Echoes of Babangida


Guest columnist By Chidi Amuta

August is Babangida month. It is the month of his birth and the commemoration of his ascension to power as Nigeria’s sixth military leader and eighth head of state. Rightfully, the nation and his friends have a right to reflect on his abiding significance in the persisting pantheon of Nigerian leadership, both imposed and elected. An armored officer who acquired political power in a bloodless coup, assumed the curious title of President and maintains a tortured persistent relevance deserves at least periodic acknowledgment.

Fortuitously perhaps and to those who are conscious of his historical footprints, Babangida’s ideas on key issues about the survival of the Nigerian nation have constantly returned to center stage especially in recent times. After his long medical leave, President Buhari made a national broadcast that is still being debated widely. His key contention, against the disturbing background of divisive noises about the future and structure of our federation, is that the unity of the Nigerian nation is a settled matter: “Nigeria’s unity is settled and not negotiable…Every Nigerian has the right to live and pursue his business anywhere in Nigeria without let or hindrance”.

It was Babangida who inaugurated the concept of “No Go” areas in our political discourse. He clearly told politicians aspiring to succeed him then that they were free to debate everything under the sun except certain ‘No Go’ areas. These included the inviolability of our national unity and indivisibility of the federation, the secularity of the state, the right of Nigerians to hold opinion and subscribe to divergent faiths, a two party system etc. Then as now, politicians and their errand spokespersons were up in arms. They wanted to keep busy debating nearly everything including questioning the very unity of the country in order to further degrade military rule. Babangida remained resolute and soon enough, the politicians fell into line once faced with the the prospect of elections on the platform of the two mandatory parties.

In the heat of the current clamour for restructuring of our federation, Babangida has advised that all views be heard and power devolution be given consideration. This view, which has been variously misinterpreted as an endorsement of the dissolution of the federation, falls into the man’s liberal disposition, which allows free debate of key national issues. Easily the author of the modern Nigerian liberal state, Babangida as military president had the singular distinction of subjecting key national issues to open liberal debate as a precondition to achieving the consensus that should inform the actions of the state. A checklist of the issues he subjected to national debate: the question of ideology, economic reform, Structural Adjustment, relationship with the IMF, the political programme, privatization, political party structure, rural development, poverty alleviation, the future role of the military, civil-military relationship, the place of traditional authority etc. etc. Those who are harassing President Buhari over his position on the re-structuring issue do not understand the nationalist doctrine which binds all the key civil war generals. ‘To Keep Nigeria One is a Task that Must be Done” is the slogan on which the war was fought and won by the federals.

Barely one week before President Buhari’s return from his hospital leave, the Minister of Internal Affairs, retired General Abdurrahman Dambazzau while receiving the commander of the California National Guard expressed the Federal Government’s desire to establish a National Guard for Nigeria in the light of increasing internal security challenges. This again was a return to one of Babangida’s pet projects. It is worth recalling that in the dying days of his administration, President Babangida had actually established the National Guard with a commander designate (Col. Abdul Mumuni Aminu) and begun ordering equipment and uniforms while putting together an enabling law to back the organization. Because of the politically problematic nature of the tail end of his tenure, the more vocal wing of our public opinion mounted a vicious propaganda, insisting that the establishment of the National Guard was a ruse by the then President to raise a private army to prolong his tenure.

This argument sounded somewhat foolish to those of us who were close to and in sympathy with the regime at the time. My argument then was that a full fledged army general in control of all the armed forces and the machinery of government of the country did not need to float an alternative force to remain in power if he so desired. All he needed to do was to take off his uniform and join one of the two parties and contest the presidential election. The outcome would be a landslide in his favour. But wild conspiracy theories had seized the moment as politicians and professional rabble-rousers joined forces to discredit a military that had in any case overstayed its welcome.

I recall engaging informally with the president and some of his security advisers on the National Guard matter. It was our conclusion that our federation was still unsettled, with many real and potential flash points. The present and future nature of our internal security challenges would overwhelm the police and distract the professional military. The police are too civil to contain armed insurgency while the military is too fierce to be pressed into combatting fellow Nigerians with its characteristic terminal precision. The solution was to establish a mid intensity intermediate force- a National Guard- specially trained and indoctrinated to manage internal security with a mixture of resolute force and patriotic compassion. The Guard would have home contingents in every state and specialized national units in the key flash points nationwide. That was the origin of the National Guard concept and a debate that will not go away for as long as this federation remains unsettled.

On July 12, 2017, Nigeria’s Supreme Court delivered a judgment that settled the leadership tussle in Nigeria’s major opposition Peoples Democratic Party (PDP). That judgment may have served the specific needs of justice in a matter that was legitimately before the court. But the political import was more far reaching. The Supreme Court was making a major statement in jurisprudence. It was a major step by the judiciary to stabilize and re-balance the polity by re-establishing the fact that viable political parties are the major pillars for a workable democracy. Through that judgment, the Supreme Court reaffirmed the integrity of the nation’s effective two party democracy.

While the Nigerian constitution and the electoral law empowers Nigerians that meet the relevant INEC guidelines to establish political parties in line with the dictates of a multi party democracy, the reality of our situation is that we are now effectively a two party democracy. This reality took between 1999 and 2015 to fully evolve and crystallize. For that long, the PDP as the ruling party ruled Nigeria almost as a one party state while the smaller parties shopped for loyalty, alliances and followership in limited favourable locations. But by the eve of the 2015 elections, it became clear that only a coalescence of major opposition parties into a single effective pan-Nigerian counter party could challenge and supplant the PDP. The emergence of the APC was therefore the culmination of the evolution of an effective two party system for Nigeria’s democracy.

Here again are loud echoes of Babangida, a leader ‘who saw tomorrow’ on the necessity of a two -party democracy for Nigeria. It would be recalled that on October 7, 1989 following the completion of the work of the Political Bureau, the military administration of General Babangida announced the establishment of two party system for Nigeria. The Social Democratic Party(SDP) and the National Republican Convention(NRC) came into being, complete with two ideologically diametrical manifestoes and national symbols.

This development was, like most military decisions, an arbitrary imposition. It was however informed by historical hindsight and a deep historical analysis of Nigeria’s political evolution so far. Babangida rationalized his decision then with admirable philosophical insight. Nigerian political history had shown that Nigerians and their political leaders aggregate around two major poles after each election: a winning party and a coalition of those that lost. The losers either form an electoral alliance or agree to work together in subsequent elections. In effect, Nigerian politicians and their followers always aggregate around two poles.

Therefore, the choice of a two party system was a logical outcome of a perennial Nigerian political tendency. In addition, the choice of two parties was also a strategic national unity move. It prevents Nigerians from aligning along ethnic or religious lines, as each party must have offices, representation and followership in all states of the federation in order to qualify as a national party. To ensure that the two -party system was truly national and representative, the government designed and built identical party offices at local government, state and national levels at government expense.

Here again, we have witnessed an evolution towards the Babangida ideal from a decreed two party system to one freely chosen by politicians with its inherent deficiencies. But the realization that the nation’s future political stability would depend on a bipolar political party structure remains a tribute to Babangida’s foresight, vision and profound courage. It is one that has placed us in the same league with major democracies of the world.

In Babangida’s bold idealism, however, is also to be located the major flaws and contradictions that bedeviled his legacy. His political legacy remains riddled with unpardonable contradictions. Although he wore a nationalist garb, he cancelled party primaries when the late Shehu Musa Yar’dua had won in most of the south and south west. Similarly, many Nigerians believe that one reason why he annulled the June 12 elections was the defeat of the NRC candidate, Bashir Tofa, in his won Kano state constituency by M.K.O Abiola as well as an unstated understanding with the late General Abacha. Rightly or wrongly, the truism that no man escapes his destiny holds true for this interesting man.

Babangida believed in ideas, subjected public policy to robust exchanges of ideas and ruled the nation with the force of those ideas while eternally respecting men and women of ideas. His cabinet read like an Ivy League faculty list. To stand for something definable is one of the attributes of great leadership. Ibrahim Babangida, Nigeria’s self effacing but contentious military president, has never tired of stoutly assuming responsibility for his ideas and actions. He endlessly insists that while leaders can delegate aspects of authority, a leader must assume ultimate responsibility for the actions taken under his watch.

One area of responsibility for which Babangida cannot escape responsibility is his championship of certain strategic ideas about the Nigerian nation and state. Undeniably, most of the ideas he canvassed in the public space and brought to bear on his administration were mostly visionary and farsighted, thus making him a leader for all seasons.
• Dr. Chidi Amuta, a Member of Thisday Editorial Board, is Chairman of Wilson & Weizmann Associates Ltd., Lagos