Ahead of his 74th birthday today, erstwhile military president, Gen. Ibrahim Babangida had an interactive session with journalists in Minna, Niger State. In the revealing interview, he opened up on his response to the coup plot led by Major Gideon Orkar in April 1990, the Dimka coup plot earlier in 1976, his assessment of the unfolding Muhammadu Buhari-led administration and his thoughts towards his one-time friend, Chief Moshood Abiola among other things. Excerpts:
Sir, is it true that you are from Ogbomosho, a claim that is backed by assertion that your second name ‘Badamasi’ was coined from the Yoruba name Gbadamosi? Can you clear the air?
I appreciate your concern. I had to answer the question way back in November 1962. I answered the question during my final year in secondary school. Now, 52 years later, I am glad I am answering the same question. The truth is that I hail from here, Niger State. My parents were from between Wushishi and this town (Minna). My grandparents travelled to settle down here and that says it all. But there is nothing wrong in being from any part of the country. The truth is that I hail from Niger State.
Indigene of Niger State
My grandparents and great grandparents moved from somewhere to settle down in Niger State. There are some who still call us settlers in Niger State and that we are not indigenes of the state because our grandparents came from somewhere to settle here. But having lived all my 74 years in Niger State, I am more than qualified to be called an indigene of Niger State.
What is your reaction to reported claims by U.S. officials that Nigerian troops were not properly trained to fight Boko Haram?
I must admit that a lot of us were trained in America, so it is not anything new to talk about training because they knew they had trained people. I was trained in America, I was in a place called Portsmouth in Kentucky where I did my senior officers course. So you can see that a lot of us were trained in America. They are right, but there is an old saying that no matter the sophisticated weapons we have, the man behind the weapon really matters. I appreciate what they are trying to do.
Are you satisfied with the Federal Government’s renewed fight against insurgents? (cuts in sharply)
Yea, they have to be fought. The renewed effort and fight the Federal Government is doing are commendable.
But it was thought that the insurgents had been routed at the end of the Jonathan administration. So, what do you think may have happened that gave them fire as the President came on board?
I think there is a general misunderstanding of the whole concept of insurgency. You can call it anything, instability, terrorism. The fact is that we are not fighting a regular army where you can confront them with sheer use of force and weapons to overwhelm the enemy. No, we have got a small trained army whose tactics is to inflict maximum casualty on his so-called enemy, inflict casualty on him when and where he least expects it. The army is not fighting a conventional war and that makes it exceptionally difficult. They blow out bridges, they go as far as blowing up barracks. This is an unconventional war. The soldiers are trained for it and they know this is the sort of thing they do. The public should be educated about this unconventional war.
How do you feel celebrating your 74th birthday, given that several attempts were made against your life while you were in service?
I will continue to be grateful to God and it strengthens my belief that no matter what happens, if God doesn’t will it, nothing will happen to me.
Gratitude to God
So it is a matter of believing that no matter what happens, either good or bad, nothing happens without the approval of Allah. I am grateful to God for sparing my life up to this time despite what we went through. Those who participated in combat will say the same. God has kept me and I remain grateful to Him and grateful to you all for your support.
Don’t you think that it is necessary to have a body of elder-statesmen to proffer advice to successive administrations especially given the situation Nigerians found themselves in after the recent transition?
One of the most unique things in Nigeria is that this is one African country that is specially blessed. There are about seven of us (former leaders) alive today and every one of us has his experience in one way or the other. But the other good thing is that there is a forum where we all meet the current leadership, chat with him, talk about the situation in the country, discuss and offer solutions to any problem confronting us. All of us are always free, we are very accessible to government, so we can either get across either in writing or talking.
In your opinion, what are the key areas the present government should focus on so that the country will move on?
I must commend the present leadership for identifying even before and after the election some of the problems facing this country. Number one has to do with security and the President talked about it extensively.
Security of the state
The security of lives and property, the security of the state, the security of this environment called Nigeria has been identified. And the second one has to do of course with the way we live, the way we walk and the way we behave which is corruption. The third one has to do with the economic development of the country. We should support the President towards achieving these objectives.
Talking of corruption, what is your reaction to the President’s vow to recover stolen funds from the nation’s treasury?
During the tenure of my boss, President Obasanjo, he had a similar strategy and to be fair to him, he made a lot of recoveries. So we should support this present Federal Government in trying to do the same to achieve the same objective. If that objective is pursued, I believe it will achieve some degree of recovery of stolen funds. You talk about oil theft, I am sure President Buhari is resolute to stamp out all those and to bring to book all those who have tampered in stealing our oil.
What is your reaction to the Federal Government’s assertion that it could negotiate with Boko Haram?
The President has got it right by saying he will talk to people who are credible who have been identified as some of the leaders of the insurgency; but so far, apart from one or two names, we do not hear any other name.
I don’t think the government will like to talk in a vacuum, to talk to people who are not worth talking to as far as these issues are concerned. So the government is right in being careful to identify and talk if there is anything to talk about.
How do you feel as a leader of a former leading party that you are now in the opposition and secondly, do you think the PDP can come out of the waters in 2019?
One of the good things we are experiencing in this country is that for 16 years, there has been democracy and democratic practices in the country. A lot of things must have gone wrong somewhere and the right judges are the people and the people have spoken. It is natural, they needed a change after 16 years and they did what is right, they did not go wild, they did not fight anybody, they used their ballot papers to change the government. This is the beauty of what happened. I look forward to such practices in the next 50 years of democratic practice in this country. I hope they learn from their mistakes, what they did wrong, what they did right and what they can do now to re-launch their party.
One of the major challenges your administration faced was the Gideon Okar coup where people thought death had finally gotten you. How did you escape?
I can remember very well that I had some loyal officers who were supposed to be my protectors and my body guards. Initially, they told me to leave but I told them no, I am not leaving anywhere; but they remained steadfast and later I took my family outside Dodan Barracks and I joined my guards. So we went out of Dodan Barracks and we went to a safe house where we got in contact with loyal troops. May God bless Sani Abacha. Sani Abacha was the chief of army staff. He got in touch with me, I got in touch with him and we sat down and talked about what we were going to do. Abacha and I rallied the loyal troops and then I left my safe house and joined Abacha in his house. That was how I escaped.
How will you rate the role of the media in the just-concluded general elections?
The media has been fair and that is my rating. Very unusual but you are fair. You didn’t show or play partisanship, you saw and said it the way it was. I have seen the media during a lot of other elections but this particular one you were very, very fair. And I hope that will be the trend.
What is your assessment about the performance of the present administration so far?
So far, I am confident that they are doing well.
They have identified the problems and they look resolute in confronting these problems head-on and there are a lot of people in the society who are offering a lot of sound advice on what to do.
Are you missing your friend MKO Abiola?
Let me see, last week, I dug out one of the letters he wrote to me and I read it; that shows that I still miss him.
What is your best food?
I eat everything legal that is not against my religion, I don’t eat pork meat. I eat cereals, carbohydrate, give me anything I will eat it.
Recently, your political god son was being drafted into the contest for the president of FIFA (cuts in sharply)
I will vote for him. (Prolonged laughter). No doubt, he made a very good outing, that is talking about his personal interest in sports especially football when he was a governor. The Enyimba Football Club during his tenure as governor was brought into limelight. He was very much interested in soccer and if he is as such recognised in this country and outside, there is nothing wrong in trying his hand to be recognised in the world and that was why I said if I have a vote, I will cast it for him.