Former military president, General Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida (rtd), says there is need for the country’s security agencies to concentrate more efforts on intelligence gathering to be able to tackle the multiple security challenges plaguing the nation.
Babangida in an exclusive interview with Daily Trust on Sunday, says the war against the Boko Haram sect is not a conventional one, hence, the security agencies need more intelligence for their operations, leadership and character to be able to check them.
He says the government is doing its part to tackle the security challenges and urges the citizens to be involved in providing timely information about activities of criminal elements to security agencies.
The former military president also speaks on the establishment of regional security outfits such as Amotekun and Shege Ka Fasa, calls for the removal of the service chiefs and other interesting personal issues.
You were president almost at the same time with the former Kenyan President Daniel arap Moi who died last week.
How did you receive the news of his death?
It came to me as a shock because I maintained some very good relationship with him when we were both in office. I first came across him, I think sometime in 1986. He was a very nice, decent gentleman. What I noticed about him was his commitment to the Organisation of African Unity as we called it at that time. He was also committed to African development. We used to talk about African solutions to African problems with him. I was also in his country when he left office. I visited him in his retirement home. What I remember very well is that when I took a state visit to Kenya, I said I was going to invite him to come to Nigeria and the first thing he said was that he was afraid of our media. We all laughed. He said our media was very free and he was getting sensitive about the media.
Was that in relation to the fact that during his reign in Kenya he was accused of muzzling the media?
Well, that’s you now telling me this. I didn’t know, but he said the media in Nigeria was very free and that he didn’t want to come to Nigeria and get abused or something.
What role do you think ex-presidents in Africa should play in the development of their respective countries?
I think Arap Moi was a true African leader. He was also a very strong leader of his country. He was able to hold the country united. Initially, people thought that because they had very strong tribal divisions, the country could break, but he was very strong and was able to hold it together, up to the time he handed it over to other leaders. So, the fact that you have one united Kenya, the credit should go to him. In those days, the whole purpose was African. Even in Nigeria then, we took up this concept of making our foreign policy African-centred.
In Nigeria, what role do you think former leaders should play?
I can start with the leaders of the First Republic. Credit goes to them because they were able to lead us to independence. We became independent, thanks to the efforts of Nnamdi Azikiwe, the Sardauna of Sokoto, Tafawa Balewa, Chief Obafemi Awolowo and the rest of them. But unfortunately, in the process of building the country, there was a military intervention and that brought about the emergence of military regimes. Don’t forget that it was happening in other parts of Africa when we had a coup in 1966. In 1952, there was a coup d’état in Egypt, and subsequently, there seemed to be a competition in various countries in Africa. If Ghana had a coup, maybe the next would be Nigeria, and vice versa. It spread to other countries in West Africa and elsewhere. So, military regimes in some of these countries became the order of the day. One major thing everybody is talking about in this country is the issue of insecurity. Even in Niger State where you are, villages are coming under attacks from bandits.
Is it the first time we are experiencing this?
You were probably still a small boy at that time, but during independence we had a lot of what we called stability operations in the country. We had riots and other forms of disturbances, even during the First Republic. But it became more pronounced during the military regime and subsequent political happenings in the country.
How can these insecurity challenges be tackled?
It is a war that has to be won, but it must be won by all of us as a people. The efforts to get it stopped must be from every Nigerian, whether you are in the military, police or government. Everyone of us has a role to play in finding solutions to these problems. But it is probably not new. In 1970, immediately after the war we had the highest cases of armed robbery in Nigeria, killings and so on, but the government came out very strongly and kept the situation at bay.
You have met so many people in your life, but one thing that is unique about you is your ability to always remember people by their names. What’s the trick?
Do you practise it or it is a gift from God?
When we were young officers, talking about 1963 to 1964, it became a custom for all of us in the military. I was in charge of about 35 soldiers, a troop that consisted of about 35 soldiers. So we were always competing amongst ourselves who could memorise the names of all the people under his command. And we competed with our fellow officers. In my troop, I should be able to know everybody by their names, the names of their wives, their children, where they came from, which church or mosque they attended, and so on. So, it became part of us and part of the military tradition. We were taught to know the people who came under our command, and that became part of me.
Most African leaders are only remembered for the good things they did while in office after they passed on instead of being celebrated while they were alive. Why is it so?
That’s a very tough one. I think it is normally after they had finished their assignment in the leadership position. It takes time before whatever they did as leaders begin to manifest. Policies or measures leaders have taken towards the development of the country; the gestation period takes couple of years before people begin to see it. I will give you an example. When we introduced a free market economy, a lot of people didn’t understand what we were trying to do, but now, people have accepted it as the best way for our economic development. The best way is the open market system, and this is what we are practising now. This we did in 1986 and now is 2020; it is gradually settling down in the system. And I think this applies to all the measures taken by various governments. So many agencies were established during your regime and a lot of people criticised you, saying there was a lot of money but nothing much to show for it.
What gave you the courage to continue despite the uproar?
When I was in office I wasn’t fortunate enough to have money accruing to the government. We were managing the oil price of about $10 to a barrel. Unlike subsequent administrations that had $100, $105, $120, and so on, ours was as low as $10. So, in a simple term, what a particular administration was getting in one year was what I got in eight years. Don’t forget that at that time, the world was changing – economy, politics, everything was changing. We had to go on with what was happening in the world. There was free market economy and everybody was doing it. England was also doing it. It happened that we came at the right time and we believed very strongly that that was the best thing for the country, so we went into it. We knew it was not going to be easy, but we were honest enough to tell you that what we were trying to introduce was not going to be easy but we would persevere, work through it and see the benefits later. And if you didn’t, you would fall by the wayside. We were honest enough to tell Nigerians all that. So today, everything you see around, thank God we had a hand in trying to introduce some of them. We also believed that institutions must be built, not to create strong individuals but to create strong institutions. Those institutions will hold the country and the people. They will tailor them towards achieving some particular objectives through, like strong political parties, a strong economy and so on.
At 78, how are you coping without a wife?
I have very caring and understanding children; they try to fit in where their mother has left.
Few weeks ago, you granted an interview where you were asked whether you were shopping for another wife. How far have you gone on this?
That’s what the media wanted. A lot of people asked me and I said that’s what you (media) said. It is not necessarily what I said.
So, you are not looking at that?
What do you do at home now?
Relax, eat, sleep and read, but the tempo of reading is not as before. I do read a little and that keeps me occupied most of the times.
A lot of people talk about the other side of you that you don’t really often hear in the media – your habit of reciting the Quran and things like that. What is it?
Thank God the media doesn’t seem to know that. I think it is good. Don’t you think so? It is personal to me, so I feel a sense of satisfaction. You enjoyed a lot of pleasure that these things are noticed even though not mentioned. People keep talking about ex-leaders when they die. There are so many leaders who are still alive but you don’t hear people talk about them.
Some people feel that all the things being said about Gen Sani Abacha is because he is no more. Do you share this view?
I think Nigerians are unique in this situation. It is the society. It is not easy to lead a fairly sophisticated society. I have always said, when I am talking to you, the media, that there are 200 million opinions on any subject in this country. So, whatever you introduced there would be 200 million other opinions about it because Nigerians are becoming more sophisticated. They try to argue and disagree on every issue. It is not a docile society; that is why it is always so. From your professional perspective as a retired General.
What do you think the government should do to tackle insecurity in the country?
I think we should concentrate more on intelligence information. For example, on Boko Haram, we need more intelligence about how they operate, their leadership, their characters, who teaches them, who trains them, and so on. A lot of information need to be gathered before you confront them. Don’t forget, they are not conventional army, they are just people, small in number when compared to the regular conventional army. Their job is to inflict maximum casualty or instill fear in the populace. They instill fear in the ordinary people so that they would feel that government is not able to protect them, and that is the whole purpose of hit-and-run approach of the sect. The government is trying to put down this. We also need to be involved (the citizens) in providing timely warning and information about their activities. During your reign, the National Guards trained in Sambisa, which is now the hotbed of Boko Haram.
How can the sect be sacked from the forest?
You (Nigerians) shut it down because by then, you feared that I was trying to introduce it to perpetuate myself in office. So the idea was killed. We were sensitive to the plight of Nigerians, but I think that fortunately, it is coming out as Amotakun, Shege Ka Fasa and others. We thought about it and felt we should provide another very strong force, though not as strong as the army. If the police failed, then there would be a second force; if that force failed, then the army would get involved. We tried to isolate the army from involvement in internal operations. That was why we came up with the concept of National Guards. As usual, Nigerians said no, ‘this man wants to perpetuate himself in office, so he is going to have another force to stop him from being toppled, or something like that.’
Why were the National Guards isolated and trained at Sambisa?
We looked at the country generally to get an area where they could be trained, and one of our brightest young officers who was a governor in Borno at that time told us that there was a place (Sambisa) where they could be trained.
How are you feeling that the place has been taken over by Boko Haram?
I feel bad that it has been taken over, if there is anything like that; but I also feel vindicated. If the guards were there doing their training, it wouldn’t have been possible to take over the forest.
As a leader of the country, what does the establishment of regional security outfits, the Amotekun, Shege Ka Fasa and others portend?
Fear. People want security. The main purpose of government is security and welfare of citizens. That’s all. That’s what they are doing now. Maybe the police and the military are overstretched, so we need some backup to assist them. The establishment of regional security outfits came at a time the agitation for restructuring and other issues were high.
What do you make of this?
I think this is a typical Nigerian way of doing things. The unfortunate thing is the commentaries that go along with these issues. Genuinely, maybe the Amotekun was talked about and there are people who will give it a different interpretation and they will say, ‘This is an effort to have Oduduwa,’ but that may not be the case. Or if they do it in the East, the will say that ‘this is an attempt to create an Independent Biafra’ or something like that. This is a typical Nigerian way of doing things. It has a tremendous effect on the psyche of the people.
These are how good things are messed up. What motivated you to join the military?
If you remember, there was a drive to get a lot of us from the northern part of the country to join the military. The government then, led by Tafawa Balewa, carried out a deliberate campaign to entice us from secondary school to go to military training and subsequently, to military institutions to become military officers. So it was that drive. General Yakubu Gowon came to our school as a captain then, and we got all inspired when he spoke to us on why we should join the army. In my class, about 15 of us got admitted into the military college in Kaduna. So, it was a drive that made us to join the military.
What gave you the idea to change your nomenclature from head of state to president?
The argument we had was that ours was a transition, and we also knew that the system of government was no longer going to be parliamentary. And you found out that after the Obasanjo transition was president. We wanted to make sure that Nigerians got used to that, so that if it came, it won’t be a new thing to them. So, it was president because it was a presidential system of government. We wanted to maintain it so that there would be consistency in what we were trying to do. That’s why we came out with the concept of military president.
You said you were stepping aside while you were leaving office; why?
In the military, once you are on parade and the commander gives you a marching order, if he says left, it means left foot forward and if they discovered that instead of shooting left foot forward, you are shooting right foot forward, he will ask you to step aside because you are messing up the parade. And if you step aside, you give way so that others would pass. There was a lot of hue and cry that we were stepping wrongly. Everyone of you was thinking that ‘it’s this man who doesn’t want to leave office, it is this man who doesn’t want to bring back democracy.’ So I decided that if I was the one who was causing problem for everyone of you, I would step aside. This is exactly what happened. Once I stepped aside you had the Interim Government of Ernest Shonekan. We gave that administration six months to run so that they would be able to conduct an election. Again, the Nigerian populace said, ‘No, we are election wary, we are tired of election’ and so on and so forth. Abacha came in and took over, and instead of six months, he stayed for five years. Abdulsalami Abubakar came after Abacha’s demise. It just shows you how Nigerians are impatient.
Why did you leave Abacha behind when others were retired as you were stepping aside?
It was because he was part of us. People thought Abacha was deliberately left to push Shonekan aside for the continuation of military rule.
Is that true?
But I didn’t take over. Abacha remained there for five years. He had a programme for you. He organised a national conference and came out with a programme of about five political parties, out of which three or four endorsed him as their sole candidate for the presidential election.
To be honest with you, no. I remain grateful to God for keeping me alive to see how things are going. Are you happy with the way things are going in the country? We had made experiences available to you guys and sometimes to government, in form of advice.
What is your proudest moment in life – one or two things that when you remember, you thank God?
I commanded the Nigerian Army; that is one of the highpoints of my profession. Everyone of us wanted to be commanders. And I was able to achieve that before I became president. I think being the Chief of the Army Staff was my proudest moment, as well as what we did for the Army in terms of re-training, re-organising and making it a good fighting machine.
How long do you think the Chief of Army Staff, or Chief of Defence Staff should serve, especially during a war situation like this?
The system is there. When I became the Chief of Army Staff, I knew my term could have been four years, depending on the discretion of the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces at that time. He could ask me to continue.