'I wish to state emphatically that there is no military dictator here in Nigeria,' he said in a 45-minute speech to a joint session of the National Assembly that was expected to detail the military's plans to end Nigeria's political crisis, but left his audience confused about his own future.
Gen Babangida, who turned 52 yesterday, arrived to a buzz of excitement in the Assembly Hall as a military band played Happy Birthday. He received a roar of applause halfway into the speech when he announced his willingness to step down, but the ovation at the end was lukewarm, reflecting the legislators' confusion.
The Information Secretary, Uche Chukwumerije, said before the speech, that Gen Babangida 'wants to personally retire', but that 'arguments are still raging on both sides'.
Yesterday's speech was part of Gen Babangida's campaign to win favour for his plan to instal an unelected interim government to rule until late- 1994, following the cancellation of the June presidential elections won by Moshood Abiola. He called on the National Assembly to play a greater role, saying it 'should be the basis of the democratic legitimacy of the new interim national government'.
Gen Babangida lashed out at his critics, describing allegations that he wanted to retain power as 'uncharitable and unwanted speculation'. He referred to pro-democracy activists as 'a small group, but they make noise like the proverbial empty barrel'.
He urged Western governments, including Britain, the US and the EC, which imposed limited sanctions after the annulment of the June polls, to show 'patience, not pressure, encouragement, not rage'.
Much of the address focused on his role. 'It is unfortunate that I have been portrayed as the issue and obstacle to civil democratic rule,' he said. 'Let me confess that the many and varied attacks hurt me personally.'
His senior military commanders, he indicated, believed that it was perhaps best for him to go. 'Following lengthy deliberations with my service chiefs, I offered as my own personal sacrifice to voluntarily step aside as the president and commander-in- chief,' he said. But he left unclear what his role would be when the ruling National Defence and Security Council installed the interim government, made up of civilians and military officers, by 27 August.
An official in the Vice-President's office said after the address that the opinion of the army commanders and the National Assembly was irrelevant, and that only Gen Babangida could decide his fate.
The new interim government, Gen Babangida said, would replace the largely powerless eight-month-old civilian Transitional Council headed by Chief Ernest Shonekan, the man whom many observers have tipped to lead the new administration.
LAGOS - Zakari Muhammed, son of the former Nigerian president, Murtala Muhammed, was fatally wounded by gunmen in a gangland attack on the road from Abuja to Lagos, AFP reports.
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