Friday, 23 August 2013

That epitaph for IBB

The subject matter of an epitaph, a fond inscription on a tomb in memory of a deceased person, caught my fancy this weekend when I read in Sunday Trust the transcript of a brief interview that General Ibrahim Babangida granted to newsmen in Minna last Friday.
It was part of activities to mark his 72nd birthday. A reporter audaciously asked the former military ruler, “If you were asked to write your epitaph, what would you have written?” IBB dodged and parried several questions during the interview, as is his usual style, but he took on this particular question head-on. He said, “Here is General Ibrahim Babangida, born in Minna, who joined the military profession in 1962, who stayed there for 32 years, serving this great nation. By the grace of God he became the military President and served this country very well. May his soul rest in peace.”
Very good. IBB was thinking here of something that could be inscribed on his tombstone, hence the reference to “Here is…” It is not a normal tradition to write epitaphs of Muslim gravestones, even though I noticed in the course of attending funerals in the last 15 years that things are changing with respect to this tradition. More and more Muslims are marking their departed friends’ and relatives’ graves with flowers, painted stones, wooden stakes or cement tombs. It is still nothing as elaborate as what you see on Christian tombstones, but it looks like Nigerian Muslims are playing catch up. Maybe that was why IBB did not wince when he was asked to write his own epitaph.
Now, this draft epitaph is interesting because it indicates what a man thinks were the most important sign posts of his own life. Other observers will emphasise different things but a self-drafted epitaph is an accurate reader of a man’s mind of the things he regards as the big achievements of his life. Which was why when I read IBB’s draft epitaph, I remembered one that I once read about the American Founding Father Thomas Jefferson, who in addition to many things was the third president of the United States [1801-1809].
It was, if I remember correctly, contained in a special edition of TIME magazine marking the 200th anniversary of the American Declaration of Independence in 1976. There was a condensed one-page entry for every US president up to that time and in Thomas Jefferson’s section the opening statement said something like, “Jefferson once drafted the epitaph that he wanted to be placed on his tombstone. In it, he forgot to mention that he had been the US Ambassador to France, Secretary of State or even President of the United States. Instead, Jefferson said he would like to be remembered as the author of the American Declaration of Independence, author of The Statute for Religious Freedoms and as founder of the University of Virginia.”
What would be an equivalent IBB epitaph? It is one that “forgets to mention” that old man Babangida has been the Director of Army Staff Duties and Plans, Chief of Army Staff or even military President of Nigeria, the career heights corresponding to Jefferson’s career. IBB did ignore the first two in his self-drafted epitaph even though he made lavish reference to his 32-year career in the Nigerian military. He however made special mention of his becoming the military President. Even though he attributed this event to the “grace of God” a cynic is likely to say that God had nothing to do with it.
Now, if the three career heights in IBB’s life were to be omitted from his epitaph Jefferson style, what else is there to say? Plenty, if you ask me. It also depends entirely upon who is writing the epitaph. It is another work of God that Chief Gani Fawehinmi has preceded IBB to the Hereafter, otherwise we would have expected a very harsh epitaph of the kind that Gani voiced on BBC radio on the day that General Sani Abacha died in June 1998. Even though there is no Gani, there are enough IBB-phobes still lurking around who can be relied upon to draft hostile epitaphs. I think the worst epitaph they are likely to draft is something like this, “General Ibrahim Babangida, who helped to overthrow many regimes, who unleashed SAP on Nigeria, who destroyed the naira through SFEM, who hiked oil prices many times, who blew the Gulf War oil windfall, who made corruption a directive principle of state policy, who annulled the June 12 election, who elongated his transition programme and Maradonically dribbled around until he scored an own goal.” At least, those are the printable parts of a hostile IBB epitaph.
Not being an IBB-phobe myself, I must at least help to edit the draft IBB epitaph and bring it in line with the high standards set by Thomas Jefferson. We are looking here for equivalents to the three events that Jefferson saw as the defining elements of his eventful life. Unfortunately, we do not have a Nigerian equivalent of the Declaration of Independence because no Nigerian revolutionaries ever sat down and unilaterally declared independence from Britain.
The closest thing to it that happened here was the speech read by Prime Minister Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa on 1 October 1960 when the Union Jack was being lowered in Lagos for the last time. Considering that Queen Elizabeth’s sister Princess Alexandra and the last British Governor General of Nigeria Sir James Robertson were on hand to bless the event, it was hardly revolutionary. IBB was to make his own big speech 25 years later when he sacked General Muhammadu Buhari’s government. I would not recommend it for inclusion in the epitaph because he promised in that speech to conduct a national debate on whether Nigeria should accept the IMF loan. This he did but some people later alleged that it was a hoodwink.
How about an equivalent of writing the Statute of Religious Freedoms, a pillar of modern day democratic freedoms? As far as I know, the most epochal paper that IBB ever wrote was the speech he delivered on radio and television in September 1989 when he reported to Nigerians the decision of the Armed Forces Ruling Council [AFRC] on the National Electoral Commission’s [NEC] report on the registration of political parties. That speech lasted an hour and a half. After zigzagging all around, IBB rejected all the parties that applied for registration and instead created two parties of his won, NRC and SDP. I wouldn’t recommend that speech to be inscribed on his epitaph.
How about that Jefferson thing about founding the University of Virginia? Many people in Nigeria would not think that setting up a school of any sort qualifies as a life-time achievement. Few people in Nigeria give kudos to anyone for setting up a school. The few who got such kudos include Tai Solarin for setting up Mayflower School, Ikenne. Luckily for IBB, his late wife Hajia Mariam also got a lot of kudos for setting up Al-Amin Schools in Minna and Abuja. IBB himself made an effort to establish Heritage University in Kaduna. For many years while I lived in that city, I used to drive past the sign board of that university and regularly wondered when it will ever come on stream. If it had, we would have had at least one thing to match up with old man Jefferson on the epitaph.
Given the likelihood that Chief Gani has left a hostile draft epitaph in his will, I am offering a friendly draft epitaph for consideration by the IBB Foundation. “General Ibrahim Babangida, who fought to keep Nigeria one, who led the Armoured Corps to smash Dimka’s coup, the military ruler who made human rights his policy, who created more federal agencies than all other rulers, who appointed the most professors into his cabinets and who built Alscon, Third Mainland Bridge and Abuja-Kaduna-Kano express road.” Any guru is welcome to edit this draft.

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