By: Godknows Igali, PhD
As the embers of its ill fortuned Civil War bellowed, all around Nigeria, ordinary citizens faithfully interceded for their youthful leader, whose name, GOWON, they dutifully recited before prayers as meaning go on with One Nigeria. More than 50 years later, on 19th October, 2019, that personable and impassioned wartime hero is now an old man of four score and five years; still thriving aglow. Expectedly, a nation beholden with gratitude, led by President Muhammadu Buhari, saluted with unreserved deference, the chronicles of a life deserving of adulation. Study upon study, debate upon debate by some of the wisest men and women in history have tried to locate how great leaders emerge.
Most mainstream religious and traditional thoughts believe in the operation of some form of mystical and supernatural approbation for greatness. But it was William Shakespeare, the iconic writer who summed it “Some are born great, some achieve greatness, some have greatness thrust on them”. As expected the great writer did not solve the polemic as his views have raised all manner of interpretations. But one unifying conclusion seem to be thus. While several people who are born in palaces and castles or with great physical and mental and attributes often attain greatness. However, many others who came into this world without any of such prerogatives of birth but yield themselves to facing and surmounting life’s undulating challenges, often, even become more accomplished.
That seems to be the experience of General Yakubu Dan-Yumma Gowon, Nigeria’s third Head of State. While most persons born before the end of the Nigerian Civil War may regard a retelling of the story of General Gowon on this his 85th birthday as trite or even otiose, it needs be reminded that for many decades, the teaching of History had been far away from our classrooms in Nigeria. The nation had therefore lost, quite sufficiently on the stories of the deeply incredible working of fate and fortune, the diligence and industry as well as heroism and patriotism of several of our most worthy nation builders. Now that History is back, these chronicles need to be retold, repeatedly.
The truth is that the gloomy six months from 15th January, 1966 to 27 July, 1966, were some of the longest days for most adult Nigerians at the time. On the former date, after the political violence that followed the 1965 General Elections, Nigeria’s infant state, still swaddling, was awaken to the rude shock of the intensely violent termination of its elected government. By so doing, the country joined the infamy of its neighbour, Togo, where President Sylvanus Olympio, had on 13th January, 1963 been similarly assassinated and jolted out of power a year***, being Africa’s first post-colonial military coup. Even more closer home, in Benin Republic, then known as Dahomey, rebellious young military officers on 22nd October, 1964, overthrew the Government of President Hubert Maga. Almost like a zig-zag relay, on 24th February, 1966, in nearby Ghana followed suit, the sagely and intrepid Pan Africanist, Osagyefor (teacher), Kwame Nkrumah was humiliated out of office, even though, under less violent circumstances.
For Nigeria’s darkest days, the orgy and spree of bloodletting, took the life of the affable Prime Minister, Sir Abubakar Tafawa-Balewa, who many considered rather benign and that of his principal, the greatly tactical, Premier of Northern Region, Sir Ahmadu Bello. Save for few such as then Premier of the Western Region, Chief Samuel Akintola and the Minister of Finance and son of Niger Delta, Chief Festus Okotie-Eboh, a great toll of other high profile political and military elite from the Northern part of the country, were also gunned down. Expectedly, Major General Johnson Aguiyi Ironsi, the most senior serving Army Officer assumed office as the new Head of State. Coincidentally, General Ironsi and the rascally military officers, who masterminded the military coup and executed it were, in the main, from same Eastern section of the country.
An African adage has it that “when one knows the cause of an illness, none needs a soothsayer to predict its consequence “. The eerie atmosphere of subdued vengeful tempers, that followed these event therefore needed no prophetic visitation to foretell. All around the country there was tension First it was the Ijaws of the Niger Delta, led by one major Isaac Boro, who on 23rd February 1966, took up arms against the Ironsi Government. One other palaver that Gen Ironsi created for himself was what was referred to as the “Unification Decree ” promulgated through Decree 34 of 24th May, 1966. It abolished the Federative Principle which had for ten (from the Ibadan Conference of 1950 to the last Constitutional Conference of 1959) been scrupulously and painstakingly negotiated and accepted as a fundamental covenant for the staying together in the new Nigeria.
The practice of federalism formed the basis of the 1960 and 1963 Constitutions and was a stratagem for staving off possible restive instinct from various diverse groups. So with Decree 34, the dominant elite from the North and persons in the military brass, including such fire brand others as then Lt. Colonel Murtala Mohammed, who later became the fourth Head of State, were particularly incensed over the attempt to make Nigeria a Unitary State, against what the founding fathers had agreed. In days when the tempo of mutual suspicions was at it pitch, this was enough gravamen for dissent, if not outright revolt.
Alas, the D-Day came on 29th July, 1966 as vengeful young officers of northern origin, brought the Mosaic code of “a tooth for a tooth” to pass as they struck with fury, leaving a trail of awe. So the military Governor of the Western Province, Colonel Adekunle Fajuyi, who was hosting the visiting Head of State, General Ironsi and his host were sadly led out of Ibadan to a lonely farmland on the way to Lagos and murdered. Other senior military officers were also hunted down in this gruesomely brutal reprisal. With the exist of General Ironsi, the coupist continued their hold on power by seeking and bringing in one of their own as Head State. This is how the lot fell on the son of an itinerant missionary from Lur village on Jos Plateau named Lt Colonel Yakubu Gowon.
Typical of his clerical childhood, he was very religious, well cutured and shy. Having joined the Nigerian Army in 1954, he became commissioned, coincidentally on his 21st birthday on 19th October, 1955. That same year, he left for the United Kingdom as part of the 1955-56 Course of the prestigious Sandthurst’s Royal Military Academy. Established as far back as 1947 from merger of previously existing institutions, Sandhurst has trained most key members of the British Royal Family as well as the ruling houses of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, Luxembourg, Leichestein, Jordan, United Arab Emirate and many other monarchies. Such other great global statesmen as Winston Churchill and notable African military leaders, as Ghana’s former leaders, Generals Kwafi Afrifa and Fred Akuffo and Seretse Khama of Botswana as well, Dim Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu, General Hassan Katsina, General Ilya Bisala and even the impertinent coup plotter, Major Chukwuma Nzeogwu were few of the great old boys of the institution.
Before joining the army, he had left a track in academics and sporting (pole vault and boxing champion as well as football goalkeeper) at the renown Barewa College, in Kaduna. The Barewa collage was a special school that was established by by Sir Huga Clifford, who was successor to Lord Luggard as Governor General of Nigeria. True to his vision, this particular school founded in 1921 has trained all the leading crop of Nigerian leaders from the North including five Heads of States, majority of the Chief Judges of the country and Heads of Military and Security Services, Federal Permanent Secretaries, etc. However, Gowon’s actual rise in the army was strictly as a result of series of further trainings in various military academies in United Kingdom and enviable moments of service at the war fronts in Congo.
With the despairing outcome of the first 1966 coup, Military Governors were appointed by Generel Ironsi over the regions, to wit: Lt. Colonel Hassan Katsina for the North, Lt Colonel Adekunle Fajuyi for the West and Lt Colonel Chukwuemeka Ojukwu for the East. All these were from the three large ethnic groups in Nigeria while Colonel David Ejoor who was appointed for the Midwest Region was from a southern minority group. So the coming in of the 31 one-year-old Lt Col Gowon, a minority from the Angas ethnic group in the north in present day Plateau State to the lofty and unenviable position of Chief of Staff, Defence Headquarters, created a good balance to the seeming power equation. As his boss, General Ironsi fell to the bullet with the counter coup, this reserved, taciturn and politically distanced military officer, Gowon found power thrust on him, as new Head of state, rather unprepared.
At a time when there were some other more senior military officers, it is apposite to enquire on why Gowon, who was still a bachelor, nearly three years into taking over power was picked to rule. Moreso, there were several other officers who were more visible and raving during the counter coup and obviously thirsted for power. Little published work exists to recount exactly what happened and some of the living survivors of those conspiratorial cloak and dagger prattles are not willing to spill the bean. But some factors are clear, so it is safe to hazard some conclusions. First being Chief of Staff, Defence Staff, de facto Chief of Army Staff, Gowon was well positioned to assume power. Moreover, being a minority and Christian, though from the north he was more likely to unite the already fractured nation. Indeed, his affable and pacifist demeanour was more saleable to the rest of Nigeria.
Finally, it needs be stated, that although the countercoup was overtly led by northern, Hausa-Fulani officers, it was in the main dominated by a greater number of northern minorities and Christian officers some of who actually did much of the trigger work. They were clearly not amenable to been hushed aside from the reigns of power, hence one of theirs was preferable.
Beyond the melodramatic nature of his rise to power, the actual worth of Gen Gowon’s life’s story lies in how he mounted the saddle the day after. Despite his relatively young age, he moved quickly to calm the staved nerves and took decisive steps to avert a civil war. First were the various local efforts to reach out to the Governor of the Eastern Province, Colonel Ojukwu and other political elite to dissuade them from taking revenge on account of pogroms against Ibos, which had occurred in the north. Its needs mention, that unlike, Gowon whose background was much humble, Colonel Ojukwu was elitist, and even raised in the best of breeding in such places as Kings College, Lagos, Epsom College, London and Oxford University, before joining the army. He was quick-witted and hubristic. Yet Gowon held him down in talks, including the conviviality of the Aburi peace processes in Ghana, which took place 4 to 5 Janyary, 1967.
With the inevitable outbreak of war, following the declaration of formal secession of Biafran Republic on 30 May, 1967, the thrust fell on him to deploy the needed tactical and political tools to win the war and keep the country. It was the Dai Lama who once said “War is neither glamorous nor attractive. It is monstrous. Its very nature is one of tragedy and suffering”. Sadly, all manner of lethal and even rather inhumane tactics were deployed, leading to untold human deaths, suffering and damage on both sides, especially Biafra.
At the political level, Gen Gowon, took a number of steps which have changed the course of Nigerian history almost irreversible. Besides repealing the obnoxious Decree 34, on 5th May 1967, he took additional steps to address the yearning for greater political inclusion by various parts of the country by creating 12 states out of the existing four regions. In the South South and also the Middle Belt were he comes from, this was particularly apt. It was liberation day of sorts from the forced subjugation which the minorities had been clasped into since the Amalgamation of Nigeria by Lord Frederick Luggard in 1914 and more formally especially with the introduction of Regionalism by the Richards Constitution of 1946 and the Macpherson Constitution in 1951. A for decree 34, its shadow continues to 100m firmly over Nigeria, half a decade later.
With the armistice and end of war in January, 1970, General Gowon came up with the doctrine of “No victor no vanquished “. He also declared General Amnesty for all combatants on the Biafran side and announced a robust “Reconciliation, Rehabilitation and Reconstruction” programme. A man of enormous good fortune, the rising cude oil prices produced from the Niger Delta helped prosecute the war, so left the country unencumbered by typical postwar debts. More delightful, the end of war coincided with the “Oil Boom” years which occurred as a result crisis in the Middle East. Gowon, therefore, had more financial resources than could be managed to prosecute massive post rebuilding efforts.
Major physical infrastructure investment, alongside heavy social spending on educational and health care infrastructure took place. Of note were the new Universities, Teaching Hospitals and Federal Government Colleges, which were specifically designed to foster national unity. He also established the National Youth Service Corps (NYSC) for the dual targets of building the spirit of patriotism and inculcate zeal for public service among the youth.
In the foreign policy sphere, though just coming out of the ashes of war, General Gowon stamped Nigerian presence on the African continent. In particular, he took on the gauntlet to champion the effort at Decolonization and Fight against Apartheid in Southern Africa. He was therefore at the vortex of coordination with few other Heads of State, such as Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia, Julius Nyerere of Tanzania, Kenneth Kaunda of Zambia and the likes. On the economic front, General Gowon worked tirelessly with President Gnassingbe Eyadema of Togo to the establish the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). Somes years down the line, ECOWAS is now regarded as one of the most successful efforts at regional integration in the world. It wide scope of activities covers all spheres of statehood, including a Parliament, Court of Justice, Common Currency, Social and Economic programmes, Democratic Governance and even Peace and Security structures
For many close watchers of the inside workings of the Gowon’s administration it was quite obvious that all was not well as it seemed outside. This was essentially due to the fact that there were hawks within the system who were impatient with the pliant disposition of their principal. Not many of those who served with Gowon are still around or disposed to discussing issues of this kind. However, Chief Edwin Clark now at over 92 years old, easily corroborate this suspicion. He recounted that in one of the last Federal Executive Council meetings a key member of the Government who later became one of Gowon’s traducers despite military protocol of seniority openly disagreed with him over the appointment of the General Manager of the Nigerian National Oil Company (NNOC), the precursor of the present Nigerian National Petroleum Company (NNPC). He disclosed further that the unceremonious departure of that key officer from FEC before the conclusion of business of the day, foreboded an ominous atmosphere over the state of the nation. He also recounted how another senior military cabinet colleague, chided him in course of performance of his duties as federal Commissioner (Minister of Information and culture) for arranging the usual cultural troupes who had gathered at Lagos Airport to bid General Gowon as he departed for Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in 1975, in Kingston, Jamaica.
The daggers in the cloaks were long and the conspiracies were wide. Surprisingly, General Gowon was overthrown in a peaceful military coup on 29th of July 1975 while attending a meeting of the Organization of African unity (OAU) Kampala, Uganda. Like Julius Caesar’s experience he would have likely whispered “Etu brute” when he got to know that it was his own kins man from the Jos Plateau and the Head of his military guards Colonel Joseph Garba who made the announcement of removing him from power. Being the pacifist and unassuming personality, he resigned himself to faxes and moved on with life. General Gowon and his delectable wife, Victoria moved on to the United Kingdom and settled in a lonely village in the outskirts of London where he became an active parishioner and warden of the local Anglican Church. He also went on to enrol in Warwick University, eventually obtaining degrees and even a Doctor of Philosophy in Political Science. Great lesson in forbearance and humility for countless generation.
In the quiet of his Hedderfrodshire and Warwick abodes, General Gowon came under strange accusations of being complicit in a subsequent coup plot which sadly took the life of General Murtala Mohammed, who succeeded him. He was summarily stripped of his well-earned wartime military honours and made the object of negative home press and ridicule. However, typical of him, these accusations, weighty as they appeared were taken with dignified silence and lack of bother. Ultimately, he was absolved of these accusations and fully restored of his honours.
Since coming back to Nigeria, General Gowon has returned to his first love; leading the coalition of intercessors for the wellbeing of the nation, known as “Nigeria Prays”. Furthermore, with the establishment of the Yakubu Gowon Centre in Abuja, he has continued to collaborate with people like Former US President Jimmy Carter, with whom he shares a kindred spirit to spread such ideals as peace and social welfare. In particular, is the work which they have, along with Bill and Melinda Gates, dwelled on elimination of River Blindness, Elephantiasis, Guinea Worm, HIV, malaria etc.
Life may seem a perpetual bed of roses for such an iconic statesman. But the truth is that he has also experienced several moments of rise and ebbing tides. With the advantage of good age and sagely gifts, many years down General Gowon remains the beacon of a hopeful nation, so incredibly blessed by God, yet endlessly visited by the throes of intractable instability and disharmony. He stands tall amongst few African leaders of his ilking that providence and prescience have mingled to enjoy the benefit of exalted life and longevity of days. Much more than a PhD in Politics from a first tier university as Warwick, his direct experiences on how to keep a complex country like Nigeria through most tumultuous times and living though, to see it grow are uncommon. He can and rightly so, should be a compass for the emergent generation of leaders and helmsmen in Nigeria and the African continent.
Rather than divide and disorient the polities which entrusted to them, General Gowon’s walk over the last eighty-five years is didactic enough for them to appreciate the fact that sobriety and unrestraint openness to nation building in heterogeneous societies is the only anecdote for peace, harmony and stability. Also, realizing that his youthful age did not prevent him from steering the ship of state, at the most difficult moments, none should underrate the ability of Nigerian youth to stand to the occasion if given the opportunity. Indeed, this should impel more of our younger generations to take on the gauntlet in matters of governance and rulership.
A great writer once said, “a pessimist sees challenges in every opportunity but and an optimist sees opportunities in every challenge “. Rather than cower and whimper at the curves of life, this son of a humble “Man of God”, took life in its strides; and weathered its storms. Today, General Gowon has aged into a national treasure of incalculable worth. From his youthful days and now bald and greary, he remains a “peoples man” and moves about with minimum air and security or protocol. General Gowon’s simplicity and sobriety are unparalleled, which continues to make him stand above all thresholds of moral rectitude and admiration. May God continue to preserve him!
Dr. Godknows Igali, is a former Ambassador and Retired Federal Permanent Secretary.