Book review: oil, politics and violence

The leadership of the armed forces, and subsequently of the country, was thrust upon a highly decorated thoroughbred professional soldier who had no interest in politics, and little knowledge of the country from which he had been absent for most part of his military career. Two coups later, and with the discovery of crude oil upending all the calculations, the nation was set on a tragic (and now seemingly intractable) course dominated by adventurous, power mongering soldiers. It has never been the same. This is the story of Max Siollun’s “Oil, Politics and Violence”. 

When I picked up the book last week ago, the idea was to read about a chapter or two of the 17 chapters over the next two weeks, to give room for other things I’ve been busy with. It is a testament to Siollun’s excellent effort as a writer and scholar that I ended up finishing the book in three days, mostly in late night readings. 

It wasn’t the most enthusiastic start, I must confess. In the preface, it seemed to me that the author could not hold back on giving his opinions on a wide range of issues, mostly directed at the Nigerian military who “threatened the corporate existence of the country as two different factions of the army attempted to secede, replicated Nigeria’s political and societal cleavages within itself, and plunged the country into brutal famine…” Most Nigerians share this sentiment. Nevertheless, I found myself saying “oh, not again”. We’ve had quite enough opinionated biographies from protagonists of those turbulent years. Those writings have their values in public discourse, but they also require considerable amount of sieving and filtering in order to get hold of the facts and grasp the truth.

With hindsight, I would say that the preface did not do Siollun’s effort justice. Perhaps that was a preface that should have been an epilogue. For what followed in the following pages is a tour de force, and in my judgment the best book out there at the moment on the subject. Siollun has managed to put together a book that is at once uncompromising in its scholarly rigour, painstaking in its attention to detail, and forceful in its compelling narrative. It is not a book you will put down in a hurry.

The book is organised into 17 chapters, roughly in chronological order from the country’s independence in 1960 to the Dimka coup in 1976. The bulk of the narrative covered the period between 1966 and 1976. When the British General Officer Commanding Officer of the Nigerian armed forces, Major General Christopher Welby-Everard, was due to leave the role in 1965, there were four senior Nigerian officers, all Brigadiers, in contention- three southerners and one Northerner. Aguiyi-Ironsi was the most decorated, having led a UN mission in the Congo with distinction. He however has relatively little knowledge of the Nigerian army and politics, having been away from the country for a long time. Samuel Ademulegun was commended for his excellent military knowledge and forceful personality, but he was also considered controversial because of his open friendship with politicians such as Ahmad Bello and Akintola. Zakariya Mailalari was the youngest of all. He was also reputed to be a no-nonsense disciplinarian who would brook no disobedience. Being the most senior officer from the North, he was seen a role model to the Northern members of the armed forces. Ogundipe was also commended for his professionalism and knowledge of the army. He was also the least controversial and least politicised. Ogundipe was recommended to succeed Welby-Everard, but Aguiyi-Ironsi ultimately got the job. The NCNC reportedly canvassed on his behalf. 

The next ten years from the appointment of Aguiyi-Ironsi as head of army, and subsequently head of state, saw four coups (including two in 1966), a devastating civil war, all with trails of blood and destruction in their wake. A lot of these were driven by more than one fortuitous turn of events that could have shaped Nigeria’s history in a different direction. For example, Aguiyi-Ironsi escaped the January 1966 coup by sheer luck, and he could have escaped being killed in July 1966 if, for example, some telephone calls connected to the right person. Similarly, Obasanjo could have been killed in February 1976, and if Dimka was not such a stupid drunk, Babangida would not have escaped the radio station alive, from where he’d gone to speak to Dimka. Again, Nigeria could have broken up following the counter-coup spearheaded by secessionist Northern officers in July 1966 under the leadership of Murtala Mohammed. The secessionist Northerners would make a complete U-turn to be unionist, whilst the erstwhile unionists became secessionists. As it happens, the direction the story of the country took disastrous consequences, notably in the tragic civil war, and the pogrom before it. Siollun did not hold back in details of the unmitigated death and destruction that was meted out to innocent Igbo soldiers and civilians in an unprecedented frenzy and reign of terror.

The particular strength of the book is the careful and dispassionate manner in which Siollun treated his source materials, bringing otherwise disparate and sometimes contradictory views and perspectives together in a coherent, seamless narrative. For good measure, the book is replete with copious footnotes and an extensive bibliography that would, on their own, make the book worth every penny. The reader is invited, in effect, to check the facts for themselves. 

Nevertheless you are still left wanting more. Siollun, for example, provided relatively little detail about key politicians such as Azikiwe and Awolowo. There were a few references here and there, of course. There have been questions and debates around the extent to which these politicians interacted with soldiers, and I would have loved to read more about this. What were the exact circumstances of Zik’s absence from the country in January 1966, beyond the point stated that he convalescing overseas? What about Awolowo? It would have been interesting to see a more detailed discussion of the January coupist’s preference for him to be installed as the head of the new government. Also, a bit more on his role in Gowon’s government and the civil war. I suppose you can’t have it all in any one book.

This book should certainly be on your shelf, whether you have just casual interest in Nigeria,or you are actively engaged in political participation or public intellection and debate on what or if to make of the current structure of the Nigerian nation-state. For younger Nigerians, this is one book that should be on the list of the books to read before you complete your undergraduate studies. Without the knowledge the book provides, whether or not you acquire it in the book or elsewhere, I don’t think your education is complete. 

Happy reading!
Seun Kolade 

Post Script:
Author: Max Siollun 
Publisher: Algora Publishing, New York
Length: 268 pages

Seun Kolade