand, appears to be doing well in the nation's political market of rich and influential people whom he befriended while in power. However, the value of this in concrete political terms remains misty until 2003.