Book Review – Soldiers of Fortune: Nigerian Politics From Buhari to Babangida (1983 to 1993), Author – Max Siollun, Publisher – Cassava Republic, Abuja, Date – 2013, 14 chapters with appendices containing speeches, lists of regime members and coup convicts, bibliography, index, 336 pages
The Nigerian State today is what has been bequeathed to us by thirty years of military rule. They fabricated this state through a process of centralisation by the multiplication of States from 4 Regions to 12 federated States in 1967, and then to 19 in 1976, 21 in 1987, 30 in 1991 and 36 in 1996. This miniaturisation of the federated States enhanced the power of the central State. The increased power enjoyed by the centre was reinforced by the destruction of the previous sources of revenue and its replacement with rent from petroleum. The military legacy gave us a state that does not need to extract resources from its population through collecting peasant agricultural surpluses and taxing the people. It gave us a state that does not need the people.
The author of this book, Max Siollun, whoever he is, has devoted his career to explicating the military and their impact on our lives. His first major publication “Oil, Politics and Violence: Nigeria’s Military Coup Culture” gives us the story of the first decade of military rule from 1966 to 1976. This new book tells the story of the Buhari and Babangida years from 1983 to 1993. It is essential reading for those who want to understand the crass motivations that guided the cabal of military politicians that ruled and ruined Nigeria.
The military, he shows us, has been composed of generations of officers who had lined themselves up to acquire and exercise power. As early as 1982, Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida (IBB) and his friends were already scheming to overthrow Shehu Shagari’s Second Republic. They restrained themselves and waited for almost two more years to create the conditions for the coup. They had to wait for the massive rigging of the 1983 elections to get the excuse to strike under conditions that will elicit popular support for the coup.
The author uses the concept of “coup baiting” to explain their planning and execution techniques. Coup baiting he says is the organisation of massive anti-regime propaganda to create favourable political conditions for a coup d’état. Siollun argues that IBB relied on his good friend and publisher of the Concord publishing stable, M. K. O. Abiola, to unleash “frequent vitriolic attacks on the government with the intention of discrediting it sufficiently to psychologically prepare the public for its replacement by a military regime (page 11).” IBB might have done that but I think we should be careful about accepting this explanation. Abiola himself had personal political opposition to the NPN regime that told him to his face that there was no vacancy for him to contest for the presidency. Secondly, the Second Republic was extremely arrogant, corrupt and inept and a lot of the criticisms they received were genuine and well intentioned rather than evidence of IBB’s coup baiting.
A coup is a double crime – treason against the state and mutiny against the military hierarchy. It is therefore not surprising that coups have devastating impact on the state itself. The source of the problem is the destruction of the political culture of the separation of powers. The military exercise joint legislative and executive powers (page 23) and often add judicial powers as well. One clear example given in the book is the corruption trials organised by the Buhari/Idiagbon regime. On coming to power, they arrested and detained 475 politicians and businessmen for corruption including ousted President Shehu Shagari and his deputy Alex Ekweume.
Five military tribunals were established to try them. The tribunals had five members – four military officers and one civilian judge each. The military, Siollun explains, were prosecutor, judge and jury and the accused were assumed to be guilty except if they could prove their innocence (page 31). Virtually all the accused were jailed for between 20 and 200 years each. While the corruption of the Second Republic was real, the absence of a fair trial made it easy for IBB to free all of them when he came to power. The principled position of the Nigerian Bar Association in boycotting the military tribunals had of course emptied the process of all credibility.
The author narrates in detail the war against the media and press freedom by the Buhari/Idiagbon regime. Decree 4 on Public Officers Protection Against False Accusation is a good reminder about the despotic nature of military rule. Journalists were by law guilty even if their reports are true as long as such reports ridicules or brings public officers into disrepute – page 47. Decree no. 2 was also used for summary arrest and detention of all those who dared challenge the military power structure.
The core argument of the book however was that although the Buhari/Idiagbon regime are assumed to be the most authoritarian and brutal military regime in Nigeria, a close analysis reveals that the IBB regime was in reality more brutal and repressive if one looks behind the veneer of its exceptionally good public relations. Examples he provides include the elimination of the country’s middle class through the imposition of the Structural Adjustment Programme and the murders of Dele Giwa and Mamman Vatsa
IBB, he explains, was the first military ruler to deliberately plan, over a long period, to rule Nigeria. He was an active participant in all post 1966 successful military coups and is the quintessential military politician. On coming to power, he was the first soldier to declare himself President, which meant power was in his hands rather than in the hands of the ruling military organ. Ebitu Ukiwe was to discover this over the OIC affair when he realised that there was no no. 2 in the system, IBB was sole in command.
The chapter on the harassment and eventual assassination of Dele Giwa for trying to do his job as a journalist is poignant and moving. The message there is on the involvement of the whole military intelligence services is eliminating any perceived threat to the military power structure.
The execution of General Mamman Vatsa, childhood bosom friend of IBB on 5th March 1986 was used as an indicator of how far IBB could go. The author argues that even Maryam, late wife of IBB had sent him a desperate note begging him not to kill his life long friend (page 90). Of course, what Nigerians remember was the assurance by key Nigerian writers – Wole Soyinka, Chinua Achebe and J. P. Clark that they had seen IBB and secured assurance of clemency only to learn that same evening that the ten officers had already been executed. What is striking in Siollun’s account is the absence of proof that there was a real plot and Vatsa and co were involved. None of the plotters controlled any troops (page 94), which means they did not have the capacity to strike and Vatsa was not even accused of attending any meeting of coup plotters.
The book title – Soldiers of Fortune – suggests of course that the motivation of soldiers in seeking power is pecuniary. They set out to make their fortunes and in the process, succeeded in spreading the culture of corruption and settlement to the wider society. The author recalls the Okigbo Commission report that showed $12.2 billion was stolen between 1988 and 1994 through the so-called dedicated accounts. He reminds us on how even the great austere Tai Solarin was sucked into the IBB system. The organising principle is everyone has a price, if not, elimination is the answer.
The book provides a detailed narrative of the kidnap of Umaru Dikko and it’s fascinating to read the capacity of both the Nigerian security agents and their partners from Mossad, the Israeli intelligence agency to bungle the operation.
The author argues that military rule is rule by a faction and is NOT based on consensus within the military establishment. Often, the factions in power have strong elements of ethnic and religious bigotry in their agenda thus exercabating Nigeria’s sectarian fault lines.
The final section of the book is on the political transition programme of IBB, which was clearly designed to fail or maybe could not succeed because there were too many political military officers who were not ready to relinquish power. If Abiola had served to create room for IBB through coup baiting, maybe IBB had the last laugh through his annulation of the June 12th 1993 presidential election. The jury on the issue is still in deliberation suggests the author; meanwhile, we continue to debate the theories.
The key question at the end was whether IBB had overplayed his card by creating his political soldiers. We are reminded that when Abiola won the elections, a certain Brigadier David Mark announced – “I will shoot Chief Abiola the day NEC announces him the elected President” – page 243. Indeed, one of IBB’s terrible legacies for the nation might well be the nurturing of a club of rich and well-connected retired generals who continue to play a major role in our politics.
IBB might be a contented person who has changed Nigeria in his image and could confidently announce in a speech delivered to the “Oxford and Cambridge Club” that the Nigerian elite is characterised by: “fractionalism, disruptive competition, extreme greed and selfishness, indolence and the abandonment of the pursuit of excellence…” Yes indeed, but who caused it? Read this book to find out.