At the dawn of independence in 1960, everything seemed possible for Africa’s most populous and powerful state. Oil wells promised an endless flow of wealth, fertile land produced enough to feed the nation, and Nigeria single-handedly held half the entire manpower of West Africa.
As with elsewhere across post-independence Africa, the army strongmen who seized power six years later were seen by many as defenders of this vision of prosperity. Thus Nigerians of a certain generation recall the first decade of military rule with rose-tinted nostalgia. These were golden years of press freedom, rivalling that of western countries. In contrast to today’s bloated and venal civil service, public workers kept the country running efficiently.
But by the time the civilian government ascended in 1979, they were grappling with the legacy of three disastrous years of civil war and the beginnings of a downward slide into corruption. It was during this era that “government ministry buildings would mysteriously burst into flames just before audits, making it impossible to discover written evidence of corruption,” writes historian Max Siollun in Soldiers of Fortune, which charts the history of the middle decade of nearly 30 years of uninterrupted rule by the gun in Nigeria.