In a recent piece in NEXT ‘Making the Next 50 Count’ (http://bit.ly/bThmiw) I noted a seemingly conscious effort to erase parts of our national history by making it seem like they never happened, letting them fizzle out of memory. In that piece, I argued; for us to make the most of the next fifty years of Nigeria’s life as a nation, we must go back to our history and for once take seriously the lessons of the past. If we accept that the last fifty years of nationhood has been more or less wasted, then, we must make a conscious effort to appreciate what made it a waste so we can understand how to correct the wrongs. All this is a function of history and that is what Max Siollun offers us in his book “Violence: Nigeria’s Military Coup Culture (1966-1976)”.
Besides the dearth of books on our national history and the near complete erosion of History as a subject of importance in our universities, it is saddening to note that most of the few materials available are mediocre and poorly researched, often betraying either an academic seeking to move up the ranks or a roadside hustler eager to make a quick buck selling books to “History students” equally eager to pass exams. It is in these two respects, standing against them, that Max Siollun establishes the credence of his work.
With evident objectivity, every page of the 268-page book exudes detailed research and is presented as a free flowing blow-by-blow account of events; Siollun carefully separates speculation from fact and myth from actual happenings. This book, a detailed expose on the first four coups and the Nigerian civil war, helps bring to fore what really happened in those years, who were involved and why they did what they did. Siollun packs his work with dates and names – all easily verifiable.
Popular for his many history laced political essays in Nigerian news forums both online and off, Siollun, who writes Nigerian history almost from an outsiders point of view, comes across as free from the ethnic chauvinism which limits the work of other Nigerian Historians. Siollun traces the history of the Nation before independence, particularly that of the military, and sequentially leads the reader on to the events leading up to the first coup, the counter coup, the Civil War and then traces the discussion further on to the two post-Civil War coups. The writer shows the relationship between all four coups. He highlights, in particular, the recurrent involvement of certain names, such as Babangida, Abacha, Yaradua and Buhari, in Nigeria’s coup plotting history and touches on the fact that for many years, coup plotting seemed to be the main agenda in the country’s military, quite like a culture, and how the failure to punish coup plotters helped to sustain the tradition and how this, in turn, led to instability in the polity and attendant underdevelopment which still stares Nigeria in the face today.
Siollun’s book presents new insights into widely held opinions, revealing what was hitherto not known in the public space about the working of the military and the inner happenings within its ranks, especially as they concerned the coups. It reveals that the January 15th 1966 coup, seen largely as an “Igbo Coup”, was essentially instigated by southern politicians working behind the curtain to unseat their Northern rivals and change the power equation. It also reveals the personal emotions, reactions and idiosyncrasies of the popular officers of the time and helps us understand them better, shedding light on why they did what they did then as well as their contemporary posturing.
It is generally held that there is always more than one angle to a story; therefore, many people would disagree with Siollun’s arguments or explanations on some of the events discussed in the book. This is expected and indeed the author does not pretend to have written an infallible history but has rather, simply, opened an avenue for reflection and knowledge sharing on our history. Another obvious inadequacy of the book is the fact that it covers just ten of our fifty years of national existence, this again highlights the need for other historians to rise to the challenge and tell the story after 1976.
This book is a good read, made even more easily readable by Max Siollun’s fantastic prose and use of simple language in a manner which takes away the oft complained at drabness of history books. I would recommend this to all writers, political commentators and indeed all persons who love Nigeria. We can not make the next fifty years of our life as a nation worth the while if we don’t appreciate where we are coming from.
Ifedigbo, an award winning writer, is the ‘Features and Reviews’ editor for the Sentinel Nigeria Magazine
Oil Politics & Violence: Nigeria’s Military Coup Culture (1966-1976)
Algora Publishing, New York; 2009