What some people would call the historic power struggle between General Muhammadu Buhari and Ibrahim Babangida, aka IBB, has resumed in full force. Verbal missiles from each of the combatants in the war of attrition belie the impression that time and changes have compelled a mending of fences. And that IBB was part of the consensus of some sort among Nigeria’s “guardian angels” to give Buhari a second chance to rule Nigeria in 2015.
This time too, the warfare between the two has followed the same old pattern of going for the other’s jugular with amazing bitterness. IBB, it appears, triggered an offensive in an interview that must have passed without much notice last December in which he disconnected attempted disciplining of General Aliyu Gusau from any sharp practices. Buhari equalized when an opportunity presented itself during an interview with a magazine by that name. In the interview, he represented IBB and Aliyu Gusau, his buddy, as smart Alecs or corrupt elements who took the sails out of his anti corruption war in the mid 1980s. The reason he was overthrown in August 1985, he said, was because he was in the process of throwing out Aliyu Gusau whom he said had collected import licence from the government of the day. And that it was his determination to have none of that as the Commander-in-Chief because it could give the impression that the anti corruption war was not covering some people. So, Aliyu Gusau had to be taken to the Army Council to be punished, a process which died when Buhari himself was overthrown.
What many thought was a rather old barb from Buhari’s side was surprisingly responded to by IBB, almost in a fire-for-fire tradition, complete with a dire warning: if you start posing as a saint, I will show you are a naked emperor. It must have caught many unaware as such could not come out without approval from the ‘big boss’. However, the bile would appear to have followed the discursive pattern in the relationship.
In the 1985 coup speech overthrowing Buhari, IBB basically advertised his then C-in-C as deficient in socialisation as far as ruling Nigeria is concerned. By denying him of a sense of compromise, he was asking people to ponder on the possibility of being ruled by someone whom new information might not even bring to marginal reality. Or who was bereft of the contextuality of meaning. Generally, in the context of Nigeria, a rigid and an uncompromising leader is a risk.
Buhari, indeed, fired back by literarily calling IBB and his circle a band of looters. He said in an interview almost a decade after his overthrow that looting was the agenda of the pack that overthrew him in August 1985. His problem, he also said, was that he wasn’t going to allow any set of people share public funds as it pleased them. In an apparent deconstruction of IBB’s dangerous depiction of him as rigid and uncompromising, Buhari was saying he was only rigid and uncompromising when it came to looting, or corruption if you like.
It is not clear how a now defunct magazine published outside Nigeria got into the fray by, interpretatively, charging Buhari of hypocrisy in the matter. The magazine said that other than hypocrisy, it did not make sense for Buhari to interpret Aliyu Gusau’s import license as corruption but a task, the proceeds of which brought him, (Buhari) to power. It reported a confrontation between IBB and Buhari shortly before the coup in which IBB had told Buhari that as the greatest beneficiary, he ought to have kept quiet or resign rather than try to discipline Gusau.
Over the years, salacious details of this war have been filtering in. One remarkable bit of that was the interview by a Major Abubakar Umar, (not Abubakar Dangiwa Umar) in The Daily Independent in which he said, among others, that IBB is more than an evil genius but without exonerating Buhari from apolitical sensitivity. He gave an example of what he considered the awkwardness in Buhari’s acceptance of the position of the General Officer Commanding the Third Division of the army, the core of which was brimming with conscious and unconscious IBB loyalists from head to toe at that time. That was just a whiff of the purely professional dimension of a war that predated the current outbreak of verbal hostilities.
What people are wondering about now is how Buhari, a man carrying Nigeria on his head, still has time for side fights with his former traducers like IBB. What might be at stake? It remains unclear in many quarters. Those who say it is all about Sambo Dasuki cannot go far because if IBB is unhappy about Dasuki’s trial, was it not under the same Dasuki that Aliyu Gusau as Minister of Defence almost stormed out of government because Dasuki would not let service chiefs relate to him in a way that could amount to reporting to him?
Whatever is the ‘real’ reason for the renewed offensives, the indication that the two are still fighting exposes the degree of fragmentation within the Nigerian elite. Buhari-IBB connects with similar contemporary wars over there among those who make things happen in Nigeria. With the exception of General Gowon and Abdulsalami Abubakar, it is war everywhere within their rank. Obasanjo and IBB have washed very dirty linen on the street before. Obasanjo and General Danjuma have equally put their own spat on display after years of fruitful friendship. In fact, in an interview with The Guardian in 2008, gut Danjuma said he would have had no option than get his former C-in-C thrown out if Obasanjo, himself the master of surprise show up, had invited himself to a birthday party hosted by Danjuma. Now, it is Buhari versus IBB at a time when he, as C-in-C, would have led the third party intervention to douse tension and fragmentation at the top. What might be the problem that age, rank, exposure and highest office in the land does not stop the Generals from quarrelling on the street? Power?
It used to be said that where Generals are laughing, those who are not of that rank must pretend that nothing worth laughing about is happening. But, in this instance, the country outranks any Generals and cannot pretend that nothing worth ‘laughing’ about is happening. It is enemy images that create enemies and it is ‘enemies’ at war that we see all over Nigeria: from party politics to Government Houses, in project implementation and in manipulation of the people. So, time to make a distinction between language of enmities and productive exchange or healthy debate.