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It is good to have elders around. That is because they serve a purpose. The wise look out for them when they seem to be out of view. And to think Ibrahim Babangida thought he could hide the day he clocked seventy years on earth. If he can, then Nigeria can. An impossible thing by any standard. Trust Nigerians anyway. They trooped to the mansion of the man they fondly call IBB on the hills of Minna in Niger State. That shows how much IBB is part of the nation, a part of Nigerians.

Ibrahim Badamosi Babangida (IBB) had his birthday bash on August 17th, 2011. Well, he didn’t really want the celebration to go the big way it did on that day. Some of the personalities that attended were bangers, so they caused an explosion of the celebration, and they had big words for IBB, even. Some of are quotable quotes. “He is a factor; he has always been a factor, and to some he will always be a factor.” That was from Femi Fani Kayode, a former Minister of the Federal Republic. IBB is a factor. If Fani-Kayode was not right on that, no one would be. What he said requires some dissecting at this time when the former president has arrived the age that undeniably qualifies him as an elder.

Here is a man that is older than Nigeria, not as old as the Nigerian army, but he is older than the first military coup of 1966, that coup that changed the face of the country and brought it to this point. The claim hangs somewhere out there that IBB has been part of every successful coup in the country. He held important positions throughout his military career, and he was the Chief of Army Staff and a member of the Supreme Military Council under the administration of Major General Muhammadu Buhari (1983-1985) until he overthrew his boss. He arrived power, smiling, almost a boyish grin, in the same month he clocked one more year with a military coup that relied on mid-level officers that he had silently and strategically positioned. He embarked on the most encompassing economic and political re-engineering the nation has ever witnessed thereafter.

He tried to gather support for austerity measures to reposition the economy based on the recommendations of the IMF and the World Bank. He launched "Structural Adjustment Program" (SAP) in 1986 which entailed the deregulation of the agricultural sector by abolishing marketing boards and the elimination of price controls, the privatization of public enterprises, the devaluation of the Naira to aid the competitiveness of the export sector, and the relaxation of restraints on foreign investment that had been put in place in the 1970s. Observers would point out that between 1986 and 1988 when these policies were executed as intended by the IMF, the Nigerian economy actually grew and that the export sector especially performed well. On the other hand, the falling real wages in the public sector and amongst the urban classes, along with a drastic reduction in expenditure on public services set off waves of rioting and other manifestations of discontent. This made it difficult to sustain commitment to SAP and IBB’s administration returned to an inflationary economic policy and partially reversed the deregulatory initiatives that had been set in motion during the heyday of SAP. In the event, economic growth slowed, as capital flight resumed apace under the influence of negative real interest rates.

Though IBB’s government was a military one, it was consultative and also severally threw state matters to public debate notable of which were the proposed IMF loan which was discarded due to public rejection. His administration established Peoples Bank of Nigeria - National Directorate for employment - Road Safety Commission - National Directorate for Food Roads and Rural Infrastructure - Better Life for Rural Women - The National Economic Reconstruction Fund. Yet that administration was not bereft of controversies, jingles of which continue to resonate till today.

His administration upgraded Nigeria's role in the Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC, now the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation), from a mere observer status to full-fledged membership. After denials, the military president set up a panel to determine Nigeria's status in the OIC. When the panel confirmed membership, it recommendation the nation’s withdrawal from the body. And notable among what is labeled serious human rights abuses during his tenure was the submission of the Justice Oputa Panel in its report that, "On General Ibrahim Babangida, we are of the view that there is evidence to suggest that he and the two security chiefs, Brigadier General Halilu Akilu and Col. A. K. Togun are accountable for the death of Dele Giwa by letter bomb. The Panel recommended “that this case be re-opened for further investigation in the public interest."

And there was the botched transition to civilian rule programme that was a road to the current republic. IBB had legalized the formation of political parties in 1989, conducted a census in 1991, and held elections in 1993. It was the election that led to his stepping aside from power the same year. No real politicking would take place real until late in 1998 when IBB showed up at Olusegun Obasanjo’s home in Ogun state and announced that the former military head of state still had a role to play in Nigeria. The man he positioned for power later emerged the democratically elected president in 1999. By 2007 when Obasanjo was ready to leave, IBB himself wanted to step back to where he had stepped aside. He caused ripples then, as he did again in 2010. Lately, news hunters asked him if he would want to step back into the presidential mansion when the next election comes in 2015. He said he would be too old by then, and that he preferred to be an elder statesman. That is where many Nigerian will prefer he is.

Ibrahim Badamosi Babangida is a man many Nigerians love and hate at the same time. He was enough of a Maradona while in power, and a man imbued with charisma for many to remember him with fondness and to also hate him with a passion. In between, some wonder how anyone can command so much loyalty as IBB does, and why some insisted “ON IBB WE STAND” as it was the case both in 2007 and 2010. It is because in spite of what may be said of his administration, IBB is a man that touched many at very individual, very personal level. There are cases of impromptu acts of kindness that have turned around the lives of many Nigerians for the better. Some among the personalities that showed up at his house in Minna on August 17 belong to that category.

However, the furor his efforts to contest the 2007 and 2011 presidential elections generated also says something; it is an indication of where some other Nigerians would prefer he stays. What is sure is that many Nigerians do not mind IBB’s presence in the political space, if only he would help guide, help stabilize the nation’s politics. That is what elders do. They guide the younger ones. And though several question marks hang on IBB’s administration unanswered, his positive contribution to the growth of the nation’s democracy so far, and his continued contribution maybe where the sun of the nation’s history will smile on him. And it is in that particular area he will always remain a factor, as he has always been for the better part of the nation’s independent years.

Tunji Ajibade is a Communications Consultant. [email protected]

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