In a relationship with the Nigerian public dating back to about 30 years, General Ibrahim Babangida (retd) has never ceased to cause surprise and confusion. The wily armoured General’s undiminishing desire to confound has been explained by the fact of his military origin: Soldiers like to surprise the enemy, believing this, more often than not, offers an iron-clad guarantee of victory.
It is this political attitude of Babangida that ensures that despite his friendly and cheerful disposition he continues to be treated with distrust and suspicion by his countrymen and women.
Since he stepped out of the vortex of power (unenthusiastically) in 1993, many Nigerians had been somewhat convinced that a naturally ambitious Babangida would find a way to stage a comeback. But each time he was asked if he harbored such an itch, Babangida always denied.
Speaking in April 2005 to a Lagos-based soft-sell publication, Babangida declared: “I don’t believe it is fair that once you go into politics, you want to contest. You can go into office, not necessarily looking towards an elective office… Now, by my philosophy I wouldn’t want to be seen as somebody stepping into politics for the sole purpose of contesting as President, but as somebody stepping into politics for the sole purpose of making contributions. If in the process of politicking, the politics throws you up, that is a different thing entirely. As to whether I am running or not in 2007, I will be part of 2007 politics. Let’s leave it at that.”
Characteristically, Babangida was indeterminate about his presidential ambition, even though at the time, the IBB Project 2007 had spread its tentacles to all parts of the country, with giant billboards urging support for the toothy General a feature of state capitals.
Babangida maintained this posture, deflecting stories linking him with a possible shot at the Presidency and refraining from criticising President Olusegun Obasanjo, even when his (Obasanjo’s) sit-tight ambition looked like putting Babangida’s plan to return to power in jeopardy.
But unknown to many, while Babangida acted like he was not keen about running and ignored paid adverts in national dailies as far back as 2002 urging him to contest, he was actually building his political base, waiting for a most auspicious time to “strike.” And he has always fancied his chances. “Just as you have those who are saying IBB for 2007, there are those who are saying ‘to hell with IBB in 2007, we would not allow him again.’ That is what democracy is all about,” he said last year, when nudged to speak about his ambition and his chances.
In the same interview published by Lagos-based soft-sell magazine, Babangida banished any notion that because it is well known that he was one of those who convinced General Olusegun Obasanjo to run for President in 1999, there could, indeed, be a pact between both men, which would see President Obasanjo handing over to him (Babangida) in 2007. “Even if there is, don’t you think it is meaningless, because you can’t control the way politics would go. Another political party can come and wash you away. So, of what use is that (pact)? There is nothing like a pact between me and President Obasanjo,” he argued.
But on Wednesday 22 March in Minna, Niger State capital, speculations regarding whether or not General Babangida would contest were laid to rest when the General, with a remarkable and uncharacteristic straightforwardness, expressed his eagerness to contest Nigeria’s presidency in 2007. That had been missing in previous encounters between him and the media. “I am ready for 2007, if I get the nomination of my party I will contest,” he declared.
Interestingly, Babangida believes he can count on the voters to return him to power 13 years after he ‘stepped aside’ with pro-democracy forces ranged against him. “I will run, depending on the mood of the people. I would not let them down,” promised IBB, who confirmed that he is currently a card-carrying member of the ruling Peoples Democratic Party (PDP). He appeared unbothered about President Obasanjo’s alleged third term plot, affirming that if the third term campaigners have their way, the voters would certainly have their say. He alluded to the possibility of an incumbent being defeated in an election, stressing that he was not losing sleep over Obasanjo’s third term plans. “We gave an example of what happened in Kano and I said if we have ten Kano States… I can feel that there are other states which are willing to do what Kano did,” an apparent reference to the 2003 gubernatorial election in Kano State when the incumbent, Rabiu Kwankwaso of Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) was defeated by the All Nigeria People’s Party (ANPP) candidate, Malam Ibrahim Shekarau.
IBB was also unfazed by the fact that Vice-President Atiku Abubakar would be a veritable threat to him in 2007. He dismissed the Atiku political machine in a jiffy. “Once you get into an electoral contest, you confront all the machines that are not allowing you to move,” he boasted.
Babangida’s Minna declaration sparked all kinds of reaction. To some, it was good enough that at last, somebody was going to confront President Obasanjo, who seemed buoyed in his third term plans because there appeared to be no contestant of note to challenge him. But the contemplation of another shot at Nigerian presidency by Babangida provokes rage among a considerable number of Nigerians, including radical lawyer, Chief Gani Fawehinmi, who declared that “Babangida has no moral right, no political right, to say he wants to rule Nigeria again. We will not forget his atrocities. Questions will be asked about how Dele Giwa was killed, how he mismanaged our economy and how MKO Abiola died.” The fiery senior advocate predicted that Babangida’s emergence will be a disaster for even Obasanjo and all those in their group who, according to him, have conspired against the Nigerian people, not only in respect of June 12 annulment but in the way they have destroyed the Nigerian economy between 1985 and 1993 and between 1999 and 2006. “The time has come for both of them to pay for their misdeeds,” Chief Fawehinmi submitted.
Also Prof. Itse Sagay, SAN, a respected human rights activist, expressed similar feelings. “I marvel at the cheek of a man like that saying he wants to come back. It is like fingering the nation in the eyes. He should go and bury his head in shame and allow the country to rest. He should forget about it not only in 2007, but also for life. He should rather go for his retirement and be quietly begging God for forgiveness,” Sagay intoned.
Tam David-West, a professor of virology and petroleum minister during the IBB era says although Babangida is qualified to run for the presidency he has no moral right to contest or even win an election in Nigeria. “Nobody should vote for Babangida. He has nothing to offer. I worked with him. I have said that in several articles. He has a right to contest as a citizen but nobody should vote for him. I challenge him to a television debate, Babangida has nothing to offer,” the professor said in a chat with a national daily.
Nobel laureate, Professor Wole Soyinka, sees Babangida’s plans to return to power as civilian president as an insult. During a chat with media chiefs last week, Soyinka declared: ‘‘Look, the musical chairs being played by the military, let us wake up our minds not to dance to this. Enough is enough. We are being insulted, left, right and centre. What is it? People shoot their way to power, accumulate mass and mass of resources and then use all the resources they accumulated through illegal means to come and dominate our lives.”
However, Senator Joseph Waku has a slightly different view. “His declaration makes the process exciting. It is a healthy situation. I have been his fan for years except that we don’t belong to the same party now,” Waku remarked. The Senator intoned that the choice is for Nigerians to decide whether they want him back or not. But if Waku can be said to be excited about IBB’s declaration, Alex Akinyele, Chairman of the IBB for 2007 Campaign Organization, is ecstatic, to say the least. “His chances are absolutely broad. The entire world has been waiting for this hour when he will declare. If you come across 10 people, eight of them are asking for IBB, saying what is he waiting for?” Akinyele said.
Already, over 20 associations which had hitherto gone underground following Babangida’s non-committal position have metamorphosed into one body called: The Nigeria Project 2007. This body holds meetings regularly to fine-tune Babangida’s presidential ambition.
One of the facilitators of the group, Mr. Max Gbanite, a U.S-based political scientist, told this magazine “Nigerians should be grateful to former President Ibrahim Babangida for saving democracy”. He continued: “Before IBB broke his silence through the media last week, incumbent President Obasanjo had already cowed potential presidential aspirants, as he threatened them into hiding. Look at how he harassed his deputy, Atiku Abubakar, even to the point of aiding American police to search his private residence for incriminating documents. Look at the way he harassed Gen. Buba Marwa out of the race by re-opening up a 15-year-old closed investigation of corrupt enrichment; remember Marwa spent last Christmas and the New Year in detention.
“Look at what Governor Kalu of Abia is going through in the hands of the Code of Conduct Bureau and EFCC. Remember the licence of his airline was earlier withdrawn by the government, all in an effort to force him out of the presidential race.”
This development, he told this magazine, forced many others to beat a retreat, realising that President Obasanjo has gone wild in his third term or life presidency ambition.
According to very reliable sources close to the former president, Babangida’s decision to declare his interest in the 2007 race at this time was to pass a message to national lawmakers that there exists an alternative to Obasanjo. “If IBB had not come out now, the lawmakers would have concluded that the presidency is between Obasanjo and the deep blue sea. But today, they know that they have a formidable candidate in IBB who definitely will give Obasanjo a good fight.”
With IBB gaining support within their ranks, members of the House of Representatives last Wednesday threatened to commence impeachment proceedings against their Speaker, Hon. Aminu Bello Masari for supporting a controversial motion commending Obasanjo for the speedy passage of the 2006 Budget.
The arrowhead of this group is Hon. Usman Bugaje. Others are C.I.D. Maduabum, Nasir Dantiye, Mohammed El-Yakub, Bashir Nadabo, Francis Amadiegwu, Almajeri Geidam, Temi Harriman and Femi Gbajabiamila. Said Maduabum: “The Speaker is an agent and we in the House, the principal. If and when the agent stops serving the interest of the principal, the contract will then have to be reviewed.” TheNEWS reliably gathered that Vice-President Atiku Abubakar, though determined to wrest power from Obasanjo, might be at ease trading off his ambition than seeing President Obasanjo continue in office beyond 2007.
“Let me tell you, Atiku is a first class politician, he is studying everything. I can bet that he will be comfortable working with IBB than allowing his ambition to make Obasanjo continue in office. You know in politics, there is no permanent enemy but permanent interest,” the source offered.
Sources in the Babangida camp told TheNEWS that the General has been holding a lot of meetings lately with loyalists on how to ensure his victory in the 2007 elections. It is believed that IBB’s declaration for the presidency has galvanized many retired soldiers who came to prominence through him, to work for the actualization of their former boss’ presidential ambition. Among them are Generals David Mark, Tunde Ogbeha, both PDP senators with sympathy for President Olusegun Obasanjo. The duo were sighted at the Minna hill-top home of Babangida last week, during a meeting called by “Concerned Nigerians For IBB,” a new organization founded by Godwin Daboh to drum up support for IBB’s Presidential ambition. The meeting, according to an insider, lasted 8 hours, during which a broad strategy was mapped out to tackle President Obasanjo’s third term plans, while reaching out across multifarious political groups and the National Assembly. The group, which also held a meeting at Sheraton Hotel and Towers, Lagos on Thursday 30 March 2006, is believed to be making inroads in the National Assembly, with the goal of frustrating any attempt to rubber-stamp an undeserved third term for President Obasanjo. Two notable female senators, Iyabo Anisulowo (PDP, Ogun) and Daisy Danjuma (PDP, Edo), are said to be rooting for Babangida currently.
Babangida’s March declaration was the climax of months of intense consultations that took the retired General to all parts of the country, including the Southwest. He recently visited Ijebu-Ode to consult with Oba Sikiru Adetona. He also visited the home of late Chief MKO Abiola and prayed at the tomb of the man whose death he (Babangida) hastened by the mindless annulment of an election he won on 12 June 1993. Desirous of being seen more frequently than before, IBB was the cynosure of eyes during the burial of the Globacom Chairman, Mike Adenuga’s mother in Ijebu Igbo.
A Babangida loyalist told TheNEWS that they were ready to confront Obasanjo if necessary and noted that in this regard, Babangida does not harbour any fear whatsoever. Indeed, a reading of Babangida’s encounter with newsmen showed that he is ready to confront the President if he (Obasanjo) stood in his way. He has also been trying his best to rally northern support, telling his kinsmen that if Obasanjo, a retired General could return to power as a civilian, he too deserved to be backed to do the same.
But General Babangida should expect the Obasanjo camp to fight back. One, the third term agenda is still on course and like many political analysts have posited, Obasanjo would rather die in power than out of it. His declaration in the United States last week regarding his inglorious third term ambition has not reassured many political observers that the plot has been buried.
Babangida strategists are well aware of this and the fact that the political environment has been stiffened to favour Obasanjo’s preeminence beyond 2007. In fact, the suspicion in many quarters is that the Obasanjo camp is only biding its time to respond appropriately to the threat Babangida represents to the President’s ambition to perpetuate himself in power. As an incumbent president of a Third World country, Obasanjo has a lot going for him. It is for this reason, said a Babangida acolyte, that Babangida stated that he will not formally declare his presidential ambition until the Electoral bill is passed into law.
“You cannot declare in vain. The law gives you the time when to start campaign and when to end campaign,” IBB stated.
The Minna-born General reasoned that the absence of a subsisting electoral law with less than one year to the elections makes the process uncertain. “I do not understand it myself, quite frankly. In this situation, whatever you plan, something will crop up that nullifies the original plan and then you have to start all over again. So, the best is wait a while, see how it goes, be convinced that this is the right thing: now I can conveniently get into the ring and fight,” he said.
The battle between Babangida and Obasanjo would interest students of history, for both men had resisted attempts at confronting each other in the past. Even in the 1990s when Babangida was described by Obasanjo as the architect of Nigeria’s woes, Babangida never ‘retaliated.’ Sources claim Babangida decided to stomach the attacks on his regime by Obasanjo, because he remains grateful to him for saving his career in the Army.
On 13 February 1976, when the then Col. Babangida was mandated to lead Federal troops to rout Lt. Col. Bukar Sukar Dimka and other coupists who had taken over the FRCN, Lagos premises after killing the then Head of State, General Murtala Muhammed, the instruction General T.Y. Danjuma gave Babangida was to crush Dimka and level FRCN if necessary. Rather than do this, however, Babangida negotiated with Dimka, allowing the arrowhead of the putsch to escape.
Danjuma’s response was: “I didn’t ask you to negotiate with Dimka.” Babangida was slated for court martial and his career could have ended in disgrace. At that point Obasanjo stepped in to save his (IBB’s) career. It is said that because Babangida found Obasanjo “trustworthy” he accepted the task of convincing him to run for the presidency in 1999.
Again, after many of his boys in the army were retired compulsorily by Obasanjo, Babangida felt betrayed, but he decided to mask his anger, the same way he had concealed his anger when none of his candidates was considered for the post of service chief, by an Obasanjo he helped to bring to power. Obasanjo, a smart, but often underrated politician, rather opted for “apolitical Generals” as service chiefs. These were soldiers who never held any political office before then.