Title: Oil, Politics & Violence: Nigeria’s Military Coup Culture (1966 – 1976)
Author: Max Siollun.
Released: April 3, 2009.
Publisher: Algora Publishing, New York.
Reviewer: Anote Ajeluorou.
This is a historical treatise on military adventurism in Nigerian politics as the infant nation took its first tottering steps shortly after independence. That intervention was to last almost forever, and at a staggering cost to the nation and its quest for democracy.
Himself a historian, Siollun takes his readers through a breath-taking narrative of the socio-political setting of 1960 to 1966, when the tables turned. The ouster of politicians who had behaved badly from power led to the enthronement of a military that was not prepared for the enormity and subtlety of political office. What was worse, the coup, which was led by the majors in the army, was perceived to be sectional because of those killed. Then there was a counter-coup that led to retaliatory killings of one section within the army. The Major Chukwuma Nzeogwu’s first coup had failed because of several factors. His was purely an idealistic coup to give the reign of leadership to Obafemi Awolowo, who was imprisoned at the time following the corruption of the Abubakar Balewa-led government. His colleagues in Lagos had failed to execute their own part of the coup as he had done in Kaduna leading to Major-General Johnson Aguiyi-Ironsi rallying the army to squash the coup in Lagos. Aguiyi-Ironsi assumes the office of head of state to stem the breakdown of law and order. But a counter-coup stops him dead in his track following some controversial decrees he promulgated, and the sectional slant to the coup. Northern soldiers go on the offensive and target Igbo soldiers. It spirals into the streets and the consequent infamous pogroms of 1966 that led to the civil war. Siollun also looks at the next nine years following the end of the war and how the military badly fared. In providing the festering climate for the political logjam that led to the fall of the first republic, Siollun writes, “Underestimating the win-at-all-costs mentality of the Nigerian National Alliance (NNA), the UPGA unwisely decided to bycott the elections on the ground that the NNA was planning to rig it… Due to the widespread electoral malpractices, President Azikiwe refused to call Balewa to form a new government following the elections. For several days, Nigeria teetered on the edge of an abyss as the President and the Prime Minister tried to scheme each other out of power”.
Events in the Wild Wild West did not help matters with Awolowo and Ladoke Akintola locked in their own political struggles to warrant the declaration of a state of emergency in the region. And then onto the coup that was to unsettle Nigeria for most of its political life.
Siollun’s Oil, Politics and Violence: Nigeria’s Military Coup Culture is a well-researched book on Nigeria’s military experience. The book is unique in many ways. The depth of research into the events, activities, personalities involved in the planning, execution, who did what, how and its implication is stunning. The author meticulously accessed every record that needed to be accessed to bring to the reader a dense meal of military adventurism into the politics of the most populous black nation on earth.
Also, Siollun brings a measure of balance and accuracy that has eluded many a writer on the touchy subject to bear on his writing. A lot has been written on the subject but most of it with a given mindset to colour and taint the facts. Some writers on the subject have often contradicted themselves on points of facts and sequence of events or personalities involved. Siollun brings all these to bear on his writing as he harmonises them to create an authentic recreation of a critical period of Nigerian political history. In a sense, Oil, Politics and Violence: Nigeria’s Military Coup Culture resituates the horrendous adventurism of the military and places it starkly for what it was: a political aberration that should never have been! The ills the military set out to cure sooner came to haunt them as the military soon compromised itself, and performed a lot badly than those they deposed from power. One point in favour of Oil, Politics and Violence: Nigeria’s Military Coup Culture is its pace of narrative. Although, it’s a historical account of what most readers already know, yet it turns out a fascinating read on account of its detailed and accurate reconstruction of events. With the planning, shootouts and executions and murders on such a large scale, it tends to read like a thriller of sorts. This indeed is its strength. Indeed, but for the horrendous killings of real life persons that accompanied the coups, and the tragic loss of lives during the civil war with the distortion of the polity, the coups as detailed by Siollun would whet the palate of lovers of thrillers with the dexterity of narrative he employs. The book is well worth a rereading for its cinematic effect!