Nigeria’s Military Coup Culture (1966-1976) – “A Breath taking Narrative“
After a long hard slog, my book is finally available.
The book can be purchased from:
Oil, Politics and Violence is also available to read in e-book format, and on mobile devices such as iPad, tablets, Android, iPhone and even your internet browser. You can get the e-book from Google Play at:
“What is the book about?” I hear you say. Well, read on….
Review by Anote Ajeluorou – published in the Nigerian Guardian newspaper
Oil, Politics and Violence: Revisiting military adventurism into politics
Monday, 13 September 2010 00:00 By Anote Ajeluorou Art – Arts
MAX Siollun’s new book Oil, Politics and Violence: Nigeria’s Military Coup Culture (1966 – 1976), (Algora Publishing, New York; 2009) is a historical treatise on military adventurism in Nigerian politics as the infant nation took its first tottering steps shortly after independence. That intervention was to last almost forever, and at a staggering cost to the nation and its quest for democracy.
Himself a historian, Siollun takes his readers through a breath-taking narrative of the socio-political setting of 1960 to 1966, when the tables turned. The ouster of politicians who had behaved badly from power led to the enthronement of a military that was not prepared for the enormity and subtlety of political office. What was worse, the coup, which was led by the majors in the army, was perceived to be sectional because of those killed. Then there was a counter-coup that led to retaliatory killings of one section within the army. The Major Chukwuma Nzeogwu’s first coup had failed because of several factors. His was purely an idealistic coup to give the reign of leadership to Obafemi Awolowo, who was imprisoned at the time following the corruption of the Abubakar Balewa-led government. His colleagues in Lagos had failed to execute their own part of the coup as he had done in Kaduna leading to Major-General Johnson Aguyi-Ironsi rallying the army to squash the coup in Lagos.
Aguyi-Ironsi assumes the office of head of state to stem the breakdown of law and order. But a counter-coup stops him dead in his track following some controversial decrees he promulgated, and the sectional slant to the coup. Northern soldiers go on the offensive and target Igbo soldiers. It spirals into the streets and the consequent infamous pogroms of 1966 that led to the civil war. Siollun also looks at the next nine years following the end of the war and how the military badly fared.
In providing the festering climate for the political logjam that led to the fall of the first republic, Siollun writes, “Underestimating the win-at-all-costs mentality of the Nigerian National Alliance (NNA), the UPGA unwisely decided to bycott the elections on the ground that the NNA was planning to rig it… Due to the widespread electoral malpractices, President Azikiwe refused to call Balewa to form a new government following the elections. For several days, Nigeria teetered on the edge of an abyss as the President and the Prime Minister tried to scheme each other out of power”.
Events in the Wild Wild West did not help matters with Awolowo and Ladoke Akintola locked in their own political struggles to warrant the declaration of a state of emergency in the region. And then onto the coup that was to unsettle Nigeria for most of its political life.
“THE DEPTH OF RESEARCH….IS STUNNING”
Siollun’s Oil, Politics and Violence: Nigeria’s Military Coup Culture is a well-researched book on Nigeria’s military experience. The book is unique in many ways. The depth of research into the events, activities, personalities involved in the planning, execution, who did what, how and its implication is stunning. The author meticulously accessed every record that needed to be accessed to bring to the reader a dense meal of military adventurism into the politics of the most populous black nation on earth.
Also, Siollun brings a measure of balance and accuracy that has eluded many a writer on the touchy subject to bear on his writing. A lot has been written on the subject but most of it with a given mindset to colour and taint the facts. Some writers on the subject have often contradicted themselves on points of facts and sequence of events or personalities involved. Siollun brings all these to bear on his writing as he harmonises them to create an authentic recreation of a critical period of Nigerian political history.
In a sense, Oil, Politics and Violence: Nigeria’s Military Coup Culture resituates the horrendous adventurism of the military and places it starkly for what it was: a political aberration that should never have been! The ills the military set out to cure sooner came to haunt them as the military soon compromised itself, and performed a lot badly than those they deposed from power.
One point in favour of Oil, Politics and Violence: Nigeria’s Military Coup Culture is its pace of narrative. Although, it’s a historical account of what most readers already know, yet it turns out a fascinating read on account of its detailed and accurate reconstruction of events. With the planning, shootouts and executions and murders on such a large scale, it tends to read like a thriller of sorts. This indeed is its strength.
Indeed, but for the horrendous killings of real life persons that accompanied the coups, and the tragic loss of lives during the civil war with the distortion of the polity, the coups as detailed by Siollun would whet the palate of lovers of thrillers with the dexterity of narrative he employs. The book is well worth a rereading for its cinematic affect!
Review by Kaye Whiteman
This first review of the book was very kindly written by Kaye Whiteman, whom many of you will recognise as the former Editor of the esteemed magazine ‘West Africa’. He is one of the leading writers on West Africa and has also written for the UK’s Guardian newspaper. This review was published in Business Day magazine.
Unpacking the Past
As we approach the great stock-taking of the fiftieth anniversary of Nigerian independence (which is going to be continuing all year), there is going to be a growing consideration of the history of these past fifty years. This is bound to include a re-examination of the coups and civil war of the 1960s. If this decade brought to a head the post-independence trauma of national identity, as a shakedown of the British-engineered independence settlement, it made a profound mark on subsequent decades.
There are so many aspects of Nigeria’s recent history that cannot be studied without reference to the 1960s – for example, the onset and collapse of the idea of military rule; or the effect on society, economy and political culture of the ‘curse of oil’, a central factor in the war for Nigerian unity. There was the phenomenon of the creation of states, initiated with the first twelve states of May 1967, mainstay of fiscal federalism, and the campaign for local resource control. Behind lay the scourge of corruption, and the electoral fraud whose worst manifestation in the Western Region led to the January 15 coup of 1966.
These thoughts arise from a book titled Oil Politics and Violence: Nigeria’s Military Coup Culture (1966-76) by Max Siollun (published in New York this year by Algora publishing). For those interested in a detailed and objective study of these particularly sensitive moments, I cannot commend this book too highly.
For an old-timer like myself, who was partly around at the time, this book is a revelation. For this is a period which, for understandable reasons, has all too often been buried. After the books written by journalists at the time, and Professor Tamuno’s official history published in the 1980s, it has not been a subject that has been much written about, other than in a series of memoirs, or lately in novels such as Half of a Yellow Sun. This shows that the interest is there in unpacking the hidden legacy.
Siollun’s is not a full history of the crisis and the war, however. He restricts himself very much to the military, and although you cannot escape the politics, his self-imposed framework is sometimes a limitation. July 29 has to be seen in the context of the massacres in the North which lasted from May to October. Again, the important neutrality of Major General Welby-Everard in the 1964 federal elections (who now recalls that there was still a Brit commanding the Nigerian army at that time?) perhaps benefits from being seen in a more fully described political setting.
The author’s military priority does permit him, however, to go into his subject matter with a great depth of detail. He is also able to mobilise a spectacular range of sources, some of which your columnist was not aware of, and would love to have in his own collection of Nigeriana. There are tables of which officer was where and when, and many potted biographies, although only of members of the armed forces. Space does not permit exploring further subjects such as the “classmate syndrome” or the theory that January 15 was an “UPGA coup”, and there are odd little details from exceptional sources, like Welby-Everard’s eulogistic commendation of Brigadier Ogundipe.
In such an amazing mastery of detail, it is not surprising that there are the occasional minor errors – for example he says there was but one Igbo among the civil servants that took part in the July 29-31 negotiations in Ikeja barracks, but from his own list there are three. It may be that those that participated personally in these events will find more to quibble with – just as he already pinpoints some of the controversies that have been raised in the memoirs of the period that have emerged.
There are also mysteries that not surprisingly he is unable to solve, and myths that he cannot penetrate, although I would have liked him to have examined more thoroughly the legend that it was Captain Dickson (who does get a brief reference) who led the Middle Belt rank-and-file objection to Murtala as leader of the coup, and ended up as the self-styled airport commandant, carrying on for months before his final removal. Was it Dickson who indicated that power must go to Gowon, or else…? This is tantalising, because the author does describe the absolutely historic moment when Murtala abandoned his ambitions and suddenly says to Gowon “you are the senior, go ahead”, and is most instructive on the extent of secessionist sentiment among the far-northerners (although the raising of the flag of the north at Ikeja was Biafran myth-making).
Review Two – By Ohsee of Toronto, Canada.
In the West, considerations of truth and objectivity in history are seen in some quarters as marks of a lack of sophistication. In Nigeria, however, they are matters of life and death. People there die as a result of history forgot, of lessons not learned. Many people die.
Such questions loom large in Nigeria’s violent political history of the first two decades after independence. The most problematic have been, what really happened during the first two coups and the resultant civil war? It is here that Nigerians need to know the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, because such reliable knowledge has proved useful in the past. But most Nigerian histories of those turbulent times, are often clouded by the malodorous presence of ethnic chauvinism and hatred of the Other, and the need for self-aggrandizement.
Many readers despaired of ever seeing an unbiased history from Nigerians themselves, and sought such objectivity from outsiders who often had little understanding of the subtleties of the Nigerian political milieu.
Thus Mr. Siollun’s book about the first four coups (1966-1976) must be considered something of a miracle. Unlike prior writers on the topic from that country, the Nigerian-born historian successfully checked at the door the ethnic biases he surely must have, in order to combine the dispassionate objectivity of the outsider with the nuanced knowledge of the insider. The result is a truly insightful book that is highly accessible to the general reader. The book also has enough new information to serve as a starting point for future investigators who wish to tackle some of the issues in greater detail.
Mr Siollun, whose essays about the first two coups are familiar to those who visit Nigerian websites, has tackled the four coups sequentially, and shown how they are related in terms of personnel involved and lessons to be learned. For instance, some of the participants in the second coup—such as Babangida, Abacha, Yaradua, and Buhari—dominated Nigerian coup-making culture for thirty years. Mr. Siollun shows how failing to punish murderous putschists can and did come back to bite coup beneficiaries in the arse, since “unpunished coup plotters will re-offend. The coup plotters behind Nigeria’s military regimes were repeat offenders—often with fatal consequences for themselves. They were men who lived life on the edge, snacked on danger and dined on death. For them, coup plotting was in the blood.”
Mr. Siollun’s summary of the pre-coup political situation is concise and lucid, and looks at the events in new ways. For instance, most people probably do not see the Nzeogwu coup as the second attempt at overthrowing the Balewa government by force. While many followers of Nigerian history may know that Awolowo—leader of the Action Group, one of the opposition parties in the First Republic—was jailed for treason in 1964, few are aware that it was not a trumped up charge, and that three decades later, Action Group General Secretary, S.G. Ikoku, confirmed that there was a genuine AG plot to topple the federal government.
Mr. Siollun is at his strongest where he skillfully cuts away the myths that have grown weed-like around the more controversial of those 1966 events. One of the more pernicious of these is the lie that the January 15 1966 coup was an effort at Igbo domination organized by the Igbos. Mr. Siollun demonstrates that there is a very strong case for seeing January 15 as an UPGA (United Progressive Grand Alliance) coup, or in other words, a second attempt by the South or southern political parties to wrest power from the North. By examining the national character of the Igbos, and the stereotypes that grew around their business activities, he carefully shows us the historical process via which the Igbos became the national scapegoat; we see how one section of the country practiced what he calls “transferred malice,” where the Igbos were singled out for punishment during troubles in which they only played a bit part.
In this absorbing and fascinating work, there is a good deal of new and startling information: who knew that in private moments, the genial Ironsi, the first military ruler, liked to refer jokingly to his fellow Igbos by the pejorative Northern term “Nyamiri?” We learn of the enormous family pressures on Northern officers and men after January 15 demanding vengeance for the Northern officers killed. The blood relationships between Northern People’s Congress (NPC) politicians, and some of the July 1966 plotters are revealed—Inua Wada, defence minister in the Balewa government during the First Republic, was Murtala Muhammed’s cousin, for example. We begin to understand the Machiavellian Ibrahim Babangida—military president from 1985 to 1993—better when we find out his closest friends were among the Dimka coup plotters of Feb 1976, a coup in which those very friends marked him for liquidation. We learn that Gen. Obasanjo wept when the poisonous chalice of leadership would not pass him by. Such brief character and biographical sketches of principal players inject life into the narrative, and make the historical protagonists more than just names on a paper.
The book of course has its flaws, some quite minor and perhaps fixable in later editions. The footnoting seems somewhat haphazard and sparse. To some, this may be considered a benefit, but it could be frustrating to the reader or researcher who wants to learn more by exploring sources. And one of the more vexatious things is that the footnoting, like Carlyle’s History, “is silent where you most wish her to speak.”
More egregious are the omissions and failures to explore some controversial areas. We do not know the extent of Lt. Col Adekunle Fajuyi’s involvement in January 15 even though Mr. Siollun was involved a few years back in a debate about it with someone on the Internet who went by the moniker “Arthur Unegbe”. Perhaps there is nothing to know or find out, but Mr. Siollun’s complete silence—no discussion of rumours, or analysis of possibilities—is troubling. Also surely we could learn from a brief exploration of the contradictions in the public statements of Gowon’s apologists and the actions of the man that suggest some foreknowledge of the July horrors? However, in light of the importance and intelligence of this work, it would be churlish to carp about these matters.
I admit to being skeptical before reading this work, expecting the typical tendentious and ethnically jaundiced approach that colours most Nigerian commentaries on the coups of 1966. What Mr. Siollun has given us rather is a deft, measured, and just examination of those tragic events, all done in very accessible prose. All Nigerians owe him a debt of gratitude. I wish I could find a way to get a copy into the hands of every educated Nigerian.
The book can be purchased from:
Review Three:by Australia’s Former High Commissioner to Nigeria During the 1966-1967 Crisis
This book, by an industrious, questing and objective historian, brings together the most comprehensive and authentic documentation on the Nigerian coup and counter coup of 1966 and the Biafran War that I have ever seen.
The author does not “make a case” for anyone. Rather he sets out the evidence, gives a variety of parties their say and, by and large, then leaves you to make a judgement on the very best evidence available.
I do not think that any of us can responsibly write about the Biafran War and the steps leading up to it unless they have first read and thoroughly digested Max Siollun’s book. I say this against the background that I was Australian High Commissioner in Nigeria at the relevant time and I knew the principal players personally.
In early October 1966, I embarked on a Mission to Enugu to talk to Ojukwu – with General Gowon’s blessing – in an effort to find a negotiated resolution of Nigeria’s deep constitutional, political, racial and tribal problems. Above all, I wanted to avoid the brutal and bloody conflict that, in the event, became known as the Biafran War. In the wake of my meeting with Ojukwu, agreement was reached between Ojukwu and the Federal Nigerian Government at a meeting in Aburi in Ghana in January 1967. However, the agreement fell to pieces shortly afterwards and the first shots in the Biafran War followed within a couple of months or so.
With this background, I can responsibly and, I think, reliably assess the authenticity of what Siollun has to say and recommend his outstanding book to those who want to know, understand and be familiar with Nigerian history of that troubled period.
Review Four: by Iwedi Ojinmah for Nigerian Village Square
Once in while there comes a book that makes us either sit up straight or reflect on our lives… past and present. It is even more appreciated and of importance when such a book is a serious one and about a subject matter, that even 4 decades after it engulfed Nigeria in arguably Africa’s most vicious war pitching suspicious cousin against each other , it is still rife with so much controvesy and emotional debate that one can seriously question if true National reconcilation has not remained deferred.
Max Siollun, has produced such a wonder in Oil Politics and Violence: Nigeria’s Military Coup Culture (1966-1976) Algora Pub Hardcover : $33.95 Softcover $23.95
Right out the gates the English born Nigerian but US based Professor, separates himself from the rest of the pack of historians that have feebly tackled early Nigerian Politics with his pronounced objectivity and absolutely impeccable research. In a detailed chronological sequence of events he locks the door on many a propagated myth and exposes among others how for instance the Igbo’s became political scapegoats not by choice but by default. He also amazingly shows how for the better part of 3 decades it was pretty much “old wine in new bottles” as the same vagabonds in power continued -just like some morbid spoke of a wheel- to keep in place Nigeria’s wobbly and corrupt coup culture.
Each of the 268 pages is saturated with such intricate fact that you often have to pinch yourself back into reality to realize again that all this stuff really did occur, and is not the draft of an up till now unknown Shakespearean tragedy. The man really names names and one has to virtually munch on a mint to supress the subsequent but delicious bite.
Things Fell Apart and Have Never Been the Same Since
However while his book will serve hopefully as salve on the deep festering wound inflicted on Nigeria, it does not address the more dangerous and ever present infection that lingers on still robbing her of her full potential; because it summates just ten years out of almost 45 years. Since there is an undeniable thread linking the past to the present and vice versa ; we salivate at the possibility……NO I take that back …..“ we implore” the absolute need of a part 2 that will continue to explore the murky dysfunctional rot that is Nigerian Politics. The story after 1976 must also be examined with as equal objectivity and openness and till then we will remain hungry at the table like guests denied of a spectacular entrée after being treaded to array of amazing o’dourves….pounding our forks and just like Twist – asking for more.
The book can be purchased from: