By Anote Ajeluorou
14 years after, Nigeria still struggles to shake off the incubus of military rule that continues to constitute a blight on the country’s socio-economic and political fortunes. Nigeria’s current effort at democratic rule has a serious handover from prolong military rule, especially with official impunity and corruption at its heart. Also, a sizable number of the current political gladiators are of military stock, individuals who played active and pivotal roles in Nigeria’s political trauma, individuals who stalled all efforts at democratic restoration while they enjoyed the spoils of office.
But how did the military come to wield so much power over Nigeria’s large civil populace so much so that it almost annihilated it? What subterfuge did the military employ to wheedle civil populace into accepting it to its peril? Who were the invincible men in army uniform that warmed their way into the hearts of civilian population and played and manipulated them so well that a militarized ethos became entrenched into a national psyche? What love-hate relationship existed between the military the civil populace while the military ruled? Importantly, who where Muhammadu Buhari, and especially Ibrahim Babangida, and how did they gain notoriety as maximum rulers?
These varied and complex questions are the thrust of a new book, Soldiers of Fortune: Nigerian Politics from Buhari to Babangida (Cassava Republic Press, Abuja; 2013), by unarguably Nigeria’s best known expert in military matters, Max Siollun, who writes about Nigeria’s military, as no insider would be able to write about that establishment that evokes so much mixed feelings. His first book, Oil, Politics and Violence: Nigeria’s Military Coup Culture (1966 -1967) gives such firsthand factual account about the coups and counter-coups that ousted the First Republic in 1966, which eventually resulted in a bloody 30-month old civil war. Indeed, Siollun’s factual, almost eye-witness narrative of the grim events and masterminds of every stage of the coups and the fragile political contexts that provided the impetus cannot be surpassed.
It’s with such eye for details that he has brought to bear on this new book, as he relives and recreates again the tumultuous political years of the 1980s, with an impotent President Shehu Shagari, who could not rein in his powerful cabinet members, who went on corruption spree that brought in the military yet again to power. The military were to stay for the most prolonged and convoluted military-inspired political campaign ever there was in Nigeria.
Gross corruption and poor management of the economy (with hyper, run away inflation in overdrive) in the Shagari government brought back the military, with Buhari as head although the architects of the coup were Babangida, Sanni Abacha and several other well-known coupists from the days of Gen. Yakubu Gowon’s ouster from power way back in 1975. In fact, when the Shagari government was toppled there was widespread jubilation among the civil populace, as indication of its lack of popularity in not being able to deliver the democratic dividends to the citizenry. This wide acceptance of the military, Siollun posits, emboldened Babangida to inflict himself on Nigerians the way he did.
Siollun writes, “Politicians continually fell into every trap set for them by military conspirators. A factor that few Nigerians will admit today is that the military always enjoyed widespread support any time it deposed an elected government. The military were always cajoled into political power and welcomed as heroic redeemers after each coup. Babangida revealed the extent to which civilian preference for military rule over democracy encouraged the military to retake power”.
But the Buhari/Idiagbon’s regime didn’t last either. It turned out to be too draconian, as it curtailed all civil rights enjoyed by Nigerians, especially freedom of expression. It also failed to deal decisively with the economic problems it inherited from Shagari. Once again, entrenched coupists, Babangida, Abacha, Joshua Dogonyaro and their henchmen took over power to usher in the most convoluted political transition campaign that stretched the national imagination to its limits.
It is Babangida’s eight years in office that Siollun’s book concentrates on as marking a watershed in Nigeria’s military intervention in politics. Babangida seemingly reinvented all the known rules as means of entrenching himself indefinitely in power. He wielded the tools of political patronage and settlement to devastating effect. These tools also polarized the military and created dichotomy between political office appointees and professional, careerist soldiers, with the former looking down on the later on account of the stupendous wealth they amassed.
Such rich officers later became Babangidas’s headache, as he could not convince them on the need to leave the political stage having tasted the wealth that came with political power. Senate President, David Mark and Adamawa State governor, Murtala Nyako (retired as Vice Admiral) were some of these powerful military office holders that partly held Babangida and Nigeria hostage to the evil genius of Babangida.
Siollun does not spare details. His account is a re-enactment of Nigeria’s bitter history in the hands of men employed and paid by Nigerians to protect them, but who turned against them in their self-proclaimed mission of redemption from elected civilian administrations. It was always the same story; elected governments are accused of performing badly in office. That becomes a pretext for staging a coup.
Beyond researching into his material, Siollun has in this book also brought insider witnesses to give immense credibility to the narrative. A principal actor like Domkat Bali speaks on some of the potent issues of the day. In Soldiers of Fortune, every step or missteps taken by Babangida are documented. He gives his convoluted transition train great attention and relives some of the intimate and behind-the-scenes’ maneuverings that shaped Nigeria’s watershed moment at democratic efforts that produced implacable June 12.
Siollun’s narrative of the Gideon Okar coup is reminiscent of his first book, where coup narrative is easily his forte. He brings out the actions in their broad theatre in a gripping, thriller narrative style. He also presents in graphic style how and why the coup failed in spite of its bloody execution.
Siollun paints a grim picture of the military after the annulment of June 12, when he writes, “The annulment polarized the army’s professional and political wings to such an extent that the army factionalised into “little more than an assorted array of conspiratorial groups”. As coup plotting had become some officers’ preferred method of settling differences of opinion, different pro and anti-Babangida forces in the military planned several overlapping coups…
“Colonel Ababukar Umar (Commander of the armoured corps) later admitted that he and other officers (including Gen. Abacha) also planned a different coup… However, Umar told his men to stand down after Gen. Abacha and Brigadier Mark disagreed and favoured the continuation of military rule under a new regime not led by Babangida”.
Siollun’s book indicts the likes of Senate President, Mark and Governor Nyako, who vehemently opposed restoring June 12 while they enjoyed political offices as soldiers, but who eventually became its biggest beneficiary at the inception of the current democratic dispensation. They were also the ones whose action led to the spilling of innocent blood of Nigerians on the streets while protesting their continued stay in office after June 12 expired their illegally appropriated mandate.
This is the chief aim of Siollun’s Soldiers of Fortune: Never to forget. With Nigerians often falling into collective amnesia, Siollun’s book will continually nudge them awake and never to forget what had gone before. Mark and Nyako and others of their ilk are now not only beneficiaries, but champions of the democracy they once worked so hard to scuttle!
Soldiers of Fortune is Nigeria’s recent history rewritten with a keen eagle-eye. Its fast narrative pace makes it a delightful and a must read.