OPINION: General Tunde Idiagbon: A nationalist, an iron-surgeon departs. By Chido Nwangwu

Date: 1999-06-01

Babatunde (Tunde) Idiagbon, one of the few respected officers and former second-in-command during the military rule of Gen. Mohammadu Buhari, January 1, 1984- August 1987 died on March 24, 1999. He was only 56 years old and reportedly collapsed in his home in Ilorin, Kwara State. Let's place the man within a historical context to achieve a better meaning regarding what I believe was a very remarkable and consequential life. First, Idiagbon, famous for his stern attitude, morose demeanor and iron-fist approach to governing had a love-hate relationship with his countrymen. Initially, many felt he was too dictatorial and left no room for compassion for errant fellows. Some, at the time, also felt his approach was right for Nigerians, an unusually boisterous group of people in their country.

Second, I believe that Nigeria benefitted and learned major lessons from the firm hands and watchful eyes of Idiagbon. Why? However shortlived, he contributed immensely to clean the mess and stinking indiscipline which continues to eat deep like a cancerous growth in the country's social, organizational, governmental and individual fabric. Recall that shortly after his removal from office through the military coup which brought Gen. Ibrahim Babangida to power August 27, 1985, most Nigerians seemed to have missed Idiagbon's style and substance.

Third, his efforts imposed some sense of orderliness to most aspects of public life in Nigeria. In many ways, he improved Nigerians' attitude to work, sanitation and ethics. He led the national campaign known as War Against Indiscipline, WAI. Streets, public and private buildings and other dirty areas and corners of every major city started to shine in the wake of WAI. WAI's mechanism rested on command, threat and actual use of force and sanctions by Idiagbon's team. With WAI under his watch, Nigeria was cleaner, although some buildings owned by many poor folks were callously smashed by bulldozers. After less than 5 months of being replaced by Babangida, Nigeria relapsed to dirt as usual. Ever since, mountains of rubbish struggle for attention with imported vehicles.

Fourth, he set a clear, firm tone for ruling (with his boss retired Gen. Muhammadu Buhari). Comparatively, retired Generals Obasanjo, Babangida and Nigeria's current ruler Gen. Abdulsalami Abubakar Buhari are quite different from the late Idiagbon. Where Obasanjo, Babangida and Abubakar employ wily tactics to deal with most issues and gradually revealing their intent as masking other numerous goals, Idiagbon never left you in doubt. His uncharitable critics say that's why he did not survive in the system. Unlike Idiagbon, the other three had cheerful outlooks regardless of whatever was happening in (and to) the country.

Fifth and significantly, Idiagbon did not leave office with tons and millions of Deutsche Marks, Pounds Sterling and the almighty U.S. Dollars as did the civilian men (and some women) whose removal from office he plotted. When compared with most of the now retired soldiers and politicians who overthrew the Buhari-Idiagbon regime to usher in the Babangida team and later the demonic kill-and-go squad of Abacha's, Idiagbon is positively etched in the minds of millions of his compatriots. I recall in the late 1980s while I was serving for Nigeria's National Youth Corps program in Ilorin, the city which was home to Idiagbon, I was introduced to a very modest ice cream shop. The ice cream shop was said to be operated by Idiagbon's wife. In Nigeria, the wives of army officers, moreso the wife of a Nigerian General and the country's Number Two man, are more in the line of selling very expensive diamonds, trinkets and assorted designer wears; they are champions at awarding, forwarding and backwarding government contracts and serving as the clearing houses for all manner of things which do not belong to their province. The wives of Nigeria's army Generals are served rather than serve ordinary folks and "idle civilians" like us especially through that fine, humble art of running a small ice cream parlor.

The Idiagbons' ice cream shop (I believe it's on Ibrahim Taiwo road) and their modest home remain fitting ethical symbols and metaphor for a man and a family who served without recourse to the economic brigandage, economic looting and armed robbery we witness, daily in Nigeria, in the name of "governments."

Sixth, Nigerians will miss Idiagbon, among other fine if imperfect qualities, for proving, although by force and threat of sanction, that Nigerians can stand on a bus line, and indeed any line (INSIDE Nigeria), to wait their turn. Miracles will never end, my compatriots said, at the time. He proved conclusively that it's not in our stars to be disorderly. The late patriot Idiagbon embodied the capacity for Nigeria's renewal. He, alongside other patriots like Mokwugo Okoye, Aminu Kano and millions of other patriots dead and alive, validate the fact that Nigerians and Nigeria are not cursed to a bestial gamut of unethical damnation and wanton corruption. Even after leaving government, he refused to be "purchased" or used as prop for any regime's slimy games and uncouth shenanigans. Babatunde was not one, to the best of my knowledge, to be used by any regime, including the more-you-look-the-less-you-see regime of incumbent Gen. Abdulsalami Abubakar.

Seventh, history will recall the late Idiagbon, son of a very modest Muslim family, as a nationalist, albeit an iron-surgeon in search of solutions for his ailing fatherland. Where his military colleagues flinched and became the triple-horned architects of economic decline and king toads of the moral swamp and corruption which have dwarfed Nigeria's destiny, Tunde Idiagbon had the gumption and courage to jail the terribly corrupt, the not-so-corrupt and their team of enablers.

Eight, as is commonplace with dictators, he had blanket solutions to all manner of ailments for the country and its citizenry: lock 'em up and whip 'em where necessary. He believed in Nigeria but doubted Nigerians. He believed, like Buhari (in his earlier years as military ruler) that to cure Nigeria and Nigerians of their problems, he needed to reach the physical senses of Nigerians. For Buhari and Idiagbon (and Abacha, in this instance), the Igbo adage that 'the body hears more than the ear' was elevated to the cardinal theology for achieving "discipline" and imposing ethics. Yet it is important to note that the concept of an "Ethical Revolution" in Nigeria was articulated for the country by an elder of the Presbyterian Church, author and Nigeria's former consul general to the U.S., Mazi Aggrey Kanu Oji. While Mazi Oji sought ethical re-socialization and positive cues achieved through institutional changes rather than raw military chastisement, Buhari and Idiagbon preferred to be feared rather just to be loved. Machiavelli would have winked and probably said: 'Those Nigerian Generals, disciples of The Prince, followers of my book....'

Also, on this issue of re-engineering political behavior, their methods reflected more of their training as soldiers, seeped in command and obey methods, than all the fine political socialization paradigms established by scholars of all climes, of all times. In removing the civilian/elected government led by Alhaji Shehu Shagari, the twosome appeared to have halted a declining turn for Nigeria. Today, makes me wonder, if Shagari should not have "managed" Nigeria until the other "idle civilians", professional antagonists and tribalists changed their ways and Nigerian Police/politicians allowed a freer press to expose their excesses. Makes you, wonder, eh? Let's go back to Idiagbon, the departed patriot.

Ninth, the man was not a saint. At the time of their power and pomp, Buhari and Idiagbon had their dark-side. I recall that any Nigerian only chose to disobey Buhari and Idiagbon if they were prepared to have their daylights switched to blinding darkness in the valleys of military "discipline", a unique tonic and and "reorientation" in patriotism, primarily for us, the so-called "idle civilians." Somehow, it "worked" - only as long as the regime lasted. Major cities and parts of the same neighborhood competed one Saturday in a month. The tradition continues, only with very limited impact.

It must be noted, too, they were more inclined to foster Islamic interests in the so-called secular Nigerian republic. Plus, it was under their rule that a certain Emir came into Nigeria with 53 (?) suitcases when Buhari and Idiagbon decreed every luggage from "overseas" must be searched and accounted for. Clouds of doubt about same rule for all Nigerians followed; and things were never the same. You know, Nigerians relished having the "big boys" in jail believing like idealistic fellows that "all animals are equal." At least, not in Nigeria and not here in the U.S. Some animals are truly more equal than others. Some Emirs and the Sultan were "more equal" than most of the other Ezes, Obas, and Chiefs from what geo-politically is known as Southern Nigeria.

I must say that Idiagbon's patriotic heart would have been burning everyday since the same chieftains of the NPN and their allies across Nigeria were repackaged under Babangida, Ernest Shonekan, Abacha, incumbent Abubakar and more evident with the forces who brought former military ruler Gen. Olusegun Obasanjo (who Prof. Wole Soyinka referred to recently as "alleged President") into power, again. In February before the 27 February presidential election, Idiagbon advised Nigerians during the launch of a book about Buhari that Nigerians should elect a true civilian into office. It was swipe at the hijack of the transition by his former military colleagues.

Tenth, Idiagbon would have departed his country wondering why the same forces he fought against (within the status quo) determined when the road to his modest house was paved, how many times the schools in Ilorin were shut down or the fact that the norm is for electric power supply to stay off rather than on.

Like Idiagbon, I also wonder why the SAME recycled and repackaged political juggernauts, shameless ethnic warlords, some of the more corrupt and divisive former soldiers/Generals, the train of former State-certified convicts and jailed destroyers of Nigeria's economy are leading many sections of Nigeria's newly-elected government. Like Idiagbon, I wonder why the key chieftains of the Peoples Democratic Party, Alliance for Democracy and the All Peoples Party turned the elections into a buyer's bazaar. Idiagbon would have frowned at the ongoing scandal where freshly elected politicians "resign" for more influential, vote buyer juggernauts to take over their seats. It's a crying, stinking shame.

One adult who had served as a senior administration officer was so agitated during a visit by Idiagbon to his agency that he forgot how to sing "Nigeria we hail thee...." and other verses of the National Anthem. Lest we forget, that was cardinal, unpatriotic sin, in the land at the time! Finally, even after his burial on Thursday, 25 March, 1999, Nigerians should remember the man for his courage, modesty, unshaken belief in Nigeria, and basic moral goals he pursued in a very corrupting society. Babatunde Idiagbon, soldier, brother, bundle of courage, nationalist, imperfect man, father and the destroyer of certain shibboleths forbidding Nigeria's social and economic progress, may your soul rest in peace.

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