OLUWAFEMI MORGAN writes about the constant visits by politicians to the Niger State home of ex-military dictator, General Ibrahim Babangida, who frustrated the return to democracy in the country
Every election season, politicians troop to Minna, Niger State, en route the Hilltop Mansion of former military dictator, General Ibrahim Babangida, for what they describe as closed-door consultation. The visits, according to those who embark on them, are to boost their chances of clinching whatever political positions they are aspiring to, especially the Presidency.
The mansion of the gap-toothed self-styled “evil genius” has become a “political Mecca,” where the proverbial Achitophel shares strategic direction on the nation’s polity, while dovetailing into conversations on the finest wines and splendid dishes that wealth and power can afford. It seems that at Minna, decisions on the nation’s polity are made outside the realms of constituted democratic systems.
The events of General Babangida’s reign between 1985 and 1993, including the annulment of the free and fair 1993 presidential election that could have returned the nation to democratic rule early, seemed to have been erased from the memory of the self-centred politicians. Babangida, who gladly sabotaged democracy, cannot be said to be a democrat under any guise. His reign as a military dictator was characterised by attacks on civil rights, press freedom and other regular features of democratic rule.
Under his regime, billions of naira was spent to deceive Nigerians and the international community that he had plans to return the country to civilian rule. That was why in 1989, he formed and legalised a two-party system with the Social Democratic Party and the National Republican Convention. He also claimed that there would be general elections.
But Babangida, after banning and unbanning politicians, and causing several wilful disruptions of the political programmes he willingly proclaimed, allowed the unsuspecting National Electoral Commission to announce on January 24, 1992 that election into the National Assembly and the presidential election would be held later the same year. Cleverly and with the mindset that the process would fail, he insisted on a voting process known as Option A4. It was a new way of choosing a leader, who must pass through adoption for all elective positions from the local level to the state and the federal level.
To the surprise of the dictator, Nigerians voted without rancour. He was not satisfied. That was why he annulled the August 7 presidential primaries, which produced Shehu Yar’Adua as the SDP presidential candidate, and Adamu Ciroma as the NRC candidate.
After he had failed with his laughable excuses, the presidential election was finally held on June 12, 1993. In the official results declared by the National Electoral Commission, Chief Moshood Abiola of the Social Democratic Party comprehensively defeated Bashir Tofa of the National Republican Convention by over 2.3 million votes.
Babangida was not satisfied and to the amazement of Nigerians and the international community, he later annulled the election, which was considered as the freest and fairest in the history of the country, citing irregularities. His action caused widespread protests that led to the death of many innocent Nigerians. The demonstrations later forced him to resign, but he signed a decree establishing the Interim National Government led by Chief Ernest Shonekan before leaving office unsung. A few months after he assumed office, Shonekan was sacked by General Sani Abacha.
It is this same Babangida that politicians are now paying homage to and has become a darling of history-lacking politicians in the country. In the current dispensation, a few pundits think that Babangida wields enormous influence that may be capable of swinging votes in favour of any aspirant, but radical progressives consider the frequent visits to the ex-dictator’s home by politicians as an aberration in a democracy, where the electorate is supposed to be the true holder of power.
To the heroes of democracy, who suffered in the trenches in a bid to install democratic rule, the visits by politicians to ex-generals, including Babangida, is strange. For them, such visits are social indicators that the votes and voices of the people are shrouded in backroom consultation.
It has been 29 years since Babangida left the seat of power, yet many politicians seem to believe he still wields enormous influence and political capital, hence the unending trips to his Minna abode. The likes of one-time presidential candidate of the defunct Action Congress of Nigeria, Nuhu Ribadu; former Senate President, David Mark; former Senate President, Bukola Saraki; ex-Speaker of the House of Representatives, Aminu Tambuwal; and a former governor of Jigawa State, Sule Lamido, have all paid politically-inclined visits to Babangida.
Ex-Ogun State governor, Gbenga Daniel; former governor of Sokoto State, Attahiru Bafarawa; and a former Chairman of the Peoples Democratic Party, Uche Secondus, were also not left out in their desire to seek the blessing of the dictator.
Seekers of political powers continue to court and consult Babangida each and every political season. In doing that, they forget that the former military dictator was roundly rejected when he attempted to run for political office later. For example, in August 2006, Babangida announced his desire to run for the presidency. A few months later, he withdrew from the race.Four years later, the Northern Political Leaders’ Forum did not consider Babangida worthy of its members’ votes as they settled for a former Vice-President, Atiku Abubakar, as the preferred presidential candidate instead of the former head of state. The rejection ended the political ambition of the gap-toothed general.
Now, no politician visits him without having his endorsement. For example, in 2015, Babangida endorsed the then presidential candidate of the All Progressives Congress, Major General Muhammadu Buhari (retd.), and his running mate, Prof. Yemi Osinbajo. Probably knowing that his so-called endorsement carried no value, he equally endorsed the re-election bid of the then incumbent President, Goodluck Jonathan.
In May 2017, Babangida and his fellow retired generals and ex-military Heads of State, Olusegun Obasanjo and Abdulsalami Abubakar, held a three-hour closed-door meeting over issues of national affairs, inclusive of Buhari’s failing health. The late National Publicity Secretary of Afenifere, Yinka Odumakin; a lawyer, Chief Mike Ozekhome (SAN); and a former National President of the Arewa Youth Consultative Forum, the late Junaid Mohammed, criticised the meeting, noting that the three retired generals could not decide the fate of the entire country.
Ahead of the 2023 general elections, events have shown that Babangida’s place on the political stage has faded, yet some unsuspecting politicians are still visiting him. He has played host to the Peoples Democratic Party’s Reconciliation and Strategy Committee led by Saraki. The group consulted Babangida while working on how to bring back into the party’s fold bigwigs such as Governor Dave Umahi and Daniel. Both men had ignored the strategy the general must have given to Saraki by joining the All Progressives Congress.
Babangida has also played host to many notable presidential aspirants. One of them, Vice-President Yemi Osinbajo, through the Osinbajo Grassroots Organisation, sought Babangida’s endorsement. During the visit, Babangida told the team, “I know the Vice-President very well. He is a good man; a man who has conviction about Nigeria; a man who can communicate with the country and inspire people. Such a man is a worthy person to work with.”
However, that Babangida spoke glowingly of Osinbajo did not mean that the gates of his hilltop mansion are shut against other presidential hopefuls. After Osinbajo, Babangida has also opened his doors for a national leader of the APC, Bola Tinubu, another presidential aspirant, who stopped by at the mansion during a visit to Niger State to commiserate with the people and Governor Abubakar Bello over a terrorist attack in January.
The Minister of State for Education, Chukwuemeka Nwajuiba; Atiku and the Governor of Bauchi State, Bala Mohammed, have all also been guests at IBB’s residence in furtherance of their political ambitions.
Babangida also played host to the National Chairman of the PDP, Iyorchia Ayu, and his entourage of party chieftains in February. It was revealed that the group met with Babangida over the zoning of the presidential slot of the party. In the entourage was a member of the party’s Board of Trustees, Mu’azu Aliyu; a former senator from Kogi State, Dino Melaye; and a former Minister of Information, Prof Jerry Gana.
Similarly, some northern PDP presidential aspirants, including Saraki, Tambuwal and Mohammed met with Babangida in Minna in March to consult him on how to achieve rancour-free emergence of a consensus northern presidential candidate. The expected endorsement from the military dictator may have gone a long way to stifle the chances of other northern aspirants, who refused to join the consensus arrangement in the party. Although the consensus process eventually failed due to political differences, Babangida had promised his support “as long as you stay on the course of promoting Nigeria all the time, making it a secure country.”
Atiku also consulted Babangida in 2017, and twice in August 2018, on his presidential bids. He failed each time. Again, he visited him in February to receive his blessings for his 2023 presidential ambition.
The most recent visit to the hilltop mansion was by the Governor of Rivers State and a presidential aspirant on the platform of the PDP, Nyesom Wike, in April. Wike led three other state governors – Ifeanyi Ugwuanyi of Enugu, Okezie Ikpeazu of Abia and Seyi Makinde of Oyo – as well as a former governor of Benue State, Senator Gabriel Suswam, and others to a joint consultation with Babangida and a former Head of State, Gen Abdulsalami Abubakar (retd.). It was reported that “General Babangida pressed for the younger generation to take up the baton of leadership and rescue Nigeria.”
For political activists and journalists, Omoyele Sowore and Osa Director, IBB continues to wield a false political capital because he dropped his reported presidential ambition in 2007 and was unable to win the PDP presidential primary ticket in 2011.
Sowore claimed that Babangida eventually had to extricate himself from partisan politics out of frustration. Both activists stressed that the collapse of socioeconomic freedoms across the social classes in the country has made the ex-dictator enjoy some comradeship with politicians in Nigeria’s pseudo-democracy.
Speaking further on Babangida’s political influence, Director said, “You cannot run from history, as I said. Babangida was military President for eight years and if you know him, you can call him anything but you cannot deny him of his charisma. For those who are close to him, he is a very generous person and that is why we (activists) call him a benevolent dictator. He has a lot of friends across the board; all those people he ‘made’ across the various strata of the economy. His influence is more or less overwhelming.
“Babangida is a cancer in the political system; he will spread and come out from another area, and that is because of the influence he wielded as a self-imposed military President. Because of his benevolent dictatorship, most of his boys are all over the place, so they still have some loyalty and allegiance to him. He does have a lot of influence.
“But if it is a democracy where the masses have a say, his influence will amount to nothing. The other time, I think it was 2011 when the northern elements had to decide on a consensus candidate, they dropped Babangida and picked Atiku. So, if he was that powerful, why didn’t they pick him?”
On his part, Sowore said courtesy and endorsement visits to Babangida remained a charade in the Nigerian political space.
Sowore said, “Babangida doesn’t have any political capital; he contested for President twice before he finally rested his ambition. Nigeria has been a criminalised society to the highest level; fellow political jobbers like to visit their godfather to create the impression that he has political capital.
“His (Babangida’s) political capital disappeared when he committed that heinous crime against Nigerians in 1993. Babangida is trying to rewrite history and he is trying his best not to end in obscurity. Some of these things are organised by him to keep creating the impression that he is relevant. He pays people and promises them things. As a media practitioner, I have seen some of those things play out before.”
For Kokori, the endless visits to Babangida by political power seekers may be connected with IBB’s “good human relations and human face.”
He said, “They (politicians) always overrate him because he was the leader of a junta and ruled for eight years, that is why they go to visit him. But I know he annulled the June 12 election, one of the fairest elections in our history, and that was why the whole country rose against him. To me, he is not a leader of democracy; if they go and meet him, it is for political expediency.”
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