(Tomorrow, 17th August, former President Ibrahim Babangida, turns 79. In keeping with my annual tradition, I dedicate this page as a tribute to him and an acknowledgment of an aspect of his robust legacy in the service of our nation.)
On the morning of 12th December, 1991 (12-12-91), President Ibrahim Babangida and a contingent of administration kingpins and presidential aides departed the Murtala Mohammed Airport, Lagos, for Abuja. It was the final official presidential flight out of Lagos as the nation’s capital. The presidential party was aboard a Nigeria Airways Boeing 737 passenger plane. This aircraft was now functioning as the presidential jet. The official customized Boeing 727 jet, acquired by the Shehu Shagari government, had been security compromised in the abortive Gideon Orkar -led coup of April 22, 1990. On this symbolic flight the presidential aircraft was escorted by a ceremonial formation of Nigeria Air Force Alpha fighter jets.
In a short symbolic but emotional farewell ceremony in Dodan Barracks in Lagos before the flight, Babangida captured the essence of the movement of the nation’s capital from Lagos to Abuja: ’the movement to Abuja is a sign of hope, a dream come true… and a momentous phase in our determination to build a nation’.
On arrival in Abuja, the modest presidential motorcade headed for the newly completed Aso Rock Presidential Villa. Babangida had initiated the Aso Rock Villa project after abandoning the ongoing State House in central Abuja for security reasons. On this occasion, the President was welcomed by a small party of colourful horse mounted guards. He then inspected a slim guard of honour mounted by the Brigade of Guards in full ceremonial gear. At a short commissioning ceremony, the president dedicated the new complex as the permanent seat of government to the eternal service of the Nigerian nation. He declared that the complex was deliberately set against the backgdrop of the majestic granite landmark of the Aso Rock which was to become the name of the Villa. This was intended as an eternal tribute to and symbol of ‘the permanence and indestructibility of our nation’.
As he has repeatedly insisted, Babangida was one leader whose eyes were consistently fixated on the verdict of history. Therefore, the symbolism of this brief event has immense significance. It bore all the markings of the essential Babangida leadership: a consistent preoccupation with lasting legacies, a sense of historical permanence, a touch of imperial grandeur, an enduring vision of national greatness and, ultimately, a quest for a grand strategy for achieving national greatness.
For Babangida, these attributes were not a mere patchwork of fleeting military showmanship. He set out to fill a conspicuous void in the nation’s leadership culture, namely, the
embarrassing absence of a compelling big vision and a grand strategy for nation building. For good and hardly for ill, Babangida’s legacy in this regard is in the articulation and rigorous pursuit of big dreams for Nigeria.
The combination of grand vision and grand strategy is the rare tool that distinguishes great nations from the common run of nation states. For every nation, a grand vision implies the adoption of a national big dream passed down from generation to generation. Nations propelled by such big dreams are capable of achieving feats that far outstrip their geographical size or their human and material resources. It is perhaps a combination of grand vision and great greed that could have equipped the small nation of Britain to pursue the idea of ‘Rule Britannia’ which emboldened it to conquer and colonize expansive stretches of the world as far afield as India, Nigeria, Australia, New Zealand, Palestine, East Africa and the Falklands.
The United States of America, a large country founded on a philosophy of greatness as the bastion of freedom and democracy which was destined by God to lead the world in pursuit of happiness and global power. The street mobs who beheaded Louis XVI and stormed the Bastille in 1789 France armed the successor republic of the French Revolution with the grand vision captured by the mantra of ‘freedom, equality and egalitarianism.’ That vision and its pursuit fired the subsequent ambiguous exploits of the French republic.
I doubt that our founding fathers ever rose above petty peer group bickering over regional and ethnic supremacy to articulate a coherent grand vision for the future Nigerian republic. Perhaps this is one reason why successive Nigerian leadership has been mired in endless searches for some propelling vision (Vision 2010; Vision 2020!!).
A grand strategy is what translates a grand vision into the lived realities of a nation. It is perhaps in the Babangida administration that we approach the rudiments of a coupling of a grand vision with some governmental grand strategy for national greatness in the history of Nigerian politics and leadership. It is in that context that we can situate this recollection of the relevant highpoints of the Babangida administration (1985-93).
Foreign policy is usually not the favorite turf of transient military dictatorships. Their sense of mission is usually defined by a certain tentative brevity and quest for domestic political legitimacy and international acceptability. As military president, however, Babangida served early notice that he would be different. His grand vision of Nigeria could only be identified by a bolder more assertive and even more powerful Nigeria. With the Kissingerian Prof. Bolaji Akinyemi as foreign Minister, the Babangida administration pursued the kind of bold and activist foreign policy that befits an ambitious power.
The eruption of bloody anarchy and nasty civil war first in Liberia and later in Sierra Leone threatened the regional security of West Africa. Nigeria’s economic interest was directly at stake not only as a guarantor power of the ECOWAS initiative and a stabilizing influence in the sub region. Nigerian lives were also endangered in Liberia and needed to be saved urgently. Babangida saw these dislocations as a challenge to Nigeria’s strategic pre-eminence in the sub region. Therefore, he deployed Nigeria’s diplomatic clout to cobble together a regional coalition of ECOWAS states to back direct military intervention in the two civil wars. For the first time, ECOWAS acquired the military teeth to back up its diplomatic consensus. Of course only Nigeria possessed the military muscle to intervene meaningfully in these conflicts.
In August 1990, contingents of the Nigerian army arrived Monrovia to commence the ECOMOG operation. The Nigerian force was supported by a small Ghanaian contingent, which was allowed to provide the first force Commander of ECOMOG ,General Arnold Quainoo. He was to be succeeded by an unbroken chain of Nigerian force commanders.
The birth and deployment of ECOMOG was easily the boldest external military exploit by Nigeria since independence. It clearly indicated that Nigeria was both capable and ready to project its power outwards in pursuit of a clear foreign policy and national interest objective. Very few observers have noted the subtle domestic impetus that fired the ECOMOG project. Having survived a bloody civil war itself, Nigeria wanted to be seen as an effective force against a repeat of that experience in its immediate neighborhood. The pursuit of democracy and stability in the region could only be achieved in a peaceful environment, I suspect that the Babangida administration needed the distraction of that external foray to take off some of the political heat of its turbulent political transition project at home. In every way, the initiative indicated a new activism and sense of greatness which emboldened Nigerians as a citizens of an emerging great regional force for good in Africa at least. After a protracted slew of military and diplomatic effort, Nigeria’s intervention was the critical element in neutralizing the rebel forces in both Liberia and Sierra Leone, thus paving the way for permanent peace and the restoration of elective democracy in both countries.
The Babangida administration never shied away from placing Nigeria in the forefront of African and global diplomatic competition and leadership. The administration boldly supported and sponsored Nigerian citizens for leadership of two major world bodies. General Olusegun Obasanjo vied for the Africa slot for the United Nations Secretary General position. In support of Obasanjo’s bid, the Babangida administration committed the combined energy of Nigeria’s diplomatic apparatus around the world. Although Obasanjo lost the bid to Egypt’s Boutrous Ghali, the point had been made that Nigeria was ready for world leadership.
On the 18th of October, 1989, Emeka Anyaoku of Nigeria was elected Secretary General of the Commonwelath at a meeting of heads of government in Kuala Lumpur. The success of that bid was a credit to the diplomatic savvy of Nigeria’s external relations machinery and marked a triumphant moment for the Babangida administration.
In the light of the experience of the ECOMOG operations in Liberia and Sierra Leone, the cost implications of external projection of power dawned on Nigeria. But Babangida’s impulse to position Nigeria as a major regional power in Africa was not diminished. The follow up efforts were however more of exercises in projection of soft power. The initiative of the Technical Aid Corps(TAC), founded in 1987 and modeled after the American Peace Corps of the 1960s provided Nigerian trained manpower to place their skills at the disposal of fellow third world countries spanning outwards from the African Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) countries. Under the programme, Nigerian graduates and professionals were posted as far afield as the Fiji Islands, Botswana, Equitorial Guinea, Trinidad and Tobago, Jamaica etc. The Corps is still alive today. The national dividend has been a combination of soft influence, broader experience for the individual participants as well as employment prospects for them in the countries where they serve.
Similar soft power initiatives took the form of the Concert of Medium Powers initiated by Bolaji Akinyemi as Foreign Minister and the conscious shift to Economic Diplomacy under General Ike Nwachukwu. The former was a Nigerian initiative designed to project Nigeria as a regional power in Africa and international affairs. The original membership of the Concert included countries like Algeria, Argentina, Venezuela, Yugoslavia, Austria, Zimbabwe, Brazil, India, Egypt, India and Indonesia, Malaysia, Mexico, Senegal etc. The aims of the initiative included provision of a forum for international action to cater for the interests of rising powers of the world as a bulwark against the dominance of world affairs by the pre-eminent powers of the Cold War.
The rationale for the shift to Economic Diplomacy was simply to underline the need to tie Nigeria’s external exertions to our national economic interests. Previously, Nigeria had expended huge resources to support major diplomatic initiatives like the anti Apartheid and liberation struggles in Southern Africa without tying such support to Nigeria’s economic interests. The new foreign policy direction meant that Nigeria’s economic interests were now tied to future diplomatic and foreign policy exertions requiring the commitment of Nigeria’s resources. To actualize this new orientation, subsequent Nigerian delegations to places of strategic interest now included Nigerian business and industry leaders and economic experts.
The release of Nelson Mandela from 27 years imprisonment on 11th February, 1990 and the rapid progress towards a multiracial democratic South Africa was a tribute to Nigeria’s long standing support to the anti apartheid struggle. Not surprisingly, Nigeria was one of the first countries to be visited by a free Mandela. This symbolic victory for Nigeria’s foreign policy was quickly followed by other bold leadership strides in Nigeria’s diplomacy. Nigeria was among the first African countries to establish diplomatic relations with a free South Africa and to resume diplomatic relations with Israel after a protracted break in protest over the Palestinian question. Other African countries were to follow Nigeria’s lead. Under the Babangida administration, Nigeria provided robust and proactive regional diplomatic and foreign relations leadership.
Babangida’s grand vision and its enabling strategy was by no means limited to the pursuit of an activist foreign policy. In the domestic sphere, Babangida was obsessed with the establishment of a robust institutional framework for nation building. In the entire history of post colonial Nigeria to date, the Babangida administration is on record for establishing the highest number of national institutions and inaugurating the largest number of reforms most of which have endured to the present. It is a wide gamut of regulatory bodies and instruments designed perhaps to govern the affairs of the country as an open market economy and a popular democratic republic. Some of the highlight included: Corporate Affairs Commission -CAC(1990), National Communications Commission-NCC(1992), National Deposit Insurance Corporation-NDIC(1988), National Broadcasting Commission-NBC(1992), Technical Committee on Privatization and Commercialization(TCPC) which became the BPE-(1988).
Accordingly, the Nigeria Police was reorganized into the present zonal commands while the architecture of national intelligence and security was reorganized from the former National Security Organization(NSO) to the present three branch structure of the State Security Service(SSS), National Intelligence Agency(NIA) and Defence Intelligence Agency(DIA). The Federal Road Safety Corps (FRSC) came into being in February, 1988.
Yet by far the most consequential institutional landmark of the Babangida administration was perhaps the far reaching attempt to institutionalize a mandatory two-party political system for the country. The birth of the Social Democratic Party(SDP) and the National Republic Convention(NRC) was the height of idealistic institutional engineering. The two parties with their manifestoes, emblems, identical party offices and suggestive ideological underpinnings were mechanical distillations from Nigerian history and past political experience. Although these parties addressed the inherent problem of sectional partisanship and divisive politics, they were not organic but rather synthetic. Yet they produced the most transparent and fair elections in Nigeria’s political history to date. The current prevalence of two major parties in our political system would seem to vindicate Babangida’s vision. But the parties were dismantled by the untidy progression of national history.
A grand vision and a mostly intellectual grand strategy in a complex country was a risky combination. Yet Babangida remained undaunted in his commitment to his nationalist and visionary ideals. He even had an idealistic notion of the type of leader that should succeed him as, hopefully, the last military leader of Nigeria.
On 27th July, 1992, at the International Conference Center, Abuja, Ibrahim Babangida delivered what could be considered his valedictory address. He was addressing the inaugural session of the newly elected National Assembly. On this occasion, he waxed philosophical by prescribing an ideal leadership type for the nation he was about to hand over to civilian rule: “I submit for your consideration…the concept of a visionary realist as a prescriptive model of leadership…This model stresses the ability for effective implementation of vision rather than one that wallows in demagogic appeal. This model also calls for the leader who should consider himself as part and parcel of the social/political order rather than a figure situated above (it)…”
As he turns 79 tomorrow, perhaps General Ibrahim Babangida can look back at his times at the helm and conclude in his own words: “we have done our best in our own humble and modest way”.