The Lonely Long Distance Runner by(Adebayo Williams) Plotting, scheming, neutralizing and tire lessly manoeuvring, Ibrahim Babamosi Babangida, a.k.a. Maradona is Nigeria’s most nimble and politically sophisticated ruler. No one can be said to have ruled the country with a firmer grasp of its confounding intricacies or a steadier insight into its profound, unsettling dy namics. In a country of reluctant rulers, President Babangida appeared to have prepared himself for office with a calm deliberation and unflinching re solve. He is a man with an astonishing will to power. Yet to many of his countrymen, the general remains a perplexing enigma, an impossible bun dle of contradictions, No one can claim with infalliable authority that he really knows the Minnaborn soldier, that he is privy to what goes on in the dark recesses of his infinitely resourceful mind. And here is a man who, by his own admission, has been a kingmaker behind the scenes and a king on the scene for a long twenty-seven years of our cheq uered history: Like the celebrated Janus, Babangida is all manner of things to all manner of men. To his fawning band of adulators, he is a prince. To mem bers of the charmed magical circle that surrounds him, he is the nearest thing to a secular saint. To many of his military colleagues, he is the embodi ment of patience and understanding. But to others not so well disposed, Babangida is a ruthless and vindictive schemer, a megalomaniac on an epic ego trip and the worst political pestilence to have been inflicted on the country. And yet there are others who see him as a misunderstood reformer, a much maligned patriot One thing stands out in all these assessments: Babangida is a strong character who evokes strong passions. Perhaps, then, the key to unblocking the Babangida mystery lies in the greater Nigerian mys tery. If Babangida is a confounding paradox, Nigeria itself, as several commentators have noticed, is the ultimate paradox. Like Nigeria, Babangida is a com bination of astonishing strengths as well as aston ishing weaknesses. Nigeria is a richly talented coun try, which perpetually runs in the opposite direction to greatness. Like oil, a natural blessing which has turned out to be a source of profound embarrassment for the country, General Babangida’s own consider able natural endowments, his guile, his cunningness, his will to dominate and his penetrating insight into the seemingly defective constitution of his fellow countrymen, may ultimately have proved an embar- , rassment of riches. As a ruler, General Babangida is the most com pelling embodiment of the Nigerian mystique. This perhaps is the key that unravels the riddle ofthe origi nal romance. After an initial coolness, Nigeria sud denly warmed up to its new ruler in an unprecedented upsurge of affection and admiration. It was as if the country had suddenly discovered the hero it had been searching for. The summer of 1985 was as unforget table as it was memorable. Die-hard critics, age-long malcontents and the professional opposition began falling over each other to pay homage and pilgrim age to the new king. For those interested in the semi otics of official patriotism, and of power with re sponsibility, the image of a rain-soaked Major-General Babangida taking the national salute at that year’s independence celebrations remains a fetching sym bol of national rejuvenation. But if that was a dream honeymoon, the mar riage itself can be described as a rude awakening. The cosy association disintegrated into a nightmare of recrimination and mutual disenchantment. As it happened in Things Fall Apart, Chinua Achebe’s celebrated classic, hero and society parted ways, when the falcon can no longer hear the falconer, anarchy looms. Perhaps what was unfolding before our very eyes, was epic tragedy – not an occasion for caustic virulence, but a time for sober reflection and reassessment of what Aeschylus, in a moment of supreme insight, has called the fundamental unhappiness of a society in search of heroes. For not even his worst detractors will deny the fact that there was time when Babangida had virtually the whole of Nigeria eating from his palms It is the task of sober historians of the future to determine what went wrong. All we can do is to hazard a few guesses. Perhaps there was really no foundation for the optimism. It may well be a case of a tired, despoiled nation clutching at straws. Or it may be that in the long run, the general might have been manipulated by his own manipulations. How else does one explain the elementary mistakes, the bizarre miscalculations, and the penchant for selfdestruct even when supreme glory seemed in sight? The over-arching vision was.wrecked in a jungle of primitive struggle and murderous power-play. Afterall,you can only executeyourgrandvision if you stay afloat-and alive-in the shark-infested and turbulent ocean ofthe Nigerian polity. And as the pidgin wisdom has it, there is no paddy for jungle. In that case, history may return the verdict ofbril liant tactician and poor strategist on the esteemed general. For an orphan from a lonely outpost of the country who had lifted himselfto the very pinnacle of power by his bootstraps, this may not be a damn ing verdict afterall. Babangida’s career is a classic study in survivalist instincts honed to precision and a phenomenal will to dominate. Perhaps, in more stable societies, he would have become a distin guished and world-famous tank general. But even herethe analysis shipwrecks. The greatest tank gen erals the world has known, from the illustrious Patton, through Lord Montgomery and Field Marshall Rommel to the latter-day Abrams were crusty, caustic eccentrics and apolitical rebels. The urbaneandsupremely politicalgeneral from Minna does not quite fit the classic billing. In tempera ment and outlook, he is miles apart from thesedis tinguished warriors. Where then do we place our man? There are many Nigerians, in no mood for char ity, who will argue that there has been no fundamental vision or strategy to the game all along. That the whole thing had been one grand trick whose sole aim was to remain in power for as long as pos sible at any cost. If you point at such fundamental programmes as DFRRI, MAMSER, PEOPLES BANK, BETTER LIFE and even the uniquely bale ful SAP, they are wont to retort that all these are ad-hoc schemes hastily and clumsily grafted onto the polity as the occasion and opportunity demand. In other words, rather than being well thought out initiatives,Babangida’s reforms are nothing butdes perate responses to desperate political pressures. A harsh verdict, no doubt and one that may yet betempered by the passage oftime. But in what looks definitely like the autumn ofpower, the grandmas ter of power-play must have come to realize the utter loneliness ofthe long-distance runner. As Gen eral Babangida, in the stupendous solitude ofAso Rock, calmly contemplates a grand architecture in virtual ruins, he might be inclined to conclude that there isafterallsome architecture inthe ruins, as he himself hassaidfortheefforts ofhispredecessors. But what manyotherssee beyond the great chess board isa huge mausoleum ofdiscarded pawns and sacrificed knights. Culled fromTheNEWS, 24 May 1993 THE GAME MASTER by (Akin Osuntokun) ^”^ ince succeeding to the leadership of >^^^ Nigeria in August I985, the IBB Ad- i^^J ministration has decided on very many ^-^ crucial courses of action, and under taken many significant policies and programmes. It has also proceeded doggedly to carry through or implement thedecisions. Inconception, formulation and execution, thedecisions have undoubtedly be come monumentalevents,andhavecumulativelyin augurated profound historical processes. The deci sions have greatly affected the life ofthe nationfor boon or bane, and will no doubt, continue to do so for a long time tocome. With IBB, Nigeria cannot be the same again. “A respectable hypothesis is that the leader ship of the fifth military regime set out to remake Nigeria inaccordance withsome vision which called for the destruction of the existing societal, political and administrative institutions. It was a quest which necessitated re-engineering thefamily, bringing the women andthe youth tothecoreandrelegating par ents and elders tothebackground. Theprincipal vic tims were to bethe traditional aristocracies and those values, national institutions and structures from which the leadership perceived itself to have been ‘excluded’. The model would have been Ataturk’s Turkey, Nasser’s Egyptoreven Mobutu’s Zaire. The change was going tobetotal, and new political and economic forces were going to be unleashed, things would be turned upside down and inside out.” The first quotation was an observation made in the introduction to a book written to commend the regime ofPresident Ibrahim Babangida bya collec tion of scholars who functioned as regime experts and intellectuals of the Babangida administration. The second was a characterization of the same regime in a book written by a critic of General Babangida. Even though the two observations were made from two conflicting motivesof approbation and reprobation, it can be seen that both authors agreedontheepochaldimensionsofthe Babangida regime.Thisconvergence ofviews fromtwooppos ingschools ofthought, inessenceamounted toa fac tual and valid pronouncement on the ambitious na ture of the political transformation mounted by Babangida. As itisthecasewithany societythat is desirous ofmaking a quantum leap upthe ladderof politicaldevelopment and having noreasonstosus pect an ulterior motive, Nigerians were ready and indeedeagertogoevery step ofthewaywitha lead ershipthatwas boldandadventurous enough tomap outan unprecedented agenda ofsocial and political transformation. The Nigerian situation in 1985 was that mili tary rule had not been discredited. This was based onthepositive precedent setbythe Murtala-Obasanjo regime, and the beliefthat a subsequent eventuality ofmilitaryrulewould followthisprecedenceorstrive to better it. Such assumptionswere reinforced by the prior association ofmilitary rule with the MurtalaObasanjo dispensation. Consequently, the Nigeria society was primed for the grand political experi mentation unleashed by General Babangida. The le gitimacy ofthe political transformation project was boosted by the effort to ground iton a rigorous theo retical articulation and formulation ofthe Nigerian political problem. Indeed, the political project had few comparisons in terms ofa unique penchant for seeking intellectual support and rationalization. In addition, because Nigeria’s political problems tend to be recurrent, conspicuous and overstated, it is in evitable that at one point or another it will compel an ambitious and all pervasive governmental response. The following description is a typical invita tion to a comprehensive policy action. “Nigeria in herited an unstableand divided political system from the British colonialists. The British colonial admin istration had intentionally adopted a divide and rule policy and encouraged the regionalization of poli tics. The system ofmultiple political parties intro duced during the colonial period deepened political and ethnic cleavages among the various Nigerian nationalists. This political structurewas inherited by the political class who, in turn, used the policy of divide and rule to cause a disharmony of interests among the Nigerian masses in order to subjugate them. And within the political class, there were equally deep cleavages as each regional or ethnic elite sought to entrench their dominance on the people of their regional and ethnic bases, while seeking to destabilize the control which their competitors had on their own respective regions and ethnic groups. In this type of setting, politics took on a zero-sum game and winner-takes-all characteristic”. This prognosis was proffered by the late Pro fessor Claude Ake(andadopted by the Babangida regime): “theelectoral commission hastothen plan andactually initiate(the) two political parties based on ideological differentiation reflecting socio-eco nomic conditions and corresponding interests.One conservativeparty which will reflect the interestsand consciousness ofthe capitalist class and the othera progressive party will not and cannot be a socialist but a Social Democratic Party. Proceeding in this mannerwillenable Nigeriato avoidthe regressive formsofpoliticsand political consciousness that will inevitablycausesystematic breakdowns. Itwill bring tothecentre ofour politics contradictions which blunt ethnicity,religion andregionalism andsetthe stage for the gradual clarification ofourchoice orlocus in regardtothe twogreat historical systems”. Concep tualized and introduced like this, it is difficult to fault the establishment of the two political parties viz the Social Democratic Party (SDP), and the National Republican Convention(NRC), which constituted the party system of the politics of the Third Republic. And to a considerable extent it achieved the objective of minimizing the role of ethnicity, religion and region in the Third Republic politics — to the degree where the presidential ticket of the party that won the presidential election was a Muslim/Muslim ticket. Given the nationally integrativeoutcome ofthe June 12 1993 presidential election which amounted to a robust vindication ofthe Babangida transition programme, it is natural to view the protagonists of its annulment with damnation and condemnation, particularly General Ibrahim Babangida. The riddle of the annulment is deepened by the fact that his ungraceful exit from power in August 1993 isan in dication that the annulmentwas not personally prof itable to him. ByJune 12, 1993, Babangida had posi tively affected the politics of Nigeria in a manner that no Nigerian leader before him had done. By the time the dust of the June 23, 1999 annulment set tled, Babangida had reversed his positive image in history to a negative one. His action had a greater adverse impact on Nigerian politics than any other Nigerian leader since the end ofthe civil war. The June 12 1993 presidential election and its outcome represented a neutralization in Nigerian politics in its totality that prevailed prior to 1993; while political developments in Nigeria since 1993 are reallynothing but an epiphenomenon ofthe 1993 presidential elections. But for the annulment, there would not have been an Abacha, let alonethe present dispensation ofObasanjo’s second incarnation. It isequally a testimony to Babangida’s political re silience that he has not been consumed or suffered any significant privation where other major players in this political debacle have been worsted. Increasingly, he has attained the status of a mythical figure who remains unaffected and splendidly aloof from the din of his own battles. As a member of the trium virate that effected the military coup of 29 July 1975, he was, in a manner of speaking, crucially instru mental to the emergence of General Olusegun Obasanjo as military head of state. Twenty-four years later he has equally been credited with a kingmak er’s role in Obasanjo’s return to power as civilian President. There are speculations that he is pres ently on the war-path with his former military supe rior and commander-in-chief on account of his alleged vulnerability to the latter’s political and eco nomic reform measures. Similarly there are rumours ascribing the pockets of political tension dogging the nascent Fourth Republic to his devious machinations and designs to unsettle the Obasanjo presidency. Whatever the veracity or otherwise of these sugges tions, the truth is that it will require more than cour age, bravery or condemnation to overawe Babangida. There is no reason to believe that he is now any less adept at playing the game of dominating his envi ronment — an aspiration to which he confesses.
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