It was a chance meeting sometime in 1998 at the VIP wing of the MM2 Ikeja, Lagos. I had gone to the airport with a couple of friends to receive an important personality. Little did I know it was Gen. Ibrahim Badamosi Babangida, Nigeria’s first ever military President popularly known by his famous acronym IBB. I was so excited to meet him and my demeanour must have given me away. He was accompanied by Gen. Aliyu Gusau who later became NSA under the President Goodluck Jonathan administration. In tow was Muhammed Babangida, IBB’s handsome son. They had just returned from one of IBB’s frequent trips to Abeokuta where he had gone to “convince” OBJ (Obasanjo) to take over the reins of power after the events that led to the death of Chief MKO Abiola, the winner of the June 12 election annulled by IBB.
As I curtsied to greet him, he held my hand as though he had known me or my parents for a long time. It was affectionate as it was firm. Like when a father wants to be sure his kid is safe in his arms. I thought he was much taller than the man I was seeing in real life, though his legendary charm was not in any way diminished. He must have been 58 or 60 at the time, still bubbly with energy but surely not the spritely young 40-year-old who took over power in a bloodless coup on August 27, 1985. I still have the images of him walking up the stairs of an aircraft with quick but calculated steps during his many trips in and out of the country in army fatigues.
After stepping aside in 1993, international condemnation for the June 12 annulment, the sad loss of his beloved wife Mariam and long before these events, the bullet that remains in his body from the Nigerian Civil War surely must have taken a toll, especially on his health and of course the natural aging process. It took me about two months to get a firm date for my exclusive interview with the retired General and former self-styled military president who ruled Nigeria for eight years. Since he was turning 80 on August 17, I felt there was no better time to speak with him on current national issues and of course his role in the June 12 annulment. I was curious to know if he had any regrets. Like every journalist, I wanted an exclusive, something new—new revelation about the June 12 annulment which hangs around his neck like an albatross.
It was a two and a half hours’ drive from Abuja to the famed Hilltop castle where he lives in Minna. Driving into the expansive and almost endless grounds of his home, I found it befitting and majestic a place for a former president like IBB. Inside, the first things that greeted you were the life-size photos of the young General on the left wall of the foyer, and on the right side, that of the late arguably the most glamorous First Lady Nigeria ever had: Mariam Babangida nee Okogu.
Old age can be both a blessing and a curse even for the greatest and strongest of men, the bravest and the most revered of men in their youth, and IBB at 80 is definitely no exception. He was already seated and ready when I walked into the room. As I greeted him, he looked up at me with a curious yet welcoming look as all kinds of emotions coursed through me facing a man of history who has been calmed by the force of gravity and many years of experience—the good, the bad and the ugly all of which had taken their toll on him. He certainly looks his age—far, far, different from the young military office in the pictures on his wall. As he responded to question after question, it was clear that time had slowed him down a bit but his mind was still as sharp as a razor. He didn’t take long pauses in answering my interrogations, showing that his memory still served him well. He recalled events of the Civil War with intellectual acuity—even the date and year he married his late wife, he remembers. IBB’s ability to recall some of the economic decisions he took as head of state, how he opened up the economy, how he tackled corruption citing the sacking of a military governor who diverted three hundred thousand naira and comparing it to the current administration where corruption is far more prevalent than his time. He also spoke clearly on the type of leader who should take over as President in 2023—someone aged sixty-plus, plus other patriotic cum leadership qualities. The media all tried to piece together who he had in mind as a potential Nigerian President.
Of course, his response to June 12 seemed to have reopened old wounds and those who had not forgiven him came at him for what in their view was an attempt to twist the facts—for saying there would have been a coup if he had allowed MKO Abiola to have his electoral mandate. Initially, his handlers felt he had answered the June 12 question enough over the years but I had to Maradonically pose the question in a way that was non-confrontational. The moment he said to me: “Do you want the honest truth?” I knew he would answer it. But the jury is out on whether his response was satisfactory or not.
No doubt, the IBB interview is a career changer for me—as it should be for any journalist. My IBB moment would have to be when his face lit up as a proud Dad and husband when I asked about his kids Aisha and Mohammed, and you could tell he really loved his wife Mariam—after all her photos dot the walls everywhere in the house after years of her passing.
Looking, back, I thank God it all went well. You can imagine our fear and trepidation about our safety as we made the almost two-hour plus journey to Minna, fasting and praying that we would not fall prey to kidnappers. The new social order bedeviling our beloved Nigeria. The new now. But the Good Lord answered our prayers and we came back intact without any need for negotiations over us. Thank God we didn’t become the news. The last time I checked the number of views on YouTube alone was over 300,000. That in itself is a reflection of how much impact the interview had on Nigerians home and abroad. I received calls from everywhere. And I give God the glory. That we didn’t become the big global news while chasing the IBB news!
FIRST SAN IN OSUN STATE
Dear Mr. Awoyinfa, I needed to make a clarification on a fellow awardee, Asiwaju Adegboyega Awomolo SAN, our first Attorney General and Commissioner of Justice referred to as the “first man in Osun to rise to the peak of Senior Advocate of Nigeria.” Chief R.A. Fani-Kayode took the silk in 1978, while Asiwaju was conferred with the rank in 1992. This should qualify Chief Fani-Kayode as the first SAN in Osun. Congrats to you and all the eminent awardees—Opeyemi Ajala.
Mike Awoyinfa’s response: By law, there was no Osun State in 1978. Osun State was created on August, 27, 1991.