In his new book, Soldiers of Fortune, the historian and commentator Max Siollun argues that the years 1984–1993 — a period of military rule in Nigeria — ‘crafted modern Nigerian society.’ Siollun is well qualified, having published a book on oil politics in 1970s Nigeria. Here he is interviewed about the book by Anthea Gordon.
In an article published in 2011 you said it was “time to sex up Nigerian history.” Could you explain more about what you mean by this and how you think Soldiers of Fortune achieves a dynamic, evocative style?
When people think of a history book, they do not anticipate that it will give them the same suspense filled experience of reading a murder-mystery or suspend-belief fantasy of a Harry Potter novel. I want to present Nigerian history as something more than a mechanical rendering of dates and facts.
My books have the feel of a fly on the wall reconstruction, or an action packed thriller. I do not just want the reader to know what happened. I also want to take the reader on a journey through the dizzying twists and turns, and cast of characters in Nigeria’s history: Ibrahim Babangida, Mamman Jiya Vatsa, Muhammedu Buhari, MKO Abiola, Dele Giwa, Gideon Orkar, Gani Fawehinmi, Ebitu Ukiwe, Sani Abacha etcetera. Many people also do not know the exploits of some of these familiar names before they entered the national limelight. There are also other people who are not as famous as them, but who the public do not realize made pivotal contributions to Nigeria’s history.
I want readers to feel as if they personally met these people, were physically present when crucial decisions and conversations took place, and experienced all of it.
I do not change the facts. I recount what happened, albeit with devastating detail, warts and all. There is no slow ponderous lead up. The book gets to the point. In the first chapter alone, there are gun fights, a change of government, multiple coup plots, betrayals, a senior officer being shot dead, the President being deceived, and we are introduced to several young men who went on to dominate Nigeria’s political landscape for the next two decades.
Who are your writing influences? The style of the book seems to draw on fictional as well as historical writing (for example in its detailed, hour-by-hour exposition of the kidnapping of Dikko it has elements of detective/crime writing) — how much do you think a historian can and should draw on other forms of writing?
I try not to box my writing into any one genre. My books are about history and politics. However I also want fans of crime, fiction, and thriller books to read and enjoy them. This is why the book contains the reference material you would expect of a history book, but also the dramatic twists and turns, and suspense you would expect of a John Grisham or Robert Ludlum book.
If we talk about classical literature, Nigeria’s history reminds one of a Greek or Roman tragedy in multiple acts, with a revolving cast of characters. There is a lot of Caesar like back-stabbing.
Soldiers of fortune is presented as a challenge and alternative to previously written ‘hagiographic bibliographies’ of key figures of the period such as IBB (Babangida) and Buhari. How did you go about piecing together the realities of such prominent figures? Did you ever feel the need to hold back or self-censor — especially as some of the figures you discuss are still alive and in government positions?
At times I felt like a detective while researching the book! A lot of painstaking hard work, sleepless nights, cross-referencing of sources, and travel was involved. I tried to access as many primary and secondary sources as possible, in order to get a panoramic view of everyone profiled.
Sometimes the value of a book is not just what is in it, but also what the author leaves out. I had to have an in-built filtration process to leave out material that might titillate, but not inform. I was very careful not to let the book become a tabloid, or praise singer. At the same time I did not assassinate people’s character either. I present the facts, and allow the reader to make up his or her own mind about the things they read.
In the above-mentioned article you also say that Nigeria should ‘turn our national characters into ‘stars’. In Soldiers of Fortune, how have you ensured there is a balance between portraying a political figure as a dazzling personality and critically analyzing their behavior and actions? Is it possible to really make a ‘star’ of Babaginda or indeed Buhari?
It is important to understand that political figures are not one-dimensional heroes or villains. Like all human beings they have positive and negative character traits. I humanise them, and make the reader see them for what they are: creatures of flesh and blood that sometimes make good or bad decisions.
For example, many people tend to think of Babangida synonymously with the June 12, 1993 election annulment or the Structural Adjustment Program. However, there is little appreciation of the man’s personal charisma and disarming ability to charm nearly everyone he meets. Have you noticed that people who have met Babangida rarely criticize him?
The main protagonists in Nigerian history should be brought to life. I want the reader to understand that the people they are reading about are more than mere names on a piece of paper. I would like readers to emotionally invest in the history and lives of Nigeria’s former leaders. Readers can do that if I show them that these people are idiosyncratic humans with families, emotion, rivalries, envy, and problems just like everyone else.
The book reveals how the years 1984–1993 ‘crafted modern Nigerian society.’ Can you explain a bit more about the effects of this period on the Nigerian psyche which can still be seen today? How can understanding the period make a difference to contemporary Nigeria, especially to young people who were born after that period?
The military ruled Nigeria for almost thirty of its first forty years after independence. Modern Nigeria cannot be understood without examining its past under military rule. Nigeria’s identity was constructed by the military. The constitution, Senate, House of Representatives, all thirty-six states, and governing structure are all products of military rule. During Nigeria’s first 47 post-independence years, every change of government was effected by the military.
Nigerians do a lot of soul searching and often ask why the country is the way it is. All these controversial topics that people worry about and discuss, such as: corruption, Sharia, the Niger Delta, zoning, ethnicity, power rotation…none of them arose in a vacuum. The roots for many of these controversies sprouted during military rule.
The origins of, and answers to, many of Nigeria’s problems are buried in the graveyard of its past. Only by digging up those buried secrets can the country learn lessons from them, heal, and move on.
The book is a sequel to your first work Oil, Politics and Violence so it has been in the pipeline for a while. Was there anything you encountered in the process of writing the first work or in the research for Soldiers of Fortune that affected your approach to the second?
I listened intently to readers’ feedback about Oil, Politics and Violence. Most readers enjoyed the thriller pace and detail. So I retained those elements in Soldiers of Fortune too. One of the toughest parts was that Oil, Politics and Violence set the bar really high. So it was quite a daunting task to ensure that I maintained those high standards in Soldiers of Fortune.
My intention is for Soldiers of Fortune to become a “one stop shop” compendium and ultimate reference point for Nigeria between 1984 and 1993. That is why I dotted the book with several tables and a massive “library” in the Appendices. For example, the Appendices contain an itemization of every single cabinet minister, military governor, and AFRC member that served in the Babangida government. I want Soldiers of Fortune to be the “go to” place for anyone that wants to check any prominent controversy, fact, event, person or date in Nigeria between 1984 and 1993.
You use an interesting range of sources, including personally conducted interviews with witnesses to certain incidences and military figures. In a period notorious for its (as you say) ‘code of silence’, how difficult was it to organize such meetings? How important did you feel it was to conduct such interviews in order to try and break through some of the lack of clarity around events of the period?
The story of how I wrote these books could itself be a book! I had to travel to meet or speak to people at odd hours, and sometimes in strange locations too! Many people I spoke to approached me directly. I did not have to go looking for them. There are many “silent witnesses” to Nigeria’s history. For some reason they do not always share their first-hand experience, so uninformed gossip and wild conspiracy theories often fill the information vacuum.
Having studied in the UK at the University of London, and lived in the US, do you feel you have a more objective/outsider perspective on the period? How did your experience of living abroad alter your perspective and approach when writing Soldiers of Fortune?
Definitely, my eclectic background helps me to look at the issues from different vantage points. One reviewer of Oil, Politics and Violence said I “successfully checked [any ethnic biases] at the door” and that I combined “the dispassionate objectivity of the outsider with the nuanced knowledge of the insider.” I have tried very hard to do all those things so I am glad that someone else picked up on it.
I can simultaneously care about Nigeria and be passionate about its issues, without allowing myself to take sides. I think I can be an “insider” in that I do not just mechanically recount events, but instead I can analyse and contextualize them using first-hand knowledge of Nigeria. However, living abroad also allowed me to take a step back and not allow my judgement to be clouded or biased by being too closely immersed in these events.
The book is dedicated to the memory of your father, who died while serving as an employee of the Nigerian federal government. To what extent did your personal history inspire and influence the writing of the book? In order words, why the interest in military history?
My father was a history and politics buff. When one of his closest friends found out that I had written a book on Nigeria’s history, his first words were “like father, like son.”
When I later heard how his friend reacted, I actually took the fact that he thought I am like my dad as a huge compliment. My father kept extremely detailed diaries that chronicled not just his own personal life, but also his observations on macro current affairs too. There is an entry on virtually every day in his diary. His diary was so consistent that it can be used to reconstruct every day of his working life. He documented his thoughts on everything from family issues like the day I was born, to political events like the assassination of the head of state.
He spent a lot of time thinking about, and discussing many of the core issues we have in Nigeria today. One watershed moment for me was when as a student, I opened one of his old trunk boxes for the first time. I discovered that he read the same books as me, and was very detailed at the recording events he observed.
Reading my father’s diaries taught me the importance of committing memories to writing. What may seem like mundane personal recollections to one person might have wonderful historical or nostalgic importance to future generations. If we do not record our history, each time a Nigerian dies, a piece of Nigerian history will die and get buried with them.
Why do you think it’s important for young people to understand their history? What do you think can be done to encourage young people to engage with the past and to make study of the past a prominent part of curriculum and national discourse?
Nigeria’s young generation did not create most of Nigeria’s problems, but they inherited them, and have to deal with them. I am not sure they can devise solutions for Nigeria’s problems unless they know the events that created those problems in the first place.
Nigerian history has been something of an elephant in the room. Succeeding governments deliberately impose a “history blackout” on Nigeria’s younger generation. Governments de-emphasized history in the classroom as they tried to brush the country’s past under the carpet in an attempt to foster reconciliation. However, the “pretend nothing happened” method has not worked, and actually caused more bitterness and conflict. I think teaching young people how terrible misunderstandings led to bloodshed can steer them away from repeating the mistakes of the past.
Nigeria’s history has not always been happy. However, it has been consistently dramatic. It is rare for Nigeria to go more than a few years without a “near death experience”. Most countries go through cliff-hanging and tense crises every decade or so. In contrast, Nigeria has cataclysmic hold your breath and close your eyes dramas every few years.
I am not sure that young Nigerians appreciate just how drama filled their history is. Hollywood script writers could not have written a more conspiratorial thriller with as many plot twists, friends turning on each other, corruption, gun battles in city centers, dazzling women, and rags to riches billionaires.
Technology and social media has been excellent at engaging young people via avenues familiar to them. My website has allowed me to make history accessible to young people through textual, visual and audio sources. It is all there for them to access using any method they like.
* Soldiers of Fortune is published by Cassava Press on Monday, July 15th, and will be available (in hardback) from www.cassavarepublic.biz, www.konga.com, www.buyam.com.ng and www.jumia.com.ng as well as bookshops in Nigeria.