Babangida: The Early Years


Max Siollun



Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida is one of the most controversial figures in Nigeria’s history.  Despite having been out of power for fast approaching 15 years he still elicits as many column inches and honourable mentions as he did when he was Head of State.  Babangida is a complex multi-dimensional character.  His antecedents as a political leader are well known.  The purpose of this article is to shed light on his early life and on the days before he became a household name in Nigeria.


Babangida was born to Gwari parents on August 17, 1941 in Minna, Niger State.  His parents were Muhammad Badamasi and Inna Aishatu Babangida.  He was the eldest of six children and was not born into an affluent environment.  Of those six children, four died as infants and his sister Hannatu is his only surviving sibling.  His father Muhammad was born in Wushishi in Niger State and later migrated to Minna.  In 1950 he began his primary school education at the Native Authority School in Minna where his classmates included another future Nigerian army General and Head of State Abdulsalami Abubakar.  The two men’s relationship went further.  When Babangida's father died in Kontagora in 1955 and his mother also died shortly afterward, Babangida and his sister were sent to live with relatives.  They lived in the same household as Abdulsalam Abubakar. 


While still at primary school,  Babangida had his first brush with the military world when army recruiters came to his school as part of a recruitment drive to encourage northern youths to join the army.  They encouraged Babangida and his classmates to join the Nigerian Military School (then known as the Boys Company) but his family decided that Babangida was too young to enrol.  He would get another chance later.  After leaving the Native Authority School in 1956, Babangida gained admission to the Government College, Bida, in 1957.  Once again army recruiters turned up to speak to the students on the merits of a military career.  This time he took the bait.  Babangida and 15 of his school colleagues (including Mamman Jiya Vatsa) sat the entrance exam for admission into the Nigerian Military Training College (NMTC) in Kaduna, and 11 passed.  Babangida’s school graduating class from 1962 reads like a “who’s who” of prominent Nigerian army officers.  Professor Jerry Gana was a subsequent alumnus of the school.   


Babangida and Vatsa enrolled at the NMTC on the same day (December 10, 1962), with Babangida passing out on April 20, 1963.  Babangida found his niche in the army.  While at the NMTC both Vatsa and Babangida met a diminutive, quiet young Kanuri man from Kano whose life would continually mesh with theirs for decades.  The man they met was called Sani Abacha.  Babangida received his commission as a Second Lieutenant in the Nigerian army in 1963 at the age of 22.  Together with his classmates from the Government College, Bida and his coursemates at the NMTC, Babangida formed a formed a formidable cabal of coup plotting officers that would dominate Nigeria’s political and military evolution for the next four decades.  Starting with his classmates from Bida, this cabal was enlarged to include other like minded officers such as Muhammadu Buhari, Sani Abacha and Paul Tarfa.  After attending the NMTC he proceeded to the Indian Military Academy from where he graduated in April 1964.  His ever present friend Vatsa also attended the Indian Military Academy with him.  Upon his return to Nigeria he was posted to the 1st reconnaissance squadron in Kaduna.  His commanding officer was the blue blooded son of the Emir of Katsina, Major Hassan Katsina.  This squadron and the 2nd reconnaissance squadron in Abeokuta would later evolve into the Nigerian army’s armoured corps, in which Babangida was to be a pivotal figure, and which played crucial roles in future military coups.  Babangida served as a member of the Nigerian army units sent to quell the disturbances taking place in the Tiv region.  While serving under Katsina, a pivotal event occurred in Kaduna which changed Babangida’s life forever.  On January 15th 1966 a group of young army Majors overthrew the civilian government of Tafawa Balewa.  Elsewhere in Kaduna a young and charismatic instructor at the NMTC who was acquainted with Babangida murdered the Premier of the Northern Region Alhaji Sir Ahmadu Bello. 


Babangida’s next course was at the Royal Armoured Centre in the United Kingdom for the young officers’ course, which he completed on April 24, 1966.  When he returned to Nigeria, he was promoted to Lieutenant.  Several of his colleagues and contemporaries such as T.Y Danjuma, Muhammadu Buhari and Shehu Musa Yar’Adua were also promoted by the military government of Major-General Aguiyi-Ironsi.  However the political temperature was close to boiling point.  The atmosphere in the barracks was volcanic as the army factionalised along regional lines with northern and Igbo officers accusing each other of plotting the annihilation of the other.  Although at the time he was convinced that the January coup was a sectionally motivated coup by Igbos against the north, in a subsequent interview, Babangida later admitted that the Majors’ coup:


"was not an Igbo based thing as far as I could imagine but the execution of the coup was poorly done and made people to think that it was one sided. I could recall Nzeogwu saying that some chaps in the south let him down because they had not been able to carry out the instruction the way he wanted them."[1] 


On July 28, 1966 northern officers mutinied at the Abeokuta garrison.  Within days the mutinies spread nationwide and northern soldiers murdered their Igbo colleagues in reprisals for the murder of northern leaders and soldiers during the January Majors’ coup.  Babangida was among the mutineers.  Further details regarding this coup will follow in a forthcoming book by this author, but it suffices to say that Babangida’s new commanding officer Major Ukpo Isong was murdered during the mutiny by men from his own unit.



Next part: The drama was not over.  The officer who announced the coup over the airwaves (Lt-Colonel B.S. Dimka) was a friend of Babangida going back several years.”


[1] Newswatch – January 8, 1990.