By Adagbo Onoja
At 18 chapters, excluding a Prologue and an Epilogue, Ibrahim Babangida: The Military, Politics and Power in Nigeria is a quantitative tour de force. The balance between the size and the controversial profile of Ibrahim Babangida, the subject matter is why the book would be a sensation in Nigeria and beyond. The social character of a work like this which we see quite early in the book in the long list of those who assisted the author to accomplish it necessarily means that society must be interested in making sense of the book, a job which brings back in those who go by the troublesome looking title of reviewers or critics.
Ordinarily, one would never have wished to be a reviewer of this particular book because the author is not just a worthy senior in Journalism but also of the aristocracy in one of the few areas in Idomaland where an aristocracy in some form or the other exists. I am not sure how far his liberal disposition has balanced out the royal induction when it comes to what is seen as the irreverence of critical celebrants of texts.
This might be his first taste of irreverence, not on account of a pre-determined reviewer at work but because, by the sociality of every text, it is capable of a multiplicity of meaning, some of which the author of a particular work may not have ever contemplated.
In the unlikely event that I end up with a vastly different ‘reading’ of Chief Dan Agbese’s Ibrahim Babangida: The Military, Politics and Power in Nigeria, then I would have no option than seek reconciliation with Agbese before the Och’Idoma of Idoma. That appears better than telling those who requested me to review Chief Agbese’s most ambitious work yet that I am too busy to do so as such a response would filter back to him.
Two particular pieces of information came very early from the author which helps any reviewer of the book. One is the gestation period of nearly a decade and half. The other is the problematiqueof the book. Agbese’s dragging fire was what he saw and perhaps still sees as an IBB mystique which he equally saw as a challenge to unpack. In other words, who the hell is IBB or who is the IBB behind IBB, also nicknamed The Boss?
Taking off from this frame of reference, the author went on to interview all those who were in the position to unravel the IBB whom Agbese said should arouse the curiosity of psycho analysts by the contradictions that came to be the hallmark of his style of governance, (p.xv) such that subsequently, it is no longer possible to tell the Nigerian story without him, (p.xv). He interviewed, interrogated, cross-checked and assembled tidbits which he re-arranged into the massive text of 433 pages, arranged chronologically from birth to the end of June 12 and slightly beyond.
But, before the opening of the birth and the family tree and early education captured in chapters one to three, there is a Prologue where what social scientists would call the research questions were laid out. They are many but one of them is the poser about how come IBB had no whiff of the Dimka coup when, as the most junior member of the Supreme Military Council, (SMC), under Murtala Mohammed, he was the undeclared contact person of the regime with junior and middle ranking officers so that no insurrectionary pin dropped in that constituency without him knowing and taking it upstairs for a strategy to nip it in the bud?
A second one could be the question as to why General Danjuma, the Chief of Army Staff at that time picked out IBB as the officer to supervene the re-organisation of the post war army. Even if that appointment were interpreted as we do to everything in Nigeria as a Northern arrangement, what of General Alani Akinrinade’s statement to IBB at Bonny Camp on the morning of the Dimka coup where he said: My friend, where have you been? We have been looking for you”.
When it turned out that IBB had no clue why GOCs and other seniors could have been looking for him when the appointed time for their meeting that day was still ahead, Akinrinade ordered the bloody Colonel IBB to go see the COAS immediately where it turned out that they were looking for him to flush out Dimka from the Radio House at Ikoyi. Conclusion: IBB had, by this time, carved a niche as for his superior officers to take note of him when serious assignments were on.
Finally, what was IBB seeking to achieve by the strategy of ‘appealing to reason’ in executing the COAS directive to him to flush out Dimka? Was it tactical creativity or a deliberate but patent overstretching of the mystique to charm all else to his side? What reasonableness was he expecting from Dimka at that point in time?
These are some of the posers that the content of the Prologue raised or compels the reader to. But much of the information there suggests that IBB’s role in bursting the Dimka coup became his Unique Selling Point, (USP), the dream stuff on which stardom was concretised and the future guaranteed even as that stature became a trigger in others to suspect him of longer throat for power.
Chapter One and up to Chapter Three must be part of the reasons why IBB already said Agbese has been unfair to him because much of the pieces of information do not favour The Boss. For one, his academic records and reports were not impressive. Two, that early, he was being associated with being manipulative, exemplified by the story of how he became the Head boy (p. 26) and of his questioned excellence in English Language, (p. 31). The only exception here is that the biography clarifies IBB’s origin.
He is from Sokoto, not Ogbomosho and the genealogy as laid out in the book is straightforward. Two, he was orphaned at age 14, and his education and welfare thereafter depended on those who stepped in as guardians without him experiencing the deprivations of being orphaned. He could therefore proceed to one of the finishing schools in the North then – Provincial Secondary School, Bida. The provincial schools and the middle schools in the North in those days were finishing schools or leadership grooming centres.
The story line is that IBB already manifested most of the qualities which were to become his identity later – always neatly turned out, charming, fond of cultivating a large network of friends to whom he played the leader by being a cheerful giver, listener, the devil’s advocate and a permanent middle roader in all controversies.
Also covered in these first three chapters is his recruitment into the army after secondary school within the context of the mobilization thereto by Northern political leadership, led by the late Premier of Northern Nigeria, Sir Ahmadu Bello. Of interest here is his sagacity to overwhelm family opposition by inviting the intervention of the then Imam of Minna.
Subsequently, we see a young officer struggling to maintain his balance, particularly coping with the rigour of the training in the military academy he attended in India where it was so easy to be thrown out. He finished but not too brilliantly and, therefore, put on probation by Army Headquarters, which was conveyed to him by a physically towering and an unsympathetic Brigadier Samuel Ademulegun under whom he was to cut his teeth as a 2Lt in First Brigade, Kaduna in 1964 upon his return from India.
Not only did he survive all these, he also began to lay the building blocks of what Agbese called the IBB mystique, the most telling illustrations being two things he did while in Kaduna. The first was what he and another officer, Sunday Ifere called the Unit Bible –improvised reference source for the personal details of officers and men in terms of marital status, number of children, hometown, etc, etc.
If an officer misbehaved, they checked his details and they could conclude that the pressure of his number of children or number of wives explained the misbehavior. In this way, punishment for misbehavior could take a form different from what the rule prescribed. The second telling example could be the invitation and incorporation of identified civil servants as honorary members of the Officers’ Mess which IBB perfected and which the army approved, products of which came to serve him later in life.
Agbese concluded his snippets of the formative Babangida in Chapter Four with the story of his role in the July 1966 revenge coup. Coupled with his experience of war though from a distance at the Indian military academy, then his participation in the pacification of Tivland and in Operation Wetie, IBB had completed his transformation from a naïve officer, if ever he was one, to a politically educated member of the praetorian guard, otherwise the Men on Horseback.
Chapter Five sees IBB enter the Nigerian Civil War and the dangerous moments, close shaves and drama that are associated with a war. Although Babangida himself talked of how the Nigerian side bungled many things in the conduct of the war, many interviewed by Agbese claimed IBB displayed attributes comparable to Montgomery, Rommel and Douglas McArthur, (p99). Whether he or anybody at all displayed heroism of the stature of these world war Generals in the Nigerian Civil War, the point is that he got a bullet that could have sent him to death, an experience which drove him to the decision to marry at the time he did out of the fear of departing the world without a heir.
That marriage might have been his greatest achievement in life because the late Maryam Babangida’s physical beauty is about the only thing beyond controversy about the man. By 1972 and under a decade in the military, IBB had attended five different courses in three different countries, showing one way in which the military is different from the civilian counterpart – elaborate training.
As the story unfolded in the subsequent chapter, we saw IBB participating in the coup that removed Gowon, a project into which he was recruited by the late Shehu Yar’Adua. It was a strictly Northern affair from the list of the leading conspirators – Yar’Adua, IBB, Joe Garba, Anthony Ochefu, Abdullahi Mohammed and Ibrahim Taiwo. It is said that, seeing what the Northern boys could do to one of their own (Gowon) made Obasanjo to tread carefully in 1976-1979.
Then we see IBB emerging in the government that followed, his role in the abortive Dimka coup. We note the Northern puzzle about the Dimka coup – the Middle Belt/Christian slant given to it even when it was Middle Belters like T. Y Danjuma, Dogonyaro, John Shagaya, John Inienger, David Mark and many more were those who crushed it. Note late Colonel Yohanna Madaki’s thought that day, “if there was a coup against Murtala (Mohammed) and all the generals and everybody who mattered were inside the conference, who then were making the coup?”, (p 132). It is in this sense that IBB’s hypothesis that the young officers behind that coup might be victims of ill-digested notions of a revolution, comparable to Nzeogwu before them and Gideon Orkar after them may be worth further reflections, (p. 140).
On the eve of the 1979 transition, IBB faded into NIPSS, followed by yet another course in the United States and promotion along with Buhari and Vatsa to the rank of Major-General, something that the Kano based Triumph is captured in the book as referring to a bribe so as for the trio not to stage a coup against Shagari. However, in Chapter eight, it is all speculations about coup attempts against Shagari before he eventually got thrown out in a coup which Umaru Dikko, Shagari’s deposed Minister of Transport was to describe as IBB in motion with the support of Shehu Musa Yar’Adua.
Interestingly, that was the same analysis by the late S. G Ikoku who inferred that NPN had merely taken over from NPN. He meant that IBB and Yar’Adua constituted the military wing of the NPN, an analysis that was not held out by the emergence of Buhari as Head of State and not IBB. Agbese’s book did not quite resolve this. Was it a case of a skillful IBB staging the coup but tactically yielding grounds to a Buhari till further notice or was it that Buhari defeated IBB in a power tussle between their different tendencies in the military?
Whatever it was, the post Shagari military regime was a Black beret affair. It was not surprising it declared itself an off-shoot of the Murtala/Obasanjo regime of the mid 1970s. But the regime had no transition time table, worried more about recovery of public funds believed to have been stolen by the civilians and for which those being detained were to remain detainees till proven innocent. To these three issues were added Decrees No 2 and 4 in particular.
And then a crack between Buhari and IBB which sycophants were said to have exacerbated but which concretized in what to do with General Aliyu Gusau for an infraction that this book simply either couldn’t put its hands on or was forbidden from going into, given the paucity of treatment given to it on page 190. The same scanty treatment to the Dele Giwa story in which Agbese occupies what journalists call the ‘hierarchy of credibility’.
We move to Chapter Ten which tells us the story of everything that culminated into that definitive moment on August 27th, 1985 when David Mark, then serving as Military Governor of Niger State, woke a ‘holidaying’ IBB in Minna with a phone call to communicate History in just two sentences: “Congratulations, Sir. It is all over”. By “all over”, Mark was telling IBB in a most exemplary language of conspiracy that Buhari as C-in-C of Nigeria belonged to History.
The coup against him had been accomplished according to the information from their secure network to Lagos, (p. 194). IBB was assuming Headship of the Nigerian State at age 44, much younger than Obama when both became powerful. Has anybody done any study of the age at which each Nigerian leader assumed power and arrived at the average and related this to why Nigeria has not made it? Some research problem!
The rest of that chapter is devoted to IBB’s numerous ploys to overwhelming those Buhari had hit. Felix Adenaike, a leading journalist had said of the Buhari regime as follows: “They confronted students, they confronted labour. They confronted market women. They confronted public servants. They confronted the press. They confronted doctors” (p. 187). IBB responded to each of such constituencies– the politicians many of whom were freed, the journalists for whom IBB repealed Decree 4, the professional associations like the NBA whose president he appointed as Justice Minister, the military constituency which he accommodated inclusively by widening membership of the Armed Forces Ruling Council, (AFRC).
Chapter eleven is the complex story of Vatsa while Twelve is the unfolding of what Agbese would have only forgotten to call the real IBB – the economic recovery model via breaking the deadlock that had frustrated a mutual agreement with the IMF. For this, he declared a debate but only to end it suddenly and proceed to talk of the imperative for sacrifices under an economic emergency.
Then came the beginning of attacks on him by the Junaidu Mohammeds, ASUU UNILAG Chapter, Odumegwu Ojukwu, Sam Aluko and General Obasanjos of this world, among others. Junaid Mohammed and Obasanjo’s attacks as reproduced in the book under review are classics, unbeatable, (p. 241). The tragedy though is that Obasanjo came back to government to implement a more hopeless version of SAP and nobody knows what Junaidu Mohammed would do if he became president today.
If Chapter Twelve brought out how the real IBB was unfolding in respect of the economy, Chapter Thirteen captured the unfolding in the political arena – an open ended transition programme. In Chapter 14, the learning process extended to the prospects of transmuting to a civilian president ala Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt but which was, however, jettisoned when what the author referred to as a big house fly flew into his soup by way of the April 22, 1990 coup.
Thereafter came a series of crisis management therapies such as the Open Ballot System, the creation of another set of states in 1991, arresting and charging some godfathers before the transition tribunal but only to release them a few days after the 1991 gubernatorial elections and even lifting the ban on former political office holders altogether. Others were moving the seat of government finally from Lagos to Abuja and conducting the 1991 national census.
By this time, the regime’s social contract deficit had reached scandalous proportions. A number of discordant and even disconcerting shockers saw to that: IBB’s first deputy in the person of Commodore Ebitu Ukiwe had been eased out, riots had broken out against crushing effects of SAP, Nigeria’s surreptitious membership of the OIC had generated sufficient inter-religious mistrust to last the nation its life time, a popular journalist, Dele Giwa had been bombed to death in a way that many believed they saw the hands of the government behind it, regime intrusion into popular centres of power such as the central labour organization, the student movement, professional associations.
A combination of these had occasioned an all time low rating for the Head of State in particular and the military in general. Nothing could restore the feeling of disappointment with a man people believed had prepared himself for power over time and trusted he would do a better job.
This is the context of the last chapter where the author takes us through the nightmare of June 12. Those who might not have been born by then or who might have forgotten that period should read this last chapter to encounter or refresh their memory, if not of the activities of the Association for Better Nigeria, (ABN), beautifully rationalized by IBB himself on page 379, then the pressure from the elected governors and others on him to continue in office; the deadly ethno-religious violence in Zangon – Kataf; elected legislators with nothing to do because there was no president to work with; staggering of primaries and the regime sponsored campaign to discredit it; the resultant annulment of the outcome of the primaries to the opportunistic joy of one part of the country; the dissolution of the executive council of the two government formed parties and the appointment of caretaker councils for them and the eventual shift of the handover date from January to August 1993.
Still in this chapter is Obasanjo stepping in with another round of the most caustic missiles in IBB’s direction, powerfully capturing popular sentiments at the time and in response to which the National Assembly was hastily inaugurated even though an elected president was several months away. Similarly, IBB moved from the AFRC to National Defence and Security Council, (NDSC) in terms of the nomenclature of the highest ruling body. He equally inaugurated a transition council under the chairmanship of Chief Ernest Shonekan instead of Abiola whom he said in the book he had penciled for the job but that Abiola blew it when he insisted on being announced for the job rather than going to contest for it.
That was perhaps the first sign of trouble ahead which came eventually in June 12 – Abiola’s victory against the military regime’s calculation that Bashir Tofa of the National Republic Convention, (NRC) would win but with so slim a margin that the election could be annulled without a whimper. Unfortunately for the regime, Abiola, in the words of the veteran Adamu Ciroma, won fair and square, thereby putting spanner into the hidden succession plan.
All the options for handling the situation could not fly. A new presidential election turned out unacceptable. Military in power was no longer an option, certainly not IBB. His cup was full. In his own words, he had lost his constituency – the military. But ‘the military’ would, under no circumstances, swear-in Abiola. In the end, IBB opted to step aside so that the march past could continue. That, he said, was his own sacrifice. In his place, there would be an Interim National Government which the press (or was it the opposition?) was to describe as a contraption. But this contraption was to be guided by the most senior officer around which was Sani Abacha. Something like asking a cat to protect a mouse! End of story.
So, we find the author asking in the Epilogue about what could have gone wrong for a man who had shown so much promise as a ruler end his days in power as a villain and the cruel victim of his own sense of mission in government? What a question, coming from an author who set out to unravel the mystique but end up with an even more enigmatic question about the mystique.
That question, to the extent that it informed the dominant assumption that there was a mystique which could have propelled an IBB to phenomenal proportions or, in fact, a sage, is the first and about the only major problem with this work. For, as early as page 6, we are told the book is the story of IBB’s “meticulous plan for a steady rise to the top of his profession and the leadership of his country”.
And there was almost no page this wasn’t stated or inferred as one went along. Can an individual set out to make History? Is IBB what he is because he readied himself over time by remembering people’s name, acting the debonair charmer, being generous, always playing the devil’s advocate and so on and so forth?
To answer that question in the affirmative as the book tried to do is to be guilty of the charge of idealism. It is to be guilty of thinking that the ideas that people carry in their head is what brings about change. No, it is what happens on the ground that explains change. To paraphrase the popular sentence from Marx’s 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, “Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past”. This formulation is a cannon of the materialist interpretation of History as an approach to the study and understanding of society.
Elsewhere the argument goes like this: A historic personality with all its peculiarities should not be taken as a bare list of psychological traits but as a living reality grown out of definite social conditions and reacting upon them. As a rose does not lose its fragrance because the natural scientist points out upon what ingredients of soil and atmosphere it is nourished, so an exposure of the social roots of a personality does not remove from it either its aroma or its foul smell”. I am almost certain that someone like IBB has read and marked this book by Marx just like most informed members of the power elite, even in Nigeria.
If we say that neither IBB nor any other individual could, on his or her own, plot his or her way to power or to History, are we not saying that there is no point being intelligent or being brilliant? How do great men and women emerge? Is it not clever, intelligent or brilliant people who make History? What is the role of the individual in History?
Those who pose the questions this way miss the point because a concept like intelligent or brilliant is contextual or even contingent. One man’s brilliance is the other man’s dullness. This is why some people who are dubbed to be very intelligent at some point get the rating of the dumb with the passage of time because History doesn’t work the way propagandists work. What exceptional men and women have is not mystique or the ‘will to power’ but the objectivity to recognize contradictions and deal with them as such. This is what distinguishes a Lenin from a Gorbachev or a Mandela from a Mobutu.
In Nigeria, we need to question the inclination of just about any governor or minister or political office holders declaring perfunctorily that they are determined to make History in office without also specifying the conditions for the kind of History that is feasible under the conditions in question.
In the case of IBB, how could someone well groomed in the psycho-dynamic gamesmanship of a Third World military during the Cold War and who came to power in the height of Reaganomics and Thatcherism have readied himself for power or make History? The only way he could have made History was if he offered something qualitatively different in managing the economy.
That is where History making resides, not in toothy smiles. Offering anything qualitatively different was not feasible because not only would our patrons in Whitehall and DC have frowned at such, many of his colleagues would not even have understood or gone along with him. So, he did not even attempt to. Rather, he declared from Day One that he had come to break the deadlock in the negotiations for an IMF loan.
The IMF loan is designed by people who know what it is and given to people who don’t know what it is to implement. As soon as the loan conditions were operationalised, that was the end of the romance between the regime and the people. Agbese has faithfully captured how this played out in Chapters Twelve and Fifteen. IBB’s model of economic recovery created more problems for him than June 12.
He did have a lot of what the French call éclat or the smoothness, the dexterity, the personal touch and such a sophisticated approach to accumulation that left no one within the system stranded. Based on a deep understanding of Nigeria’s national character which is to compromise and survive, he managed the system by elaborate sharing of authority. Any member of the power elite who made noise was called and asked what the problem is. Two days later, s/he hears his or her name for an appointment.
Before s/he knows, his or her whole village, extended family members, friends, school mates and sundry associates are all him or her with congratulatory messages. S/he has been allocated own territory, to do what s/he wanted with it. Such a person controls wherever s/he is put without interference from any other quarters and it remains so provided s/he doesn’t go and cause any problem in the central Kitchen.
As a person, IBB has no use and dump. If you are a member of the circle, you may not kill a cow during a Sallah or Xmas but you are sure to kill a ram. In this way, he could survive not only two deadly coups, implementation of SAP but also June 12 and still be waxing strong enough to have been a problem in 2011 if he were the consensus candidate of the North for that election. It is not whether or not he is superior to Atiku who was chosen. It is simply that they are different.
His sophistication or what Agbese preferred to call mystique extended beyond Nigeria; implementing IMF conditionalities but still able to dribble the International Financial Institutions, (IFIs) as to throw in populist concessions like the People’s Bank, Directorate of Foods, Roads and Rural Infrastructure, (DFRRI), Urban Mass Transit, NDE, etc for whatever they were worth.
But, in spite of these elements of the mystique, he could not survive the maturing of the contradictions of the economic crisis. The more he deployed them, the deeper he sank as to end up what Agbese calls a cruel victim of his own sense of mission in government. The problem arose from a deep crisis of legitimacy and the eventual loss of his constituency to the different interests and cabals in the society, particularly within the military where all the conditions were ripe for Abacha who had waited patiently and loyally for IBB to step in. Which he did and in a way that IBB could not do much about. That is dialectics working out. It doesn’t work at the behest of mystique or personal plans to make History.
Let me turn briefly to the outstanding features of the work. One is the structural beauty. Here, we are talking of the absence of torturous sentences, complicated vocabulary or jabberwockies. What the reader finds are crisp sentences, many of them pregnant with meanings. Some examples: Talking about Nzeogwu, Agbese concluded as follows: He ruled Northern provinces for all of 4 days. His revolution ended. But he succeeded in locking up democracy”, (p. 79). A similar beautiful sentence on IBB’s assumption of office: sorcerer’s apprentice had come of age, (p. 198).
Of course, it is impossible for such a massive text to be error proof, no matter the number of times or people who did the proof reading. And so, there is a harvest of that: First paragraph on page xiv; last sentence on page 87 had took and assumed competing for one space; some words are missing somewhere in the 5th para on p.128; bide instead of bid in second sentence of last para on p.146; last sentence in the first para on page 195 has a problem; on p. 285, throne and thrown are competing to make sense; repetition of ‘had’ in para 2 on p. 286 and announcement instead of announced on p. 395.
The second feature is the sense of balance. The treatment of whether Brigadier Sani Sami was for Dimka or not in the 1976 coup is the best illustration of this. Every side to the story was well handled.
Third point is that this is not an irritable sycophantic work. Only an IBB could allow a biographer the leverage one sees in this book just as only an Agbese would insist on putting some of the things he put there – unflattering school/course reports, IBB’s views on some individuals, etc, etc.
The book has methodological solidity. The author gathered data and wrote consistent with his hypothesis that IBB had a mystique, a determination to make rather than endure History. He was also faithful to his facts and courageous to conclude on the basis of those facts that the mystique paradoxically did not parachute him to greater height above a June 12 type disaster. This performance is not surprising from a doctoral candidate like Agbese whose methodology grooming must be very strong.
What Dan Agbese has achieved for scholars of leadership, power and social change in Nigeria is putting all the details about the IBB mystique and regime in a ready reference source. In so doing so, he has put his name in the bibliography of most studies of Nigerian politics, particularly civil-military relations far, far into the future. It marks his transition from a journalist to the Journal-analyst or to the Philosopher- Journalist.