Passing through the first gate to the Minna Hilltop Mansion Wednesday last week, reminiscences of my first visit in 2003 flooded through my mind. It was at the first gate that, as a reporter with ‘The Punch’ newspapers, with many others, my journey to the Hilltop Mansion was halted while attempting to attend the wedding ceremony of the eldest daughter of former Military President General Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida (retd), Aisha.
The enormous crowd had surged against the gate and almost pulled it down. Additional deployments of security personnel from the second gate would later lead to slamming of the gate and rendered my dream of making it to the second gate of the Babangidas’ home a mirage.
Arriving at the second and final gate to the Hilltop Mansion, a security operative had peered at me unbelievably when I told him I had an appointment with the former military president.
“Your name is not on the list. Who made the appointment?’
“The General himself,” came my response as he looked at me strangely.
After an unanswered phone call, followed by a text message, a security personnel came running to the gate: ‘Who is Simon?’
The big heavy door to the Mansion was flung open and I stepped into the opulent home that has continued to attract media reviews. I sat on one of the chairs in a waiting room, and was soon joined by other guests. Five minutes after my scheduled appointment, I was led into an expansive room where the former military leader and elder statesman was seated with his son, Mohammed. Looking calm and welcoming, Gen. IBB offered me a handshake and beckoned me to take my seat.
I have written so much about the Artillery General in my over two decades of journalism career but never met him in person. Twice I was billed to be a part of a courtesy visit by two media organisations I worked for but my name was always struck out.
The photograph of the former First Lady and wife to General IBB, Hajiya Maryam Babangida, is festooned to the wall with other historic pictures that bear the memories of the IBB family that has left indelible footprints on the political sands of the nation. Throughout the nearly two hours of our interaction, I was amazed at his deep fecundity of knowledge and his ability to recall events even after attaining four score years. If the years have left trails of aging on the man that escaped several assassination attempts during his eight-yea rule, his intelligence and profound interest in keeping himself abreast of national and global issues left me out of breath.
We spoke on national and global issues. I recalled how his recent media outings ahead of his 80th birthday last month was seen as befitting testimonial of his national relevance. For many who watched his interviews on various television stations, the gap-toothed military leader “was more sinned against than sinning”, taking into consideration the present level of dizzying rot that has turned him into a Knight in shining armour. More than any other time, Nigeria’s democracy is slowly turning into a license for unrestrained massacre and enthronement of all forms of violence, forcing many, including yours sincerely, to rethink the relevance of the IBB years in national history.
Out of power and watching from the sidelines, the battle-tested General is deeply worried by the spiraling cases of insecurity ripping across the nation. He is quick to express an unflagging faith on the resilience of the Nigerian people in surviving present challenges confronting the nation. As someone who was in power and knows the challenges facing the man steering the ship of state, the man whom some Nigerians prefer to call ‘Maradona’ is never favourably disposed in criticising governments before him and after him.
“Every age comes with its own challenges and every government must rise and confront the problems facing it at any given time. To confront these challenges, the government is expected to always evolve means in tackling some of these problems in order to enhance the living standards of citizens,” he noted.
“How can we change the current trend of insecurity and reunite our citizens for the common good?” I asked.
His response: “Leadership is key but the need to change the narrative is crucial and this should involve the government and citizens. Elders must be seen rallying our youths for unity and not fanning embers of discord for disunity.
“There is everything we can gain in remaining a united country. In our time, the unity of Nigeria was non-negotiable as it was not to be subjected to any form of debate. We were convinced that our energies should be directed in strengthening the cord of our unity and not exhaust our energies on debating the basis of our unity”.
The former military president looks forward to a time when our ethnic and religious identities would be swallowed up in our citizenship as Nigerians. Like Rwanda where the Tutsis and Hutu have incinerated ethnic consciousness to embrace Rwandese citizenship, the Landlord of Minna Hilltop Mansion believes that deliberate efforts must be pursued to build a nation where everyone is a proud citizen.
“Why did you register Nigeria as a member of the Organisation of Islamic Countries (OIC)? Did you receive same resentment from the Muslim populace when your government restored diplomatic relations with Israel?” I asked.
He recalled that the OIC matter attracted a rancorous debate during his administration. To quickly douse the tension and allay fears of Christians over the matter, he told me that his government set up a panel headed by Brigadier-General John Shagaya, now late, with a 100-membership that was split equally between Muslims and Christians.
“At the end of the panel’s sitting, every grey area in the OIC controversy was clearly resolved, with all conditions regulating the participation of Nigeria as a member clearly spelt out. Our full membership of the organization was aimed at maximising the financial benefits for our nation.
“Economic advantages in accessing funds for national development informed our government’s decision of joining the OIC; it was never an attempt at foisting any particular religion on the country as Nigeria was and is still a secular state even after joining the organisation,” IBB added.
On whether his government had opposition from the Muslim population over the restoration of diplomatic ties with the Jewish State of Israel, his answer was in the negative.
“We never had a single protest or opposition from the Muslim population. The decision to restore relations with Israel was made after a thorough discussion by the Armed Forces Ruling Council (AFRC). There was no resentment from the Muslim population as the restoration of diplomatic ties with Israel was predicated on the advantages the country would derive with Israel for national development,” IBB noted.
From the June 12 debacle that has assumed an emotional debacle to the monster of corruption; from the need to evolve templates for new paradigm shift in leadership recruitment to the role of youths in re-aligning forces for a new nation. Gen. IBB remains fastened to the anchor of a new dawn.
He spoke more than he knew and was always willing to listen. The former Military President expressed the hope that the challenges our nation now face shall find answers in the springiness of citizens and their capacity to pass through a dark tunnel without losing hope for a new dawn.
I did not leave my host without telling him my own views on what I believe was ailing our country. I told him the pride of being Nigerian citizens is gradually being eroded, with the North completely losing capacity for consensus-building for national action.
Nigeria, I added, was on the brink and many citizens, including yours sincerely, are wondering if our nation can crawl out of this despairing hole of insecurity that has turned our country into a slaughter slab. I never missed the opportunity to tell the former military president that in the democracy that we are, the legislature has completely abandoned its duties of check and balance as provided by the constitution.
If Nigeria must be salvaged from those whose activities are posing existential threats to our survival, then, those who embrace silence for fear of daring political consequences must shake off the dawny sleep and speak for our common humanity.
While we spoke for nearly two hours, several reminders on those waiting for the audience interrupted our conversation. I felt it was time to end the interaction to allow others to have their time with him.
As I bade him farewell, it was clear that despite being out of power, Gen. IBB has kept himself abreast of not only national but global issues. Considering his deep understanding of our nation, it is very clear that we still need his iconic statesmanship in many years to come.