By Ed Chukwuemeka Otuchikere
“An army can be guided by maneuvering but not a nation…… “
-Sun Tzu in ‘The Art of war’
General Ibrahim Badamosi Babangida (IBB) should have first read Sun Tzu’s treatise on leadership before embarking on taking over the helms of affairs in Africa’s most populated nation-Nigeria in August 1985.
In a most celebrated regime change, one that was tagged a palace coup, he ousted General Mohammadu Buhari (GMB) who was Head of state. IBB’s style of leadership was a clear deviation from the jack-boot philosophy of his predecessor. What is more, the economy of the nation under GMB was going awry at this time and rapidly spiraling out of control. IBB and his team claimed that they were on a rescue mission to arrest the decay in the system and also contain the steady deterioration in the general standard of living. They equally promised to correct the ills of the repressive and autocratic Buhari regime. This also included the review of various unquantifiable jail terms handed over to ex-governors and politicians by tribunals. Some in the Nigerian press, however, made us believe that there were more urgent, latent and personal matters that motivated IBB to topple the junta in which he was an active and highly visible player. Some others insinuated that he was a very ambitious soldier with eyes on who gets to control the vast resources and also the enormous oil wealth in the deltas and offshore Nigeria.
However, leaving the realms of speculation, IBB as Nigeria’s first self-acclaimed military President, was perceived as a man that applied sheer cunning and subtlety in governance. Many thought that he was not highly principled, so much so that he was nicknamed ‘Maradonna’ by the press and the populace. Like the soccer icon on the football pitch, IBB was considered very deft and as slippery as an eel. He literarily dribbled the citizens around without any clear-cut policy direction on a myriad of issues. He was as elusive as they come such that nobody could predict his next step both in strategy and policy. He was an enigma of sorts and kept the press and the people guessing his very next move.
Unpredictability is a very desirable character trait when you lead an army against an enemy force, but when deployed in leading a nation it simply leads to frustration, weariness and apathy on the part of the people. The scriptures stated that ‘where there is no vision, the people cast off restraint’.
IBB, weaved through the phantom landmines in the geopolitical space called Nigeria even as many of his countrymen perceived him to be a Machiavellian both in attitude and behaviour. He was both brash and benevolent depending on which side of the political divide you belonged to. Some others posited that he was so subtle that he delivered brutal deadly punches in velvet gloves. He perfected guile to such an art form that he was acclaimed the evil genius. His cherubic gap-toothed smile was all part of the camouflage or disguise. He knew when to apply the big stick as well as the carrot.
Babangida came across as a leader who loved to stir up debates to gauge popular opinion on any controversial matter. However, as time progressed and many discerning minds saw that IBB operated a sequence of thought and a pattern of action almost every time. He always had a fixed mental perception of an already established or pre-determined outcome. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) debates readily come to mind. Nigerians from all walks of life spent precious man-hours debating whether the nation should collect IMF loans with the attached conditionality. Professional economists and many non-professionals took the debate podium. Ultimately, the Structual Adjustment Programme (SAP) was adopted which was quite akin to taking the loans. IBB mastered the art of invoking and championing these debates while at the same time gently nudging discussants to adhere to what looks like an already prepared script. No doubt, IBB had a brilliant mind but was blinded by his obsession with power and the drive to dominate the space completely like the soldier in him dictated.
Another classical example of this behavioural pattern was the annulment of an election adjudged to be Nigeria’s freest and fairest: The ‘June 12, 1993′ elections contested by Chief MKO Abiola and Alhaji Bashir Tofa. Abiola represented the Social Democratic Party (SDP) while Tofa contested on the platform of the National Republican Congress (NRC). The two parties were the creation of IBBs’ government, structurally and to a good extent ideologically.
In a country where elections could be free and not fair or vice-versa, June12 election was indeed a watershed. IBB had hand-picked Humphrey Nwosu, a professor of political science as head of the electoral commission. Nwosu came up with the novel Option-A4. It was unique, bringing in elements of open-secret ballot system into the mix.
By hindsight, it was obvious that the whole electoral process was designed to fail from the onset. The tedious process began at the ward level and moved out to the Local Government Area (LGA), then state and finally national. Every candidate was expected to get what was termed as ‘grassroot’ endorsement from his LGA. Many of the candidates got into the presidential race fell by the wayside after which Abiola and Tofa emerged. Two Muslims in a nation balkanized along religious lines. It looked like the perfect formula for disaster; Notwithstanding, Nigerians kept faith with the process. They voted overwhelming for MKO Abiola. This outcome, according to pundits, was unlikely and unexpected. The margin between both candidates was significant as the results came in from across the country. People voted for change. However, this outcome was not anticipated by those in authority. It was no secret that IBB and his group were not enthusiastic to let go of the reins of power at this stage.
As it became obvious that MKO Abiola was going to emerge winner, IBB ordered that the election results being announced should be suspended forthwith. In what can best be termed an anticlimax, IBB annulled the results with military fiat.
Most Nigerians think that this moment was IBB’s second coup against Nigeria. The insecurity this annulment caused cannot be quantified. Many people lost their lives fleeing big cities like Lagos as the general concern was that another civil war was imminent.
IBB singlehandedly altered the destiny of this nation, truncating the emergence of a popular leader in MKO Abiola.
IBB based his decision on a claim that Abiola’s candidature was unacceptable to a certain cabal within the Nigerian military establishment. As usual, it appears like IBB had the perfect alibi, and once again, Nigerians were served the short end of the stick.
General I. B. Babangida has entered our history books as first military president, but the injury to our democracy and national psyche cannot merely be wished away. It has taken almost three decades and half to begin to give recognition to this momentous event in our national life. It was a period when patriotism and political expediency clashed. The result was that democracy was wrongly sacrificed alongside popular opinion while tyranny persisted unchecked, unrestrained and untamed.
Otuchikere is a geologist, businessman and social commentator.