Three things combine to make Dan Agbese’s Ibrahim Babangida: The Military, Politics and Power in Nigeria, such a compelling work of biography and history at the same time. First, there is the subject himself. Both a biographer’s joy and nightmare, Ibrahim Babangida, Nigeria’s former military president, is never easy to pigeonhole. He is a roundly contradictory figure. He’s simple, yet complicated. He’s at once a soldier’s soldier and a master politician far more adept at the game than even those who profess it for a living.

Babangida is open, gregarious, yet secretive. He’s as unpredictable in his very next move as he’s predictable in his warmth and gap-toothed smile. Babangida is generous and benevolent, yet he’s a ruthless dictator eager to crush the opposition to smithereens for the sake of power. He’s brave and daring (as when he confronted Lt. Col Buka Suka Dimka, the drunken, dangerously armed coup maker, bare-handed even as he threatened to shoot Babangida), yet he, Babangida, can also be as nervous as an old hen (as on the night before the coup that brought him to power). He’s also as vindictive against traitors as he’s protective of loyalists. Intellectually sound, unusually discerning, Babangida is, without a doubt, the most talented of all the leaders who had ruled Nigeria. Curiously, he allowed himself to make politically tragic decisions he knew could damn him and attract irreparable odium to his name.

Secondly, the timing of the biography couldn’t have been more perfect. Published some twenty years after its controversial subject had left power, when all the rage and the passionate anger and the fury over the annulment of the June 12 presidential election have subsided somewhat, the work, therefore, comes with the additional detachment and informed perspective which hindsight engenders.

Now the last but by no means least reason why this is such an irresistible work of biography comes in two parts. There is the author himself, Dan Agbese: a name synonymous with pellucid, dazzling prose and brilliant, insightful writing. And there is the sheer amount and quality of privileged material gathered, distilled, interpreted and put at the disposal of the reader by the writer in as unsentimental a fashion as befits a credible work of biography comparable to some of the best anywhere in the world.

Faced with a contradictory figure like that, it is not difficult to see how challenging the project must have been to the biographer. Mercifully for the reader, he eases the path to a clearer understanding of the subject’s character, style and thinking by plumbing the depths of his childhood and his formative years as a school boy as thoroughly as a neuro surgeon might map and dissect the anatomy of a patient’s brain. The effort pays off as the reader is handsomely rewarded with intimations of the future slippery militician.

Born in Minna, Nigeria, on August 17, 1941, Babangida was one of two surviving children, the other a girl named Hannatu, out of five children, between Muhammadu Badamasi and his wife, Aishatu. When both parents died after taking ill, young Ibrahim and his younger sister, were suddenly thrust into the care of Halima, their grandmother. Academically bright, young Babangida wanted to become an engineer. But if you want to make God laugh, tell Him your plans for tomorrow. A visit by Alhaji Ibrahim Tako, minister of state for defence, to the provincial secondary school, Bida, where Babangida was a student, was all it took to jettison his engineering ambition for a career in the military.

Accompanied to the school by some young military officers of northern extraction, including then Capt. Yakubu Gowon who would later become head of state, the minister had come to urge Babangida and his fellow young classmates to consider a career in the military. Once Babangida and more than a dozen of his classmates accepted the advice, the destiny of not only his life, but that of Nigeria as a country, would alter thence. There’s ample evidence in the book to conclude that Babangida was a good professional soldier who was very well liked and widely admired, like he had always been from childhood. But he was also covertly politically ambitious, with his sights set laser-like on seizing political power someday. This, then, is the crux of the matter.

Except for the Lt. Col. Dimka coup of February 13, 1976, which he was tapped by his superiors to quell, and the first one led by Major Kaduna Nzeogu ten years before that, Babangida participated in all the military coups in Nigeria, including the one that ferried him to power on August 27, 1985, when he toppled the government of General Muhammadu Buhari, who earlier had toppled the civilian government of President Shehu Shagari. Babangida ruled for eight years, and in that time transformed Nigeria into one huge laboratory for all manner of socio-political engineering process he called transition to civilian rule programme. During his reign also, Dele Giwa, a firebrand, redoubtable journalist and former editor-in-chief of Newswatch magazine, was brutally murdered with a parcel bomb in the comfort of his own home in a manner that bore the earmarks of assassination by the state. His government stymied all efforts to find and prosecute his killers. By the time Babangida left office August 27, 1993, the same day he had come to power eight years before, Nigeria was never the same again. Not only had he rattled the cage and shaken things up, he had also annulled a free and fair election believed to have been widely won by Bashorun M.K.O. Abiola, a billionaire politician from the southwest. Nigerians, especially those of southern origin, were enraged, and justifiably too. Babangida didn’t want to relinquish power to a southerner.

In a very revealing account, however, Agbese writes that Babangida would have annulled the election just the same had Alhaji Bashir Tofa, Abiola’s opponent on the NRC ticket won the election even though he was from the north. Agbese quotes Babangida as saying that “we also knew from our analysis that he (Tofa) was a much simpler person to be disqualified than Abiola. If Bashir (Tofa) had won that election, honestly, we would not have given it to him.” Agbese then comments: “That statement suggests that the Babangida administration made up its mind not to respect the decision of the Nigerian electorate, no matter who won the election.” Elsewhere in the book, Agbese makes the following prudent judgment: “June 12 became the sole determinant of power configuration in the country. It shifted political power from the north to the south in 1999.” Eventually.
It is axiomatic that strong personalities like Babangida and the forces that propel them do often affect the course of events and ultimately a nation’s destiny. More than any other Nigerian leader, Babangida has determined the course of Nigerian history, weal or woe, for the last thirty years, at the very minimum. The consequences of his actions, both intended and unintended, therefore, compel the reader to construct a binary argument. Yes, he has caused political power to go to the south, and yes, the country’s slide towards another civil war has been arrested by that shift. But if many Nigerians still overwhelmingly dismiss Babangida as a political villain who never should have happened in our polity, the question then arises: at what point could Babangida have been staved off?

Knowing Babangida as a master coup tactician and ambitious military politician, shouldn’t Buhari have read the tea leaves accurately by promptly retiring him? Going back, shouldn’t Shagari, who learnt of the impending coup by the two men against him, have had the courage and the good sense to retire the generals before they pulled the rug from under his feet? Or should not Dimka, after all, have carried out his threat (“Nka yi wasa. If you play wayo, I will kill you”) to shoot Babangida and spare Nigeiran future so much trouble? One can go on and on with questions like those, but alas, they’re all pointless Monday morning quarterbacking reserved for the contemplation of schoolmen.

The fact is, Babangida, a man who could command the intense loyalty of such an unscrupulously ambitious dictator like the late General Sani Abacha for eight years, clearly had to have been a historical juggernaut, one of those rare dynamic forces of nature who simply could not be stopped from hatching. A more-than-cursory look at his boyhood which the biographer has explored exhaustively, also glaringly reveals a subject who had a future date with destiny and who, when that date came, seized it and held it tight in his palm for eight years until the gods, implacably provoked by his ultimate act of recklessness, spat in his face.

The incredible master of a thousand political booby traps has since been out of power for twenty years now, rueful, one might hope, of the tragic errors of his ways. For, consider: had he respected the electoral wishes of his countrymen and women on June 12, 1993, he would have been circling the universe in triumph as an authentic African statesman and hero today.

For all writers of biography, Babangida is surely a complicated subject. And certainly for the readers of biography also, one must quickly add. In undertaking a difficult project such as Agbese has done, a writer could easily rake up Babangida’s many sins into one huge pile and crank out a devastatingly hostile biography, or line up behind prior writers with another hagiographic account, for that is a cottage industry these days. Babangida, after all, continues to have many at his throat and at his feet respectively. Neither of these Agbese has done. It is ethically beneath him. Instead, he tackles the Babangida mystique with a balanced, sort of unsentimental attitude that allows the reader to see both the strengths and weaknesses of the man even as he delivers a verdict of failure on the former president’s chief political programme. “The real loser in the June 12 debacle”, Agbese declares finally, “was Babangida. He lost the right to claim it as a triumph of his political engineering.”

Ibrahim Babangida is a serious definitive work of history. Future historians eager to look back on Babangida as a fundamental force in Nigerian political history, and on the high dramas and intrigues and shenanigans that went on in the aftermath of June 12, will reference this work endlessly.

In sum, this effort, definitely the most ambitious and challenging of all Agbese’s works so far, cements his reputation as a story teller of credibility and distinction. It was like reading the annals of Tacitus: the language, the rare insights, and the informed analysis of characters and events and motives, take your breath so away, you never want to stop burying your nose in the pages for a minute.