Babangida, Ibrahim 1941–
Ibrahim Babangida 1941–
Nigerian president and military officer
Nigerian president Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida has often been described as a “spirited” man of action. On August 27, 1985, Babangida, then an army major general, took action against the previous military regime’s corruption and brutal political repression by seizing control of Nigeria in a bloodless coup d’etat which ousted Major General Mohammed Buhari from office. Babangida’s was the fifth coup in Nigeria, which has largely been ruled by military regimes since it became independent from Great Britain in 1960.
Instead of placing someone else at Nigeria’s helm as he had during past coups he was involved in, Babangida made himself president. He ruled the country with an iron fist, though he is generally perceived as being more benevolent than his predecessors. Babangida promised, as quoted in Time magazine in 1986, to conduct “an open administration that [was] responsive to the yearnings and aspirations of all the people.” He also pledged to eliminate corruption, solve the country’s serious economic problems, and hand over power to a democratically elected government by the end of 1992. By December of that year, however, it was announced that the transition to democracy had been postponed.
Babangida soon established a reputation as a clever politician. Early in his administration he made a startling move: he asked ordinary Nigerian citizens whether they thought their country should accept a multibillion dollar financial aid package from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to keep the economy afloat. When, as he expected, the Nigerian people nixed acceptance of the package because its stringent measures for reducing Nigeria’s debt would raise prices and lower their standard of living, Babangida suspended talks with the IMF in the spirit of his people. Then he offered Nigerians his own economic recovery program—which included many of the tough measures proposed by the IMF—and convinced Nigerians to accept it.
In 1986 Babangida instituted what has come to be known as Nigeria’s “Structural Adjustment Program” to foster self-reliant, long-term national economic growth. Its adjustments have included increasing farming production and government earnings; privatizing state-owned companies to lessen the financial burden on the government; reducing the country’s foreign debt and its reliance on money earned from exporting oil; and devaluating Nigeria’s currency to stimulate exports other than oil.
Born Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida, August 17,1941, in Minna, Niger State, Nigeria; son of Muhammadu (a Muslim teacher) and Aishatu Babangida; married Hajiya Maryam King; children: Muhammadu, Aminu (sons); Aishatu, Halimatu (daughters). Education: Graduated from Nigerian Military Training College, 1963; attended Indian Military Academy, 1964, Royal Armoured Center, England, 1966-67, U.S. Army Armor School, 1972; Command and Staff College, 1977, and Nigerian institute of Policy and Strategic Studies, 1979-80.
Career military officer; president of Nigeria, 1985—. Served as commanding officer during Nigeria’s civil war, 1968-70; taught at Nigerian Defense Academy, 1970-72; became lieutenant colonel, 1974; served as regimental commander of Nigerian Army, 1973-75, and as army’s armored corps commander, 1975-81; took part in army-instigated coup d’etat that ousted General Yakubu Gowon from office and installed Shehu Shagari, 1975; aborted a coup attempt singiehandedly, 1976; became director of army staff duties and plans, 1981; promoted to major general, 1983, and engineered a coup that ousted Shagari and installed the government of Major General Mohammed Buhari; appointed as chief of army staff by Buhari, 1984; served on the Supreme Military Council, 1984-85; ousted Buhari in a bloodless coup, 1985; assumed presidency and made himself commander-in-chief of Nigeria’s armed forces, August 27, 1985; instituted various political and economic reforms; drew up plan for nation’s return to democratic rule; allowed two political parties to be established for national elections; declared himself minister of defense, 1990.
Addresses: Home —Dodan Barracks, Lagos, Nigeria. Office —Office of the President, Lagos, Nigeria; or c/o The Nigerian Embassy, 2201 M St N.W., Washington, DC 20037.
The recovery program demonstrated that Babangida’s government tried harder to solve Nigeria’s economic problems than all of the country’s preceding governments combined. Though most individual Nigerians continued to experience financial hardship after Babangida took power, the nation as a whole made progress. Because of the program, Nigeria received loans from world banks and gained economic credibility among Westernized nations. On a personal level, Babangida earned the respect of many Nigerians for saving the nation from near economic collapse.
In preparation for the transition to democracy (which was originally scheduled for completion in 1992), Babangida created two official political parties. He also made provisions for the drafting of an American-style constitution and the taking of a census of the population for political representation. Nigeria hadn’t had a population census since the early 1960s because the redistribution of power among the nation’s 250 ethnic groups proved to be an explosive issue.
To his credit, Babangida managed to hold the loyalty of the Nigerian army after seizing power. In 1986 he told Time: “I do not think that the government is fragile. Most important of all is the backing the government enjoys from the people, and the loyalty of the preponderance of the military. I am not saying that there are not people who are disgruntled, but the loyalty of the armed forces is not in doubt.”
That same year Babangida had thirteen officers executed for plotting his overthrow, and in 1990 he successfully foiled a coup attempt by an ethnically dissatisfied army major who declared that he had “excised” five Muslim states in the north from the rest of Nigeria, raising fears of a partitioned nation. Nevertheless, Babangida has received the support of other colleagues for his charisma, self-control, ambition, intelligence, and his ability to make concessions when necessary.
Babangida is thought to possess a more broad-minded and Westernized outlook than Nigeria’s previous military leaders. He is an observant, moderate Muslim from the minority Nupe tribe, and his wife is a Roman Catholic of Ibo tribal descent. He was schooled at British and American military institutions. Unlike other Nigerian leaders, he has tried, though not always successfully, to distribute power in government more evenly among traditionally dominant Muslims and minority Christians who have been engaged in a long-term struggle to obtain it.
Babangida was born on August 17, 1941, in Minna, now the capital of Niger State, situated in the northern part of the country where the population is largely Muslim. His father, Muhammadu Babangida, a Muslim teacher, and his mother, Aishatu Babangida, were members of the Nupe tribe. Babangida grew up in the Nupe community and went to school near his home. In 1957 he began high school in the nearby city of Bida. While at school he reportedly met a persuasive army recruiting officer and decided to follow his advice and make the military his profession.
On graduating from high school in 1962, Babangida went straight into Nigeria’s Military Training College. Then, after spending time at a military academy in India, the Nigerian army sent him to study in England at the Royal Armoured Center. Babangida served as a commanding officer during Nigeria’s bloody civil war from 1968 to 1970—when the Christians in the South broke away from Nigeria and formed a separate nation called Biafra which later capitulated to federal troops. In a national speech he later called the conflict “the most painful national trauma... whose emotional scars will continue to haunt us for years to come.”
After the civil war Babangida concentrated on furthering his military career. By 1974, following studies at the Army Armor School in the United States, he had advanced through the ranks of the army to become lieutenant colonel. During the early seventies he became a company commander instructor at the Nigerian Defense Academy and by 1975 he was commanding Nigeria’s armored corps. Babangida attended the Nigerian Institute of Policy and Strategic Studies from 1979 to 1980 and attained the rank of major general in 1983. His advances apparently grew out of his reputation for toughness while on duty and his popularity among senior and junior members of the military establishment. Junior officers reportedly liked both the interest he took in them and his willingness to make concessions when appropriate.
Babangida’s career has been tied to Nigeria’s political and social tensions and mismanaged economy, both of which have made the country a fertile place for coups. During the 1970s Nigeria’s oil-dependent economy prospered from skyrocketing worldwide oil prices. But while the nation was earning revenues from exporting petroleum, unemployment was high and most Nigerians weren’t getting a penny from the profits. Dissatisfaction grew, coupled with resentment of the military regime. In 1975 Babangida used the discontent to his advantage: he and other powerful army officers deposed General Yakubu Gowon, who had seized control of the government in the late 1960s. The coup was the first of three in which Babangida participated. Ironically, Babangida’s expertise in handling coups came in handy a year later when, weaponless, he confronted a group of armed rebel soldiers in Nigeria’s capital city and talked them into surrendering to loyalist armed forces.
Babangida was behind another coup three years after oil prices dropped during 1981 and 1982, sending the Nigerian economy into a deep recession. The debt-ridden government of Shehu Shagari was blamed by scores of unpaid and laid-off workers, and it was generally believed that Babangida engineered the coup that overthrew the administration on the eve of 1984. With other top brass he pledged to rescue the sinking economy and to rid the government of those responsible for its collapse. To the apparent surprise of his followers, however, he did not claim Nigeria’s top post for himself; instead, he helped install a major general, Muhammadu Buhari, as the new head of state. Under Buhari, Babangida became the army’s chief of staff and a leading figure in Nigeria’s Supreme Military Council.
Unfortunately, Buhari’s corrupt and repressive policies alienated most of Nigeria’s people, particularly after the regime expelled hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants from neighboring states, imprisoned scores of Nigerian dissidents, censored the press, and strained relations between Nigeria and Britain.
Deeply dissatisfied with the state of affairs in Nigeria, Babangida and several backers deposed the inflexible leader in 1985 without a shot being fired. Later, after naming himself president, Babangida set about creating a more responsive and tolerant government than Buhari’s had been: he revoked a law that censored information critical of government, reviewed the cases of jailed dissidents, had outspoken journalists released from prison, and pledged to reform the brutal secret police. At the same time he placed his own military and police officers in the army’s ruling council. While his goal was openness, Babangida was all too aware of the pitfalls of staying in power in a country where popular leaders could be ousted virtually overnight.
In his first national speech Babangida proclaimed his “dedication to ensuring that [Nigeria] remains a united entity” and promised to end divisions between Nigeria’s religions, tribes, and regions. On the one hand, Babangida attempted to allot government posts fairly during his administration. He claims to have made political assignments solely on the basis of merit. On the other hand, his 1990 decision to reorganize his cabinet left his administration in Muslim hands and resulted in the resignation of the Christian minister of defense. The incident provoked cries of religious discrimination in some Christian communities.
Nigeria watchers and critics have argued that the military general held too tight a grip on the country’s political life and risked being overthrown. As 1992 drew to a close, it remained questionable whether Babangida would voluntarily relinquish power by the end of the year or be able to convince the military to become “subordinated to a constitutional authority.” When Babangida lifted the ban on political activity and some thirteen grassroots parties sprang up, his military government refused to recognize them because he believed they were headed by politicians from the former regime. The government would only recognize the two parties Babangida created.
The Economist’s correspondent in Lagos pointed to the contradictions and impracticality of “imposing ’grassroots democracy’ from above,” especially through two parties whose platforms were “hard to tell apart” and had “neither ideology nor shared interests to define them.” This policy, he suggested, left voters with little choice but to polarize around old tribal, religious, and regional issues which “threatened to revive” the country’s internal divisions.
In the spring of 1992 Nigeria’s religious and tribal tensions exploded again. Muslims fought Christians in the worst outbreak of riots in a decade; hundreds of people were killed or wounded. For a time it appeared as if the country was again heading for civil strife. Critics decried the government’s refusal to deal with alienated or dissenting groups and charged it with violating human rights. The head of the pro-democracy movement was arrested for accusing Babangida and the military of fomenting the strife to forestall the transition to democracy. The Economists Nigerian correspondent also suggested that because Babangida’s program for transition to democracy created more rather than less instability, the general might have to postpone civilian rule for three more years.
But Babangida forcibly restored order. “The present situation of urban and communal unrest provides the perfect rationale for the establishment of the national guard,” the general told the New York Times in May of 1992. At the same time, he added that the military would defend “with the last drop of our blood” his plan to return Nigeria to civilian rule, although the transition to democracy was not accomplished that year. In this way Babangida came to personify the paradox that is Nigeria—a country continuously vacillating between military regimes and attempts at democracy. Babangida has yet to prove he really wants the constitutional democratic system he has promised to the Nigerian people.
Babangida, Ibrahim, New Goals and a New Direction: Inaugural Speeches by President Babangida, Federal Ministry of Information, Domestic Publicity Division, 1985.
Graf, W. D., The Nigerian State: Political Economy, State, Class and Political System in the Post-Colonial Era, James Currey, 1988.
Jegede, Oluremi, compiler, Nigerian Legal Bibliography: A Classified List of Materials Related to Nigeria, Oceana, 1983.
Okadigbo, C, Power and Leadership in Nigeria, Fourth Dimension, 1988.
Current History, May 1989.
Economist, October 14,1989; March 17,1990; April 28, 1990; June 9, 1990.
Emerge, September 1992.
New York Times, August 11, 1988; May 23, 1992; May 26, 1992.
Time, September 9, 1985; February 17, 1986.
—Alison Carb Sussman
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