The house Ibrahim Babangida built is riddled with pain and suffering, contends Ike Okonta
General Ibrahim Babangida, Nigeria’s former military Head of State, has dominated the politics of this country since December 1983 when he and then General Muhammadu Buhari shot their way to power. Indeed, there is a sense in which it can be said that political events in the past four decades have been shaped directly or indirectly by these two political actors and their followers.
However, when General Buhari assumed office in May 2015 as President General Babangida retreated into his shell for understandable reasons. He had eased Buhari out of power in August 1985 as head of state and clamped him in detention for several years. The fear in the Babangida camp in 2015 was that Buhari would have his revenge on the former. The fear was further heightened when Buhari had Colonel Sambo Dasuki, former President Goodluck Jonathan’s National Security Adviser, detained and charged for embezzling an estimated $2 billion given to him by Jonathan to facilitate his re-election in 2015. Even so, President Buhari did not go after Babangida as expected. He did not probe Babangida’s administration as some of his lieutenants had urged him. Buhari forgave and let Babangida be.
This generosity on President Buhari’s part has so emboldened General Babangida that on the occasion of his 80th birthday last month he criticized the former’s administration as being more corrupt than the one he presided over between 1985 and 1993. His sidekicks, including General Abdulsalaami Abubakar, former military Head of State and Babangida Aliyu, former governor of Niger State took to the airwaves and challenged Nigerians who had evidence of corruption during Babangida’s tenure to make it public. Babangida himself gave several newspaper and television interviews where he passed himself off as an elder statesman, pontificating on national affairs. All in all the 80th birthday celebration was a blatant attempt to wash Babangida’s image clean.
But facts are stubborn things and no amount of image-laundering will wash away the fact that General Babangiga is till date the worst Head of State Nigeria has had the misfortune to encounter. Some have argued that the late General Sani Abacha was worse than Babangida because he jailed M.K.O. Abiola, the winner of the 1993 presidential election and proceeded to empty the national treasury into his capacious pocket. But this position does not take cognizance of the fact that it was General Babangida who prepared the ground for Abacha to tread on. Babangida so traumatized Nigeria morally, politically and economically that Abacha simply continued where his predecessor left off.
Consider the moral aspect of General Babangida’s tenure in office. Corruption has always been common practice in Nigeria since independence in October 1960. Even so, corruption was clandestine, something the right hand did in the dead of night without letting the left hand know. But all this changed when General Babangida became Head of State in 1985. He popularized corruption. He transformed it into an instrument of governance. He made it the go-to strategy with which followers and critics alike were ‘settled’ and made to join the bandwagon. On Babangida’s watch, corrupt practices became so commonplace that the honest and God-fearing stood out like a sore thumb and were made to look foolish. From local government councillors right up to military governors and ministers – all were merrily partaking in the corruption festival. The country had never had it so bad.
So loud was the demand to probe Babangida’s administration after he was forced to quit office by pro-democracy protesters in August 1993 that General Sani Abacha, his successor had to establish a panel of enquiry headed by the respected economist, Dr Pius Okigbo, to examine Babangida’s financial activities. This was in July 1994`. In his statement on the occasion of the submission of the report of the Panel On The Reform And Reorganisation Of The Central Bank of Nigeria, Dr Okigbo accused Babangida and members of his government of stealing the country blind: ‘Between September 1988 and 30 June 1994, $12.2 billion of the $12.4 billion in the dedicated accounts was liquidated in less than six years. They were spent on what could neither be adjudged genuine high priority nor truly regenerative investment; neither the President nor the Central Bank governor accounted to anyone for these massive extra-budgetary expenditures. These disbursements were clandestinely undertaken while the country was openly reeling from a crushing external debt overhang.’
The Persian Gulf Oil crisis of 1990-1991 was exactly what General Babangida needed to make the final killing.
• Dr Okonta was until recently Leverhulme Early Career Fellow in the Department Of Politics, University Of Oxford. He lives in Abuja
The Gulf War triggered a sudden and sharp rise in international oil prices, but instead of spending the additional revenue in productive economic and social projects, Babangida and his cronies saw the windfall as a personal bonus. Billions of dollars were diverted into their private bank accounts. William Keeling, the Nigerian correspondent of the Financial Times of London who investigated the Gulf Oil windfall scam and published the story in 1991 was set upon by state security operatives and deported on Babangida’s orders. For the likes of Babangida Aliyu who claimed on public television on the occasion of General Babangida’s birthday celebration that there is no iota of evidence that Babangida’s government was corrupt, Dr Okigbo’s testimony and William Keeling’s newspaper article stand as monuments to truth.
Politically, the shadow that General Babangida cast on the nation’s landscape is still with us. When Babangida banned political parties and insisted that only ‘newbreed’ politicians would participate in his long-winded political transition programme, he deliberately encouraged the corrupt, the self-serving and the visionless – in short the worst that Nigeria had to offer – to take an interest in politics and elbow out the best and brightest. Nigerians have been complaining that the political class since the advent of the Fourth Republic in May 1999 has been particularly corrupt and feckless. This is so for a reason. These politicians were sired and brought up during Babangida’s transition programme in the late 1980s and early 1990s. They saw what Babangida was doing – the corruption, the cynicism and the general cruelty undergirding his political programme – and they resolved to walk down the same road when they got to power. There is thus a real sense in which it can be said that Babangida’s perfidy birthed Nigeria’s Fourth Republic.
General Babangida’s cynical politics and fundamental immorality have enduring foundations. They sink deep into the fabrics of everyday life in Nigeria and that is why there is no section of national life that can be said to be working and effective today. This then is the house that General Babangida built – a house so riddled with pain and suffering that thinking people are now coming out openly to dismiss Nigeria, the former giant of Africa, as a failed state.
• Dr Okonta was until recently Leverhulme Early Career Fellow in the Department Of Politics, University Of Oxford. He lives in Abuja