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2019: The President Nigeria Needs – IBB

For Nigeria to be in good hands after the 2019 general elections, former military president, General Ibrahim Babangida says he has a good idea of whom Nigerians must not vote for in next February’s presidential election. In this two-part, no-holds-barred interview with The Xpress Newspaper team of Editor-in-chief, Steve Nwosu and Editor, Abdulfatah Oladeinde, at his Minna hilltop residence, the former president freely names names, as he looks at Nigeria’s past, present and his hopes and fears for the future.

He also addresses several private and national issues he has hitherto shied away from.


Sir, you have turned 77. How does it feel at 77, do you have the peace of mind that you should be having as a former president?

Well, first of all, I feel very grateful to God for sparing my life. And if I look back, for the last 25 years that I’ve retired, I feel good. I feel fulfilled in life because God has been most kind. He kept me alive. He kept me healthy, except some few challenges. He kept my brain agile. I still make contributions to the nation. And then, the people. My environment. I feel loved by the people. I think I’m a very fulfilled person.

You retired 25 years ago. Around 1985 when you first happened on the scene as military president, you spoke about the issues of the deterioration of the living conditions of the people, decaying health and educational institutions and mass unemployment as reasons for change of government. Thirty three years after, with you and others who have come in subsequently, do you think the situation is any better?

It is better for one reason and that is the foundation for addressing these issues that you just talked about. The foundation for addressing them was set in place. Unfortunately, subsequent governments that came in paid no attention to them. So, I think it hasn’t been fulfilled at all.

You think the problem is that subsequent administrations failed to build on…

That’s right. Every administration wants to come and start a new thing. If anything goes wrong, you blame it on the previous administration. I think this is one of our greatest problems. There is no continuity in governance.

Is it for lack of vision or selfishness?

Well, I think it’s selfishness. From experience as a president, people will come to congratulate and tell you, you have to establish your own legacies. They say you have to do it so that people won’t say you’re copying anybody. If you’re silly enough to listen to that and accept it, things won’t go well at all.

Talking about laying the foundation, you did so much for the country. Eleme Petrochemicals Company, National Fertiliser Company of Nigeria (NAFCON) and a host of others. Today, those projects are no more what they used to be. And there is the issue of electricity, which is still a big problem and the excuse is that the previous administrations didn’t do much. Is it also a problem of lack of vision or selfishness?

I don’t know what they mean when they say that the previous administrations didn’t do much. The foundation has been established. Like the case of NAFCON. It was 100 percent in production when we left. It was producing at 100 percent maximum capacity when we left. Then another administration came. Maybe it set its priorities differently.

So, the decay starts with wrong people being employed there. It’s just a problem of continuity. And this is what I was saying. People would come and say do your own, establish your own. Don’t continue with what A,B,C,D has done so that people don’t say you’re copying him. This is the problem and it will continue to haunt us for a long time.

Sir, you toyed with the idea of a nuclear power station to solve our electricity problem. Why wasn’t it pushed through and do you think it still holds the answer to this big challenge?

I think we would have. What prompted that was that I saw in the newspapers the report that $16 billion went down the drains in the bid to get us electricity. One of you guys asked me and I said if I had 16 billion, I would have established a nuclear power station with little or no problem whatsoever. That’s what happened.

Sir, as a young military officer, you spent some time, serving in the North-east. For the past nine years, that part of the country has been torn apart with the Boko Haram insurgency and banditry. How would you have handled this problem?

Well, quite honestly, I think it’s a very simple problem. We had similar experience with the Maitatsine in Kano. There hasn’t been a concerted effort to get to the bottom or the real cause of this problem. When you look at the insurgency situation, you’re not fighting a conventional war. They cannot afford to fight a conventional war because they don’t have the strength, manpower and equipment. So, the tactics would be a small group of people, five, six, seven.

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Train them about explosives, about bombs and they go and inflict casualties in cities, blow up bridges, government buildings, kill some people. The whole psychological effect is to tell the people that the government they voted for cannot protect them. And they allow that to happen. You have to look at it from the psychological point of view.

There is a lot of unemployment. People are getting half-baked education. No orientation of any kind. And the more they succeed, the more they perfect some of these destruction. That is the problem. If the government has involved itself in addressing the main issues that brought about the insurgency and then try to solve them, for instance, by providing employment for the teeming population. They don’t have anything to lose. So, they go into all sorts of wrong things.

You talked about the problem of selfishness of leaders and that it will continue to haunt us. How do we get out of the cycle?

One, you need a visionary leadership for the society and then the leadership should also be able to have a group of people who believe in what they are trying to do and once you attain that, people should allow the government to use its own initiatives. But the leadership must be able to communicate with the general public, because you are doing it for them anyway.

So they have to understand what you’re doing and they have to make contributions towards achieving what you’re doing. You have to be able to convince them that the path you’re taking them is the right one. And when I talk of visionary leadership, what I mean is, before you get in there, first of all, you must know the problems and how to address them. Before you are elected, you must sell your ideas to the public.  And if you believe in it, the moment you get in there, that is what you go ahead and do.

You also suggested that youths should be part of this new leadership. How feasible is this suggestion with our heavily monetized electoral process?

Again, it boils down to one thing. The youths you see in the streets. They are idle and they find politics, electioneering campaigns, becoming thugs being the order of the day. If I assist in burning this house, I’ll be paid x amount of money. So, why not? They are easily recruited into this sort of action. They have nothing to lose. They are not paid. They are not sure of the next meal. They are easily recruited into this sort of action. They have nothing to lose.

The easy recruitment, sir. Can you relate it to the insecurity and issue of herdsmen. Some of us feel the herdsmen issue is a continuation of the Boko Haram or is it part of the  crisis of unemployment?

Seriously, I think it is unemployment. Because the herdsmen issue, we have over-exaggerated it. Not that it never happened. It happened right from the independence in the 1960s. But it was on a limited scale. It was not a big issue at all. It has since become an issue.

In Nigeria now, we have almost a hundred political parties. Coming from the background of SDP and NRC, the two-party system that your government midwifed, do you think we are on the right path or we should go back to where we are coming from?

No, I think we never learnt anything from history. After independence, you would find that, we, Nigerians gave indication that we were going to have a two-party system. If you remember, in the 1960, there were alliances and that continued up till January 1966. Then when Obasanjo regime handed over, there were five political parties. Somehow, they were still making alliances. You know we had a Senate president and deputy from different political parties. We have had it before.

That is manageable and we can fit it in. That was why we said, why not go ahead and design two political parties. There were arguments then that we would have all Christian or all Muslim parties. We said no. There were also arguments that they would be tribal Hausa, Yoruba or Igbo parties. We insisted it would not be like that and we were proved right. Because democracy is about choice. If you have two parties, you have the choice.

You either take A or B. That aspect of democracy has been met, because there was a choice. And then the party leadership didn’t reflect any religion or tribe. You had the Tom Ikimis, Kingibes of this world. You had Anenih. They were all there and were respected by virtually everybody all over the country. Now, we have 91 political parties. May God help you.


Sir, as a founding father of the PDP your home has been like a Mecca of late. Everybody in PDP coming…

No, not only PDP.

Ok, what is driving the traffic of politicians to the hilltop?

Maybe experience. The experience is there. And I cut across the entire nation. I feel comfortable anywhere you keep me in Nigeria. You have 774 local governments area. In virtually every local government, I have somebody I have seen, I have known or worked with. That makes it easier to adapt to any environment and situation I find myself. Also, I was a president for two terms. Eight years. (general laughter). So, people will expect I may have some ideas or suggestions to put to them. Even in the 1990s as president, a lot of potential presidential candidates came to me and we sat down and talked about the country. They discussed what they wanted to do for the country and I gave them advice free of charge.


Sir, from your perspective as a PDP stalwart, do you see the party regaining its lost top position?

Well, I think it depends very much on the ability of the party to galvanise the society towards achieving certain objectives. If they are able to do that… And we the elite are not helping the ordinary people to understand the issues at stake. If we change our attitude and try to assist in educating the people about what they need to know and do, I think the chances are that the party will get it right.

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General, because of some of the problems you talked about, we haven’t been able to get to where we should be as a nation. And you have also been quoted several times as saying that the unity of this country is not negotiable. But some people believe we should sit down and negotiate our co-existence. Why shouldn’t we, and even restructure, if it will make us live better as a people?

Restructuring. Well, that is the current word in the atmosphere now. I think it goes back to what I was saying earlier. This whole concept of restructure, true federalism, fiscal federalism and so on. We talked about federalism as a military regime. We had toyed with the idea of devolution of powers, when we were in office. We set up committees for that, which was headed by the late Abdulrahman Okene and the rest of them. This is all thinking about how the future should look like.

I personally believe that the oil industry, for example, we should have to look at it again. The resource control, we have to find another definition for it so that nobody loses. When we had all these agitations and crises around the Niger Delta, it is all about resource control. If we can sit down and say, you produce oil, fine. Nobody is arguing over that. Nobody is going to take it away from you. But the law is that you should pay royalty to the Federal Government.

Go and take your oil and pay royalty. We will probably become richer than we are now. But we don’t sit down to consider this very seriously. If there is gold in Minna here around my environment, allow me, if I can, to develop it and then pay royalty to government. What we tried to do, we are not doing it fully, is to make the private sector run the economy of the country. Government can take advantage of what the private sector is doing and still amass wealth for itself. They will have more money than any of the states. Then you sit down and do governance.

One of the things that have become synonymous with IBB in Nigeria is the annulment of the June 12 election. Sir, you and MKO Abiola were good friends. Where did it all go wrong? And there is a political movement and the government of the day rode on the crest of public demand and honoured Abiola. It’s on record that as a person you have not apologized over June 12.

Apologise to you?

To the public.


Because Nigerians voted and expected that the person they voted for should be allowed to become the president. But that didn’t happen. They felt disappointed. You accepted responsibility for what happened, but you have not come out to say we are sorry.

No, once you accept the responsibility, I’m telling you that I am ready to go to jail because of what happened under my watch. It’s just finished.

But Nigerians still expect that you should do more, just like President Buhari recently came out publicly to say on behalf of government, we are expressing our apology to the Abiola family and we are honouring him, that you, the main actor, haven’t gone beyond merely saying, I accept responsibility. That that is not enough. That you should find a means to say to Nigerians, June 12 annulment happened in my time. It was a mistake. I’m sorry, please forgive us.


You think that would have given Nigerians some sense of relief?

Exactly, sir.

No, I don’t believe it. Like you rightly said, Steve, Abiola was my friend. During the crisis, we were in touch with each other. He knew then what my feeling was and I knew what his feeling was. He also knew very well that I did all I could to assist him. But we don’t seem to agree on the method of… I’ll tell you. Interestingly, the night we met at the airport. You know that he was a very jovial person.

He had very good sense of humour. He said I know you, if there is a mountain here, you can be able to go through that mountain. I said, no, Basorun, I can be able to go round the mountain. I will go round the mountain. And we all laughed. Two of us sitting down there. I came out with few suggestions on what he should do. The moment he left the meeting. You guys in the media, because he was one of you. There was a shout of ‘no, no, no.

The worst civilian regime is better than this contraption called interim government’ and this went religiously into your mind and you were not ready to listen at all. I argued with him, that, look, we drew up constitution with the interim government. Before that I did a lot of consultations about the method of election.

The one accepted was general election, not collegiate in which people would come together as delegates, then they vote and then you nominate the president. We could have done it quite easily. But I was told the international community would not accept it. That is not what they expect. That everybody should be given the opportunity to cast his vote.

Then we suggested, this ‘contraption’ is to last six months. Then what did I get, ‘Nigerians are election weary’. Those are the phrases you find in the media: ‘Election weary’. We don’t like it bla, bla, bla. So, I said by all means I would go at the time I said I would go and I did.

In spite of all these efforts you made, Nigerians are still putting everything on you. When are we expecting to see your book that will put all the pieces together. You once said you would write the book, later you said if you wrote the book, Nigerians wouldn’t read it…

Yes, because I annulled June 12.

Of course, not everyone will read the book. But that is the reason we want to read?

I read too. I have the feelings. I communicate with people. This is the impression you guys had. A hundred percent Nigerians hold a view. Why should I force my view on 190 million people?

Majority can have its way, but the minority will have its say.

If the majority has its way, then you go along with the majority.

What if you write the book for posterity, so that those who were not around when all these happened, would read the book and get the accounts from the main actor?

Knowing the sort of people we have in this country. If I write, fine. Time will come, I believe, when the next generation, much much younger group of people will sit down and say, let us read these things. For every story, there is a plus or minus. Positive or negative. I believe there will be time when people will be tired and say why put the blame on this one person. Let us look at it in another way. We are beginning to produce people who reason. People who don’t get carried away by the euphoria of the moment.  It’s not only in Nigeria. Since the beginning of time, prophets come to talk about God. Nobody would listen to them until later people began to understand.

Sir, we are marching towards 2019, what kind of president do you think Nigeria needs?

We need to have a president that is four-in-one. That means he has the vision of Chief Obafemi Awolowo. He has the sagacity and knowledge of Nnamdi Azikiwe. He has the charisma of the Sardauna of Sokoto and he has the passion for Nigerianness like Obasanjo. If we have one man with these four, we are safe and good.


Is that possible?


Yes, I think so.