On Saturday, 17 August, friends and well wishers will be sending goodwill messages to greet former Nigerian military president (from 27 August 1985 to 26 August 1993), Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida on his 78th birthday. In other words, he will be two years shy of 80! He was born on 17 August 1941. There is no way his history will be written without the coup he carried out, the ones he survived, those he concocted and others. Below is a story of how he killed his best friend, General Maman Vatsa for alleged coup. It was earlier published in the hard copy of TheNEWS, entitled: How Babangida Murdered Mamman Vatsa.
By Ademola Adegbamigbe
Sava Farm, a nondescript piece of property situated at Malali area of Kaduna city, does not reveal the importance of its occupant. It is owned by Hajia Sufiya, widow of General Mamman Vatsa, executed over a controversial coup by the regime of General Ibrahim Babangida in 1986. With its brown gate, half brick, half metal perimeter fence that looks as if it would collapse any time with the heavy rains, and the rusty signboard defaced by four posters of Isiah Balat who is campaigning to be governor of Kaduna State, the farm stands as a relic, in sharp contrast to the more prosperous-looking Federal Government College and the Kaduna State Water Board nearby.
The bushy farm looks like an abandoned American ranch after a typical Red Indian invasion. An aide who doubles as the gate keeper opened the gate. As the reporters’ feet shuffled on the cobblestones that had seen better days, a quick survey of the premises showed a once-buoyant animal husbandry business. Another gate, on the left, leads to where Sufiya lives. With a quick detour, the visitors were ushered into the front of the main bungalow. The circular forecourt is habitat to flowers crying for pruning. Peeping out of the circle was a white Mercedez Benz 190 that stood as if, driven by some invisible hands from outer space, it was ready to engage the reverse gear, receding further into the dense flowers, away from the intruders…A ricketty peugeot pick -up van and an abandoned white farm truck complete the picture of neglect. Sufiya’s balcony is a testament to a woman who, when she was happy, was in love with nature. Her suspended empty bird cages, creeping flowers, pots of cacti and aloe vera stand as proof. A long white hose meandered on the floor, a mark of half-hearted gardening.
Like her property, Hajia Sufiya Vatsa is a lone historical figure, abandoned in her woes and penury by successive governments after IBB executed her husband over a questionable coup. During a visit to her Sava Farm by three journalists from TheNEWS, the woman cut the picture of Miss Havisham in Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations, who, after being disappointed by her suitor, refuses to see the sun, fails to change her wedding gown and leaves her watch permanently “at twenty minutes to nine.” Unlike Miss Havisham, however, Sufiya’s separation from her husband came from the machination of a third party – IBB. Since then, life has been horrible for her family.
Daily, Sufiya sits by two high-definition photographs of her husband: one in mufti and the other in military gear. When this magazine visited her, she wore a brown wrapper, deep brown headgear with an ankara top embossed with brown irregular designs. She sat behind a small centre table set with assorted drinks, beverages and local herbal solutions. In front of her was a shelf with a rectangular mirror, on which an old television set was placed.
Another symbol of her state of mind and the neglect she suffers was an abandoned grey aquarium, tilting against the wall under the portrait of a medieval soldier riding a chariot, shooting an arrow. Under another congested table in front of her was a green book, Makers of Modern Africa. A reading lamp, about four chandeliers and a dining table required dusting just as her life requires rehabilitation. An extension of her melancholy was that, contrary to expectation, she declined an interview since it would bring back a deluge of old, painful memories.
Sufiya’s journey into the abyss of poverty began on 23 December 1985. The family had just concluded plans to travel to Calabar because, usually, they spent the yuletide in the Cross River State capital (Sufiya is Efik), the Id-el-Fitri in Minna, Niger State and the Id-el Kabir in Kaduna. After the necessary packing for the trip, the family waited for the return of General Vatsa from the Armed Forces Ruling Council (AFRC) meeting he had attended. He returned home late, so the trip was postponed till the following day. At about 12 midnight, while Sufiya was watching a movie in her bedroom, her husband, who was working in his study, rushed in to tell her that IBB had sent for him. The wife protested that it was too late in the night and that Vatsa should phone his boss to shift the meeting to the following morning.
As this debate was going on, Lt. Col. U.K. Bello led a team of soldiers to Vatsa’s home at Rumens Street, Ikoyi, Lagos. The soldiers, who came with armored vehicles and military vans, surrounded the house. Vatsa told his wife who was upstairs to peep through the window. Unable to contain her fear, she rushed downstairs and insisted that if the soldiers would take away her husband, then she had to follow them. Sufiya insisted on driving Vatsa in her own Pengeot 404. At this point, Vatsa directed that the children be woken up, and he kissed them one after the other. Haruna, the first son, who was in Military Training School, Zaria, followed them downstairs, weeping. While UK Bello drove in the fore of the convoy, Sufiya and Vatsa were chauffeur-driven in their own car in what later turned out to be a merry-go-round about Lagos till about 2 a.m when they stopped at 7 Cameron Road, Ikoyi. Vatsa was ordered out of the car. As he made to enter the building, Sufiya ran after him but she was rudely pulled back by the soldiers. The General turned and gave his wife a bear hug, an embrace that was their last. He urged his wife to take care of their children. Sufiya returned home dejected. To her shock, the military authorities had withdrawn the official domestic staff. At 5a.m, she prepared breakfast of fried yam and pawpaw, drove to her husband’s detention centre but was told she could not bring in any food.
Another surprise awaited Vatsa’s wife. A soldier came in and said: “Madam, Oga’s wife, Mrs Mariam Babangida, said I should bring General Vatsa’s telephone handset to her.” Fatima, Vatsa’s daughter, clung to the gadget. A struggle ensued between the 15-year-old girl and the soldier, whose muscles bulged like the biceps of a Michaelangelo’s statue. Sufia asked her daughter to let go of the probably bugged set.
Worse still, some gruff, fierce-looking soldiers, led by Vatsa’s former Aide-de-Camp (ADC), Captain Maku, an intelligence officer of Idoma extraction, had led other soldiers in laying siege to the family’s house. “Madam, no visitors, no phone calls, no going out,” Maku snapped as he reclined on a settee in the living room, an improvised toothpick, peeping out of a corner of his mouth. When Sufiya protested that the family needed to buy foodstuff, Maku, whose friendly disposition when he was Vatsa’s batman had changed, commanded that the woman and her children “must manage.”
After three days of captivity, Sufiya could not endure it any longer. She told Maku: “Look, I am going to the market. If you refuse me, it means between you and I, somebody will die. I will show you I am a soldier’s wife.” She took her car, and without bothering about the soldiers, who cocked their guns menacingly at her, rammed it into the gate, which gave way as the soldiers scattered capriciously in different directions. She got to Falomo, bought bread and eggs, and decided to see one of her husband’s friends, General Gado Nasko. Before the visit to Nasko, however, Sufiya had driven home and, since her daughter was, coincidentally, at the gate, had dropped the food and driven to the Naskos.
Sufiya’s mission was to ask Nasko to fix a meeting between her and IBB to find a way to settle the matter. Although soldiers at Nasko’s house gave her the cold shoulder, her persistence worked.
Nasko, who said he was aware of the problem and would try to arrange the meeting, asked Sufiya to see him in the evening. Her hope soared. The reason was the special relationship between her family and IBB’s. “When we got married,” Sufiya was reported as saying, “I thought IBB and my husband were of the same family. The two wore the same size of dress and pair of shoes. IBB would drop his dirty wears in our house and put on my husband’s. When IBB traveled out, for a further military training my husband took care of Mariam and her children. General Vatsa, apart from mounting the horse when IBB married Mariam, bought their first set of furniture from Leventis on hire purchase.
IBB was also my husband’s best man during our wedding. Whenever Maryam’s Mercedez car broke down, she used to drive my Peugeot 404. We were close.” All these, to Babangida, did not count in the field of realpolitik. Nasko told Sufiya later in the day that the military President was not ready to see her.
Another disappointment awaited Sufiya when she returned to her Rumen’s Street residence, Ikoyi. A soldier from Bonny Camp was waiting for her with an order that the family should vacate the house. Another military officer said the car should be taken to Army Headquarters for security check after which they broke into the car’s glove compartment and confiscated Vatsa’s manuscripts. In frustration, Sufiya hired a trailer and moved the family’s belongings to Kaduna. She and Fatima, however, returned and stayed in Nwakana Okoro, her brother-in-law’s house at Queen’s Drive, Ikoyi. When the military authorities bugged Okoro’s telephone, the lawyer, a Senior Advocate, of Nigeria, became jittery.
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