Okey Ndibe wonders why Obasanjo is defending Babangida's corruption
It appears settled that whenever the conversation turns on Ibrahim Babangida, President Olusegun Obasanjo puts on blinders and earplugs, willing neither to see truth nor utter reason. Last week, during the G8 summit in Gleneagles, Scotland, some British lawmakers asked Mr. Obasanjo why former Nigerian dictator Ibrahim Babangida had not been probed for corruption. The president's answer was bewildering. There were, said Obasanjo, "speculations and rumors on allegations of wrongdoings in coffee shops and market places, not one of those allegations has been substantiated."
That response must have done enormous damage to this presidency's fervid campaign to secure substantial, if not total, debt forgiveness for Nigeria. It revealed a president who is menaced by principles, a man who prates of honesty and accountability but cannot find his left hand from his right when the central unresolved question of Nigerian corruption is raised. It is tragic, truly tragic.
Sadly, it was not the first time the president would bristle and exhibit such churlishness when confronted with allegations that Babangida pocketed stupendous sums of public funds. A few years ago, while visiting the U.S., Mr. Obasanjo had challenged Nigerians in possession of "concrete proof" of the former military ruler's graft to forward it to Aso Rock. Then, and only then, said the president, would he crack the whip against Babangida.
I am pretty certain that if Obasanjo were not president and had heard somebody else express similar sentiments, he would have found the statement intolerable and preposterous. One can even picture him displaying catatonic rage, fuming at such weak, untenable argument. It is time, Nigerians should insist, for their president to abandon his effete effort to rehabilitate Mr. Babangida by default. If Obasanjo is convinced that the man who ruled Nigeria from 1985 to 1992 was an embodiment of probity and selfless service, let him bravely so pronounce.
But I am not going to be holding my breath. In fact, my guess is that we won't be hearing such proclamation from Mr. Obasanjo any time soon. He simply can't muster the courage to say something that the whole world would recognise as farcical. It suffices for his purposes, I suspect, to hide behind the canard that nothing is proven against Babangida. Absolutely unmindful of the devastation to his (to begin with) shaky credentials as an anti-graft crusader, he treads the meretricious track of defending an indefensible case by touting the deficiency or absence of proof.
Are there factors, perhaps unknown to the public, dictating the president's recourse to hair-splitting legalese on the issue of Babangida and corruption? Most Nigerians hold firm to the perception that Babangida's regime deified corruption, raising the plunder of national assets to unprecedented levels. It is this consensus, at once intuitive and documented, that President Obasanjo presumes to assault, and to do so at every turn with withering, fulsome contempt. In dismissing Babangida's accusers as denizens of "coffee shops and market places," the president was making a calculated sally. Not only was he disesteeming IBB's Nigerian critics, he was also, in the same breath, jeering at Babangida's foreign antagonists.
Being no fool, Obasanjo, I suggest, cannot possibly take himself seriously with regard to his statements on Babangida. He must know more, infinitely more than he lets on, about the odour of graft that pervaded Babangida's regime. In Obasanjo's posture of cluelessness, we witness an interesting case of a president in the grips of amnesia, a wilful brand of forgetfulness. Nigerians possessed of historical memory should not let their president easily forget that he was, before 1999, one of Babangida's fiercest, most intrepid critics. On one occasion, Mr. Obasanjo used the word "fraud" to characterise the government of the man whose image he now zealously protects. Obasanjo it was who condemned Babangida's policy of economic liberalisation, charging that it was bereft of "a human face." It was Obasanjo, let us not forget, who once scolded Babangida for seeking self-perpetuation in office, pithily asking whether the retired General had forgotten anything in Aso Rock.
What accounts, then, for this volte face, this belated, bizarre, futile and inelegant attempt to burnish Babangida's image, to whitewash a man whose reputation, in the view of most Nigerians, deserves its odium and opprobium? Left to Obasanjo, the argument would be that a man need not be prosecuted, much less persecuted, without solid, unimpeachable evidence of malefeasance. But this argument is shaky, indeed corrupt at its core. President Obasanjo has hounded the late Sani Abacha and his surviving family, and, I dare say, rightly so. How did he get the tomes on Abacha's stolen billions? Did Abacha, from beyond the grave, fax documents to Aso Rock detailing proof of his gluttony and legendary kleptomania? Where, pray, did the president garner proof that Abacha and his family dipped grasping fingers again and again, egregiously, into the nation's funds? It takes no clairvoyance to guess that the evidence was not wired by people high on caffeine, basking in the smoky atmosphere of coffee shops, or from hagglers in Nigeria's many market places.
How best for Mr. Obasanjo to gather proof of Babangida's alleged corruption? First, let us underline how not to go about it. The president must jettison the habit of asking the habitues of "coffee shops and market places" to do this job. In case the president no longer remembered, Nigerians and the international community should remind him that he has competent intelligence apparati at his behest. All he need do is charge a complement of intelligence officers from the State Security Service (SSS) and the Directorate of Military Intelligence (DMI) to get cracking on the task.
There is an even shorter route the president might ply, if he chooses. There is a report written by the late Pius Okigbo, a man of impeccable integrity, questioning the accounting for billions of dollars in oil revenues that accrued to Nigeria as a consequence of a spike in demand and prices during the first Gulf War. If he hasn't done so, the president should read that report, or at the very least call for an executive summary of its pertinent findings. There is also the report of the Oputa Commission on Human Rights Violations, a panel commissioned by Mr. Obasanjo. Interestingly, the president told his audience in Scotland how General Babangida had used the courts to scuttle the report's publication. One assumes that the president has read it. Certainly, many Nigerian and foreign frequenters of coffee shops and market places have looked at it, thanks to the accessibility and reach of the Internet. Those conversant with the report's unflattering indictment of Babangida are aghast whenever they hear Obasanjo wondering where the "proof" was against Babangida.
There is, besides, anecdotal evidence, something the president is welcome to mock all he wants but which, in some cases, embodies persuasive power. Neither Babangida nor Obasanjo has ever denied that the former's abode is a massive mansion, rumored to have fifty rooms, and perched on a hill in Minna. Nobody has officially pooh poohed the story that the ex-dictator owns a plosh private jet. Now, if Babangida ever won a huge lottery, it is news to Nigerians. If he received a stupendous bequest from some benefactor, then he and his handlers forgot to spread the news. Nor have Nigerians been informed that military officers who shot their way to power were paid millions of dollars in salaries, enough to afford Babangida's expensive accoutrements and sybaritic lifestyle. Therefore, Nigerians take leave to believe, on the evidence at least of things seen (to say nothing of unseen bank accounts), that the ex-ruler (to put it subtly) has questions to answer.
Is there, in President Obasanjo's indirect defence of Babangida, perhaps a case of the jitters? Is it possible that the current administration perceives itself as lacking the moral authority to take on the self-declared evil genius? True, during Babangida's era, Dele Giwa's body was minced up by a letter bomb. But with the unsolved deaths of Bola Ige, S.K. Dikibo and Harry Marshall, among others, on its docket, how is this government to accuse IBB? With the incoherent waffle that passes for this government's war on corruption, is it possible that Babangida has compiled his own dossier, ready to trade accusation for accusation, to match exposure for sordid exposure?