Generals Ibrahim Babangida & Mamman Vatsa: Nigeria’s Most Intriguing Story of Friendship, Trust & Betrayal
Vatsa was not the only one executed. There were about 12 or 13 of them that were executed. Really I know he was a friend but is it fair to save him and kill others?
-IBRAHIM BADAMASI BABANGIDA, army general and Nigerian military president (1985-1993) on the execution of his friend, professional colleague and companion, Mamman Jiya Vatsa . Vatsa was arrested on charges of plotting to overthrow Babangida less than three months after IBB had taken over.
The friendship of Nigeria’s military president, General Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida and the late soldier and poet, Major-General Mamman Jiya is one that has captured the imagination of millions of Nigerians, and kept not a few tongues wagging. Their story is a very interesting one indeed, and you might be shocked to know some things.
On the 5th of March, 1986, Lt. General Domkat Bali, the Minister of Defence of the Nigerian military government and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, GCON made an announcement to the Nigerian nation and it was not a nice one at all.
He said that nine military officers have been tried, convicted and that they had been sentenced to death by a Special Military Tribunal for plotting to violently overthrow the Babangida regime, a junta less than 100 days in power. The cold announcement to a shell-shocked nation actually came two hours AFTER the officers had been secretly executed by the regime. General Bali said in his broadcast:
In the military, the penalty for treason is death.
One of those condemned under the newly-enacted Treason & Other Related Offences (Special Military Tribunal) Decree No 1 of 1986 was none other than Vatsa, the amiable friend of the military president. He was accused alongside others of plotting to overthrow Babangida’s government. Vatsa’s wife later insisted that this decree was signed on the 6th of January, 1986, days after Vatsa and others were arrested. The plot itself was said to have been uncovered in December 1985.
Nigerians were shocked. Many thought it was a huge joke, and thought that even if many of the alleged conspirators were to be executed, some of the most senior officers, especially Vatsa would be spared, considering the very close relationship he had with the Commander-in-Chief. They were wrong. In fact, the announcement came one hour AFTER Vatsa and all others were executed. Till today, many Nigerians are still shocked. But why?
The friendship of the duo dated back to their childhood. In 1959, both of them met at the Government College, Bida in Niger State where they were admitted to study. Born just eight months apart and both hailing from Niger State (Vatsa was Nupe while Babangida is Gwari), both of them became fond of each other and quickly became friends.
Both of them shared an interest in joining the military and in 1962, both of them were recruited into the Nigerian Army same day. Together, they also attended the Indian Military School in 1964. When the Nigerian Civil War broke out in 1967, they were also at the warfront together.
Their friendship continued and when Vatsa got married to Safiya, his Efik wife from Calabar, the best man on the wedding day was Ibrahim Babangida. When it was also the turn of Babangida to get married to Maryam in 1969, Vatsa was also his right-hand man -in fact, it was Vatsa who mounted the military ceremonial horse.
However, it must be pointed out that contrary to what many believe, the late Vatsa was not the best man at IBBs wedding. According to a commemorative edition published in October 2001 to celebrate IBBs 60th birthday (which he earlier celebrated in Saudi Arabia in August), Vatsa was actually one of the four masters of ceremony when IBB married Maryam on the 6th of September, 1969, it was a Saturday. And just for the records, the best men during IBBs wedding were two army majors: YY Kure and A. Waziri.
Throughout the trial for the alleged coup plotters, Mamman Vatsa maintained his innocence. Shortly before he was executed, Vatsa was reported to have sent a message to his wife from where he was incarcerated, saying:
Do not beg Babangida. He is after my life. Take care of the children. I know it is not easy but God will help you.
A former minister of the Federal Capital Territory (that made Vatsa one of the most powerful figures in the Babangida administration), it was under Vatsa’s administration that the Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA) acquired their piece of land. Vatsa was an accomplished author.
THE SENTENCE AND THE PLEAS
Following the announcement of the military tribunals decision to execute Vatsa and others, several individuals decided to intervene and plead on behalf of the alleged coup plotters. Some of those that went to IBB at Dodan Barracks in Lagos (then the base of power) were the trio of Wole Soyinka, Chinua Achebe and John Pepper Clark-Bekederemo (JP Clark). They pleaded with the dictator for mercy for Vatsa (who was also a poet). But what happened afterwards?
See some of Vatsa’s works below:
IBB smiled and told the three of them that the necks of Vatsa and others would be saved. He expressed that his hands were tied, in that there are military rules to be followed and that it also involved his own very good friend but he assured the three great writers that he would be merciful. Soyinka, Achebe and Clark were not just relieved and grateful to the dictator, they were also very pleased their mission was going to be a resounding success. In fact, Clark was so excited that he told the other two that they should celebrate all night. However, Soyinka had to leave for Abeokuta that day so he turned down the offer. They all left Dodan Barracks in high spirits.
Unknown to these giants of literature, the general was just deceiving them through his the gap of his teeth. Soyinka had barely reached his residence when he got the message that Vatsa and others had been executed. Soyinka and others who had begged IBB shortly before were not only disappointed, they were devastated. Soyinka was so shocked that he could not meet with those IBB sent to explain why the execution had to occur. In 2006, Soyinka revealed the wound in his heart in his memoir, You Must Set Forth At Dawn, where he expressed his disgust at Babangidas betrayal. Soyinka said:
I felt betrayed because Chinua Achebe, JP Clark (both professors) and myself met Babangida that day. He came out and gave his pledge and said Gentlemen, I am glad you came, I am going to throw my weight on the side of mercy; I promise you, I will do my best. Before I arrived Abeokuta that day, I was horrified to hear that the executions had taken place.
Soyinka explained further that a young man who claimed that he worked at the Dodan Barracks and that his half-brother was among those that were executed explained that he had sent a message earlier to Soyinka that in the council, IBB was forced to sign the warrant by others and that that they had told IBB that Oga, if you cant sign this then step aside. What Soyinka does not really understand about this was whether the man was lying or he was being lied to so as to exonerate Babangida because the young man was not present at the meeting. Soyinka enunciated:
Ill like to know if what the young man told me was true, if indeed, Babangida was compelled by his own colleagues.And I remember very distinctly that he said the chairman of the panel said oga if you cant sign this then step aside. I remember distinctly the words he used. One does not forget moments like that.Now as I said, was the young man li ed to? Was he deceived? Who spoke to him? I didnt ask who told him that day.So, Ill like to know the truth simply for my own personal satisfaction. I want to know whether we are dealing with a cold-blooded murderer who lied to us or dealing with somebody who is just misunderstood.
The trial was in a haste and the execution was speedily done. It must also be stated at this point that apart from the trio mentioned above, the late Professor Omo Omoruyi also attempted to appeal on behalf of the convicted plotters. A long-time ally of IBB (although he would later cry out that IBB abandoned him when he was battling prostate cancer which later killed him), Omoruyi initially believed that IBB would free the convicts, especially when Babangida appointed him to draft a speech with verses from the Holy Quran and the Holy Bible preaching the virtue of forgiveness for culprits. Omoruyi had barely finished the needless assignment when news also reached him that Vatsa and others had been killed. Omoruyi was so petrified with fear that he did not even ask Babangida why they were killed. He was wondering what a man who signed the death warrant of his very good friend would do to him, an ordinary political scientists that Babangida had met at the National Institute for Policy & Strategic Studies (NIPSS) at Kuru, near Jos, Plateau State. Thus, he kept his mouth shut.
IBB would later say thus:
I am happy he has been my friend, and I have no regret being his friend. There are a lot of things I know but it is not in my character to go about saying certain things. He is not alive, so I will be unfair to talk about him, the best I could do is to pray for him. He has children, he has a wife and grandchildren. I dont want to get involved because I cherish the relationship. However, I fervently pray that one day his children will grow up and know exactly what happened.
I don’t want to sow the seed of discord in the mind of the children because some of them were toddlers when these events occurred so it will create a permanent enmity and by my faith you don’t hold them responsible for what he did or what I did. That is the way I look at it, so you will not hear me talking much about it. But out of curiosity I asked for the documents and I have six volumes just on the case. I read through them and I was satisfied. I just closed them and kept the document away. I just wanted to make sure that I did not do what I am accused of doing. I have documents attached to this case. Besides in that coup, Vatsa is not the only one executed, there were 13 of them that were executed, may be they were not prominent but all lives are important as far as I am concerned. I am satisfied that we did not do anything in malice or hatred. In 1976 they published a similar story about Abdul Wayas. Everybody will say his own or her own has not committed anything. I know one officer even said he had strong evidence that Abdul Wayas was innocent. So I think it is a question of time, those who were in the supreme military council ordered over 60 of them to be executed but there are certain people, including relations and well-wishers who believed that certain key officers were not guilty.
–IBRAHIM BABANGIDA, army general and Nigerian military president (1985-1993) on the execution of his friend, professional colleague and companion, Mamman Jiya Vatsa in August 2006 (Weekly Trust, Aideloje O.).
IBB also said that even his late wife, Maryam, sent a note to him while they were deliberating on the coup plotters but that he has no regrets whatsoever since they did everything according to the law (military decrees).
THE DELE GIWA CONNECTION
On the 19th of October, 1986, one of Nigerias most talented journalists, Sumonu Oladele Baines Giwa (better known as Dele Giwa) was assassinated by a letter bomb at his Lagos home. However, shortly before his death, he had been invited to the Directorate of Military Intelligence (DMI) in Apapa, Lagos. It was suspected that Giwa had a copy of the coup trial judgement and that Newswatch was planning to publish the coup plot in very vivid details using the tribunal judgement in which Vatsa and other soldiers were sentenced to death.
THE COLONEL DANGIWA UMAR ANGLE
According to Col. Umar, Vatsa plotted. In 2000, he told the Weekly Trust in an interview:
Vatsa plotted. I dont want to open up that issue. There was a trial. I was interrogated. I was not found guilty, so I was released. Okay. Vatsa was tried and he was found guilty of coup plot against the IBB regime. How I wish they were not executed. I even appealed but of course, I was in the minority. But that was the system. There was a trial. They were found guilty. I regret that they were killed, but that is the way it is. But he tolerated me because I didnt plot a coup against him.
Colonel Abubakar Dangiwa Umar was appointed the military governor of Kaduna State from August 1985 to June 1988.
WHAT KIND OF FRIENDS WERE THE DUO?
Alhaji Isa Haruna Vatsa, the immediate younger brother of Vatsa said that the two soldiers were very close and weathered the storms of life together. He stated that IBB used to visit the Vatsa family home on a regular basis. He said that they were like twins and did everything together, even when they were both instructors at the Nigerian Defence Academy in Kaduna. He went further to explain that whenever IBB travelled, he would buy a pair of shoe for Vatsa and any time his brother was on a voyage, he would also reciprocate IBBs kind gesture. Alhaji Vatsa said their relationship was very cordial until the issue of coup plotting came up.
He also said that the family wants his body returned so that he could be buried properly in his ancestral land according to Islamic rites, his seized properties returned alongside all his military entitlements. That was in August 2006 and Alhaji Vatsa was a farmer and the family head being the eldest member. He complained of the poverty they have been plunged into, pointing to the lizards scurrying around the abandoned house that Vatsa had started building in the village. Weeds had taken over the building. It was a ghostly scene.
The family petitioned the Obasanjo presidency to get justice for their late brother, and the Vatsa family was promised Aso Rock (Mrs. Vatsa was received by President Obasanjo at the Villa and he promised to re-open the investigation) was looking into the matter, in the words of Mrs. Remi Oyo, President Obasanjos Special Assistant on Media. (Obasanjo had a nice working relationship with Vatsa when he was the military Head of State, Vatsa was then the Commander of the Brigade of Guards).
In the words of Safiya, Vatsas wife, both IBB and Vatsa were so close that at first, he did not even know that they were not siblings. She stated that they both wore the same uniform size and that IBB was free to come to their house at any time and take whatever he needed. She said that atimes, when IBB was drunk, he would come to their home to change his beer-stained uniform to Vatsas own, even if it was by midnight. She said she complained severally to her husband of this friend who takes everything but gives nothing in return. Safiya said her husband told her bluntly to mind her business that up in the north, that is the way friends relate like brothers.
THE GRIEVING WIDOW
Less than 24 hours after IBB granted the interview where he said he had no regrets, Safiya, Vatsa’s widow fired back:
Just what IBB said that he has no regrets, I dont blame him for not having a regret for human life For him to say that he has no regrets for taking human life shows you the type of man Nigeria is having and who has been at the helm of affairs in the country.I believe one day God will reveal all of them one by one as they are grouping together and we will know them and Nigerians will now see them as they are. We thank you very much, the Vatsa family, my children and my dead husband. I am sure his spirit today will be very very happy and he will rise to back you people for whatever you are doing.
She also went on to say that she was not a politician and people should not misconstrue her struggle for a crusade against IBBs plan to come back to power. She also stated that she had the incriminating documents with her in Nigeria and some in European archives and that IBB killed her husband because he (Vatsa) knew everything about IBB.
Following the tragic end of Vatsa, his Efik wife, Hajia Safiya, was left alone to pick the pieces of her life while also raising her children. Many have sympathized with her while some others have been less graceful in addressing her. One of the latter is the former Field Commander of the ECOWAS Monitoring Group/Peacekeeping Force (ECOMOG), Brigadier-General John Shagaya (now Senator John Nanzip Shagaya of Plateau South Senatorial District). Shagaya told her in a 2006 interview to shut up. He said, describing Safiyas cries for justice as:
.mere noise making being engineered by certain forces, It is unfortunate that Mamman Vastas wife came at this time with such a position, because al over he world the price of coup against a constituted government, if found guilty, the appropriate punishment is death by firing squad. Vatsa went through proper trial and there are seven volumes of that trial in the Army Headquarters and in the Chief of Defence Staff Office. I happen to be a witness seven times in those trials, so it is unfortunate that the wife is being engineered from whatever quarters to make unnecessary noise on issue she should have left to rest, because the husband deserves to rest In peace. May his soul rest in peace.
In the interview, he said he added that he did not even know why the security forces had not effected the arrest of Mrs. Vatsa and that he could not answer for Lt. Gen. Domkat Bali as he was a superior officer. Babangida had appointed Shagaya, a Tarok by ethnicity, the Federal Minister of Internal Affairs, Member of the Police Council and a Member of the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC).
Also, in 1987 when IBB set up a committee to deliberate upon the membership of Nigeria in the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC, now called the Organization of Islamic Cooperation), Shagaya served as a chairman of the committee. Described as one of the IBB Boys, Shagaya was so loyal to IBB that Abacha recalled him from Liberia, demoted him from a Major-General to a Brigadier-General and handed him a retirement from the Nigerian Army. Actually, when Shagaya turned 60, he gladly announced that he was proud to be called an IBB boy (he once stated that come 2007, Babangida would be President of Nigeria).
It should be noted that Bali, another Tarok, resigned from the army on the 10th of January, 1990 when he was ordered to take over from Shagaya as the Interior Minister. Bali, who was the Minister of Defence, felt the role was an insult. He resigned.
In October 2007, Soyinka blasted Babangida and urged Nigerian writers not to honour him. Babangida was invited to the Nigeria Liquified Natural Gas (NLNG) Awards Night at the Muson Centre in Onikan, Lagos as the Keynote Speaker. Soyinka said IBB could have been invited to other gatherings but definitely one of writers, whom he accused IBB of even snuffing out the life of one of them (Vatsa) over trumped-up charges of coup plotting. IBB had told Safiya, Vatsas widow, that Mamman Vatsas life was not more important than that of the others and that surely infuriated the Nobel Laureate. He thundered:
I dont know if you remember Babangida’s statement when Vatsa’s wife was seeking justice for her husband; it was the most insensitive statement I have ever heard from any former head of state and I responded. What he said was, first of all, he had no regret for the execution of Vatsa, he said it categorically. Then he said, whats the noise about one person, what about the lives of others that were executed? In other words, it didn’t matter at all who is executed. But to make that statement to a widow that for me is a clincher that Babangida does not value human rights.
A furious Soyinka later said:
I. B. Babangida cannot escape the burden of self-revelation that was contained in his defiant statement, flung in the face of a widow. It was a cruel, unfeeling statement, a contempt for humane sensibilities. No amount of programmed aggression by the generals squad of libelous liars and revisionists can obscure that summative self-indictment.
IBB later flew into Lagos in a chartered jet and said that he was more than qualified to deliver the lecture and that he would not be intimidated. In his words: I am a general and I have been in the military for 32 years. Soyinka had earlier called on writers to boycott the event and they did.
Hajia Safiya Vatsa later died in Kaduna in May, 2007.
LATER IN LIFE
In January 2001, General Ibrahim Babangida was interviewed by ThisDay and when he was asked about his dear friend executed by his regime almost 15 years before the interview. The general launched a volley of words:
When I was told Vatsa was planning a coup I dismissed it immediately. But when I later saw the evidence, I sanctioned his arrest but said he should be detained in his house. However he tried to escape through the air conditioner hole. Then I asked myself if he was not planning a coup why was he trying to escape? Despite the fact that he was my friend, play mate and course mate, he had to be executed. Vatsa was like a scorpion in ones pocket. If he had been retired he could still have planned a coup from outside. At the time Jerry Rawlings did it in Ghana.
While watching the video of his execution, I saw him remove his watch and give to a soldier to take to his wife saying,Tell her to take care of my children. I was so touched I couldnt continue watching. I turned away and that night I couldnt sleep. Vatsa was very stubborn.
Another intriguing twist to the story is that IBB admitted that before the arrest, Vatsa had visited him to proclaim his innocence and IBB told his good friend not to worry about it since he does not believe that his very good friend will want to harm him or destabilize his government, and moreover, the plot had not even been executed yet.
In May 2001, amidst rumours that he was planning to run for the presidency, Babangida embarked on the ambitious project of constructing a library and museum at his Minna residence. In addition to that, there will be a website too. These were to document all the events of regime (1985-1993), containing all the memoranda and decision of the Armed Forces Ruling Council (AFRC), reports from the various universities, Papers of the Federal Executive Council, Verbatim Reports of the numerous tribunals and commissions, monographs, security reports and even annual budgets, all of which were to be carefully catalogued on the website and made available for visitors and researchers.
This project was so important to IBB that he made sure it was handled by Alhaji Muazu H. Wali, the Chief Librarian of the Federation (Wali was three years ahead of IBB while in school). But for visitors entering the museum, there was one thing caught everyones attention. It was a massive photograph, and peering in it, one could see three people: an unnamed man, Babangida and Vatsa, the soldier-poet from Gulu-Vatsa Village in Lapai Local Government Area of Niger State. It was the picture of their graduation day from the military school.
Safiya, Vatsas wife would later say that her husband was killed by his intimate friend, classmate and saviour. At a time when the Vatsa family threatened to provide evidence to show that Vatsa was wrongly killed, IBB fired back saying he would also provide documents that showed Vatsas culpability in the coup plot.
In April 2004, General Babangida stated in an interview with the Channels Television that he had no regrets and that Vatsa had to die according to the laws stipulated for coup plotters at that time and that if he was not executed, it would be setting a dangerous precedent.
In June 2004, Jonathan Vatsa, the National Coordinator, National Coalition for Atiku 2007 and the youngest brother of the late Vatsa told journalists at a press conference at the Nigerian Union of Journalists (NUJ) Center in Bauchi State. He said:
We bear no grudge against IBB. We have since put the case before Gods court.
THANKS FOR YOUR TIME.
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5. Text of Newswatch petition to the Justice Oputa Human Rights Violations Investigation Panel, 18th December, 2000.
6. Who Killed Dele Giwa by Tobs Agbaegbu, Newswatch, 18th December, 2000.
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14. Dele Giwa, June 12, My Story Soon IBB (Wole Mosadomi), Vanguard, 27th August, 2006.
15. Vatsas Widow Replies IBB (John Shiklam), Daily Champion, 22nd August, 2006.
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18. Friends At War, ThisDay, 14th August, 2006.
19. General Vatsas Widow Petitions Government, Nigeria First, 26th July, 2006.
20. Vatsa: Short Memories, Long Shadows (Sagir Mohammed), ThisDay, 8th August, 2006.
21. Now, Were On Our Own -Mamman Vatsas Son (Emeka Mamah), Vanguard, 26th May, 2007.