Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Is Obama romancing Babangida?

Written by Okey Ndibe

Last Wednesday, February 10, the Barack Obama administration made a move that’s likely to hurt its credibility among Nigerians. Johnnie Carson, the United States Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, and Robin Sanders, the US Ambassador to Nigeria, traveled to Minna to confer with former Nigerian dictator, Ibrahim Babangida, at his hilltop mansion.

That visit was, I suggest, a serious diplomatic gaffe – and one unworthy of the Obama administration.

That neither the American diplomats nor Babangida disclosed the subject of the meeting compounded the gravity of the misstep. For one, it raised speculation that the US government wanted to signal its tacit support for Babangida’s run for the presidency in next year’s elections. At the very least, the parley suggested that Obama’s team regards the retired general as an instrument for solving Nigeria’s myriad, and deep, political crises.

Either goal represents a serious lapse in judgment on the part of the Obama administration.

It would appear that Babangida covets the Nigerian presidency. Four years ago, he and his cohorts orchestrated what was tagged Project 007, implying that the former military head of state considered himself a shoo-in as President Olusegun Obasanjo’s successor. Nigerians, for understandable reasons, were disquieted by the prospect of another IBB presidency. Many heaved a sigh of relief when Obasanjo, for reasons hard to fathom, foiled Babangida’s ambition.

There’s no question: Babangida is one of the most enigmatic figures to have emerged in Nigerian politics. I have always found the man intriguing, but in a sad, even tragic sort of way. In 1986, on the first anniversary of the man’s rule, I wrote a column in the (now defunct) African Guardian in which I likened Babangida’s political style to the dribbling wizardry of Argentine soccer star Diego Maradona. That name, Maradona, stuck on Babangida and has become one of his more famous monikers. Evil genius, I understand, is a tag Babangida adopted. My argument, in baptizing IBB with Maradona in 1986, was that, while the soccer player dribbles in order to create scoring opportunities, Babangida dribbled as an end in itself. There was little or no sense of purpose to his statecraft.

In 1993, Babangida lost power in one of his costly, purposeless gambles. His annulment of the June 12 election, an act of supreme perfidy, precipitated his own political downfall. In characteristic fashion, he euphemized his fall from power as a decision to “step aside.”

Babangida introduced a structural adjustment program (SAP). The economy policy, as the propaganda went, was meant to endow Nigerians with the benefits of a free market economy. When Nigerians complained that the ostensible gains were elusive, Babangida counseled patience. But he and his cohorts were far from willing to be patient. As SAP sapped Nigeria’s poor and widened the blanket of misery, Babangida and his closest friends acquired mansions, private jets, and fat bank accounts. When he was done, IBB boasted a 50-room mansion and dizzying wealth.

Such a man has no business seeking to return to his country’s seat of power. Some of his acolytes have said that Babangida’s mission is to correct the mistakes he made the first time. Remediation is a nice concept, but he need not become president to make amends.

One hopes that the Obama who went to Accra and spoke eloquently about Nigeria’s leadership crisis has not permitted himself to be led into the contradiction of prescribing IBB as the answer. Or even as a factor in finding the answer to Nigeria’s quagmire.

Obama must guard against the Bill Clinton error. Even though former President Clinton is popular in Nigeria, many Nigerians are still appalled by his bizarre statement, in the heydays of Sani Abacha’s self-succession plan, that the US was open to recognizing the bespectacled dictator if he won an election. That statement came at a time when any neophyte knew that Abacha didn’t plan to hold a credible election.

In making such a public show of coddling Babangida, the Obama administration risked being perceived as wishing to forestall the ongoing mobilization of a progressive force to serve as a viable alternative to the grubby, visionless elements who have steered Nigeria to perilous waters.

If Washington doesn’t want to see a cataclysm befall Nigeria, with horrible consequences for Nigerians and the international community, then it must rethink its seeming courtship of the Babangidas of Nigeria. 

Okey Ndibe's email contact is: