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Ibrahim Babangida: The Military, Politics, and Power in Nigeria

This is a book on the story of Ibrahim Babangida, Nigeria’s Military President for the period, 1985 to 1993. Written by Mr Dan Agbese, one of the country’s most respected newspaper editors and finest columnists, it reveals the story of Ibrahim Babangida, the orphan who rose from obscurity in Minna to the zenith of his career and shot his way to be the Military President of the most populous African nation at the age of 44.

The book, more than any other document that I have read on the subject gives a detailed account on the Babangida personality, his journey through life, complexities, challenges and myths. In the book, Agbese had achieved his ambition of writing a “definitive biography of the most controversial political figure in the country today”.
The book has eighteen chapters spread over 433 pages with an introductory prologue as well as a closing epilogue. It addresses the common aspects of an individual’s life; in this case, explaining the environment and circumstances of the birth of Ibrahim Babangida; his early childhood, Islamic, primary and secondary schooling; relationship with parents, relatives and community members.  It traces his rise in the Military and reveals his mainstreaming into Military politics and the power structure in the country up to the time he shot his way to the Presidency; and his reign and stepping aside.
The first two chapters focus on the earlier days of Ibrahim Babangida who, together with his only sister, Hannatu, grew up as orphans. Relatives, family friends and the community saw him through the primary and later secondary school at Bida. Babangida grew up with mates, friends and elders that have remained in his life till date. The fellow was born with the art of prospecting, promoting and protecting valuable friends, in addition to being endowed with a high sense of charm and generosity, traits that have significantly influenced and affected his relationships and directions in life.  The fellow, from the onset had abundance of “care, compassion and sympathy” in him. He was a very popular boy in the primary as well as the secondary school where he was also appointed the Head boy in the final year.
From chapter three, the reader is introduced to the story of the Nigerian Army and specifically, how Babangida joined the Nigerian Military Training College (later NDA), and his formative years in the service after being commissioned in 1963. From then on, Babangida and friends lived and enjoyed their days as young officers in Kaduna. In the mid-1960s, Babangida and colleagues actively participated in containing the violent political upheavals that erupted in Tiv land and the Western Region. That, perhaps, “begun what was to become a long trek to the destiny that fate had decreed for him” in the politics of the nation.
 Babangida’s experiences and active involvement in Military politics beginning from the first coup in 1966 dominate chapters four to five. The chapters reveal the details of the Nzeogwu led coup and the plot that saw to the ousting of General Ironsi and the eventual rise of General Gowon as the Head of State. Here, too, the reader is exposed to the story of the civil war and Babangida’s active participation when “all the time, he featured prominently; his name echoed all over”. But it was not all luck for him. At a point, he was shot and wounded in the battle front with “the bullet … lodged in his chest and he needed surgery to remove it” but opted not to remove the bullet; it has remained in him till date. Incidentally, that gunshot hastened his marriage to Maryam in September, 1969. He reasoned that it was just luck that he survived the shot. It would have been the end of the family tree; a thought that he rejected particularly with him being the only surviving male child of his parents. Thus, to ensure that the lineage has continued, he hurriedly married and returned to the battle front to see to the end of the war.
Chapters six and seven reveal Babangida’s deep involvement and participation in the coup that removed General Gowon and installed General Murtala Muhammed. He played a very strategic role with officers like Yar’adua, Buhari, Sani Bello and Joe Garba in installing the government and influencing the performance of the administration.  He was admitted into the Supreme Military Council (SMC) during the administration, making him the most junior officer in the highest ruling authority in the land. That was an important landmark in his life because it exposed him to immense political education, helped him to know more people and learnt a lot about political intrigues, balancing and scheming. Perhaps, one major deed that catapulted Babangida’s profile in the regime was his role in foiling the Dimka led coup against General Muhammad’s regime in 1976. His courageous act of bravery in dislodging armed Dimka from the Broadcasting House unarmed and without shedding blood, brought him fame and wider recognition and respect in and out of the Military. Suddenly, his name shone all over Nigeria as the fearless officer that confronted the coup plotters and successfully dislodged them and foiled the conspiracy.
In 1981, Babangida became the Director of Army Staff Duties at the Defence Headquarters and was promoted a Major General. Indeed, “his star and profile were rising. Few people failed to notice that”. Chapters eight and nine focus on the period of the civilians and the plot that led to their overthrow by the Military on the night of December 31, 1983. Again, it was clear that Babangida was deeply involved from conception of the coup to its delivery. In the words of Agbese, “Babangida and Idiagbon were coordinating most of the activities in the north and certain parts of the west and the east”. In fact, upon hearing of the coup, a leading politician in the Shagari government instantly identified Babangida as “the ‘moving spirit behind the coup’ with the support of retired Major General Yar’adua”. The coup was successfully staged and General Buhari emerged the Head of State with Babangida as the Chief of Army Staff.  
Chapter nine is devoted to the performance, controversies and the challenges of the Buhari regime.  The sailing was indeed rough and frustrating for Babangida, making him to maintain low visibility, confined to the background.  In less than a year, deep crack had “appeared in the leadership of the military administration… Babangida found himself on one side and Buhari on the other”. Serious distrust fuelled by rumours and ill wind between the two leading figures frustrated Babangida to the point of contemplating of resigning from service and quitting the government. His childhood friend, General Nasko persuaded him against the idea. Clearly, an irreversible battle line was drawn between the Head of State and the Chief of Army Staff. The outcome was the Babangida coup that threw out Buhari on August 27, 1985.
Chapter ten gives the details of the Babangida coup; a blow by blow account of what transpired and the tension and suspense that accompanied the dramatic take over from General Buhari. Babangida mounted the saddle fully conscious of the situation in the country and the challenges that the government must address. He knew that Nigerians expected much from him and “being a good student of people and environment”; he must win the hearts and minds of the citizens. In particular, he  was confronted with three major issues, namely, how to endear himself to the public; how to win over the politicians who were calling for a return to civil rule two years into Buhari’s regime; and how to halt the economic decline. Accordingly, the regime set out painting the picture of a sensitive leadership that is conscious of the rights and interests of the people as opposed to the one it overthrew. Series of programmes and activities pertaining to the political direction of the country, economic recovery, human rights, press freedom and general matters preoccupied the regime’s attention in its first six months in office. But four months into his reign, Babangida uncovered a coup plot in which a friend and senior member of the government, Major General Vatsa and some officers close to him were implicated. The plotters were tried and eventually sentenced based on the law.
Chapters twelve to sixteen focus on the economy, politics, social issues and the regime’s efforts to revitalize the economy and give the nation a new political direction and renewed international visibility. The chapters take us through the various unrests and upheavals that enveloped the nation caused by the consequences of the Structural Adjustment Programme (SAP), invisible hands of the opposition and in many cases, the policies or behaviours of key members of the regime. Undoubtedly, the Babangida regime had survived some tense moments of turbulence that violently shook it to the bones. Few of them were the Orkar coup attempt, labour strikes, students’ unrests, religious conflicts, plane crashes, unseen pressure of politicians, etc. The chapters have been able to objectively and painstakingly tell the stories without being unduly sympathetic to Babangida’s opinion.
The remaining chapters address Babangida’s “crises of power” and the June 12 Presidential election and its annulment.  Evidently, the regime had confronted numerous battles from different constituencies especially in its last three years in office. But it also evolved multiple strategies to save its breadth and prolong its life when it was obvious that it was losing its popularity and pressure on it to leave was enormous. The prolonged and what some saw as a deliberately complicated and expensive transition programme eventually ended in the June 12 Presidential Election that the regime opted to annul throwing the nation in grief. In the words of the author, “June 12 came to grief. The annulment shocked the country and the world. A poisonous combination of military intrigues and high wire politics brought the programme to its knees… Still June 12 also drew the line on the sand of Nigerian politics. It generated a heady current that forced concessions and compromises and in the end achieved what Abiola intended to achieve, even though others not he, benefitted from it-power shift.”
Details on the issues, events and circumstances surrounding the June 12 debacle have been graphically recounted except for the fundamental question of who forced it to happen. On that: “Babangida refuses to say whose idea it was and how or whether it was forced on him. He simply insists that it was ‘collective’. But I only accept full responsibility though because I was the leader.”   Agbese concludes that “Babangida made some fundamental mistakes of the head and heart… Babangida’s most fundamental political mistake was, of course, June 12… The ship of his greatness floundered on the rock of June 12. June 12 sabotaged him and erected a permanent wall between him and greatness… June 12 was a spectacular culmination of Babangida’s own incredible capacity for self-sabotage…” I cannot agree more with Agbese. Without doubt, the June 12 Presidential election annulment has undermined Babangida’s place in history and dwarfed his fundamental and positive contributions in restructuring and developing the country. But like it or not, Babangida has his plusses that cannot be written off in the history of the nation. And they are many. However, fate had decreed that he would live the rest of his life with the burden of June 12 in his chest like the bullet shot into him during the civil war.
I find the book exciting and interesting in revealing the dynamics of Military politics and indeed general politics in post independent Nigeria. In a captivating manner, Agbese ‘exposes’ the shadowy details that propelled Nigeria in different directions through the Babangida personality. As one may find out, the Babangida story is closely tied to the story of leadership in post independent Nigeria. Thus, a reading of the book is the reading of a lot about the country’s struggle to evolve appropriate leadership in the last fifty or so years.
Extensively and appropriately researched, the book is written in the unique Agbesian style that is sufficiently short; effectively simple; and elegantly expressive.  I credit the author for professional objectivity in the presentation of the issues. He did not set out to praise Babangida or condemn him for his acts of commission or omission. Instead, every issue was clinically examined based on the prevailing historical, economic, political, social and administrative circumstances of the period. In many places, the author appears hard in judging Babangida’s decisions and policies, departing from the usual approach of being “all correct” in biographies. Finally, I must specifically commend the painstaking details in the book fully knowing that it was not the easiest effort to sit General Babangida to obtain details over a long stretch of time on the story of his life with “no go areas”. I hope that other leaders at different levels in the country can also be courageous to open up and tell the world their stories. Fair or not, we have heard the Babangida story; let others also tell their own for Nigerians and history to judge.
Professor Pate is of the University of Maiduguri

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