Book Review — Soldiers of Fortune by Max Siollun

This afternoon I finished Max Siollun’s “Soldiers of Fortune: Nigerian Politics from Buhari to Babangida”. Max considers himself a lawyer and historian with extensive knowledge of Nigerian military history.

The book details the political and military rule of Nigerian between 1983 and 1993. The background for the book is the civilian rule of Shehu Shagari and thus became a primer for the narration of the coups which brought in Muhammadu Buhari and Ibrahim Babangida. The drama known as the June 12 election enjoyed a detailed account. In between these stories were narrations of attempted coups. The book was a pulsating read at times.

The book makes a lot of interesting points. One of them has to do with the nature of coups in Nigeria. While many think the interventions of the military in political affairs were necessitated by the incompetence and corruption of the civilian leaders, the truth is that the coups were opportunistic. The coups were planned first, and then their planners waited for the government to make mistakes that would justify the coup’s execution.

But this cannot justify the leadership of the civilians who displayed gross insensitivity to the affairs of the masses. As the people groaned under economic hardship, the then Minister of Transport, Umaru Dikko, responded that things were not so bad “since Nigerians were not yet eating out of dustbins.” Few things encompassed the attitude of the leaders to the led than this statement. To show the free rein given to corruption, President Shagari claimed that he pleaded with his ministers to stop embezzling state funds but was ignored. Shagari said he became exasperated, gave up and all he did from then on was pray.

#DoYouKnow When Shehu Shagari was removed during the Buhari 1983 coup, his eldest son was retired from the army, and another son was expelled from the Air Force Secondary School in Jos.

Something that would baffle a person just being initiated into Nigeria’s political history is the way the same set of people have been at the helms of affairs since the 1980s. Names like Murtala Nyako, David Mark, Bode George, Jonah Jang, and of course Muhammadu Buhari, among others have been around the political scene since the early 1980s.

How did many Northern boys get their start and dominate the army in the first place? They were carefully groomed. Buhari recalled that as a young man “the Emir of Kano told one of us that if soldiers could overthrow a line of kings descended directly from the Prophet, it could happen anywhere. So we should go and join the army.”

A great deal of the book was spent on the regime of Ibrahim Babangida. This is not surprising seeing that he ruled for 8 of the 10 years under consideration. During the years he was not in power, he was a key player. To ensure that he ruled for that long, the Babangida government executed more soldiers than any other government in Nigeria’s history.

Babangida’s execution of his bosom friend, Mamman Vatsa was a sad read. The execution of Major Bamidele was quite unfortunate. Bamidele had found out about the coup plot against Shagari and reported to Buhari. Unknown to Bamidele Buhari was one of the conspirators. To prevent Bamidele from leaking the plot, Buhari arrested and detained him. When Bamidele once again learned of the next coup plot, he kept quiet and did not report. This time he was arrested for not reporting the latest plot. His penalty? Execution through a firing squad.

Of the 117 people executed for coup plotting in Nigeria’s history, 78 were executed by the Babangida regime. That’s 60% of all executions for coup plotting in Nigeria’s history. This is astonishing considering Babangida ruled for only eight of the 28 years that Nigeria was under military rule.

The Orkar coup narration was particularly engrossing. Babangida’s government resembled an old boys’ network of personal friends and classmates. Soldiers with no political or economic experiences, mainly from the North, were put in charge of states as rewards for their loyalty. Soldiers from the Middle Belt and especially the Niger Delta felt emasculated. The author mentioned that even though oil on which the country runs was discovered in the Niger Delta, Babangida gave back a miserly 2% of the oil revenue to the region from as high as 50% in the 1950s. These soldiers’ dissatisfaction was justified. In the end, the coup failed and Babangida showed force. A story was told of one of the coup plotters who was wounded during the coup. Babangida asked that he be flowned abroad for treatment. On his return he was executed.

Babangida made corruption into an art form. In 1991, he spent about 2% of the national budget on cars alone to military officers as a way of buying their loyalty in a scheme called IBB spirit. For perspective, that’s 178 billion in 2019 budget. He introduced the First Lady Syndrome into Nigerian politics with Maryam Babangida leading the way as the wives of state governors tried to outdo themselves in flouting glamorous lifestyles.

The extent of the corruption in the Babangida regime is symbolized by the Gulf War Oil Windfall in which between 1988 and 1994, $12.2 billion from crude oil accounts mysteriously disappeared. Babangida may as well be the most corrupt leader in Nigerian history. When the US committee set up to look into the operations of the collapsed bank, BCCI, around the world, looked into its operations in Nigeria, the bank was said to have adapted itself to the conditions already present in Nigeria. The bank’s activities in Nigeria were distinguished by a staggering Nigerianised brand of corruption far exceeding what the bank perpetrated in other countries. This is huge when you realize that BCCI is a giant in international money laundering.

What surprised me about the regime of Babangida was the extent at which some of Nigeria’s most respected intellectuals accepted and urged it on. As Gani Fawehinmi fought the government over the alleged government-led killing of respected journalist Dele Giwa and the unconstitutional office of the First Lady, among other atrocities, Wole Soyinka and Tai Solarin accepted appointments in this bankrupt government. As Babangida gagged the press, dillydallied on handling over power to civilians, banned and unbanned and again banned political parties for the 1993 elections, nothing was heard from them. It was stupefying to me.

Babangida was eventually disgraced out of office as he annulled the June 12 elections which should have brought MKO Abiola into power. The author endeavoured to put the blame of the annulment on Sani Abacha with a convincing narration of pressures put on the self-appointed President in military uniform, but the jury is out on how things really panned out.

#DoYouKnow David Mark, as a Brigadier, was quoted as saying in 1993, “I’d shoot Chief Abiola the day NEC pronounces him the elected president”. Nigerians still allowed him become Senate President in 2007. A people with a poor sense of history.

One of my few qualms with the book is the attempt to paint the Babangida regime as operating a capitalistic economic system. For a man who rebuffed the conditions of the IMF by rejecting the loan, and instead came up with his own debilitating SAP policies which immiserated the masses while he was milking the country dry, the author showed a poor grasp of economic realities.

IBB did the country ‘bad’ and will forever be fingered in even worse things to come in enabling the reign of a man whom he says, “may not be bright upstairs but knows how to overthrow governments and overpower coup plotters.”

This was a great read and highly recommended for all Nigerians as those who do not know their history’s mistakes are doomed to repeat them.

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