Ibrahim Badamosi Babangida (GCFR) is arguably Nigeria’s first and ever most urbane, cheerful, and optimistic ex-military President and retired former Head of State. Life dealt him the most devastating blow at 14 when he lost both parents. Being an orphan no doubt most have been the spur and propellant that sent him catapulting into life to chart his own way. Next week Tuesday, he clocks 80. In a no-holds-barred exclusive interview with ARISE TV at his Minna, Niger State hilltop residence, the foremost elder statesman blessed with a good memory, talks about turning 80, why Nigeria’s next President must understand the economy, and why the nation’s leadership should be blamed for insecurity, banditry, terrorism, and kidnapping. The retired Army General also spoke on how his administration fought corruption, high points of his reign as military President, his participation on June 12, how the Nigerian Media and people gave him the sobriquet ‘Maradona’ and ‘evil-genius’, legacy and life without his late wife Mariam Babangida. Adedayo Adejobi presents the excerpts….
How does it feel to turn 80?
I feel good. But I continue to be very grateful to God for allowing us to see this day.
Looking back 80, years, childhood, growing up, joining the military, being involved in the Nigeria civil war, and at every level of governance in Nigeria in the last 50 years or more; what are the things that stand out for you? Any fond memories?
If I look back, I keep on saying I wished my parents were alive to see certain levels of my development. I lost them when I was in my formative years. By the time I was 14, I lost my both parents. Every day it comes to me, and I wish one or both of them were alive.
Did loosing them at 14. How did their passing on affect you, your world worldview, or how you relate to people?
I used to hear them talk. They were always wishing me well. They were confident that I would one day grow up to be somebody within the community, and as God will have it, they didn’t get to see me grow up within the community.
Of course, you have turned out more than their expectations?
The history of Nigeria isn’t complete without talking about the role you have played. From 1966 when the coup happened to your intervention at some level. In 1976, you botched the coup against the Late Murtala Muhammed. So many iconic moments. Talk to us about that fight you had to engage in to keep Nigeria one, and the fact that today, Nigeria is still struggling with unity.
I think at that time, the first problem started in 1966. Nigeria was 6 years old as an independent country. We were just struggling to be a nation. We were just a people in a geographical environment called Nigeria. I didn’t believe we built a nation, and that is the major problem. That is why there was instability within the country. This culminated in a civil war and all developing countries had to go through that process especially in Africa and Latin America, so we are not an exception.
So you think the civil war was not inevitable?
If you watch, before the civil war, we had a lot of problems. We had instability in the government, in the system. We had riots, operation wait here, and a lot of instability operations in the country. These culminated in the civil war, so it didn’t come to us as a surprise.
A lot of people argue that the incursion of the military into governance set Nigeria back decades, if not centuries. Do you think the military coming to power was a setback for Nigeria?
I saw the Military’s intervention as part of the developing process in a developing country like Nigeria. I can take you back to 1952. the whole continent of Africa, the military started intervening in governance in Africa. 1952 was Egypt. And the from Egypt, this started going through to other countries. It was a norm then to stage a coup in Africa then, and we couldn’t be an exception. Officers who were trained and highly educated, following the events happening in other countries, it’s not unusual to develop people who this mentality. I think we came in at the time that this thing was happening and acceptable.
Nigeria is still struggling to be a nation. what do you think is wrong at the base. The Fulani, Yoruba, and Igbo all don’t seem to feel a sense of belonging. What is fundamentally responsible for that?
On the contrary, I think, again, if you look back if you take a place like Baga in the Northeast. The Igbo and Yoruba man travels up to Baga for trading. He lived very comfortably and well with the people around there. Even politically, in Enugu, in the ’50s, you had and Hausa man who was a Mayor. If you go to Lagos, it’s the same thing. You have Yoruba’s, Igbo’s who are holding political appointments at local levels and live very well with the people. I think, we becoming elites, did not succeed in imbibing that culture for the country, so we rather live with the culture that the Europeans handed over to us. We did not mould ourselves as a nation, so I feel very strongly that what was happened. The political elites that were being then developed, ran back to their cocoon in accepting that I had to be an Igbo man to do this and that. Till today, unfortunately, the political class are not really looking into this thing very seriously with a view to asking how to build the nation.
How do you think we can build a nation?
We have to re-write the narrative.
For example, You are now arguing amongst yourselves on how to build political parties. We knew it was doable because we did it. We had political parties that were being led by people who were from other parts of the country, and they blended very well, they talked to people, they had the same common vision about this country and about what they want the country to be. I give you an example. I believe in a free-market economy. So, anybody who wouldn’t come to talk about the free-market economy, I wouldn’t talk with him because we don’t have core values in the country. These are core values beyond which nobody is going to allow you to do anything. The politicians, the elites, all are to blame for this.
Would you say that the tyranny of the elite is what has contributed for example, to the insecurity, banditry, secessionist sentiment in the southeast and southwest, kidnappings and terrorism all across the country? What do you think is the fundamental problem, and what do you think is the way out of the vicious circle of insecurity?
I think the problem is leadership. There is a disconnect between leadership and followership. If there is no disconnect, when people relate with each other at the various leadership levels and talk about the community, state, and the federation, then we wouldn’t have a problem. We don’t have core values in the country that everybody defends. You are a Nigerian and this is what you believe in, and anytime you are short of that, it is not going to be acceptable.
When we were in the military, we talked about settled issues in Nigeria. The unity of Nigeria as far as we were concerned is a settled issue. Free market and not socialism was a settled issue. The federation also is a settled issue. Nobody will come and say Nigeria is no longer a federation.
When you say settled issue, are you saying in another way that, it’s non-negotiable?
But some argue that it should be negotiable? And that we should sit at the table, and if we agree to be one, it then should be one. If we say we want to go our separate ways, why not?
We decided to be one about 51 years ago, and we have been in that position in the last 51 years. Why should we keep on repeating? You would have not less than 500 conferences in this country that Nigeria themselves sat down to talk about how t remain one, how to work with the federating units in the country, how to cooperate locally, and so on. I think there are issues we shouldn’t be talking about now.
What should we be talking about?
We should be talking about how to encourage, strengthen what we have agreed on in the last 51 years. We should be talking about how to strengthen unity. If we are going to have a federating unit, we should now be talking about how we want to see our federation. We should talk about the local governments. Wether they should have free funds, wether they should govern themselves. We should be talking about how these could be achieved.
Do you think something similar to the Nigerian Political bureau which you set up to give Nigerians the opportunity to explore some of the issues you are talking about? We’ve had the National conference in 2014 and so many talk shops.
I’m glad you used the word talk shops., that is what it is. It’s a shop. You talked, came back home, abandoned it and then somebody says we need that conference. Again, it has been done. The political bureau has laid down everything, but I think the tyranny of the elites is what is the main problem.
So, what’s the way out?
When I told you leadership, the leaders should understand Nigerians and Nigerians. Anybody who wants a position of leadership must be a person who will be able to use their intellect for the better well-being of the people.
Do you think it’s just a lack of understanding of Nigerians that are missing within the leadership or just outright lack of love and care for Nigeria and Nigerians? Isn’t that what is possibly missing?
From my experience, Nigerians are very resilient and industrious people, very fertile-minded people. So if you want to lead them, you will have to take a lot of things into consideration. They are very good, industrious, and resilient. So you ask yourself, how do you put all of these together to achieve a common objective.
Is that where restructuring, for instance, comes in. In fact, some have blamed you as part of the problem in terms of the structure of the nation presently. You created eleven states during your time as military President. Some say it further alienated the leadership from the followership. You have also been quoted as saying that the time to restructure Nigeria is now. If you say restructuring is the way to go, what manner of restructuring should we be looking at?
I believe in resource control. But mention it to a lot of people in this country, somebody will cut your head.
Why don’t they want resource control? What do you think is responsible?
I think it is this belief that this is our own God-given thing in our own environment. I want my people to benefit from this.
Exploring the issue of local government that you talk about. President Buhari did sign 10 Executive orders and the governors frowned against them. If you recall during your term, you increased allocation from 10-20 percent. Don’t you think Governors at their level should take a lot of responsibility for the way the local Government situation is now?
This is where your restructuring comes in. At the state level, I want to see a situation where the Governor is there. The constitution defines his areas of responsibility, his powers so that at the local government level, anything to do with the state government, the Governor doesn’t have to interfere. But if it comes to something bigger like attending to disaster, he can come in to help the local government. The laws are there. I saw somebody was talking about the concurrent and exclusive list. That is something along that line. I’m not a lawyer. I have no idea whatsoever, but you should give people more control within their capability, over their affairs and resources.
Would you connect the structure of the polity to, the dismal state that the Nigerian economy finds itself? I recall under your 8-year administration, you introduced Structural Adjustment Program(SAP) to look for ways in diversifying the Nigerian economy from over-dependence on all. You liberalised the economy. Nigeria is still grappling with the economy and struggling to keep the dollar stable. We are still where we were when you were in government. What do you think is responsible for that and how can Nigeria fix the economy beyond this panic mode?
That’s the right word, I think- panic mode. I think it’s the consistency in the policy. We ought t be able to say yes, this is the right thing to do, and keep it going. Not to be dissuaded by other people’s opinions. If you believe in the right thing pursue it, but keep on explaining it to the people also. Maybe one day they’ll say go ahead and keep doing it or even become more informed.
With four refineries moribund, what do you think of the fact that Nigeria imports a huge percentage of petroleum products? What do you really think? Can we really extricate ourselves from oil if we don’t fix the fundamentals at the level?
I believe Nigerians are very industrious, resourceful people. There is nothing they are not able to do, and they will do it well. I’m confident they can get out of this inconsistency in policy.
What do you make of this administration’s handling of the economy so far?
To the fact that it hasn’t collapsed, I think they are trying to keep it moving.
What are the indices you’ll say they are actually putting in place to actually move the economy forward?
I think you need to mobilise the people towards achieving a common objective. You should convince them they can do it, the resources are there, you are there to provide the leadership and to support them.
Are you concerned that the Naira to a dollar is about N550? What do that say to you?
It says a lot. But I think we can address it.
Production. Once people can produce a lot of things they can easily sell, either export o within the country, I think it will stabilise.
But how can that production come about, with a huge youth population and an unemployment rate of about 33%, with a label as the poverty capital of the world?
There is too much control in the way the economy is being run. We should open it further. If we do that and tap the God-given talent of the Nigerian, I think we will go far.
Back to the security, I’m not sure you have helped us understand we can pull out of the jaws of terrorism, banditry, and terrorism. Is there a need to train the military? Is it overwhelmed? What would be your recommendations?
Not overwhelmed, but maybe overstretched. The military, I believe, has the wherewithal, to fight banditry and bring the system back. But I think the problem is, they are doing too much. They are overstretched, and subsequently, because of the space they have to occupy, they have fairly obsolete equipment. But one of the most important things which we shouldn’t loose sight of, the military must believe in what they are fighting for. They are provided with the wherewithal to meet up that objective for the country. They must be well trained.
Do you think leadership is what is missing at that level?
I think they should do more.
If there is one Nigerian who passionately believes in Nigeria, it is Olusegun Obasanjo. I will give that to him. He believes strongly in this country, so it was easy for us to conclude that the person who’ll take over must have those core beliefs. Beliefs in the oneness of Nigeria and its stability for the future development of the country. He had the experience and had seen it all. He took part in the war of keeping the country one and led the country’s political re-engineering and development. That is the reason we sold him to Nigerians.
But some would say it was an attempt to assuage certain sections of the country, because of events of the immediate past at a time and the class of 63, to which you belong- with a view to continually have a grip on Nigeria.
No, I think what was happening is that we always believed that the person who should run the country, must have the following antecedents. If he doesn’t believe in Nigeria, we wouldn’t look for him at all because we wanted a Nigeria, even if it is democratically elected or militarily imposed, he must have that core belief. He believed in the country. And experiences over the years in leadership, public service, and the rest of them.
With this administration, Nigeria seems to be moving towards a one-party state. Are you impressed with our democracy so far? As a founding father of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP), what role are you playing with the PDP?
I know Nigerians will not allow that to happen. They will make so much that whoever will attempt to d that will not do it. This is the good thing about this country. They will talk, they will demonstrate they will engage you in all sorts of things so as not to do the wrong thing.
Are you still in partisan politics? Are you still involved in PDP as an opposition party?
Why is that?
I’m an elder statesman now.
We cannot talk about Nigeria’s polity without mentioning the fact that when you were military President, you came up with two political parties- the SDP and NRC. Organically, Nigeria has become a two-party state, but it’s tilting towards a one-party state.
What was it that you saw that made you create two parties at the time?
We used experiences we had. We set up a committee to tell us why things went wrong. Democratically, the political parties were not coming out fine and it was very revealing. If you look at the first republic, we found out that after the first and second republic, everybody in this country gravitated towards a two-party system. There were all other parties, but we all gravitated towards two parties. So we had no difficulty in insisting two-party system is the best thing for us in the country. During Obasanjo’s time, we came up with five, I think. All gravitated towards two- parties. Nigeria can do well with a two-party system.
Let’s talk about 2023. so much has been said about giving a sense of belonging to every part of the country, including the Southeast. Many are saying the Southeast has not had a fair share of being at the helms of affairs. What are your thoughts on the need for power to shift to the Southeast?
we will have to make a choice. Either we want to practice democracy the way it should be practiced, or the way it’s being practiced, or we define democracy by our whims and caprices. If we are going t do it the way it is done all over the world, you will allow the process to continue. It’s through the process that you will be able to come up with a candidate that will lead the country. His qualifications, his beliefs should be known to Nigerians before he throws his hat in the ring, regardless of where he comes from.
Are you saying that Nigeria at this time should jettison the idea of zoning or power shift?
Wether we do it now or we don’t, we have to do it. Time will come when somebody will emerge in this country from Bida or Minna. The thing is, he is known by everybody and everybody tends to know what his beliefs are. I have started visualising a good Nigerian leader.
Who is that?
A person who travels in this country and becomes a friend everywhere he travels. He knows at least one person he can communicate with. The person who is very vast in the economy because of the developments, and then a good politician who should be able to talk to Nigerians. I have seen or, two or three already.
Middle age, elderly?
In their sixties.
Do you think that person should emerge in 2023?
I believe so if we could get him.
So what do you think about these iridescent secessionist sentiments from the Southeast and Southwest? The General situation with Nnamdi Kanu and Sunday Igboho who have been championing the cause of their region of the country. Do you it’s a good thing?
It’s always good to agitate, but because there is this belief that this country should be one when they make the noise, they find out that it wouldn’t get supported because Nigerians generally don’t believe in anything that will disturb their peace of mind. They wouldn’t do it.
The Department of State Services has been in the eye of the storm. You created amongst so many institutions, the SSS, NIA, NDLEA, NAFDAC, NDE for the purpose of society to help address various issues. What do you make of the DSS which has evolved from that to having a mind of its own? It would not obey court orders.
I think they are fairly well trained. As far as flouting Court orders are concerned, I don’t think it is the right thing for them to do. They should obey court orders. That is why we ought to have strong institutions that obey due process. I don’t share the flouting of court orders at all.
The EFCC is one of the institutions with the job of fighting financial crimes and corruption. There are questions marks on its ability to fight corruption to a standstill. How do you feel when you hear from certain quarters sometimes, that under your administration, corruption actually thrived. Is that a fair assessment?
Well, you can’t compare it with the fact on the ground now. From what I read, from analysis, I think, we are the Saint’s when compared to what is happening under a democratic dispensation. I sacked a Governor for misappropriating less than N313,000. Today, billions are there on the streets. Those who have stolen billions are in court and now parading themselves on the street. So, else s better in fighting corruption.
So, what’s your assessment of this administration’s war on corruption?
That’s where politics come. Somebody will come and say APC made the promise and that Nigerians voted for them on three planks-economy, corruption, and security. It’s for Nigerians to decide if these have been met.
As a Nigerian, what would you say?
I would rather wait and see how the other party reacts. If they convince me that they didn’t succeed in this and they show me proof, I will vote for them.
What’s your relationship with President Muhammadu Buhari, considering the fact that you were involved in the coup that ousted him from power?
Our relationship is still very good. I am happy. We relate well. But the seeming bad relationship is with the creation of the media.
What is it about the media that makes governments fear the media?
I didn’t fear the media. Don’t forget I liberalised the media. Today, you have private Television stations, private newspapers, and so on. I have no fear of the Media. I believe they are an essential part of society and they should play their role for the good of society. I have no problem with the media whatsoever.
What do you make of the seeming attempt to clamp down on the media by this administration?
The media and the public will not allow that to happen.
So, it is even silly to start to think of clipping them. Nigerians are wonderful people, you cannot intimidate them.
You got married in 1969, and barely 5 months, you went back to the war front. What made you do that? And why Mariam Babangida?
In 1969, I was wounded in Uzuakoli, Abia State. I was lucky. Got flown to Lagos that same day, which is very unusual, but God is kind. General Gowon got married around that period and here was my Commander- In Chief and I was very impressed with the way the marriage was going on. The first thing that struck me on the hospital bed is that I could have been dead. So, I made up my mind I would get married the moment I get up from the hospital bed. God was kind, I got well and came back. So, getting married became my first priority. I knew Mariam and was frequent to her house. Her brothers, cousins were friendly with me, so when I asked for her hand in marriage, there was no opposition. A few months later, we got married.
When you were President, you came up with a program, better life for rural women. That seemed to have marked an entry point for women’s involvement in governance. Tell us more about that.
I think what went for her, she worked with some of the best brains in this country from the University, public service and they were really committed and working to uplifting the status of women in the country. That was the secret behind the success.
Unfortunately, you and Nigeria lost a regal woman in 2009. how has it been since then? You didn’t re-marry, why?
They don’t like my face. ( He Laughs). I think it’s not easy. That is the way I am.
A lot of people have described you as a great builder of men and women. What exactly was the motive. Was it to earn their loyalty? Because, the hilltop is a mecca of a sort, as anyone who wants to become President sees it as a duty to visit and consult you. What is it about you that attracts people from all over the world?
I feel comfortable wherever I am. Whether in Minna or in Lagos. I quickly make friends and don’t disown people I know very well. I don’t disown them I stick with them. I think I will say that is the main reason.
How would you like to be remmembered? What would you say your legacy is? Do you have any regrets whether in terms of the role you played as President? Have you had closure on those things which seem like dark shadows over the great achievements you scored as Presidents?
Having left the office for over 28 years, I do think that we were right here. A lot of things were happening and those thongs convince me, we didn’t do badly. Maybe we were not understood. For example, you mentioned Structural Adjustment Program (SAP). 1986, I told people that people who take advantage of what we were trying to do will succeed in life., but those who couldn’t, went under. Today, I was proven right. People took advantage of what we did and they are the powers of industry, economic gurus. They were provided an environment to say what they want, when they want it and how they want it without getting shot or locked up in the prison. I think I made a contribution to making society better.
June 12 has been declared a public holiday in honour of M.K.O Abiola, but it still hasn’t been given closure.
I hope you know that I wouldn’t accept that.
Nigerians want to know what exactly happened. You figuratively talked about the cabal that put a gun to your head and forced you to annul June 12. In essence, you are a victim of June 12.
You wantt me, to be honest with you. If it materialised, there would have been a coup d’etat that could have been violent. That’s all I can confirm. It didn’t happen, thanks to the engineering and Maradonic way we handled you guys in the society. It would have given room for more instability in the country.
Was the pressure from the military or outside?
Both. The military can do it because they have the weapon to do it. The other part of the society, agitation.
Are you still the Evil Genius? Did you call yourself that?
No, I never did, the Media did.
And people call you Maradona, what’s that all about?
That’s a very good thing about the Nigerian media and the Nigerian people. You have to anticipate them. If you anticipate them, then you live well with them. Every time you call me evil, I marvel at that. I say there is a contradiction. You can’t be evil and then a genius. Maradonna, they said the meaning I got if from the media. Deft political moves. That’s how the media described it.