Reviewed by Henry Chukwuemeka Onyema
History is not popular in Nigeria. Rare is the Nigerian youth who chooses History as a course of first choice in the Joint Admissions and Matriculation Board entrance examination. The systematic onslaught on the Arts by the planners of our education curriculum is not helping matters.
But professional historians must also bear a large portion of the blame for the position of History in today’s Nigeria. They are unwilling or unable to take History out of the cloister of dusty, tome-clustered Ivory Towers to the streets in the form of accessible and highly readable books that portray the facts of History in a manner the average Obi, Sule and Ademola can identify with. Our jet-world needs a fast-paced History that will also abide by the time-honoured canons of historical research which the likes of E.H. Carr, Professor Kenneth Dike and the ancient masters like Herodotus and Thucydides laid down for anyone who would pursue a professional study of the past. Anyone who can marry such scholarship with the literary mass appeal of, say, Frederick Forsyth, deserves to be a master of the pen, oops, keyboard.
Max Siollun is one of the few contemporary Nigerian historians who has, to a great extent, satisfied the requirements of the ancients in an astonishingly modern manner. His second book ‘Soldiers of Fortune’ can comfortably sit beside anything Forsyth or Chimamanda Adichie has to offer for sheer readability and escapism.
But Siollun is not a dealer in fantasy, though his writing is fantastic. The years 1983 to 1993, covered by his book, continue to reverberate in 21stcentury Nigeria . The military elite, Nigeria ’s equivalent of the Praetorian Guard, occupied our national space in a manner rivaled only by the first set of the uniformed adventurers who altered Nigeria ’s political dynamic between 1966 and 1979. Most of the actors in that first act of the khaki drama are also the lead cast of the second act covered by Siollun’s book.
The book gives us insight into the likes of General Buhari, the current leader of opposition democratic politics who, at the height of his glory as military ruler threw suggestions of restoration of civilian rule out of the window; how power-plays by the genial professional coupist Ibrahim Babangida and his men took Nigeria to the brink; how MKO Abiola ended up in the belly of the military tiger he nurtured; how General Sani Abacha emerged to set the stage for his reign of terror.
Siollun is worth reading because he writes about these lords of the Nigerian clan and their deeds with the right combination of detachment and involvement. Reading through the chapter on the Vatsa coup, I developed goose pimples as I followed Vatsa and Company on their journey to the stakes. Yet the pro and con arguments raised by the author about the possibility of the coup the Federal Capital Territory Minister was supposed to have sponsored left me wondering if those men had died just deaths.
Given the sensitive nature of some of the subjects raised in the book and the significant positions most of the living characters of that period still occupy in Nigeria , Siollun should not be over-criticized for merely whetting our appetites with painstaking but limited research in some chapters. An example is the chapter on Dele Giwa. I looked forward to more details on developments just before, during and after Giwa’s death. For example, just how close were IBB and Dele Giwa? Outside the Gloria Okon angle, what other concrete theories can be posited about that letter bomb that disfigured Nigeria on October 19 1986? Clearly there is only so far Siollun can go. Let ‘Honour for Sale ,’ the recent release by ex-Major Debo Bashorun, IBB’s former press aide, fill in the gaps. Interestingly Siollun’s book is silent about the adventures of the Major who ran into rough waters in 1989 or thereabouts with the government.
On a personal note the period covered by the book was a coming of age period for me. I was in my teens then. Events depicted in the book flashed across my mind; SAP (we called it Stomach Adjustment Programme); that Sunday in April 1990 when my family visited my mother’s eldest sister in the village only to find everyone huddled over the radio listening to Major Gideon Orkar; the buses bringing back Igbo people from the West following the annulment of June 12 presidential election. Many of the seekers of safety across the Niger told their bemused neighbours they were travelling for the New Yam Festival with all their worldly goods!
IBB became hard to define as I perused the chapters. Love, loathing and pity fought in my head as I watched him struggle to rein in the wild military horses he had unleashed on Nigerians, especially as June 12 took shape. Characters like Ebitu Ukiwe, Domkat Bali, Ike Nwachukwu, Salihu Ibrahim, Colonel Umar, and even Admiral ‘DO-NOT-ROCK-THE-BOAT’ Aikhomu stood out in sharp relief.
While this book revealed the bizarre and Byzantine paths our military travelled within this period, it also forcefully brought home to me the fact that the gun-wielders committed their sins with the support of the political class. Nothing new, you may say. But in case we have forgotten how and why we sank so low in those years; and why these fibreless men continue to dominate our national space in our democracy, Siollun reminds us vividly, especially in the last two chapters.
The photographs in the book are a collector’s item. The endnotes and bibliography are useful for the academic. Siollun’s book helps us to understand a decade that shaped Nigeria down to our slang – for example ‘Ghana must go’. I wish the author beamed his searchlight on the Abacha years but that might have led to the type of fat book that frightens the average Nigerian reader. Cassava Republic’s production processes are worthy of emulation. Although the author’s analyses in some chapters were not in-depth, overall, he proved to be a master of his brief. Any study of Nigeria’s history between 1983 and 1993 that excludes this book is incomplete.
Publisher: CASSAVA REPUBLIC
Number of pages: 336
Soldiers of Fortune can be pourchased from:
Autographed copies available here:
Regular non-autographed copies can be bought from:
- The Hub Media Stores in Shoprite, The Palms Shopping Mall, Lekki
- Jazzhole in Lagos, at 168 Awolowo Road, Lagos, Nigeria
+234 1 480 5222
Henry C. Onyema is an author and historian. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org