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IBB at 78: The book that influenced his politics

General Ibrahim Badamosi Babangida, IBB of style, has some special dates in August. He was born on 17 August 1941. He will celebrate his birthday on Saturday (17 August) this week. On August 27, 1985, he overthrew Major General Muhammadu Buhari in a coup. They will be 26 this month when he leaves office (he did so on August 27th 1993).

During the eight years he ruled, his regime was characterized by great bargaining (for which Maradona was nicknamed), brutality, deceit and generosity of Don Corleone or Padrino. And 23 years after leaving power, many Nigerians still remember his government with love or hate, depending on which side they belong to.

How did IBB have the ideas that gave its regime notoriety or popularity? In the next role, TheNEWS reveals how he and his regime from August 1985 to August 1993 were heavily influenced by Niccolò Machiavelli’s classic Il Principe. We present two pieces written by Adebayo Williams (IBB: The Lonely Long Distance Runner) and Ike Okonta (The General’s Tactics):

1. IBB: The lonely long distance runner

By Adebayo Williams

Plotting scheming, neutralising and tirelessly maneuvering, Ibrahim Gbadamosi 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 dynamics. In a country of reluctant rulers, President Babangida appeared to have prepared himself for office with a calm deliberation and unflinching resolve. He is a man with an astonishing will to power.

Yet to many of his countrymen, the general remains a perplexing enigma, an impossible bundle of contradictions. No one can claim with infallible authority that he really knows the Minna-born 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 kingmaker behind the scene and a king on the scene for a whooping twenty seven years of our chequered history: Like the celebrated Janus, Babangida is all manner of things to all manner of men. To his fawning band of adulators, he is princely here. To members 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 embodiment of patience and understanding. But to others not so well to disposed, Babangida is ruthless and vindictive schemer, a megalomaniac on an epic ego-trip and 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 unlocking the Babangida mystery lies in the greater Nigerian mystery. If Babangida is a confounding paradox, Nigeria itself, as several commentators have notices, is the ultimate paradox like Nigeria, Babangida is a combination of astonishing strengths as well as astonishing weaknesses. Nigeria is a richly talented country 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 considerable natural endowments, his guile, his cunning, his breath taking daring, his will to dominate, his penetrating insight into the seemingly defective constitution of his fellow countrymen, may ultimately have proved an embarrassment of riches.

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As a ruler, General Babangida is the most compelling embodiment of the Nigerian mystique. This perhaps is the key that unravels the riddle of the original romance. After an initial coolness, Nigeria suddenly 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 unforgettable as it was memorable. Die-hard critics, age-long malcontents and the professional opposition began falling over each other to pay homage and pilgrimage to the new king. For those interested in the semiotics of official patriotism, and of power with responsibility, the image of a rain-soaked Major-General Babangida taking the national salute at that year’s independence celebrations remains fetching symbol of national rejuvenation.

But if that was a dream honeymoon, the marriage itself cannot be said to have lasted much longer. The cosy association appeared to have disintegrated in a nightmare of recrimination and mutual disenchantment. As it happened in Things Fall Apart, a Chinua Achebe’s celebrated classic, hero and society seemed to have parted ways, the falcon can no longer hear the falconer, anarchy looms. Perhaps what is unfolding before our very eyes, is one of those epic historical tragedies. And it is not an occasion for caustic virulence but an occasion for sober reflection and a 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 a 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 ready to clutch at any straw. 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, the penchant of self destruct even when supreme glory seemed in sight? The overarching vision was wrecked in a jungle of primitive struggle and murderous power play. After all, you can only execute your grand vision if you stay afloat-and -alive-in the shark-infested and turbulent ocean of the Nigerian polity. And as the pidgin wisdom has it, there is no paddy for jungle. In that case, history may return the verdict of brilliant tactician and poor strategist on the esteemed general.

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