Ibrahim Babangida: A Tale of an Evil Genius

In his first New Year Day’s speech as military president, months after deposing the Buhari-Idiagbon government in a “bloodless” coup enthusiastically welcomed by Nigerians, Ibrahim Babangida declared: “I wish to reaffirm that this administration does not intend to stay in power a day longer than is required to lay the necessary institutional framework to bring about a better and more stable Nigeria.” 

Babangida’s bonhomie (its trademark an endearing gap-toothed smile) – in stark contrast to the stern, unsmiling façade of Muhammadu Buhari, his predecessor – made it easy for him to be believed.

The distinction between the two regimes, in fact, ran much deeper than personality quirks. Babangida, in action, proved to be the complete antithesis of his predecessor. He threw open prison doors, setting free hundreds of Third Republic politicians convicted and jailed by Buhari.

He repealed the obnoxious Decree No. 4 of 1984 with which the Buhari regime had shackled the media. He promised to run an open administration that is responsive to the yearnings and aspirations of all the people – a departure from the high-handedness of the Buhari/Idiagbon era.

One of his first actions as military president was to allow Nigerians to decide, through public debates, whether to accept the $2.5 billion International Monetary Fund (IMF) loan the Buhari government had been negotiating for. After the terror of the Buhari years, Nigerians appeared to have found a statesman in military uniform.

Tough times that lasted

By 1985, Nigeria’s foreign debt had ballooned to $18 billion, up from $3.4 billion in 1980 (it would rise beyond $30 billion by the end of the 80s), and external reserves had dwindled to less than $2 billion. Oil prices had been in freefall for 3 years running, and in January 1986 they finally fell to less than $20 per barrel, a record low since the start of the decade.

To his credit, Babangida made all the right noises about revamping the economy. In his Independence Day 1985 speech, barely two months old in office, he declared a state of economic emergency for the next 15 months. That speech went on to lay down a comprehensive plan for economic reconstruction.

Image of Major-General Muhammadu Buhari as Nigeria's Military Head-of-State
Major-General Muhammadu Buhari as Nigeria’s Military Head-of-State, 1984.

This plan included a moratorium on new foreign debt, promotion of agriculture and industrial development, restriction of importation to essential commodities, financial sector reform and privatisation.

Populist leanings

IBB was a master of the populist move – ambitious government programs targeted at tackling poverty and empowering rural dwellers. His government churned out program after program, in a bid to actualize his promises to run an inclusive, people-facing government. In 1986, Babangida launched the Mass Mobilization for Self Reliance, Social Justice, and Economic Recovery (MAMSER).

In 1987, the Directorate of Food and Rural Infrastructure (DFFRI) was launched to promote agriculture and transform Nigeria’s rural landscape by providing modern infrastructure.

Other Babangida creations include the National Directorate of Employment (NDE), National Economic Reconstruction Fund (NERFUND), Peoples Bank of Nigeria (PBN), National Board for Community Banks (NBCB), Nigerian Deposit Insurance Corporation (NDIC), Nigeria Export-Import Bank (NEXIM), National Planning Commission (NPC), and the Urban Development Bank.

No other Nigerian government presided over such substantial expansion of government bureaucracy as the Babangida administration. In time, the fiscal prudence that Babangida espoused vanished: billions of naira were sunk into an endless transition programme, and in the early 90s, 12 billion dollars worth of windfall crude oil revenue (courtesy of the rise in the oil prices due to the Gulf War) could not be accounted for.

By 1985, Nigeria’s foreign debt had ballooned to $18 billion, up from $3.4 billion in 1980 (it would rise beyond $30 billion by the end of the 80s), and external reserves had dwindled to less than $2 billion. Oil prices had been in freefall for 3 years running, and in January 1986 they finally fell to less than $20 per barrel, a record low since the start of the decade.

Mr. Babangida also came to perfect the art of dispensing patronage through political appointments (mostly targeted at leading members of the opposition) and a far-from-transparent allocation of lucrative oil blocks.

A man whose words mean nothing

Mr. Babangida’s contradictions eventually overwhelmed his reputation so that when, in May 1993, the activist and lawyer Gani Fawehinmi described him as a man whose words mean nothing to him, evidence of this littered his eight years in power.

Only months after vowing to run a government by consultation with the people, Mr. Babangida in 1986 surreptitiously – and unilaterally – took Nigeria, an avowed secular state, into full membership of the Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC), a body which describes itself as the collective voice of the Muslim world.

In October 1986, frontline journalist, Dele Giwa was murdered by a letter bomb in Lagos. Preliminary police investigations stated that senior officers of Mr. Babangida’s intelligence services, who had hounded Giwa in his final days, had questions to answer regarding Giwa’s death. The mystery of the Giwa assassination remains unsolved till date.

Mr. Babangida lamented the large role played by the public sector in economic activity with hardly any concrete results to justify such a role. Ironically, over the course of the next five years, he would go ahead to supervise an unprecedented expansion of government. And despite his deference to the wish of Nigerians to reject the IMF loan, Mr. Babangida went ahead to implement some of the Funds most drastic requirements – a devaluation of the naira, and removal of subsidies, chief of which were the petroleum subsidies.

Mr. Babangida promised Nigerians that the belt-tightening was sorely needed: the painful injection that would usher in vibrant economic health; the mandatory dark lining before a cloud of prosperity. Those reforms, which he christened Structural Adjustment Programme (SAP), came into effect in 1986, with a far-from-pleasant impact on Nigerians. Purchasing powers dwindled, inflation rose, and the obliteration of the middle class began. 

In 1989, SAP riots rocked the country, as Nigerians had finally had enough of economic reforms which silver lining they waited in vain for.

Greatest failings

Mr. Babangida’s greatest failings were however in two key areas: his human rights record, and his political transition programme. 

In December 1985, a group of soldiers, which included his close friend, Mamman Vatsa, were arrested on allegations of plotting to topple the 4-month-old Babangida government. After Vatsa was convicted and sentenced to death, Mr. Babangida assured a delegation of distinguished writers (Wole Soyinka, Chinua Achebe, and J.P. Clark), which had come pleading for mercy, that he was determined to do “everything in my power to save (Vatsa)”.

Hours later, Vatsa and the other alleged plotters were executed.

As opposition to Mr. Babangida’s rule grew, so did his intolerance for dissent, so that he routinely shut down or proscribed media houses; and harassed journalists, civil society and labour groups using the instruments of state (the State Security Service, Directorate of Military Intelligence and the Police).

In 1986, five students of the Ahmadu Bello University were murdered when mobile policemen invaded the campus to quell anti-IMF protests. He also promulgated a series of draconian decrees targeted at quelling all opposition, and on occasion did not hesitate to deport foreign critics (University lecturer Patrick Wilmot and journalist William Keeling).

In October 1986, frontline journalist Dele Giwa was murdered by a letter bomb in Lagos. Preliminary police investigations stated that senior officers of Mr. Babangida’s intelligence services, who had hounded Giwa in his final days, had questions to answer regarding Giwa’s death. The mystery of the Giwa assassination remains unsolved till date.

An interminable journey

A maddeningly convoluted transition programme, whose terminal date soon became a mirage – first 1990, then 1992, and then 1993 – is one of the most significant things Babangida will be remembered for.

Early on in his administration, Mr. Babangida inaugurated a Political Bureau to kick off, as it were, the national debate on a viable future political ethos and structure for our dear country. The political bureau was soon followed by a Constituent Assembly, which in 1989 fashioned a new constitution for the country.

Also, in 1989, he created, by presidential fiat, two political parties, the Social Democratic Party and the National Republican Convention. Then in 1991, he released a controversial list of prominent politicians whom he said were banned from participating in the transition programme.

In October 1992, he cancelled the results of the parties presidential primaries, causing new primaries to be held in March 1993. And then in June 1993, he annulled the results of the presidential elections, presumed to have been won by billionaire businessman MKO Abiola.

This was the final straw

By this time, Nigerians had finally had enough of his shenanigans, and violent protests forced him to step aside on August 27, 1993. “My colleagues and I are determined to change the course of history,” Mr. Babangida told Nigerians in his maiden speech as Head-of-State, on August 27, 1985.

By the time he reluctantly relinquished power exactly eight years later, he had achieved that goal, far more successfully than he, or anyone else, could ever have imagined.

This article, authored by Tolu Ogunlesi, was originally published in the NEXT newspaper, April 17, 2010.

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Ayomide Akinbode

Ayomide Akinbode holds a degree in Chemistry but has a passion for History and Classics. When he is not writing, he’s either sleeping or playing Scrabble.

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