Although he had been involved in political and military activities that have had far-reaching effects on Nigeria’s political development, it was not until that black Friday of February 13, 1976, that General Ibrahim Badamosi Babangida fully unravelled and hit the nation’s consciousness.
Colonel Bukar Suka Dimka, his close friend, had staged a coup, and had assassinated the then Head of State, General Murtala Ramat Mohammed at Ikoyi, Lagos, at about 8.30 a.m. while he was on his way to the office.
After the gruesome murder that shook Nigeria and Africa, Dimka and his gang had stormed the premises of Radio Nigeria, also in Ikoyi, to make his coup broadcast. He was on it when Babangida, then a Colonel, invaded the station and convinced his friend to give up the game. Though Babangida prevented the coup leader from making further broadcasts, Mr Dimka managed to escape. And the coup was effectively aborted.
Since then, Babangida has been a recurring decimal point in Nigeria’s political circuit.
On July 24, barely a month to his 77th birthday, the Minna, Niger State-born General hosted a team of The Crest executives in his Hilltop mansion in the Niger State capital. And for three solid hours, he fielded questions from the team in a manner he has never done before. It was a no-holds-barred, except on one issue which he refused to answer question because he felt it might further strain the relationship between him and President Muhammadu Buhari.
He spoke on his life without Maryam, his delectable wife of 40 years, his adventure into the military, his roles in the two military coup d’états that changed the course of Nigeria’s history — the January 15, 1966 coup as well as the counter-coup of July 29 of the same year.
He also threw a bombshell on the June 12, 1993 election, which was apparently won by business mogul and Concord publisher, Basorun M.K.O. Abiola, but which he voided without convincing reasons. Mr Babangida said he and his colleagues in the Armed Forces Ruling Council (AFRC) actually anticipated things might go awry and were ready to stop his unending transition programme whenever it stalled, then move on till they were able to strike the right chord.
Matter of fact, the former Military President told The Crest that they actually warned Nigerians about that possibility but nobody was ready to listen.
“When we started the transition programme, I was in the media,” Mr Babangida, who clocked 77 on August 17, 2018, told The Crest. “I said we will be doing it step by step; by learning. Wherever we met a hiccup, we will stop, change it and move again. On this, I was honest with Nigerians. I told them that, and they would have judged me with what I said on that particular issue. But everybody wanted the military to just leave.
“But I did say it, that in the process of implementation, we may have a hiccup or mistake. And if we do, we would pause, correct it and then move on. Even the transition after the June 12, we gave a time span which, again, nobody was patient with. But we studied, we prepared to either have a non-conventional election or a general election. And everybody said they wanted to see the country carry out a general election. And you can’t just have a general election within seven days. You have to plan for it. Again, if people allowed us, we said there would be a general election in this country. …Nobody wanted to listen. Everybody was tired. I appreciate that. I appreciate it. Yes, people were bored and we envisaged it and we said it. We warned you in advance that if this happens, this is our next step. And that led us to the famous June 12.”
Now, sit back, fasten your seat belt, relax and enjoy the ‘flight’.
What is the highest point of your life? At 77, what are the highs and the lows?
First, when I was commissioned into the Nigerian Army, a young officer from the Indian Military Academy, full of life, coming to provide service to the country. Second, while providing the services to the country, you come across people, you meet people who operate either in defence of the country or in aiding people to provide for the safety of lives and properties in the country. Then, when I was given a command during the war. The high point (in that) is that here was Major Babangida, and I had over 500 soldiers under me. Their lives, their welfare were dependent on me.
So, you have to be concerned about how you make them have confidence in you that you are not going to lead them into a disastrous situation; you have to be concerned about how they will follow me to the war. I’m glad because I mingled with them, I trained and ate with them. We played together and they developed that confidence. And if they knew that we were going to war, fear was no longer in them because, as an officer, I was capable of doing what they could do. As an officer, I could do what a corporal could do. So, they just followed. That is a good point and it has been very successful.
How many of those people under your command then are still around you now?
Oh, they are quite a few. But most of them are very old now. You can’t even recognize them if you see them. There are very few alive.
Those who know you well say what you had going for you during your military career was that you have friends across the country and among all the tribes in Nigeria. They also attest that if you saw a person 20 years ago, and you meet him again, you will call him by his first name. How were you able to do that?
When we were growing up, one of the things they taught us to do was to create what we call ‘Unit bible’. In the unit bible, you have names of everybody – their names, their wives, their children, where they come from and so on. We, the young officers, competed amongst ourselves. Every officer knew everybody in his command. It was a sort of competition. So, it became part of us.
Let us go into more serious matters now. Many of your colleagues, including the late Benjamin Adekunle, regarded you as a political officer.
Fortunately for me, I never held any political office that time.
In the military, there was a category of officers who were politically conscious and were always calculating, and ‘doing things’ in that direction…
When I say political office, what did you see during the military regime? We had ministers. We had governors. We still referred to them as political office holders. But after military intervention, a lot of interests began to manifest amongst us. We took a lot of interest in events in the country. But bearing in mind that we have to remain there for a long time, we also knew that we should be subservient to the democratically elected government. In our case, we made a lot of friends. I had a lot of intellectuals who were my friends. I mixed with them. We attended parties together; went to conferences together; attended seminars together; and that developed our interest in politics–at least mine. I never missed any opportunity to go to conferences to listen to people, get their own ideas, just to enlighten myself.
Is politics compatible with the military profession?
I think it is. Yes, it is. Compatible in the sense that the military is subordinate to a democratically elected government; so, we should be subservient to the civil authority. We were taught from the Defence Academy-that ours was to do and die, and not to reason.
Why I mentioned the term political officer was that you took part in most of the coups that place in this country.
What was the motivation? Starting from the first coup on January 15, 1966.
Well, starting with January 15, 1966, I was a young officer; I wouldn’t have been involved in the planning. But at the end of the day, when the coup happened, I was in Kaduna, and we participated very effectively in the execution and so on.
What role you did you play in the execution?
I commanded troops. I had troops. And, normally, we would go on duties, to protect vulnerable points–whether in Lagos, or Kaduna, or Ibadan, and the rest of them, so that nobody went to destroy them. They kept us within the environment.
(Cuts in…) I remember that I had a senior colleague called Colonel Ibrahim Taiwo (who later became Military Governor of Kwara State and was assassinated during the Dimka coup of February 13, 1976). One day, we were travelling with him and he found us reading a book, How to stage a coup. That is the name of the book. I think he read it before, so, he said ‘Ibrahim, check chapter 23. Make sure you recite everything that is in it’.
What’s in the Chapter?
hat chapter talks about the consequences of failure. He said, ‘Remember if it fails, you will die. The consequences are the death penalty, imprisonment.’ He said, study it, and make sure you know those things off-hand because if you plan it and fail, God help you.
But that never deterred you.
No, it doesn’t deter. Rather, you get motivated. You see yourself doing a job. You were trained to defend and protect your country and, so, you see yourself doing that same job. Things were not going right and you are there to correct them.
When you know that the consequence of failure is death, isn’t plotting a coup similar to suicide?
No. That is guts.
1966 Revenge Coup: I Have No Regret
July 29, 1966, was a turning point in the history of this country; that is talking about the counter-coup in which you played some roles. What were the specific roles you played and what motivated you?
The motivation was very simple. They succeeded in calling the January (1966) coup a sectional coup d’état where most of the people we revered were murdered, even in the military. People like (Brigadier Samuel) Ademulegun (and his wife), Brigadier Zakariya Maimalari, (Colonel Kur) Mohammed, and so on. To us, the young officers, these people were our role models. Then, politically, leaders like Sir Tafawa Balewa (Nigeria’s Prime Minister at the time), Sir Ahmadu Bello, the Sardauna of Sokoto (and Premier of the Northern Region), and Chief Ladoke Akintola, Premier of Western Nigeria, were killed.
So, it was not unusual that, sometimes, we would go to organizations and we would sit down, and people would talk about what went wrong. The atmosphere was conducive for a revenge coup. The atmosphere was there because people were talking freely about the one-sidedness of the coup. Radio and television stations were reporting it. And one of your papers, I can’t remember its name now… It started from Ghana…
Was it Cyprian Ekwensi publishing it?
I can’t remember.
Was it West African Pilot?
Not West African Pilot. They showed the Sarduana shot down and that infuriated quite a lot of people (even us, the young officers). So, when the plot came, it didn’t take time to sit down and plan it. That was a revenge coup.
That particular coup was considered the bloodiest in the history of coups in Africa…
Because it went out of hand.
How did it go out of hand?
There was no control. The officers allowed things to go out of hand. Even other ranks were taking laws into their hands. It is unfortunate it happened.
The coup also marked the turning point in the history of this country.
Yes, it did.
Do you have any regret taking part in it?
Looking back now…
Looking back, what I will say is that the military didn’t get to understand the consequences of what was happening and that is probably why we had a longer period of military regime, 23 years.
You are credited with the trait of identifying good people to work for you, both in the army and outside the army. But at the end of the day, some of those people appeared not to finish well with you. It is like they got used and dumped.
No. I think that will be unfair. I only had one problem. I put up the best brains to work with us in our regime. We knew we were limited in terms of economic knowledge, political knowledge and so on. And since we were working for this country, and we wanted the success of this country, we concluded that we needed the best brains; people who were known; people who had excelled in their own specific areas. Take for example, the economy. One of the best brains this country has ever had in economy is Professor Ojetunji Abayode. I got him and he was prepared to come. I used people to convince him and he agreed. I also knew at that time that I would have problems with the Nigerian Medical Association because they were giving everybody a headache. I brought in Professor Olikoye Ransome-Kuti because he knew them, He taught some of them and he was a firm believer in primary healthcare.
I was in the Institute of Policy and Strategic Studies. He came and gave us a lecture about primary healthcare. I was a brigadier then, and I learnt more about taking care of people so that they would become useful. I invited him and he came. I told him we wanted him to join us. He said: “Me? Military? No!” I said ‘Look, I listened to you when I was at the Institute of Policy and Strategic Studies, and we all graded you fine. (Students there grade their lecturer). Now, I’m giving you the opportunity to practise what you wanted this country to do and you are saying you don’t want to do it. So, you don’t believe in what you are saying. You are just saying it to get people to pass exams!
He said, ‘how did you know?’ I told him, ‘I was a member of that class you gave the lecture to’. He said he was going to talk to his wife. I said tell her that I don’t accept ‘no’ as an answer. He came back and said ‘Ok, Mr President, I will come along but you will give me free hand’. I said ‘I will give you the freest hand. I will give you anything I can support you with. You will get it and implement your vision for the sake of this country’. I told him too: I will also want to give you one task. I don’t want trouble with the Nigeria Medical Association. He looked at me and smiled, and said ‘Ok I assure you, we will put that behind us’. And he did.
Is that the reason he survived throughout because you didn’t change him?
No. Professor Kuti survived because he had convictions and the rest of the team supported him. And you find out that even the subsequent regimes used him. He believed in a thing and he wanted to get it done.
Prof. Olikoye Ransome-Kuti was working in your government, his younger brother, Beko, was with the civil society group, Campaign for Democracy, and the legendary Fela was out there, a big torn in the flesh of the military. How did you cope with this situation?
Yes. But Professor Olikoye Ransome-Kuti was a good man. He was a decent person. You would sit down with him, and you respect him for what he is, I didn’t have any problem whatsoever.
You said you asked him and he said NO. Who were the other people who told you NO?
I think hardly any. There was Professor Godwin Ezekwe. He was in Science and Technology. We knew him because of my reading. He was the brain behind the Ogbunigwe bombs and the rest of them. I summoned him. I said ‘Professor, why don’t you come on board as Minister of Science and Technology? I want you to come and put into practice the knowledge you had during the war.’ He looked at me, and typically intellectual, he said ‘Well, the knowledge is very elementary; it is not complicated.’ I said yes, people like us in the military were not as intellectual as they were. But I was able to convince him to come on board.
The Leader Nigeria Needs Now
Many people have tried to characterise you as the way you handle government. In an essay published in TheNEWS magazine many years back, as well as in Ayekooto, his column in The Tribune, the late Chief Bisi Onabanjo, former Governor of Ogun State, called you Maradona. Some people even say you use Niccolo Machiavelli as your bible. What were the books that influenced you most? You once described Chaka the Zulu as somebody you admired. Who are the other world Generals that influenced you most?
Most of them are very recent; second world war Generals like Montgomery in England, Patton in America, and Rommel, in Germany. When we were in the academy, we had to read about wars. We read about individuals and those were the people that inspired a lot of us. Everybody wanted to be a Montgomery. Everybody wanted to be a Rommel, and so on. And believe it or not, here you have great people but greatly misunderstood. I gave somebody an interview, a kind of roadmap on what I was thinking about the next Nigerian president. I said he should have the sagacity and eloquence of Zik; he must have the knowledge of Awo and he must have the charisma of Sardauna, Tafawa Balewa, I called them four-in-one; one man with four qualities. This is because you know them, you have seen them, you know what they stand for. So, if you have one man who has got these qualities, Nigeria would be better for it. Of course, I didn’t forget my boss OBJ (former President Olusegun Obasanjo). He is a passionate lover of this country. He doesn’t compromise on anything Nigeria. No matter the situation, OBJ is going to stand for Nigeria.
You have had cause to disagree with him openly and he also has had cause to disagree with you.
But anytime we disagree, we find a way of settling our quarrels. Either we go to Ota or we go to Abuja or somewhere, and talk over it, and it is gone.
Most Nigerians believe that you use Machiavelli’s The Prince a lot.
No, no, no. I read it a long time ago.
Many Nigerians believe history gave you a golden opportunity to remain a hero forever in this country. They believe you actually started very well. Then, you began your political programmes and you set a date for transition; then, you kept shifting the goal post, shifting, kept shifting until we found ourselves in June 12.
I think people who said that have not been fair to me because when we started the transition programme, I was in the media, I said we will be doing it step by step, by learning. Wherever we met a hiccup, we will stop, change it and move again. On this, I was honest with Nigerians. I told them that, and they would have judged me with what I said on that particular issue. But everybody wanted the military to just leave. But I did say it, that in the process of implementation, we may have a hiccup or mistake. And if we do, we would pause, correct it and then move on. Even the transition after the June 12, we gave a time span which again nobody was patient with. But we studied, we compared to either have a non-conventional election or a general election. And everybody said they wanted to see the country carry out a general election. And you can’t just have a general election within seven days. You have to plan for it. Again, if people allowed us, we said there would be a general election in this country. I think Abacha came in November. Nobody wanted to listen. Everybody was tired. I appreciate that. I appreciate it. Yes, people were bored and we envisaged it and we said it. We warned you in advance that if this happens, this is our next step. And that led us to the famous June 12.
June 12 is considered the freest and fairest election…
And nobody want to give me a credit for it.
The credit goes to you but the feeling is that you decided to throw it away. How come?
Everybody said so. I agree. Even my boss, OBJ, told me that. He said you had an opportunity and if that had gone through properly, history would have recorded it as your greatest achievement. But then, we discussed at length what could have transpired. Again this: I will always talk about the Nigerian mentality. I think we are always anxious. We are always in a hurry. We want things to get done in the fastest time possible time. I tried to go out and talk to the public on why we had to do this but we were overwhelmed with criticisms. Nobody wanted to listen.
That is surprising because you demonstrated a lot of power. At the height of your power, you said that you were not just in government, you also were in power. I’m surprised that anybody would have cowed you with criticism.
In fact, I took more criticisms as a military president than any other civilian president.
They were self-inflicted
No. I don’t think it was self-inflicted.
The reason I said so is you were the Commander-in-Chief and your word was law. If you had stood by that election, even at the risk of paying the supreme price, that election would have stayed but you…
No. It would have stayed but the consequences…
What were the consequences?
Maybe when I write my book you will see them.
But you have refused to write your memoir.
Why do you say so? I haven’t refused.
Have you started writing it?
It is a work in progress. It is in the works.
How soon is it likely to come out?
I will have time to finish it. It will be soon.
Abacha wanted to be Head of State at all cost
Was it true that Abacha threatened you (that he too wanted to be Head of State) and that led to the annulment?
No, he couldn’t have threatened me, to be fair to him. But I knew he wanted that job at all cost. You will be reading it…
Just let us a little insight into those consequences that you were so afraid of that made you not to stand by an election that the whole world (in your words) gave you credit for organizing.
I have a conviction that if I get involved in building this environment, I wouldn’t like to be seen as having the environment destroyed. That’s number one. I wouldn’t be part of the destruction. So, I either make sure I remain with it, and belong there, or a circumstance will come and, eventually, I will leave. When I leave, if it gets destroyed, nobody will blame me.
Are you saying if you had declared the result, and gotten (M.K.O.) Abiola sworn in, there would have been war or what?
No. I wouldn’t declare the result if (Professor Humphrey) Nwosu declared the result. I knew deep into this that there were consequences which will not be fair to this country. I give an example: I took part in the management of PDP and I can’t disown them because I’m part of them. I made an input into its emergence, and if you say it is the worst thing that could ever happen to the country, I cannot in all conscience sit down and say it is because I participated in it. If the transition failed, and I knew it would have fallen down, nobody would have been bothered. They will say no. I will feel guilty like after all I spent the money but it collapsed. My conscience will never forgive me.
As Commander-in-Chief, you will be privy to some certain security reports than the other people knew about.
Was this force that was patently against the corporate existence of Nigeria external or internal? Was it a threat to your life or that of your friend (General Sani Abacha) who was to come in?
No, it was not a threat to my life but if it was a threat to my life, I have no problem. After all I have a bullet in me; there couldn’t have been any greater threat than that. But my fear was: what would the country end up becoming. Could the country be better? This was what we sought to establish. Could it better? If the answer is no, then, I take the blame because I should have put in place certain measures that will make it good. What we wanted was an enduring legacy.
Was the enemy internal or external? Or the evil was in the person who won the election?
I wouldn’t say the evil was in the person who won the election, after all he campaigned for it, people saw in him what he stood for, and therefore decided to vote for him. It was the finest hour in Nigerian political history where people voted anyhow; not ethnically, religiously and so on. That was the finest moment in our political history.
In one word, sir, would you say Abiola won that election?
He was on the verge of winning that election.
Did he win that election from what you saw?
From what I saw, he was on the verge of winning that election because by the time it was assumed that he won, officially, the official thing was not done. Results were still coming in, and it wasn’t declared. So, I think I would be deceiving myself if I say he has won.
You said it was the finest hour; yet, we couldn’t get it right; isn’t that pessimistic?
To whom does this credit go?
From what you have seen so far, you haven’t learnt a lesson from it?
The credit of not getting it right? You wouldn’t give me; so, I accepted that I will not be given that credit no matter what I say.
THE QUESTION BABANGIDA WON’T ANSWER
On June 12, 2018, President Muhammed Buhari delivered what many people believed was a political knock-out when he conferred on Chief Moshood Abiola the highest honour in the land, GCFR. He also declared June 12 as Democracy Day. Many political pundits have interpreted that to mean an admittance of the fact that the man won the June 12, 1993 election and ought to have been president. How did you feel on that occasion?
(Smiles…) Am I permitted to say no comment?
But why no comment?
Permit me to say no comment.
Okay, as Your Excellency pleases.
Okay sir, what about the letter you released in February, this year, where you advised President Muhammadu Buhari not to seek re-election because you believed it was time for a paradigm shift to accommodate a younger generation of leaders.
I have taken full responsibility for that.
But the drama that played out that day was something else. First, the letter was released by Kassim Afegbua; then, there was a denial by Your Excellency; then, a confirmation. Why that back and forth movement?
On this same issue, there was no back and forth. I will blame you guys in the media because the first thing one said, ‘IBB said Buhari is too old to be a president’, or some stupid headlines that will pitch me and the president at war. I don’t like war on things I didn’t say.
But Generals are not afraid of war…
Generals have common sense!
In the intervening hours, when Kassim was declared wanted by the Police High Command, what were the steps you took to ensure that the guy was not in danger?
I knew he wasn’t in danger.
But he was declared wanted.
No. No. He went and he gave an interview after going.
Before your letter, former President Olusegun Obasanjo had written a scathing letter to the President, also asking him not to seek second term. At the height of the herders/farmers clashes in Taraba, in which many people were slaughtered, General Theophilus Danjuma had come out to ask his people to rise up and defend themselves because the army was incapable or was reluctant to do defend them. Many Nigerians have added all these and concluded that you, retired Generals, had ganged up against President Buhari ahead of the 2019 general elections. How do you react to that?
Gang up? What gang-up? That is a media creation. It is media perception. It is easier for the media to add up things and conclude. I think what has happened is that after General Danjuma said what he said, after President Obasanjo released his letter, and perhaps, after my release too, the media simple added things up and came to the conclusion that there is a gang up. There is no gang up. It is media perception.
We just watched on TV the gale of defections rocking the National Assembly, with 14 senators defecting from the ruling APC to the PDP. As a former President and a major stakeholder in Project Nigeria, what do you make of this?
This is political dexterity.
Political dexterity? Can you kindly expatiate sir?
I call it political dexterity because there are no better words to describe it. This is political dexterity and I don’t think anybody should have any problems with that. I have nothing against it. I think it is good for democracy. If it is good for democracy, then, it is good for Nigeria.
If people left APC to form R-APC, they must have a solid reason or reasons for doing that. If 12 Senators got to a point where they felt their continued stay in APC was not working and decided to leave, there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. Similarly, if the other two senators felt that their stay in APC was no longer worth their while and decided to join ADC (African Democratic Congress), they have not committed any crime.
I think the development is good for democracy. Democracy is about choices; it is about the freedom to choose. In the democratic system that we practise, you can always disagree if you feel what you see in the system does not agree with your expectation.