Two weeks after Dr. Olusegun Obasanjo delivered a savage blow on the jaw of the Muhammadu Buhari government, Ibrahim Babangida has also delivered a roundhouse, a stunning body blow, on their sedentary target. In his own remarks, delivered by his spokesman, Kassim Afegbua, Babangida said that President Buhari had failed to weld the country together, that the country was at the crossroads, and that the volume of blood flowing ceaselessly can be described as a pogrom. He said that “in 2019 and beyond we should come to a national consensus that we need new breed leadership with requisite capacity to manage our diversity and jump-start a process of launching the country on the super highway of technology-driven leadership in line with the dynamics of modern governance.”
Babangida said he did not intend to deny Buhari his inalienable right of voting and being voted for but that “there comes a time in the life of a nation when personal ambition should not override national interest.”
He prescribed, as he had done more than two decades ago, a two party system of government for the country. At that time, he had created by fiat two parties, NRC and SDP, which he described as a little to the left and the other a little to the right. His view was that these two parties had no founders but only joiners and that that higgledy-piggledy arrangement was a sure-fire guarantee of a flourishing democracy. But he who brought about this pregnancy was the same one who aborted the foetus of this potentially fatherless babies. Under a fraudulent resort to legalism he wiped off from the face of the earth the result of an election that was generally acclaimed to be the fairest and freest in the history of Nigeria. The winner of that election, M.K.O. Abiola, who was reputed to be Babangida’s friend, lost the opportunity of being Nigeria’s President and eventually lost his life too. With friends like this, you need no enemies. If that election had been allowed to stand, by now Nigeria would have grown as a full-fledged two-party democracy. Babangida would have had no need to give us an unsolicited lecture on two-party democracy today. He would have been a quintessential hero of Nigeria’s democracy.
However, despite the mischief of the June 1993 election annulment, he still reserves the right as a Nigerian to speak his mind, as he has done, on the affairs of the nation. I have heard a few people say that, as a former member of the PDP, his heart is still in the party despite his claim that he is now a non-partisan elder statesman. If that is so, he would like to join hands with Obasanjo to wreck the APC so that PDP can thrive, they say. But it is unlikely that Obasanjo who caused his PDP membership card to be shredded publicly would be a co-conspirator in any design to shore up the fortunes of a party he has rubbished irredeemably. The other motive attributed to IBB is that he is engaging in a pre-emptive strike against Buhari because he envisages that, if Buhari wins a second term, he will have no reservation about going after him (Babangida) for his overthrow and imprisonment in 1985. Buhari seems deeply pained by his ouster and detention in 1985 by the Babangida gang. This hurt need not last forever, after all, he has had his revenge by becoming the second man to lead the country in khaki and agbada. Besides, he committed a more grievous offence against the Nigerian people by over-throwing an elected civilian government led by Shehu Shagari. In a democracy, it is more unlikely than likely for a President to pursue his predecessor on a revenge mission. President Shehu Shagari was kept under house arrest after his overthrow by Buhari in 1984 but it did not go beyond some kind of mock trial; nothing else happened. General Sani Abacha went the whole hog of putting a former head of state, Obasanjo, on trial for alleged coup plotting. He eventually threw him into jail and he was only released after Abacha’s death. The trial or detention of a former head of state or President is fraught with difficulties for an incumbent government. Any evidence of persecution can stimulate demonstrations and agitations against a sitting government except there is an explicitly clear evidence of serious infractions or misdemeanour against a former ruler.
If we are able to discard any sinister motives on Babangida’s part, we can come to the conclusion that, perhaps, the former dictator now wants to play the statesman as an atonement for his sins. Don’t forget that he had hawked the concept of new breedism in the past just as he is doing now. He may genuinely feel that getting younger persons in Nigeria into the commanding heights of governance as has been done in Austria, Canada, France and New Zealand is the way to go. That may, to him, justify why he would ask Buhari, a septuagenarian, to go home after the first term and look after his grandchildren and his cattle in ranches or colonies and also have time for the “other room.”
The reason that both Obasanjo’s and Babangida’s statements resonate joyfully with the people is because Buhari has, by commission or omission, squandered the enormous goodwill that accompanied him into the presidency in 2015. His goodwill account is in the red now because of his lackluster management of the economy, the Fulani herdsmen crisis and the skewed appointments that speak of unparalled partisanship. It is obvious that, today, mediocrity and partisanship are enjoying a celebrated cohabitation. That concoction is a tasteless cocktail that has poisoned the bloodstream of our polity and built a wall of moral hegemony against the Buhari government.
Sometime last year, something happened when Buhari was in England on a three-month-long medical vacation. Three eminent men, Obasanjo, Babangida and Abdulsalami Abubukar met in Minna, presumably to discuss the affairs of the nation. They were responding to the rising political temperature based on the long absence of the President from office. Even though the Vice President, Professor Yemi Osinbajo, was wearing the shoes of an Acting President, he did not seem to be in full control of matters of state. In fact, one official actually ignored him and loaded files in an aircraft and submitted them in London to Buhari for approval on his sick bed, took off from Abuja. Buhari wisely told him to present them to the Acting President. But the meeting of the three former heads of state produced no communiqué. Could the recent body blows delivered on Buhari by Obasanjo and Babangida be a product of that secret meeting? Will Abdulsalami Abubukar, who has distanced himself from partisan politics since he left office, follow their example? It seems most unlikely because his role since he left office has been that of a statesman who only makes apolitical, nation-mending remarks. He it was who got the presidential candidates during the last election to sign a statement that they would play by the rules and would accept the results of the election.
Both Obasanjo and Babangida have had prolonged prominence in the affairs of Nigeria and they are not ready to step aside any time soon. With a firm political retainership, they have both grayed into elder statesmen. They might be tempted into thinking that, based on this longevity of tenure in the palace of power, they can push their agenda through. Their agenda is clearly idealistic. The two parties, APC and PDP, imperfect as they are, are still the front runners in the 2019 marathon. Of the remaining 66 political parties, none of them has the gumption for a muscular performance in 2019. Therefore, a third force by whatever name it is called, will have no firepower to make a significant impact in 2019. The third force needs considerable time, resources, mobilisation, which it may not have in abundance before election day. In executing their agenda either separately or together, Obasanjo and Babangida will soon discover that there will be a clash between idealism and reality. In that battle, idealism will be destroyed by a gang of brutal sharp shooters recruited by reality. No new party may be registered by next year. Most of the existing parties are afflicted by the virus of anonymity. So the two major parties may still remain the parties to beat, unfortunately. Mobilisation for elections is done at local and state government levels. Any party not controlling states is doomed because it will have no fulcrum for reasonable mobilisation.
However, the longevity of the two men’s influence on Nigeria’s electoral fortune must be a source of worry for democracy-minded citizens. Obasanjo chose Shagari in 1979 and Umaru Musa Yar’Adua and Dr. Goodluck Jonathan in 2011, almost singlehandedly. Babangida decided the fate of the 1993 election and together with Abdulsalami Abubukar he decided what happened in 1999: the choice of Obasanjo as presidential candidate of the PDP. The reason these aberrations occurred is because Nigeria’s politics is manipulable by those who have access to power, money and the means of delivering violence. This time around the two men will discover to their chagrin that their influence will be severely limited by the lack of access to the three factors earlier mentioned.
Youths may give them a standing ovation for their preference of youthful leadership but it is doubtful whether that dream will become a reality in 2019. The truth is that those who determine how power is given – and who gets it – in each of the parties are not young. The godfathers choose who they want in the contraption called primaries and present them to the populace for rubber-stamping. The voters collect uniforms with people’s images on them and a little stomach infrastructure. They go to vote as they are instructed. So, did they choose their leader? Who sai, for where! The godfathers did.
I respect both men for their show of courage in speaking out even if some people think they are out to polish up their legacy. Both of them have not earned the right level of veneration that they ought to have earned, if they were earnest toilers in the nation’s political vineyard. One wanted to prolong his military rule, the other his civil rule by fiat. The nation rejected both. But I am still not interested in speculating on their motive now. Their message is, for me, the meat of the matter.