Former military President, General Ibrahim Babangida marks his 75th birthday today. In this interview conducted at his top hill residence in Minna by journalists, he speaks on some secrets about his life, how he proposed marriage to his late wife, Hajiya Mariam Babangida, among other issues. ADELOWO OLADIPO brings the excerpts:
You spent eight years as the military president of the country. Before then, you had distinguished yourself as an officer in the Nigerian Army. How would you compare the two positions?
I think being a military officer was more challenging than being a military president. It was challenging because as a military president, you still to had to seek people’s advice; you had to interact and discuss with people based on the situations you found yourselves before you could take any decision. But being a military officer, you were only responsible for the troop you were commanding. And as an officer, you were leading men into what was not necessarily good, but you were leading them into danger and if you led them well, you would keep a lot of them alive and they would depend on you and they would also protect you as a commander.
If you had any challenge, you would also fall along with them. As a result of this, your life and their lives depended on one another and especially on you as a commander. So, I considered being a military officer as being more challenging than the political one. But being a military president, has some limitations.
You fought to keep the nation one between 1967 and 1970. Which period would you say was your closest to death during the war?
I think it was the movement from Enugu to Umuahia. It was very tough, it was very challenging. You needed to be physically fit to be able to really undertake certain things because we were mopping up our fields and you had to go through the bombs, and so on. And you could never tell whether it was safe to pass through certain areas, that was when I got wounded.
During periods like this, you may wish that your wife was alive to felicitate with you. Now that it has been long since she died, how do you feel?
Well, it was not easy, but I thank God I have got children who show remarkable understanding and some of them are doing well by trying to improve on what their mother used to do for me. And I have started getting grand children who are also occupying my time. From my heart of hearts, I feel great and believe that what I was able to do 20 years ago, I cannot do them again. But despite all this, I am grateful to God for sparing my life till today to mark my 75th birthday.
We joined the Nigerian Army for the purposes of doing our best to protect our fatherland, and that has not changed. First, you subjected yourself to the constituted authority and for that reason, you had to undertake jobs or tasks given to you by government. And before you signed treaties and the rest of them, you were expected to serve in other situations. You must serve in the Economic Community of West African States, African Union or the United Nations. So, on the whole concept, I think the Nigerian Army still recruits people (into the Army) because it is a noble profession that requires much of courag. It is a profession where you find much of courage because of the services we render in the country .
Can you tell us why you have been misinterpreted over the years by some Nigerians following your refusal to debunk some of the things they said about you, as you are being described as an evil genius?
I think I am not the evil that quite a lot of people think I am. I have had a very excellent background and by training, we have to love one another and my feeling is that—I can understand that by virtue of the job I was doing, I was bound to be misconstrued — people would take that as one’s true character. But I consider it as an opinion as long as I am not what you thought I was, I feel satisfied. I joke sometimes about this.
When you said I stole N12.8 billion, in those days I used to say if I had N12.8 billion, I had no business staying in this country; I would have left for abroad. But that was one of those things one has to live with. I am hopefully thinking that the younger generations, who are going to come after you might come out with a research on leadership, about people, about individuals and what roles they played. And then, they may come out with a different thing from what is currently being said.
How did you feel, reading about your own obituary in the social media and some traditional media organisations who did not confirm their reports before they went to press?
The first thing that came to my mind was that it was not new in this country. They did it to the late Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe, they had done it to Shehu Shagari not long ago and they did it to quite a number of people. So, what they were saying was not a surprise to me, coupled with the fact that, as a Muslim, whether I like it or not, I just have to die. You are stating the obvious, but only for you to find out it is not true. But with time, I cannot escape it, God Has seen certain hands. It is only three things you don’t know about death: you don’t know the cause, you don’t know the time and you don’t know the place.
Why are some people describing you as a cat with nine lives?
Maybe those who said I am a cat with nine lives know what dangers I went through and I escaped! What should have happened to me and it did not happen—those are all perceptions of the people. The first time I had a close shave with death was when I was in Lagos. I had a flight from one of the African countries back to Lagos and suddenly, the engine of our aircraft was hit by a stone and from 29, 000 feet we came down to 15,000 feet. But the good boys (pilots) were able to pilot the plane, we taxied (down) to 100 meters at Murtala Mohammed Airport, Ikeja, and the other engine just went up. I had my entourage, before the sudden drop, everybody was drinking tea and cuddling and shouting. Suddenly when they heard it, nobody was talking again until when we disembarked from the airplane. I tried to chat them up, but I was not successful. That was the first time somebody said it and said I was a cat with nine lives .
Could you tell us one particular thing Nigerians and indeed the media practitioners are yet to know about you?
Well, you mean things that the people have not heard before about me?
Is there anything?
I have said everything that I wanted to say and the only addition, if you may decide to have one thing or the other with me (Laughs)—say when you have an additional thing, you may decide to.
Well, during my public life, there were quite a number of the institutions that I knew either as a military officer or a political officer (military president), when I was rehabilitated. I will give you one example that, if I had a chance I would have taken a honourary doctorate from some of them. In 1989, we proposed that membership of the National Assembly should be on a part time basis. If I have the opportunity to change the cause of events in this country, whether as a president, I still believe in that very strongly; all in an effort to cut the cost of governance. And I thank you for reminding me about it, because it skipped my memories for some moments.
Assuming you were involved in an accidental discharge as a military officer, how would you reconcile with the families of the deceased, and how would the Army react?
Well, accidental discharge, I almost had one but when I did, the person involved was not dead. I had one during the course of my service and it was in Dodan Barracks, Lagos. The person who witnessed it was my wife, so she escaped it. But, I also had a situation where I was moving with some of my junior officers. As we moved along, an ammunition came and hit one of them and he just dropped dead there. There was nothing we could do. As a commander, if you witnessed such a thing, you should be preparing to die also. Of course, I knew the families of that particular deceased officer; he was my brother. I went to them and I told them what happened and they accepted it as good Muslims and that was how God wished it then. But it was a very painful thing to me.
Recently, we saw a picture of your late wife in the 60’s in the newspapers as ravishing beauty, a very delectable a lady. Can you share with us, when you met her, how did you deliver your manifesto to her?
You must have studied William Shakespeare (Laughs). Well, when I was delivering the manifesto, she did not believe some aspects of the manifesto because of the reputation I had as a playboy . But I assured her that no, it was not going to be a problem, I was going to be a changed person completely. And I am glad, I was. Before then, I knew her, I knew the family, I knew everybody in the family , so I had no problems whatsoever, signifying the relationship. I delivered my manifesto to her straight to the point . Yes, I told her I wanted her to marry me.
How did you join the military?
Thanks to my training as a military officer. On the first question you asked, in my secondary school days, my principal wanted me to go into Administration at the higher institution. He was a British. I personally wanted to become an engineer. Then, politics came. The Minister for the Army, a late gentleman called Tanko Galadima, from Bida Local Government in Niger State, came to our school on a recruitment drive. He wanted people from this part of the country to enlist into the Nigerian Army because they were not many as at that time. He asked how many of us were interested, then a lot of us raised up our hands. He took all our names and the following morning, we had forms to be filled for our enlistment into the Army.
We went and sat for the examinations, we were determined to pass that exam because we did not want to disappoint him. There were about 15 of us. We went; we passed the exams. We had the interview, the medical tests and the aptitude test . So, myself and two of my friends, said maybe, the Army was going to be our profession.
We decided to go into the Army through there were others who wanted to read other courses. Besides, there was a many vacancies for northern candidates in the Nigerian Army, hence the late minister decided to encourage people like us from this part of the country to enlist into the Army and the rest is history today.
It was also noted that during your stewardship in the public pffice, you were hardly interested in taking honourary degrees from the nation’s tertiary institutions, what was responsible for that?
First of all I, decided not to take honourary degrees awarded then although I have one or two now from the Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria and the other one from the Federal University of Technology Minna. I accepted that of the FUT, Minna may be because it was established in my town and thank God, I brought about the institution being recognised as a university of technology during my time in office.
On the issue of chieftaincy titles, yes, I took one or two also. I refused to take plenty of these things because I did not need it to get a job and I had already got a job, so I turned down quite a number.
Recently, the Nigeria Meteorological Agency warned about dire consequences for people living along flood plains, asking them not to move to up land in view of likely heavy downpour that this period of the year, especially in Niger State. What is your advice to the people?
That is a tough point and I have known there is always this problem here. During rainy season— and I will use Minna as an example — a lot of people lose their offices, home and properties, while quite a number of children get drowned as a result of floods . So, the first thing I did was to make a big drainage for the city. I am happy it is one of the first modern drainages you can find in the country.
I hope the government will look at those areas that are prone to flooding and start putting measures in place to avert loss of lives and property. It is good if the money is there, then one can take the required measures. But now that the money seems not to be there again, Nigerians, especially those who are living in the flood plains, should heed the advice to move upland and away from their home lands for their own safety at least until towards the end of the raining season.