Former Military President, General Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida (rtd), clocked 75 years last Wednesday. He fielded questions from journalists at his Hilltop residence in Minna, Niger State, during which he went down the memory lane. Laleye Dipo brings excerpts of the interview
As a military officer did you ever experience a case of accidental discharge, if you did how did you react, what were the reactions of the Army authorities and the family of the deceased?
Well, accidental discharge, I almost had one but when I did the person was not dead. I had one during the cause of my service and it was in Dodan Barracks Lagos. The person who witnessed it was my wife but she escaped it. I had also the situation where I was moving with some of my junior officers, as we moved along an ammunition came and hit one of them and he just dropped dead there, there was nothing we can do. As commander if you witnessed such a thing be prepared to die also. Of course I knew the family of that particular deceased officer, he was my brother, I went to them and I told them what happened and they accepted it as good Muslims, that was how God wished it then, but it was a very painful thing to me.
Which is more challenging – being a military officer or a military president?
Being a military officer is more challenging than being a military President. As a military officer you are leading men into danger, your life and their lives very much depend on you as the Commander.
I see it as more challenging than being the President. As a military President, you still have to seek people’s advice, you interact, you discuss based on the prevailing situation you find yourself. But being a military officer, you are the only one with the troops you are commanding. Their hopes are on you and if you read a situation wrongly, you will put everyone in danger.
Which was your toughest experience as a soldier who fought in the Nigerian civil war
I think it was the movement from Enugu to Umuahia. It was very tough and challenging, you need to be physically fit to be able to undertake such thing because we were moving on our feet and we had to go through the jungle, mountains, hills and so on. It was the toughest experience I’ve ever had. It was there that I was injured.
Was going into the army the only option you had in your choice of career?
When I was young, my principal wanted me to go into administration, personally I wanted to go for engineering. Then politics came, the Minister for Army at that time, one Tanko Galadima from Bida, came on a recruitment drive to my school, he wanted people from this part of the country to enlist into the Nigeria army because there weren’t many of them at that time.
Then he asked how many of us were interested and a lot of hands went up thinking it was a joke, our names were taken down and within a week, enlistment forms into the army were brought. We sat for the exam, we deliberately decided to pass the examination because we didn’t want people to say we failed. So we passed the examination, interview, medical test and aptitude test. We decided to go into the army because we had a strong backer in the minister in charge of the army.
What advice do you have for the younger ones who want to the join the army in view of the prevailing security situation in the country and globally?
The basic elements still remain the same up till now despite what we are going through. We joined the army for the purpose of being in the force to protect this country so that hasn’t changed. They also have to submit themselves to constituted authority and they will have to undertake tasks or jobs assigned to them by the government and they are expected to serve in any situation that they may be called upon to serve. The army is a noble profession and it is a profession that requires a lot of courage.
What do you wish you would have done differently if you had the opportunity either in your public or private life?
During my public life, there were a number of decisions we took as military officers or as a political officer (when I was a dictator) that if I had the chance again, I would have done it differently. For example, in 1989, we proposed that the National Assembly should be optional, that is part-time. I still believe that if I have the opportunity, I would make the National Assembly part time. I believe in that very strongly, it is all in an effort to cut down the cost of governance
Sir, when you were young, you must have been very handsome. Looking back, how were you able to convince your late wife to marry you?
While we were courting, there was one aspect that she did not believe me. The first one, she did not believe that I was serious because of the reputation I had as a playboy, but I assured her that it won’t be a problem, that I will be a changed person completely and I am glad I was. I had no problem solidifying the relationship because I knew her and I knew everyone in her family.
How did you ask her to marry you?
I was straight to the point. I told her bluntly that I wanted to marry her.
And she agreed ?
Yes she agreed.
It has been a while since your wife died, how have you been able to cope?
It has not been easy but I thank God that I have children who show remarkable understanding and have been doing their best by trying to do what their mother was doing. I also have a lot of grandchildren and they take most of my time.
From your heart of hearts, how do you feel being 75?
From my heart of heart, I feel old because what I was able to do 25 years ago, I am not able to do it physically now, but I thank God that He has spared my life to reach this golden age.
What advice do you have for the younger generation?
I only have one advice for them, play hard and pray hard.
Sir, you said recently that you would be giving advice to leaders and the younger generation. How does it feel being an elder statesman giving advice to leaders?
You feel good because you are not at the receiving end. Based on your experience of the past, you can now be able to offer advice because you might have come across a similar situation during the course of your time.
In what ways have you been misinterpreted in the past and people still view you that way and you wish you were not misconstrued?
I am not the evil that quite a lot of people consider me that I am. I have had a very excellent background and by my training I have to love everybody. However, I can understand the feeling. But by virtue of the job I was doing, I was bound to be misconstrued and people will take it like that but I consider it as an opinion as long as I am not what you think I am, I feel satisfied.
I read somewhere sometime ago that they said I stole N12.8 billion and I said if I stole such money, I have no business staying in this country, but those are the type of things that one has to live with. I hope the younger generation will carry out research about leadership, people, individuals and what role they play in the development of the nation and they come up with a different conclusion from what is on the ground now.
How did you feel when you were rumoured to have died?
It is not new, they have done it to Zik, Shehu Shagari and other statesmen, it is not new. Whether I like it or not, I will still die, they are only stating the obvious. The only thing we do not know about death is that we don’t know the cause, time or the place.
NEMA has warned communities along River Niger of imminent flood. What is your advice to the people living along this part of which Niger state is among?
There has always been the problem of flood in Niger State during the rainy season. Lots of people lose their homes and properties during this period. That was why I made a very good drainage system around the state, I made Minna one of the best drainage city you can find in the nation. My advice is that government should look at those areas prone to flood and start putting measures in place to avoid loss of lives and properties. The warning from NEMA is coming at a very good time and I hope the government and people take precaution.