Conversations With Abang Mercy – Soldiers Of Fortune
One permanent fixture of Nigeria’s national life is an unending romance with the military institution.
Since the 5 Major’s incursion into Nigerian politics, they held sway from 1966 to 1999, except for the second republic which lasted barely 4 years between 1979-83; In Soldiers of fortune, Max Siollun traces the continuous recycling of political characters with military heritages that have remained the threads weaving the fabrics of the country. To understand the trajectory of Nigeria’s politics our guest Max Siollun gives us a lesson in history in this edition of Conversations with Abang Mercy.
What informed the book title, Soldiers of fortune?
Those three words accurately capture what happened in Nigeria between 1983 and 1993. Nigeria was dominated by soldiers who suffered wildly contrasting fortunes.
How were you able to present an honest and objective historical account of events that happened years ago?
I had to “check out” any preconceptions and personal opinions before I started writing the book. A reviewer of my first book “Oil, Politics and Violence” said I “successfully checked [any ethnic biases] at the door” and that I combined “the dispassionate objectivity of the outsider with the nuanced knowledge of the insider.” I tried very hard to repeat that in this second book Soldiers of Fortune..
As an outsider who wasn’t personally involved in any of the events at the time, do you think you have given a factual analysis?
I believe so. A lot of painstaking research (and sleepless nights!) went into cross-checking and referencing the book and everything said in it.
You are right that I was not personally involved, but I think that is a good thing. Not being a direct participant means I have no ethnic, religious, or personal axe to grind. This book is not about score settling. I am not a praise singer for, or opponent of, any of the people mentioned in the book.
I am an “insider” in the sense that I have first-hand knowledge of Nigeria. However, the fact I have lived abroad also allowed me to take a step back and not allow my judgement to be clouded or biased by being too closely immersed in these events.
At a time in the history of Nigeria, Coup became motivated by a desire for personal gains rather than the national interest, to what extent is Nigeria still affected by leaders interested in serving their pockets?
I will let Nigerians make up their own minds about that one.
In your book, one of the Major actors, General Ibrahim Babangida was quoted as saying “we found the coup easier when there was frustration in the land”. What does that say to the power the people wield?
Military rule did not occur in a vacuum. It occurred because of mistakes made by the civilian leadership, and because civilian governments caused enough crises to give the military a pretext to take over the government.
Military rule ended when the public said enough was enough, stood up and opposed the military. Nigerians are the ultimate deciders of whether they are ruled by civilians or soldiers. The military cannot peacefully govern without their consent.
Your account of coups and politics in late-80s/early-90s Nigeria is quite clear, would you say Nigeria is currently being managed by the actors (Olusegun Obasanjo, Ibrahim Badamosi Babangida, Muhammadu Buhari, David Mark, etc.) that were prominent at that time?
Since the 1960s, Nigeria has experienced a continuous recycling of political characters. The same individuals end up in the corridors of power over and over again. In 1999 the military handed power to a “civilian” who is a retired member of their profession and who as a military leader, handed over power to civilians 20 years earlier.
The Senate President has been in the government over 50% of the time during the past 29 years, and was in government as far back as 1984.
The leader of the opposition in Nigeria today is someone who was the head of state almost 30 years ago and who was a minister nearly 40 years ago.
It is a fact of life that retired military officers are the most politically experienced people in Nigeria!
So much went into researching for this book, you dug up documents, speeches and interviews to write this recent history, with some of the actors being alive, won’t your accounts be challenged?
If people disagree, I welcome them to join the debate and offer their perspective.
One thing I realized reading the book, “The Nigerian people are quick to welcome one dictator after another”. Would you say that the assertion can still be applied to the present day politics, this perpetual search for a messiah ?
Nigerians feel they have been let down so often, and so badly, by past leaders that they continually look out for a new quick-fix hero. They desperately want a leader that will make a clean break with the past and usher in a golden generation of leadership. We see the same pattern with every single leader. Each leader is welcomed with huge expectations and goodwill. The honeymoon period does not last very long though. Before long the optimism and goodwill is replaced by cynicism and opposition. . In this regard it is instructive that Nigeria’s most popular leader is General Murtala Muhammed (i.e. someone who did not rule long enough to become embroiled in some of the controversies that made his successors unpopular).
Every leader in Nigeria’s history has been welcomed into power by a massive public outpouring of goodwill. The jubilation that greeted the coups that brought Buhari and Babangida to power was as great as that which greeted Nigeria’s independence.
You ended your account in 1993, why so? Perhaps taking the narrative further to 1999 would have completed the picture?
Nigeria experienced three temperamentally different periods of military rule: the deft and light-touch regimes that ruled between 1966-1979, then the more involved regimes of Buhari and Babangida between 1984-1993 which engaged in a lot of social and political engineering, and then finally the Abacha regime which was at virtual war with its own public between late 1993 and 1998. The Abubakar regime between 1998-1999 was almost a footnote in that it focused almost all of its energy on trying to get out of power.
I think it would be exhausting for readers if I covered this entire period in one book. Each era of military rule was different. Each regime faced unique challenges and responded to them in different ways.
In writing, researching and finally collating texts, what were your intentions?
So many things in Nigeria today are tied to, or were caused by events in its past. One cannot understand modern Nigeria without referring to its past under military rule. I think teaching young people their history can steer them away from repeating the mistakes of the past.
I am not sure that young Nigerians appreciate just how drama filled their history is. Hollywood script writers could not have written a more conspiratorial thriller with as many plot twists, friends turning on each other, corruption, gun battles in city centers, dazzling women, and rags to riches billionaires. In the first chapter alone, there are gun fights, a change of government, multiple coup plots, betrayals, a senior officer being shot dead, the President being deceived, and we are introduced to several young men who went on to dominate Nigeria’s political landscape for the next two decades.
I want Soldiers of Fortune to become a “one stop shop”. I want it to be the ultimate reference point for Nigeria between 1983 and 1993. It should be the “go to” place for anyone that wants to check any prominent controversy, fact, event, person or date in Nigeria between 1983 and 1993.
The role of the civilians in the plot was also noticed especially the likes of the late Moshood Abiola, former President Shehu Shagari and Umaru Dikko recently appointed to discipline erring members of the PDP. Has it been a game of self actualization all along? Never the interest of the nation?
The military could never have taken over power without collaboration by civilians. A senior security official in Nigeria once said that every single coup in Nigeria’s history has had civilian collaboration. In fact, many times it was the public that cajoled the military to overthrow the civilian democratic government.
The public literally pleaded for the military to overthrow Balewa, Shagari, and Shonekan. They also cheered when the military did so and did not shed many tears for the civilian victims of those coups. In fact – it was pro-democracy groups that urged Abacha to depose Shonekan. Some wrote public open letters to him, articulately asking him to seize power. One very famous human rights campaigner passionately and publicly said that “the military must intervene to stop this rot, to stop this war of Shonekan’s government against the people”.
Many Nigerians have the mindset that only the military can provide a quick solution to political crises.
Cassava Republic published your book. What informed your choice of publishers?
I wanted a publisher that is committed to Nigerian literature, to promoting a reading culture in Nigeria and for Africa’s story to be told by Africans. Cassava Republic Press have also been very good at promoting the book. They built a website for the book at www.fortunesoldiers.com. That website is not just a promotional tool for the book. Instead it has lots of content about Nigeria’s history. I urge people to visit www.fortunesoldiers.com
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Soldiers of Fortune is published by Cassava Republic press in July 2013. For more information, go to www.fortunesoldiers.com.