By Ehichioya Ezomon
Those who are too clever sometimes overreach themselves. This aphorism illustrates the crafty persona of retired military leader, Gen. Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida, in two contradictory letters he wrote, within hours of each other, last week, to “fellow compatriots,” one of which directly asked President Muhammadu Buhari not to seek re-election in 2019.
Whether it was meant to give weight to the prior letter by former President Olusegun Obasanjo, also a retired General, or to upstage the letter-writer Ebora Owu in his pastime, Babangida not only outfoxed himself, but also overplayed his hand in his decades-old artful-dodging disposition.
Hence, the rave reviews and commendation by critics soon turned into sighs, and in some cases outright condemnation for “dribbling” the public in two separate missives he titled, “Towards a National Rebirth” and “My Counsel to the Nation,” respectively.
Thanks to the Nigerian people that know Babangida more than he knows himself, even some who hailed his first letter did so with a touch of incertitude or improbability. Why? Because the man, who styled himself “Evil Genius” and “Maradona” – after the legendary world footballer, Diego Almaldo Maradona of Argentina, who infamously used the “hand of God” to score a World Cup goal – has lost public trust since the 1980s.
Between 1985 and 1993 when he was “Military President” of Nigeria, on account of the August 27, 1985, coup against then Head of State, Major-General Muhammadu Buhari’s regime, Babangida, like a chess pro, played on Nigerians’ intelligence in a convoluted political transition that ended in the annulment of the June 12, 1993 presidential election won by businessman-turned politician, Chief Moshood Kashimawo Olawale Abiola, who died in inexplicable circumstances in 1998 while fighting to revalidate his mandate.
But for the resilience of Nigeria and Nigerians, the Babangida debacle could have plunged the country into internecine struggles that the June 12 almost assumed pre-1998/1999 transition programme by the Gen. Abdulsalami Abubakar military government that birthed the surviving democracy in May 1999.
So, like the leopard that cannot change its spots, Babangida was his old self writing those letters the same day: the one bombastically fiery and dripping with misgivings, and the other tempered and reconciliatory. Why he would write “similar letters” with different tone and tenor may never be known, but the guess is that the first letter had the “voice of Babangida” but the “hand of Afegbua” that crafted it.
Being his long-time spokesperson, Mr. Kassim Afegbua, journalist and ex-Commissioner of Information in Edo State, was used to issuing statements, in his character, on behalf of Babangida, so long as they did not rock the boat. But the latest one headed, “Towards a National Rebirth,” was oblique and serpentine.
As Afegbua claimed, the statement he signed “reflected the views of Mr. Babangida,” whom he said, “participated in the drafting process and fully endorsed the final version that was circulated.” Was that “final version” unabridged or untouched before dissemination? This query is valid in that despite himself, the Minna-based General is not prone to employing acerbic or caustic words in phrasing his statements/letters to the public.
If you observed, Mr. Afegbua, a member of the ruling All Progressives Congress, has turned an opposition within. Recently on a Channels Television programme featuring him and a member of the Coalition for Nigeria Movement (CNM), Mr. Akin Osuntokun, Afegbua had more harsh words for the APC than did Osuntokun, who was (still) of the Peoples Democratic Party.
Perhaps, he had that psychology when Babangida asked him to prepare the statement that was rebutted, and later admitted as emanating from the same source as the second statement that was mellow in its observations, and construction.
But why Babangida’s volte face? (He again publicized that he authorized the Afegbua statement, thus discarding the (first) rejoinder.) Mr. Afegbua might have gone out of his way to touch “raw nerves,” which Babangida would ordinarily not welcome. Still, he was not about to throw under the bus, for whatever political gain or mileage, a very loyal and dependable surrogate, who had stood by him through thick and thin.
However, very disconcerting is the revelation by Afegbua that “some elements sympathetic to Mr. Buhari, amongst the Babangidas, were responsible for the (denied/certified) statement.” Makes one to wonder if there’s division or a “cabal” in the house of the gap-toothed General! By the way, was it Babangida or the “fifth columnists” at the Hilltop Mansion that triggered the Police (and DSS) ill-advised declaration of Afegbua “wanted”?
Recall that in the heat of the second statement refuting the earlier comment, one Ahmadu Abdullahi said that Mr. Afegbua was asked not to release the statement, but he defied the instruction. By whom: Babangida or some aide(s)?
As the media captured in sensational headlines, and as insinuated by some observers, General Babangida’s aim could have been to sow “confusion” in the polity. What do you make of his not-so-stellar claim that, “I have not written an open letter to the President, I have just shared my thoughts with fellow compatriots on the need to enthrone younger blood into the mainstream of our political leadership starting from 2019” even when the discourse was centered on Buhari?
Do we take it that when he does write President Buhari an “open letter,” it would be devoid of ambiguity like Chief Obasanjo’s? Well, the tortoise, as they say, can never help himself from playing pranks!
* Mr. Ezomon, Journalist and Media Consultant, writes from Lagos, Nigeria.