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06 Feb Written by  Oris Aigbokhaevbolo

Book Review: Soldiers of Fortune by Max Siollun

Max Siollun’s book sheds some light on a dark chapter of the nation’s history, writes Oris Aigbokhaevbolo

Nigeria’s history is replete with meetings. In 1983, Major-General Ibrahim Babangida visited President Shehu Shagari to assure him of the army’s loyalty; in early, 1986, three writers, Achebe, Soyinka and Clark, met with President Babangida to discuss a commutation of accused coup plotter, Major-General Mamman Vatsa’s death sentence; in 1993, after a meeting where the merits of a court order to stop elections from holding was discussed, some army officers were seen heading to the president’s office ‘to remonstrate with him’ on his decision to allow the election proceed.

All of these meetings had different intentions and consequences, as Max Siollun presents in his fine book, Soldiers of Fortune, subtitled Nigerian Politics from Buhari to Babangida (1983-1993). The Shagari visit was subterfuge to distract the government from plans of a coup. Vatsa’s sentence was never commuted: he was executed a day later. And the last would lead to the annulment of the June 12 election.

Those are some of the more obvious meetings; the meetings necessary for coup plots, several decades later, are still partially concealed.

The book is divided into 14 chapters presenting events mainly chronologically with prominence given to the sensational events of the Babangida regime— considering how much of the book is devoted to his tenure, the book can pass for his unofficial memoirs. Analyses of the events are given within each chapter, with the exception of one— Chapter 10, The Love of Money— which is almost entirely an analysis of the rise of corruption in Nigeria. Here, Mr Siollun cannot decide where the blame lies. He vacillates between the public and the Ibrahim Babangida regime, eventually deciding on more handwringing:

“Many Nigerians believe that Babangida “institutionalised corruption,” yet few admit their own complicity in creating the situation where corruption became the norm. The citizenry are simultaneously victims, accomplices, and active participants in their own corrupt downfall...the roots go much deeper and are symptomatic of a residual breakdown of Nigerian societal values and morality. It is the result of a nationwide refusal to condemn dishonesty.”

It is in a presentation of the facts that the books excels. The reader can tell how arduous it is to compile all of the lectures, newspapers, speeches, memoirs— which Mr Siollun generously furnishes at the end of each chapter— in Nigeria. Generous as they are, the sources of particular information are not always given. For example, when rumours of Babangida’s intention to be civilian president, after cancelling several presidential primaries in 1992, become widespread leading to his assuring his military colleagues he had no such plans, the book says, “General Abacha nonetheless remained sceptical about Babangida’s sincerity.” Is this true? Is this even knowable? If it is, no source is named for this particular psychological insight.

As a lack of documentation plagues the military era— the public can agree that no one takes down minutes in coup planning meetings— the book cannot avoid serving self-serving accounts of individuals as truth. Perhaps the clearest example of this is in the June 12 account given by National Electoral Commission chairman, Humphrey Nwosu. After about a decade of silence, he published his account of the June 12 episode, absolving Babangida of wrongdoing. At the time of publication in 2008, a section of the media considered his story written mainly for his former boss’ benefit. In Soldiers of Fortune, amidst the uncertainty of several hypotheses put forward, Nwosu’s narrative emerges as something close to fact.

To be fair, the author tries valiantly to compare accounts and give the most plausible, but facts cannot win depending mainly on memory.

These are mainly quibbles for an absolutely readable book, providing, often, a keen view of the military in Nigeria. In the preface to the book, Mr Siollun gives a summation of the motives of the military:

“Nigeria faced no external military threat from a foreign power, thus the army’s role was largely devoted to the suppression of communal riots...With no external enemies to fight, military heroism tended to be sought in the political arena rather than on the battle field.”

Considering all of the young men—at the start of the period covered most were in their 30s— involved in the turbulent period of 1983-1993, it is hard to argue with that claim. Their activities, their prejudice, their loyalties shaped the nation we have today. And whether history, as recorded in Soldiers of Fortune, is a tribute or an indictment is clear. It is worse to note that all of the names in the book are same names in today’s politics— of all the prominent names in the military era, only the dead are granted dispensation from the country’s democracy. But maybe that is more of an indictment on the voting public.

As for the author, he is only a chronicler; one faced with inescapable handicaps but, ultimately, one that deserves praise for his scholarship, for his rigour; for his book.