Tag Archives: africa

The British Empire in West Africa (Podcast)

Podcast interview with Dan Snow of on-demand History Channel History Hit regarding a part of the British Empire that rarely gets attention (West Africa/Nigeria). This podcast is a precis of how and why despite originally being called “The White Man’s Grave”, Britain conquered territories in that part of the world.


The History of Africa (Part 1)

This is an excellent 20 part BBC TV series hosted by Zainab Bedawi about the history of Africa. In this initial episode, she explores Africa as the origin of humankind: where all humanity on earth originated from.

Daily Life in #Biafra: Part 2 (#Biafra50)

54th Anniversary of #Nigeria’s First Military Coup

Today is the 54th anniversary of Nigeria’s first military coup. Rather than rehash it I have included video clips and audio interviews below with the key participants that will tell you all you need to know about it.

How first coup still haunts Nigeria 50 years on“: Begin with this article I wrote a few years ago for the BBC about Nigeria’s first coup and how it still affects inter-regional relations in Nigeria 54 years later.

Various Articles, Interviews, and Resources on the First Coup: https://maxsiollun.wordpress.com/2016/01/15/nigerias-january-15-1966-coup-50-years-later/
Video interview with Major Chukwuma Kaduna Nzeogwu (one of the coup leaders) soon after the coup:


Brigadier Samuel Ademulegun (one of the victims of the first coup):


Brigadier Ademulegun and his wife:



Various links and resources on the first coup:

My BBC article on the first coup

Article on/photo of Major Wale Ademoyega (one of the coup leaders) by someone who knew him well:

The Life of Abubakar Tafawa Balewa (Nigerian Prime Minister who was killed during the coup):




Information about a book I wrote on the first coup and the three coups that succeeded it.

Full text of my BBC article about the coup:

How first coup still haunts Nigeria 50 years on

15 January 2016

Although most of Nigeria’s current population of about 170 million was not born when the country’s first coup was staged 50 years ago, its legacy lingers on, writes Nigerian historian and author Max Siollun.

On 15 January 1966, a group of young, idealistic, UK-trained army majors overthrew Nigeria’s democratic government in a violent military coup. The coup leaders described it as a brief and temporary revolution to end corruption and ethnic rivalry. Instead, it made them worse.

The coup exposed the vulnerability of the Nigerian state, and how simple it was to use soldiers to attack the government, rather than protect it. A succession of increasingly repressive military governments ruled Nigeria for 29 of the next 33 years, until the restoration of democracy in 1999. Here are four ways in which Nigeria – Africa’s most populous state and leading oil producer – is still affected by the events of 1966:

Protesters in south-east Nigeria have recently demanded the region’s secession from Nigeria and the formation of a new country called Biafra. The Biafra movement’s origins can be traced back to the January 1966 coup.

The officers who staged the coup were mostly Christian southerners from the Igbo ethnic group, and they assassinated several northerners, including the four highest-ranking northern army officers, Prime Minister Tafawa Balewa, and Northern Region Premier Ahmadu Bello (both Muslims from the north).

Army commander Major-General Johnson Aguiyi-Ironsi, an Igbo, suppressed the coup, but seized power himself. Northerners interpreted the coup as an Igbo-led conspiracy to subjugate the north and impose Igbo domination. Six months later, northern soldiers staged another even bloodier counter-coup against their Igbo colleagues. Northern mobs killed around 30,000 Igbos, and Igbos fled south, and in the following year sought to form a new breakaway country called Biafra. Northerners living in Igbo areas were also killed in revenge attacks. Although the army suppressed the attempt at secession after a brutal civil war, bitterness remains 50 years later.

Unaddressed grievances from 1966 lie at the heart of the Biafra movement’s resurgence. Many Igbos feel that Nigeria regards them as a fifth column and is still punishing them for their previous attempt at secession.

One of the coup leaders Major Nzeogwu said: “We wanted to get rid of rotten and corrupt ministers… We wanted to gun down the bigwigs in our way.” His coup unwittingly entrenched the presence of “rotten and corrupt ministers”. His best friend was a young western army officer named Major Olusegun Obasanjo. Ten years later, he found himself at the head of a different military government. It promulgated a new constitution that gave the government ownership of all mineral resources.

This provision encouraged corruption and the do-or-die nature of Nigeria’s elections, as winners now had control over the country’s vast mineral wealth. It is also the source of much bitterness in Nigeria’s oil-producing areas, and a cause of the latent Niger Delta insurgency which rocked Nigeria for several years and severely disrupted its oil industry.

‘Class of 1966’

The January 1966 coup propelled a group of young military officers onto the national stage. Now wealthy septuagenarian grandfathers, they still wield enormous influence in Nigerian politics. Gen Obasanjo is one of these retired military kingmakers. His withdrawal of support for then-President Goodluck Jonathan was one factor in his presidential election defeat last year, and the victory of current President Muhammadu Buhari.

As a young officer, Mr Buhari was among the young northern officers who in July 1966 staged the counter-coup against the Igbo majors. The influence of retired military officers is so pervasive that Mr Jonathan is the only president in Nigeria’s history who had no personal or family involvement in the 1966 crisis and the ensuing civil war.

Ghosts of the past

The army’s politicised past means that Nigerians live with the (real or imagined) fear that a coup is a possible outcome of any political crisis. Last year, Nigeria’s then-national security adviser admitted that previous governments’ wariness of the coup-prone army made them reluctant to upgrade its weaponry. Years of strategic military under-investment recently came back to haunt Nigeria when soldiers facing Islamist militant group Boko Haram complained that they were under-equipped to fight the insurgents.

This coup issue also partly explains why Nigerian authorities react with such severity to any disobedience by soldiers.

Yet, ironically, Nigeria partially owes its continued existence to the near obsessive desire to avoid a repeat of the 1966 bloodshed. The young military firebrands have mellowed and talk their way out of crisis rather than blasting their way into it. The elaborate power-sharing arrangements in Nigeria’s constitution, and the unwritten rule requiring rotation of political power between the north and south are legacies of the mistrust engendered in 1966.

Nigeria has matured. So have its former coup leaders.

* Max Siollun is a Nigerian historian, writer, and 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).

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Part 1 of 18: The Complete Story of the #Nigeria -v- #Biafra Civil War: #Biafra50

January 15, 2020 will be the 50th anniversary of the ceremony that marked the end of the Nigeria -v- Biafra civil war. To commemorate the anniversary, I will be showcasing an 18 part series of videos on the war’s key causes, events, and battles – as told by the participants themselves (including Gowon, Ojukwu, Babangida, Obasanjo, Ejoor, Achuzia, Ogbemudia etc).

See part 1 of the video series here.

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Today in #NaijaHistory: President Babangida Resigns

On this day 26 years ago, Nigeria’s military ruler General Ibrahim Babangida resigned and handed over governing responsibility to an interim National Government led by businessman Ernest Shonekan.

The is a photo of Babangida as a young boy.

History of #Africa TV Series by @TheZeinabBadawi

I had the privilege of speaking to the renowned Zeinab Badawi last week. She is working on an exciting sequel to her documentary series on the History of Africa. You can watch the first series here. The great news is that she is currently doing preparatory work for the next series which will feature Nigeria! She will interview a lot of prominent people in Nigeria and give insight on pre-Colonial Nigeria.

Ms Bedawi is rather busy these days. I first came across her when she was a news reader on Channel 4. These days she is the chair of the Royal African Society and works with UNESCO. I am very much looking forward to her next series and highly encourage you to watch her first series above.

All the Key Data About #Africa

This is an excellent info-graphic compiled by the Africa in Data project and Max Roser of Oxford University. See below for images showing all the key development, social, political, and economic changes in Africa during the last 30 years.





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The #Africans: A Triple Heritage

An oldie but a goodie. This is a documentary series narrated by the late great Professor of African history Dr Ali Mazrui. He jointly produced the series in conjunction with the BBC and PBS. Mazrui also published a book of the same title.

The series was in 9 parts and covered different themes about the African continent as follows:

Part 1 – The Nature of a Continent:


Part 2 – A Legacy of Lifestyles:


Part 3 – New Gods:


Part 4 – Tools of Exploitation:


Part 5 – New Conflicts:


Part 6 – In Search of Stability:


Part 7 – A Garden of Eden in Decay



Part 8 – A Clash of Cultures


Part 9 – Global Africa

Reasons To Be Optimistic About #Africa’s Future

This is a recent article in the Financial Times about African development. It makes a point that I often do as well: that development in Africa has to be measured on a long-term evolutionary (not short-term revolutionary) basis. It took Europe and North America centuries to become the advanced economies they are today, so it is unrealistic to expect African countries to do it in only a few years.



Opinion African economy
Reasons to be optimistic about Africa’s future
Important changes are taking place in the region that confound the ‘destiny instinct’

David Pilling
Lagos, Nigeria: Statistician Hans Rosling saw the locus of world trade shifting from the Atlantic and the Pacific to the Indian Ocean as first Asia and then Africa escaped from poverty © Bloomberg

In the early 1980s, Hans Rosling, the late great Swedish physician and statistician, worked as a district medical officer in Nacala, a remote part of northern Mozambique. Three decades later he returned to see what had changed.

He was amazed. Where first-time visitors saw only poverty and lack of development, Rosling noticed improvements everywhere. In the hospital, he saw that the wards had lightbulbs and that the nurses had glasses and could read and write.

For him it was evidence that — barring a catastrophic setback — Mozambique was on a path that would eventually lead its people out of poverty and towards dignity and prosperity. Rosling fought against what he called the “destiny instinct”. This was, in his words, “the idea that innate characteristics determine the destinies of people, countries, religions or cultures”.

At its worst, the destiny instinct is a form of racism, attributing certain qualities to certain races. Saying Africans are inherently corrupt or inherently “tribal” comes under this category. Even in its less egregious form, the destiny instinct is a sort of fatalism. This would have it that because of a country’s historic or cultural trajectory it is doomed to be stuck that way forever.

Quite rightly, Rosling had no time for such ideas. After all, half a century ago, people were saying much the same thing about Asia. It was commonly thought that the likes of Malaysia, South Korea, China and India were culturally and institutionally incapable of ever catching up. That proved nonsense.

In Nacala, Rosling saw important signs Mozambique could make it too. The country had been torn apart by war in the run-up to independence in 1975 and for nearly two decades afterwards. As a result, some indicators do not look good. With a nominal gross domestic product per capita in 2017 of $429, it is one of the poorest economies on earth.

Yet since 2000, life expectancy has risen more than 10 years to 61. Child mortality has fallen dramatically from 176 per 1,000 to 71. That is still high. It compares with 49 in Kenya, 7 in the US and 2.7 in Japan. But the direction of travel is clear. As he pointed out, all 50 countries in sub-Saharan Africa have brought down child mortality faster than his native Sweden ever did.

In Factfulness, a book he co-wrote with his son and daughter-in-law, Rosling wrote about the importance of monitoring steady progress: “Keep track of gradual improvements. A small change every year can translate to a huge change over decades.”

Ola Rosling, his son, says our inability to log incremental change is what prevented people from understanding the emergence of China. Few people noticed the enormous progress China was making in the 1980s and 1990s — and even, in terms of literacy and basic health, under Mao Zedong from the 1950s. They saw China’s emergence around the turn of the century as coming from nowhere. In reality, it had been decades in the unglamorous making.

Take schools in Africa. Across the continent, governments have put greater effort into basic education. From 1990 to 2012, primary school enrolment more than doubled to nearly 150m, according to a 2015 Unesco report.

I put it to Ola Rosling that, still, one had to be realistic. Teachers were often absent or illiterate and in many schools very little in the way of meaningful teaching went on. Mr Rosling said I was missing the point. The children were in school and not in the fields. The precedent of education had been set. Some children would learn to read and teachers would get better.

“You have to realise that development takes 100 years. You want it to happen in 10,” he said.

Are the Roslings being naive? Perhaps Africa really does have fundamental problems that make it difficult to emulate Asia’s miracle. Maybe its brutal colonial experience has left its states too fragile to foster development.

Perhaps robots mean it has missed out on the manufacturing age that enabled Asian countries to transform their economies. Perhaps the expected explosion of Africa’s population — from 1bn today to 4bn by the end of the century — will overwhelm the incremental gains highlighted by the Roslings.

Some of these doubts smack of the destiny instinct. True naïveté may be believing that things stay the same — or failing to notice the important changes that are already taking place.

Rosling Snr saw the locus of world trade shifting from the Atlantic and the Pacific to the Indian Ocean as first Asia and then Africa escaped from poverty. His top investment tip — made only half-jokingly — was beachfront property in Somalia.

At least it was a view based on facts, and not prejudice.



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