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IBB: The ‘president’ that really was

In Nigeria, ideas about our history tend to be frozen or cast in stone once a particular interpretation takes hold of the media or popular…

In Nigeria, ideas about our history tend to be frozen or cast in stone once a particular interpretation takes hold of the media or popular imagination. New perspectives about the same epochal events in our past or the persons who played central roles in them are admitted. The result is a political history that remains largely unknown.

In a two-part article published in several newspapers only last month, to give a single example, a former federal civil servant and syndicated columnist, Eric Teniola, merely repeated the same well-known, perhaps worn out, argument that Nigeria was created primarily to enhance colonial administrative convenience, and no more. The articles were just as familiarly titled ‘The Mistake of 1914’.

Now, who has not heard that before? The idea that the creation of Nigeria was a mistake continues to be regurgitated, even by people one would expect to know better by now. But it is neither the only interpretation of Nigeria’s emergence as a country, nor necessarily the correct one. We could argue, for example, that the British amalgamated Nigeria because our forebears had done more than half the job already.

Geography and military force are perhaps the two most crucial historical elements in the formation of states, not culture or language. For nearly a hundred years before the amalgamation, the whole of Northern Nigeria was already a federation of sorts. So was South-Western Nigeria, which then stretched to areas in present-day Benin Republic and Togo. And since no unsurmountable geographical barrier exists anywhere in Nigeria from Maiduguri to the banks of the Atlantic in Lagos, Nigeria’s formation could well have happened without British colonial intervention just as with it.

So one could just as well argue that Nigeria’s formation was not a matter of convenience, but of completion; the British took to a logical conclusion a process that had been well underway for nearly a century before they arrived. The Oyo Empire of the time, the Benin Kingdom, the Emirates in the North, anyone with sufficient military might and enough will to venture could have formed the country. The British had both, used them, and here we are. No point fretting about some imaginary mistake.

My real point today, however, is that the history of Nigeria’s military and its role in our political development has so far only been told in the same casual and repetitive manner as the narrative of the mistake of 1914. So also are the narratives around the men who played various parts in the military incursions into our politics, and none more than Nigeria’s former military leader, Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida, who turned 80 last Tuesday. But for the present and future generations of Nigerians to properly understand Babangida’s role in our political development, we must first grasp the historical significance of the institution through which he governed—or ruled—for eight years.

In particular, we must try, as reflexively and soberly as we could, to understand the political and constitutional possibilities that lie under the term ‘military president’, a title Babangida selected for himself the very day he assumed the highest office in the land. Could a gap-toothed major-general refer to himself, and be referred to at home and beyond, as ‘President’? More importantly, could such a reference have any bearing on the character and content of the government he presided over for the equivalence of two terms in our current democratic system?

In Nigeria, military governments of the past were, and still are, referred to as ‘regimes’ or ‘dictatorships’. And they were. All military governments in Nigeria had come to power through a forceful takeover of government, often through a bloody take-over. Yet, there were several senses in which all of Nigeria’s military governments—from Gowon to Abdulsalami Abubakar—were unique among contemporary military regimes of the time across the world.

For one, Nigeria’s military governments were rather more democratic than they were authoritarian. Of course, they lacked the sort of legitimacy constitutions and elections confer on a democratic government. But the push and pull forces inherent in Nigerian politics and society meant that even military governments in the country had to rule with some measure of popular support for most of the time they remained in power.

Unlike in many African countries of the time where personalised military rule was the norm, Nigeria’s military leaders shared power with key civilian leaders and through that they gained popular legitimacy. This was not the sort of legitimacy an election would confer, but it was legitimacy nonetheless. During the war, but also for a while after it, General Yakubu Gowon, for example, sat at the head of a ‘Federal Executive Council’ comprising most of the political leaders of the First Republic.

The very presence of such leaders as Chief Obafemi Awolowo, Malam Aminu Kano, Chief Anthony Enahoro, and so on, in his government, even in the context of saving the republic that the war effort called for, distinguished Gowon’s military government from its contemporaries on the continent and beyond. But this governing procedure of military-civilian partnership would be repeated several times, and became so entrenched that civilian leaders like Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe, no less, called for its adoption as the most appropriate form of government for Nigeria in the form of diarchy.

And although the military governed mainly through various Supreme Military Councils, and later under IBB, the Armed Forces Ruling Council, key national decisions had input from a wide range of actors in Nigerian society, from intellectuals, civil society activists, the press, traditional leaders, and so on. Of course, this was not always straightforward during the military years.

But the very fact that students, labour unions, the press and other sections of Nigerian society could, and did, by and large, freely protest any government policy was itself an indication of the inherent democratic character of Nigerian society that could not be imperilled by any military ruler. Nigerians have never accepted dictatorship, and consequently, have never really had any, certainly not in comparison to the sort of military or single-party authoritarianism of the time.

It is within this framework, I think, that IBB’s title of ‘Military President’ should be approached. He was the one military leader who realised best and to the fullest that civilian-military partnership of building popular consent inherent in all of Nigeria’s military governments, before, and after him. By the time he came to power in 1985, the best days of the military in Nigerian politics were in fact behind it. And just six years after he left, we returned to a democracy that now seems irreversible.

And unlike previous coup plotters who could invoke “anti-corruption” or “national security” as a ploy for taking power, his raison d’etre was “democratic transition”. He wanted for Nigeria a two-party system that political ideology aside, would prevent the sorts of ethnic, regional and religious fissions and tensions that brought down our previous democratic experiments and tore society apart up to that point. That two-party system has now been more or less realised, if still ideologically empty.

Babangida ultimately failed to deliver ‘democracy’ for Nigeria, something for which, history will perhaps remain forever unkind. But the structures of politics and government that he envisioned, and tried to attain, were not much different from what we now have, perhaps only better.

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