book reviewBy Tolu Ogunlesi
From the stern Buhari to the cunning Babangida, Max Siollun's account of coups and politics in late-80s/early-90s Nigeria is clear, compelling and committed to truth.
Soldiers of Fortune is not a comforting story. It will astound, alarm, and almost certainly infuriate. It tells the story of a motley bunch of gun-toting men who, united by bravado, ambition, self-righteousness, and a false sense of entitlement, held the destiny of Africa's most populous country in their hands, and gambled with it. These men were obsessed with the power that control over Nigeria offered, but they were lacking in the vision, integrity, and gravitas required to effectively implement change. The sum effect of the 1985 coup by General Babangida and his cohorts would take Nigeria two steps backwards for every one half-hearted step forwards.
The author of the book, Max Siollun, stands unchallenged as the Chronicler-in-Chief of the Nigerian military. In this follow-up to his first book Oil, Politics and Violence: Nigeria's Military Coup Culture (1966-1976), he fixes his gaze on the first ten years of Nigeria's second stretch of military rule. Soldiers of Fortune is full of dramatic moments, from the final moments of Shehu Shagari as president to the abortive attempt by the Buhari government to kidnap exiled politician Umaru Dikko and bring him for trial in Nigeria, to the shelling of President Babangida's private quarters during the unsuccessful April 1990 coup.
Dodging bullets, gambling in fear
Through the book, Siollun carefully navigates a middle ground and argues that Babangida and his companions were subjected to pressure from the public as much as they were trying to exert pressure on them - Nigeria gambled with these men as much as they gambled with her. They were strongmen, no doubt, but they were simultaneously prisoners of time and circumstance. Powerful as they seemed to be, they lived their lives in terror and paranoia, acutely aware of how much was at stake in the corridors of absolute power, and that those who lived by the gun were always on the verge of dying by the gun.
As Babangida is quoted as saying, years after leaving office: "When I became the president, there were about 23 of us who were the coup plotters at that time and immediately that coup was successful, I sat the 23 of us together and said: 'Congratulations, we made it but remember one thing, just like we took up guns and toppled a government, we also have to watch because somebody would one day want to topple us', and this is because I understood the nature of the Nigerian person."
The Nigerian people, welcoming one dictator after another
Soldiers of Fortune is as much about the formidable cabal as it is about the citizens that were eventually subjected to it. Time and again there is evidence that at every point in their history, Nigerians have deserved the leaders they got. Siollun's book succeeds in highlighting the most unflattering sides of the Nigerian citizenry: the famed shallowness of collective memory, the effortless sycophancy, the inability to transcend short-term thinking, the tribal obsessions, the propensity to settle for a status quo in which "the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity".
It took less than two years for the same set of people to grow tired of the "stern, focused and uncompromising" General Buhari, who ruled the country between 1983 and 1985, and eagerly welcome his polar opposite, the "amiable, cunning, and tactically adroit" Babangida. These were the same people who rejoiced when the ascetic Buhari replaced the blundering, corrupt government led by a chain-smoking, fashion-conscious Shehu Shagari.
The herculean task of making sense of Nigeria's history
It must be pointed out that Siollun has not so much uncovered anything we did not know or suspect already, but he has performed the herculean task of stitching existing material together into a single defining account, in a way that no-one before him has ever done.
Siollun is an outsider in the sense that he was not personally involved in any of the events or periods he writes about. In this case, however, it can be seen as a positive, as his clear and meticulous style gives him away as someone being more committed to objectivity than an 'insider' could ever be. Many accounts of Nigerian history are told by the actors themselves, or by those close to the centre of the action, often with a mission to portray subjects in the best - or worst - possible light. With Siollun, at no point do you get the sense that this is a book written to settle scores or to "set the records straight".
What Siollun has done is to cast his net wide, dig up both known and obscure documents, speeches, interviews and books, and, from the vantage position of an unbiased observer, weave together a coherent narrative of how a nation's military shaped and reshaped Nigeria over the course of a decade. He brings to it a matter-of-fact style, a wide historical sweep, and a profound understanding of what he is writing about, succeeding in connecting distant and seemingly unrelated events in the most illuminating manner.
Soldiers of Fortune is an interesting, compelling, pause-often-and-wonder account of yet another unfortunate epoch in Nigeria's history, one narrated with clarity and an unmistakable commitment to truthfulness - qualities which should never be taken for granted in today's Nigeria.
'Soldiers of Fortune' is published by Cassava Republic. Released 15 July, the book is available to purchase for 2,500.76 NGN, $15.50, or £10.09.
For further reading around the subject see:
Nigeria's Forgotten Empire: The Walls of BeninWill Nigeria Overtake South Africa as Africa's Powerhouse?Nigeria's Religious Fundamentalism: Opiate of the Masses, Incitement to Violence or Something Else?
Poet and Freelance Journalist for Ventures Africa
Tolu Ogunlesi is a poet and cultural commentator. He lives in Lagos, Nigeria and works as a freelancer for Ventures Africa.