Maradona’s Latest Dribble

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Anyone born in the 1990s cannot understand why for those slightly older, former President Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida aka IBB aka Maradona remains an object of enduring fascination. They were probably in the womb or were too young to notice when, at the peak of his powers, the general played Nigerians like the piano.

They would struggle to understand the context in which he was nicknamed after the late Argentinian football great Diego Amando Maradona who was noted for his silky dribbling skills. Despite being so prodigiously talented he wasn’t averse to deploying the occasional underhand tactic to determine the outcome of a match – as he infamously did with the ‘Hand of God’ goal in the World Cup quarter-final match against England in 1986.

To them, the larger-than-life Chief M. K. O. Abiola – one of the most colourful business moguls and politicians – to have ever traversed these parts is someone they can only relate to from a perspective of history.

Today, Abiola’s main claim to fame is not the fact that he was one of the richest Nigerians that ever lived, but that he won an election widely adjudged as one of the freest and fairest ever conducted in this country, but never got to occupy office. He wasn’t denied by death neither did he renounce the victory: it was snatched from him by Babangida – his one-time friend turned deadly foe.

Twenty-eight years after the annulment of the June 12, 1993 presidential election results IBB is still explaining why he and his junta subverted the will of the Nigerian people.

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His latest rationalisation in an interview with Arise TV doesn’t come any closer to offering a remotely acceptable justification for the heinous heist that denied a duly elected president his prize. It was a classic act of treason but in a land where anything goes, he and his co-conspirators have gone on to enjoy cushy retirement while deigning to lecture us about what’s in our best interests. In some other lands he would be spending his final days behind bars.

But punishment comes in different ways. God has blessed him with long life to witness that his legacy would forever be defined and tarnished by the singular act of the annulment. Whatever he accomplished by liberalising the economy and polity is overshadowed by one gross miscalculation. He will spend the rest of his days feeling the need to unburden over what has become a dead weight around his shoulders.

In the recent interview Babangida revealed that there would have been a violent coup d’état had Abiola become president. He’d like us to believe that the annulment was an act of love towards the winner of the poll and the country.

I would argue that the reverse was the case. The cynical cancellation was the arrogant action of a bunch of politicians in fatigues who had become addicted to power; they became so used to the perks and spoils of office and were loath to withdraw from the honeycomb.

It was supreme arrogance for a bunch of officers to think that their desires were superior to the will of the country expressed through millions of voters.

The truth is IBB was never really keen on transferring power to civilians. He kept manipulating and subverting the transition programme he’d put place – arbitrarily altering handover dates.

That’s when he wasn’t whimsically circumscribing the right of people to participate in the process. Some were banned after being classified as “old breed politicians.” Others anointed as “new breed” were cleared to forge ahead in two artificially created political parties which were assigned names and government-built offices across the country.

Politicians were herded into them like cattle depending on whether they were ideologically “a little to the left or a little to the right.” It was a Nigerian original that could only have been conjured by Babangida’s fertile imagination.

It was farcical but so determined was the country for a return to democratic rule that the people made it work – turning out in droves for peaceful polling. They even overlooked what remains a political taboo today – electing the Muslim-Muslim ticket of Abiola and Babagana Kingibe.

Imagine what could have been had those results stood? Imagine how that outcome could have affected political development and national cohesion in the nearly three decades since then? But Babangida pulled a heavy rug over Nigeria’s brief moment in the sun; he snuffed out the two artificial babies he created. It was a criminal act of historical proportions.

IBB is no paragon. He lost the right to pontificate on democracy the day he annulled the June 12 results. The best he could do would be to get out of our faces. But he’s not content to sit quietly on the side lines.

In the new interview he’s back at doing what he does best – scheming and intriguing, trying to shape the direction and outcome of the pivotal 2023 presidential elections.

Take, for instance, his prescription of an age cap. He says the next president should be somebody in his 60s. This suggests there’s something magical about this demographic that will make Nigeria’s troubles disappear.

But the age argument is intellectually fraudulent. The mess that’s been made of this nation isn’t just down to the age of whoever is president. Goodluck Jonathan was in his early 50s when he took office.

The vast majority of governors, ministers, local government chairmen, federal and state legislators are in the band between 30 and 70 years – yet their domains are in such a sorry state. Clearly something other than age is responsible for their failure.

Incumbent US President Joe Biden and his predecessor Donald Trump are in their 70s. Even at 75 the latter is plotting a return to office in 2024 when he would be 78 – and there are millions of Americans of all ages urging him on.

Our problem isn’t just about the age of the president: it’s about creating a system that works, recreating a society based on laws – one that has the right values, one where the people from diverse backgrounds feel they are getting a fair shake.

The next president should be a person with vision, capacity, skill sets to handle current challenges with regards to the economy, insecurity and national cohesion. He shouldn’t be parochial or blinded by a provincial mind set.

Nigeria needs presidential candidates with character to lead us into that bright future we dream of – not some flaky individual who’s the product of the scheming of individuals whose grievous errors brought us to this sorry pass.

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