What was meant to be an assessment of the three-year-old government of President Muhammadu Buhari turned on its head before the ink dried up on the press statement.
Former military president, General Ibrahim Babangida, said he meant to advise Buhari not to run again in 2019 but to make way for younger politicians.
That might have been what he told his media consultant, Kassim Afegbua, but that was not what the public heard.
In less than three hours of a public relations disaster, two statements carrying different messages with varying degrees of howlers, potholes and contradictions were issued from Babangida’s Hill Top residence in Minna, culminating in a follow-up phone interview by ThisDay, which confirmed what was intended in the first statement.
It was a comedy of blunders that left the sender with enough room to escape liability, pushed the messenger to the wall, and left the intended receiver in a state of convenient mockery.
That was not how Babangida wanted it to be. The man who ruled Nigeria for eight years partly from Abdel Nasser’s model, but largely from Machiavelli’s playbook, intended to go back to his first speech as military president in 1985.
That speech, made after Babangida and co overthrew Buhari in a palace coup, portrayed Buhari as an inflexible loner, a man whose tunnel vision propelled him to either have his way or drag others down the highway. It’s a speech that has been used to beat Buhari over the head many times, since his second coming.
Buhari’s slow pace and prevarication, his unwillingness or refusal to free himself from the grip and enchantment of a few powerful aides to whom he appears to have surrendered all, and his government’s the lack of a sense of danger and urgency, all make Babangida’s letter of 33 years ago read like holy grail.
That was the letter Babangida wanted to re-enact.
In Babangida’s early days in power, that speech endeared him to the public, including a number of high-profile politicians like Audu Ogbeh, jailed by Buhari at the time, but now serving enthusiastically in his government as Minister of Agriculture.
That was the speech Babangida wanted to borrow from this week, only for him to find that the book has since left the shelf.
Now, the talk of the town is not what Babangida meant to advise Buhari in a barely disguised continuation of their decades-old war, but what the letter says about Babangida’s mercurial quality.
He tried to redeem himself in a follow-up interview credited to him after the first statement and the denial; he reportedly said he stood by his first statement that Buhari’s time was up and he must leave for the digital new breed to take over.
But it was too late. The family squabble that foreshadowed the release of the first statement had spilt onto the public space and his media consultant, Afegbua, who signed the statement and defended it on Channels TV later the same day, was declared wanted by a hopelessly idle police force.
And Babangida is getting a beating. The public is so used to seeing the clown prince of inconsistency change positions that only a few are willing to grant that the ensuing exchange was not orchestrated.
His legacy of inconsistency – some might even say betrayal – included shifting his government’s handover date until it bred a monster that consumed him, having banned and reversed the ban of politicians and changed the rules of participation until the field became a muddle. His love-hate relationship with the press and his decision to cancel the result of the June 12 election and hang his friend, MKO Abiola, out to dry after a free and fair vote, have not helped his reputation either.
If the whole point of the jiggery-pokery as Babangida claimed at the time was to create a new breed of politicians who would play politics as it is in heaven, we’ve seen nearly two decades after that his rigmarole was a colossal waste of time and resources.
But that’s not what he wants us to remember. Two weeks after another member of the retired presidential club, Olusegun Obasanjo hurled a letter bomb at Buhari asking him to step down and committing to a third force to enforce his wish, Babangida was hoping that his own letter would help drive the point home.
In the cloak-and-dagger politics of retired but active partisan Nigerian generals, Obasanjo and Babangida have joined forces before, just as they have fallen out over their records in office. Obasanjo and Buhari have also collaborated to nail the political coffin of former President Goodluck Jonathan.
It was therefore not unusual that Babangida piled on Buhari after Obasanjo’s open letter. But why didn’t Babangida take the first shot? Why did he wait to do it under the cover of Obasanjo’s letter?
Some have said it’s part of the trademark Babangida inconsistency that he didn’t take the first shot. Or that he’s trying to curry public favour by being a latter-day hero.
I don’t know what it is, but my interviews with Babangida and Buhari in the last three years suggest that there are deep, smouldering scars from 1985 that both men will carry to their graves. If time and age should ever weaken their appetite for a personal feud, proxy and clan will simply carry on the fight.
Both men also know how the awesome powers of office can be easily misused and even though Babangida may not care much in his present condition of health, the last thing his family wants is to be at the receiving end of the presidential stick.
Yet, in the light of the growing wave of discontent, silence was not an option and it probably occurred to Babangida that the only way to overcome silence was to speak in muffled tones.
The risk he now faces is that he’ll hardly be taken seriously next time. If his spokesperson cannot speak for him and his family cannot be trusted to issue a simple, coherent public statement in his name, the least Babangida can do for his own good is to save himself from mockery by keeping a low profile.
Ishiekwene is the Managing Director/Editor-In-Chief of The Interview and member of the board of the Global Editors Network