IBB at 79: The Audacity to Reform Ibrahim Muye Yahaya


“Never forget that no military leader has ever become great without audacity.”
––General Karl von Clausewitz


Monday, the 17th day of August, 2020, will mark the 79th anniversary of the birth of former military President Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida (IBB): the nation’s 8th Head of State since 1960. The day is another significant milestone in the life of the General whose legacies, if truth must be told, has left an indelible mark in the lives of all Nigerians from all spheres of human endeavour.

Today, just like when he stepped aside in 1993, the mere mention of IBBs name still provokes varied emotions in different people. He remains very much an enigma to twice as many Nigerians. There are some who believe he was more of a reform-oriented leader, even if the changes he sought to achieve in the polity could not be achieved for varying factors.
To others, the annulment of the June 12, 1992 Presidential elections, alone, should be recorded as his most everlasting legacy. Another school of thought would rather recognize the General as a visionary leader whose deft economic policies such as the Structural Adjustment Programme (SAP) were in sync with the period he led the nation.

To the latter category, IBBs legacies require a holistic interrogation because SAP provided the veritable platform for the comprehensive liberalization of the Nigerian economy and financial system for sustainable economic development.
To a fourth group, the General was a dribbling maestro compared to Maradona, who, somehow, outwitted his critics and opponents with deft manoeuvres that left them sprawling as he constructed his own personality cult. They likened IBB to a student of Machiavelli in the belief that his set objectives always justified the means he used in their actualization.

The debate is still raging. But, quite inevitably, this latter group have come to regard the pains that came with SAP as the requisite sacrifice Nigerians needed to make for a better future. They argue further that since IBB initiated SAP, but could not be held fully for its implementation before his exit from the corridors of power, he should not be held individually accountable for any negative impact it may have had on the socio-economic development of the country. We shall return to this point in due course.

In the meantime, today, provides us with another opportunity to attempt an interrogation of IBBs eventful tenure as the first and only military president the nation has ever had. In doing so, there must be an overriding obligation to separate the myth from reality. Only the truth should matter. For someone who was a professional soldier, I was surprised to learn that as a youngster, his major aspiration was to become a civil engineer. As fate would have it, not only did he end up in the Army, he rose to become the Military President. And so; how good a soldier was he in the first place?

Available records indicated that soon after his return from training in the United Kingdom in 1967, he was immediately deployed to the war front. His first taste of action was at the Nsukka sector where he fought under the command of General Muhammad Inuwa Wushishi. A year after in August 1968, as a Captain, he was given the command of the 44 Infantry Battalion, known as “The Rangers’’. I was told that even then, his individual courage and skill in the minimization of casualties was remarkable, but for confirmation Nigerians needed to wait for the unfortunate events of 13th February, 1976 when the legend of IBB was forged.

It was on that sad day, which will forever live in infamy, at least as far as Nigerians are concerned, the then Head of State General Murtala Ramat Mohammed, was ambushed and brutally murdered by military coup plotters as he was being driven to his office. The plotters were led by an obscure Lt. Colonel called Bukar Suka Dimka who subsequently holed up in the premises of Radio Nigeria in Ikoyi from where they made intermittent broadcasts to Nigerians on their mission.

As Nigerian’s huddled around their radio sets in intense apprehension on the fate of the nation it was a Colonel IBB no less who was summoned by the then Chief of Army Staff, General TY Danjuma to flush the plotters out of the premises of Radio Nigeria and in the process, effectively crushed the coup. The rest, as it is often said, is now history. But it wasn’t the actual crushing and subsequent arrest of the plotters that caught the attention of Nigerians; rather, it was the manner in which they were subdued in the premises of Radio Nigeria in Ikoyi out without firing a shot in anger.

It was the ancient Chinese strategist Sun Tsu who wrote in one of the earliest theses on military strategist that “The greatest victory is that which requires no battle.” Call it bravado, foolhardiness or whatever; and it still won’t diminish the import of IBBs action which could have abruptly ended his life were he not such an ardent student of Sun Tsu even if it was for that day alone.

In a nation desperately yearning for heroes even as I write, IBB ticked all the right boxes at least for his efforts on that remarkable day if we are to embrace the true definition of the term. Nigerians could not deny his courage nor ignore the uncommon gallantry that was in plain sight even today. It was in those tragic circumstances that IBB literally introduced himself to Nigerians for the first. He was later to become the Chief of Army Staff a few years afterwards and subsequently the Military President in quick succession.

It is often said that the most useful traits of leaders under any dispensation relates to their vision, and their ability to mobilize their subjects towards the attainment of their common objectives. In between, we can also add their sagacity at coalition building and the at least a rudimentary understanding of the socio-cultural diversity of their subjects. As military President, available records will prove that IBB fully understood such sensitivities.

Appointments into the Armed Forces Ruling Council he headed was broader in ethnic, cultural, religious and geo-political spread, including key appointments of security agencies. The same was also true from the composition of his team of advisers from the onset. A closer look will show that they comprised of the best technocrats Nigeria could offer at the time.

But any candid reflection on the tenure of IBB as the nation’s military leader without taking cognizance of the impact of his reforms will be an exercise in futility. Sadly, in my opinion, Nigerians will come to realize one day that in their fixation of what many continue to tout as the negative impacts of SAP, they also, inevitably, buried their heads in the sand by ignoring its positive impact on our national development.
We failed to acknowledge SAPs broader impact which not only provided the platform for rapid economic growth, but actually increased our national GDP in the process. From its declared objectives, it is obvious that SAP was not intended to lead the nation’s economy into a cul-de-sac which many who took the pedestrian view that the sudden devaluation of the Naira indicated. It was aimed at the comprehensive deregulation of vital sectors of the economic for sustainable economic growth and development.

SAPs laudable by-products included the liberalization of the banking and communication sectors – to name just a few – which paved the way for private ownership of financial institutions. Today, several privately owned Nigerian banks such as GT Bank and the United Bank for Africa (UBA) are expanding into multiple African nations. Without SAP we would not have the Nigeria Export-Import Bank (NEXIM) or the Nigeria Deposit Insurance Corporation (NDIC), again, to name only a few of the numerous federal agencies and regulatory agencies IBBs reforms made inevitable.
We would also certainly not have the National Broadcasting Commission (NBC) or the NCC in their present states; neither would there be the African Independent Television (AIT), Channels TV among several others. All of these institutions are also major employers of labour. SAP, if we can recall, did not occur in vacuum. It was the natural reaction to the sweeping changes in the world in the early 1990s which rejected communism in favour of unbridled albeit regulated private enterprise as the preferred model for the economies of developing nations.

The other understated legacy of the IBB administration was the wholesale reforms of the Local Government system in Nigeria. We have had local Governments since the days of the Native Authority system of the colonial era, what IBB did was to provide the system with the legal and structural wherewithal for effective development at the grassroots. The LGAs were not only given full executive powers, their share of revenue from the federation account was increased from 10% to 20% and paid directly into their respective treasuries bypassing the State governments. The Community banking system that evolved under him accelerated the development of the current framework for the proliferation of Micro-Finance Banks operating today with emphasis on rural communities and Small Scale Enterprises (SMEs).

Now, if over time, some corrupt state governors somehow contrived to divert the monies meant for the LGAs into their private pocket and how is IBB to be blamed for that? Will it be fair to attribute the poor performance on the man who reformed the system only for it to corrupt by sleazy politicians? This brings us squarely to the issue of corruption because not too long ago, it was the favourite pastime of many opportunistic politicians to blame the IBB administration for entrenching corruption in the polity without any proper fact-check. Since IBB left office in 1993, the nation has had two military and five civilian administrations but none has been able to unearth the critical smoking required to approve the allegations against him as an individual.

It is a matter of fact that the administration of Olusegun Obasanjo, through the then EFCC Chairman, Nuhu Ribadu spared no efforts in investigating IBB, but could not pin anything on the general at the end. Meanwhile it was under the same Obasanjo civilian administration that newspaper reports claimed the sum of 16 billion dollars earmarked to fix our comatose energy sector could not be accounted for.
And, in any case, if after three decades since he left office, the incumbent Chairman of the EFCC is himself being investigated for corruption, conventional wisdom should dictate that fighting the vice is very much the responsibility of the led far more than the leaders we have had in this country. Even a cursory examination of the stench from the ongoing forensic audit of the Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC) should prove that beyond reasonable doubt. Should IBB be held accountable for that as well?

It is impossible to end this discourse without a reflection on an issue that many have come to refer to as the singularly most devastating blight on IBBs legacy as a leader – the annulment of the June 12, 1992 elections. I don’t have a clue into how the mind of IBB functions, or how it impacted on his psyche. I don’t also know whether, given the negative local and global reactions to the annulment, IBB would have acted differently if provided with the same opportunity today.

But after I attend the burial of his beloved wife Maryam of blessed memory in Minna after she passed on, I began to haphazard on the motive on why IBBs response to the annulment beyond the acceptance of full responsibility has measured even after all these years. The burial not only proves to me that nepotism, or sectional considerations, had nothing to do with the annulment as many were led to believe. It was without doubt a complicated matter which had more to do with the whims of the Nigerian elite in their totality.

The late M.K.O Abiola of blessed memory ran for the presidency on a pan-Nigerian platform, but the seemingly shambolic agitation to reclaim his mandate by some politicians from the Southwest effectively made the issue a regional affair and alienated voters from the rest of the country which voted for Abiola in their droves. You can therefore imagine my surprise when I encountered most of the same politicians from the Southwest who were in the trench with NADECO loudly urged the late Abiola on the tragic path to reclaim his mandate, appeared in force at the burial of the late first lady. While she was undoubtedly a bridge-builder in her own right who reached out and was also widely respected, the presence of many erstwhile foes of her husband was instructive.

Someday, somehow, the reasons for the annulment of the June 12 elections will become fully known to Nigerians especially when the principal actors decide to write their memoirs. What we know for certain is that IBB has always maintained that his decision was patriotic. What remains is for Nigerians to draw useful lessons from the impasse. And the first lesson is for Nigerian elites to critically re-examine their roles in the socio-economic development of the country.

If you fought in our bloody Civil War to keep the nation one; if you still have a bullet lodged in your leg from the same war; and; if you walked un-armed into the premises of Radio Nigeria to confront heavily armed coup Plotters many of whom may have had too much to drink the previous night; if your predecessors are still struggling to improve on the economic reforms you commenced almost three decades ago; then of one thing we can be doubly sure: we cannot doubt IBBs courage and uncommon patriotism as he clocks 79.
How many Nigerians dead or alive have been tested the same way? Today, more than ever before, there is an overriding obligation for Nigerians to separate the many myths on the IBB presidency by appreciating the audacity so obvious in the reforms he initiated to fix Nigeria for good!
Happy birthday sir!
––Yahaya wrote from Jagbele Quarters, Muye, Niger State.