“HERE IN America, it should be winter, but the season cannot make up its mind, it would like to be spring, I think. In this balmy space, I am comforted by Max Siollun’s riveting book, Nigeria’s Soldiers of Fortune: The Abacha and Obasanjo Years. Crisp, disciplined sentences and an engaging pace plus expert descriptions of colorful characters. This is how history should be written. If the history books of my childhood had been this accessible, I would probably have been a historian today. There are many things I did not know about those dark years between 1993 and the Obasanjo years.
Max Siollun is one of Nigeria’s best kept open secrets. He is a historian and the author of the books Oil, Politics and Violence: Nigeria’s Military Coup Culture 1966-1976 and Soldiers of Fortune: A History of Nigeria (1983-1993). He has a content-rich blog; subscribe to it and have your fill of the history of important events like the Nigerian Civil War.
The burden of the book itself is an excellent conversation starter. The first thing the reader notices is that throughout the era in discussion, there is a loud absence of ideology or rigorous thinking among the ruling and intellectual elite. It is mostly low-level governance and thinking. Why are things the way they are in Nigeria? Why democracy? Where is Nigeria headed? What should be the appropriate structure of governance and economy for Nigeria?
Siollun’s book is at once deeply engaging and scary. Scary on at least one level: Democracy has not made Nigeria safer and more secure for anyone than during the Abacha years. Think about that. It is all a puzzle. Our ruling and intellectual elite are determined to prove to the world that we are not human beings in the traditional sense of a shared humanity. Perhaps they are right and many of us are in denial. It is maddening, though, that the more you think of our condition, the more you are tempted to simply keep quiet and enjoy what’s left of your existence. Nigeria is not normal.
Siollun’s absorbing narrative shows Nigeria in the vice grip of an equal-opportunity elite—a tribe of soldiers, intellectuals, writers, clergy, etc. united in screwing Nigeria for fame and fortune. This is history. There are sad reminders of the devastation that anti-intellectual philistinism has wreaked on the nation. Chief Obafemi Awolowo seems to be the last Nigerian leader referred to as a thinking intellectual. The ones after are fez-donning, eyeglass-wearing comic mimics.
The book is organized into numbered chapters with their own titles, and each is virtually a stand-alone booklet offering entertaining and informative insights. “Children of Oduduwa” addresses and contrasts the politics and ambitions of Chiefs Awolowo and MKO Abiola. “Stepping Aside” provides an overview of the annulment of the elections by Ibrahim Babangida and analyzes Ernest Shonekan’s role in it. “82 Days” is an analysis of the turbulent interim period presided over by Shonekan, the hapless puppet of the military. “The Khalifa” and “He Said She Said” reflect on the military’s incursion under Abacha—and pointedly make the case that Abiola and his supporters were initially jubilant at the return of the military. “Confrontation” and “Enough is Enough” introduce the beginning of the pro-democracy struggle with NADECO and the Southwest intellectuals taking a lead. It is more of an editorial than clinical history, but it is a powerful analysis. “The ‘Phantom Coup’” and “The Weeping Generals” are, together, a highly entertaining account of the coup that roped in General Oladipo Diya (The Crying General), Shehu Musa Yar’Adua, and Olusegun Obasanjo. That chapter alone is worth the price of the book.
“The Ogoni 13” is perhaps one of the most important; it traces the gory events that led to the trial and hanging of Kenule Saro-Wiwa. “Murder Inc.” tracks the persecution, maiming and killing of opposition figures. “Five Leprous Fingers” is an analysis of the five political parties set up by Abacha on yet another new road to democracy. “A Coup from Heaven” and “Divine Intervention” are colorful chronicles of the deaths of Abacha and Abiola and the machinations that ultimately led to democracy in 1999 under Olusegun Obasanjo.
“Nigeria Inc.” appears to be a filler chapter that ruminates on Nigeria’s checkered past and experiments with various governance structures, and on the Nigerian civil war. “End of the Road,” “Power Shift,” “Uncle Sege,” and “People of the Book” interrogate life in Nigeria under Olusegun Obasanjo with the roles of the new Christianity (Pentecostalism) and Islam thrown in. It is an important chapter on the impact of religion in shaping the new Nigeria. “Back to the Future” is a final commentary on the five men—Abacha, Abiola, Obasanjo, Babangida, and Abubakar—who shaped the Nigeria of that era.
Siollun’s book gives context to the new fascism enabled by writers and intellectuals. Nigeria needs new voices of integrity and passion pining for a new country. What we have is a killing field. We need new Funmilayo Ransome-Kutis, Chinua Achebes, and Gani Fawehinmis.
Although the focus is ostensibly on the years between the Abacha and Obasanjo reign, Siollun veers in and out of his self-assignment to give readers luscious peeps into history beyond those years. He engages in analysis with an awareness of irony:
1993 was a year of farce—even by Nigerian standards. It featured a presidential election that cost 15% of GDP, only to be retroactively declared void; the military displacement of a civilian government; and three different governments on three months.” (Pg. 31).
And he has strong opinions which he shares freely:
Following a meeting between Babangida and traditional rulers on July 2, 1993, the foremost Yoruba traditional ruler, the Ooni of Ife, Okunade Sijuwade, had threatened that Yorubas would secede if Abiola was not declared president. Less than one month after Abacha seized power in November 1993, the same Oba Sijuwade, who had threatened to pull his people out of Nigeria, led 18 of the Yoruba obas to Dodan Barracks on a courtesy visit to Abacha and commended him for “pre-empting and forestalling the imminent state of war and disintegration” in Nigeria. The Oba of Lagos, Adeyinka Oyekan, also wrote a letter to Abacha telling him: “It is by the grace of Allah that as a crowning of all your achievements, you should become head of state and commander-in-chief.” (Pg. 53).
Siollun called it “Yoruba flip-flopping.” That’s pretty bold.
The references in the book are priceless. Sadly, only motivated scholars will have the time and the aptitude to go hunting for them. I envision a digital collection of all the references that are accessible to this generation—point and click. In the digital age, the age of Trump’s rage, people are reading the wrong things. In Nigeria, history has been pretty much absent from the classroom for a very long time, the young will only be found giggling at their phones as they lap up half-truths on WhatsApp and in churches.
But then it is not all the readers’ fault. Many wail that Donald Trump has tweeted over 266,000 words, more than James Joyce’s novel Ulysses, which has 264,000. There’s a lesson there. Millions all over the world have read every word of that vile man’s tweets. How many have read Ulysses? How many Nigerians have read Siollun? Writers should write where readers read. It’s a failure of intellectual leadership, and it explains why, today, orthodox literature is largely a hustle, irrelevant to real narrative, and, unlike Trump’s drunken drivel, incapable of shifting the world one iota. We should worry about these things: people are reading the wrong things on social media while awesome thinkers like Siollun wring their hands in despair.
I hope that Siollun writes a sequel that interrogates the role of Internet warriors in the pro-democracy years. It is not often known, but one of the first dividends of the arrival of the Internet and mailing lists in the early nineties was the ability to harness resources and intellectuals across continents to fight the hell that was Abacha’s reign. If those servers could talk, the world would be shocked. It is a shame that what many fought for so ferociously has been turned into a farce.
Finally, Siollun makes this point: “Perhaps the military’s greatest contribution to Nigeria’s democracy was to rule long and badly enough to thoroughly ruin its reputation and disabuse the public from considering it as an alternative government to civilians.” Well, Siollun did not anticipate the disaster that has been the second coming of Buhari. I did say he is a good historian; I didn’t say he is a seer.”
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Photo of #Nigeria's former Senate President David Mark as a colonel in 1987. Mark was a former military governor of Niger State, minister of communications, and after he retired from the #army, became the longest serving Senate president in #Nigerian history. #NigerianHistory #NaijaHistory #history #politics #government #soldiers Source: Command and Staff College, Jaji
Mark was a former military governor of Niger State, minister of communications, and after he retired from the #army, became the longest serving Senate president in #Nigerian history. #NigerianHistory #NaijaHistory #history #politics #government #soldiers Source: Command and Staff College, Jaji
A Lagos book club in Nigeria discussed and reviewed my book Oil, Politics, and Violence at their book club meeting last weekend. Luckily they streamed their meeting via Facebook Live.
You can view their book discussion here.
With corruption yet again making front page news in Nigeria, I thought it was an at time to resurrect an article I published on this website nearly 8 years ago. It asks whether corruption is a “Nigerian syndrome” and what can be done about it.
Nigeria is internationally famous for three things: oil, its Super Eagles football team, and its spectacular government corruption. However, contrary to popular belief it is quite simply a myth that corruption is perpetrated mostly by the government. Most Nigerians are paradoxically and simultaneously, accomplices, active participants, victims and agents provocateurs of corruption in their society.
LEGAL IMPEDIMENTS: Section 308 of the 1999 Nigerian Constitution
The first step to understanding corruption in Nigeria is the acknowledgment that corruption is the norm rather than the exception. Corruption is part of the system and has even been inadvertently sanctioned by the Constitution. Section 308 of the Constitution shields the President, Vice-President, Governors and Deputy Governors from civil or criminal proceedings, arrest and imprisonment during their term of office. This Section was intended to prevent frivolous lawsuits from being brought against public officers which might impede their management of their official duties. However in a country as notoriously corrupt as Nigeria, it has been a legal cloak for embezzlement, and has placed many public officers above the law. The result has been that several Governors have been able to loot state treasuries at will with no fear of arrest or prosecution.
However, corruption is not the exclusive preserve of the government. Although most Nigerians condemn corruption as a practice of the “Big Men” and government officials, most of the population are willing accomplices. There is an inherent hypocrisy among Nigerians about corruption. Most citizens acknowledge that corruption is an impediment to Nigeria’s economic development and reputation, yet the ordinary Nigerian’s unquenchable thirst for the acquisition of material wealth, possessions, fame and power fuels corruption by others.
Even those that disapprove of corruption by government officials freely admit that they would do the same if they were in government, and they simultaneously participate in practices that are inappropriate. The fuel industry is an excellent illustrative example of how corruption and dishonesty flows from the top all the way down to the lower rungs of Nigerian society. The oil industry is rightly or wrongly perceived as the epicentre of government corruption and abuse in Nigeria. Is the government alone in its abuse of the oil industry? During fuel strikes and shortages petrol stations have frequently been accused of surreptitiously hoarding fuel in order to deliberately amplify shortages and drive prices even higher. In other words they exploit and deteriorate the misery of the already hyper-extended fuel consumer.
Malpractice is not limited to petrol station proprietors. Black market street sellers of fuel in such circumstances are also distrusted by some motorists. Motorists often accuse them of diluting the petrol they sell with other chemicals. In the “food chain” of the oil industry, private citizens also dangerously “tap” oil from pipelines in order to sell on the black market. We should avoid using benign words like “tap” and call the practice what it is: theft. This theft is carried out with no remorse for the fact that the oil being stolen is a national resource, or any thought of the explosive danger caused by damage to pipelines. Thousands of lives have been lost in pipeline fires caused by “tapping”.
Once an individual lands a government job, (s)he will be inundated with near irresistible requests for ‘assistance’, finance, contracts and material benefits from members of his or her society. To resist such requests would be to risk being ostracised by their own kinfolk. The community expects and encourages the selective and disproportionate distribution of the “benefits” of government finances to the relatives and community of the government official.
The African extended family and patronage system ensures that a government official finds it culturally difficult to resist. If a government official condemns corruption and refuses to use government finances to enrich them self and their community, such an official would be denounced as foolish and would be derided for having nothing to show for their time in government. Negative comparisons would be drawn with other officials who (corruptly) enriched themselves, and the official would be asked why he was still living in the same one house while his colleagues in government have acquired ostentatious status symbols of their time in government such as cars and expensive houses at home and abroad. The current generation of Nigerians do not desire governments or institutions which seek to inhibit their ability to illegally acquire wealth.
Nigerians have become accustomed to the culture of corruption around them, and are very quick to condemn and dispense with governments that push the elimination of corruption as a major policy platform. The regime of Major-Generals Buhari and Idiagbon launched a severe and unprecedented anti-corruption campaign for over a year and a half between January 1984 and August 1985. They tried and imprisoned politicians that embezzled state funds. Before long, Nigerians were unhappy with the duo. Disapproval of their anti-corruption campaign was not explicit, but was subtly cotton wooled into ostensibly academic and sober critiques of their “high handed” and “repressive” nature. Nigerians celebrated when Buhari and Idiagbon were overthrown and replaced by a gap toothed armoured corps General from Minna named Ibrahim Babangida.
Babangida allowed Nigerians to see the ugly mirror reflection of their morality. He recognized many Nigerians for what they are: commodities whose loyalty and soul is on sale to the highest bidder. Many “pro democracy activists” denounced the corruption that took place under military rulers but were silenced by the financial “settlement” culture that was so pervasive under Generals Babangida and Abacha.
The current anti-corruption efforts of the EFCC and ICPC are derided for being “selective” and for not catching every corrupt individual. These unsophisticated criticisms are the moral equivalent of a bank robber objecting to his arrest by the police on the grounds that other bank robbers whom the police have not arrested are still on the loose. The author is of the opinion that most Nigerians should be grateful for this “selective” prosecution by the EFCC because if every corrupt Nigerian adult was arrested: (i) there would not be enough prisons and detention space to hold them, and (ii) a great deal of the workforce would be behind bars. Nigeria has bred something far more sinister and sophisticated than petty graft and bribery. The still unaccounted $12 billion dollar gulf war oil windfall, the Okigbo report that has never been acted upon and the absence of public outrage at these events is symbolic of the tacit acceptance of corrupt practices as “The Nigerian Way”.
Corruption in Nigeria is not just an offshoot of collapsed social and governmental institutions, nor is it the result of a hostile economic environment. The roots go much deeper and are symptomatic of the gradual but residual breakdown of Nigerian societal values and morality. It is the result of Nigerians’ failure to distinguish right from wrong, and of a nationwide refusal to condemn dishonesty. Nigerians only condemn corruption when they are not the beneficiaries of it.
A WAY FORWARD?
Western nations have lower levels of corruption not only because their law enforcement authorities are more zealous. The psyche of their citizens is different from that of the Nigerian. The UK and New Zealand are two countries with the lowest levels of official corruption in the world. The overwhelming majority of citizens in those countries reflexively obey the law as a matter of their nature and inner will. They do not have to be coerced into obedience. This is due to the attitudinal and societal rejection of corruption in these countries.
There is a moral consensus in these countries that corruption is degenerative for their society.What can be done for Nigeria? I propose two approaches that might be a god start. The first step is the elimination of the systemic procedure which inhibits measures aimed at eliminating corruption. Section 308 of the Constitution should be amended (not deleted) so that the President, Vice-President, Governors and Deputy Governors should be immune from civil, but not criminal proceedings.
The semantic difference is that such officials would be immune from being sued in vexatious civil litigation (with apologies to Gani Fawehinmi) but would not be immune from investigation, arrest or imprisonment for the commission of crimes (including those involving corrupt practices and financial impropriety). However such a constitutional amendment is unlikely to occur anytime in the near future.
The prerequisites for a constitutional amendment are formidable. Constitutional amendments in Nigeria require a two-thirds majority approval vote in the federal Senate and House of Representatives, and further approval by two-thirds of the 36 State House of Assemblies in Nigeria. To reach such a degree of consensus in a country as large and fractious as Nigeria would be near miraculous. Other methods are required. Nigeria needs a moral revolution. That moral revolution cannot be accomplished while the present generation remains. Many members of the present generation have been so utterly corrupted that they are beyond redemption. Nigeria cannot and will not progress until they expire. Hope lies in the young and unborn who have not yet been tainted by the society around them. By inculcating from a young age, the destructive social effects of corruption, a new more honest generation may emerge in future. The teaching of values should be compulsorily incorporated into academic syllabi from primary school until the completion of university. I will not deny that this sounds like a subtle form of indoctrination, but it might be the only way to save Nigeria from itself. Corruption in Nigeria will be brought down to manageable levels only when a national consensus is reached that corruption is a corrosive impediment, and when it is rejected by the majority of the population.
Whether you are a seasoned Nigeria expert or trying to familiarise yourself with the country for the first time, here are the best books on or about Nigeria.
I and others compiled a list on Twitter under the hashtag:
The Guardian also listed their best books on Nigeria at the links below.
Great article here about the Nigerian air force’s use of Alpha Jets in its counter-insurgency war against Boko Haram, and in previous missions in Liberia and Sierra Leone.
The Nigerian military has been bashed in the media in the last couple of years. It has not been given due credit though for its successful use and adaptation of a military aircraft that was regarded as obsolete. The Alpha Jets are supposed to be training planes; used to train air force pilots, before they are allowed into the cockpit of a “real” fighter jet. However the Nigerian air force has instead adapted a training plane into a fighting and bombing plane that it has used against Boko Haram, and against rebels in Liberia and Sierra Leone.
One thing that stood out for me is the technical ingenuity that Nigeria has demonstrated with this plane:
The Nigerian air force set about jerry-rigging onto two of the jet trainers its own weapons hardpoints capable of holding bombs or rocket pods.
Reportedly, the modifications cost just four million Nigerian naira — roughly $13,000. Some reports state a sum as low as $2,000. Given typical military equipment costs, this stands as a remarkable achievement. Foreign companies had requested up to $30,000 just to assess the cost of doing the refit.
A Nigerian car manufacturer, Innoson, has also been contracted to produce spare parts for the NAF to keep the old aircraft flying.
You can read the full story at this link: https://warisboring.com/nigerias-tiny-low-tech-alpha-jets-have-flown-in-brutal-wars-across-africa-5d843265d1b8#.vip9bxsq0
My book Soldiers of Fortune is now available as an e-book on mobile devices via Okadabooks. I will do a live Twitter interview on Nigeria with OkadaBooks this Friday, May 27, at 1.30am (8:30am USA Eastern Time).
You can download the book here and get a N2000 Naira Okadabooks credit.
You can follow the interview on Twitter via the hashtag #OkadaRideWithMax