by Olatunji Dare
That, as I see it, was the purpose of former military president Ibrahim Babangida’s parley with some editors last week. Mercifully for a populace still traumatized by memories of his corrupt, manipulative and vindictive rule, and by the destruction of its value system under his watch, the agenda gained little traction.

It was chased off the front pages and headlines by reports of the escape of Liberian warlord Charles Taylor from his exile home in Calabar while President Obasanjo was away in the United States, and by hostile reactions from Nigerians who had vowed, “Never again.”

The parley showcased the Maradona of Minna, not to be confused with the authentic article, the matchless Diego of Argentina, on the top of his form: the affability, the candour, the sure-footedness, all of them contrived through and through. Fake. Only the Napoleonic conceit and the will to ruthlessness were genuine.

After several detours helping enthrone other confederates, Babangida finally plotted his own way to power in 1985. His rhetoric was that of a liberator. He had come to deliver Nigerians from the iron rule of General Muhammadu Buhari and Tunde Idiagbon, he said in his maiden broadcast.

Buhari had been “too rigid and uncompromising” and could not be brought to appreciate and recognize Nigeria’s diversity. Idiagbon, on the other hand, had “arrogated to himself absolute knowledge of the problems and solutions and acted in accordance with what was convenient to him, using the machinery of government as his tool.” And so, Babangida continued, the very government that had been given a “tumultuous welcome” became “alienated from the people.”

The Third Eye, one of many shadowy organizations that came to emblematize and speak for the regime, was closer to the mark. In a newspaper supplement, it declared that Babandiga had seized power to save a friend and colleague who was being persecuted. The truth is that he seized power primarily to save himself.

In whatever case, his characterization of Buhari and Idiagbon must rank as one of the most astonishing instances of the psychological phenomenon of projection in our time. For the very faults that Babangida identified so acutely in his predecessors came to define him and his regime.

No regime had ever assumed power in Nigeria with greater public goodwill. But Babangida squandered it in double quick time. The regime charged Babangida’s childhood friend and longtime competitor Mamman Vatsa with plotting what may well have been a phantom coup and had him and his alleged co-conspirators executed with indecent haste.

To appease the Caliphate and clear doubts about his faith and his antecedents, Babangida secretly enrolled Nigeria in the Organization of the Islamic States. That singular act subverted Nigeria’s status as a secular state, gave religion an unprecedented salience in national affairs, and set the scene for the religious riots that rock the country ever so often.

Dele Giwa was blown to pieces by a parcel bomb delivered to him in an envelope that reportedly bore the seal of the president. “This must be from the president,” he had said on receiving the package. A senior intelligence officer had called Giwa earlier that day to tell him to expect a message from the president.

And yet, to this day, not one person has been arrested in the investigation of the murder.

A senior police officer who was determined to get to the root of the matter despite every obstacle placed in his path was himself murdered in a contrived road accident.

Even as he launched a social mobilization scheme with the hideous acronym MAMSER, Babangida systematically eviscerated organs of civil society –the Nigerian Labor Congress, the Nigerian Medical Association, the National Association of Nigerian Students, and the university teachers union ASUU, among others. He kept the universities shut for long periods to deny students a platform for expressing their grievances.

Under his watch, corruption became, in the words of the radical attorney Femi Falana, “the fundamental objective and directive principle of state policy.” As his one-time superior in the army, General Domkat Bali said in a magazine interview, Babangida was adept at exploiting the basest instincts of those around him and bringing out the worst in them.

Advance fee fraud or 4-1-9, to designate it by the section of the criminal code that prohibits and penalizes it, became a growth industry. Banking became a gigantic swindle, a racket.

Babangida’s “subversive generosity,” to employ Chief Anthony Enahoro’s felicitous coinage, contaminated every institution it touched. It did not even spare the fount of justice. On the high bench and the high bar, timidity, sophistry and susceptibility to unwholesome influences sat decked in ermined robes as justice was mocked openly.

The rule of law became the rule of one man who pushed to the margin the collectivity in whose name he claimed to be exercising power. Policies concocted by a cabal were were insinuated into the statute books with help from out-of-work shysters and resident cardsharpers and presented at crucial moments as definitive legal instruments. At least two such purported instruments were declared inept forgeries by judges who had not been suborned or otherwise compromised.

It was Babangida who introduced the cult–I am almost prepared to call it the curse–of the first lady into Nigeria’s body politic. He empowered it to the point that his wife felt not the slightest unease at formally presenting a lecture before the country’s elected senators and urging them to consecrate the role of first lady in the Constitution.

A pathological delusion of grandeur led Babangida to subordinate the National Day, October 1, to the day he seized power, not minding that it is at bottom the anniversary of a crime against the Constitution. It also led him to adopt a manner of travel more suited to the president of the United States or a potentate than to a usurper lording it over an impoverished Third World country. By the time he arrived at a foreign destination, his official limousine would have been airlifted there by transport planes of the Nigerian air force.

Babangida spent eight years and an estimated N40 billion devising an obstacle race that he called a political transition program. At the heart of the program lay a maze compared with which the Labyrinth of ancient Greece must have seemed like a chessboard. He drew not a little pleasure and amusement from banning, un-banning and re-banning those seeking elected office.

When, against his designs the program reached its culmination, the presidential election of June 12, 1993, Babangida annulled the results and embarked on crack-brained measures and brazen illegalities that almost plunged Nigeria into another civil war. No sane person could have expected Nigerians to troop to the polls again six months after the presidential election in which they have registered their choice firmly and unequivocally was set aside brusquely. But that was exactly what Babangida did.

The Nigerians he claims to know so well proved him not merely wrong but deluded. They will do so with even greater force if he should offer himself for election as president. He must be obsessed by a delusion of the most consuming kind if he believes that, 14 years after he rudely substituted his ambition for their collective wisdom regard his candidacy as nothing less than a wanton provocation.

In his eight years in the saddle, Babangida was so busy scheming and temporizing that he built no institutions of enduring value. Perhaps that was what it meant to be a “visionary realist,” the label he bestowed on himself. OMPADEC, the development agency he set up and staffed with his cronies, is the lonely survivor. Until Obasanjo rescued it from collapse, it limped from one financial scandal to another.
On the economic front, Babangida instituted a Tokunbo culture. With brand new goods priced beyond their means, Nigerians who must rank among the most discriminating consumers anywhere, had to settle for second-hand or even third-hand merchandize. In a rare moment of candour, Babangida actually expressed surprise that the economy had not collapsed.

Under him, the teaching hospitals he said his predecessors had allowed to degenerate into “consulting clinics” became ordinary clinics, the consultants having flocked to Saudi Arabia and other climes in search of fulfillment.

Even judging by this necessarily sketchy review, the first in a series I am preparing, it would be hard to imagine a legacy more baleful. Yet it is in part on this legacy that Babangida plans to ground his candidacy for president.

If he is serious, his first step must be the recognition that he has a great deal to account for. Having come to that recognition, he should then proceed to address forthrightly the questions that have been raised here and elsewhere about his time in office, as well as others that will doubtless follow. His accustomed willful obfuscation will not do.

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