I have never met Ibrahim Babangida, one- on-one. The closest I have been to a one-on-one meeting with him is the detailed attempt to deconstruct him and his eight year headship of the country by Dan Agbese, one of the four founders of the iconic Newswatch magazine. Entitled Ibrahim Babangida: The Military, Politics and Power in Nigeria, the 433-page volume was published by Adonis & Abbey Publishers (www.adonis-abbey.com) in 2012 but will only be made available to the reading public from 30 September this year.
In the interest of open disclosure, I should mention, that Adonis & Abbey Publishers, set up in the United Kingdom in 2003 to publish books and academic journals, is my firm. Several years ago, I was introduced to Dan Agbese by the eminent Nigerian professor of political science, Isawa J Elaigwu who was in turn introduced to me by Professor Ali Mazrui, who would definitely have been a strong candidate for a Nobel Prize had there been one in political science or political philosophy. I became Professor Mazrui’s junior intellectual sparring partner after he published a very important comparative work with us in 2006 entitled A Tale of two Africas: Nigeria and South Africa as Two Contrasting Visions. Professor Elaigwu was to become my intellectual ‘oga at the top’.
I took interest in Dan Agbese’s manuscript, primarily due to the controversial subject matter but gave up on him because year after year he was still telling me that the manuscript was ‘nearing completion’. When, sometime in 2011, he called to say he was ready to submit the manuscript, I did not take him serious. But when to my surprise I received the tome, I came to understand why it took him some twenty years to write it. It is, in my opinion, a bold and courageous attempt to deconstruct Babangida with a view to understanding some of the actions and inactions of his eight year rule.
One of Agbese’s conclusions is that though Babangida generally means well and is enamoured by innovative ideas, he does not like to be predicted and may deliberately indulge in dance steps that contradict the big ideas he espouses just so that no one can predict him. This is probably what the Nigerian writer and academic Okey Ndibe had in mind when he nicknamed Babangida ‘Maradona’ – after the famous Argentinian football dribbler, Diego Maradona. The nickname stuck.
The book addresses another fundamental question: Does history have immutable laws such that it moves on its chosen trajectory irrespective of the will or actions of individuals or is it merely a record of the actions and inactions of individuals? Agbese seems to suggest a third way – that while the immutable laws of history influence the course a leader takes, a leader’s personality can help shape the trajectory of such history. For instance Agbese noted that though the Babangida era formally began on August 27 1985 after the gap-toothed General overthrew the regime of Muhammadu Buhari, the forces that created that era were already in place even before Babangida was born. He also argued that throughout Babangida’s tenure in office, those forces continued to cast a shadow on his era. As he noted on page 16 of the book:
“The Babangida era did not begin on August 27, 1985. The events that shaped it did not begin on that day either. Nor did they end on August 27, 1993 – the day he stepped aside from the presidency and became just another private Nigerian again.
“He was part of the story but it was not his story from the beginning. His decision to go into the army, for instance, may be seen as the beginning of his story. But it was not his decision. The decision was made for him and eight of his former classmates in the Provincial Secondary School, Bida, by the dynamics of the Nigerian political story.”
Agbese further noted that we “are all subject to the fate decreed by the ubiquitous ‘what if?’ question. What if the northern establishment allowed the young Babangida to pursue his initial ambition of becoming a civil engineer? What if Nzeogwu and his fellow four majors had not dragged the army into our national politics on January 15, 1966?”
Agbese believes that Babangida is a complex character, “as complex and complicated as they come”. To untangle this “complex character”, he delved into his background, showing how some of the retired General’s known traits such as his “genuine love for new thinking” and his aversion to being easily predicted were formed and how these traits in turn combined with the environmental variables of the Nigerian condition and the invisible hands of the forces that threw him up to define the choices he made as military president, including the decision to annul the June 1993 elections won by his friend, MKO Abiola. The annulment was to trigger a chain of events that culminated in the institution of Nigeria’s Fourth Republic.
Agbese said he approached the research and writing of the book with the ingrained curiosity of a reporter but wanted it to be an intellectual rather than a reportorial inquiry. Perhaps because of this ambition, there are parallels in style between the book and Professor Isawa Elaigwu’s highly regarded academic biography of General Yakubu Gowon, Nigeria’s military Head of State between August 1 1966 and July 29 1975 – the foreign edition of which we also had the privilege of publishing.
I probably forgot Agbese’s hypothesis that Babangida loathes to be predicted when I revealed in this column late last year what I picked up from the grapevine that the book was slated to be launched on 6 December 2012. I am not sure whether that revelation (or was it an attempt to predict him?) had anything to do with the retired General changing his mind about the launch date. None of the other dates supposedly slated for the launching or presentation of the book also came to fruition. When Agbese expressed frustration with this ‘circular dance’, I jokingly asked him if he was not contradicting himself by hypothesising that the man does not like to be predicted while at the same time hoping to predict him by holding him to his words.
Despite being a very bold work that tries to understand Babangida and how his personality and the forces that threw him up influenced the choices he made as military president, the book is not without fault. For instance some of the sources of the quotations in the book are not given and Agbese’s discussion of the death, by parcel bomb, of Dele Giwa, one of the founders of Newswatch, does not provide any new insight on whether the Babangida regime was really culpable or not. Some Nigerians, led by the late Gani Fawehinmi, had blamed agents of the Babangida regime as being responsible for Dele Giwa’s death. Agbese also does not account for the reasons why Babangida remains probably the most charismatic of all Nigerian leaders – despite the fact that he ‘stepped aside’ as military president more than 20 years ago.
Despite these lapses, I am very impressed by the objectivity and courage with which the book is written. It is neither an irreverent book that tries to pander to the constituency of Babangida bashers, nor is it by any stretch of the imagination a hagiography. It is rather a book that courageously searches for the truth as the author saw it, with respect rightly accorded to Babangida and the high office he occupied but without being intimidated by these. Credit must also be accorded to Babangida for endorsing the book despite its several digs and pot shots at him. I am convinced that Agbese’s book will raise interesting new conversations about Babangida and his eight year rule (1985 to 1993).
Some quotes from the book:
“Babangida used every opportunity to demonstrate his love for new thinking on the myriads of political, economic and social problems that hobbled the country since independence. He openly shopped for them. He encouraged dialogues between his administration and the people – as could be seen in the IMF and foreign policy debates….” (p.403)
“Attempts have been made, and are still being made, to explain why [June 12] election was annulled. The easy pick in these attempts is that the military acted a northern script to prevent power shift to the south…. From what has been pieced together so far in researching for this book, the decision to annul the election was not ‘collective’, if by ‘collective’ Babangida meant that the members of the National Defence and Security Council were privy to it” (pp393-394).
“In his eight years in power, Babangida, like the hurricane, tried to pull down every tree that stood in his path. He left almost nothing untouched…. Babangida attempted to do titanic things to create the Babangida Era that would be the veritable watershed in the history of Nigeria. It did not quite work out that way for him. He left office eight years later not in a blaze of glory but in circumstances that that put the Babangida mystique through the shredder.” (p.405).
Ibrahim Babangida: The Military, Politics and Power in Nigeria is published by Adonis & Abbey Publishers (www.adonis-abbey.com). It is available in Europe, North America and Australia through Gardners, Ingram, Barnes & Noble, Bertrams, Amazon and other leading online retailers. In Nigeria, you can contact the company’s Abuja office on 07066997765, 08050001501.