I originally encountered Max Siollun when I read Oil, Politics and Violence (OPV), his excellent book on the history of Nigeria between 1966 and 1976, a period dominated by military coups and a bloody civil war. Soldiers of Fortune is a deserving sequel to such a powerful book. Siollun does an excellent job of curating the power tussles and resulting coups that dominated the 80’s, and traces the transition of Nigeria’s military from an ideological group to one intent on shedding blood and seizing power as a means of self-preservation. The book is a unque peek into the subterfuge and paranoia that defined Nigeria’s leadership between 1985 and 1993; and how a small group of professional coup plotters played a deadly game of musical chairs with the Nigerian polity.
There are three key themes from this book. Firstly, it reminds the reader of how military coups need a complicit populace to succeed. The term “coup baiting” explains the deliberate attempt by civilian interests to form public opinion against a sitting government, setting the tone for a military takeover. This explains the false dawn that accompanied coups, and the unearned legitimacy the populace gave to succesive military regimes. Despite questionable economic policies and laughable diplomatic gaffes, the militarry managed to rule Nigeria for 16 years without interruption. This is a lesson to Nigeria’s political class, and a reminder that the mistakes of the 80’s and 90’s can re-occur easily. Secondly, the Orkar coup demonstrates how coup plotting was driven by ethnic allegiances and perceived victimisation of particular tribes/people. The perceived exploitation of the Niger-Delta was a key theme of this coup, and it was not coincidental that the key actors were mostly from that region. The suppression of ethnic protestations by successive military government explains today’s instability where several parts of the country are under siege from regional warlords. Finally, we are reminded of how unprepared Nigeria’s leaders have been. It is arguable that apart from Babanginda and perhaps Abacha, Nigeria has been ruled by accidental leaders. Soldiers of Fortune is a reminder of how the country’s growth was stunted by a mix of leaders who were unwilling and/or unable to develop a clear roadmap for growth and development.
My most poignant chapter of the book is the portion devoted to the trial and execution of Major-General Mamman Vatsa and nine others. I remember reading about this coup in the papers, and watching footage of the trial on television. It was difficult not to shed a tear for General Vatsa, shackled in leg chains with handcuffs occupying his wrists beside an expensive wrist watch. He looked out of place, but maintained a resolute and dignified posture while men around him crumbled. In the end, the soldier and poet was killed to satisfy his childhood friend’s paranoia despite pleas from different pressure groups. It is ironic that General Bali remains the highest ranking officer to publicly question Vatsa’s guilt, when the same man delivered the terse nationwide broadcast that announced Vatsa’s execution. Siollun reminds the reader of those terse words, “in the military, the punishment for treason is death.” It is the biggest indication of the game of Russian Roulette that defined my childhood. A time when the mantra was first self preservation, before the common good.