The Chinks in IBB’s Armour

by Uche Ohia

At last, the fabled strongman of Nigerian politics, Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida (IBB), has thrown his hat into the ring: he has announced his aspiration to contest the 2011 Presidential Election. Before this declaration, rumours of IBB’s ambition had become a perennial hoax in Nigeria’s political grapevine: each election year since 1998, the fib spreads like wild-fire only to fizzle out just before the primaries.

As a gimmick, it worked: the specter of IBB’s presidential ambition was used to sustain his political relevance. Frontline candidates were subtly reminded that in Nigerian politics, the fear of IBB is the beginning of wisdom. But each time IBB’s supposed ambition was revved up, it also suffered from what can be likened to the Chappaquiddick syndrome. For younger Nigerians to whom this may sound like gibberish, Chappaquiddick was an incident associated with Sen. Edward “Ted” Kennedy, a scion of the Kennedy political clan of the United States.

In July 1969, Ted Kennedy was linked to a freak accident that occurred in Chappaquiddick Island, Massachusetts in which a young lady, Mary Jo Kopechne lost her life. It became a national scandal which haunted and blighted his political career. Each time Ted nursed a political ambition thereafter, the press, social critics and political opponents reminded him of “Chappaquiddick”. This faux pas was the main reason Ted Kennedy did not become president of the United States.

Like Kennedy, IBB is dogged by many irksome riddles: the murder of the late journalist, Dele Giwa, who was assassinated via a parcel bomb in 1986; the baffling case of $12.46b Gulf Oil windfall which allegedly grew wings under IBB’s watch; the annulment of the June 12 election widely believed to have been won by late millionaire Chief MKO Abiola, etc. Over the years, Nigerians have focused on these failings rather than the successes of the IBB years.

To that extent, it appears that the real reason IBB is seeking to return to the presidential villa is to rewrite the history of his era. Admittedly, there are many aspects of the spasmodic 8-year rule or misrule of IBB (depending on your perception) that could do with a splash of whitewash. But, sometimes, trying to repaint a freshly painted wall only results in a worse finish.

Whatever may be written or said of him, IBB is a legend. But Nigeria’s legends, like Arthur Nzeribe, have a way of unraveling at the end and turning their epic into slapstick. IBB is a national icon. But for the sidekicks goading him on to don the garb of mortality, it would have been best that he remained that way. The utility value of a monument lies in it’s ability to stand stoically while passers-by scrutinize it and make comments -flatteringly or unflatteringly.

By his declaration, IBB has descended to the arena. He has chosen to be a politician rather than a statesman. What is the difference between the two? The late French Prime minister Georges Pompidou (1911-1974) put it succinctly: “a statesman is a politician who places himself at the service of the nation. A politician is a statesman who places the nation at his service”.

At 69 going on 70 IBB is vying for President – the same office he usurped between 1985 and 1993. But he banned people less than that age at his despotic best. For a man who introduced the term “new breed politicians” into the national political lexicon and promoted the emergence of younger politicians in the political process, IBB’s volte face casts is appalling. Has he jettisoned his idea of “new breed politicians” simply because he has exited from that category? When any man hankers after what he denied others, he casts doubts on his own integrity.

Part of the problem with IBB’s ambition is that it is antithetical to a natural succession plan. When an elder insists on donning the masquerade, what role does he leave for his sons? A successful man, after all, is one that has successors. For all the trouble he went to as self-appointed exponent of zoning, it is now clear that the entire racket was contrived for IBB’s personal benefit and not to protect the interest of the “north”. When anyone defends a principle in which, at the end of the day, he becomes the ultimate beneficiary, he calls his motives to question. Such double-speak does not bode well for transparency in leadership. In any case, the global trend is to zone the political interest of an older generation to a younger generation. That is the way to go!

IBB appears to be a fan of Sir Winston Churchill, two – time Prime Minister of Great Britain. Churchill served as British PM from 1940 to 1945 and again from 1951 to 1955. Like IBB, Churchill was an officer in the army. And he was at the forefront of British politics for almost 50 years! At an interactive session with media chieftains in Minna last month IBB gleefully quoted Sir Churchill: “Give me the tools and I will finish the job for you”.

In reality, if there is any “tool” IBB or the “evil genius” as he once addressed himself needs right now, it is a pen – to write down his memoirs. Former British PM, Tony Blair who left office not too long ago has just released his own memoirs to let his people in on the workings of his mind. That is a greater service to the nation than any attempt to take it back to some halcyon days that exist only in the imagination.

There are many chinks in IBB’s armour. For his actions and inactions, he has found himself in the bad books of the people. He may have a thing or two to learn from others who found themselves in the same situation. Late US President, Richard Nixon, was disgraced and forced to resign his office. Rather than seek to re-impose himself on the nation, he had this to say: “I let the American people down, and I have to carry that burden for the rest of my life. My political life is over and I will never again have an opportunity to serve in any official position. Maybe I can give a little advise from time to time.”

IBB alludes to his unique selling point thus: “An experienced and tested leader, who has a rich knowledge of the socio-economic and political dynamics of our people and country”. Nigerians recognize IBB’s endowments and his constitutional right to offer his services but most prefer that he restricts his wealth of “experience” and fountain of “knowledge” to his memoirs.

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