Last Wednesday, February 10, the Barack Obama administration made a move that’s likely to hurt its credibility among Nigerians. Johnnie Carson, the United States Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, and Robin Sanders, the US Ambassador to Nigeria, traveled to Minna to confer with former Nigerian dictator, Ibrahim Babangida, at his hilltop mansion.
That visit was, I suggest, a serious diplomatic gaffe – and one unworthy of the Obama administration.
That neither the American diplomats nor Babangida disclosed the subject of the meeting compounded the gravity of the misstep. For one, it raised speculation that the US government wanted to signal its tacit support for Babangida’s run for the presidency in next year’s elections. At the very least, the parley suggested that Obama’s team regards the retired general as an instrument for solving Nigeria’s myriad, and deep, political crises.
Either goal represents a serious lapse in judgment on the part of the Obama administration.
It would appear that Babangida covets the Nigerian presidency. Four years ago, he and his cohorts orchestrated what was tagged Project 007, implying that the former military head of state considered himself a shoo-in as President Olusegun Obasanjo’s successor. Nigerians, for understandable reasons, were disquieted by the prospect of another IBB presidency. Many heaved a sigh of relief when Obasanjo, for reasons hard to fathom, foiled Babangida’s ambition.
There’s no question: Babangida is one of the most enigmatic figures to have emerged in Nigerian politics. I have always found the man intriguing, but in a sad, even tragic sort of way. In 1986, on the first anniversary of the man’s rule, I wrote a column in the (now defunct) African Guardian in which I likened Babangida’s political style to the dribbling wizardry of Argentine soccer star Diego Maradona. That name, Maradona, stuck on Babangida and has become one of his more famous monikers. Evil genius, I understand, is a tag Babangida adopted. My argument, in baptizing IBB with Maradona in 1986, was that, while the soccer player dribbles in order to create scoring opportunities, Babangida dribbled as an end in itself. There was little or no sense of purpose to his statecraft.
In 1993, Babangida lost power in one of his costly, purposeless gambles. His annulment of the June 12 election, an act of supreme perfidy, precipitated his own political downfall. In characteristic fashion, he euphemized his fall from power as a decision to “step aside.”
Babangida introduced a structural adjustment program (SAP). The economy policy, as the propaganda went, was meant to endow Nigerians with the benefits of a free market economy. When Nigerians complained that the ostensible gains were elusive, Babangida counseled patience. But he and his cohorts were far from willing to be patient. As SAP sapped Nigeria’s poor and widened the blanket of misery, Babangida and his closest friends acquired mansions, private jets, and fat bank accounts. When he was done, IBB boasted a 50-room mansion and dizzying wealth.
Such a man has no business seeking to return to his country’s seat of power. Some of his acolytes have said that Babangida’s mission is to correct the mistakes he made the first time. Remediation is a nice concept, but he need not become president to make amends.
One hopes that the Obama who went to Accra and spoke eloquently about Nigeria’s leadership crisis has not permitted himself to be led into the contradiction of prescribing IBB as the answer. Or even as a factor in finding the answer to Nigeria’s quagmire.
Obama must guard against the Bill Clinton error. Even though former President Clinton is popular in Nigeria, many Nigerians are still appalled by his bizarre statement, in the heydays of Sani Abacha’s self-succession plan, that the US was open to recognizing the bespectacled dictator if he won an election. That statement came at a time when any neophyte knew that Abacha didn’t plan to hold a credible election.
In making such a public show of coddling Babangida, the Obama administration risked being perceived as wishing to forestall the ongoing mobilization of a progressive force to serve as a viable alternative to the grubby, visionless elements who have steered Nigeria to perilous waters.
If Washington doesn’t want to see a cataclysm befall Nigeria, with horrible consequences for Nigerians and the international community, then it must rethink its seeming courtship of the Babangidas of Nigeria.
After the disingenuous maneuver that made him “acting president,” Goodluck Jonathan appears in danger of wasting his opportunity to lead – and also wasting Nigerians’ time.
Since his investiture, Jonathan’s calendar has been taken up with courtesy visits by former heads of state as well various delegations, including so-called traditional rulers.
One hopes that he understands the gravity of the burden he must discharge, if he is to be worth his hire. If he fancies that he and Nigerians have time for some ceremonial interlude, then he hardly grasps the depths of Nigeria’s desperation.
Jonathan had better make a polite but firm statement asking those who wish to pay a visit to hold off. He ought to tell the horde of professional well-wishers that he has a job to do for long-suffering Nigerians, and that he needs to get to it with alacrity.
Nigerians did not agitate all over the world these past two months against Umaru Yar’Adua’s facile idea of offshore governance so that Jonathan could take over and host an endless stream of “royal fathers” pledging their loyalty and support. No, Nigerians wanted somebody to take up the full-time job of fixing their rutted roads, improving power supply, solving the problem of fuel shortage, combating sectarian violence and its concomitant high casualty, and sending bills to the National Assembly to address a plethora of issues, from electoral reform through job creation to adequate funding for education and health.
Nigerians know as much as Jonathan that the hangers-on who profited from Yar’Adua’s moribund “presidency” do not wish him well. They are, it is safe to assume, regrouping even now to torpedo his “acting presidency.” But Jonathan’s handlers must tell him that the way to silence these foes is not by looking over his shoulder or even by garnering a long register of big-name supporters. His safest bet is to set to roll up his sleeves and apply himself to the task of working to change the lot of the generality of Nigerians.
In doing so, he must recognize his own limitations. One, he doesn’t have a lot of time; better, then, to get cracking immediately. Two, it’s unrealistic, even counterproductive, to take on a long menu of challenges at once. He should focus on a few critical sectors that are likely to have widespread impact. His wife’s arrests several years ago on corruption charges are already serious deficits. He should both rein in his wife’s materialistic impulses and steer clear of any impeachable conduct himself.
Above all, Jonathan ought to take a hard, honest look at himself. If he doesn’t have the mettle to work for Nigerians, he should avert a looming personal and national disaster by relinquishing the crown of “acting president.”
Murder most foul
Horror, that’s the word that came to mind as I watched Al Jazeera’s video documentation of Nigerian soldiers and police executing innocent civilians last year in the name of fighting Boko Haram. Last July and August, hundreds of Nigerians died in a fierce battle between the militant gr
oup, which denounced all western influences as corrupting, and Nigerian government forces. But Al Jazeera’s videos show soldiers and police sweeping through charred and still smoldering cities to arbitrarily round up targets. These “suspects,” some of them deformed men on crutches, were then ordered to lie face down and shot at close range.
Those who made a gruesome sport of killing their fellows should be identified and prosecuted. Any nation that would treat its citizens as if they were lower than cattle sows the seeds of its own destruction. Those who excuse the bestial extra-judicial execution on the grounds that the victims were rabid Boko Haram attack dogs are off the mark. For one, the soldiers and police had no way of proving who was Boko Haram or who wasn’t. Besides, a state that authorizes summary execution has cast itself as a jungle, not a community of humans. At any rate, if Nigeria must adopt executions without trial, why not start with the politicians whose mindless looting creates hopelessness and fertilizes groups like Boko Haram?