Former military president General Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida held an incisive interview with newsmen in Minna, Niger State, as part of activities to mark his 73rd birthday. The elder statesman says the military should not be used on election days and need not be seen in the streets. He spoke on other national issues.
Your Excellency, many Nigerians are saying that past leaders have not been doing much or advising the present administration on issues concerning the problem of insecurity and the impeachment processes of state governors, among others. This is an opportunity for you to say a word and advise the government.
About what we, the old generation race, are doing about the multifaceted problems confronting the country, and our advice to the leaders, I can sincerely tell you that we are doing a lot and if there are any set of Nigerians who understand the problems of this country, we are. Those of us who were opportune to be at the helm of affairs at various times in the life of this country, we know what the problem is. We appreciate what the President is doing, and the best we can do and we are always doing is to be of help or of assistance to him in forms of advice, meetings, interactions and so on. I think this is one of the luckiest countries which has got seven living heads of state including interim head of government, and we have always availed ourselves to the President. And we also appreciate the problems the President is facing. So, the best we could do is to always sit with him in an environment that is really conducive and then give him an advice. And I am glad to say that we are doing the best we can to assist him, while we urge Nigerians to be patient with Mr President.
For how long should we, as citizens, continue to be patient, and is Mr President making use of your advice? And are you satisfied with the situation in the power sector?
Well, I have always said that there would be Nigeria in 1,000 years time, and therefore, everybody who has followed the history of this country would have observed that every administration from the late Tafawa Balewa period to the current situation, every administration had faced one challenge or the other during the course of their time. And this one cannot be the end, because the last administration had its own challenge too. The important thing is that we the people should strive hard to overcome the problems and then move forward. I think what is happening to us is not new in any developing country. With regards to what the government is doing about the power sector, I must say they are not doing badly; they are doing well. Again, it is a matter of patience on the part of the citizenry. We have all the machinery or the framework, and once it takes off, again the challenges we are facing now would be history.
It is now over 100 days since the incident of the kidnap of over 200 schoolgirls took place, and despite assurances by the federal and state governments, including the international community, the girls are still languishing in Boko Haram dungeon. What is your take on this problem?
I am aware about what the government is doing now and I know that there are a lot of complications. It is no longer an issue that you could ask the military to move inside Sambisa forest and release these young girls. I think what Nigerians want is that they want them released and come home alive, but not dead and not through anything, but they want them alive. And this is a very genuine thinking. From my experience as a professional soldier, we need a lot of planning, a lot of cooperation, a lot of studies has to be done to achieve this objective. Either 217 or 219 or whatever the number is, is a lot of population to lose just like that. But I think the government is trying from what we got during our last briefing, and I’m quite satisfied that efforts are being made to get them released. You see, the objective is to get them out of that place alive, because the operative word is alive. If we enforce any military operation, we can get them all killed; so, the objective could be defeated.
We are now witnessing a level of impunity in our body polity – the impeachment saga all over the country, the militarisation of the electoral process – as someone who was there before, what do you think of these problems?
It is still part of the learning process; you may call it impunity or any name you want, but for those of you who are observant, I think I would like to see a situation where a chief executive of a state is being accused and he is given an opportunity to come forward and say; look, it is not true. He has his team of lawyers, the state house of assembly would also have their lawyers, and they should make it public so that the public gets to know what is happening, and at the end of the day, the two parties would iron out their differences.
In a situation whereby some state governors hide under the immunity clause to flagrantly abuse the oath of office, and yet nobody can probe or prosecute them for gross misconduct or abuse of office, what can the electorate do to correct the situation?
Well, I pray that we would reach a time when the immunity clause is no longer an issue, although every chief executive has something in him that needs protection; he has his name, his reputation, his family and so many other things. Those are the things he should protect, not immunity that is there for one thing or the other. They supposed to remove this issue of immunity clause.
In the last National Council of States meeting, Niger State alone had about four representatives, because you, General Abdulsalami Abubakar, the state governor, and former chief justice of the federation, Justice Idris Legbo Kutigi were there. How do you feel?
Your observation was right, because somebody very highly-placed and an elder statesman also asked the same question. But I think it is just by accident of history that we were there. Maybe in the next 20 to 50 years, we may have another state to take over from us.
Are you satisfied with the situation in the West African sub-region, especially in terms of development, security, and the idea of a single currency; and as a past chairman of the sub-regional organisation, what do you have to say about this?
We started it; it is true, and it has been quite a long time. They are 16 independent countries with different languages and different economic policies. It takes time, because that doesn’t happen by mere conception of the idea. I believe it is an idea, the time of which is fast coming. European Union has the same problem of mass treaties, but there are still other countries who are not members of the union. Though we looked at it that way, wherever we stopped, the younger generations would take off from there.
Recently, the President came up with a proposal for $1billion loan for procurement of military hardware for both the Nigerian Armed Forces and other paramilitary agencies to fight the insurgency problems plaguing the country, but Nigerians have been opposed to the idea. What is your take on it?
To me, it is no longer an issue. There is a process and we have not gone through the process yet. So, why do you kill yourself arguing over the thing that has not happened. So, if you make the noise, well the government may think that the people don’t want it and as such they would not take it and find another way of doing it; that is how government operates.
Nigerians made same noise over a policy under your government and you retracted the policy. Now, don’t you think that in a democratic dispensation, it behooves on our leaders to once in a while respect the yearning and aspirations of the people on sensitive national issues?
I am sure this proposal would come to the National Assembly, and because the National Assembly has listened to you and agreed with you, maybe it would not get through.
The nation is moving towards another election year and the President is determined at seeking re-election, what is your take on this?
Well, if you were in his shoes, won’t you want to come back? But if you believe in what you are doing and you are doing well, why shouldn’t you? I think we once got it right, and we can still get it right. And you guys have to get it right. I think what is lacking is what I have always referred to as the voters education; the level of understanding. So, we have not reached the stage where the ordinary voters would say no as a matter of fact their leaders have not done well, let us vote them out.
Nigerian political space has been so militarised by the ruling party. What do you think about the military being used to carry out some functions that are not clearly set for them by the constitution? And what do you think we should look forward to in next year’s elections?
The militarisation of the polity is your fault, simply because somehow there is this element in you; you seemed to accept that whether consciously or unconsciously, you have compromised your police force. So, the last one that has not been compromised but that would soon be compromised is the military. But I don’t believe that the military should supervise the elections, because I don’t believe it should participate. A peep into the Nigerian police which is the closest to the people is if the government is able to train them, they would be able to handle any situation. I was already an officer in the Nigerian Army in the ‘60s and there were no military presence in those days, except the Nigerian police, and I think it is high time we restore the past glory of the force. But I think it is again what developing countries face. It cannot continue like this. You guys would shout your heads out, the public would shout and the administration would listen.
To be categorical, do you think the military should be used in the conduct of 2015 elections?
I tell you that up till date, there are places that you need logistical support by the political leaders. If you take for example, there are boats in the creeks of the Niger Delta region. The boats have the access to the remote villages and townships in that region, not the road during the elections or whatever it is. So, I can see a government that would say okay, if you go to villages in the creeks and we have boats that can get in there, you can ask those people operating the boats to use their boats in ferrying ballot boxes to such places that cannot be easily accessed through the roads, and that is perfectly okay. But pertinently, I don’t believe the military guys should be seen on the streets.
What do you think the federal government in conjunction with the National Assembly should do about the clamour for creation of more states, especially by the delegates to the National Conference which has just rounded up its activities?
I think the clamour for the creation of more states has something to do not with the economics but sentiments. Look at the example during the last conference, the people of the South East argued that the region is one state less than the South West, so they see themselves as equals in population and even land mass. To me, all those feelings are unnecessary. I don’t think that creation of states would solve any problem. So, we need to sensitize the people for a long-term course. The blame game has always been there, but we have to do something about it.
People have been accusing Nigerian leaders, especially those from the north, that you are the architects of the problems facing the present Nigeria. What will you say about that sir?
That is natural. I can understand it. People with a little bit of common sense, who are interested in Nigeria’s development and so on should be able to compare the Nigeria of 1914 and the Nigeria of today. And they must accept the bearing of those 100 years; we have gone through various transformations, various development, all in the name of building a strong nation. What is happening now is all the problem of a developing nation. We are not hopeless with what is happening, so the leaders will be bashed for a long time to come.
Today, all the industries in Kaduna are dead, the structures are no longer there again. Why it is so?
When you talk about structures, I will take you back to 1986 when we did the dreaded Structural Adjustment Programme (SAP). To be honest, we told you that it was not going to be easy because there was a perception then that the government had to do everything; government had to even sweep your home, and we said those things were not going to be there anymore. You just have to work, use your brain, use your hands. We opened up opportunities for you to develop. You didn’t have to rely on government. It didn’t go well. I remember in 1989, again we did that, but it was not going to be easy. But thank God, people are realising now. It pleases me everyday to sit down here and find out you talk about privatisation, about commercial migration. So, it takes time, a lot of education needs to be done. We carried out propaganda when we wanted to increase the price of fuel, we talked about it, we told Nigerians that our oil per litre was cheaper. So, we try to get something into your heads. By the time we moved from 20 to 70 kobo, people understood because we were buying a litre of water at N1:00, and we are asking you to just pay 70 kobo for PMS. So, you need a lot of patient to educate the people.
Concerning the issues of insurgency and insecurity, there has been a divergent view as to whether or not the government should open up negotiations with Boko Haram sect members. Do you support the idea?
You go into negotiations with people you know and people whom you can identify. But in the case of the Boko Haram sect, whom do you negotiate with? That is the problem. I do not believe that the federal government or Mr President should throw open his doors to continue to negotiate with people who have gone into hiding and have not identify themselves. So, whom do you talk with? You can only negotiate with identified persons, who for one reason or the other, everybody knows them, and that they are fighting for a particular course by saying this is what they are doing, and I think that is fair enough. But we don’t know these guys. So, we have to be fair to the federal government about this conflict. Let them come out and say this is the leadership, this is the structure, this is our grievances, this is what we want; and then, they can sit down and talk. But so far, it has not happened.
Do you buy the idea of America coming to help Nigerian government to rescue the Chibok schoolgirls?
All these agencies or all these helps they do, they are not going to rescue the girls or anything there. It is the Nigerian military or the Nigerian authority that will eventually do that job. But to do that job well, they need information, exact location where they are. Perhaps, we don’t have the facilities to do this, the America said we will help you. We will try and find out where they are. We will give you the information and you will use that information to carry out your operation.
With the challenges in the north with Boko Haram and militants in the South South; as a past leader, what do you see as the future of this country?
On Boko Haram, I said the insurgency is the problem of this country, not the problem of any particular country. It is a Nigerian problem and there have to be Nigerian solutions to Nigerian problems.
What is your opinion on the war drums by some Nigerians ahead 2015, especially people like Asari Dokubo?
I did not see it as a treat, because those who are ranting only do it in Sheraton Hotel in Abuja. You don’t see them with the people. I challenged everyone of them to go to their people and say, I am the leader.
The insurgents are now bombing bridges and hoisting their flags in some places, is this not a concern for some of you who fought for the unity of Nigeria?
Let’s get one thing correct, the insurgents know they don’t have the strength to confront a regular army. That is why they involved themselves in bombing and suicide bombing; the whole purpose is to strike fear in the minds of the public, to such an extent that if it continued the people would begin to doubt the capability of the government to protect their lives and properties. That is the whole objective of the insurgents. What we need is to support the military and the government in what they are doing. They don’t have 100 per cent support.
Some people are suggesting parliamentary system of government for Nigeria, what is your view?
I think what we should do is to remind them that they are analogue, and whether they like it or not, we can never turn back to analogue situation.