How Autocracy Shaped Our Democracy – A review of Max Siollun’s “Soldiers of Fortune” – Najib Kazaure

As Nigeria tethers on the edge with insistent clamouring and dire prognostications, we take a look at a book which attempts to explain how we got to this sorry pass with a ruling class that is no better than carpetbaggers.

Isn’t it interesting to learn that at some point, the Nigerian leadership considered nuclear weapons? Did you know that 5 Northern states would have been kicked out of the country if a certain coup had been successful? Or that not a single person was tried for corruption from 1986 -1993?

If you’re not very savvy about Nigeria’s political history then this will be an eye-opening book, but for readers who are historically inclined, they will appreciate the extensive research therein. Max Siollun catalogs so much information about a pivotal point in Nigeria’s history in this 336-paged book.

Soldiers of Fortune; Nigerian Politics from Buhari to Babangida is an enlightening recount and an exposé of Nigeria’s political landscape. Through the lens of power, it details how Nigeria’s young formative years were presided over by one dysfunctional government to another, each offering its contribution to mould the components that form Nigeria’s political culture today.

The book opens up at the tail end of the corruption-ridden Shagari administration. From that period, it lays the foundation for what’s to come, elaborating on the administration’s inability to curtail the misappropriation of public funds, which led to the emergence of General Muhammadu Buhari as the Head of State. The author covers the root causes and motivations for the coup, its plotters,and the sensational events that characterized General Muhammadu Buhari’s regime.

With an expansive viewpoint and chronological sequence, policies like the corruption crusade, the war against indiscipline, and the attempted kidnapping of Umaru Dikko get comprehensive treatment. Such a seamless transition not only helps readers learn about how these events unfolded but also understand the political links between them, the rationale behind them, as well as the various characters whose hands cast the die that set Nigeria’s political history adrift.

The most active hand of that time was General Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida (IBB), whose entire (mis)rule is at the heart of this book. After putting down this book, readers will be convinced, without a shred of doubt, that his military rule was indisputably crucial in building the dysfunctional political culture of Nigeria.

Despite being as much a military dictatorship as its predecessor, IBB’s rule starkly differed in terms of overall conduct.

Not only does Siollun rehash the various scandals, coups, and betrayals, with glaring detail, he also adds nuance with more information about the background machinations of these events. Doing so gives us a glimpse into IBB’s character, his long-term ambitions, and his shrewd ability to adapt to extenuating circumstances.

More credit must be given to the subtlety with which Siollun shows us the existing impact of IBB and his retinue’s action on Nigeria today. He doesn’t give us an arithmetic equation as to why ‘this’ caused ‘that’; rather, readers end up arriving at that conclusion with the parallels he presents.

Part of the profound impact came as a consequence of two conflicting paradoxes; military rule and democratic politics. Add the damaging effect of self-interest and corruption and you’ll find no difference with Nigeria’s current governance architecture.

In brief, IBB’s eight years of military rule came with a set of values that were incompatible with civilian politics. Even though the regime wanted to dip its toes into democratic waters, its deference to discipline and hierarchy sharply contrasted against democratic values of accountability and equality, and this clash created a fertile ground for a systematic form of abuse of power. Thus, authorizing the permeation of retrogression through and beyond the halls of power.

After IBB’s coup, many of the military officers who were domesticated into government suddenly found themselves thrust into the warm embrace of a young country and a large cache of the public treasury. With no background of accountability, IBB’s regime gained more verve to overstep civilian court orders and therefore, fashioned the trend of privileging money over the law. Unfortunately, this tendency is still prevalent.

From another angle, the history will also allow readers to draw a line connecting the present state governors’ lack of vision and their unproductive dependence on the federal government for revenue and policy direction with how the military governors behaved. Under IBB they served as stooges and amplifiers whose remit was to broadcast the Federal Military Government’s power into the states. It’s obvious that this trend continues to cheat death.

But worst of all, when IBB started treating the treasury as a cash cow, giving political appointments, benefits, and contracts to military officers, as a tacit motivation for dousing opposition and coup attempts, thus heralding the birth of political entrepreneurship, where any technocrat, whether military or not, saw governance as a new profit-making venture or an extension of their entrepreneurial endeavors. What is more shocking is that the same set of people wielding power now was the same ones who were groomed into this self-interested franchise.

On their part, the influx of money and power into the Military politicized and infiltrated its ranks, thereby undermining its core values of protection. The military’s professionalism suffered some major blows, which clouded the motivations of success for some military factions. As we later learn in the book, this development would later create a schism that  becomes a bottleneck for the smooth conduct of IBB’s rule.

In sum, the building blocks of Nigeria’s current political atmosphere, every component we characterize as a flaw in Nigeria’s political society was either sowed, groomed, or birthed under the IBB regime. The godfatherism, shadow cabals, weak court system, political enterprise, lack of accountability, and desultory governors can all trace their roots from this autocratic ancestry. As the book draws closer to the end, these negative elements come careening towards each other and finally clashing in a turbulent denouement with the June 12th election, and this is where the author begins drawing the curtains.

Knowing how all of this unfolded is enough reason to pick up this book. There is so much to learn about Nigeria from this book, thanks in a large part to the author’s use of clear comprehensive language. The writing is lucid and it flows effortlessly. I especially appreciate how he takes the pains to explain complex political language.

In some chapters he takes a detour from retelling history to give his personal view of corruption in Nigeria, and how Nigerians view politics. I would have appreciated it if he’d covered more topics with his own viewpoint, but I understand the need to maintain objectivity. Siollun’s background as a lawyer shines through his writing as he supports everything with evidence, strong citations, logs, and full transcripts, which strengthen the credibility of his words.

However, it’s as if one doesn’t need any convincing since the impact of what transpired is all around us.

Soldiers of Fortune: Nigerian Politics from Buhari to Babangida is a riveting book that enlightens readers about pivotal epochs in Nigeria’s history that shaped today’s governance structure. Its importance is emphasized by the impact of the events that occurred and how most of the actors during that time, still preside over the direction of this country. 

***Najib Kazaure is a reader, writer, and a student of knowledge who enjoys learning across a wide range of fields.

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