Nigeria’s unity most crucial to me" says Ibrahim Babangida as he marks 70th birthday

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Babangida: "True Federalism Is The Answer"

AS we waited to interview General Ibrahim Badamosi Babangida, the most talked about person to have ever ruled Nigeria, the serenity of the Hilltop Mansion, Minna, was interrupted only by the steady humming of the air-conditioner in the waiting room. The simplicity of the place belies the myths that have been woven round the place. Once before him, the first shocker was from aides who said we had only 15 minutes. The General wanted the ground rules set. “No political questions,” he said.We agreed, provided he decided which questions were political. Again he was reminded there were other engagements, but he asked us to continue. His generosity with his timecontinued after, as he took us round the office, explaining other sides of the story of his life withpictures (which we copied) he took with friends and family. IBB, as he more popularly known, spoke with a carefulness that reflected his unwillingness to discuss politics beyond a certain depth…

General Ibrahim Babangida(rtd)

WHAT were your dreams of Nigeria when you were growing up? Have they been fulfilled?

Growing up for me came in various ways.  I call myself a product of the 2nd World War, a way of describing the fact that I was born in the forties.  I went to school in the fifties and that was part of growing up. Within those periods, the environment that we found ourselves in was one in which everyone looked forward to when Nigeria would be independent.  Between 1957 and 1960, many African countries became independent, so it produced its own expectations and dreams for people like me who were growing up.

After independence, we were becoming mature people and things shaping up. I was brought up to believe that this country was one.
I think we dreamt of a united Nigeria, at least I saw Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe talking about it. The seed for a united Nigeria had been really planted. Though we had a hiccup, it was not unexpected in a developing country. Then the post independence challenges followed and the civil war.

The country still emerged from these stronger to address the issues of the various communities within the federation with the creation of States addressing the issues of the minorities. These dreams are being realised, the dreams we had before independence. Of all these dreams, the most important to me is the unity of the country.

You have been involved in the governance of Nigeria since 1975, what are the key challenges that hamper its rapid growth and development?
Like most developing countries, we have challenges. We are richly endowed with natural resources. We also have a huge population. We emerged from independence with many problems, which the colonial masters did not address.  Many of the things that we took for granted began to manifest. Once that happened we had to fight those things and find solutions to them. Challenges are still there, I will say they are on going things in any developing country. We have moved from parliamentary to presidential system of government. We operated a mono-economy that depended mostly on petroleum. These are issues that I think have affected the pace of our development. We have done fairly well  in managing them. Other countries that we try to compare ourselves with  are much older than us. Some are 200, 500, 600 years or older.

At what point did it occur to you that you will lead Nigeria? Was any remarkable event that led to this?
I must give a background to this answer. Most countries in Africa, became independent in the late fifties  and early sixties. We did not take into account that the economies we inherited were not strong. Coups became fashionable, starting with the first in Africa in 1952,  when Gamal Abdel Nasser overthrew the Egyptian monarchy. Virtually every country had its own peculiar nature of instability and upheaval. We were not oblivious of what happened elsewhere. People were becoming agitated and interested in how they were governed. We were entering another phase where people agitate like in the Arab world now, people’s power, IT power is also another step as people call for a reform in the system for ample freedom at various levels of governance and address issues of the economy. We knew all these things and we were getting interested in the things happening around us and in other parts of the world.

Many of us who went to various countries for training – Britain, India, Pakistan, Ethiopia and so on. Naturally, we had come into contact with soldiers from other countries. The people who led some of the coups in  other countries were our classmates. We met in those courses abroad. We used to tease ourselves about doing our homework well if we are planning coups because someone who did not do his work well fails. We used to say that after any failed coup. Major Chukwuma Kaduna Nzeogwu trained people who were not Nigerians and we were in touch as classmates and friends with those people.

Issue of leadership

Therefore, the issue of leadership is something that is built over time and is in response to the needs of a country.

You once suggested reduction in the cost of governance, but we have a situation where there are agitations for more States, what are your views on state creation?

Creation of States has done a lot of good for this country in terms of the development that it helped to ensure in different parts of the country. By 1964, agitations for States (regions) continued after independence. One of the agitations was from Cross River, but that started as far back as 1938, before independence and continued thereafter.

The military in its wisdom created 12 States in 1967 to address the issues of the ethnic minorities.  The agitation did not abate. General Murtala Mohammed created seven more States to bring the number to 19.  The agitations increased. During my time, we added 11 States, and Abacha did six to bring the number to 36. These were all in answers various cries that people wanted their own States
In terms of satisfying the aspirations of people state creation did a lot to stabilise the country. Everybody now has a state within the federation with the states running their own systems within a democratic framework. What we need is more peace in the States. I feel that right now we do not need to create more States. State creation is one of the matters that I think is settled.

The new agitations in the States have everything to do with the rotation of power within each State. If we use my State (Niger) as an example, we have three zones. For the first time Zone A produced the governor, in the working arrangement of the State. The present governor is from Zone B and we expect the next one to come from Zone C. If the existing States have similar arrangements, everyone will have a chance within the union to participate. If the zoning agreements are followed in the States the cry for geographical carving of States would no longer exist.

This also goes down to the local government areas. Time will come when demography will change. We said it should be 100,000. Some are becoming more populated because of mobility some with more than a million still we can within those circumstances, delineate constituencies, it is a general cry, but there are cases that deserve attention.

When you annulled the presidential election on 23 June 1993, did you foresee the consequences of the annulment?
As military officers, whenever we are planning a war or getting involved in any operation, get involved in appreciation of the situation. We consider the pros and the cons, the major advantages, disadvantages. We weigh each against the other then conclude. It is easy to anticipate that outcome.  I think it was not unanticipated.

Why was the final transition decree tailored for General Sani Abacha to take over from Chief Ernest Shonekan?
A little bit of history will help here. When I left office on 27 August 1993 , we set up the interim government. The interim government had a Constitution and its objectives. The Constitution stated that the life span of the interim government would be it would six months. The interim government was to conduct election and correct the complaints from the June 12 election. The interim government was to vacate the power in February 1994, just six months. Everything Nigerian has its way of working out. The most vehement critics of the interim government arrangements were the civil society organisations, the media, and certain influential individuals.

Nobody read the Constitution of the interim government. So what happened? Agitators called the interim government a contraption, not a government. There were cries for the military to intervene and save the country from the contraption. The military does not intervene until it is sure the environment was ripe for the intervention.

The civil society organisations and the media created an environment of frustration and it was the easiest thing for the military to intervene at that point.  Remember too that there was a court judgement annulling the interim government, effectively there was no government in place.

When General Sani Abacha intervened, he was received with pomp and pageantry. It was not the military that went in to scatter the whole democratic process. You invited the military  through your actions and commentaries.

Leaving Abacha behind
He was the most senior and most experienced. He had gone through everything. His presence was to give the interim government a sense of fearlessness, strength because there was senior military officer who  could protect it. When he intervened, did what you wanted him to do. There were yearnings for the military to rescue the situation. General Abacha stepped in, in line with the wishes of the people.

What went wrong between you and Chief MKO Abiola?

While the crisis was going on we met two or three times to find a solution to this problem. If he was not my friend I would not have participated in meetings our common friends, some traditional rulers organised.

People hold you responsible for many of the problems the country faces – the annulled 1993 election, corruption, and the economy.

I left office 18 years ago. I have come to accept the situation as one of the burdens of service. If someone’s wife has a miscarriage, people blame IBB for it. If there is no rain, it is IBB. If it rains too much it is still IBB. This is Nigeria and this is the way people see things. To have my peace of mind, I have to accept these things as part of life. Fortunately for me, I did so many things that still prove to people to date that I worked for this country.

You practically persuaded General Olusegun Obasanjo to join the presidential race with your visit to Otta after his release from prison, would like to assess his presidency?

The decision as far as I was concerned was a very sound decision. We were proved right in our choice of General Obasanjo. We wanted someone who could keep the country one.

 

Economic initiatives

He had a lot of initiatives both in the economy and running the government, but we are still grappling with some challenges. He succeeded in eight years, in keeping the country one. Most people’s judgements are based on their perception. There is nothing you can do in a Nigerian situation to change the way people would like to take things. In Nigeria we are first cynics then reasonable.

People still wonder why you refused to appear before the Oputa Panel.

It is not entirely right to say I did not appear at the panel unless you wanted me to make a personal appearance. The law permits me to be represented. A very competent lawyer represented me. I was therefore there. What the other interested group wanted me to do and the law says are different. If I had to appear before a judge for everything that happened while I was in office, there would be no time for me to do all that.

What do you think of the trial of Al Mustapha?

I think I need to explain the bases for the comments. Nigerians believe in justice. They also want to see justice being meted out to all. I made those comments on Al-Mustapha simply because he has been on trial for 14 years without a conclusion. The duration of the trial a cause for concern.

Supposed he was tried quickly and he was to serve 21 years, having spent 14 years, he could be due for amnesty. He has spent 14 years and the case is still inconclusive. This has dragged on for so long, which is why I am making that appeal.

My considerations are the length of time he spent in confinement. Suppose at the end of the day he is not found guilty? How do you compensate a young man who has spent 14 years of his life under going trial? Nobody even knows when the case would finish. He should be freed.

We heard you re-married quietly

I have not re-married. You are not the only one who heard. A close friend of mine heard and came to the house to find out. I took him around to all the rooms a wife would have been if I re-married. It is the soft sell media that would like to make huge sales that come up with that type of story.

 


IBB with Abdulsalami Abubakar…

 

The Peoples Democratic Party, PDP, has jettisoned zoning, what do you think will happen in 2015?

Unless you amend the Constitution, you have to live with it. Zoning is in the Constitution.

References to national spread, reflecting federal character, are all about zoning. Some parties, like the PDP, have zoning in their constitution because of the constitutional provisions about zoning, which are meant to assure people they can became president, no matter where they are from. It is in consonance with the Constitution. When we said it must be maintained or there would be consequences, we were misunderstood.

We can see we are having bigger government, with bigger recurrent spending and less money for capital development. Without adhering to zoning, government has to do a lot to appease interests and groups.

You cannot erase zoning without amending the Constitution. For 2015 I can see realignment of a maximum of five political actors in the country to wrestling power.

From what I read in the media I believe that of those items listed for amendment – the much talked about elongation, which is not a new agitation, creation of local government areas, and revenue, could be problematic. I think those are areas that can easily polarise the country. If I were in government I would not touch any of them.

I would concentrate on building the institutions of state and improving the lot of the people with amendments to guarantee certain rights that are not in the Constitution, like the Fifth Amendment in the US where you cannot force someone to talk.

Constitutional amendments come in from long practices, conventions, decided cases in courts that might bring friction are causes for amendment. The ones we are talking about are settled issues, 1976, 1978 and during the various regimes, we discussed six-year term, but I thought what prevailed, the two-terms is good.

Single tenure for president, governors

I do hear some ridiculous arguments about second term election crisis.

God forbid. Suppose we elect a rogue as president, are we going to remain with him for six years, while we could have kicked him out after four years, punishing him by not re-electing him? If he is a man of honour he would have used the first term to justify the second term. There is nothing to look forward to in one term.

Why did you want to be President again in 2003, 2007, and 2011?

Are you asking me why a Nigerian would want to serve Nigeria? From the military, we served at various levels. I would not want to serve as a captain after serving as general. I was a military president for eight years, I knew what it entailed to run the country. I wanted to run on those occasions because I believe it is unfair to the country to deny it the benefit of my knowledge.

On Obasanjo

Nigeria is blessed with people who can do things for it. The military brought democracy and its dividends. The military midwifed it. Whether the military is undemocratic or dictatorial, we created the parties and the Constitution of the country. It is not unusual to have people who after the military want to run a democratic institution by offering themselves for service.

What would you say about the plight of elderly people, some of who die queuing for their pensions?

I think the whole system, not only in Nigeria, needs improvement. Care for the elderly is a challenging issue in other places too. There is surely room for improvement. These are members of our society and They gave their best at the prime to our country. The reward system should be such that they feel proud of their service to the country. We should keep on improving the system until when we get.

Privatisation

I will give credit to our administration for commercialisation and privatisation. it was the current issue then based on the fact that government was not the right institution to run businesses.

Businesses are best run by business people. In our case, we started with certain basic things. In 1977 we said government will continue to dominate the commanding heights of the economy, everything.

By the time of our administration in 1985, the idea was that government should take its hands off businesses to allow the government to concentrate on providing the enabling environment.

We introduced the Technical Committee on Commercialisation and Privatisation, TCCP. The committee came up because we wanted to do privatisation well. We took it in stages. Some outright privatisation and some enterprises were to be commercialised. Government took control of some businesses either because of their strategic nature or because of its heavy investments involved. We chose some that could be run well if they charge the current rates for their services.

I am proud to say the TCCP did very well. The whole idea of privatisation is good. The economy should be private sector driven. We cannot be different.

The original intention was clear, when he set up the TCCP. That was why we implemented privatisation cautiously. Once you are in a hurry some critical ingredients could be missed. I suspect that was what went wrong at the later stages of privatisation and why there so many complaints about it.

 


IBB as an instructor at the Nigerian Defence Academy

 

Are there any issues or actions of yours you consider a mistake while in government?

Looking back, I would say there were things I believe then were the right things for the county and if I have the opportunity I would do them again. We believed strongly on the autonomy of the States and local governments. In our time we funded local governments directly. We also believed you needed a special security outfit in order not to involve the military in every security issue. We wanted state police and a special force to tackle security matters.

I am grateful to God that people are becoming reasonable and thinking of what we did or thought about more than 18 years ago. Those are the things which if I was there I would have re-introduce or sustained. We were interested in the devolution of powers, to remove unnecessary weight from the centre. Education should be in the hands of local governments and individuals from primary schools to the universities. What government should do is to set up standards, and allow people to run their own things.

Message To Nigerians

What we are going through will not remain with us for the life of the country. We are a developing country. We should remain resolute, determined, not to despair in the face of these challenges. The country is too important fro us to give up on it. The fate of many other countries depends on Nigeria. We should make sure we remain a united country. We will, when everybody makes his contributions and performs his duty to the country.

IBB’s Bio
*Born in Minna 17 August 1941 *Education: Primary school in Minna from 1950-1956 *Government Secondary School, Bida, 1956-1961*Attended 6th course of the Nigerian Military College, Kaduna now Nigerian Defence Academy from 1962 *Trained in India Commissioned a second lieutenant in 1963*Attended young officers course in Dorset, United Kingdom *Pioneer officer Armoured Corps, Commander of 1st Reconnaissance Squadron in 1966 *posted to Nsukka in 1968 as *Commanding officer of the 44th Infantry Battalion
*Promoted Captain in August 1968,*Promoted Major in April 1970 *Instructor and Company Commander with NDA *Advanced Officers Course at the Army Armoured School in the United States from 1972-1973*Lieutenant Colonel and Commander of the Armoured Corps in 1973*Senior Officers Course at the Command Staff College Jaji *Commandant Armoured Corps *National Institute For Policy and Strategic Studies in KurulColonel and Brigadier General in 1977*Senior International Advanced Management Course at the Naval Postgraduate School, USA in 1980*Director Army Staff Duties *Major General 1983 *Chief of Army Staff in January 1984 *President 27 August 1985 *Left office 27 August 1993*Honours: Defence Service Medal, *National Service Medal*Royal Service Medal* Force Services Star Medal*  General Service Medal*Commander of the Federal Republic of Nigerial Grand Commander of the Federal Republic of Nigeria*Married Maryam Babangida nee Okogwu in September 1969 in Kaduna* She died 27th December 2009* They have four children, Aishat, Babangida, Aminu and Halimat.

-Interview: Ikeddy Isiguzo, Chairman Editorial Board,Vanguard

Continues tomorrow.