Many people greeted the coming to power of General Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida on the 27th day of August, 1985 with wild joy and jubilation, not the least because they were happy to be rid of Buhari’s draconian regime. The coup plotters were the same characters (of which General Sani Abacha remained a constant denominator) who organized the putsch that brought Buhari into power, so except for a few changes at the top, the same people remained in power.
I wasn’t particularly interested in the turn of events, but since most people around me appeared to be happy with the coup, which thankfully was bloodless, I simply enjoyed the situation with them, as Babangida to many at the time looked like the saviour, come to deliver Nigerians from the sadist, Buhari (and his sadistic government) who within the short space of time as Head of State had turned from Hero to Zero. Nigerians weren’t really ready to be rushed into doing right by force, it appeared.
Babangida jumped right into gaining favour with the masses by swiftly releasing political prisoners and prisoners of conscience incarcerated by the Buhari-Idiagbon regime. It looked for once like his regime though military, will have some human face attached to it. In his maiden address, he spoke loftily about how he intended to restore Nigeria to its pride of place in the comity of nations. Nigerians began to feel that he would be the messiah, especially as Nigeria was been treated with a long spoon by international partners as a pariah. The United Kingdom wasn’t happy with the Buhari government over the attempt to deport the former minister of transport in the second republic, (the now late) Alhaji Umaru Diko; an international construction firm which had had its contract to build an intracity railway within Lagos (the then capital of Nigeria) terminated, had sued the Nigerian government for breach of contract, which they eventually won with Nigeria paying off huge sums to the company, while others simply stayed away were some of the issues Nigeria had to contend with while the Buhari regime lasted.
Hardly had Babangida’s regime settled than it appeared that there was an attempt to topple it, for in December just/barely four months into power, more than a hundred army, naval and airforce officers were arrested on the charge of treason for plotting a coup. At the head of the alleged plot was Major General Mamman Jiya Vatsa, who though consistently maintained his innocence to the end, couldn’t be extricated for allegedly funding the coup, even though he denied knowledge of what the military officer to whom he gave an agric loan intended to use the money for. Interestingly, Vatsa was not just Babangida’s friend but his classmate. They practically grew up together and the possibility that they may have been rivals at one point or the other shouldn’t be difficult to glean, infact some commentators have alluded to the fact that this rivalry may have been behind Babangida’s refusal to yield to calls for clemency for his friend and other alleged coup plotters. After many days of poring through evidence presented at the tribunal, a sentence of death by firing squad was passed on some of the coup plotters, many others got jail terms (according to their level of involvement), while a large number were acquitted, many of which were later dismissed from service unceremoniously. The dismissals will be the first of many purges (including, as many believe, military plane crashes that had seasoned military personnel on board) under the regime of General Babangida that will eventually rob Nigeria’s military of some of her best. This coup as well as another, including phantom coups in this administration and the ones to follow eventually led to a situation where the military was robbed of its ability to make war, and defend the nation’s territorial integrity effectively in years to come, as there was less than optimum investment in military hardware especially in the Navy and Airforce.
The sentence of death for coup plotters will be the first of it’s kind in Nigeria, as it would’ve been justified had they actually carried out the coup. The precedence was to sentence coup plotters to long jail terms (with or without hard labour), on the charge of treasonable felony. It was upon this premise that pressure, local and international was put on the military hierarchy the Armed Forces Ruling Council, AFRC to commute the sentences. At home, Vatsa’s immediate constituency besides the army, authors came to plead on his behalf, for Vatsa was a POET besides been an author of repute and it took the most notable members of the group, Nigeria’s literary triad- Wole Soyinka, Chinua Achebe and John Pepper Clarke (they were a quartet when Christopher Okigbo who died fighting for Biafran independence was alive), to physically present themselves at Dodan Barracks (the military government’s Seat Of Power at the time) in Lagos to plead on behalf of their friend and colleague, to which Babangida promised he’d do all he could to see Vatsa walk free. Though Babangida could claim it was decided at the council to have the alleged coup plotters executed, not a few felt that he could’ve influenced that decision if he truly wanted, especially for the sake of friendship, and most importantly considering that Vatsa’s crime appeared to be that of just forwarding an agric loan to another officer without having knowledge of what the officer intended to use the loans for, and didn’t attend any of the meetings where issues concerning the coup were discussed. Babangida could also have seen and read between the lines to figure that his friend, nay rival may just have been after the position he occupied seeing that they have both coveted same positions from their early days as classmates amongst others, and therefore did nothing to halt or affect the course of history that was set to end prematurely the life of his friend, and that of other fine officers of the Nigerian army, for a crime they had only concieved but not yet executed. So, someday in March 1986, despite pleas and mounting pressure, Vatsa and his co-accused were executed by firing squad.
What goodwill Babangida had before this time suffered, though it couldn’t be said that it was much, as many felt that it was a military affair and such fate as that met by Vatsa is the sad reality for a coup when it goes bad. One character trait that became established and would linger with the regime was Babangida’s cunning, which will later assume legendary status for which he will then come to be known as MARADONA. Soyinka and his peers who had gone to plead for Vatsa’s life learned firsthand, while Nigerians learnt much later.
The acid test came with the International Monetary Fund, IMF loan which Babangida had promised Nigerians to consult widely before accepting, under stringent conditions, which as with loans that come to developing countries hit the already impoverished masses heavily. Before, Nigerians could say “IMF”, the loan was already signed, sealed and delivered without any input from the butcher in the market, the bus conductor or the seamstress on the streets. The economy was in a bad shape, even before the coup that toppled the Shagari civilian regime, the government had set out to implement belt-tightening measures which unfortunately impacted negatively on the lean purses of the masses while the politicians’ was bursting at the seams. The Buhari regime further enmeshed Nigeria into a mess economically as foreign partners viewed the regime as a pariah. The loan which Babangida wanted to ask of the IMF had the political side effect of restoring Nigeria back to the comity of nations from where it had been isolated during the Buhari regime, something many Nigerians had no qualms about save for the fear the impact procuring the loan will have on their lives with examples gleaned from countries that have careered through that path. It was this much that stoked the flame of opposition from the people to the procurement of the facility. The Structural Adjustment Programme, SAP that procuring the loan birthed led to the devaluation of the Naira (Nigeria’s currency) and further impoverished Nigerians already reeling from the effect of Shagari’s belt-tightening AUSTERITY measures, which the Buhari regime did nothing within its short stint in power to alleviate.
It was in the same manner that Nigerians woke up one morning to learn that they’ve now become a member of the Organization of Islamic Countries, OIC even though a government representative had been sent to be present at a meeting of the organization in observer status, but just like the opposition and sabre rattling that met with the IMF loan issue, the noise by Christians in Nigeria spearheaded by the Christian Association of Nigeria petered down after a while with no step taken to reverse the largely unpopular (atleast among Christians who make up about a half of the Nigerian population) act of government. For many Nigerians, if there remained any doubt about the dictatorial tendencies of the Babangida regime which had taken off with a human face, and sought to play governance like it would carry everyone along, or at most do things in the best interest of the people, even when the same people would oppose it, that delusion was all but wiped out at this point. His adoption of the title “military President” much later into his regime did not by any means set him apart from the dictators before him in terms of been less coercive in implementing his policies, economic and political, infact it turned out to be part of the devious cards he played to keep himself in power in perpetuity.
I must introduce at this point, no less a personality in the affairs of the running of the state than General Babangida’s wife, Maryam. Before her time wives of Heads of State in Nigeria were hardly seen, talk more heard, but she changed all that. Rumours had it that she’d left a musician husband, Bongos Ikwue (who did the soundtrack to the popular soap on Nigerian TV in the late seventies and early eighties, “COCK CROW AT DAWN”) to marry a young military officer who later became Head of State, though Mr. Bongos many years later dispelled the rumours stating that the song which many relate to as referring to that situation wasn’t directed at her, and that there was no basis to that story. Maryam Babangida was dark and beautiful, she was set in the image of an Eve who could have her way with any man under her spell, especially with no less a person than her husband (visible is the fact that her home town of Asaba was made the capital of Delta State created by her husband from the former Bendel State), and she appeared to have played her cards right, for she remained visible till the twilight years of her husband’s reign. The Argentines had seen Eva Peron, the Americans many first ladies, but Maryam was Nigeria’s first, and she stood out, in such a way that none of those after her had done till date. She appeared to truly care about the plight of rural women for which she set up the “BETTER LIFE FOR RURAL WOMEN” project in September of 1986, which had branches nationwide with the wives of state governors (military administrators in the real sense of it) as chairpersons of the organizations in the states. This template has been in use by many first ladies after her, with intentions of each becoming less sincere as time went by and the firstladyship changed hands, even getting to the point where an incumbent (Patience Jonathan, whose husband was former vice president) was taken to court by her predecessor (Turai Yar’Adua, whose husband died in office) for having the effrontery to choose the same choice location as she had intended for her own pet project before tragedy struck, and cost her her lofty position by reason of her husband’s demise.
So while Babangida was working on the one side, his wife on the other hand was building up goodwill for him by her activities. Babangida, now slipped into sloganeering introducing programmes and agencies that will take the message of government to the grassroots, while placing eminent personalities to run the agencies (like the Federal Road Safety Commission, FRSC headed by the Nobel Laureate, Professor Wole Soyinka, the People’s Bank of Nigeria, by no less an incorruptible persona as the educationist and social critic, Mr. Tai Solarin though attempts were made to dent his image) most times to give credibility to his government. The Mass Mobilization for Self Reliance, Social Justice and Economic Recovery, MAMSER which was set up on the 25th of July, 1987 was one of such headed by Professor Jerry Gana who many Nigerians came to see to be perpetually in government (military and civilian) and nicknamed him “AGIP”, Any Government In Power. Ken Saro Wiwa (who would later be executed on trumped up charges under another militray regime) was one of the directors. Once this propaganda machinery was put in place, there was then no going back on the conquering of the hearts and minds of Nigerians in Babangida’s grand scheme(s), for which he will later become known as the “EVIL GENIUS”, but before all of this, something happened in October, 1986 of which there’d been no precedence, and that showed a not too savoury part of the administration, especially to those who attempted to cross paths with it.