“The time has come for a new generation of men and women to take up the leadership mantle of this country” -Gen. Ibrahim B. Babangida; June 26, 1986.
Soldiers of Fortune by Max Siollun and published by Cassava Republic Press, promises to tell the story of Nigerian politics from 1983 to 1993.
It surpasses this promise by telling stories not just of events during that decade, but also of their origins and their later impact.
Forget marketing and whether publishers want to sell their book, anyone who cares about Nigeria and the truth behind why it is where it is today, must have this book!
The book is the dispassionate story of the Buhari and Babangida era. It is told without favouring any of the actors whilst remaining fair to all of them. Max Siollun starts by offering a perspective on the political atmosphere during President Shagari’s tenure.
Siollun shows how one could literally touch the shadows of the military as they loomed on the horizon, even as the civilians continued to offer excuses to show the military that they were blessed with leadership. Although, General Muhammadu Buhari only had two years to make change happen, his rigidity alienated him and his government from the people he wanted to help.
The most telling and enigmatic character in the book, however, is General Ibrahim B. Babangida. Soldiers of Fortune manages to reveal the realities of Babangida’s government from 1985 to 1993, and at the same time shows the human being behind the man that got Nigerians singing his praises for almost eight years.
In fact, IBB beguiled the nation so much that one of the most powerful news platforms of the time, Newswatch, wrote these words about him: “He has the strong will of his own and he has the capacity and the savvy to mobilise others to his will.
Thus far, he has made a monumental success of the efforts to impose himself on history by doing great things through raw courage and conviction”.
The book is fair to Babangida; this is not in terms of calling a tyrant by more poetic name, but rather in terms of showing almost conclusively that IBB had only two choices available to him on the matter of June 12 annulment: death or annulment.
One underlying reality around June 12 that the author illuminates is the role General Sani Abacha played. Abacha did more to kill June 12 than anyone else, even if the book does not make this conclusion explicit.
This can be deduced from its rendition of the activities within the ruling government, the role of Chief Arthur Nzeribe’s Association for Better Nigeria, ABN, and even the note sent through Nduka Irabor that finally declared the elections annulled.
The intrigues of June 12 form the climax of the book: and what a climax it is! Babangida had Pascal Bafyau (a Christian from Adamawa) as Chief MKO Abiola’s running mate.
He warned Abiola to “forget about the presidency” if he selected Atiku instead of Bafyau. According to the book, “Abiola had to choose whom to offend: the president or his party’s godfather (Shehu Musa Yar’Adua who wanted Atiku Abubakar as Abiola’s running mate).
At this juncture Abiola’s “dual” profile as a southern Muslim meant his hands were tied. As a southerner, he had to pick a northern running mate. As a Muslim, the expectation was also that he would pick a Christian running mate”.
Abiola showed the first major sign that he would not be a willing puppet in the hands of either the military or even his Social Democratic Party, SDP, hierarchy by picking another person entirely, Babagana Kingibe.
They both eventually contested against Bashir Tofa and his running mate Chief Sylvester Ugwu. The SDP governors influenced Abiola’s decision on Kingibe.
A perceptive reader of the book can see that state governors did not just become powerful in Nigeria because they formed the now threatened Nigerian Governors Forum, NGF; they have always been powerful.
Abiola’s decision created a gulf between him and the military. Things were never the same again. Nigeria is a cascade of accidents. The history of Nigeria is littered with happenstance; political accidents mostly.
According to Siollun, every military coup –save maybe for the Sani Abacha 1993 coup– was met with jubilation and increasing expectations.
Each one failed relative to the public expectations that heralded it. The biggest failure of them all has to be the Babangida government.
It promised everything, it almost delivered the ultimate until it eventually delivered nothing! It was eight years of selling the future and eight years of moving the future. It exemplified one fundamental reality about the future: it is the easiest thing to sell but when sold too often by the same person it becomes a tangible lie.
You can’t sell a tangible lie. Not even if you are the best dribbler in the world. IBB’s eight years defines everything that Nigeria is today: Lots of promises, more than enough opportunities and plenty of unrealised ideas, which ended up pushing the country into a far worse position than it was in 1985.
Of course, as a people we like scapegoats. It is as though being able to hold some names to a stake makes all the pain go away.
Unfortunately, history, and Soldiers of Fortune, shows that even those we regard as heroes had their own days of playing villain. The hard and simple truth about Nigeria’s cascading accidents is that there are more villains than there are heroes.
That is cliché, but what is not a cliché is that some of those heroes are in fact villains, depending on what part of the story gets told and who tells the story.
When David Mark (Director of Strategic Studies at the National War College) said, “I’d shoot Chief Abiola the day NEC pronounces him the elected president”, he certainly did not see a future Nigeria where he would eulogise the values of democracy.
That he is today the leader of the highest lawmaking organ in the country shows one fundamental sub-theme of Nigerians: our ability to forget. Is there need for one to ask for forgiveness from people who are quick to forget anyway?
This tendency to forget explains the reason Sani Abacha has been touted as a hero by some Nigerians years after his death. The last sentence in the book does not mention Abacha, but anyone who lived through his 1993-1995 reign can begin to see that the gory details loom immediately after the last words of the book. Yet, if Abacha were alive today, he would be a candidate for the presidency.
Reading through this book is enough for one to understand that in Nigeria, the word impossible” would have as much meaning as “nothing”.
When one is done reading Soldiers of Fortune, different emotions compete: either a tear shed by the soul or just one little drop from the eyes. Those that don’t shed a tear for Nigeria are the ones that understand how much they have helped to drag Nigeria into its present state -another country with more problems than solutions.
What happened to the dream of being a giant? Omojuwa is a social commentator and activist.
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