Gen. Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida(retd.), who attained the age of 75 today in his characteristic way of marking his birthday, had a session with members of the Correspondent Chapel of the Nigeria Union of Journalists, Minna, Niger State where he answered questions on prominent issues that marked his life in public service. He among other issues spoke on how he nearly experienced plane crash, the Nigeria Civil war, how he met and married his late wife. Excerpts:
You have been a military officer and a Head of State, which one was more challenging?
Being a military officer was more challenging than being a military President. As a military officer, you are leading men into danger, your life and their lives very much depend on you as the Commander. I see it as more challenging than being the President. As a military President, you still have to seek people’s advice, you interact, you discuss based on the prevailing situation you find yourself but being the military officer and you are the only one with the troops you are commanding. Their hopes are on you and if you read a situation wrongly, you will put everyone in danger. If they have faith in you, they will also protect you so I consider the military as more challenging than the political leadership.
You experienced the civil war. What experience can you describe as your toughest experience which perhaps resulted in a close shave?
I think it was the movement from Enugu to Umuahia. It was very tough and challenging. You need to be physically fit to be able to undertake such thing because we were moving on our feet and we had to go through the jungle, mountains, hills and others. It was the toughest experience I ever had but I succeeded and that was where I got my leg injury in August, 1969. Since the demise of your wife, how has life been and how have you been coping? It has not been easy but I thank God that I have children who show remarkable understanding and have been doing their best by trying to do what their mother had been doing. I also have a lot of grandchildren and they take most of my time.
How do you feel at 75?
I feel old because what I was able to do 25 years ago, I am not able to do it physically now but I thank God for sparing my life to attain this age. What advice do you have for the younger generation? I only have one advice for them and it is for them to play hard and pray hard. Despite the prevailing security situation globally especially in Nigeria, many young ones are still interested in joining the Army.
What advice do you have for them?
The basic elements still remain the same till now despite what we are going through. We joined the army for the purpose of being in the force to protect this country and that haven’t changed. They also have to submit themselves to a constituted authority and they will have to undertake tasks or jobs assigned to them by the government and they should be expected to serve in any situation that they may be called upon to serve such as assignments that involve the Economic Community of West African States,ECOWAS, African Union,AU, or the United Nations, UN, among others. The army is a noble profession and it is a profession that requires a lot of courage. You said recently that you would be giving advice to leaders and the younger generations. How does it feel doing that now as an elder statesman? I feel good because you are not at the receiving end again. Based on one’s experience of the past, one can now be able to offer advice because you might have come across a similar situation during your time.
Looking back, which of the policies of your time do you wish was never misinterpreted?
I am not the evil that quite a lot of people consider me to be. I had a very excellent background and by training, we have to love one another. However, I can understand their feeling. But by virtue of the job I was doing, I was bound to be misconstrued and people will take it like that but I consider it as an opinion as long as I am not what you think I was, I feel satisfied. I read somewhere some time ago that they said I stole N12.8 billion and I said if I stole such amount, I had no business staying in the country but those are the type of things that one has to live with. I hope the younger generation will carry out a research about leadership, people, individual and what role they played in the development of the nation and come up with a different conclusion from what is on the ground now.
How do you feel when death rumours started flying around about when you are still alive?
It is not new, they have done it to Zik, Shehu Shagari and other statesmen, and it is not new. Whether I like it or not, I will still die, they are only stating the obvious. The only thing we do not know about death is that we don’t know the cause, time or the place. Regarding why some people describe me as a cat with nine lives, it may be because of my survival of some disasters which looked like miracles. The first time I had such experience was in Lagos when we had a flight from one of the African countries back to Lagos and suddenly our engine developed a fault and from 29,000 feet, we came down to 15,000 but the good boys were able to control the plane. We eventually touched down at the Murtala Muhammed International Airport. The other engine just went off. My entourage before the sudden drop were drinking tea and coffee and shouting but when they heard about the development, there was silence as nobody was talking again. Even when I tried to cheer them up, I failed in the bid and that was the first time somebody described me as a cat with nine lives.
What would you do differently if you had another chance, either in your public or private life?
During my public life, there were a number of decisions we took as a military officer or as a political leader or ‘’when I was a dictator.’’ (Prolonged laughter). If I have the chance again, I would have done it differently. For example, in 1989, we proposed that the National Assembly should be on part-time basis but the decision was not upheld. I still believe that if I had the opportunity, I would make the National Assembly part time. I believe in that very strongly, it was all in an effort to cut down the cost of governance.
When you were young, you must have been very handsome. Also, looking at the photographs of your wife she was also beautiful. How did you win her heart or was it love at first sight?
While I was delivering the manifesto (proposal), there was one aspect she didn’t believe because she didn’t believe I was serious because of my reputation as a “play boy” (prolonged laughter). But I assured her that there was not going to be a problem because I was a changed person. Indeed, I had no problem solidifying the relationship because I knew her and I knew everyone in her family.
How did you ask her to marry you?
I was straight to the point. I told her bluntly that I wanted to marry her and that was all.
Was joining the Army the only option you had?
When I was young, my principal wanted me to go into administration. I personally wanted to go for engineering. Then politics came, the Minister for Army at that time, one Tanko Galadima from Bida came on a recruitment drive to my school, he wanted people from this part of the country to enlist into the Nigeria army because there weren’t many of them at that time. Then he asked how many of us were interested and a lot of hands went up thinking it was a joke, our names were taken and within a week, enlistment forms into the army were brought.We sat for the exam, we deliberately decided to pass the examination because we didn’t want people to say we failed so we passed the examination, interview, medical test and aptitude test. We decided to go into the army because we had a strong backer in the Minister in charge of the army.