BABANGIDA : WE'RE RETUNING TO THE POLITICAL, ECONOMIC PRESCRICTIONS OF MY REGIME

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You can tell a lot about a couple from their display of photographs. Some display photos of themselves with the high and mighty, others choose philosophical inscriptions. When you walk into the palatial hilltop mansion of former military president Ibrahim Babangida in Minna, the first things that catch your eye are the portraits of him and his late wife, Mrs. Maryam Babangida. They tell you how bonded the couple were before Maryam’s death in December 2009. He has learnt to live without her, though, “It hasn’t been easy.” Babangida, who turned 73 today, has played a role in virtually all the military governments in the country’s history. He led the troops that dislodged the coup leaders from the federal radio station in Lagos on February 13, 1976 during the failed attempt, led by Lieutenant Colonel Buka Dimka, to seize power. The coup resulted in the death of then Head of State, General Murtala Mohammed. And as Head of State, Babangida survived a military putsch on April 22, 1990, when, as he recalls, the mutineers “shot at our bed.” He conducted one of the longest transition to civil rule programmes in political history, which, however, failed following his annulment of the June 12, 1993 presidential election that Chief Moshood Abiola was poised to win. But Babangida remains an influential figure; his residence is a mecca for prominent politicians from across the country, as we found out when we visited his house last week. THISDAY crew of Tokunbo Adedoja, Vincent Obia, Abimbola Akosile and Aisha Wakaso asked Nigeria’s first ever military president about his life after power. Excerpts: How does it feel to be 73? Quite frankly, I feel old and I believe I am old. I am grateful to God for sparing my life up to this period. It’s by any means a good, great achievement, so I am grateful to God for this period. In a country where the level of life expectancy is low, and considering your military background, don’t you think turning 73 is a cause for big celebration? I have a different perspective. It is true, sometimes, birthdays are worth celebrating. But if you look at it from the other angle, it also reminds you that you are getting closer to the grave. So you have to balance the rolling out of the drum and the fact that whatever age you have achieved, you have lost one year in your lifespan. So as you get older, we should just dedicate your time to pray. How has life been for you since you left power in 1993? Thanks be to God. I’ve been out of office now for almost 21 years; it looks like yesterday. But life has been very fine. God has been kind to me and my own environment also has contributed a lot in making the retirement a worthwhile thing. I live within the people I grew up with, I live in the city where I was born and bred; so, virtually it is like going out to work and coming back home to rest. How have you been coping since the death of your wife? It hasn’t been easy, but thank God, it is something that you know, somebody has to die, somebody will die and that should develop the spirit. It shouldn’t become a shock because I will go, she will go, everybody will go, and so on. But she has left a very big vacuum. But I am grateful; our children have been doing well to make me feel as if she were alive. Fate has always placed you at strategic junctures in the country’s history since the civil war years, through your roles in the various military regimes, to your emergence as military president. Looking back, are there things you feel you shouldn’t have done or you could have done differently if you had another chance? First of all, I will continue to be grateful to God for seeing me through this process in life. Of course, I started a career as a military officer and when I got in, Nigeria was newly an independent country. So we had a lot of problems that had to do with the development of a new nation all the time. And God has made it in such a way that we were brought up in very sound, good professional military leadership and we have been able to imbibe those cultures. It’s like you just have to work hard, otherwise, you drop by the wayside and we did that. I think I have been very fortunate in the profession. We had a lot of experience in life and I have no option but to continue thanking God for allowing me to witness these things. Are there things you wish you had done differently in life? It depends, maybe, when I was privileged to be your “dictator”. We had some concepts; we had some vision about how the country should move along or how the country should progress. But I know also that there are times when we had to look at the issues again. If you take the political party system, for example, I believed then that given the Nigerian history, given the Nigerian experiences immediately after independence, the country has always been a two-party state because of the alliances and the rest of them. So we found that we were dealing with two or a combination of two major forces that came together to form their own groups. And we decided then to take the bull by the horns and said, well, because of the antecedents, because of the history, because of the experiences, let’s go for the two-party system straight away. Of course, I knew, the rest you know it, it’s all history, it was military, it was regimentation, it was typical, what you guys - the media - enjoy. Well, you have an experience now, by the time you went into it, the elections in 2007, you had almost 61 parties. But now, thanks be to God, by the look of things, maybe, we will come back to where we started, to two parties. By the look of things we have two parties really, but then everybody has been given the chance to participate; everybody has been given the chance in the constitution to profess, to go into any association and hinder themselves and this is what is happening. So maybe we should have given room to allow others to come in, even though, they might not be strong elective parties. If you had another opportunity, would you have annulled the June 12, 1993 presidential election? I think what happened, one thing I realised, when we came up with the transition programme back in about 1989 or thereabouts, we were very very specific. We drew up a transition programme and made it in such a way that it would give us an opportunity to put it into practice and where it isn’t working we stop and then remodel it, or rethink it and then move forward. I said so when we started the transition. Unfortunately, nobody remembered that we said we would implement things and when we find we have a hitch we would stop and then redo it. And then it did happen. Of course, we got criticised for running an unending, to quote you guys, “unending transition programme.” I felt maybe if we were given the opportunity to implement it, a lot of things that are now manifesting themselves would have been put right and then move forward. But again, the wishes of the people, it was long, it was unwieldy. But thanks also be to God, when eventually we stepped aside, I wouldn’t like to call it another transition, but it was much longer, five years after we had left. But what we tried to do at that time, if you had allowed us, the period when we drew up what you in the media called “contraption”, called transition programme, it was supposed to last six months. It had a constitution for six months and there would be a general election. Again, Nigerians are weary of politics, weary of voting and you would not accept any of these things. So we gave way and a contraption came in the interim and then the same Nigerians welcomed the new short period. Then my colleagues, the military, did intervene again. Again, it’s not their fault, but they had the courage to do that because you guys helped them to do it. Suddenly, people were like, oh, yes, this is a good military administration, this is bad...You all know it. These things are history now, you know. But I have always told my friends, maybe, we were a bit ahead of you in thinking. Now we have to come back to what we wanted to do in order to progress. To me, that is nobody’s fault, but the process of development in any given country. Don’t you think that if some of the “political soldiers” you left behind at the time you stepped aside, like Sani Abacha, had gone with you, there could have been an opportunity to take another look at the poll annulment and, perhaps, reverse it? No, but don’t forget, at that time we set up an interim government. We set up machinery to back that interim government, to make sure it stabilised it so that that interim government could conduct an election within the period of six months. That was not allowed to happen. A lot of events subsequently happened and those gave the military the courage to take over. We have always believed and we have always heard, military does not intervene unless there is a fertile ground for the intervention, and that intervention was provided again by us, Nigerians, the elite, the politicians and the rest people. Of course, I’m sure you know what happened. When the interim government went there, nobody liked it, contraption! When the military got in there, oh, the worst military regime was better than that that happened before it. Of course, what would come was scramble for political offices by the elite. Then, we – I mean the military – outsmarted you… and then we settled down for another five years. A chain of events happened after that transition – the death of Abiola, Kudirat, Abacha, etc. – and democracy could not be restored until 1999. You might never have envisaged all that. Oh, it’s so simple! If you had allowed the interim arrangement to proceed. The purpose of putting that, again I’ll quote you, the contraption, was to allow Nigerians time to regroup, to re-plan and to launch themselves into another election. But you were in a hurry, you were in no mood to tolerate that sort of thing and six months was too long. Now six months turned into five years. What we are saying is that if you had the opportunity in the last days of your regime to do some reconsideration, could you have allowed the acclaimed winner of the June 12, 1993 election to take office to avoid all the crisis that happened at the time? I believe though that that, perhaps, would have been the lazy man’s option. If you look at the situation at the time, you cannot even guarantee the security of the country when those things were going on. So definitely by our own calculations, we said the people, the country would need a minimum of six months to readjust, to restrategise. And when we drew the interim government, don’t forget it had a constitution and that constitution was to last six months. So it could have been abandoned, by now there would have been elections. We didn’t stop anybody who participated in it not to participate, just to allow everybody to go so that we do a trial. After 15 years of unbroken democracy, would you say democracy has come to stay in Nigeria? Democracy has not come to stay in any part of the world yet, because it’s a continuing development. The good thing about it, it gives room for practices, it gives room for conventions, it gives room for corrections and even amendment of the constitution. So it’s a continuing process and I think a journey of 1,000 years starts with one step and the one step is what we are going through now and I believe we will still say that we are learning in the next 20 or 30 years. Many of the people that participated in the transition programme then have in their reflections tended to give the impression that you were kind of forced to take some of the decisions you took at the time or there were voices at your elbow warning you never to do certain things. Were you under pressure from anybody to do some of the things you did then? My honest answer to that is no! I wasn’t under any pressure; we were working based on knowledge on what we believed could happen at that time. So we acted in the interest of the country. Is there anything you consider your greatest regret about the transition programme? My only regret was that you didn’t allow it to work. I mean, Nigerians. How? But Nigerians went to the polls, each time you said Nigerians should go to the polls, they went, voted, and winners emerged… I know, but you were not patient enough. I think you were tired of seeing our faces, I must accept that. I did say, the best thing, if I was the problem, was to step aside and allow others to continue, and we did. When you said you were stepping aside, many people interpreted it to mean that you were just around the corner and waiting to, possibly, come back. Why did you choose that phrase - “step aside”? I think what people didn’t seem to realise was that I was a military officer, brought up by conventions and traditions of the military, and I was telling you then that there was a column of soldiers marching and one man was moving out of step. When you said left, I chose right and when you said right, I chose left. So I said I’m out of tune with the column of soldiers marching. And, normally, you shout at the man that is lifting the left leg when we say right or lifting right leg when we say left. You always tell him to step aside so that the others in the column will have a successful march. And this is what I did for you, I just applied my military convention and tradition just to give you time. Are you not worried that your regime and your legacy have seemed to be defined by the annulment of the June 12, 1993 election, despite the many commendable programmes of your administration? I thought I was a bit worried at the initial stage, but thanks be to God, some of the things that we tried to save then, that we tried to correct then, did not manifest. They are manifesting now. Take our economic policies, for example, we ran three things: we ran both political and economic rearrangement of the entire country. Okay, again we were honest, we felt to change requires a lot of hard work; if you are not prepared to work hard, then it would sweep you away. We said it, we told the public, but what we did, we underestimated the Nigerians’ resistance to changes. If we knew they were not so resilient, maybe, we would have tampered with it relatively. But we were confident that what we were doing was the right thing, painful though. Now most of these things, this is okay. 1986, we did SAP (Structural Adjustment Programme), you are doing it now. You still talk about privatisation, you still talk about commercialisation, you still talk about government not involved in running the day-to-day affairs of the businesses. This is what you are doing now and this is what we tried to do then. You, and that includes we, didn’t understand it. As a former Chief of Army Staff and Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces, why do you think it is taking the military so long to take out the terrorists and guarantee the security of lives and property of Nigerians? I would say that every government in the last 54 years of the Nigerian independence went through one challenge or the other and these are purely the challenges of development. Tafawa Balewa’s government was trying to build a nation and then he was tackled by the military. The military again went through the same process about instability, about quarrels, all sorts of things. So, to me, it’s not something new, any nation has to undergo certain challenges in life. Yakubu Gowon went through the war to keep the country together. The challenges at that time: keeping the country together, giving people a sense of belonging to believe that they have a stake in Nigeria. He cut the country into 12 states. That was as far back as 1966, the whole thing went on and on. It would continue to grow, this is the process of development; all developing nations have to go through one challenge or the other. So the insecurity you talked about, we went through it before in a different form, it culminated in a civil war, you know, and now it is the insurgency and all sorts of kidnap, and so on. But I think the most important thing is that Nigerians must come to accept that we have a problem, that it is a Nigerian problem and that it is the Nigerians that will solve this problem. It is not a problem for one part of the country; it is a problem for every one of us. Now we have to see that and then we have to support what the government is doing to bring about stability, peace and progress in the country. There has to be this understanding, first, it is a Nigerian problem, secondly, nobody can solve it for us, it has to be solved by the Nigerians and those in authority are prepared at any given time because they know they have the support of Nigerians, therefore, they provide the necessary leadership, both in the armed forces and the government, and so on. That is the only way to get over this problem. Do you subscribe to the view that the Nigerian military is not actually equipped enough to combat the current terrorist challenge? I think there are a lot of things that probably will need to be looked at. One section has to do with the motivation of the armed forces and this would come about as a result of the adequate training they receive at various military training institutions. Motivation at all levels from platoon, company, battalion, brigade, division and the Army itself. That has to be employed. I think as far as the equipment and the rest of them are concerned, I think the government is doing its best to provide them. But don’t forget that even if you do, you also have to train them to be able to master the use of such equipment. These days, it is not like warfare, the system now is not like before when brute force is what you need. Now you need both brains, sophistication because most of the weaponry are sophisticated weapons. You require an adequately trained person with a high level of education to be able to handle some of these things. So it takes time. Do you see the insurgency in the North and the terrorism Nigeria is facing as a serious threat to the country’s survival? Threat to the survival of Nigeria, I would say no! It is a security threat, which has not gone beyond the capability of the Nigerian people and the Nigerian government to resolve. It is not a threat, quite frankly, to the survival of the country. I believe we have passed that stage, having been through three years of the civil war. The number of people, casualties as a result of the civil war, both dead maimed and so on, is quite high and this shouldn’t be and would not be a problem for Nigeria. Do you think 2015 poses a threat to the country, considering the crisis that followed the 2011 presidential election, because there have been contentions over the president’s right to do another term? I tell you, Nigeria is a very exciting country, from my little experience, from the little works I have done in the military and outside the military. It’s one country where there is never a dull moment. I think Nigeria is worth living in because it is very exciting all the time; the people are very vibrant, the people like to talk. But I think when things are settled, we normally like to readjust, think and talk and behave like born again people. We are fond of issuing threats; everybody wants to be recognised for one thing or the other. I think we accept that; I think what we are going through now we have gone through before. If you remember May, June, July of 1966 to May of 1967, that in between, what transpired then was not more than what is happening now. But because we are a very determined people, we were able to confront them, and I think we will be able to do the same. What is your opinion on true federalism, resource control, and devolution of power, which have been the most contentious issues at the national conference? My view on this is that we did talk about it when we were there. Devolution of power, true federalism. Again, coming from the military, you would think it is not the best thing, but it was quite obvious to me at that time even though we ran a military government. Take, for example. the issue of education. Federal government has nothing to do with secondary education, the same with agriculture. You don’t need to bog the federal government with some of these things. In true federalism, what we were saying then, which we are trying to say now, is that the states should be sufficiently autonomous to do things on their own without recourse to the federal government. And I remember, we set up a similar committee; what we need to do at the confab is to go and open the job we did, brush it up, polish it and then you have a working document. Can you tell us how you survived on April 22, 1990, during the Major Gideon Orkar coup, and how you remember that date? First, I give thanks to God for sparing our lives; when I say our lives, I mean the family. That is number one. Number two, again this is God’s way of doing things. We woke up very late in the night to find that there was a siege in Dodan Barracks and we were all in. My wife woke me up to say, “There is katakakta,” there is trouble. We saw it through the window and we started applying what we were taught to do. By the time they shot at our bedroom we were already downstairs. So God has planned it in such a way, I think it was a miracle actually. Your bedroom was shot at? Yeah, and it was not shooting at the wall but the bed. But we were out. Would you say there was insider participation? Of course, they had insider information because the boys who got in there were actually our guards within the house. So they were sufficiently briefed, they knew what to do. Again, this is one of the wonderful works of Lord. But if they were your guards, what could have made them to connive with other people to attack you? That is the military coup, connivance; we are very good in connivance. Somebody must have gone to them to make promises to them, and they got carried away. Shortly after the April 22, 1990 coup, you moved the seat of government to Abuja. Was that a response to the coup, even though we also know that plans to move the federal capital to Abuja started under the Murtala regime? I think it was for strategic reasons, it was very strategic. We were in Lagos, there were two governments in Lagos; the federal government and the state government, and we experienced a lot of confusion. Even under a military regime? Yes, because it has to affect people, it has to affect movement, it has to affect, name it, anything because that is the centre. So we made a decision that we should allow the state to run the state and we got out. It did fast-track the movement to Abuja, there is no doubt about it. Just to make sure that government is functioning. Since you left the military, you have made attempts to run as a democratic leader… Cuts in: Only once! (smiling) But in a way, twice, in 2006/2007, when you withdrew for President Yar’Adua through a letter that you wouldn’t like to run against him and you gave reasons, and in 2011, too, when you even had a campaign director… Cuts in: For every statement I did I think I made you understand why I had to do what I did. In 2007 I didn’t find it morally convenient to pitch tent against my junior brother, Yar’Adua, and I said so. And in 2011 I agreed to the power of consensus and three/four of us agreed that whatever the outcome we would accept it and work for whoever emerged and my friend Atiku emerged and we all agreed. This was an agreement by all of us, we are gentlemen, we wouldn’t like to deviate, that is what happened. Did you feel betrayed by the elders’ committee at the time? No, I didn’t feel betrayed; I could understand. There are those who believed that my background has no experience in politics, it is to give orders. So I remained a military man, “dictator”, who was not wanted in democracy; I can accept that. Those were the things that happened. Do you still believe in the philosophy of the Northern Political Elders Forum on the turn of the North to produce the president of Nigeria? I think the argument was simply put. It started during Obasanjo’s political conference. When they agreed on rotation between the North and the South and that was what brought about all the noise about, it is the turn of the North or it is the turn of the South. So, do you still believe that a northerner should be the next president of Nigeria? I still believe that the best Nigerian should emerge as the president of this country, irrespective of tribe. Somebody that Nigerians would say, yes, this is the right person to be our president. Who cares as long as he is a Nigerian and he hasn’t emerged from the moon. But geopolitical politics is still strong? No, not when it comes to elections of let’s say, a local government chairman, a governor, or a president. These are all individuals. In a state, there will be only one governor and he must be able to command respect and the acceptability of the entire geopolitical areas of the state. In my state, we have Zone A, Zone B and Zone C, but what I am saying, there must be a man who commands significant and special respect among everybody in the three zones and if he sticks out his hand, he should be supported. The same thing for the president and the chairperson of the local government. Considering the attempt that you have made to be president under a democracy, do you see democratic presidency as one of your unfulfilled dreams at 73? No. Democratic president, yes, but as president of the federal republic of Nigeria. There is this debate that the problem of Nigeria is the leadership and not the followership. What is your opinion on this? I think I would put the whole emphasis on the leadership. The followership is easy; they can always adjust quite easily. So if you have a strong leader at any level, local, state or national, who believes in what he is doing and has got very competent lieutenants to work with, I think the followership would not have any difficulty in accepting even difficult decisions. But the leader also shouldn’t be bogged down by the crisis from among the followership. I see it as a simple thing to do. If I have a problem, let’s say as a president, democratically-elected president, if I have a problem, let’s say with the National Assembly, what I would do always, if I cannot have my way, is to go out to you guys, the masses. If the masses realise that I’m the right person, then they call their representatives to order that the president is right. That is what we mean now, to advance over the National Assembly. If the executive feels so strongly, you can go over them and address your nation and say this is what you are going to do and plead with them to call their members of the National Assembly to order to come and do what I think is right for the country. What do you think the leadership can do to make the followers have that kind of confidence? I think there has not been sufficient interaction. I’ll give you two examples, two governors, one is Lagos and the other one is Osun. They don’t have any inhibitions; they feel free to sit with the public, they feel free, like Oshiomhole, to dance with the ordinary people. So that makes them feel, “Oh, he is part of us, we dance with him, our governor, we talk,” those sorts of things. Those barriers should not be there. I know the problem of security, people are scared of their lives, and so on, but I think a governor should be able to feel free among his people, talk with them, let them see him, touch him and I think the system will develop. Going back to 1999, there were insinuations that former President Olusegun Olusanjo had an agreement with you to do one term and then support you to become president after his tenure. Was there an agreement that Obasanjo should support your presidential aspiration? There was no such thing as an agreement for either one term or my term. You know, the Nigerian journalist has a very fertile mind; there was no such thing at all. Now, if you look at the situation in Nigeria at the time that my elder brother, OBJ, came out, we were looking for a man who is known in the country, a man who had an experience in the running of the country, a man who has his mind, who believes in himself; and then a man who believes in this country that it should remain one. Quite easily, OBJ fit that bill, he had the experience, he went to war and he was the Head of State. Everybody in this country knows that name and I added one other quality, which he has that you would laugh at, he cannot be intimidated by the press. So at that time in Nigeria, we looked for a man like that and I am glad our assessment was right. So there was no agreement? No agreement at all; we chose him because he was the right person at that time. Finally, if you were not a soldier, what other career would you have chosen? And what is your opinion on the immunity clause for chief executives at the federal and state levels? Do you believe the immunity clause should be retained in the constitution? I think this immunity came about because of the attitude of Nigerians either to the leadership or to themselves. I will give one example, I know if there is no such clause, the president, a governor, a chairman of local government would spend his four-year term going to court; that is typical Nigerian and we can’t deceive ourselves. We have a president whose whole four years, he spends going to court, answering one court action or the other. To that extent, I accept that it is a sensible thing to put that clause so that the president can work. But the same position has not exonerated him; if you leave the office, you can still be brought before justice. But while you are there, you get a certain degree of protection, to protect the office, to allow things to work and this is because we know the type of people, the type of country, the type of attitude we have. A time will come when it will be there in the law or in the constitution but you wouldn’t have any excuse, any reason to go about applying it. I think it is just a safeguard. By the time we have people like you, who have a name to protect; you have your integrity to protect, anybody who has attain the position of governor or local government chairman or the president, would not do stupid things. He has to protect himself, to protect his personal integrity, so he wouldn’t like it to be tarnished so he would try to remain correct all the time. If you were not a soldier, what else would you have loved to be? I used to be crazy about being an engineer, and I meant it. But when the military recruitment drive was going on, that time and they told us all the nice things about the military profession, the good salary, 64 pounds a month and other things, there were about 15 of us in the class, and we all changed our minds and collectively we said we wanted to go and eventually 11 of us became commissioned officers from the same school. So I was flexible, I went along with the time. At 73, what is your wish for Nigeria? I’m confident that whatever the country is going through now, it is going to overcome it. So I want to appeal to everyone of us to come together for the sake of this country, for we don’t have any other country to call our own except this country. So we must work together and we must support anybody in authority that works towards our development, a better nation.

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