Former Head of State, General Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida (retd), remains a different personality to different people. While his tenure lasted, the military president always smarted from one controversy to the other. Just two days to his 80th birthday, he spoke in an impromptu interview with Blueprint at his Hilltop Residence in Minna, Niger state, Sunday, on a range of issues, including resource control, security and corruption among others. CLEM OLUWOLE, ABDULRAHMAN A. ABDULRAUF and AIDELOJE OJO report.
More than any other regime in the history of Nigeria, your administration, it could be argued, intelligently assembled some of the best brains in charting a way forward to develop the nation. Would you say we are putting our best brains to use today as a nation?
Yeah, I think you need to do more search. There are a lot of good brains in the country. You search for them; look for them… they are there.
Are we really making use of our best brains as things are today?
You introduce politics into some of these issues and that makes it difficult. When I say politics, I do not mean whether they belong to All Progressives Congress (APC) or Peoples Democratic Party (PDP). I mean you bring in some other extraneous factors. But we could do better.
One of the decisions of your regime to ensure a secured nation was the establishment of the National Guard. However, the concept was heavily criticized from inception. Looking back today, what would the situation have been if the outfit were in place considering the nation’s current security challenges?
May be we could have not found ourselves in the present situation as far as security is concerned if you people had allowed us to implement the National Guard concept.
At that time, they were even said to have occupied the Sambisa forest. How true?
…Yes, they went in there and carried out a reconnaissance of the place and so on and so forth.
So, when we said that you were being futuristic then, would you agree with us?
Not only futuristic but also because of the fact that I belong to the profession of violence, meaning I was in the military. So I could put up an idea of what we might need in the future.
You played a major role in the setting up of ECOMOG, an interventional military group to ensure peace in West Africa. Looking back today, how fulfilled are you in this regard?
I will say yes, you all were well aware of the situations at that time in Liberia and subsequently in Sierra Leone. These two countries were more or less torn apart and this is within our neighbourhood of Economic Community of West Africa States (ECOWAS). If we had allowed it, or looked at it without intervention, may be a lot of other West African countries would have been in trouble in their respective countries. It was in order to stop that happening, spreading into the region that we had to intervene. It is good that Nigeria played a very leading role in trying to settle the region and give it stability.
Your Excellency sir, it would be recalled that you set up a political bureau at that time which came out with a two-party system. The argument then was that there was a sort of restriction in terms of options people had. Today we have two leading political parties along with other ‘mushroom’ political parties. What would you suggest as a kind of solution to this seeming challenge we have politically?
I think it is good that you were old enough to remember that there was a political bureau set up and were able to produce before Nigerians all the problems about governance in the country. So, we itemised about 30 subjects that Nigeria should look into. Things like restructuring that everybody is talking about now. In the report, it was talking about devolution of powers, establishment of political parties, whether to call Nigeria a socialist country or whatever it is. There were about 30 items. The reports were based on very sound arguments. On political parties, they recommended Socialist Republic of Nigeria or something like that. We didn’t want that, we preferred what is happening now, free economy we wanted, free democratic association and so on. And don’t forget that at that time the world was changing. You can remember, I am sure you were old enough to remember when the then Soviet Union was beginning to go, Glasnost, Perestroika and so on and so forth. All it is either economic management or political. Nigeria would not be left alone, we belong to the comity of nations. Whatever that was happening, people were seeing and people were also agitating for these things. So we were not left out and we would not want to be caught pants down, we needed to join the process of what was happening in the world.
Presently in some quarters, people are agitating for people of a particular age bracket as the nation’s president come 2023. This takes us back to your era when you introduced concept of new breed politicians. But against the backdrop of your recent interview where you said people of over 60 years should take charge as president of this country, does this not contradict your earlier position on new breed politicians?
When we introduced new breed concept, it is about 38 years now. Even those who are new breed at that time are now old breed. So it is an ongoing situation. And what I said, and you media misquoted me to say that I said Atiku and Tinubu should not contest. I never mentioned anybody. I just tried to talk about what I thought we should be looking for. My take is that once you achieved that age of about 60, in the sixties, you must have been a public servant, a private person and a professional; somebody who has been there. So you must have acquired a lot of experience over a period of years that would prepare you to take on a higher responsibility for the country. That is all. I am not saying it to rule out anybody in the country.
As an elder statesman and a major national figure, your position on resource control appeared to shock some people, especially from this part (north) of the country….
…Yes. I know and I said it in my interview that if I talk of resource control, somebody will put a knife and cut my neck because they don’t believe in it. But I said it is a very simple thing. People who produce the resources should be able to make them benefit from whatever it is or that area should be able to pay royalties to the federal government. In fact, the federal government will even be richer if states that are oil producers are paying their royalties to the federal government. That is all simple common sense thing that I thought we should start talking about. You have organisations that pay a lot of taxes to federal government more than what we are even getting under normal circumstances.
There is no doubt that corruption has become a major problem in the country. Several measures have been put in place. What in your view is the way out of this menace?
I think that we talked about that. Corruption, you have to fight it from the beginning, from the source. For example, we the military, we thought if you decentralise governance, it is a sure way of getting rid of certain corrupt aspects of our way of life. You do not have to give somebody a bribe in the bank to allow you get foreign exchange. We liberalised it, we said you can go and get it without any hindrances by establishing bureau de change and all others. Then, we gave you another example of where the ordinary man is being cheated, about commodity boards and the rest of them. In existence then, you have to pay to get your cocoa rated as Grade A or groundnut rated as Grade B. So, you stop all those controls, people feel that they can do it themselves, they don’t have to wait for somebody in government. So, they have to do a lot of mobilisation and tried to make people understand and this is part of the job that (MAMSER) was doing in those days. Yet, you had everything in your own hands that would substantially add value. And the people should also know that we can get this, I do not have to go and bribe to obtain a license or anything and so on and so forth. So, it requires the people to understand and it requires us as government to put lot of other institutions in place that would facilitate these aspects of our national life in the country.
What is your take on creation of state police?
What I said in the past was that in those days we had Yandoka during the First Republic. Old people would say the ruling political parties are going to use them against their opponents, so kill it. However, you cannot sit down in the last 50 years still thinking about what happened to you 50 years back. You must have grown, become wiser, more informed and enlightened, and you must have developed politically. So, these are the things. Okay, who would ever believe Nigerians on their own, could resist whenever they are going to be stifled by a government when the media is being stifled. It happened not long ago. It is the Nigerians that fought against it because they are informed, they see the need for unfettered press that could rise, propagate philosophies not propagate succession of the country and so on because those are settled issues.