Former military president Ibrahim Babangida, in this interview at his Hilltop residence in Minna with Jaiyeola Andrews, speaks on life after power, the 2015 presidency, and other national issues. Excerpts:
What do you miss most outside power, since your retirement?
What I miss most after leaving office, I think the military comradeship when we were involved. There is something special that tends to bind us together. When you see somebody in uniform, you will always see him as part of you. But after leaving office, while that relation stills exist, it is not as frequent like when we were in office. So the military comradeship is what I miss, not most but I miss it more than any other thing.
How have you been coping with life without your wife who passed on a few years ago?
It has not been easy for obvious reasons. I had lived with my wife for a period of 40 years and since then I wasn’t expecting that life will be the same. But thank God we are coping, believing in the fact that everyone of us will eventually die. But I think the members of the family, friends and colleagues have been most supportive; they have come to us all the time.
Do you regret losing the opportunity to return to power?
I think any sensible person will not like to perpetuate himself in power. And I think one of the most interesting things about leaving office or leaving power is if you are able to do something to the country that you can wake up in the morning, beat your chest to say that these are some of the things I have achieved for the country. I think it is much more satisfying than being in power. I think what you did while in power is more endearing.
You leave a legacy that will outlive your life and people will always say during A, B, C, you were able to do this. I think that is the most important thing to look forward to. I am glad, I am happy that we made some good impact in the administration of the country. We midwived in politics, we midwived in the economic situation, unity of the country. I think that is more important than just leaving office.
You seem to have some admiration for the former US President Richard Nixon as you often quote some of his popular lines. What aspects of Nixon’s life as a political leader do you appreciate most?
Nixon is a very shrewd, experienced politician. I read one of the books, “Cease a Moment,” and I think that says it all. It opened up China; he is very daring and very witty, that is why people like him.
What is your impression of Nigeria at 52?
I think one of the most important things for Nigeria at 52 that each and every one of us should be grateful for, talk to God, talk to ourselves about is that we are able to maintain this country as one despite all the problems that we had in the last 52 years. I look forward and pray that we will continue to remain one.
As a former Head of State and one who has seen it all, especially in the area of security, what is behind the sudden escalation of the country’s security challenges into terrorism?
I think every nation has its problems and every nation is never oblivious of what is happening in other countries or other nations. So you find we have the popularised Arab Spring. It has an impact not necessarily on their countries but on other countries across the world.
You just sit down in your room and see what is happening in Cairo, Syria now; it has the tendency to work up some of the bottled-up national feelings.
How do you think the menace can be effectively tackled?
This can be tackled by all of us Nigerians, every one of us, irrespective of which part of the country you live, you must be determined to say, now look, enough is enough, this will not happen, you have to find a solution.
As the country goes towards 2015, what is your view on Jonathan’s possible second term?
You can’t make a view or you can’t make opinion on something Jonathan didn’t say anything about. So it will be unfair. I think we should allow him to run the course; he has a job to do now. He has just been elected. I think it’s not up to one year or one year plus. So he has got three more years. What he did or what he does will recommend him to the public and to the Nigerians.
What would you recommend as solution to the Plateau crisis?
You cannot look at Plateau in isolation. What is happening in Plateau happens in all other parts or it occurs in most of the states of the federation and I think the federal government is trying and they are trying very hard; dialogue is the only option. Fairness among the various feuding groups is also another option, but I think, technically, the whole people want to live in peace and the only way you could achieve that is by getting people together as they are doing now, let them discuss their differences and find a lasting solution.
These are challenges for all of us. What is happening in Plateau, it happens not only in Nigeria but in other parts of the world, but we just have to learn how they get solution to the problem.
What is your take on the calls for the convocation of a Sovereign National Conference?
I don’t know what that means, quite frankly. Even during my time there have been calls for Sovereign National Conference and nobody has come out with a method to say, this is the way we intend to do it. I am giving you example; a lot of people will call for it, now if it is sovereign, the power is taken away from the recognised elected members of the assembly. Is that the protocol you want? May be not.
So if we don’t want it, whatever we want can be done through the elected representatives of the people. If you say, ok, people will have to go for national conference; people will have to be there. Who are the people who will be there? How do you get them there? Are you going to elect them? Because somebody just made noise, let there be conference, ok, you sit down and say Mr. X is a very vocal advocate of Sovereign National Conference, how does he get there? Do you elect him? Or do you nominate him?
If you feel that the people should be nominated, he is not representing anybody. I think the people clamouring for it; nobody has come up with anything near the method of convocation of Sovereign National Conference. I know that it happened in quite a few countries in Africa, in West Africa but then they were still back to square one.
We knew what the problems were, we knew where we were, we knew what we wanted to get. So, you have the constitution, you can make amendment in the constitution so that you achieve the same thing rather than convoke another body of people.
I think it is about time we started recognising one thing, that is, there are lots of settled issues in this country, like the issue of derivation; people will have to concede to the fact. They can go ahead and have others through the law that you are going to need.
You can devolve power. You know there are certain things that the federal government does which may not be their responsibility. Under normal circumstances, it may not be the responsibility of federal government.
Let me give you a typical example, the federal government can set the standard that if you want to establish a primary school, the state government can set the standard and say ok anybody who wants to establish primary school provided you meet A,B,C,D, go ahead and do it.
So it is not an exclusive preserve. By doing that you are reducing the burden on the government. The states are also reducing the burden on the federal government. I think it is a matter of ability to know what each tier of government is capable of doing, allow it to do it provided it has the fund to do it and you run a lighter government and not complicated, very light. I think that will be much better than convocation of Sovereign National Conference.
Do you think Nigeria is ripe for state police, and how can we take care of its possible abuse?
You see, I don’t allow myself to get involved in idiotic argument. Nobody has said there will be no federal police, nobody has said so. Look if Niger State where I come from wants to establish a security outfit to provide protection to the people of Niger State, they sit down, make a law, how to investigate, everything. But people tend to believe 52 years after independence you can use the state apparatus to intimidate the people who elected you. We are not being fair to ourselves.
We have to pass that stage. Again, if Niger State can afford it why not. The essence of government is to provide security and the well being of the people. They are not going to be parallel on the street. You have them in other parts of the world, they know their law, they know where they can talk, they know where the federal takes over.
This silly argument that if you have a governor, if he doesn’t like opponents, he will use the police to intimidate him. Look, those people who are going to be members of such organisations like Nigeria Police, they know their right, they also know the people’s right, it is their responsibility to defend those rights of the people.
It is their responsibility to make sure that these people live in peace. That is why; honestly I don’t see why people should waste time and energy debating against state police. If a state can afford it and it can operate within the law after all you have federal law now, you have state law, you have ethics, all these are there and they are functional within our federation. What is so special about it? I also reacted to the argument sometime, it doesn’t make sense.
They say no, you know if you create state police it will increase the strength of the police. If you make every one thousand to have one policeman you will still not have enough. Any improvised system that you can provide within the framework of the law, within the framework of the constitution, it should work.
The constitution does not allow the governor to say, go and beat up that political opponent. The man’s right has to be protected.
Even we who took part in the military that you consider the use of brute force all the time, I tell you, if any general asks a soldier, shoot Jaiyeola, it is allowed by law to turn around and say, general, that will be illegal.
You are the general, you are the one giving the order but he always insists that you must always obey lawful command. So whatever he does is with regard to the law.
But everything in Nigeria we waste our time, energy arguing. The responsibility of any federal, state and local governments is to enhance the security of the people, to protect the people.
If you are to recommend, what aspects of the constitution will you want amended?
There had not been any landmark cases that tend to go in conflict with the constitution which people will say, ok, because of this let us look at this and make the amendment. But issues will come up. If you take United States, for instance, the abortion issue is still an issue in the country. One day the law court will decide and at least it becomes the law then. We should allow things to work, where it is not working do something about it.
What is your take on the ceding of the Bakassi Peninsula to Cameroon and the refusal of the federal government to file for a review, despite enormous public pressure?
To be honest with you, I don’t know, because I was told that it wasn’t judgement per say. I was told you can go to the United Nations and that does not stop the people there becoming Nigerians.
They are Nigerians, there are lots of Nigerians in Cote D’voire, carrying the flag of Nigeria, but I think we should go to the United Nations.
What is your impression of Nigeria’s march on the path of democratic governance?
I live in this country; they say the worst democratically elected government is better than the most pragmatic military regime. What I see now I can say, Al hamdidulahi, we didn’t do badly, we the military.
Where is your memoir, which some of us feel should have been presented on your birthday anniversary. Is it ready or the time is not yet ripe for it?
I think you will have it. There will be this year a biography, military, politics, and it will be followed, maybe if God saves our lives, in one year or two by my autobiography where I will talk about everything.
Just recently, the Head of Service of the Federation was quoted to have accused your regime of being behind the rot in the civil service. What is the true position?
I know one thing; most of the people I worked with in the civil service are the best brains in this country. We were only sitting down there and most of the people who were head of service, permanent secretary, and director generals are some of the brains, the best brains the country ever produced. So I will not like to be unfair to them by accepting that they are the rot.
You know during my time, a permsec can look at us, especially me, on the face and say, no sir, you can’t do it, the law does not allow that and we wouldn’t kick him out.
During our time, the ministers were brought before public account committees. I said no, my minister will go and will have to carry all permanent secretaries along. During my time you cannot get out N2 million from the treasury. These days N2 billion is kept under the bed. So I don’t know where the rot is, you may help me to find out.
How would you like to be remembered?
As somebody that worked for Nigeria, called Babangida, he served in the Nigerian military for 32 years, by the Grace of God, he became the military president of this country and he tried to make an impact or he made his contribution towards the development and progress of this country. He participated in trying to keep this country together.