A Meditation On Big and Bigger Fools

by Okey Ndibe

It’s instructive that two of Nigeria’s most famous – or infamous – former Generals cum “militicians” felt compelled to carry on a public debate over which of them is the fool, which the bigger fool. Given the terms outlined in their debate, it would be correct to surmise that both men acknowledge that, at minimum, their stints as rulers were marked by foolishness.

Former military dictator, Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida – a man I christened Maradona in a largely unflattering portrait in 1986 – fired the first shot in an interview to mark his 70th birthday. Then former military dictator and “democratic” emperor, Olusegun Obasanjo, volleyed back by calling Mr. Babangida a certified fool – adding, for good measure, that a fool at seventy was a fool unto the grave. Not to concede the last word to Mr. Obasanjo, Mr. Babangida then insisted that his antagonist surpassed him on the foolishness quotient.

My inclination is, in fact, not to interfere in the two men’s vitriolic – yet, in the main, perceptive – narrative of the other. Both Mr. Obasanjo and Mr. Babangida have worked so hard at under-developing Nigeria that they deserve to write the first draft of each other’s legacy. I would not stand in their way – especially when, appropriately, they have perceptively deployed the right language.

To my astonishment, many Nigerians – at social gatherings as well as on the Internet – have taken sides in the elephantine squabble. For me, the attempt to decide who, between the two men, was a greater disaster is akin to sensible people lining up to debate which number is greater – six, or half a dozen.

To run a little with the numeric metaphor, I’d stress the similarities between the two men. Mr. Babangida came to power as a military dictator at a significant moment. The duo of Muhammadu Buhari and Tunde Idiagbon had brought Nigeria to an almost joyless pass. They had imposed a regimen of military-style discipline on Nigerians. And, whilst many applauded them for it, they clearly overreached when, among other things, they enacted the notorious Decree 4 (which prescribed a jail term for reporters if their reports – however factual and accurate – happened to cause embarrassment to a public official), shot drug dealers (in defiance of public opinion), jailed the globally popular Fela Anikulapo-Kuti on highly controversial currency smuggling charges, and left the impression of playing favorites when the Emir of Gwandu slipped through Nigerian Customs with 53 suitcases that were not searched.

Many Nigerians heaved a sigh of relief over Babangida’s removal of the Buhari-Idiagbon tag team in an August, 1985 palace coup. A nation of rattled nerves saw in Mr. Babangida’s gap-toothed charms and soft-spoken mien the dawn of a government willing – unlike the Buhari regime – to listen and hearken to their voices.

Mr. Babangida turned into a dud. Yes, he “listened” all right; in fact, he made an art of constituting one committee after another to listen and talk a problem to death. After the circuitous process, he either failed to act, or acted in a manner that was often perceived as playing out a pre-determined course. His boldest – and ultimately most ruinous – legacy was the imposition of the structural adjustment program (SAP). He opened up the country to the ruthless and predatory forces of the market, but took no measures to protect the vast swath of Nigeria’s middle class, much less to cushion the effects on low-income earners, artisans, and peasants.

The rhetoric of SAP promised that Nigerians, with some patience, would reap the benefits of the new fangled, IMF- and World Bank-dictated economic liberalization. Those benefits hardly arrived. In reality, SAP sapped many sectors of Nigeria. Its ensuing onslaught of impoverishment drove many of the country’s brainiest talent abroad or – if they stayed home – into acts of desperation in order to maintain a human level of living.

Meanwhile, as Mr. Babangida and his acolytes issued promissory notes certifying SAP’s future benefits, he and they had no intention of delaying their own gratification. They wanted their own benefits, and they wanted it immediately. Paradoxically, Babangida emerged from his “SAP” regime a rather stupendously wealthy man. An enduring – I’d suggest, obscene – symbol of his wealth is his Hilltop Mansion in Minna. That monument to opulence is worthy of an Arab oil sheik, not an officer from a country with little or no infrastructure. Though clueless about how to steer Nigeria out of its economic doldrums, Mr. Babangida was so determined to perpetuate himself in office that Nigerians had to force him to pack out – or, in his preferred phrase, “step aside.”

Yet, in a mark of the tragic streak in Nigerian rulers (I hardly accuse them of being leaders), Babangida’s mansion apparently elicited covetousness in Obasanjo. After eight years as a civilian president, Mr. Obasanjo made no dent on the nation’s electric power woes – despite pledging, on his honor, to deliver “regular, uninterrupted power supply” at the end of 2001, and despite his award of billions of dollars in energy sector contracts to political pals and shadowy companies.

Yes, as a military ruler, Obasanjo had bequeathed a robust national airline to his successor, Shehu Shagari, only to watch from the sidelines as the assets were gutted or lost by visionless leadership. But the Obasanjo that returned as a civilian honcho was solely concerned with accumulating more planes for the presidential fleet. At the same time he insisted that Nigeria was a poor country, he behaved as if it were awash with careless, prodigal wealth. In one of the worst moments in his political career, he looked the other way, playing an unconvincing ostrich, as his aides reportedly distributed billions of naira in bribes to buy a constitutional amendment that would have enabled him to stay in power.

Mr. Obasanjo had a great opportunity to deepen democratic ethos in Nigeria; instead, he made his mark as a field marshal of riggers, stipulating that elections were do-or-die affairs. He might have advanced the cause of accountability and transparency in governance; instead he coddled and empowered many corrupt elements, and turned an otherwise salutary war against corruption into a cynical ploy to send terrifying signals to public officials opposed to his self-perpetuation designs that there was hell to pay.

Like Babangida, he had to be forced to abandon his scheme to stay put. After reluctantly leaving office, he moved – you guessed right – into his own mansion. Doubtless designed to rival Babangida’s, his own mansion is perched on a hilltop in Abeokuta.

In the final analysis, both Babangida and Obasanjo are cut from the same cloth – and what a tarnished, ungainly cloth it is. They epitomize a profound moral and mental virus that infects far too many of Nigeria’s public officials. Shortsighted and morally puny, they mistake their self-aggrandizement as the hallmark of leadership. They measure their importance in terms of what they have stashed away, instead of how they have lifted their societies. In the end, they think it’s enough to say, “I may be a fool, but there are bigger fools.”

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