Molara WoodSunday, July 25, 2004
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London, UK



here is no getting away from the fact that General Muhammadu Buhari was a dictator with whom I have many issues. But I write this minute purely as a woman and confess my own dark secret. I have long had a certain weakness for Buhari: for his terrifically austere handsomeness; for his air of frugal wealth; for shoulders so broad they should be illegal. Has a dictator ever looked more fetching in uniform? In front of that razor-sharp moustache, a girl dares not misbehave. So there you have it, the General as sex symbol. Be still, my beating heart!

When Buhari gave away his daughter in marriage recently, I was reminded of his no-show at Aishat Babangida's wedding. Nothing against the lovely bride you understand - but I'm glad Buhari took one look at the Babangida wedding invitation and stuffed it in the bin. The same Buhari who wept profusely on learning of Okadigbo's death. A weeping General, who might have behind the implacable exterior a sensitive soul.

We are a nation of sycophants and praise-singers, so pardon me while I give in to a fit of praise-singing. And who gets the most praise in our country today if not General Ibrahim Badamosi Babangida? IBB, GCFR, the Smiling Destroyer, the Okocha of Minna, the Great Dribbler, the Maradona who never stepped on a football field and yet operates like the Hand of God. He has stretched that hand mightily upon the land, and the rest of us fumble about blindly in the shadow of the General on the hill.

2007 beckons and the General who would be the comeback kid is everywhere. Hardly a day goes by without some seemingly irrevocable new pronouncement signalling a seemingly inexorable eventuality. When is a wedding not just a wedding? When it is one given by a chameleon about to pull out of his reptilian skin a final, stupefying transformation - that's when. It is in the air, carried upon the wind. Let the people in the city tell those in the village: the Smiling Destroyer cometh!


By the same token with which he made himself conspicuous by his non-appearance at the Babangida wedding regatta, Buhari made the point of showing up in solidarity at the funeral of Chief Gani Fawehinmi's mother. Olu Onagoruwa says it was a miracle Fawehinmi was not killed during IBB's years in power. Fawehinmi, champion of the people, who has vowed that if Babangida wants to come back in 2007, "I'm afraid it will have to be war". Judging by the hordes of prominent Nigerians who fell over themselves to be seen at Aishat Babangida's wedding, Gani Fawehinmi will find himself part of an ever-shrinking minority.

General Babangida says he thanks God that the people of Nigeria deemed him worthy of the country's highest honour. IBB may well have thanked himself, for it was not God's doing - too much is blamed on God in Nigeria. And it was definitely not the people who conferred on him the GCFR, a medal no longer worth the letters that make up its name. The honour was just President Obasanjo playing to Babangida's 2007 script. The two former military dictators should congratulate themselves and leave us out of it.

General Buhari, courted with the dubious honour of a GCFR offered in curious circumstances, did the honourable thing and stayed away from the conferment ceremony. He showed a kind of dignity and restraint not often seen today in our nation of pretenders obsessed with greatness to which they have no claim. It is said that Buhari is an isolated man whose Governors cannot even bother to attend his rallies. But there is something reassuringly human about a dictator put in his place, boxed into a corner. Whatever our disquiet about Buhari's past, we can rest assured in the near-certainty that we need not worry too much about him in future. Save for an act of God, Buhari cannot rule Nigeria again. But it will take an act of God to prevent Babangida coming back.

No matter if there was no fuji or juju music played at Aishat Babangida's wedding - it was a true owambe regardless. Big name after big name jostled to be seen to be there, eager to be in Babangida's good books ahead of 2007. Looking at the wedding photos, one could almost read into the celebrities' fawning smiles the desperate cry: "ranti mi nigbati o ba dara fun o" (remember me when it is well with thee!) And the sheer scale of the wedding, including a cake rumoured to have been flown in from Harrods, London's most expensive store. Are there no cake specialists in the whole of Nigeria good enough for Aishat? Such vulgarity, in a nation where millions struggle for three meals a day, if they're lucky.

The shameless and remorseless Abacha family were out in force, including matriarch Mariam Abacha, the inspiration for a million 419 emails on the internet. The bestman was her charmless son, Mohammed, who always looks half-asleep. Given their prominence at the wedding, there is no doubt that Babangida's return will also herald the full public rehabilitation of the Abacha family.

And what to make of the attendance of MKO Abiola's widows at the wedding? Or indeed the seeming ambivalence of certain members of the Abiola family to Babangida and the sacrilege of June 12? Kola Abiola gave an interview in mid-2003 titled: "Why They Killed My Father". Whether the reason is ever revealed in the interview is open to question, but Kola had a lot to say about "the wives" - and NADECO, whose "rhetoric" he says he had not cared to listen to during his father's turbulent last years. Kola wanted us to know he was really the substance behind the larger than life personality of his father, "playing the role of son, father, mother and wife" to MKO. It's a miracle "the wives" were needed at all. In fact, June 12 would never have happened if everyone had listened to Kola Abiola, he would have us believe.

It would seem that, to Kola, everyone is to blame for June 12 but the real culprits. On the charge that he fraternises too easily with his father's detractors, he says his role was "to bridge" the political gulf between IBB and his father. Similarly, Kola was a "bridge" between MKO and Y'ar'adua, as well as Obasanjo. One man, many bridges. Perhaps Kola himself would have had no qualms about attending the Babangida wedding. But his much talked about past entanglement with the bride made this impossible. While he stayed at home wondering what might have been, his stepmothers were happy to grace the occasion. I wonder what conversation passed between the Abiola widows and Mariam Abacha? What strange bedfellows the wedding goers were.

How was the Minna wedding different from the countless others that Mrs Bisi Abiola has honoured with her presence? Could she not have given this one a miss? Dr Doyin Abiola's moving interview in the same publication as Kola's, was filled with delightful little anecdotes that gave an insight into MKO the man. Seeing this woman of substance who is not known for frivolity at the Babangida wedding was a particular disappointment.

The Abiola widows could have sent flowers and good wishes, but they chose to attend. In so doing, they failed to recognise the power of the symbolic gesture and played into the hands of IBB who knew that their presence would help him send a powerful message: that June 12 no longer matters. But it is an unacceptable message from an unrepentant man possessed by unbelievable arrogance. The appearance of the Abiola widows at Aishat's wedding was an act of misplaced magnanimity.

If the comely Aishat had been the crown princess of Nigeria she could not have had a grander wedding. It worked so perfectly to plan that IBB has now married off his son in similar style. If Tom Wolfe had written about the wedding on the hill in Minna, he would have called it the "Bonfire of the Vanities". When is a wedding not just a wedding? When it is one given by a chameleon about to pull out of his reptilian skin a final, stupefying transformation - that's when.