Babangida also speaks on the murder of Dele Giwa in 1986, the Interim National Government, ING, Sani Abacha’s coup and the loss of his long time companion and wife, Maryam. Excerpts:
Do you support President Jonathan’s attempt at re-election?
Firstly, I appreciate the fact that he came to visit me and, during our discussion, I found him to be a man who believes in the unity of this country and I did allude to that and I said I found him to be someone who has a very strong belief about the unity of this country.
Those of us who fought the civil war – I still carry a bullet so I have a permanent reminder in me –
anything that relates to Nigeria’s unity, we get impassioned about it.
So what I said is that the President believes in the unity of this country and any other person who believes in the unity of this country should support the President to keep this country one.
So, as far as the 2015 elections are concerned, President Jonathan has your blessing
Well, as far as 2015 is concerned, all the presidential candidates – 14 of them – have my blessings.
The only difference is (and I did mention it) that I have not been able to read what they have offered to this country and I am going to do that and whoever offers what I’m looking for, I am going to vote for.
What exactly did you mean when you said that if what you read in the papers these days is anything to go by, then your administration was saintly?
I am an avid reader of Nigerian newspapers, so when I read a statement like $16billion spent trying to provide power for this country or somebody kept under his bed N300m, if what I’m reading is true, then we were angels.
Not because you did any spending or because your level of spending was less or because you didn’t touch public money?
We did have a regulation.
You can’t, for example, keep more than ‘X’ amount of money in your vault or in your safe. We followed strictly the financial regulations and now it boggles my mind how somebody could put N300m under his bed.
I once removed a governor for N300,000, because he overspent what we had given him as limit on security.
But that didn’t mean that your government was squeaky clean because there was the Okigbo report about the over $12b oil windfall that was allegedly squandered by your administration.
First of all, may his soul rest in peace (Sani Abacha). The report was from 1986 to 1994, a period of eight years. By the time the late Pius Okigbo submitted his report, he said between 1986 to 1994, $12.4b accrued to the Federal Government. Nobody could deny that. Out of that amount, he said $1.4 or thereabouts came in during the Gulf War.
But, if you had done your home work well, you would know that the war lasted three months and there was no way you could make $1.4b in three months at the rate of $12 or $10 per barrel, producing about 800,00 per day.
The government did not indict anybody, neither did the report indict anybody. He was an acknowledged economist and what he said is that ‘X’ amount of money would have accrued into the reserves. The government had an option to either go and put the money in the bank and say it was saving it or you meet some of the demands of the situation at that time.
Considering that you ruled Nigeria for some eight years, do you take any responsibility for the state of Nigeria today?
Well, you take responsibility for anything either good or bad – that is what leadership is all about and I think so far, as far as I am concerned, I take full responsibility for what we did.
Would the June 12 issue be something that when you look back you regret?
History will one day come and apportion blames to various actors in the whole saga. There are a lot of people today in this country who supported what we did at that time.
What was the rationale behind the annulment?
We discussed the security situation and we were worried about putting up a government that would not last.
What were the conditions that raised those concerns?
There was this security problem that was dicey and the only people who could tell you what could happen were those of us in government, we the practitioners of violence by our profession. We knew there was a high level of frustration in the society which could provide a very fertile ground for a coup d’etat.
But in the end that was what happened because …
(Cuts in) In the end we were right because we speculated rightly.
Was it a plan?
No, it couldn’t have been a plan. Don’t forget that there was a speculation by prominent people in the country who were saying at that time that the worst civilian government was better than this contraption (Interim National Government, ING).
The reason for that question was based on what you said about the coup issue because when you left, you did not retire General Abacha, a man who had been a central player in many successful coups and you left him in charge of the army more or less. That is why I asked if it was a plan for him to take over?
When we established the ING, we wanted to give it teeth; so whoever was in power would believe that it had backing.
So it never occurred to you that he (Abacha) wanted the number one job for himself?
It never crossed my mind quite honestly.
So when he executed this coup, what did you think?
It didn’t come to me as a surprise because all of you in this country at that time gave him the wherewithal to do it. I’ve always said a coup will always succeed if there is frustration in the society and that frustration was seen and orchestrated at that time, if you remember, coming from very prominent people, that this contraption was not better than the worst civilian government, and some of us knew at that time that if a coup happened, Nigerians would jump into the streets to welcome it.
So, why didn’t you retire Abacha knowing that there was a fertile ground and you had a coup maker…
(Cuts in) If there had been pressure on the ING for an election in six months’ time, Abacha would not have found it easy to stage a coup.
Given the fact that Nigerians wanted a government they elected and not the contraption you put together, why did you find it difficult to understand why Nigerians would not line up behind it?
I tell you what happened before that contraption came about.
Now you are calling it contraption by the way?
(Laughter). No I like the word. I’m very fond of that word. At that time in the whole of this country, you can go and check it, there wasn’t a single voice that said ‘let’s take a chance with the ING, let’s give it a chance if it would work’. But it didn’t have legitimacy because they were not soldiers and they were not elected civilians
I governed for eight years, using decree. That contraption was given a constitution and that constitution was supported by a law. It was legitimately done as is done all over the world.
You were away when the Abacha coup happened. But when you came back, did he get in touch?
We did discuss and he took his time to explain to me what happened.
Did you give him any advice on how to run government or how soon he should hand over to civilians?
Those were things which he knew very well because he had been part and parcel of the administration for eight years; he knew the political actors in the country and he went ahead to call them, explaining to them what had happened, trying to legitimize what he had done and, believe it, there were a lot of politicians who supported him because he talked to them.
Are you surprised at how his government became one that was very repressive and he became known, perhaps, as one of the worst dictators Nigeria had ever known?
Yes and no. Yes because people would see him as a military person and secondly he was a man of limited words, you could not predict him.
No, because he had worked with us, worked with other people, had a good knowledge of how the system worked, how to keep security in the country. These were things that he knew and you could not deny him those things.
In 1986, you decided that Nigeria’s status as an observer at the Organisation of Islamic Conference, OIC, should change to become a full member knowing that Nigeria has an almost equal population of Christians and Muslims.
Nigeria went into the OIC as an observer in 1973 under General Yakubu Gowon and I went in as a full member in 1986. That was a simple foreign policy decision that we took. It was a tool to enhance our foreign policy.
But the view of the ordinary Nigerian is that to be in OIC meant you were an Islamic country. And Nigeria is not an Islamic country. So why take us in there?
That has been proved wrong. Again, this is the beautiful thing about this country because people speculate a lot. As at the time we went in there, there were countries that were there which were not Islamic countries. I was quite surprised by the outrage that followed that decision because people translated it to mean that our government wanted to make Nigeria an Islamic country which is stupid. We had a Constitution which stated clearly at that time that no religion must be made superior to another.
In the years since then, as far as you know, what has been the specific benefit that we’ve got?
I think it helped us to push our foreign policy on issues that were of common concern because immediately after that I recognized Israel, knowing the feelings of the Islamic countries about Israel. I went ahead single-handedly to recognize Israel when everybody in the OAU went against it; we stuck to our gun; so if you accuse me of joining OIC, you must also accuse me of normalizing relations with Israel.
We are in a situation in the country today where we have insurgents with a warped version of Islam which they claim they want to foist on the nation in some states. Do you think these sorts of decisions are the sort of things that plant seeds on the minds of some people claiming to want to promote one religion above another?
I’m glad you used the word ‘warped’. What is happening now is something that Nigerians should rise and fight against; Muslims should rise and fight against it because some people are spoiling the name of Islam, and this is not what Islam stands for.
Given the fact that we are a nation of different ethnicities, wouldn’t it have been better to pursue policies that would not divide us along religious lines – and this is even outside the Boko Haram insurgency?
I grew up here in Minna and there is where we call a mixed court where you find a Christian, a Muslim and an unbeliever, yet three of them will sit together to preside over cases which touch on traditions of the different groups and this we have been doing damn well. Everyone has a religion and you keep to it; even Islam frowns at imposition of the religion on others.
The question I’m driving at is that if, perhaps, we don’t pursue public policies that further strengthen the division that already exists, could we perhaps have had a better chance of making it as a nation and not one divided along ethnic and religious lines
My answer to that is yes.
So any regrets about taking Nigeria into the OIC?
You don’t see that as a policy capable of further dividing us as a nation even though, by your own admission, Christians complained?
By your reaction, as a generation, it would be better not to toe those lines because they are very sensitive. It has been done before and the consequences were not so good for the country.
We had a civil war. Nobody would like to have a war again. The good thing is that from 1970 till today, I have never come across people who believe in the division of this country.
So, in your view, no regrets because we are learning from your mistakes?
The answer is yes!
What should we do about Boko Haram?
The first thing is that people must believe that this affects Nigeria generally and not just a part or just a religion. Like the civil war, the whole country was mobilized against secession and there was unity against he secession and I think we must accept that this problem is a Nigerian problem and everybody should come together to fight this phenomenon.
In practical terms, how do we begin to build unity so that Nigerians can see the problem as a Nigerian problem?
First of all, the leadership at all levels must be mobilized against Boko Haram. At the political level, people should watch what they say and the religious leaders also have a role to play just as the businessmen must be involved. Once Nigerians see that everyone is mobilized against the insurgency, no one would want to step out of line. Nigerians have to be mobilized and that would make it easier to win the war.
From a military point of view, are you surprised at the performance of our military against Boko Haram?
What you should be asking is that is this the same military of Nigeria that has been exceptional all over the world – in the Congo, Tanzania, UN operations, ECOWAS operations?
The question really is that by all accounts, the army you served in was a formidable army; so what did you people do that time that appears different from what is going on now?
When I was 22 as a 2nd Lieutenant, I had been told that I had no other country to die for except Nigeria, but now you’ve got 18 year olds or 19year olds or graduates asking ‘what is this Nigerianness they are talking about?’. They wouldn’t give a damn and, therefore, you have to do a re-orientation to bring this patriotism back.
Could it not be that some of us can say Nigeria had been good to us, so we had no option than to be committed. But you have the young ones today, say, of 30, who would be asking, ‘what the hell’ because they have had to fend for themselves one way or the other? They don’t see what the country has done for them. Shouldn’t government start by providing for the people and making them responsive to the needs of patriotism?
Government would have to take responsibility, I agree.
You’ve repeatedly denied having any knowledge of the murder of journalist Dele Giwa, but because you were the military head of state at that time and because your former press secretary, Debo Bashorun, alleged that you knew about it, many Nigerians are a bit skeptical about what you have said. Do you understand why they have been skeptical?
It is because they think I was the head of government at that time and I knew that anything that goes wrong they will like to blame it on somebody and the fact that everybody in the media said I knew about it never came to me as a surprise at all.
What about the role played by Major Bashorun, did that come as a surprise to you?
I stumbled on the information in one of the papers that he wrote a book. But I have always maintained one thing: I know the young man very well but I don’t join issues with people to whom I am senior.
Was he upset with you and, therefore, would want to make you look bad?
That is his business, not mine.
At the time of Giwa’s death, did you order any investigations at all into the circumstances of the killing?
It could have been prejudicial because you guys in the media went to court and I couldn’t have ordered anything because the matter was already in the court. There were very good lawyers and activists pursuing that case; so we allowed the courts to try the case.
Aren’t you curious as to who killed Dele Giwa?
He was fortunate because he belonged to the journalism profession and the media kept the issue alive up till today. The issue of Dele Giwa, Alfred Rewane and Bola Ige would remain and people will like to pin it on somebody.
Is there any chance that some rogue elements in your government, without your knowledge, could have decided to teach Dele Giwa a lesson because he was critical of your administration?
I have maintained that I dominate my environment and my environment relates to the people I work with, people who work with me, people I relate to. I am fairly well-informed about things before they happen or immediately after they happen.
Do you have any regrets at all about your time in office?
I had a good time in office and would continue to be grateful to Nigerians for supporting me during that period and, if there is one thing I would have loved to do differently (not regretting), it would have been to make it constitutional that Nigeria should have a two-party state.
Because I believed then and I still believe now that it is the surest way of promoting the peace and stability of Nigeria and it worked. So, let’s institutionalise it. It’s just like the Land Use Act, it is in the Constitution. Some people may not like some aspects of it but it is there; so you have to work round it.
As a young soldier, did you ever envisage that your life would take the path it has taken?
As a young officer, my intention was maybe not the commander of a unit, so I was looking at the rank of a major or a Lt-Colonel, comparing the size of the Nigerian Army at that time.
But fate dealt you a different hand, how do you feel about that?
I feel gratified and I feel nice that while I planned, God had His own wish on His subjects.
You lost your long time companion and wife, Maryam, in December 2009. What has life been like without her?
She was a real companion who got to understand and accept me for what I am and tried to make the best of me and that is what I am missing. She was the one who would look at me and say ‘you’re wrong’ and I had to accept and bury my pride and I will say ‘sorry, you’re right’. That is the sort of counseling I am missing now.
How much time do you spend with the children and grand children to try and fill the vacuum that she’s left?
The children are doing very well and they have become a sort of friends to me. We sit down and talk and sometimes we disagree. My greatest source of pleasure now is seeing my grand children coming to me to say good night or when they return from school and they come to greet me. It reminded me of my time when I was growing up.
Many had thought that by now you would have re-married?
I will tell you an interesting story. There was a woman I was joking with and I said, ‘Okay, why don’t you marry me?’ and she said, ‘No I won’t’. And I asked her why? She said, ‘I am not sure I can spoil you the way your wife used to spoil you; so don’t put any idea into my head’.
Credit: Lailas Blog