- Category: Jideofor Adibe
- Published on Friday, 09 April 2010 06:22
- Written by Jideofor Adibe
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Former military president General Ibrahim Babangida is reportedly consulting widely on whether to join the 2011 presidential race. Speaking in Abeokuta on April 1, 2010, as chairman of Governor Gbenga Daniel’s birthday lecture series, Babangida was said to have recommended ‘true federalism’ as the recipe for the country’s intractable political problems.
The Vanguard (online) of 1 April 2011 further quoted him as saying: “Some people have tagged me an advocate of confederalism. True federalism is the issue for this country. We have lived together for 50 years and there are issues that must be addressed.”
There are several observations about Babangida’s recommendation of ‘true federalism’, and his putative presidential ambition:
One, federalism as a political system in which sovereignty is constitutionally divided between a central governing authority and the constituent units (states, local governments or provinces), rests not only on the federating units having enough political autonomy to preserve their local peculiarities but also sufficient financial autarky to ensure that their independence is not compromised. The current 36-state system for instance clearly undermines the principle behind the adoption of federalism in the country because with the possible exception of Lagos and the old Kano state, virtually all the states in the country are dependent on allocations from the federal government for their economic survival. This means that starting from the creation of the 12-state structure by Gowon in 1967, Nigeria has been a unitary state in a federal clothing – a matter which was not helped by military rule and its associated centralised command structure of rule. Though Babangida’s prescription of ‘true federalism’ could be a panacea for many of the country’s problems, its effectuation would involve a number of very tough decisions, including re-organising the current 36 state structure into about six to make each unit financially viable and reduce the cost of government. Does Babangida have what it takes to enforce such a tough but very necessary action?
Two, despite his shortcomings and army of very vocal critics, Babangida remains one of the very few Nigerians who feel truly comfortable in the company of other Nigerians, irrespective of their ethnic origin or religion. In a fractious and polarised country, where an increasing number of citizens are challenging the basis and viability of the Nigeria project, individuals who enjoy legitimacy from across the main fault lines, will be looked upon by many, including foreign friends of the country, to play a leading role in preventing the country from falling over the precipice.
In addition to transcending ethnic and religious divide, no leader has perhaps humanised power or retained personal followership outside of office, more than the gap-toothed General. Some 17 years after he stepped aside from power, you still find influential individuals from all over the country who proudly call themselves ‘Babangida boys’. It is simplistic to believe that all his loyalists are people who benefitted materially from him when he was in power. A friend, who is now late, once told me of his encounter with Babangida when the latter was the Head of State. The friend was in the VIP lounge at the Murtala Mohammed airport when suddenly Babangida had to pass by to go and board a flight. On sighting him, Babangida left his security details, walked up to him, called him by his name, shook his hands, and asked about his elder brother. In a country where every penny whistle wants to be called a trumpet and political leaders take it as an insult if you fail to treat them as deities, gestures like that often win people’s hearts. In this respect, Babangida could be said to be one of the few Nigerian leaders whose humanity was not destroyed by the trappings of power, and this could well be the basis of his appeal to many people. It was said that even as Head of State Babangida still remembered to call or send birthday cards to his friends. If you have had a friend who became even a Local Government councillor or came into sudden wealth, you will better appreciate what power or money is capable of doing to otherwise good people, or how difficult it is for most people to manage success.
Three, while Babangida’s personal qualities will guarantee him substantial support from across the country’s main fault lines, they are likely to become an albatross when it comes to restructuring the country for ‘true federalism’. Restructuring the country for true federalism would involve taking on the powerful political class – governors, senators, ministers and other political gladiators and wannabes who are likely to fight to preserve their privileges. With Babangida’s reputation for cherishing friendship and not wanting to hurt the feelings of his friends, it is doubtful if he will be able to take such a tough action that will be hugely unpopular with his political associates. In contrast to Obasanjo or Buhari who are very decisive with a single-minded devotion to any cause they believe in, Babangida seems to rely on cunning to achieve his objectives. As military president for instance, his strategy was a combination of co-optation (‘settlement’), going on a charm offensive and allying with different groups to achieve a particular objective and then moving out of the alliance as quickly as the goal was achieved.
Four, though Buhari has the requisite toughness and decisiveness necessary to restructure the country, he lacks the acceptance that Babangida enjoys from across the ethnic and religious divides. As Head of State for instance, Buhari committed a mortal sin of constituting a Supreme Military Council of 19, with 12 of these coming from the North, and 11 of them being Muslims. He also chose as his deputy, Tunde Idiagbon, a fellow Northerner and Muslim. This lack of sensitivity to the country’s main fault lines means that he remains deeply distrusted in the South and by non-Muslims. In fact even before he was overthrown in 1985, his regime was openly derided in the South as either ‘the military wing of the NPN’ or ‘the armed faction of the Kaduna mafia’. He is therefore unlikely to be a viable presidential candidate on any party platform or a unifying factor in this moment in our political evolution. Chief Obafemi Awolowo committed the same grievous error in 1979 when he chose Philip Umeadi, a Christian Igbo, to be his running mate. If reports that Buhari is set to choose Tinubu, a fellow Muslim, as his running mate, is true, then it becomes questionable how much he understands the sensibility of the country he once led and aspires to lead again. Though Abiola won with a Muslim-Muslim ticket, I remain unconvinced that the regime would have been a success if the mandate was actualised, given the depth of the religious chasm in the country.
Five, it will be almost impossible to find an ideal leader for Nigeria in 2011– someone who will combine the best attributes of Obasanjo, Buhari, and Babangida with Nuhu Ribadu’s passion for the job. The ideal leader, just like the ideal man or woman, is perfectly academic. In the end we will have to settle for a leader, who, like the rest of us, is not perfect, but who hopefully possesses some abilities to make a difference. Babangida may not possess all the qualities needed in our president at this historical moment, but he certainly possesses some critical ones. The crucial question for me is whether his personal qualities will facilitate or militate against his own definition of the primary task at hand, which is restructuring the country for ‘true federalism’.