When former Military President, Gen. Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida (IBB), marked his 70th birthday in 2011, he revealing that the execution of Major-General Mamman Vatsa, who was the Best Man at his wedding, for an abortive coup is “the most traumatic decision I have ever taken in my life”.
Signing the death warrant of a childhood friend is not exactly a position anyone would like to be especially when that friend had become more like a blood brother.
“We were not only friends, but you can confidently refer to him as family because our families were not only close but our extended families were too,” Babangida told journalists at his Hilltop residence in Minna, Niger State.
Mamman Vatsa, who was appointed Minister of Federal Capital Territory by Babangida after a successful coup against Maj. Gen. Muhammadu Buhari in August 1985, was arrested and charged over a plot same year.
Despite pleas that the lives of Vatsa and other military officers be spared, the then Minister of Defense and Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff, Major General Domkat Bali, announced in a televised broadcast on the evening of March 5, 1986 that the condemned men had been executed “an hour ago”.
Babangida said he would have spared the life of Vatsa but for the existing laws which prescribed a death penalty.
“We got caught up with the 1976 coup decree that gave no room for amendment and we could not have changed it at that time. I could not have asked them to delay the verdict for the decree to be amended because it could have caused more problems in the military at that time. “It was a decision I took that I pray I will never find myself in such a situation in my life. Please do not ask me this question again because it leaves me devastated,” he said in a rare public expression of emotion.
He traced the history of their friendship to the pre-Independence era when they were both secondary school boys.
“We came in contact as far back as 1959 when we went to Government College, Bida together. We joined the Nigerian Army together, went to India (for staff training) together… so if I tell you that it was not traumatizing for me, I am lying,” he said.
He further narrated how devastated he was when he was confronted by Vatsa’s granddaughter who asked him about his relationship with her late grandfather.
“An 11-year-old girl came swimming in my house. When she saw me, she ran to me and asked me about the relationship between me and her grandfather and I told her that, yes as she was told, we were very close and we took decisions that one could die if we did something wrong. Though she did not look convinced, she accepted and then I told her that when she grows up, she will understand the complexity of our society,” he said.
In an interview with The News magazine in May, 2006, Bali would later cast doubts on the culpability of Vatsa in the coup plot.
Bali had said: “My regret is that up till now, I am not sure whether Vatsa ought to have been killed because whatever evidence they amassed against him was weak. My only regret is that I could not say, ‘Don’t do it.’ I am not so sure whether we were right to have killed him. I think there must be something between the two of them (Babangida and Vatsa). I think they went to the same secondary school or something like that. There was something between them since secondary school days. I think that they didn’t seem to trust each other much. It may have been something that started when they were in secondary school that created that long-term hatred.”
Babangida admitted in an interview with THISDAY when he clocked 60 in 2001 that it was after the coup plot that he realized there was deep-seated personal rivalry between him and Vatsa, “Going back to their days as young officers”. Vatsa, who was born on December 3, 1940, was also an accomplished poet and writer, publishing eight poetry collections for adults and 11 for children.
Some of his published titles include: “Back Again at Wargate” (1982), “Reach For The Skies” (1984) and “Verses for Nigerian State Capitals” (1973). His pidgin collection included “Tori for geti bow leg” (1981). He published a cultural picture book in Hausa, “Bikin Suna”, and a charming picture storybook, “Stinger The Scorpion” (1979).
His involvement in the arts was more than a façade, as he was also a facilitator and patron of the arts in Nigeria. He organized writing workshops for his fellow soldiers and their children and got their works published.
He also helped the Children’s Literature Association of Nigeria with funds, built a Writers’ Village for the Association of Nigerian Authors and hosted their annual conferences.
Nobel Laureate, Professor Wole Soyinka, Professor Chinua Achebe and JP Clark were writers who visited Babangida to plead for Vatsa’s life when he was convicted by the military tribunal headed by Major General Charles B. Ndiomu (Chairman), who later reportedly expressed his regrets over the execution.
Other members of the tribunal were Brigadier Y. Y. Kure, Commodore Murtala A. Nyako, Colonel Rufus Kupolati, Group Captain Anthony Ikhazobor who was replaced by Colonel E. B. Opaleye, Lt. Col. D. Mohammed and Alhaji Mamman Nassarawa (Commissioner of Police).
Among those executed with Vatsa were Lt. Col. Musa Bitiyong, Lt. Col. Christian A. Oche, Lt. Col. Michael A. Iyorshe, Lt. Col. M. Effiong, Major D. I. Bamidele, Major D. E. West, Major J. O. Onyeke, Major Tobias G. Akwashiki, Captain G.I.L. Sese, Lt. K.G. Dapka, Commander A. A. Ogwiji, Wing Commander B. E. N. Ekele, Wing Commander Adamu C. Sakaba, Squadron Leader Martin Olufolorunsho Luther, Squadron Leader C. Ode and Squadron Leader A. Ahura.