On clocking 71 golden years last Friday, soldier-statesman and former military president, General Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida fielded questions from journalists in Minna, including LEADERSHIP SUNDAY’s ABU NMODU. During the interview, General Babangida shares riveting insights into his compelling military and political trajectory, his intimate involvement with the development of post-independence Nigeria and more.
How do you feel on turning 71?
Ageing gracefully. Well, like I said before, this is another opportunity to appeal to all of us to strive to live in peace with one another. That is the only way our country can move forward. The only way for us to channel our God given opportunities is to live harmoniously with one another.
This is the only way to be a great country, not only the present generations but also generations to come. Nigeria has a lot of potentials, lots of good people, but without peace, we cannot move anywhere.
Fortunately, God has been so kind. My birthday falls in the period when people are fasting. So, that is settled. So, I would be allowed to rest at home. My religion says whatever God has done for you, all you need do is thank Him so that He would do more in your life.
One of the key challenges facing Nigeriatoday is the issue of Boko Haram.You have been personally accused of complicity together with northern elders. How would you exonerate yourself from this accusation and what is the way forward?
Nigeria is a democratic society, isn’t it? Those who say northern governors are involved, including myself, know what to do. They should do what they ought to do so as to help all Nigerians. So, I will ask them to do what needs to be done.
But part of the accusation was that you have not been making comments on the Boko Haram issue?
I can understand because it is a Babangida.I have talked about that not once, not twice. So, I am quite comfortable that I have said what needs to be said. In my press statements, I have said what needs to be said as a statesman. I pleaded with Boko Haram.So, what else do I have to say?
How do you normally feel when you are rightly or wrongly accused of anything bad?
Well, normally, I do not consider it as anything bad, to be honest with you. In the last 22 or 23 years, since I left office, it has been the same sing-song by the media, the columnists, and so on. Somebody would say, during his time, he institutionalized corruption.
The question is in the name of God, aren’t we capable of doing something differently in those years? There had been many governments since I left office. And if governments exist for the welfare of the people, are you saying nobody is capable of correcting the purported wrong that Babangida did?
When I and my former boss, Chief Olusegun Obasanjo volunteered to make useful suggestions, some people said what did we do when we were there at the helms of affairs? Ok. We were there. But things are happening. So, we should not be deprived of the right to make our contribution.
We have Presidents in some climes that authorized bombings.They were not castigated because of that. But, here we are in Nigeria. I strongly believe that in the near future, there would be people who would sit down and discern the situation differently. But I have come to accept that for any subject raised in this country, there are over 160 million different opinions.
If you were the president of Nigeria, what would you have done differently from the tactics of President Goodluck Jonathan in tackling the issue of Boko Haram?
We should understand that President Jonathan, Babangida, Obasanjo, Shagari, Buhari, and everybody do know that we are running or we ran a developing country. And what we are going through now, other countries have gone through worse situations.
But through perseverance, hard work, and ability to dialogue, such countries were able to surmount such problems. I think, I am sensible enough to know we are a developing country, and as far as we are ready to learn from our mistakes, we would get there.
What were those mistakes?
I mean as a developing country, we went into a civil war. I don’t believe we would likely go into another civil war, despite the drums of war everywhere. I am not sure, neither am I sure that you younger generation would like to go through what we went through.
What would you have done differently as a president of this country because the problem of Boko Haram is still very much with us?
Well, I have done what am I supposed to do. First of all, we support the President in his efforts to bring about peace and peaceful co-existence. We don’t have any other country except Nigeria. So, we must support all his efforts to bring about peace in the country. We would continue to support him to achieve that.
We are still talking about Babangida presidency. What would you have done that president Jonathan has not done?
Babangida Presidency expired about 22 years ago.
You were recently quoted in some of your press statements to have said that some of the problems bedeviling the country was the incompetence of the present leadership.
I am not sure you got me right.
You also threatened to take chief Edwin Clark to court…
Chief Clark is my friend. If you like, write it. I have known him for the last 30 or 35 years. There is a mutual respect between us. So, I would not wrong him in any way. I do respect him, and he would not deny me as his friend. That is settled.
If you were friends, why did you bring the issue to public domain, why not settle the matter privately, and amicably too?
You heightened it. When I say “you” I mean the media. The hype was very unnecessary.
There are lots of problems in the country today, from Boko Haram, Niger Delta insurgency, bad economy,coupled with agitation for 2015 elections. Will Nigeria survive all these?
You know what? When I was growing up, I was involved in so many things in this country,which bordered on what I will call stability of this countryfrom about 1963 and 1964. We were faced with so many things; riots - Tiv riots, Isaac Adaka Boro insurgency, you name it; operation “ weti e” in the south west, civil war.
These are all because we are a developing country. We went through all these and we are still going through challenges in a different manner. As a young man, I participated in every operation from 1963 till I left office. I believe as a developing country, all these are passing phases.
I told a group of some Unity School students, I didn’t have the pleasure or luxury of attending schools where everybody attended. This invariably affords you the opportunity to have friends virtually everywhere. So, one has the hope that one day we will come together for the sake of this country.
From the activities of Boko Haram so far, would you describe them as religious or political?
From my observation of Boko Haram, I want to say you guys have not done enough study of the sect,to find out the causes of all these. Even communal violence everywhere; boundary disputes, it could be in Akwa Ibom; Fulani upheavals with Gwari.Everywhere, these things are happening in the country. Somebody should be able to tell us how to move forward from all these.
You mentioned that civil war experience is not a laughable matter. In your estimation, which of the experiences would you consider most traumatic?
Let me be very honest with you, in 1966 when we went through the first crisis, there was a feeling that leadership at that time felt one did not want the other as part of the country. This led to the issue of secession.
But the most important lesson that I learnt at that time as a young officer was the fact that the relationship we established with my colleagues at the military academy. But circumstances separated us. Some of my colleagues were at the other side, while I was also at another side.
Honestly, what impressed me most, when we met each other, we were not enemies. We still remembered our younger days. We understood that political misunderstanding brought us at logger heads. I have always said this. I had a classmate at the other side, I knew he was at the other side and he knew I was at this side.
When the war ended in January, 1970, he came over. We embraced ourselves. We even teased ourselves that so, you were fighting me and so on.
So, the ability to go back to the Nigerian society and heal the wounds is the most remarkable. Hardly do you find countries that fought the civil war that forgets the experience in less than 30 years. I think the credit goes to Nigerians.
Could you relay your personal experiences in the last 71 years?
I listed 13 things in life, and I was looking for a psychologist to sit with and chat with him, so that I can pour out my experiences and feelings, and then he would be able to make sense out of my experiences and feelings.
So, if anybody among you could help me out, I would be grateful. As a leader, you have to go through many experiences, sometimes traumatic, sometimes good. But somebody should sit down with you to know how you reacted to certain circumstances of life. But I think on the sum total,God has been so kind.
So, June 12 was not a challenge?
It was a challenge of leadership. It was a real challenge. At that time, what you needed to do was to pick any newspaper and you had a feeling that in the next couple of days, Nigeria would break up. But we were able to come out of that.
Recently, you and your former boss, Chief Olusegun Obasanjo took the state of the nation to the public glare. Was this because President Jonathan is no longer accessible for private advice or what?
The answer to your postulation is “no”. We didn’t do anything. We are in good terms with President Jonathan. We talked to him. But some of your colleagues believe that I have never talked about Boko Haram. Because, you didn’t hear me; I have been accused of not talking.
We decided to take the opportunity of the Ramadan period like any other leader. What we are doing is to appeal to all Nigerians on behalf of government of the country. There was nothing bad in that. We maintain very good relationship with Mr. President.
Babangida at 70 was quarrelling with his former boss, but now we are talking together. But we knew who we are. If there is one man who believes in the unity of this country today, it is Obj. I also share the same view.
So, we have something that is bigger than all these tantrums of the newspapers and the rest of them. So, if we have something that is the common good of the country, why not? So, we have been talking. We didn’t sit idle like some people believe.
Your son, Mohammed, publicly declared for the governorship of niger state in 2015…
Cuts in --- He didn’t declare. I read what he said. He said, “I thank you for considering me worthy of holding political office in the state”. He didn’t say he wanted to be governor. I am very critical about this if it affects me. If he said that, it might not necessarily be governor; it could be local government chairmanship, it could be councilorship, it could be any political office.
The ambition is not there yet. But if he signifies intention, I would offer him the advice that a responsible father should give his son. He is a grown up man, I will lay everything on the table for him.
The economy of most countries around the world seem to be in trouble. In Nigeria, spending often over-shoot the budget. As a former leader how would you advice against this in order to prevent future economic quagmire?
Between 1985 and 1993, I managed poverty. I operated when a barrel of crude oil was as low as 12 dollars. But that was my luck. I don’t blame anybody for that, because I came in at that time when there was oil crisis, oil glut and the rest of them. But I was able to manage that. God made Nigeria again to pass 100 dollars. So, while I managed poverty, others managed affluence.
On the unbridled display of affluence by political and also media elites, I want to blame the media for promoting such and invariably heightening the tension.
For example, if somebody is threatening that the country will go to war, why should you publish such a thing? Why give it the coverage? You should have said this man is crazy, forget him. By now, you should know the serious people you give publicity when they talk.
Let me give some examples, I listened to Gani Fawehinmi anytime he talked. Even when he was abusing me I still read him because, you would pick up something good because he was talking on a turf he knew very well. He was a lawyer, and whatever he said he backed it up with facts and figures.
Also, the late Professor Ayodele Awojobi, as an engineer, he took the pains to actually find out what was wrong with Nigeria. So, when he talked, you would like to listen to him, because, there would always be something to learn. I was an avid reader of late Doctor Tai Solarin when I was in secondary school.
There was his column,” Thinking with You”. I grew up to know that even the whites teaching us at that time loved to read Doctor Solarin, because ,there was a lot of sense in what he said. But, there are some present Nigerians you have known for the last 20 years repeating the same theme that makes no sense, the moment they know they are being ignored, maybe we have a breeze of good air.
You were good at coining words. Some of your indelible coinages were “stepping aside,” “evil genius”. How did you come about those words?
Well, the “stepping aside” is a military term. When I was a cadet, there were some of us who could not comprehend easily when we were asked to match. When the order was “left, right, left, right”. Some people shot right, when the instructor asked them to shoot left .
So, you would be regarded as spoiling the column, and you would be directed to step aside. So, step aside while the rest of the column move forward. So, I stepped aside for you while the country moved forward.
On the “evil genius”, I was asked a question by Tell Magazine. They said people call you all sorts of names, ranging from “ Maradona”, a deft dribbler, and all those. They asked which of the names did I prefer? And I said the one “Evil Genius”.
They asked why? And I said because of its contradiction.
Why did you leave General Abacha behind when you were stepping aside?
I think I once had the opportunity to explain this. When I was leaving, there was an interim government in place. That government had a life. We drew up a constitution for that government. It came into force in November.
And it was supposed to expire in February, 1994. We wanted to make sure that the government was ably supported by the military so that they would be able to conduct election in February of 1994. And we could only do that knowing the kind of environment where we operated.
We respect seniority, we respect authority. So, we thought and rightly too, that Enerst Shonekan should be supported by a strong military, so that the threat of toppling him did not arise and he provided the stability and the right support for 82 days.
That was the idea. The late General Abacha was the Chief of Defence Staff, the Minister of Defence, and if anything happened, the public would be rest assured that there was
a senior officer with a lot of sense and respect, who would be able to pilot the affairs of the country. That was the reason. But what happened subsequently was a different kettle of fish.
How would you react to the accusation against Nigerian leaders as the selfish lots?
Let me use the example of our administration. I want to believe everything boils down to one thing at various levels on leadership. And we set up a process of selecting a leader at local government level,state level, state assembly, national assembly, president, and so on.
I think if we don’t keep at that system, so that the ordinary man will check you when you want to go astray.Due to your track record,the society should have the opportunity to say this is potential president A, B. He must be able to defend his wealth, where he couldn’t, he has to fall by the way side. I think we have not succeeded in doing this, and everybody walks into government believed to be haven to getting rich quick.
Fundamentally, on what hope, lies the survival of nigeria?
On the ordinary Nigerians. You know why? There is a town called Bagga in Borno State. If you have ever visited Bagga, today you find Nigerians from all parts of the country, living there in peace, going about their businesses. And that has been going on before independence. The Yoruba who are well known for commerce go there and also live there.
They have been completely assimilated by their environment. But our generation today will say if you have a Muslim governor, the deputy must be Christian, if you have a bushman governor, the deputy must come from the city, and so on.
These are things that cause disaffection, and they are caused by the so-called elites. Let me tell you, in the first republic, the late Joseph Tarka brought Kashim Imam from Borno was elected as representative of the Tiv people. Umoru Altini was from Sokoto.
He was the chairman of Enugu council. He lived there, he worked with them. He spoke the language and no problem. The thing started when we started with the mantle of leadership. When you don’t make it, you must find a reason for the loss. If you know as a governor, you only spend 8 years, what is the reason for the unhealthy competition. If you must make it, bid your time and prepare for the appropriate time.
Have you really called it quit with politics, because, the other day, your brother, General Buhari said he was no longer interested, only to change his mind?
I have said it. May be, I have to repeat it. At this age, running around the country to seek for vote, for me, is out of the question. I assure you, you will not see candidate Babangida in 2015.May God spare our lives, running around the country canvassing for votes. So, God willing, I will no longer run for presidential election.
The way things are going, what are your fears towards 2015?
Intolerance, that is number one. Number two, may be at various levels, we don’t seem to use experiences to shape our future. And unless we do that we will only be dancing on the spot. If we are able to have this without any ulterior motives, I still have strong hope in this country. And I still believe we would make it.
Are we in a democracy or civilian regime in Nigeria?
Did you not vote during the election? Democracy is described as government of the people, for the people and by the people. I think your question has been answered.
Are we ripe for state police in view of its clamour by some people in the country?
The fears against state police manifested in the 1950s and part of 1960s, when we had yan doka or what have you. I think, my take is the fear established in 1950, why is it still hunting us? Is it because we are lazy and we do not know that this why the fears persisted and this is what to do to eliminate those fears in our system?
And this is just the way I look at it, in other words, left to me, the whole purpose of government is to provide security for the people; security of lives and property. Anything you do to make sure that these are guaranteed is in order.
The fact that yan dokas were used to harass and intimidate political opponents in 1950s should not prevent us from having it. We are no longer in the same situation. Yes, it happened before, why should it happen now? I keep asking this question, so that people should try to move forward.
When we were in government, we came up with the project of National Guard. That was part of us that was roundly criticized, but people are coming back to talk about it. What intrigued me is the fact that because something happened in the 50s and 60s, why should Nigerians feel it can happen again in 2012?
A lot have said until the constitution is amended.But for me, I don’t believe a governor would use state police to say go and beat my opponent and all sorts of that. If such is done, remember, people can go to court. To me, the fears are unfounded.
Is anything wrong with the present federal police?
What do you have now? Less than half a million police men in the country? Remember, the federal police have to take charge of federal responsibilities, while the state police are also backed by enabling law to be able to operate. So, the state police would be buttressing federal efforts. Some people forget one thing.
Let me use Niger State as example, the Nupe live in local environment. They know virtually everybody living in the environment. So, detection of crime in their environment is going to be easy. There will be no problem identifying criminals among them with the state police who also come from the same environment.
Sometimes ago, very recently, there was the presence of heavy police men in Bida. It didn’t take long before the terrorists gang was fished out. This was because people know who they were and where they live. I have advocated for it in the past, and I still believe it can work.