An author’s peep into Nigeria’s military years
HISTORY matters and history well told, in an engaging manner devoid of academic encumbrance, matters even more, especially when it is about Africa’s most populous country, Nigeria, which is set to celebrate the centenary of its existence next year, 2014. At this point when the younger generation of her over 160 million large population is contemplating the future of their country, a proper knowledge of the past, where the rain began to beat, as a popular Igbo adage will say, is imperative to ensure that the future is a different story, for as George Santayana once noted, those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.
Brilliant historian, Max Siollun, satisfies the yearning of many, Nigerians and non Nigerians alike, who have long sought an insight into what really went wrong during what was undoubtedly Nigerias most important years in his book, ‘Soldiers of Fortune,’ which captures the major political events in the country from 1983 to 1993, an uninterrupted period of military rule characterised by coups, rumours of coups and draconian decisions, some of whose consequences the country still grapples with.
As many historians have identified, the foundation for Nigeria’s under-development was laid in its colonial history. What the British handed over at independence was an administrative liability, a country which was expected to fail. After the euphoria of independence had died down, the task of fostering development in the country fell squarely on the shoulders of leaders who were in many ways representatives of regional interests. The internal disarticulation and disunity which colonial rule promoted created problematic imbalances and engendered a situation where ethnic domination became an obsession, even from the very inception of the country.
It was not long before the young nation came crashing with the 1966 coup, a counter coup same year and a bitter civil war (1967-1970) in which over a million people, mostly Igbos from the South-East of the country, are said to have lost their lives. A brief period of democracy was experienced between 1979 and 1983, a period during which Siollun noted, the military essentially acted as a government-in-waiting. Populated at its top echelon by the same persons who had been members of the last military government and indeed, the core team of officers mostly of northern Nigerian origin, who had executed the counter-coup of 1966 and fought the civil war. The military was already too politicised that it found it difficult to stay away from civil affairs. For example, Siollun noted that during this period, some senior military officers drafted a list of government ministers they wanted President Shagari to sack and presented a list of their own as replacement.
The politicians on their part helped create an atmosphere that justified the return of the military to power for the ten years stretch of military dictatorship that ‘Soldiers of Fortune’ covers. As General Babangida was quoted in the book to have claimed, every coup feeds on the frustration of the people with the current government and following the nationwide disquiet evoked by the 1983 elections, the military staged a comeback, bringing in General Muhammadu Buhari and they would remain in control until 1999, when a conclusive democratic transition to civilian rule was effected.
Siollun in this book, a sequel to his Oil Politics and Violence: Nigeria’s Military Coup Culture (1966-1976) captures the downward slide Nigeria witnessed in all spheres of her national life under the leadership of Muhammadu Buhari and Ibrahim Babangida (who ousted Buhari from power in 1985 and ruled until 1993.) The book captures the defining element of Buhari’s regime, a draconian approach to anti-corruption, which in the process muzzled the press, promoted inhuman decrees and failed ultimately in bettering the economy which was the most important yearning of the people. Babangida’s stay on the other hand witnessed the glorification of corruption which reached a level Siollun described as ‘spectacular’; the creation of a power cartel some of who continue to enjoy massive influence even in retirement today and a long expensive but inconclusive transition programme.
Soldiers of Fortune reads like a novel, like a thriller with familiar characters some of whose actions you are already familiar with and others which you might scream out in disbelief about.
Readers are sure to pause and wonder at various points while reading this book at how a handful of gun toting rascals with an exaggerated image of themselves held and decided the fate of an entire country. While the narration is not academic, there is no doubt a scholarly attention to the detail and judicious backing up of claims with verifiable facts, making the book a refreshing and engaging read. Siollun’s well researched analysis provides interesting details on the inside story behind most of the critical happenings during the period under review including many of which the absence of information over the years have made to appear like myth. Among this is the way Babangida quelled the Dimka coup, the Diplomatic Baggage story involving ex Minister Umaru Dikko, the Vatsa coup story and the circumstances surrounding the annulment of the June 12, 1993 Presidential elections.
Soldiers of Fortune reveals that the Nigerian military was not as united as most of the people assumed, that the actors were not as powerful as we believed they were, that they had their moments of fear and insecurity like other mortals, that the people, the media and notable personalities alike were accomplices in whatever harm the military succeeded in imparting on the country during their reign.
Importantly, Siollun, in this book, shows explicitly that military rule in Nigeria embodied everything that is antithetical to development and should never be allowed to happen again in the country. An understanding of this, I hope, will ensure that the younger generation, who are today aspiring to positions of leadership, will guard the nation’s democracy jealously and lead the country back to the prosperity envisioned by her founding fathers at independence. The book is thus a recommended read for every Nigerian and all those who love Nigeria.
Soldiers of Fortune is published by Cassava Republic Press.