By Sufuyan Ojeifo
The month of August is special to former military president, General Ibrahim Badamosi Babangida (IBB). It was on the seventeenth of the month in 1941 that he was born in the dusty town of Minna. He assumed presidential power on August 27, 1985 and stepped aside on August 27, 1993, after spending eight years in the saddle. So, essentially, the eighth month in the calendar holds a great deal of attraction and significance for his admirers in the contemplation and celebration of the IBB persona.
By stepping aside amid the ballyhoo that greeted the annulment of the June 12, 1993 presidential election won by the late Chief M.K.O. Abiola, IBB cleverly negotiated his survival against so many forces which engaged him in supremacy battles. For instance, with the support of a carefully selected crop of academics and brilliant minds, he survived the dialectics and polemics of intellectual interrogations of the contents of his transition programme from the wider community of the nation’s anti-military eggheads.
IBB also surmounted the political confrontations by the old guard of barely principled politicians, who piled pressure on him to surrender power to civil authority, as well as the tangible strain by his own military constituency, which was ready to explore the coup option as a last resort to bring his regime to a terminus.
In the peak of the commotion, the army general who survived a bloody coup masterminded by Major Gideon Orkar, decided to stop the seeming unending mesmerisation of the polity, characterised by continuous shifts of and adjustments in the transition timetable. In the face of obvious loss of popular support and national goodwill, the famed Maradona of Nigeria’s political landscape, threw in the towel, emplaced an Interim National Government headed by Chief Ernest Shonekan and retreated to his Hilltop mansion in Minna.
Since 1993, the avuncular IBB has ministered to his loyalists and cult of followership from the mythical Hilltop mansion, which, at an intersection, typified a safe haven – a sanctuary of protection – for his followers against all manner of onslaughts by successive administrations and officialdoms. But that myth was shattered in 2006 when the then president, General Olusegun Obasanjo, unleashed the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) on IBB’s first son, Mohammed, for his alleged 24 percent shareholding in Globacom under the chair of Otunba Mike Adenuga.
The melodrama of Mohammed’s invitation by the EFCC happened about the eve of IBB’s 65th birthday in 2006. It was also a prelude to the widespread agitation by IBB’s followers to have him join the race for the presidency in 2007. Between hunting down Adenuga, who is believed to be a trusted business ally of IBB and Mohammed, IBB’s son, was IBB himself who, although was untouched, got the message that he should not attempt to vie for the presidency on the platform of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) or any other party’s platform for that matter.
Since that incident, which saw IBB withdraw his interest after picking the expression of interest form, he has remained a kingmaker with a perceptive oracular divination. His influence in shaping the direction of leadership and governance has not been diminished by the reality of the socio-economic and political condition that served as an endgame to his regime in 1993.
Indeed, the political ferment that culminated in the anti-climax of his historic egress is an inalienable part of the corpus of knowledge that underpins the nation’s ill-fated Third Republic, over which his regime superintended. Notwithstanding, he chose to be his own prophet, declaring that he was stepping aside. The simple deduction from his “step aside” agreement was that he would or could return to power some day. He actually tried but his prophecy did not come to fruition.
The year 2007 marked a dramatic retreat by IBB into his shell. It was a denouement of sorts. There were views in political circles that the political razzmatazz (of announcing his interest in the presidency and picking the PDP expression of interest form) was his last. Validation: in 2007, he was 66 years. That was the year the late President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua emerged as president of Nigeria and succeeded Obasanjo.
But, surprisingly, in 2010, following the death of Yar’Adua, he was one of the northern aspirants shortlisted by some northern leaders for the choice of a consensus candidate that would be supported by the north in the PDP presidential primary. But Atiku Abubakar, the consensus choice of the northern elders, could not stop Goodluck Jonathan from picking the PDP ticket for the 2011 presidential election.
Despite his quiet, intense craving for the presidency, there were reports that IBB did not give the 2010 quest his best push like Atiku. IBB understands the efficacy of support by the federal government in the contestation for and wresting of presidential power from an incumbent president who knows his onions.
But then, how did the Maradona of Nigerian politics get stuck in the mud of his own political calculations (or is it miscalculations)? With his awesome influence and stranglehold on the mechanics of control of successive military governments after his, IBB had been largely, for instance, instrumental to the emergence of Obasanjo as president in 1999.
In 2003, IBB associates’ claim that he allowed Obasanjo to seek a second term in office was understandable. But in 2007, opposition to his presidential aspiration came from Obasanjo. As a passionate and strategic power player, he would have entered the race if he had the support of Obasanjo’s presidency. But because he did not secure the critical support, he decided to withdraw from the race.
In his letter of withdrawal from the race which he sent to Obasanjo, he said he was taking that step because of the moral dilemma occasioned by the entry of General Aliyu Gusau and Alhaji Umar Yar’Adua both of whom he described as a friend and a younger brother respectively into the race.
There is no doubt that IBB, as an Army General, knows when to advance and when to retreat in the battlefield. A master of his political environment, he is used to having things working or worked out as planned. His decision to step aside from office on August 27, 1993 was hard but expedient. It was a personal sacrifice he had to make in the interest of peace, stability and unity of the nation.
Perhaps, after the 1993 experience, he considered and still considers no sacrifice too difficult to make. This must have been at the bottom of his resolve to quietly ease out of the race without embracing the idea of confronting Obasanjo in a witty and gritty succession battle.
This has been his disposition thus far. Even at the present moment, the gap-toothed general understands the dynamics of the Nigerian political landscape. He knows how to sustain his own political rhythm or relevance. His recent call that Nigeria should embrace restructuring was in apple-pie order and perfectly presented him as a true and perceptive statesman.
At 76, there is nothing more to fear. This is not the time for him to speak tongue-in-cheek. He must continue to speak forcefully and fearlessly. His position on restructuring, regardless of the scathing attacks from some quarters, reinforces the popular agitation for it. IBB, like Atiku Abubakar, has hit the bull’s eye with his advocacy. He must necessarily use his awesome influence and experience to help define and redefine the future and destiny of a restructured Nigeria. For his essential advocacy and numerous legacies in government, I wish IBB well on his 76th birthday.
*Ojeifo, an Abuja-based journalist, contributed this piece via email@example.com
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