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Soldiers of Fortune – A review
Author(s): Sylva Ifedigbo
March 20, 2014
History matters. It matters even more when it is about Africa’s most populous country- Nigeria, which celebrates the centenary of her existence this year, 2015. At this point when the younger crop of her over 160million strong population are 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. And when history is well told, in an engaging manner devoid of academic encumbrance, it makes for a truly engaging read. Such are the accomplishments of the book ‘Soldiers of Fortune by brilliant historian, Max Siollun.
Siollun satisfies in this book, the yearning of Nigerians and non Nigerians alike who have long sought an insight into what really went down during what were undoubtedly Nigerians most important years. The 300 page book captures essentially, the major political events in the country from 1983 to 1993, an uninterrupted period of military rule characterized by coups, rumours of coups and reckless 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 followed the same year and a series of events that led to a bitter civil war (1967-1970) in which over a million people mostly Igbo’s 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 politicized 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 accompanied by 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. General Babangida is quoted in the book to have claimed that every coup fed on the frustration of the people with the current government. His claims find merit in the events of 31 December 1983 when following the nationwide disquiet evoked by the general elections that held earlier that year, the Military staged a comeback bringing in General Muhammadu Buhari and later Ibrahim Babangida (who ousted Buhari from power in 1985 and ruled until 1993.) They would remain in control until 1999 when a conclusive democratic transition to civilian rule was effected.
This book, a sequel to his ‘Oil Politics and Violence: Nigeria’s Military Coup Culture (1966-1976)’ by the same author captures the downward slide Nigeria witnessed in all spheres of her national life under the leadership of the duo of Muhammadu Buhari and Ibrahim Babangida. The book captured on the one hand, 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 reign 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. The way Siollun builds his plot and narrative, unraveling the intrigues associated with coups and the tensed drama that defines the success or failures of same, leaves you feeling as though you had a Robert Ludlum or a David Baldacci book in your hand. Readers are sure to pause and wonder at various points at how a handful of gun toting rascals to whom not much intelligence can be credited to, held and decided the fate of an entire country for so long a period, with very little resistance.
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. This combines to make 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 confirms what undoubtedly is an accepted fact, that military rule in Nigeria embodied everything that is antithetical to development and should never be allowed to happen again. A renewed appreciation of this fact I hope, will ensure that the younger generation who are today aspiring to positions of leadership, will guard her 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 and can be purchased from:
There are also autographed copies for sale. Available here:
Regular non-autographed copies can be bought from:
- The Hub Media Stores in Shoprite, The Palms Shopping Mall, Lekki
- Patabah Bookstore, Shop B18, Adeniran Ogunsanya mall, Surulere
I want to say a heartfelt thank you to Anote Ajeluorou and the Nigerian Guardian newspaper for this outstanding review that was published in Monday’s edition of the Guardian.
Oil, Politics and Violence: Revisiting Military Adventurism into Politics
Monday, 13 September 2010 00:00 By Anote Ajeluorou Art – Arts
MAX Siollun’s new book Oil, Politics and Violence: Nigeria’s Military Coup Culture (1966 – 1976), (Algora Publishing, New York; 2009) is a historical treatise on military adventurism in Nigerian politics as the infant nation took its first tottering steps shortly after independence. That intervention was to last almost forever, and at a staggering cost to the nation and its quest for democracy.
“A BREATH TAKING NARRATIVE”
Himself a historian, Siollun takes his readers through a breath-taking narrative of the socio-political setting of 1960 to 1966, when the tables turned. The ouster of politicians who had behaved badly from power led to the enthronement of a military that was not prepared for the enormity and subtlety of political office. What was worse, the coup, which was led by the majors in the army, was perceived to be sectional because of those killed.
Then there was a counter-coup that led to retaliatory killings of one section within the army. The Major Chukwuma Nzeogwu’s first coup had failed because of several factors. His was purely an idealistic coup to give the reign of leadership to Obafemi Awolowo, who was imprisoned at the time following the corruption of the Abubakar Balewa-led government. His colleagues in Lagos had failed to execute their own part of the coup as he had done in Kaduna leading to Major-General Johnson Aguyi-Ironsi rallying the army to squash the coup in Lagos. Aguyi-Ironsi assumes the office of head of state to stem the breakdown of law and order. But a counter-coup stops him dead in his track following some controversial decrees he promulgated, and the sectional slant to the coup. Northern soldiers go on the offensive and target Igbo soldiers. It spirals into the streets and the consequent infamous pogroms of 1966 that led to the civil war. Siollun also looks at the next nine years following the end of the war and how the military badly fared.
In providing the festering climate for the political logjam that led to the fall of the first republic, Siollun writes, “Underestimating the win-at-all-costs mentality of the Nigerian National Alliance (NNA), the UPGA unwisely decided to bycott the elections on the ground that the NNA was planning to rig it… Due to the widespread electoral malpractices, President Azikiwe refused to call Balewa to form a new government following the elections. For several days, Nigeria teetered on the edge of an abyss as the President and the Prime Minister tried to scheme each other out of power”.
Events in the Wild Wild West did not help matters with Awolowo and Ladoke Akintola locked in their own political struggles to warrant the declaration of a state of emergency in the region. And then onto the coup that was to unsettle Nigeria for most of its political life.
Siollun’s Oil, Politics and Violence: Nigeria’s Military Coup Culture is a well-researched book on Nigeria’s military experience.
“THE BOOK IS UNIQUE IN MANY WAYS”
The book is unique in many ways. The depth of research into the events, activities, personalities involved in the planning, execution, who did what, how and its implication is stunning. The author meticulously accessed every record that needed to be accessed to bring to the reader a dense meal of military adventurism into the politics of the most populous black nation on earth.
“Siollun brings a measure of balance and accuracy that has eluded many a writer”
Also, Siollun brings a measure of balance and accuracy that has eluded many a writer on the touchy subject to bear on his writing. A lot has been written on the subject but most of it with a given mindset to colour and taint the facts. Some writers on the subject have often contradicted themselves on points of facts and sequence of events or personalities involved. Siollun brings all these to bear on his writing as he harmonises them to create an authentic recreation of a critical period of Nigerian political history.
In a sense, Oil, Politics and Violence: Nigeria’s Military Coup Culture resituates the horrendous adventurism of the military and places it starkly for what it was: a political aberration that should never have been! The ills the military set out to cure sooner came to haunt them as the military soon compromised itself, and performed a lot badly than those they deposed from power.
“CLARITY OF NARRATIVE”
One point in favour of Oil, Politics and Violence: Nigeria’s Military Coup Culture is its pace of narrative. Although, it’s a historical account of what most readers already know, yet it turns out a fascinating read on account of its detailed and accurate reconstruction of events. With the planning, shootouts and executions and murders on such a large scale, it tends to read like a thriller of sorts. This indeed is its strength.
Indeed, but for the horrendous killings of real life persons that accompanied the coups, and the tragic loss of lives during the civil war with the distortion of the polity, the coups as detailed by Siollun would whet the palate of lovers of thrillers with the dexterity of narrative he employs. The book is well worth a rereading for its cinematic affect!