The Nigerian community at home and abroad is agog with General Babangida’s every move and pronouncements, so much so their concerns and fear and apprehension about the man borders on psychosis. Besides President Obasanjo, there is not a single Nigerian who has dominated the conversation or gripped the consciousness of Nigerians as much as Babangida. Whether you hate him or love him or despise him, the man is a titillating force. He has the ability to keep us awake, and he keeps us guessing.
In modern Nigeria, there have been few tour de force — enigmatic and brilliant in every way. In this respect, the great Awolowo, Chief Ojukwu and Chief Fawehinmi and a few others come to mind. But Ibrahim Babangida is a peculiar fellow. He is compelling. He is irritating. He is captivating. He is interesting. He is a friend and an enemy. He induces all kinds of emotion in Nigerians. Every Nigerian of substance or otherwise have written about him. He is the topic of conversation in every Nigerian beer parlor.
And indeed the Nigerian newspapers and chat forum are full of speculations about his every move and about his stated and unstated intensions and aspirations and alleged crimes and iniquity. Damn! What kind of a man is this? What is he made of? Even those who hate him admire him. Those who would rather behead him would hug and kiss him before doing do. His admirers worship him, they swear by his name. Retired military officers who are friends and acquaintances of mine can’t say enough good things about him. And crooked politicians are dreaming of the day he will return to power — in anticipation of the “good times.”
Babangida is not Abacha in that he is not that callous and extremely insatiable and blood-thirsty. He is not like the eternally brilliant Awolowo who was development conscious and was bent on saving the nation’s soul. He is not like Obasanjo who is unable to make up his mind as to whether he wants to be a dictator or be a democrat. No. Babangida is unlike any of the aforementioned. He sits alone and atop our collective consciousness — manipulating us, teasing us, daring us, jerking us, giving us his middle finger and at the same time blowing us kisses.
He goes and come as he pleases. He does whatever catches his fancy. He knows us more than we know ourselves. He understands Nigeria. He knows the things we are thinking about. He knows and understands our limits and our fears. It is as if he resides in our collective soul — calibrating our emotion and thought. And that, I think, is the man’s greatest assets. Otherwise, how else could one explain our collective obsession with this man? How? How strange that a man with less than average formal education and a hush-hush military career, aided by coups and counter coups could be this brilliant and brave.
We know he stole from us but we can’t prove or prosecute him; we know he weakened our institutions, yet the same institutions are now in his service; we know he institutionalized corruption and roguery, yet we admire his ways and took after him; we know he rescinded a free-fair election, yet some segments of the population are in support of his electoral aspiration. Strange? Well, not really. Even if I were a betting man, I will never bet against his second-coming just as I will never bet against future military coups. If there is a coup tomorrow, Nigerians will jubilate. If Babangida wins the presidency tomorrow, Nigerian will celebrate.
But why does Babangida want to be president again? The reason is simple: History! He knows that his place in history is worst than the base of a Mushin or Ajegunle cesspool. And so he is anxious to correct his place in history. He thinks that a second chance will afford him a second chance at historical immortality. At this point in his life, wealth, riches, mistresses, children, generalship and all other trappings of life is immaterial. All he desperate wants is a chance at the right hand of history and posterity. Nothing else matter. It is the approval of history or nothing! A chance to make amends.
In a way, I feel sorry for him. I pity him. This was a man who had it all; he had everything at his disposal: natural and human resources; time; the nation’s goodwill and the good sense to execute his grand vision. But somehow, he blew it. Under him, the nation drifted. Under his guidance the nation gently slipped into confusion, anarchy and nothingness. Everything bad and forbidden and harmful was institutionalized. He enabled Abacha. He enabled debauchery. He enabled decay. Only if he had done the things right; if he had, his place in history would have been stellar and secured. The gods would have envied him. But he failed; hence his unenviable place in the annals of modern Nigeria.
But there is another dimension to the Babangida narrative. Somehow, I can’t help but doubt that the man really wants another shot at the presidency. He has been playing to the gallery. He has been showboating. He has been sending overt and covert messages. He has been indirectly threatening and warning his potential, real and imagined enemies. And what is the basic message he has been sending? Here it is: “Leave me alone and I will leave you alone.” He believes that if a man like General Mohammadu Buhari become the president, he is, euphemistically speaking, toast. Buhari and likeminded post-Obasanjo president will probe, prosecute, jail and divest him of all his ill-gotten wealth.
To avert this reality therefore Babangida is or will hold “secret talks and make secret pact” with the person he thinks will be the next president. The message and the pact will be clear and simple: “sign here…if you agree to leave me alone…I won’t contest the presidency…your ascension is assured…sign here…” Knowing how desperate some contestants are, they will acquiesce. General Buhari and Chief Fawehinmi are perhaps the only men (I know of right now) who may not play ball.
Come to think of it, if you are in his shoes you’d make the same deal, too. To miss the ovation of history, and to also find himself dispossessed and jailed? The thought of these must be the source of his nightmares. By the way, let me throw a wrench into this conversation: what if the man is not as corrupt as Nigerians have been alleging; what if he truly is not guilty of all other crimes we have accused him of; what if he truly is the right man for this era — the man who will make our collective dreams come true? And what if the vast majority of Nigerians elects him the president of Nigeria? And then what? It could happen. Strange things do happen, you know.
Either way the wind blow, one must still doff his/her hat to Babangida. There is a lot to be said about a man who has been out of office for well over a decade but can still mesmerize us and hold us prisoners to his every sneeze and cough. To think that an individual — who is neither an inventor nor a giver and taker of life — can hold a nation captive for this long and this intense is simply mind boggling. Men like this don’t come around too often. Even so, it is sad, really sad that he wasted his talents and gifts. Here was a man who could have done a lot of good and a lot of great things for his country and humanity; but somehow, he squandered it all. How sad…
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