- On November 22, 1985, President Ibrahim Babangida spent 105 minutes with a Newswatch team of Dele Giwa, Ray Ekpu, Dan Agbese, Yakubu Mohammed and May Ellen Ezekiel. During the interview, he talked about himself, the parting of ways with Buhari and Idiagbon, the challenges facing his 100-day old government and his hope for the future. Below are the excerpts as compiled then by Dele Olojede:
Q: When did it occur to you that you can be the president?
IBB: On August 27, 1985. People still believe that I nursed a lot of ambition, but I don’t think it ever occurred to me before that time.
Q: How were you chosen as president?
IBB: The system was like all other coup d’etats: people who are going to get involved will tell you what is happening and what the intention (with regard to yourself) is. I went through it in 1975 when we were planning to change the government.
Q: Did the same process apply in 1983?
IBB: Yes, it did. We sat down and declared we were going to change the civilian government at the time and we also agreed that we were going to make Buhari the head of state. I told Buhari what was happening, that he was going to be the head of state and I would be the head of the army.
Q: Oh! You told him that you would be the head of the army?
IBB: I was mandated to tell him he was going to be the head of state because he is a very close friend.
Q: Was he reluctant: was he eager; was he happy?
IBB: Well, I think his reaction was natural. The moment somebody confronts you with a situation like this, you have to be talked to for quite some time and we did post that.
Q: Was he part of the coup planning?
IBB: He knew it was coming.
Q: In your own case, what was your reaction when you were approached by the coup planners?
IBB: I saw it as a challenge. Here you are in a situation where your professional colleagues unanimously agree that this is what they want you to do So I felt they had a lot of confidence in me as a person, and could it be fair really to say no? Perhaps I could if I wanted, but before that time, most of the officers who were involved had gone through a lot of psychological, emotional torture. As chief of army staff, I believed I had some responsibilities to the nation, and I so accepted.
Q: Did it occur to you that Buhari, being a close friend of yours, night feel you stabbed him in the back?
IBB: It is natural he might feel the way you expressed it, but I think the situation was such that there was no way we could allow that sort of situation to continue.
Q: At what point did you start disagreeing with Buhari? What were the serious issues of disagreement?
IBB: First of all, we had all accepted that whatever decisions we came upon were going to be collective, and I think to a certain extent, we succeeded. But as time rolled by, we had to disagree on a number of issues which were both of national and international interest. There were many concerted efforts to mend these areas, but there was the general opinion of insecurity and dissatisfaction even among the members of the SMC at the time. As the chief of army staff, quite a number of them who were my colleagues and even my juniors continued to come to me to talk about one thing or the other, I did quite a lot of talking to them, you know, just to make sure they were not seen to be opposed to the leader. But I think that could not continue for a long time – there had to be a breaking point. That point was the result of the cumulative effect of so many things that happened during that short period.
Q: When did you sense that this was setting in.
IBB: There was distrust. People would go to him and say, ‘be careful, that man is gunning for your post.’’ And when people create an environment of insecurity around you, you are bound to get suspicious and start pulling back.
Q: What engendered this feeling of insecurity among the officers and members of the SMC?
IBB: The NSO, for example, had made a lot of reports about individuals. There was also the feeling that everybody’s telephone was tapped.
Q: They tapped your phone too?
IBB: I can assure you they did. I even have the recordings. One of them was where my little daughter was talking. We have retrieved most of these tapes.
Q: What was your relationship with Idiagbon?
IBB: I think it was a cordial relationship. We have known each other for 17, 18 years, since we were young officers. We might disagree on a number of issues of principle, but not to the extent of being at each other’s throats.
Q: What about General Abacha’s statement that Commodore Ebitu Ukiwe cannot be the Number Two man in the administration?
IBB: Don’t forget that there is the political leadership. We have said that the armed forces are subordinate to the political leadership. Ukiwe now occupies a political position and he too respects the service chiefs because of the profession. The profession demands that a service chief is a superior officer, and therefore, he has to give that professional respect. The service chiefs are also expected to give him that political respect. Between 1976 and 1979, Shehu Yar’adua was the chief of staff, supreme headquarter. He was junior to General Danjuma, for example. He respected General Danjuma first as a senior officer and his service chief. General Danjuma also respected him as a number two man to General Obasanjo. If Yar’adua carried himself in excess of what should have been normal, he would have had a bit of problem. I would say Idiagbon was not able to blend the two together.
Q: You defended your minister of finance Kalu’s right to express personal opinions on the IMF loan debate. What is your personal view?
IBB: As a president or as a Nigerian?
Q: As a Nigerian citizen.
IBB: Well, both the president and the Nigerian and Nigerians, right? I would not deviate from my vow that whatever decision the AFRC is going to take will be guided by the majority opinion. But the important thing is that we should make it known to the nothing what options are open to us. I think the committee is trying to do that.
Q.Why did you open NSO cells to the public
IBB: Well, when I made my first pronouncement, I talked about the atrocity, call it the inhuman treatment, meted to people. To make the public see that we did not create any imaginary problem, we had to do it.
Q: The release of the young Dantata, who was held for alleged drug trafficking, has led to what people now call the sacred cow syndrome. What is the rationale?
IBB: How do you mean sacred cow?
Q: That he is from strong, wealthy family. That is why he was not prosecuted.
IBB: Let me tell you my position as far as this is concerned. Here is a case that doesn’t concern the presidency, because the others who were caught did not go through the presidency. The cases went through the normal process, so that I can see his case being treated that way. So apart from what one is reading in the papers and so on, why should his case attract the attention of the president? He is no more Nigerian than any other person convicted. But because of newspaper reports, maybe one should take some interest just to find out what happened. I spoke to the inspector-general of police about it, and I was told he was granted bail because the director of public prosecution said there was insufficient evidence to try him.
Q: Mr. President, was the issue of political detainees ever discussed in the defunct SMC?
IBB: Oh yes, we had a lot of discussions on this, almost daily, either in council or out of it. It is okay if somebody has committed an offence, but I think there is no moral reason to detain somebody for one year and eight months without preparing a formal charge against him. If there is a case and it is established, by all means the person should be tried and punished. If you can’t establish anything but you still suspect him, keep him under surveillance and ask him to report back regularly. I think it is wrong to believe that any Nigerian is potentially bad. I have heard people say the best way to deal with Nigerians is to apply repressive measures. I think it is a wrong concept. You cannot arrogate purity to yourself.
Q: A factor has emerged in the administration called the Langtang Mafia. How come you have in key positions such a large number of people from only one local government area?
IBB: It is a strange coincidence. It happened in the past, when people were talking of the Bida Mafia; at one time about five or six of us were from Bida holding key posts in the civilian and even in the military regime. I was chief of army staff, Mamman Vatsa was minister of Abuja, Brigadier Duba and Sani Sami were both governors and General Nasko was a member of the SMC and commander of artillery. Within the military, you always find a situation like that, but it is a passing thing. As it has happened, the minister of defence Domkat Bali comes from Langtang, so is the minister of internal affairs, John Shagaya, managing director of Nigerian Airways, Colonel Bamfa and the ambassador to the United Nations. The last two were there before the present government. And then, there is Brigadier Dogonyaro, an armoured officer. He is the next most senior armoured officer (after the president) and we just had to make him the GOC. So maybe by the time we all get phased out, there will be no more Langtang or Bida Mafia.
Q: What are your views on federal character and quota system?
IBB: Federal character is enshrined in our constitution and there is nothing we can do about it. Quota system had been a burning issue in the past, but I think that, given the academic attainment in the last few years, especially in states, one would consider disadvantaged, the gap is being bridged very fast. So, this aspect of quota, I think within a short time, everybody will be in the common pool to compete.
Q: There is the other Mafia, the Kaduna Mafia. People are saying they have been dislodged and they are unhappy.
IBB: Well, I have been trying to identify this mafia; I haven’t yet.
Q: When we did the report on your becoming President, we named them; only one denied being a member. So we assume that the others are members.
IBB: At one time, people thought I was a member. That’s why I say I’m trying to find out who the members are.
Q: On the appointment of ministers, what happened to Bauchi, Benue, Ondo and Kwara? The constitution mentioned at least one minister from each state.
IBB: The only way we could meet all the requirements is to do what the civilians did – create a minister for and minister of, so you end up with about 43 ministers. Given the present situation, we are unable to do that, so we thought that there are three principal organs of government – the National Council of Ministers, National Council of States and the Armed Forces Ruling Council. You will find that in the AFRC, we have representatives from Ondo State. If there is no minister from Benue, we have governors from there, and so on. Actually, only Bauchi is not represented in any of the three bodies, and we are trying to do something about it.
Q: But did you receive any threat from any quarter because you made a rather strong statement on internal subversion?
IBB: When I talked to the military officers, I tried to make them look inward. So I said we should shift emphasis from external aggression to internal security. Just before I said so, the police were addressing their minds to the religious riots in the country. These extremists don’t give any notice when they strike. Therefore, we have to be alert to deal with them with incisive military skill.
Q: On fundamental human rights, do you plan to abrogate Decree 2?
IBB: We did say we are looking at all the decrees with a view to abrogating or modifying them. The decree has been in existence. It was there 1975 through 1979. Such laws are in almost all countries of the world, including developed countries. What I think happened was that there was a general abuse of the decree, which contradicts the whole concept. When we had the decree between 1975 and 1979, it was used only once in the four years. I think it was the arbitrary use of the decree by the last regime that brought about real worries. It should not be used unless it is absolutely necessary – where the security of the state is being threatened.
Q: Is the president in favour of public officers declaring their assets publicly?
IBB: I think it is proper. I declared mine before a public notary. My religion says whatever God gives you, you should not hide it.
Q: What is happening to Shagari and Ekwueme?
IBB: We set up three panels to look into convictions under Decree 3 and another to look into the cases of people convicted under 7, 20 and 22, and yet another to examine the cases of political prisoners who are either on conditional release or are still being detained. Ekwueme and Shagari fall under this category. We have a high court judge in charge of that special investigation panel. Their findings would be the determining factor.
Q: What of Buhari and Idiagbon?
IBB: They are very well.
Q: Why are they being held?
IBB: It is for their personal security.
Q: What about Magoro?
IBB: He is fine. He was never arrested. He was retired with some colleagues of his.
Q: What is your attitude to privatization of public corporations?
IBB: We are giving very serious thought to it. Federal government investment in these corporations total N19 billion, and not one percent of that N19 billion comes back to government as revenue. Sooner or later, government has to make a decision, N19 billion is a lot of money.