By Yusuph Olaniyonu
That General Ibrahim Babangida is a tactical politician who knows how to draw maximum advantage from a situation is never in doubt. And so last weekend when THISDAY and a few other newspapers published the interview in which the Minna-based General spoke a little more candidly about his presidential ambition, the 3rd term campaign, and a few other national issues, I knew he had only acted true to character.Babangida that most Nigerians know will not come out openly on any issue to voice a contrary opinion against that of any government in power. He has demonstrated this in the past 13 years that he has been out of power. He did not say a single word when late General Sani Abacha was on rampage in this polity, behaving as if he was immortal. Also, he has refused to make any comment on the policies and programmes of the Obasanjo government until now. In fact, I and my friends in the newsroom have always joked that Babangida who once reminded the opposition that ‘we are not only in government but we are in power’ knows the implication of being anti-establishment and that he knows that if you are not in power, you cannot mess up with the man with the official sledge-hammer. But this last interview actually departed from the Babangida’s power norm. The General sounded in his views on the 3rd term and other issues like Senator Tokunbo Afikuyomi, an opposition lawmaker whose views THISDAY published last Sunday. For example, Babangida said some of the recommendations of the Mantu committee which obviously were endorsed by the Presidency are capable of heating up the polity. He said the constitution amendment exercise was “not worth” it. So, it is an exercise in futility. He said “if you do it well, it should take you about three years.” He categorically said the 3rd term project which is Obasanjo’s main pet project would not work. He also hinted at the rate of rigging in elections in Nigeria and gave a subtle hint that the government was condoning it. He added that the government would not find it easy to rig for the candidate of the 3rd termers in 2007.
General Babangida said he would run for the presidency in 2007 if he gets his party’s ticket. The real issue in the interview, however, is why the general has decided to come out more boldly and with little reservation at this time. I have a few guesses to make on this.
One, IBB as he is fondly called by many Nigerians, has been under pressure since the Chairman of the Economic and Financial Crime Commission (EFCC), Mallam Nuhu Ribadu, last year in South Africa said leaders like Babangida who he alleged damaged Nigeria’s economy and encouraged corruption would not be allowed to return to power. Though Ribadu’s statement drew flaks from pro-Babangida elements, yet the stubborn police officer stuck to his gun. He repeated the vow several times in an authoritative manner. Babangida has maintained stoic silence on the issue and there is no record that Aso Rock expressed dissatisfasction with Ribadu’s assault on IBB. Now IBB, at the right time, has turned the table against Ribadu and Aso Rock. If there is any fresh attempt against IBB after last weekend interview, it will be seen in the light of that other person which IBB referred to when he said. “We know what happened to someone who tried to declare.” IBB has doubly assured himself of his ‘untouchability.’
From now, Ribadu or any agency of the Federal Government runs the risk of mounting the presidential campaign for Babangida if they try to hold him accountable for any allegation of misdeed during his tenure. Any move against IBB will be seen as part the 3rd term scheme to eliminate opposition.
Secondly, the IBB interview will surely reposition the man in the scheme of things in the North. At this point, the North feels short-changed by Obasanjo who is seeking to exclude the area from power for 12 good years when in fact the support that propelled Obasanjo to power in 1999 came mainly from the region. Incidentally, as part of the long-term plan for his tenure elongation, Obasanjo has disorganised the North, seized control of the military from the clutch of its men and tried to create a new level of leadership in the region. The scheme has succeeded largely to the extent that the North is not now behaving differently from the way the South-west was behaving during the period of the agitation for realisation of the annulled June 12 election. Now, more than ever, the North needs an arrow-head, an ark that can be taken to battle as an inspirational insignia against Obasanjo who is regrettably not behaving to be more than the typical African leader who will rather die in office and take his nation down with him than to respect due process. Babangida is probably seeking to fill this vacuum in the North. He is ready to offer himself to be used by the North to sustain democratic rule and ensure the survival of the political system.
Thirdly, the nation at this point needs men who can break out of the establishment clan and fight the derailing power that be. There is the need for men of means, widespread support, good understanding of the power game and knowledge of the functioning of the establishment to lead the battle against a plan to foist an unpopular Third term scheme on the nation. Babangida understands the existence of this vacuum too well and he is probably seeking to fill it. Major Gen. Muhammadu Buhari (rtd.) has tried a lot to really offer leadership to the opposition but the establishment has found ways of easily poisoning the minds of the people against him. Now, the ‘Prince Charming’, ‘the Maradonna’ and a self proclaimed master of the political game is offering himself to be used in the nation’s campaign to resist an emerging dictatorship.
All these calculations however raise the question of: Why would Babangida want to play the role of a Gani Fawehinmi or an Olisa Agbakoba or a Balarabe Musa?. The plausible answer is that it provides a redeeming opportunity for him to correct the general perception of him as the man ‘who annulled a free and fair election,’ ‘the man who wasted the Gulf oil windfall,’ ‘the man who wanted to sit-tight in office and was forced out of power and such other negative appelation given to the man. Babangida is a man who is conscious of the way history eventually records his role as a leader. He is probably in need of a second chance to redeem himself. And this hunger for a redeeming opportunity may come in this anti-3rd term battle. In fact, the inspiration for the next national assignment he has set for himself was glaring in the last weekend interview when he said: “I will not allow my children, grand children, my relations, my well-wishers and friends, I will not leave them in limbo. I will leave something behind that even after my death, they will be able to protect or to speak about. “He was then talking about writing an autobiography to explain some of the policies and events which now define his administration.
Again, it is also believed that Babangida may be preparing for a scenario where eventually when the anti 3rd term agitation will force Obasanjo to have to negotiate his exit from power, it may make sense for a Babangida to be on the block to be endorsed for the race. It is most likely the 3rd term project will fail. If it does, the problem the polity may face is that of succession as the incumbent has unfortunately not groomed a successor. Vice President Atiku Abubakar who naturally should be the next man seemed to have been decimated in the power game. And it is possible by the time Obasanjo will back out of this 3rd term mantra, it may be too close to election period that bringing a new candidate who does not have an existing political machinery ready to rev into action will be an impossibility. In any case Babangida is a known political brand name. And he has the resources and contacts. He had also helped Obasanjo to realise his ambition in the past. So, it will be easy to persuade Obasanjo to also back an old supporter. And one can see from the interview that Babangida is really ready to leave the room for co-operation between him and the incumbent.
But whatever is Babangida’s calculation at this moment, I do not mind. Once he can be useful to the impending battle to stop the emergence of dictatorship in this clime. The polarisation that will soon emerge in this country is not that of ethnicity or religion. It will also not be that of social status or where one stands in the old ideological divides. The sharp division will soon be that of whether you want true democracy, rule of law or social justice to prevail in this land or not. And that division will be marked by whether you want 3rd term or not. If Babangida is ready to help us stop tenure extension, many Nigerians will be ready to co-operate with him and others to stop this madness called 3rd term. Afterall, when pro-democracy elements used late Chief M.K.O. Abiola as a symbol to chase away the military and enthrone democracy, they knew his antecedent . But the late business mogul played his role so well beyond the imaginations of those familiar with his establishment background. Today, whether the government of the day acknowledges it or not, Abiola is the number one hero of our present democracy. Who says Babangida or any other person cannot help to stop the plan to bastardise our constitution?
Obasanjo has, with the 3rd term project, created a magic wand which will be used by some people to emerge as national hero while some will use it to enlist their names in the list of national villains. I know with that IBB interview many National Assembly members will draw strength to vote against the 3rd agenda. For some legislators if a man of Babangida’s calibre says 3rd term can’t work, then it is not worth supporting. For me as a person, I believe 3rd term is an idea doomed to fail. And anybody who supports the need for us Nigerians to stand against the emergence of dictatorship is a comrade. Afterwards, the other issues can be sorted out.