“They (Nigerians) talk too much. Cha-cha, cha-cha without even understanding what they are talking about”
I delayed this necessary response to the very interesting two-part interview of Maryam Babangida, published in the Daily Sun issues of November 1 & 2, 2008 for good reason. Mukoma wa Ngugi, the indefatigable editor of Pambazuka News, had asked me to write a critical reflection on ways to canalize agendas for Africa in the event of an Obama victory. I felt that an essay on the condition of Africa in the Obama era was a lot more important than indulging the now largely irrelevant and attention-seeking wife of one of the most successful rapists of Nigeria’s destiny, Ibrahim Babangida. Besides, the Babangida brand belongs in the ilk of Africa’s better forgotten peonage to domestic tyrants and internal colonizers. Why defile the Obama week by evoking one of the terrible names that have constricted the Nigerian political space beyond the reach of any putative Obama? Now that I have done justice to some eight bottles of Beaujolais on account of Obama since November 4, I’ve had time to return to the Maryam Babangida interviews. It was a bad idea to re-read them on a Saturday morning. I had banked on a nice weekend…
First things first: an apology to Mrs. Babangida. I am unapologetically Nigerian. That puts me in her “cha-cha, cha-cha talk” category. I’ve got an earful of cha-cha, cha-cha talk for her. Hopefully, Madam no go vex for me. If there was ever any doubt that the imbeciles who atrophied Nigeria and turned her into Africa’s worst embarrassment – given her resources and potentials – did it out of an absolute conviction that Nigerians are dumb and stupid, Maryam Babangida, I’m afraid, has brilliantly erased any such doubt in these interviews. In an essay earlier this year on Ibrahim Mantu, one of the crooks who robbed Nigeria blind during his years in the Senate and who had felt sufficiently enamored to insult Nigerians by describing himself in an interview as “one of the good ones”, I stated that Nigeria’s public sphere is a septic tank. Anybody with a mouth is free to pour filth into it. That is precisely what Maryam Babangida has done.
The interviews are an invaluable window into the psychology and sociology of power in Africa. Students of psychoanalysis will also find the interviews extremely useful. In other parts of the world, occupying the highest office in the land is always construed as an exceptional privilege and a humbling experience. Humility devolves from the simple fact that the Presidency of any country – that office in its entire symbolism – is greater than the President. That office is greater than the President because it is the people. In Africa – and most especially in Nigeria – that philosophy has been transformed into a bat that must spend its life upside down. L’etat, c’est moi! The Nigerian ruling classes have pilfered that expression from its metaphorical moorings in the estate of French king Louis XIV and transformed it into the most ruthless, most literal conceptualization of the relationship between the person of any rogue who successfully rigs or shoots his way to power and the highest office in the land. Humility is not necessary here because in Nigeria, the President is greater than his office and his people. Okey Ndibe actually thinks that the Nigerian President is a god tout court. For good reason. Hear Maryam Babangida: “At the time we came, Nigeria was not ready for us actually. When we came into office, we were in Dodan Barracks, and for sure, the office was not befitting the status of President of the almighty Nigeria, big brother of Africa.”
Yes, you heard right! The whole of Nigeria was not ready for the Babangidas! That wretched, miserable country was not ready for the privilege of having royalty like the Babangidas. Those dumb Nigerians! Too dumb to anticipate that the Babangidas were going to shoot their way into office on August 27, 1985. Was it too much to expect that they should have awarded contracts the Nigerian way to renovate Dodan Barracks and get it ready for the Babangidas? Was a red carpet reception for that royal family not in order? Shouldn’t somebody have thought of buying and importing the golden throne of Emperor Jean Bedel Bokassa from the Central African Republic in readiness for the Prince of the Niger? That is obviously not all that is wrong with Maryam Babangida’s statement. There is the usual delusion of grandeur about the status of Nigeria in relation to the rest of Africa. It beats me that anybody in 2008 would use descriptors such as “almighty” and “big brother of Africa” to describe a comatose, wobbling, and fumbling contraption that is unable to provide more than 2 hours of electricity per day for its 150 million people. Across the border in Benin Republic -where I spend every weekend in the playwright Tunde Fatunde’s apartment whenever I’m in Nigeria – water, light, security, and infrastructure are taken for granted the way we take such things for granted here in the Western world. That is Benin Republic. I am not going to talk about Ghana, Botswana, Namibia, and South Africa. I am not going to talk about North Africa. Suffice it to say that Maryam Babangida and her husband feature most prominently in the narrative of Nigeria’s excision from the ranks of the mighty and the great.
Then there is the revelative “we”! “When we came…” No comments. I’ll let Nigerians and students of African politics process that. Maryam Babangida has other things in store for us. We learn, for instance, that Nigerians are a bunch of ingrates: “I had to personally inject my money into the renovation of the house, from the cleaning to the decoration, to the food, to everything. In fact, Nigeria owes me a lot, because if I have to say all that I did, my sacrifices, my time, energy, my money just to give Nigeria that good image and outlook; they owe me a lot”. Since we were not ready for the Babangidas and offered them presidential accommodation beneath their status when they imposed themselves on us, Madam made enormous sacrifices to upgrade the State House to their level. What I find amusing here is not even the fact we have neither said “thank you ma” nor reimbursed her. It is the fact that we also owe her for spending her money to give Nigeria a good image and outlook. Now, that’s a new one. Who would have thought of that? That a military tyrant and his wife, traducers of democracy, could give a country a good image and outlook! Until now, I had believed that Mobutu Sese Seko owned the copyright in Africa of the idea of an entire people having to be grateful to one person for services rendered while violating the very humanity of the said people.
Maryam Babangida attributes our perception of the Babangidas to ignorance. We are too ignorant to know how fortunate we were that the Babangidas happened to Nigeria. Nigerians are described as ignorant so many times in the course of the two interviews that one would be pardoned if one concluded that she had only just stumbled on that fascinating word in a dictionary. Were funds mismanaged or embezzled by her husband? Nigerians are ignorant. They just talk cha-cha, cha-cha. Were funds diverted into her Better Life for Rural Women Programme and later mismanaged and embezzled? Nigerians are ignorant. They just talk cha-cha, cha-cha. What about her over-glamorization of the role of the First Lady, elevating it into an illegally funded office? Nigerians are ignorant. They just talk cha-cha, cha-cha. There is, however, a beautiful rider to her summation of the First Lady issue: “when we moved to Abuja, I made sure that the office of the first lady was recognized. Nigerians should be proud of that”. No comments. I’ll leave that uppercut to Nigerians to process and digest.
Mrs. Babangida displays a very keen sense of the notion of responsibility in these interviews. She knows that somebody somewhere has to be responsible for everything that happened to Nigeria during the eight years we spent being ignorant and ungrateful to the Babangidas. Pressed to accept her husband’s responsibility, she blurts out to the journalist: “We were messed up, so what are we doing with them?” The journalist is stubborn. He doesn’t give up easily: “Who are the “them” that messed him up? The military or politicians?” How about June 12? Maryam Babangida: “Those on the field messed up”. In essence, after all the Babangidas did for us, we messed them up, unworthy and ungrateful Nigerians that we are! Babangida was and is responsible for nothing. His hands are clean. Owo mi ma re funfun nene!
Mrs. Babangida goes on to rationalize other areas of service and selflessness that she and her husband accorded Nigeria. The dastardly assassination of Dele Giwa is treated with the casualness it deserves in Babangida’s universe. Gani Fawehinmi is dismissed as a “wahala man”. We are told, expectedly, that they never stole a penny and were in fact very astute managers of our resources and our lives. No mention of the gulf war oil windfall that vanished into ether under Babangida’s diligent supervision. We are told that they were not poor before they shot their way into power. That, I assume, also explains the private jet that ferries the Babangidas and their children to their play land in Monaco, France. Thanks to Sahara Reporters, we now have exclusive photographs of the interior of Babangida’s private plane. One must admit that they have taste, especially if that taste is maintained and serviced by money stolen from the Nigerian people. It sure looks to me like the interior of that plane has officially been pimped by Xzibit and his Pimp My Ride crew at MTV. But what do I know? I am just a Nigerian talking cha-cha, cha-cha.