Oil, Politics and Violence: “A Fascinating Read for Anyone Interested in Nigeria”

By Maggie of Sociolingo. Maggie is a sociolinguist with a PhD in education and a keen interest in African affairs.


Jan 18, 2011


In the year that many Nigerians celebrate their 50th Anniversary of Independence, it is also an opportunity to reflect on all that has happened since 1960. If you do a search on Amazon you’ll find quite a number of Nigeria books published around this anniversary.

One of these books, Oil, Politics and Violence: Nigeria’s Military Coup Culture 1966-1976, is by Max Siollun, a well respected Nigerian historian, who has a gift of making the history of this complex country clearer to non-specialists.

In his book Siollun opens up one of the most troublesome and distressing periods in Nigeria’s history and introduces us to the mindset of the Nigerian military which has so influenced the turmoil that ensued following independence. Although the book is a historical narrative, it goes beyond ‘dry’ dates and events to take the reader on a journey. The author does this by utilising recently de-classified material and old intelligence reports together with personal knowledge and in depth analysis .

I like the way this book sets the scene by presenting us with a series of maps at the beginning. Before the opening pages we are presented with a map of the major ethnic groups, although I’m not quite sure why that map was not included with the other maps in the preface as it would go better with the map of major Nigerian languages and the more general map locating Nigeria in Africa would have been better in its place, but that is just my preference.  The series of historical maps in the preface cover the political development  from the four regions of 1966  to the present 36 States and are worth referring back to from time to time.

It is impossible to appreciate the political complexity of Nigeria without a passing understanding of how the country came into being, its ethnic complexity and its mineral wealth and this book provides good background material in the preface and the opening chapter for those who are not so familiar with Nigeria.  The writer introduces us to these issues in the opening chapters by describing the situation leading up to independence and  introducing us to several strands – political and military – which culminate in the post-independence turmoil of 1966 which was a pivotal and dreadful year.

It is important to understand that like many African countries ‘Nigeria’ was an artificial construct.

The country was artificially constructed by a colonial power without the consent of its citizens. Over 250 ethnic groups were arbitrarily herded together into an unwieldy and non-consensual union by the UK. Nigeria was so ethnically, religiously and linguistically complex that even some of its leading politicians initially doubted it could constitute a real country.

The division of the huge area called Nigeria into the original 3 Regions by the British in the earlier part of the 20th century was largely pragmatic. The very large Northern Region was predominantly Muslim and dominated by the Hausa and Fulani, while the predominantly Christian south was dominated by two competing groups, the Yoruba and the Igbo. Among these main groups were 250 other ethnic groups of varying size. Most ethnic groups had little in common, and Siollun says that ‘The cultural differences between the ethnic groups made it virtually impossible for Nigerians to have any commonality of purpose’. It was within this artificially constructed maelstrom that political divides took on the identity and ideology of the these three geo-political regions.  The Western Region in the south was further divided into a Mid-Western region in 1963 after rising tensions and what could almost be considered the first coup plot. The antagonism between the north and south continued after independence and was further exacerbated by the fragmentation in the more numerous south and the uneven distribution of mineral wealth.

It is as a military historian that Siollun has his strength and this shows in his masterly analysis in the chapters that introduce the military background to the coups and the detailed description and analysis of the coups themselves. In some ways, although this is devastatingly real, I was reminded of a detective novel as the protagonists are revealed and their motives and actions analysed.

It would be tempting to give you a chapter by chapter summary of how the coup culture developed, but you’ll just have to read the book to understand the depth of detail that gives a fascinating insight into the way that friends can become rivals and enemies, and to see how Siollun answers the question of ‘how an apolitical professional army with less than fifty indigenous officers at independence in 1960 became politicized and overthrew its country’s government less than six years later’.

The lessons to be learnt from the critical analysis in this book are grim but necessary reading. Siollun’s final points are that ‘most of the coups …. were carried out by the same cabal of officers, and that ‘an unpunished coup will be followed by a bloodier coup’.  It is also significant that it was only after 1999 when ‘all the serving army officers who had held political office for 6 months or more were compulsorily retired’ that the events set in motion in 1966 that lead to the military coups and military rule were able to be put to rest.

I think this book will become a seminal source for Nigerian historians and will be a fascinating read for anyone interested in Nigeria and in how coups develop.


Oil, Politics and Violence: Nigeria’s Military Coup Culture (1966-1976) by Max Siollun, Algora Publishing, New York. 2009  ISBN: 9780875867083


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