By Ade Obisesan
Lagos - General Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida, the former military dictator better known as "IBB" who ruled Nigeria with a rod of iron for eight years and who once dubbed himself "the evil genius", is determined to contest the 2007 elections and to win back the presidential seat he occupied from 1985 to 1993.
The 65-year-old retired general, who trained in Britain and the US, aims to replace incumbent President Olusegun Obasanjo, who will step down in May after two terms in office.
A Hausa Muslim from Nigeria's north-central Niger State, General Babangida is undoubtedly the country's most controversial head of state since independence in 1960.
To see how influential IBB remains 13 years after leaving power one only has to look at the list of guests who attended his daughter's wedding recently: 20 000 guests in all, including former heads of state, 31 out of a total of 36 state governors and 132 Nigerian parliamentarians.
The Nigerian media nicknamed him "Maradona" after the Argentine football legend of the same name, for his political dribbling skills.
His acolytes praise a tough military officer and a courageous leader. His detractors call him ruthless.
Babangida's peers in the military school in the northern city of Zaria where he trained in the early 1960s used to call him "Mr Courage".
In the face of stiff opposition, in 1986, shortly after coming to power, he pushed through the World Bank/IMF-inspired Structural Adjustment Programme (SAP) in an attempt to revive the nation's languishing economy.
On February 13, 1976, Babangida, then a colonel, without even picking up a firearm single-handedly disarmed the leader of a bloody coup, Lieutenant Colonel Bukar Sukar Dimka, thus thwarting the whole coup attempt.
Babangida was intolerant of opposition and clamped down on any challenge to his administration, even if such challenges came from close friends.
In 1986, shortly after coming to power, he executed his bosom friend and then minister of the Federal Capital Territory, General Mamman Vatsa, and dozens of other officers convicted of involvement in a failed coup plot against him.
Scores of military officers and civilians convicted of involvement in another failed coup attempt four years later were also executed despite local and international plea for clemency.
For many though, Babangida, with his toothy smile, is synonymous with corruption, the depreciation of the country's currency and general economic mismanagement.
He is widely believed to have syphoned off tens of millions of dollars during his time in office and he looks the most wealthy of all the 2007 presidential hopefuls.
His critics allege he mismanaged or stole the some 12 billion dollars Nigeria made from oil sales during the Gulf War.
"Babangida promoted the culture of corruption into national ethos," one newspaper columnist wrote.
"If God were a Nigerian, Babangida would have attempted to bribe him," said another.
The Babangida administration made many Nigerians and foreigners, including Lebanese, Israeli and Indian nationals millionaires overnight through the award of juicy contracts.
Observers say the friends he made or bought whilst in power will prove useful now that he attempts to return to power.
"I can die for Babangida," one of his best known and most vocal campaigners, Alex Akinyele, his former information minister, was quoted as saying.
On the international scene, the general restored diplomatic ties with the state of Israel, opened more Nigerian foreign missions, made his country a member of the Organisation of Islamic Conference, and as chairman of the Organisation of African Unity from 1991 to 1992, represented the continent in many international fora.
Whether or not Babangida returns to power will hinge on how well he can explain away the rampant corruption that marred his tenure, the execution of Vatsa, his alleged mismanagement of the Gulf War oil "windfall" and the economy in general, and lastly his annulment of the June 12, 1993 elections, widely considered to be the nation's fairest and freest so far.
"These issues are the albatross hanging on the neck of Babangida and his handling of them will spell his political future," Segun Adeite, a political analyst, said. - Sapa-AFP