THE SUN-———Former president, Ibrahim Babangida has expressed confidence in the calibre of Nigerians chosen to serve in the Muhammadu Buhari cabinet.
In an exclusive chat with Sunday Sun at his Minna Hilltop mansion, Babangida was asked to assess the Buhari ministerial nominees and whether they would live up to the expectations of Nigerians. His response: “I believe they can and I think they will.”
The former president, however, advised that once the ministers got into office, Nigerians must appreciate them and offer the necessary support to make them succeed. The presidency, he added, “must also be there for them.”
Babangida also reminisced on how he chose the eminent Nigerians who served in his government.
The president may be long out of power, but the visit to his hilltop mansion in Minna, Niger State belies the fact that he quit power in 1993.
Babangida opens up
…On Buhari’s ministers, Boko Haram
As you come in through the first checkpoint made of two heavy iron bars to break the speed of cars somewhere down the road leading to the mansion, and, manned by two policemen, you are asked to park your car in a space provided for that purpose on the left side of the outer layout of the mansion. Having done that, you walk your way to the big main gate, using either the concrete sidewalks or the wide lonely tarred entrance road, about quarter of a kilometer long. While you are on it, you could see, on your right, scores of cows grazing leisurely under some trees, and a big ostrich standing nearby and looking at you as if it is surprised to see you among the crowd of visitors trooping to the place.
As you move a little further uphill on the road, you could see rows of high-rise buildings, some two, some three-storey structures, dotting the landscape. They are separated from the tarred road by a high fence that succeeds in hiding only their lower parts from view while exposing the upper parts. A construction crane up in the air shows that there is a building work going on somewhere in that side of the sprawling compound sitting on many hectares of land.
Whether you are a first-time or regular visitor, you must stop at the reception by the entrance gate to register your presence, to properly identify yourself and to answer a few questions as to whether you are there on appointment or not. If you are not, you might as well be dismissed at that point. But if you are, a telephone call put through to someone inside, most times IBB’s Personal Assistant, Captain Abdullahi Jalingo, is all that is needed to confirm your claims. If he is expecting you, then you may need to wait for some 20 to 30 minutes, under the trees at the main gate before you are ushered in.
As you come into the mansion built in the traditional domestic architecture of the Arab world but with a super-modern intricate touch, it opens its two massive arms or wings containing some Arabic inscriptions, to welcome you. Built by Julius Berger, on both sides of the wings are rows of rooms, offices, guest rooms, etc.
A visitor to the place once told a funny story of how Maryam Babangida, while alive, phoned one of the security men and pleaded with him to help her find IBB after she had searched and searched and searched and could not locate him in the maze of corridors in the mansion. Don’t laugh. You can get lost in the place. The outer circular layout, lined up with fruit trees and flower plants, bestows on the mansion some enchanting ambience. Parked under the trees and flower plants on the left side are cars of various makes belonging to members of the family. But you do not walk straight on to the big gate leading into the main building painted in light yellow colour. Instead you follow the walkway by your right to get to Captain Jalingo’s office.
To get through to him, you have to pass through an electronic security checkpoint manned by a military policewoman, one Okezuo C, on the day that you and Akin Alofetekun, The Sun correspondent in Minna, visited. Beyond that point are what seemed like endless waiting rooms. All these are located on the left wing of the imposing mansion that looks like what one of these buildings you find in Dubai or Saudi Arabia. A closer resemblance to it, architecturally, here in Nigeria is the National Assembly dome.
What IBB thinks about Buhari’s ministerial nominees
How he chose his cabinet
Following persistent appeals and pressures on his PA, Captain Abdullahi Jalingo, you and Akin Alofetekun were ushered into one of the waiting rooms on the left wing of the mansion, if you are approaching the door that leads into it from the outer ring-shaped court of the massive compound.
Some minutes after we sat down, an acquaintance who knew Akin very well, on learning about our mission advised us to leave that place and go and position ourselves in another inner chamber festooned with birthday souvenirs, mementoes for Babangida, artworks and sculptural pieces on him and his wife, so that we can quickly see him before he retires for the day. We quickly dashed out of the waiting room, with Akin leading the way. On noticing that every visitor standing around that vicinity were without their footwear on, you instinctively removed yours.
Go tell it on the mountain, over the hills and everywhere! IBB has got for himself a new press secretary! While in power, it used to be Duro Onabule, the man he still calls “Double Chief.” He was to ask after him from you while you were there, as to whether he still writes for The Sun as a columnist. But if you want to know the name of his new ‘Press Secretary’ it is Mohammed Babangida, his first son. Not only is he in charge of El Amin International School, Minna, the elite private school founded and owned by his late mother, Maryam Babangida, he doubles as “Press Secretary” to his father as Master Bullfrog, that catches the stick the bad boys (read Press) might want to throw. On the day you visited, one of his sons was busy running a ring around him and playing away on his electronic skating toy as he was busy, welcoming visitors who wanted to see his father.
He half-listens and looks your way as Captain Jalingo whispers something into his ear about your presence while you stand there and wait. Afterwards, he approaches you and asks why you want to see his father. He follows it up by asking whether you are there on booked appointment. Taken aback by the questions, after what you thought was already a done deal, you mumbled something about wanting to have a little interview with IBB and followed up by saying that knowing his father to be media-friendly you are sure he would gladly oblige you.
“He is not in a good mood now for interview,” Mohammed said firmly. “In fact, this is not a good time for him to grant an interview. You have to come back another day.” Your body suddenly developed goose pimples. You came all the way from Lagos, you told him. How can you now go back to your editor with an excuse of “no story, the man refused to talk”? Or, “his aides shielded him away from you.” Ok. if full-fledged interview is not possible, could he allow you to just say hello to his father? Maybe in the course of that, you could chip in one or two questions, you suggested.
He looked at your face, thought about your request and, suddenly changed his mind. ‘Ok, I will allow you guys in to say hello to him but please, no interview,” he said. “No interview,” he repeated as if you did not hear him the first time.
You were busy debating in your mind which of the questions to ask first from the lot you’d prepared when you were suddenly ushered into his presence. Dressed in shining white Babaringa with a cap to match and slightly leaning on a crutch on the right side of his arms, IBB flashed his trademark toothy smile at us as he quickly recognized Akin Alofetekun, whom he had, obviously, known before now and jokingly addressed him as “Chief” before turning quizzically to you. A short introduction from Akin and he threw his head back a little, “Ah, Chika, I think I do read you from time to time.”
There were many questions that you wanted to ask him, many questions begging for answers. How has he been coping with life after his wife’s death? How has he been managing? Who is now the woman in his life? He once talked about marrying a Yoruba or Lagos lady? Is that plan still on? Is there any plan in the offing for him to remarry? Why is the road from Minna to Abuja full of potholes and such a deathtrap for travelers when he and General Abdulsalam Abubakar, Nigeria’s former military head of state are there? What have they done and what are they doing about it? As a military tactician who fought in the Nigerian Civil War, what does he think can be done to rein in the Boko Haram? He mentioned something about writing his memoirs some years ago. Is he still on it? If he is, how far has he gone with the project? What stage is the writing now? Some northern political elders had kicked against the agitation by some of their southern counterparts to have some of the relevant decisions contained in the National Conference report implemented by the President Muhammadu Buhari government. What is his take? On which side of the debate does he stand?
Added to these was a question that came into your mind while you were watching part of the screening of some of the Buhari’s ministerial nominees that took place before the Senate penultimate Tuesday (In fact, you and Akin had arrived Babangida’s residence while the screening of Babatunde Raji Fashola, the immediate past governor of Lagos State, was on, live on NTA. Dr. Ibe Kachikwu, the Group Managing Director, Nigerian National Petroleum Company (NNPC), was to take the floor after him). What does he think about the screening and the calibre of ministers selected by Buhari? Some critics have accused him of going for old hands while leaving out the young ones. What does he think? Talking about going for technocrats in an attempt to fix our country’s multifarious problems, he too went all out for them during his own regime; could he compare the current list of ministers with his own? Does he see them performing any wonder?
Trust him! He would have answered all the questions with ease, adding for a good measure his gap-toothed smiles, if you had been given the chance to conduct a full-fledged interview. But with Mohammed standing there and waiting for you to say your ‘hello’ to him and leave, you had to quickly make up your mind on which question to ask first.
You had started to ask what he thinks about Buhari’s ministerial nominees and the criticisms and protests trailing the nomination when Mohammed gives you a signal that says: ‘don’t go there.’ Remembering his “this is not a good time for interview,” you suddenly stop and rather ask what criteria he used in selecting his own “technocrats” like Profs. Jibril Aminu (then Minister of Education), Bolaji Akinyemi (Minister of Foreign Affairs), Olikoye Ransome Kuti (Minister of Health), Gordian Ezekwe (Minister of Science and Technology).
“Well, I put up a template to say that whoever will be there must have made substantial contribution in his profession. I either knew some of them or I have heard about them, about their successes. I will give you an example. I got to know Prof. Gordian Ezekwe by his achievements during the Nigerian Civil War. He was the architect, the brain behind Biafran bombs, Ogbunigwe. They were very effective. So, I thought here was a man who is talented but may need recognition and wherewithal with which he could come up. As a scientist, I think he dwelt on what we called then the rural infrastructure and that was how we came out with DFFRI and the rest of them,” he says. You noticed that he appeared to be in pain, which he tried bravely to conceal with jokes and smiles. You noticed he was speaking a little bit slowly as if he was picking his words. You also noticed that his right leg was a bit swollen. This makes him limp when he walks.
“The same thing goes for quite a number of them,” he further says. “Prof. Olikoye Ransome-Kuti was well-known in the World Health Organisation. So, I thought having him on board could help the country. And it did because at that time most of the vaccines we were getting, we were getting them cheaply, at very, very rock-bottom price. This is because the guy who was there, the head of the place happened to be a schoolmate or classmate of Prof. Ransome-Kuti. Most of them we used them for the development of the country because of their knowledge and recognition by their various professions. It was the same thing for Prof. Jibril Aminu. He was a known figure in the country and in the university community and so on and so forth. Prof. Aboyade was an economist of international repute. So, virtually all of them, Dr. Kalu Idika Kalu, Chu Okongwu, everybody knew them by what they had achieved. I am glad that they proved to be the best that we’ve ever had in this country.”
With Mohammed signaling to you that your time was up, you asked him to assess the quality of Buhari’s nominees. Does he think they will perform just like his own did? “I believe they can and I think they will. But I will like to advise that once we give them the leadership, we should give them the necessary support. The public must appreciate what they are doing and the leadership must also be there for them. I think with that, they will achieve a lot.”
One more question. Boko Haram has continued to be a menace in Nigeria despite vows, assurances and attempts by governments, past and present, to rein them in. As a military tactician, what does he think we should do to bring their reign of terror to an end?
“First of all, Nigerians should know that it is not a war limited to the North-east. It touches every part of Nigeria and even outside Nigeria. Therefore, the populace must support whatever action the government is taking because it is a Nigerian problem and it must be solved by Nigerians. So, I am only appealing to Nigerians to support what the government and Armed Forces are doing. That will go a long way in curtailing this.”
Asked what kind of support he has in mind, he said: “Let me put this way. The cause for which Nigerian Armed Forces are fighting is a legitimate cause. Therefore, it has to be supported. If it isn’t, nobody would care. It is a legitimate cause, and all of us, as long as you are a Nigerian, you have to support that cause.” By support does he mean praising them, you quickly interjected. “Well, praising, I don’t think it is the only support we can give. Maybe you were a small boy in 1967 during the Civil War. You would find that Nigerians were mobilized to support that war and every citizen was making one contribution or the other, in kind, moral or material. So, it entails material support and moral support in fighting such a cause.”
Touching his wristwatch, Mohammed gave you some signal indicating that your time was up, but IBB asked him to allow you to ask one more question. At this juncture, the question about his memoirs came to your mind. How far has he gone with it? He must be on the last chapter now, you added. “I wouldn’t say last chapter but I am getting to the end, to the conclusion. And, I hope I will be able to round off, God willing, by the beginning of next year, 2016.” What areas of his life are captured in the memoirs, you wanted to know. “My entire life, my entire service to the country and my experiences! It has to do with my life generally, starting from the time I was born to the time that I went into public service, to the time I retired and maybe what I am doing after retirement. It is what you people in the media call no-holds-barred” (he laughs). Did he dwell on the events surrounding the annulment of the June 12 election, you further asked. “I think I touched on virtually everything. Hopefully, I will shed more light on June 12.”
As we made to leave, Akin took permission to ask what he calls “a personal question.” There was a time Babangida talked about a lady who refused his love advances because she said Babangida had been spoiled by his late wife, and she was not prepared to spoil him. What is his take on the lady’s comment?
“I think she was being honest,” IBB answered. “My wife tolerated me a lot and I appreciate that and it requires patience which she had in abundance. What I am saying is that she admitted that certain things my wife would stomach or tolerate she was not prepared to do so. So, I might as well not start.” And what is the situation now, are you still friends, Akin added. “Yes, we are friends.”
His phone still rings, house a Mecca
Shortly after the chat with IBB, a call came through to his phone. Snippets of the conversation that wafted to your ear showed that the governor of Imo State was the one on the line at the other end of the phone as IBB could be heard shouting excitedly the name of, “Owelle”, “Owelle” before moving away to a corner to continue with the conversation, out of earshot.
“A man is known by the company that keeps him on after retirement age,” someone said. In IBB’s case, great is that company. Unlike Reuben Abati, Special Adviser on Media and Publicity to President Goodluck Jonathan, who had a cause to lament in an article sometime ago that his phone no longer rings, as this encounter with him shows, IBB’s still rings after long after retirement from public service.
For the two days you were there trying to get an interview with him, you noticed that no fewer than 50 visitors come there every day – Hausa, Yoruba, Igbo, Efik, Gwari, old, young, Muslims, Christians, African traditional worshippers, etc. In fact, one of the mandates that you were given was to write about his lonely life after retirement from public service or power. But with hundreds of visitors going for a political and perhaps economic pilgrimage to the place every day, it became all too clear to you that, with IBB, there is simply no dull moment. In or ‘out’ of power!
Please, pray that Captain Jalingo, an efficient and dutiful assistant, a man you learnt has served IBB for years and has refused to be promoted to the next rank so that he does not get posted out of service to him, doesn’t get to break down while attending to numerous visitors wanting to see IBB for one form of favour or the other, every day. This reporter understands that the ‘pilgrimage’ to Minna gets to a heightened frenzy on Fridays, after Juma’at prayers, which IBB no longer attends with others as before, due to his ill-health. After the prayers, you are told, all manners of people, high and low, come to pay homage to him.
Believe it or not, after ‘retirement from public service’, people still troop to Minna to see him, to say hello too to him like you did, though he is said to come down to receive visitors at about 11 am everyday and to retire at 3.30 pm or thereabout, to have his well-deserved rest. Thereafter, he does not come down until the following day. Although Jalingo has other hands assisting him on the job, the buck stops at his desk. He is the one who approves who goes in to see him and who does not, depending on your mission.
How hunger nearly killed me inside IBB’s mansion
Rule 1: if you are going to visit IBB at his Minna hilltop mansion: Be prepared to wait for hours or days, in fact, for as long as it may take you to see him. Take with you some patience as you are going, including, if you are able to find, Patience Goodluck Jonathan!
Before your arrival from Lagos, at IBB’s mansion in Minna, you had made ‘proper’ arrangements through reliable contacts you felt could help link you with somebody who knows him. And, they had asked you not to worry, that they would try to connect you. But the first shock you had, on arrival at the palatial mansion situated on a small rocky hill off David Mark Road, Minna, was the fact that you had to wait and wait and wait, along with numerous other visitors. It was like waiting for the legendary Godot in Samuel Beckett’s absurdist play, Waiting for Godot.
“Waiting is the only word in that house,” one of your contacts had told you when you sent an sms informing him of your frustration after waiting for hours. “Just appeal to (names withheld) to help you talk to his PA (Personal Assistant) because Baba (meaning Babaginda) may leave after 3.30 prayers.”
Rule 2: Eat before you go there. Otherwise, you are on your own. As this reporter found out penultimate Tuesday and Wednesday, you may die of hunger if you don’t obey Rule 2. Don’t expect anybody to offer you something to eat if you ever became hungry while waiting to see him. So? Take along with you something to eat. Like packet of biscuits, water and, perhaps some soft drink!
Rule 3: Get prepared to have a dance with death as you travel on the road leading from Abuja to Minna, the home of Generals Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida and Abdulsalami Abubakar, Nigeria’s last military head of state. The inter-state road, said to belong to the Federal Government, is so dilapidated like some other roads in the country, that at a point you were forced to wonder whether it will eventually lead you to your destination or to death, to somewhere you never bargained for.
But as you reached Minna and found your way to IBB palatial mansion after praying for your driver who was running like hell as if to say shame to those people who put out that road traffic rule: ‘speed kills,’ and for other passengers travelling along with you, the difference became clear. Made of solid, macadamised roadwork lined up on both sides with shady trees, like you would see in a boulevard, you could pick up any food that dropped on it and eat without any fear of contamination, because of the neatness of the road surface. You were to later found out that Gen. Abubakar whose mansion is also located about half a kilometer away from IBB’s also shares in that glory. In fact, apart from the NTA station sandwiched between the two, their houses are the only ones you can get on that hilltop.
Back to our rules! Please, while you are allowed to nurse ideas on Rules 1 and 3, you are not allowed such luxury in Rule 2. Don’t take my mention of hunger to mean that IBB is now poor, so poor that he cannot entertain visitors. A man the kind of palatial mansion that this gap-toothed general built at Minna cannot be said to be a poor man. A man who employed cooks to cook special dishes for highly placed visitors trooping in and out of the place like soldier ants, every minute of the hour, cannot, by any stretch of the mind, be said to be poor.
When you talk of visitors at IBB’s house, it all depends on which category you belong to. I don’t know how many categories there are but when later you were ushered into one of the anterooms on the left wing of the mansion which are furnished with state-of-the-art settees and fittings obviously imported from one of the Arab countries, you discovered that the rooms on that side of the mansion are meant for high-brow visitors. Those are the people that are served with food and entertained with drinks. So, if you don’t belong, bad luck for you.
Now, how did this reporter get nearly killed by hunger? He broke Rule 2 because of his ignorance of Rule 1. Thinking that it was going to be a short stay at IBB House, having earlier pulled a few strings here and there to get into the place, he neglected to take his breakfast. But by afternoon/evening, hunger pangs struck back with vicious vengeance. To worsen the situation, there was no restaurant anywhere around to buy food and eat. Neither was anybody willing to give you a dish out of those dainty plates of food tha t you saw the blue-blooded people carrying along with them and walking up and down and laughing and slapping one another’s back. Reason? You are not one of them.