In this interview monitored on Channels Television, former Military President, General Ibrahim Badamosi Babangida, reflects on his experience during the Nigeria-Biafra Civil War. He also bares his mind on the unity of Nigeria and the need for quality leadership in the country.
Experience of the civil war
I was a very young officer just trying to become a captain in the Nigerian Army. When the war broke out, I was away on a training in United Kingdom. We stayed there for a very short period and then we came back. I was posted to one division in the Nigerian Army. We served together with people from other parts of the country, and then suddenly, you discover that you are fighting against one another. I can recall a case of one of my very good colleagues; we faced each other and I saw him die. It was very a horrible experience for a young officer at that time. It was tragic that somebody with whom you trained together, went to India Military Academy together, and suddenly, in July of 1967, we found ourselves fighting one another. It was a very pathetic experience. It is something I pray we never experience again in this country.
Thoughts on fighting against former colleagues
That showed us how things can go wrong in the running of a country. There were some civil disturbances that began to manifest at that time. Immediately after independence, elections were not going properly, there were riots in various parts of the country. These culminated into the civil war. The leadership at that time believed very strongly that nothing should be done to break the unity of the country and we were all brought up and trained to believe that we should be able to defend the integrity of the country. So we resisted any effort to disintegrate the country because of our training and political indoctrination.
Reaction to end of the war
Yes, I got a sense of relief. I was somewhere in Ukigwe when my commander, General TY Danjuma, brought the news to us that the war was over. It brought a sense of relief. What I wanted to do immediately I heard the war was over was to reach out to my colleague who was fighting on my front. I trained with him in the Nigeria Training College, Kaduna, as we used to call it then. I really wanted to see him so that we can shake hands. He eventually turned up and we greeted ourselves, talked about our days as cadets and so on. And then, jokingly, he asked me ‘Ibrahim, is it you fighting me’ and I also asked him, ‘Amos are you fighting me’. But today we have every reason to thank God because none of us was killed during that war and we become friends again.
On the policy of Reconciliation, Reconstruction and Rehabilitation (Three Rs)
I think we were informed enough to know that quite a number of countries in the world – we studied military history – went through civil wars and that afterwards, they came back together, settled down and integrated the people into the main stream of the society. This is what was in our minds and fortunately our head of state then. General Yakubu Gowon brought the Three Rs. He was a passionate believer in the unity of this country. So I think having finished the war, since he said there is no victor and no vanquished, we quickly began to adjust to remaining as Nigerians.
State of the military after the war
It was small in size. When we started, the military was not more than five battalions, not up to 10,000 soldiers. By the time the war was over, we had 250,000 because of the obvious mobilisation. So from a small number of 10,000 to 250,000, the immediate problem was how to reorganise the army into a much more manageable size, cohesive, well-trained and well-oriented for the purposes of building a stronger nation.
Perception of Nigeria’s unity among his contemporaries
The way we saw it, the unity of Nigeria, as far as we were concerned, was an article of faith amongst my generation. Nobody would like to see this country go through another civil war, nobody will like to see this country disintegrate because we will be unfair to those who put their lives on the line and died for the purpose of keeping the country one. So if we let it go, we will not be fair to them. Millions of thousands of people were killed and maimed. Some were permanently disabled. So we will not be fair to those people who sacrificed their lives for the sake of the country, that is why we are so passionate about the unity of this country.
The Three Rs 50 years after
Well, quite frankly, I think we did well. Again, if you compare other countries that went through a civil war, you will find out that we have done reasonably well indeed because the war finished in 1970. We had a military government from 1966 to 1975. Another military government took over from 1975 to 1979. We had a civilian government from 1979 to 1983. We later had a military government from 1983 to 1984 and from 1984 to 1993. We succeeded in keeping the civilian administration in place. This is all thanks to the military for it’s determination to install a democratically elected government in the country.
On NYSC and Unity Schools as a means to foster integration
To a certain extent, I think we have succeeded, especially with the NYSC programme because, most of the people who went into NYSC are students from universities and other tertiary institutions. They were intelligent enough to read about what happened at the time. They were able to go through history and even mingle. So it was quite easy. It is a very good thing that it was done at that time. So if you find the generation of 1973 up till now, they are mostly very strong believers in the unity of Nigeria. So that is one thing that those polices succeeded in doing. At the secondary school level, students, at a young age were taught about the country and the civil war. So they grew up with history of the country in their minds, so I think it was good for the country.
On the post-war Nigeria and pressure on government to enhance national unity
I think old habits die hard like they say. There has been this tendency to recline and go back to the old habits. If you find yourself in politics, for example, people tend to recline into their own cocoon because we didn’t have what I will call a re-orientation on what politics is all about. We didn’t do much in trying to get people indoctrinated through political interactions and so on. So the moment you reintroduce politics, the first thing that came to our minds was what political parties and systems used to be before the civil war. People saw that as a starting point and once you see that you could hardly change it.
On Rwanda’s post-war integration model
In the case of Rwanda, I will say that it is leadership. They have a very strong person as a leader who believes very strongly in that country and therefore would like to see the country united. It is the leadership that can change the whole environment.
On whether the Rwanda formula can work in Nigeria
If you get a strong leadership at the national and state levels, I think we should be able to do it.
His experience on managing Nigeria’s diversity
I think you should build supporters who believe strongly in what you are trying to do. We tried it with NYSC and Unity schools. I think we did not push it hard. We should have pushed it harder so that we will have people who attend unity schools together not having problems interacting with one another. So that they don’t have to return to their cocoons saying this is where I come from. I think we allowed it to slacken a little bit.
Creation of Federal Capital Territory (FCT) Abuja to ensure cohesiveness
I think we did. Don’t forget that the whole idea of Abuja came about in 1976 by General Murtala Muhammed. He had a vision because of the sheer size and ethnic groups in the country. He wanted to keep the country one so that they can have something to call their own such that everybody belongs to it. I think the idea was good and the whole concept came about in 1976. Those of us who came after Murtala Muhammed believed very strongly that that vision was the correct vision for the country and so we pursued it, including the civilian regime. Shehu Shagari tried to make it realisable. And when the military came because we believed in it strongly, we made sure that it remained what it was designed to be.
The place of military in Nigeria’s unity
You cannot convince me for example that this country should break. I would not talk to you for a long time because I know that people died in keeping the country one. I got maimed keeping the country one. So my generation will always insist that this country remains one. We fought for it, we know the consequences of war, we know the pains people went through. It is not too much demand on us to keep the country together.
On how leaders inclined to unity of Nigeria can emerge
The whole thing depends on the leadership election. One of the things I would loved to see is that if you want to pick a leader, you should be able to assess his thoughts about the unity of the country, that he will not jeopardise it and he will try to use everything within his power, legitimately to make sure that the country remains one. We have more than 200 million people in this country. My generation and the generation below mine will always believe in this country and they will move this country forward.
Nigeria’s unity after his generation
My generation is committed and they will use everything possible, including applying logic and advise to make sure that the country remains United.
On military and civil relations
Immediately after the second world war, the military became more civilized and more educated. There is a need for us to understand that the soldier knows that he is supposed to be obedient to the democratically elected government because it represents the people. I can tell you now that only a stupid soldier will think of a coup because it is no longer in their psyche. It is no longer acceptable in Africa, West Africa and in the whole world generally. So the soldier is intelligent enough to know that if he does that the country will be ostracised from the community of nations. For example, the people you want to represent will rise against you in your own country so it is no longer fashionable to stage a coup.
On deepening national cohesion, reconciliation and reintegration
Our selection of leadership is the most important thing. By this I mean leadership at all levels be it political, military and economic. Once this is done and every sector believes in it, I think we will have no problem.
On success of federal character principle so far
To some extent I think it worked because, it created some sense of belonging and balance in what government strives to do. But you cannot carry it on to a ridiculous extent. You cannot take a mediocre to do a job because of federal character. It shouldn’t be so. We have now reached a stage where in every part of the country and in any community, there are graduates and professionals. So you cannot sacrifice quality in the name of federal character and put an unqualified person in a position.
On his administration and legacy
I belong to Winston Churchill’s school of thought when taking about about historical legacy. He said history will be fair to him because he is going to write it himself. So maybe because I share that view, I will write my legacy by myself, and I believe God will lead me. So I want to write by myself so that history will be fair to me.
On the current state of insecurity in the country
I think a lot needs to be done quite frankly because if what we read in the papers and hear on radio is true especially in most of those areas that we assumed that the security situation has been stabilised. I read in the papers of the young governor of Borno State telling the defense minister that there are still few places that people can’t go in the state. He said so because that, at least, will give the military high command some way of thinking. The governor is the security officer of the state and he knows the people. There are a lot of challenges. What they need to do is to get a lot of intelligence. It looks to me that there are people who are thinking for the insurgents. There are people who think for them. We need to find out those who are thinking for them, leading them and supplying them with weapons, and put a stop to that. That is probably the way I access it.