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IBB at 78: The Enlightenment President

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Chidi Amuta

Joseph Goebels, Hitler’s commissar of propaganda, was wont to draw a pistol when anyone accused him of being an ideologue. I am not so sure how enigmatic statesman, Ibrahim Babangida, would today react to anyone who insists that as Nigeria’s President between 1985 and 1993, he was ultimately a pragmatic idealist in military fatigue.

Compulsively enamoured of the power of ideas, Babangida was and still is at his best in the company of people of ideas. Your welcome is warmer if you are bringing something new and fresh to the table.

If you insist on labeling him with this portrait in mind, the man we all call IBB is likely to beam his trade mark smile and, with a dose of assured self mockery, probably remind you that you shouldn’t forget to call him a ‘dictator’!

As the General turns 77, we are once again in his fortuitous month of August. He was born on August 17 th 1941 and ascended to national leadership on August 27 th 1985. He returned to Minna on August 27th 1993 after relinquishing power the day before. I have cultivated this annual habit of celebrating his friendship by recalling each year an aspect of his tenure in office both as a service to national history and as a personal tribute.

At this point in his remarkable life and career, therefore, a better reflection on the Babangida years may be better served, for him and for us all, if we reduce it to its ultimate essentials by asking the question: What was it all about?

He is likely to readily retort that it was all about the Nigerian ideal. He remains fanatical in his impeccable belief in and commitment to one indivisible Nigeria. Each time our political discourse has bent in the direction of renegotiating the basis of our unity, he has repeatedly insisted on his favourite ‘no go areas’ which take as axiomatic the sanctity of the Nigerian federation and its sovereign even if imperfect unity.

While in office, this nationalistic fervor and patriotic commitment came across through the cascade of ideas which he deployed to guide his conduct of the affairs of the nation for eight remarkable years. Therefore, for those troubled by the lack of intellectual content and ideological focus among successive Nigerian leaders, Babangida offered a difference. He ruled through a methodical deployment of ideas on literally every subject of national interest ranging from the economy, the political system, and the society.

On this lonely road, his constant companions were some of the nation’s most outstanding men and women of ideas. He constantly sought their diverse views and perspectives. He recruited them to work with him as ministers, advisers, heads of specialized agencies and friends. It can therefore be safely said that to date, the Babangida administration featured the most enlightened and distinguished federal cabinet in the history of Nigeria. In a certain sense, then, Babangida’s is by all accounts the closest Nigeria has come to an enlightenment president in every sense. Perhaps we passed through eight years of an enlightenment without realizing its full import.

His choice of these high profile Nigerians was not cosmetic. While it speaks volumes about his own self-confidence, it was driven by his specific perception of identified national problems and thus the quest for the best hands to solve them at the time. For instance, he saw primary health as a big challenge and so put a call across to the late Prof. Olikoye Ransome Kuti. He wanted to reposition Nigeria’s foreign policy in line with our potentials as a medium power and so went for my friend Prof. Bolaji Akinyemi. He saw merit in elements of socialist thinking and so invited late Prof. Ikenna Nzimiro to join Akin Mabogunje, Isawa Elaigwu and others in his star studded Presidential Advisory Committee. He saw the carnage on Nigerian roads as a national emergency and called on Wole Soyinka to replicate the feat in Oyo State by establishing the Federal Road Safety Corps. When he saw the rot in our educational system, he asked Babs Fafunwa to come and reform the system leading to the 6-3-3-4 system and the licensing of private universities.

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The management of economic adversity in the old Imo State yielded a unique economic doctrine called ‘Imo Formula” which impressed him. So he asked Dr. Kalu Idika Kalu to join his cabinet. Although he fought the Nigerian civil war as a federal combatant officer, he was neither blinded by bitterness or bigotry about some of Biafra’s scientific and intelligence feats. He invited the late Prof. Gordian Ezekwe of Biafra’s Research and Production fame to join his cabinet and also invited ex Biafran intelligence guru, Ben Odogwu to assist with overhauling Nigeria’s intelligence and security architecture to what we still have today. The economy was in dire straights and its path needed to be defined. He summoned and pressed to service some of the most respected economists, political economists and business minds of the time: Ojetunji Aboyade, Chu S.P Okongwu, Kalu Idika Kalu, Ernest Shonekan, Michael Omolayole and others.

More desperately, the nation needed to kill the mocking bird of a corrupt and dubious politics. So, he head- hunted our best political scientists: Omo Omoruyi, Humphrey Nwosu, Sam Oyovbaire, Tunji Olagunju, Eme Awa, Adele Jinadu, Tunde Adeniran etc. to brainstorm on a political blueprint which yielded among other things the two party system, the Option A4 electoral system, the yet unrivalled June 12 election, transparent party primaries etc. The list is very long and covers every facet of national life.

This was not accidental. As his friend, the late M.K.O Abiola repeatedly said, of all Nigeria’s military leaders, Babangida is easily the only one who came to office very prepared to rule and to reign. He was not just in office; he was without doubt in power. Yet he modulated the compulsive absolutism of his military calling with an essentially liberal disposition towards state and society. He sought to balance the regimental starchiness of military rule with the softer imperatives of economic, political and social reform. The difficulty of this precarious balancing act was the crux of his burden as a leader.

Babangida’s impeccable faith in Nigeria came wrapped in a cascade of reform ideas which had to be converted to policies and programmes and quickly deployed and tested in the life of his administration.
For him the diversity of viewpoints was not only an intellectual tonic, the reflection of that diversity in policy formulation and implementation was the essence of the enlightened state. He was at home with Nigeria’s diversity and his extensive contacts and linkages spanned the length and breadth of the nation.

Quite unlike your generic coup maker, IBB himself a veteran of coups d’états, had a clear idea of his mission in political leadership. He constantly reminded his friends that he had his gaze fixated on history. His models included the ancient Zulu king and ruthless warrior, Chaka the Zulu for military valour, General Gamel Abdel Nasser of Egypt for decisive and historic nationalism and Kemal Ataturk of Turkey for nation building and statesmanship. Therefore, his preposterous choice of the curious title of ‘President’ was a curious departure in a tradition of military interventions where even the vilest despots assumed the innocuous title of ‘head of state’.

Politically, Babangida was ideological without being an ideologue. With the benefit of hindsight, perhaps his oft quoted preference for ‘…a little to the left and a little to the right’ defined his essentially right of center liberal preference. Yet unlike post card dictators of history, his ideological preference was not rammed down the throat of the nation by martial fiat. He detested ideological labels but instead adopted an evolutionary approach to steering society towards his essential right of center position.

In this regard, he had definite ideas about the role and mission of the military in politics. His preference was for a free market economy supported by a liberal democratic political order in the pursuit of a fair society. There is in fact a sense in which the eight years he spent in office could be regarded as a period of staccato experimentation with the ideas to achieve these objectives.

Belief in ideas meant respect for contending perspectives. It implied respect for free speech and open expression even of dissent. For a military leader, this implied an unavoidable crisis of mission which was reflected in Babangida’s occasional battles with the media and segments of civil society. Through his personal charisma and geniality, however, he managed to maintain the confidence and respect of media leaders and honest judges.

He tapped into our national diversity to strengthen the sense of a national community of shared feelings and aspirations. Therefore, on matters of national interest, divergent ideas were encouraged to clash in the public arena. Leadership was to play listener and interested ultimate umpire. In response to the dire economic challenges of the time, Nigeria needed to define its relationship with multilateral financial institutions like the World Bank and the IMF. Babangida’s response to the situation was to inaugurate an extensive public debate on whether or not Nigeria should accept a loan facility then on offer from the IMF.

The debate involved all and sundry. Market women, fish mongers, board room experts and university economists were challenged to join in a national debate on a matter which ordinarily should have been left to official economic advisers and leading bankers. The street people may not have greatly illuminated the debate or provided a template for the solution that came to be adopted. But economics became a street subject and the public was further enlightened. The eventual decision to reject the loan but embrace the conditionalities was Babangida’s way of getting the nation to abandon a dysfunctional mixed economy strategy and henceforth join the world of free markets through a series of difficult economic reforms.

Similarly, in a bid to chart a new path for the envisaged political reform, Babangida inaugurated a prolonged and convoluted political transition programme. Again, an extensive multi tier political debate was inaugurated on the search for a desirable political system. Nigerians embraced the debate and vigorously expressed their preferences.

The tradition of free open debate as a necessary component of democratic culture was being encouraged as a way of uniting the nation into a unified community of feelings and notions on the common and its political implications. It would be recalled that the development of Athenian democracy in ancient Greece was facilitated by the tradition of dialogue and public debate for which philosophers like Plato and Socrates became iconic figures.

Babangida’s understanding of the role of the state was unambiguous. The state would function as ultimate mediator and arbiter in the complex interactions among citizens in their pursuit of happiness through social, economic and political freedoms. Even then, IBB had no illusions about the over determining impact of the economy on social and political life. The state had no business in business. He found the idea of a mixed economy an anachronism . So, he was in a hurry to shrink the presence of government in the business sphere. Privatization became a logical route at a time when the rest of the world was looking in that direction.

Divestment of government interest in unprofitable ventures was followed by systematic deregulation of the economy. New banks were licensed but a deposit insurance agency was set up to protect the public from inevitable bank failures. Government monopoly of electronic media was lifted but a national broadcasting commission was established to regulate the sector. Similarly, government ownership of print media outfits was exposed to the competition of aggressive private proprietors. Government owned newspapers died off serially, yielding place to the vibrant market leaders that we know today.

Economic deregulation unleashed the competitive spirit of Nigerians. New private wealth sprouted and flourished in unexpected places. The foundation for the land of a million flowers and the many new generation billionaires that we know today and have come to take for granted was laid.

However, the onset of a new free market system created many widows and orphans in the landscape. The rich men’s cattle grazed the fields of the poor bare. The new islands of incredible prosperity were surrounded by a menacing sea of poverty, hunger and desperation. The state found itself burdened with the fruits of inequality as an unintended social consequence of economic reform. Social unrest and mass grumbling fueled political opposition by desperate politicians. Occasional riots, demonstrations sent a clear message on the need for the state to don a more humane face. State compassion gave rise to poverty alleviation institutions like Peoples Bank, Community Banks and an aggressive rural development programme.

By far Babangida’s most contentious encounter with his preferred regime of ideas driven governance was in the political realm. The series of debates, interactions and institutional experimentation yielded a different but troublesome political landscape. The choice of a two party system was based on the history of our tendency to gravitate around the poles of winners and those opposed to the winner. It obliterated religious and geo ethnic polarization. Democratic choice was simplified to a choice between opposites. But it was a bipartisanship imposed from above, complete with party logos, guiding ideologies and ready-made party offices. Traditional Nigerian politicians preferred an evolutionary rather than the ‘revolutionary’ model of two parties. From the just concluded 2019 elections, the logic of the two party advantage would seem to have vindicated itself as the desirable destination of Nigeria’s political culture.

History delivers its verdict often by tragic ruse. The ironic culmination of the Babangida enlightenment was that the most rigorous and well thought out programme of governance in Nigerian history to date was driven into a ditch by the subversive illogic of its own dynamics. That verdict has been variously delivered and requires no further rehashing.

Even as he retreated from the pedestal of supreme power, Babangida stepped aside with some yet unacknowledged firsts. He became the first Nigerian leader to overthrow himself and also the first to install an unelected successor.

Tragedy is when a great man’s passionate commitment to a good cause produces the direct opposite outcome. According to Hal Brands and Charles Edel in their fascinating new book, The Lessons of Tragedy: Statecraft and World Order, society is doomed to future tragic experience when its leaders forget their past errors. Today as always, Babangida remembers our collective past and his indelible place in it.

*Dr. Chidi Amuta, Author of Prince of the Niger: The Babangida Years, is a member of the Editorial Board of Thisday and Chairman of Wilson & Weizmann Associates, Lagos.

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