You shall all have a special role to play in making Nigeria a great nation and a happier society. We owe it to our posterity and to African people everywhere to triumph in our enterprise in nation building.‘ -YAKUBU GOWON, Nigeria’s Head of State, 1st October, 1970.
Okay, before I start, me I have a confession to make…lol I am particularly fond of General Yakubu ‘Jack’ Gowon and have a soft spot for him. I really can’t explain why but maybe it was because he was the youngest to become the Head of State (at that time, he was a bachelor and the youngest ruler in Africa), his smartness (especially in uniform) or for his philosophically calm way of handling the things life threw at him, I really can’t say but I promise you to try to be as factual as possible without getting carried away with my sentiments for the fine Angas gentleman from Plateau State. LOL! His green-white coloured biography was the first I bought and read of any Nigerian leader and it was pure fun, I tell you! Now, let’s have the cameras rolling!
It all started on a Friday, 19th of October, 1934, in the tiny village of Lur, Kanke Local Government Area of Plateau State in North Central Nigeria, the family of Mallam Nde Yohanna Gowon and Mama Saraya Matwok Kurnyang Gowon welcomed a cheeky baby boy to the world. He was fifth out of eleven children (but wait o, people dey born pikin for that time o, if pesin try that one today, omo na die!) The elated family organized a naming ceremony and christened the little baby: YAKUBU CINWA DAN-YUMMA GOWON. The little baby would later become the youngest head of state of the world’s most populous nation.
EARLY DAYS AND GROWING UP
After his birth, Gowon’s parents left the small village for Wusasa in Zaria, Kaduna State to work as missionaries for the Church Missionary Society (CMS). As a result, Nigeria’s 3rd Head of State grew up in the city of Zaria and had some of his education there too.
EDUCATION AND MILITARY TRAINING
While in school in Zaria, Gowon was very outstanding in athletics. While in the first year, he broke the school’s mile record and would later become the boxing captain of the school. That is also in addition to the fact that he was the football goalkeeper, long distance runner and pole vaulter (or is that the secret to his long life ni? Lol! #Just wondering). Gowon actually was initially interested in becoming a teacher but while in school, he was a natural leader and many, including his Principal clamoured for him to join the Army. Until the very last day in a year in 1953, when virtually all of his friends went for the army recruitment exercise, that he felt since all friends were going, he should also join the army. He went to his Principal and told him of his intention to join, his Principal was very excited he even wrote to the adjutant of the army to give him a chance. Gowon was the last person to arrive for the screening and of all of his friends, he was actually the only one chosen to join the Nigerian Army, 24th May 1964 was the day he joined the army, in his own words. A funny incident: when he told his Principal he was going for the exercise but he didn’t have transport fare, his Principal responded that since he was a cross country runner, he could catch up with his colleagues, and that was what he did ?
-St. Bartholomew Christian Missionary School, Zaria, Kaduna State.
-Barewa College (then Government College), Zaria.
-1954: Regular Officers Special Training School (ROSTS), Teshie, Ghana
-1955-1956: Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst, United Kingdom (later joined the infantry).
-1962: Staff College, Camberley Joint Service Defence College.
-1965: Joint Staff College, Latimer
-1983: University of Warwick
LOVE, ROMANCE AND MARRIAGE
When Gowon became the Head of State, he was the youngest leader in Africa. But there was something more seductive than his youth and fresh smiles: he was a bachelor. #winks! He was romantically linked to Edith Ike, reportedly his Igbo girlfriend. On the 31st of January, 2003, a case appeared before the Supreme Court of Nigeria (Suit No: SC.64/97) and the appellant was General Gowon (Gowon v. Ike-Okongwu (2003) 6 NWLR (Pt.815)38 with Mrs. Edith Ike-Okongwu, Kayode Ajala and True Tales Publications Limited joined as respondents.
In 1969, he got married to his heartthrob and a nurse, Miss Victoria Zakari. It was during the civil war and some condemned the event as flamboyant and extravagant.
FAMILY AND CHILDREN
BECOMING NIGERIA’S YOUNGEST LEADER
Gowon’s reign remains the longest single one in Nigeria. He spent nine solid years in power and if not that Obasanjo, the Baba L’Ota came back for eight more years (1999-2007), Gowon would have remained Nigeria’s longest serving ruler (1966-1975).
Although a lot of things happened under Yakubu Gowon, he is mainly remembered for being Nigeria’s wartime leader, successfully fighting off the Biafran seccession and preventing Nigeria from breaking up.
Gowon’s becoming Nigeria’s Head of State was not what he planned for or expected. It was just destiny, and he happened to be the right person, in the right place and at the right time, under the right circumstances. As at 1966, Nigeria was boiling over with ethnic tensions (not that we are better today o as a lot of us have lost our logical reasoning and given way to unbridled tribal jingoism, rabid ethnic craze or worse still, religious fanaticism. Meanwhile, while we Nigerians keep on the senseless babble either over tribe or religion, the Japanese are launching the world’s fastest bullet trains. The Shinkansen’s Hayabusa (Falcon) speeds between Tokyo and Aomori in just 40 minutes at an incredible 500km/hr covering a distance of almost 560 km!!! Just imagine yourself travelling from Abuja to Lagos (811 kilometres) in just 58 minutes!!! I wonder when we Nigerians will start discussing things that really MATTER)…..
…anyways, as I was saying, Gowon was not involved in politics until the events of 1966 threw him into some dangerous climes. Within a space of six months, the Prime Minister Tafawa Balewa, Sardauna of Sokoto and Premier of the Northern Region, first military Head of State, Aguiyi Ironsi, the and many others had all been murdered in cold blood. Northerners did not trust the easterners (Ibos) while the easterners also had no love lost for their Arewa brothers. Some saw the westerners (Yorubas) as traitors or lukewarm deceivers and sellouts. Whatever the case, Nigeria was sitting on a keg of gunpowder and it seemed the safest choice of a leader to be at the helm of affairs at that time was a Northerner but who was not a Hausa, Fulani or Muslim. Gowon was the perfect man for that role. His clean army career absolved him of many of the problems and his Angas (Ngas) ethnicity and Christian faith combined to make him the most neutral or balanced candidate, or better still, an umpire for both warring factions.
As at January 1966, following the coup by Major Chukwuma Kaduna Nzeogwu and others, mainly junior officers of Igbo extraction, Gowon became the country’s youngest military chief of staff at 31. A lieutenant colonel then, Gowon had just returned from the Joint Staff College, Latimer, just a couple of days before the coup. Perhaps, his late return home saved his life as some of his friends and colleagues like Lt. Colonel James Pam and Ahmed Kurfi, a civilian, were killed.
Fast forward to July 1966. Ironsi was dead, after being stripped naked and mercilessly beaten by northern soldiers led by Major Theophilus Danjuma and Martin Adamu, a captain. Ironsi’s host, Lieutenant Colonel Adekunle Fajuyi also faced the same ordeal. Murtala Muhammed, leading the northern troops had hijacked the international airport in Ikeja, Lagos. Igbos were enraged over the brutally senseless killing of their kinsmen while the northerners revelled in the success of the counter-coup. Murtala Muhammed wanted the North to break away from Nigeria and Yorubas were also busy nursing their wounds. The entire nation was on edge. It was a mad period.
At such a fragile period, fate thrust a huge responsibility on Gowon’s sinewy laps. He was 31 years old and 9 months when he became the Nigerian head of state, Head of the Federal Military Government (FMG), the youngest ever.
AS HEAD OF STATE
Upon becoming the Head of State, assuming office on the 1st of August (he was appointed the Chief of Army Staff by Ironsi), one of the first things Gowon did was to abrogate Ironsi’s controversial and highly-misunderstood Decree Number 34 which abolished the federal system of government and turned Nigeria to a unitary state. This effects of this particular decree was blown out of proportion and by the time Ironsi himself (a leader with good intentions) realized the damage done, it was too late, asho o ba Omoye mo, Omoye ti rin ihoho wo oja. So, Gowon learnt from history and did away with the decree, well, not that he really had a lot of options anyway, not with the menacing Murtala Muhammed having the fight-till-death loyalty of northern troops (with people like IBB and Abacha…lol!)
A leader with foresight, he knew the traumatised Igbos of the southeast would most likely call for a secession. So what did Gowon do? He created 12 new states to replace the former four regions (”-North-Western State, North-Eastern state, Kano State, North-Central State, Benue-Plateau State, Western State, Lagos State, Mid-Western State, and, from Ojukwu’s Eastern Region, a Rivers State, a South-Eastern State, and an East-Central State.
The non-Igbo South-Eastern and Rivers states which had the oil reserves and access to the sea, were carved out to isolate the Igbo areas as East-Central state.”) This move diluted the support of any secessionist leader as six out of the 12 states were made up of minority ethnolinguistic groups agitating for their own states since the 1950s and were more likely to support the Federal Military Government (FMG) than a rebel commander or a secessionist leader. He was correct, and when the Nigerian Civil War eventually broke out in on the 6th of July, 1967, many of the troops who fought on the federal side against the Biafrans were minorities from the Eastern Region.
On the 27th of May, 1967, Gowon declared a state of emergency and divided Nigeria’s four regions into 12. Three days later, Ojukwu declared secession.
When the war started initially, Gowon felt it would be a brief action and told his troops to take good care and exercise their powers of discretion as they will be engaging fellow Nigerians. He even invited international observers to monitor the activities of his forces. But with time, he saw that he need more than ‘police action’ to exercise control in the Eastern Region.
“Nigeria as a country would have been a failure if the Igbo race had been allowed to leave the country Nigeria because they have contributed immensely to the growth and development of this country.” -YAKUBU GOWON
But before then, Ojukwu refused to recognize Gowon as the Supreme Commander since no announcement had been made about the death of Ironsi and others.
GOWON’S CABINET: THE FEDERAL MILITARY GOVERNMENT (FMG)
Gowon’s cabinet was made up of:
THE SUPREME MILITARY COUNCIL (SMC) AND THE FEDERAL GOVERNMENT CABINET.
THE SMC CONSISTED OF:
-Gowon himself as the HEAD OF THE FEDERAL MILITARY GOVERNMENT AND THE COMMANDER-IN-CHIEF OF THE NIGERIAN ARMED FORCES.
-CHIEF OF STAFF, SUPREME HEADQUARTERS:
-CHIEF OF STAFF, NIGERIAN ARMED FORCES: -BRIGADIER HASSAN USMAN KATSINA, Chief of Staff, Nigerian Army and later the Deputy Chief of Staff, Supreme Headquarters.
-HEAD OF THE NIGERIAN NAVY: Vice Admiral Akinwale Wey
-HEAD OF THE NIGERIAN AIR FORCE
-COLONEL SHITTU AKANJI ALAO: Chief of Air Staff, 5th August 1967-1969. October 15, 1969 Nigeria’s Chief of Air Staff, Colonel Shittu Akanji Alao dies in an air crash at Uzebba, about 50 miles northwest of Benin. He was aged 32 and he was alone in the plane. Two days later, in Lagos, he was buried with full military honours.
BRIGADIER EMMANUEL EBIJE IKWUE: Chief of Air Staff. Appointed December 18, 1969, appointment takes effect on the 22nd. He replaced Alao who died in a crash. Brigadier Ikwue was recalled and appointed the fifth commander of the NAF and member of the Supreme Military and Federal Executive Councils. He was the first officer to be officially designated as the Chief of the Air Staff. He held this appointment until his retirement in 1975.
-ADMINISTRATOR, EAST CENTRAL STATE (J Ukpabi Asika, Permanent Secretary: Mr. JO Ibeziako)
-MILITARY GOVERNORS OF OTHER 11 STATES
-Lagos: COLONEL MOBOLAJI JOHNSON, he had the Oba of Lagos, Oba Adeyinka Oyekan as Adviser while Mr. Howson Wright was the Principal Secretary to the Military Government.
-North Eastern State: Col. Musa Usman, Secretary to Military Govt: Alhaji Mohammadu Monguno.
-Western State: Col, Oluwole Rotimi
-Mid-Western State: Col. SO Ogbemudia, Administrator during Civil War was David Ejoor (see pix)
-Kano State: Police Commissioner Audu Bako
-Rivers State: Lt. Cmdr AP Diete-Spiff (the name dey always trouble me..lol!)
-North Western State: Chief Superintendent Usman Faruk
-Benue-Plateau State: Deputy Commissioner J D Gomwalk
-South Eastern State: Col. UJ Esuene
-Kwara State: Lt. Col. David Bamigboye
-North Central State: Col. Abba Kyari
-INSPECTOR GENERAL OF THE POLICE: Alhaji Kam Selem
-DEPUTY INSPECTOR GENERAL OF THE POLICE
THE FEDERAL GOVERNMENT CABINET (Federal Executive Council)
NB: Ministers then were referred to as Federal Commissioners.
-HEAD OF STATE: Major General Yakubu Gowon
-HEAD OF CIVIL SERVICE AND SECRETARY TO THE GOVERNMENT: Mr. H. A. Ejueyitchie
-PERMANENT SECRETARY: Mr. G. A. Ige
-PERMANENT SECRETARY (Defence): Alhaji Y. Gobir
MINISTRY OF FINANCE
-CHIEF OBAFEMI AWOLOWO: Finance Minister and Vice-Chairman of the Federal Executive Council (FEC), ABDUL ATTA: Permanent Secretary
MINISTRY OF EXTERNAL AFFAIRS:
MINISTER: Mr. Okoi Arikpo
PERMANENT SECRETARY: Alhaji Baba Gana
MINISTRY OF TRANSPORT:
MINISTER: Mr. Joseph Tarka (if you Tarka me, I Daboh you…lol!)
Permanent Secretary: Mr. I. J. Ebong
MINISTRY OF COMMUNICATIONS:
Minister: Alhaji Aminu Kano
Permanent Secretary: Mr. C.O Lawson
MINISTRY OF HEALTH:
MINISTER: Dr. J. E. Adetoro
PERMANENT SECRETARY: Tatari Alli
MINISTRY OF JUSTICE:
Attorney General of the Federation & Justice Minister: Dr. T. O. Elias,
Permanent Secretary and Solicitor General: Mr. A. A. Adeniran
MINISTRY OF ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT:
Minister: Alhaji Shehu Shagari
Permanent Secretary: Mr. A. A. Ayida
MINISTRY OF ESTABLISHMENT
Minister: Rear Admiral Wey, Permanent Secretary: Mr. M. A Tokunboh
MINISTRY OF INFORMATION AND LABOUR
Minister: Chief Anthony Enahoro
Permanent Secretary (Information): Mallam Joda
MINISTRY OF INTERNAL AFFAIRS
Minister: Alhaji Kam Selem (also doubled as IGP)
Permanent Secretary: Mr. S. B. Akande
MINISTRY OF EDUCATION
Minister: Mr. Wenike Briggs
Permanent Secretary: S. Ade John
Chief Federal Adviser on Education: Dr. S. J. Cookey
MINISTRY OF WORKS AND HOUSING
Minister: Mr. Femi Okunnu
Permanent Secretary: Mr. GEA Longe
MINISTRY OF WORKS, HOUSING AND TRANSPORT
Minister: Mr. Dan Ibekwe
Permanent Secretary: Mr. GO Ugwah
MINISTRY OF MINES AND POWER
Minister: Dr. RB Dikko
Permanent Secretary: SIA Akenzua
MINISTRY OF TRADE AND INDUSTRY
Minister: Alhaji Ali Monguno, Permanent Secretary: Mr. PC Asiodu
MINISTRY OF AGRICULTURE AND NATURAL RESOURCES
Permanent Secretary: Dr. S. Shiab
Director of Agricultural Research: JEY Hardcastle
Director of Forest Research: OM Oseni
THE NIGERIAN CIVIL WAR
In January 1967, top military leaders of Nigeria converged in Aburi, Ghana for a peace conference. In March again, Gowon and Ojukwu flew to Ghana for secret talks. Unfortunately, they did not reach any peaceful agreement.
So, on the 30th of May, 1967, the Military Governor of the Eastern Region, Odumegwu Ojukwu (see pictures) declared the Republic of Biafra. He stated:
“Having mandated me to proclaim on your behalf, and in your name, that Eastern Nigeria be a sovereign independent Republic, now, therefore I, Lieutenant Colonel Chukwuemeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu, Military Governor of Eastern Nigeria, by virtue of the authority, and pursuant to the principles recited above, do hereby solemnly proclaim that the territory and region known as and called Eastern Nigeria together with her continental shelf and territorial waters, shall, henceforth, be an independent sovereign state of the name and title of The Republic of Biafra.”
Gowon was enraged. On the 6th of July, 1967, he declared war and launched an attack on Biafra. What would later follow is the source of regret to many Nigerians today. Political statements were banned and more powers were given to the Army and the Police. Four seaports (Port Harcourt, Degema, Calabar and Bonny were closed down indefinitely on the 30th of June). Leavefor all military personnel was cancelled and Lagos, Western and Mid-Western States called for re-enlistment into the Nigerian Army.
MAJOR EVENTS DURING THE WAR
NB: Please be warned that some of the photos below are horrific.
“Those who know me know that I have always been on the side of peaceful resolution of all conflicts. If you will recall as Head of State, I did all that was possible to secure a peaceful resolution of the Nigeria crises in the 2nd half of 1960. Unfortunately because of circumstances beyond my control, I had to use force to preserve the unity of our nation.” -YAKUBU GOWON
On the 1st of June, Gowon Gowon was promoted to the rank of a Major General while Colonel Robert Adebayo and Lt. Col David Ejoor were made Brigadiers. The same day, the FMG ordered that closure of the Niger Bridge.
3rd June: Gowon appoints 11 civilians from 11 out of the 12 states to the Federal Executive Council (FEC). By 14th July, federal troops had captured the University of Nigeria, Nsukka.
After the Aburi Accord, there were several efforts to stop the war. There was the Niamey Peace Conference in 1968 (under President Hammani Diori of Niger Republic) while Organization of African Unity (OAU, now African Union) made frantic attempts to prevent Nigeria from sliding of the precipice of a civil war, and sponsored the Addis Ababa Peace Conference in Ethiopia under Emperor Haile Selassie.
July 2, 19: Multiple explosions recorded in Lagos, people killed and many injured.
July 14: The FG announces the death of Nzeogwu while he was fighting for Biafra.
July 25: Oil town of Bonny captured by federal forces after the Nigerian Navy bombardment ensued.
July 31: Gowon’s de facto deputy, Wey, promoted to a Rear Admiral of the Fleet, Nigerian Navy.
August 5: Helicopter crash claims the life of Colonel Joseph Ronald Akahan, the Chief of Staff of the Nigerian Army.
September 19: Benin City recaptured by Nigerian soldiers.
October 3: Agbor captured by Nigerian soldiers. The next day, Enugu, the base of Biafra also fell.
October 7: Nigerian Air Force shoot down Biafran aircraft in Lagos.
October 20: Calabar captured by federal forces.
November 11: Ken-Saro Wiwa appointed administrator for Bonny.
January 3: New currency notes released.
January 17th: More town captured around Onitsha
February 3: 23 white mercenaries killed in Calabar.
March 30: Ikot Ekpene captured.
April 21: Afikpo captured.
May 8: More peace talks in Uganda.
May 19: Port Harcourt falls.
June 5: The Netherlands imposes an arms embargo on Nigeria. France would follow suit on the 12th and same with Belgium on the 5th of July.
June 26: Yenagoa falls to federal forces. The next day, two federal army officers were publicly executed for killing four Igbo civilians in Benin.
July 31: France voices support for Ojukwu. Aba falls on September 1 and Okigwe freed on the 30th.
April 21: Umuahia freed.
May 22, 24: Secessionist planes raid Benin and Port Harcourt respectively.
June 14: Red Cross Chief Coordinator, Dr. Lindt and BBC Correspondent Peter Stewart expelled from Nigeria.
August 2: Pope Paul meets representatives of the two warring factions in Kampala, Uganda. The Pope heads to the Vatican City the next day after a fruitless talk.
August 7: Gowon visits Ghana and meets the Head of State, Brigadier Afrifas.
August 12: Gowon was in Cotonou, Benin Republic, meets with President Emile Zinsou.
August 18: Gowon with his wife and Azikiwe in Liberia with President William Tubman for peace talks. On the 20th, he warns the United Nations to hands off Nigeria’s internal conflict.
August 24: Spirited attempts by the Biafrans to retake Onitsha were defeated.
September 6: Gowon off to Addis Ababa for OAU summit, stops over in Kenya to see President Jomo Kenyatta. On the 8th, he met and had a deep discussion with President Julius Nyerere, one of the leaders supporting Ojukwu’s regime of Biafra.
September 10: OAU members vote for a ceasefire and peace talks in Nigeria. Five nations abstained from voting: Sierra Leone, Gabon, Tanzania, Zambia and Ivory Coast. Gowon back home. On the 23rd, Azikiwe was back in Onitsha.
October 15: Nigeria’s Chief of Air Staff, Colonel Shittu Akanji Alao dies in an air crash at Uzebba, about 50 miles northwest of Benin. He was aged 32 and he was alone in the plane. Two days later, in Lagos, he was buried with full military honours.
October 27: Gowon off to Congo-Kinshasa.
November 2: Ojukwu turns down peace moves saying he has no hope in the OAU.
November 8: Gowon off to Lome, Togo to meet President Gnassingbe Eyadema.
December 17: Ojukwu refused OAU’s terms for negotiation.
December 18: New Air Force chief announced in Lagos: Colonel Emmanuel Ebije Ikwue.
December 22: Azikiwe calls on France to stop supporting the rebels.
December 31: Gowon talks of a quick end to the war in his New Year message.
January 10: Ohafia, Arochukwu and Utoru falls. UN Secretary General blasts Ojukwu in Ghana.
January 11: Ojukwu escapes from a rebel enclave at dawn, only to resurface in Ivory Coast. Gowon calls on rebel troops to surrender.
January 12: All rebel troops surrender. Effiong renounces succession. Gowon orders federal forces to protect all surrendering rebels. Sir Louis Mbanefo, the former Chief Justice of the Eastern Region, Effiong and five other officers of the defeated Biafran Army off to Lagos to meet with Gowon. Gowon declares a ‘general amnesty for all those misled into Ojukwu’s rebellion’ and said there would be no second-class citizen in Nigeria. Nigeria turns down offers of relief from France, South Africa, Rhodesia, Portugal, Caritas (a Roman Catholic agency), Joint Church Aid and other bodies that had supported the Biafran cause and remained hostile to federal troops during the war.
January 16: Enahoro tells a world press conference in Lagos that there would be no peace talks over the Biafran surrender. The next day, the UN Secretary General U Thant arrives in Lagos and expressed his joy at a dinner party in Dodan Barracks.
January 24: The government of President Félix Houphouët-Boigny grants Ojukwu political asylum in Ivory Coast.
This is the darkest phase in Nigeria’s history. A brutal event lasting thirty months of terrifying bloodthirst, unbelievable violence and raging vengeance, it claimed millions of lives, with some records indicating number of dead could have been as high as 3 million. One of Africa’s most brutal conflicts, the Nigerian Civil War (6th July, 1967-15th January, 1970), the wounds are yet to heal.
Yakubu Gowon was at the head of an armed forces with 120,000 troops while the Biafran leader, Chukwuemeka Ojukwu had 30,000 men at his beck and call. Despite the obvious disadvantage in numbers, the tenacity and courage of Ojukwu’s men were not in doubt as they inflicted heavy losses on Gowon’s side too, although at a very high price. By the time the dust of war settled in 1970, Gowon’s side lost a total of about 200,000, soldiers and civilians. The war lasted for:
2 YEARS, 6 MONTHS, ONE WEEK AND 2 DAYS.
Those who gave active support to Gowon during the Civil War included:
-EGYPT (under Gamal Abdel Nasser)
-UNION OF SOCIALIST SOVIET REPUBLICS (USSR)
-KINGDOM OF SAUDI ARABIA
-SYRIA (I am not sure President Bashar al-Assad is getting any help from Nigeria presently in his own civil war…lol).
The Biafrans were supported by:
-RHODESIA (now Zimbabwe)
-GABON (under President Omar Bongo)
-ZAMBIA (under President Kenneth Kaunda)
-COTE D’IVOIRE (Ivory Coast) (under President c, the Grand Old One from Baouleland…lol!)
-HAITI (under Dr. Francois (Papa Doc) Duvalier). Well, I just remembered this and there may be no relation but while the 1966 coup was in progress, Nnamdi Azikiwe was out of Nigeria convalescing abroad, and while touring the Caribbean, his boat paid a visit to an unlikely host: Papa Doc of Haiti, one of the most murderous leaders on earth.
-TANZANIA (under Dr. Mwalimu Julius Kambarage Nyerere)
On the 6th of July, 1967, Gowon’s Federal Military Government launched ‘police measures’ to take over the Eastern Region. At first, the federal troops did not succeed as the Biafrans retaliated with their own offensive and by August, they had overrun the Mid-Western Region. The FMG was alarmed and for the few months that followed, Gowon’s forces had to fight bitterly before regaining control over the area. In September 1968, the war had now reached its full drive, and like a schizophrenic armoured tank, it was on full throttle. Gowon announced that there would be a ‘final offensive’. At first, the Biafran troops neutralized the move but later, after another round of severe bloodletting, with brothers and sisters blowing off their brains with machine guns, the federal troops succeeded.
Gowon’s war generals included the following:
-BENJAMIN ADEKUNLE also known as the Black Scorpion
-OLUSEGUN OBASANJO also known as Baba Iyabo (leave me joor, no be nickname ni…lol)
-THEOPHILUS DANJUMA (now one of Africa’s biggest philanthropists and chairman of South Atlantic Petroleum, SAPETRO)
-MOHAMMED SHUWA (later killed by gunmen suspected to be Boko Haram members on the 2nd November, 2012)
The Biafran side was commandeered by Ojukwu and:
-OBONG PHILIP EFFIONG (died on November 6, 2003 at the age of 78). He stated before his death in an interview in 1996: I have no regrets whatsoever of my involvement in Biafra or the role I played. The war deprived me of my property, dignity, my name. Yet, I saved so many souls on both sides and by this, I mean Biafra and Nigeria. . . .
I felt that I played a role which has kept this country united till today. . . .
At the end of it all when I saw they (Biafran soldiers) could no longer continue and Ojukwu had fled, I did what was ideal after wide consultation . . . Effiong was the first Vice President and second President of the defunct Republic of Biafra, of which he was also the Chief of General Staff during the war. Born in Ibiono Ibom, he was Nigeria’s first Director of Ordnance.
When the war ended, Ojukwu fled to Cote ‘Ivoire, Effiong became the Head of State on the 2nd of January, 1970 and on the 12th, believing that there was no sense continuing the war any further, he announced:
“I am convinced now that a stop must be put to the bloodshed which is going on as a result of the war. I am also convinced that the suffering of our people must be brought to an immediate end.”
-DR. ALBERT NWAZU OKONKWO, Igbo Mid-Western medical doctor. Served in the Biafran Army Medical Corps as a major. Ojukwu installed him as the Military Administrator of the shortest lived republic in Nigeria’s history -the REPUBLIC OF BENIN (ROB). It lasted for just a little over 24 hours. Its capital was in Benin City, in today’s Edo State.
-COUNT CARL GUSTAF VON ROSEN of Sweden: Provided direct military aid, and was known for the Minicon fighter planes named the ‘Biafran Babies’.
FOR SOME MYOPIC REASONS, SOME NIGERIANS ARE SHOUTING THEMSELVES HOARSE TODAY THAT IF ANOTHER WAR SHOULD BREAK OUT, SO BE IT. INTERESTINGLY, WHEN ANOTHER WAR BREAKS OUT, THEY WILL BE THE FIRST TO DISAPPEAR AND VANISH INTO THE THIN AIR. IT SEEMS SOME OF US DO NOT REALLY UNDERSTAND THE IMPACT AND EFFECTS OF A WAR, IF NOT, I DO NOT SEE WHY SOMEONE WILL JUST SIT DOWN BY HIS LAPTOP KEYBOARD AND START CANVASSING FOR WAR.
“He that has not seen war, is the one that asks for war”.
When the war ended in 1970, the Biafrans surrendered unconditionally and Gowon accepted, stating that there was no victor, no vanquished. His magnanimity at such a time did a lot to assuage the pent-up tensions in a war-weary nation. After that, Gowon embarked on an unprecedented drive of what is now known as the ‘THREE Rs’ -REHABILITATION, RECONSTRUCTION AND RECONCILIATION. For a nation that had just survived one of the most devastating conflicts in Africa, Gowon’s visionary and responsible handling of the Biafran surrender is one of the things keeping Nigeria together as one today. Luckily for him too, as from 1973, Nigeria started earning immense profits from the exports of crude oil and the Federal Government could bankroll many of the postwar activities.
Unfortunately, the same oil used in healing the nation’s deep civil war wounds has poisoned the entire system instead of lubricating it, turning our leaders into incorrigibly pathological kleptomaniacs and embarrassing stooges, not to say that they have also become pathetic liars, adept at promising everything and doing absolutely NOTHING. Light, we are yet to have. Water, don’t even talk ’bout that one. Roads nko? I pray o. Maybe by 2100, Lagos-Ibadan Expressway will look like a German autobahn.
*The official members of the Biafran and federal delegations who attended the formal war ending ceremony at Dodan Barracks on January 15, 1970 were:
- Major-General Phillip Effiong – Officer Administering the Republic of Biafra
- Sir Louis Mbafeno – Chief Justice of Biafra
- Matthew Mbu – Biafran Foreign Minister
- Brigadier Patrick Amadi – Biafran Army
- Colonel Patrick Anwunah – Chief of Logistics and Principal Staff Officer to Ojukwu
- Colonel David Ogunewe – Military Adviser to Ojukwu
- Patrick Okeke – Inspector-General of Biafran Police
Federal Military Government Delegation:-
- Major-General Yakubu Gowon – Nigerian Head of State
- Obafemi Awolowo – Deputy Chairman, Supreme Military Council
- Brigadier Emmanuel Ekpo – Chief of Staff, Supreme Headquarters
- Brigadier Hassan Katsina – Chief of Staff, Nigerian Army
- Brigadier Emmanuel Ikwue – Chief of Air Staff
- Rear-Admiral Joseph Wey – Chief of Naval Staff
- Dr Taslim Elias – Attorney-General
- H.E.A. Ejueyitchie – Secretary to the Federal Military Government
- Anthony Enahoro – Commissioner for Information
- The Military Governors of the 12 states: , Ukpabi Asika, Audu Bako, David Bamigboye, Alfred Diete-Spiff, Jacob Esuene, Usman Faruk, Joseph Gomwalk, Mobolaji Johnson, Abba Kyari, Samuel Ogbemudia, Oluwole Rotimi, Musa Usman. (Courtesy: IGBOFOCUS)
- RELATIONSHIP WITH THE LATE GENERAL MURTALA MUHAMMED, HIS SUCCESSOR
- Gowon was calm, philosophical and diplomatic. Murtala, on the other hand, was quick-tempered, stubborn and incorrigibly single-minded. While one believed in a consultative assembly, the other felt a leader must rule unrestrained. Therefore, it was no surprise that the two did not have the best of time as pals especially when Gowon was in power. Because Murtala was one of the major architects of the 1966 counter-coup that killed Ironsi and brought Gowon to power, he felt he could challenge Gowon, which he often did, and during the civil war, Murtala flatly ignored or disobeyed his Supreme Commander and Commander-in-Chief (only Gowon used those two titles as Nigerian leader). But Gowon wisely kept Murtala in the cabinet until he was overthrown in a plot supported by Murtala. Over time, the FMG had split into two camps: pro-Gowon and pro-Murtala.
- Murtala also did not hide his displays of disrespect to Gowon, even as head of state. He would show up at council meetings even when he was not invited but since he was initially the strongman behind the throne, there was little Gowon could do but to tolerate him.
- CAREER IN THE MILITARY
- In 1954, Yakubu Gowon joined the Nigerian Army. On the 19thof October, 1955, while celebrating his 21st birthday, we was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant. After attending the various schools listed above, he was drafted to the Congo (then Zaire) to serve as part of the United Nations Peacekeeping Force (1960-1961, 1963). By 1966, he was made a Battalion Commander, when he was still a Lieutenant Colonel. All this period, he was not interested in or involved in politics. He was strictly a career soldier, much more concerned with the smart tactics of soldiering than the deceitful backslapping of politicians. But fate had another plan for him.
ACHIEVEMENTS & EVENTS UNDER GOWON
- Without a doubt, Yakubu Gowon’s ability as a leader to steer a young nation from utter collapse and reconstructing the nation after one of Africa’s bloodiest conflicts stands out Gowon as an achiever. Leading a nation through battles, conflicts and civil wars is one way to test the mental and physical strengths of leaders. Gowon remains one of Nigeria’s strongest and beloved leaders. Some others would have messed up the war and even catalyze Nigeria’s breakup. Personally, I regard this as Gowon’s greatest achievements, his magnanimity as a victor and genuine attempts to heal the wounds of the past (even till today) has earned Gowon the eternal respect of millions of Nigerians. Many thought bloody reprisals and executions would follow the defeat of the Igbos, but Gowon shocked all those calling for war crimes tribunals that what Nigeria needed was reconciliation. Apart from this, some other events were recorded during his long tenure:
- -The creation of 12 states (East-Central State, Lagos State, North-Eastern State, Western State, Mid-Western State, Kano State, Rivers State, North-Western State, Benue-Plateau State, South-Eastern State, Kwara State and North-Central State). New military governors were appointed for these states on the 28th of May, 1967.
- -Massive expansion of the Nigerian Air Force (NAF) and other wings of the Armed Forces, especially during the war.
- -Construction of vast federal highways.
- -The Indigenization Decree of 1972: Gowon introduced this decree during the oil boom declaring some sectors of the Nigerian economy off-limits to foreigners. One person who benefitted greatly from this decree was the late Bashorun MKO Abiola.
- -Expansion of government bureaucracy.
- -Development of Lagos, the nation’s capital, to international standard.
- -Introduction of odd and even days to manage and control the traffic in Lagos.
- -Announcement of Salaries and Wages Review throughout the nation.
- -Introduction of bursaries, scholarships and the Students Loans Scheme in the 1970s.
- -Establishment of the National Youth Service Corps (NYSC) in 1973. NYSC’s website states: The NYSC scheme was created in a bid to reconstruct, reconcile and rebuild the country after the Nigerian Civil war. The unfortunate antecedents in our national history gave impetus to the establishment of the National Youth Service Corps by Decree No. 24 of 22nd May 1973 which stated that the NYSC is being established “with a view to the proper encouragement and development of common ties among the youths of Nigeria and the promotion of national unity”.
- -Establishment of the first Armed Robbery and Firearms Tribunal in Lagos, January 1970
Gowon’s overthrow remains a very interesting story in history. The coup to remove Gowon, planned of which started in April 1975 (Gowon was overthrown in July, exactly nine years after he came to power) was actually led by the man he trusted most with his security -Colonel Joseph Nanven Garba.
Others who planned the coup to remove Gowon include Lieutenant Colonel Shehu Musa Yar’adua and Colonel Abdullahi Mohammed (read here to see how they plotted it with the late Murtala Muhammed, Colonel Garba (later a Major General but now dead, he died on the 1st of June, 2002 at the age of 58. He would later become a distinguished diplomat and even served as the President of the UN General Assembly in 1989, see pictures). The most interesting thing about the plot was that Garba was from the same state with Gowon (Plateau) and he was the Commander of the Brigade of Guards, responsible for the security of the Head of State.
Gowon trusted Garba with his life (it was reported that Garba was even related to Gowon along the maternal line, although Garba was of Tarok ethnicity), and being from the same area cemented his belief. But, Gowon was later shown the real side of life when Garba led the plot to remove him from power. In November 1964, it was Gowon himself, then a lieutenant colonel in the army who selected Garba from the 4th Army Battalion in Ibadan, Oyo State to work in the Federal Guards Company as the second-in-command to Major Donatus Okafor, and he would later head the unit after the July 29, 1966 coup that brought Gowon to power.
Later, the Federal Guards Company became the Brigade of Guards in 1968 and Garba was one of those to provide the ring of security around Gowon. As the plot to remove Gowon thickened, the plotters concluded they were not going to take over the reins of government themselves but would hand over to three brigadiers: Murtala Muhammed (Communications Minister), Olusegun Obasanjo (Works Minister) and Theophilus Yakubu Danjuma (General Officer Commanding, 3rd Division). Later, Garba and Yar’adua would visit Murtala Muhammed to get his support for the coup. Murtala then promised them:
“I have no intention of taking up arms for Nigeria again. Gowon is too far gone, and I would as soon let him stew in his own juice. If you boys want to stage a coup, which I agree is long overdue, I will not stop you. However, I reject your offer to be Head of State. Indeed, I refuse to have anything to do with it. But since I believe your motives are correct, the only undertaking I will give you is, should you fail, and anyone wants to execute you, I would do my utmost to save your necks.”
Although Murtala gave his tacit approval to the coup to remove Gowon whom he helped bring to power nine years before, he also maintained a distance and ensured that while the coup was in progress, he was in faraway London, and after the coup ended and Gowon overthrown, all the airports were closed. Just one airplane was allowed to fly into Nigeria -the one carrying Murtala Muhammed.
Theophilus Danjuma also played his own part in the coup too. Colonel Ibrahim Taiwo, later Kwara State Governor, on the 28th of July 1966 paid a visit to Danjuma at his residence and announced to him: “Sir, we have decided to take over the Government. Sir, we don’t want you to do anything but we do not want you to go against us because we are sure that the moment it is announced that you are not with us there will be trouble.” Then he reeled out the names of other co-plotters and told Danjuma there would be no bloodshed since Gowon would be outside the country, his chief security officer (Garba) was deeply involved in the plot and seniors like Danjuma supported them. Danjuma offered his support and said: ‘Make sure there is no bloodshed. Let me make this clear, I will do nothing to stop you, but I will not join you.’ While Taiwo was still with Danjuma, Garba called from Lagos to confirm if Taiwo had indeed hinted him of the coup which was due to start in some hours. Garba then told Danjuma: ‘Sir, we do not need your help, all that we want is for you to do nothing.’ Then, with Shehu Musa Yar’adua and other plotters, the coup started off in earnest.
When Obasanjo was told of the coup by Colonel Abdullahi Mohammed (Baba Adangba, of the gbogbo Atoto Press…lol!) then the Director of Military Intelligence, he said: ‘Please endeavour to make it bloodless, disrupt normal life for the public as little as possible and let General Gowon return home after the whole thing has died down, if he so desires.’ Later, Presidents Obasanjo and Yar’adua would later appoint Abdullahi Mohammed as Chief of Staff to the Presidency, a position he was in for 10 good years. Muhammadu Buhari, who was the Director of Army Transport and Supply, was also in the plot to remove Gowon while another key plotter was the Provost Marshal and Head of the Military Police, Anthony Ochefu who funnily enough, was supposed to arrest coup plotters…lol! Ochefu dodged when Gowon made attempts to get in touch with him to ask about the plot.
But while they were recruiting more people for the coup, yawa kukuma gas and alarm kon blow as the plot leaked out. Garba and co knew that if they did not do something on time, that could be digging their own graves with their own hands. So what did they do? They deliberately planted false reports claiming that some people wanted to rope them in a coup plot that they knew nothing about. They did this so as to create confusion in General Gowon’s mind, who may end up thinking that saboteurs wanted to drive a wedge between him and his most trusted allies.
But there were those on hand to hint Gowon of the imminent coup and that some those he trusted with his life were on the verge of breaking their oaths of loyalty. One of those was his Chief Security Officer and Deputy Inspector General (DIG) of the Police, E Department (Special Branch), Alhaji MD Yusuf. An alarmed Yusuf approached Gowon and told him of the plot. But you know Gowon na, always calm and unruffled even in the face of ominous danger, he brushed off the talk saying: ‘Look, have you joined this group of coup scares and all that?’ But Yusuf was too concerned to be discouraged, he said of the encounter: “Because he obviously had heard this over and over again. And he believed that it was a coup story and that I had joined. I said ‘No, it would have been alright for me but Garba, who is your real guard, is right in it. So that is why I am telling you.’
And Yusuf did not stop at that. He went to Obasanjo and alerted him to know if Gowon was in the offing but Obasanjo told him Gowon had everything under control. Before Gowon left for Uganda, Yusuf made a final attempt to let his Commander-in-Chief see reason with him:
“I tried to get him to do something before he left. One of the complaints was lack of promotion. A lot of officers. And at that time they had already decided who to promote, to go ahead with the promotions. I went to him, I said I have heard you have promoted – release the list, at least it will buy you time, it will disrupt these coup plotters and lift those who are making it to gain promotion, will feel ‘look I have got promotion now, should we really go along?’ Just to buy time. But he said no, there was a procedure which we do. And that was it.”
But Gowon was either non-chalant about the whole thing or he had absolute trust in Garba and others or maybe he knew and felt it was time for a graceful and bloodless exit. Whatever the case for Gowon’s actions, Yusuf was so sure of himself that he volunteered to confront Garba on the case if that would make Gowon act on time but Gowon decided he would confront Garba himself. Thus on the 27th of July, 1975, before Gowon left for the OAU meeting in Kampala, Uganda, he faced Colonel Garba himself and asked him of the plot. But of course, Garba denied and pledged his loyalty. Then Gowon told him:
“If you are plotting, let it be on your conscience and let it be without bloodshed. I must go to Kampala anyway.”
Such a philosophical and stoic leader although I guess he was too trusting.
But on getting to the airport, Gowon remembered he had forgotten a briefcase which was very important for the Kampala conference. He wanted to send Lt. Col William Godang Walbe, his ADC to go fetch his but his vice, Admiral Wey, advised him against it, saying it might delay protocol that he should proceed with the trip. Perhaps Gowon wanted to stay back to quash the attempt to overthrow him but he eventually departed for Uganda then sent his ADC back to Lagos to get the briefcase. The presidential aircraft was piloted by Captains Thahal and Nnaji, both of the Nigerian Airways (which has collapsed long ago, innit? SMH!) Upon setting foot in Uganda, Gowon still had trust in Garba but was thinking of coming back as soon as possible to quell any rebellion against his government, if any. But Gowon was a calm leader, he did not even alarm other key members of his cabinet to the imminent coup, he took everything in calmly.
As said earlier, he sent his ADC back from Kampala(Captain Paul Thahal was the presidential pilot) to get the ‘briefcase’ and gave him a note to be delivered to Admiral Wey, Gowon’s vice:
“Just to let you know that we arrived safely and we had a good journey right through and we also had a great welcome from Field Marshall Idi who was openly delighted to see us.
I forgot my briefcase and I am sending William to fetch it. If you therefore have any message please send it through him.
My regards to all other colleagues.
- Gowon (sgd)”
But Gowon’s main reason for sending his ADC back to Lagos was not because of a briefcase but to act as a sentinel and get as much information as possible and whisk him back from Uganda if need be, the plan failed. With Gowon safely out of the way and his ADC detained after he refused to play ball, the putschists went into full action. All the other plotters scattered all over the country were tipped off and activated. Vehicles went round gathering senior officers for meeting while people like Lt. Col. Ibrahim Babangida in charge of the Armoured Corps was already deploying armoured vehicles from Ikeja to Dodan Barracks for the arrival of the military brass (trust IBB na, there is virtually no devious plot for power in Nigeria you will not see his maradonic name….lol!) In no time, news reached Kampala.
Field Marshal Idi Amin Dada, then the President of Uganda, was Gowon’s host and during the meeting, he summoned Gowon to the high table and passed a note to him. The note announced the toppling of Gowon’s government back home in Nigeria, and it was announced on the radio but Idi Amin did not provide the name of the person who made the announcement (it was actually Garba, whom Gowon trusted to the last). He was no longer Nigeria’s head of state, a country he just left hours ago as the Commander-in-Chief. But it seemed Gowon overestimated Garba’s loyalty to him as he thought that even if there was a coup, there would at least be a spirited resistance from his elite presidential guard. He was wrong. Very wrong.
While still in the meeting, reality soon dawned on Gowon. Remember, here was a man, just months away from his 41st birthday and globally-respected as the young wartime leader of the world’s most populous black nation, in the midst of other African leaders, listening to news of his own overthrow. But again, the quintessential Gowon comes into play -cool, calm and collected. He turned to one of his governors, Alhaji Usman Faruk, who was seated next to him and whispered to him in Hausa:
“Abinde mu ka jin soro, ya faru agida” (“What we have been afraid of at home, has happened.”)
The governor was so devastated by the news that it was Gowon who was even consoling him saying:
“I have a clear conscience. There is nothing to worry about.”
At that point, Gowon was still unaware of the fact that it was Garba who made the announcement of his own overthrow. Garba, who was supposed to oversee Gowon’s security and defend him to the last was the one who announced Gowon’s ouster. This life is indeed very interesting, abi no be so? Lol! The Yorubas say bi iku ile o pani, ti ode o le rini munishe inkankan (if there is no informant in the house, no external evil will befall you). Hmmm…afi aparo sabe, angbin oka.
It was not until a presidential aide came and whispered this to Gowon, who then stood up, made his acknowledgments of Idi Amin, who was the Chairman of the event. Thereafter, Gowon left straight for his hotel room where he made last attempts to salvage his regime. He placed calls across and asked if any of the army formations made a counter announcement to the one Garba made in Lagos. Not even a single infantry division spoke out against the coup. There was even no resistance at all. And all airports were closed, his aircraft was hooked up in Lagos (Lt. Col. Muktar Mohammed of the Nigerian Air Force had ordered that the presidential jet (which was normally on the VIP tarmac) be parked and secured by Air Police in the NAF area of the airport) and the ADC he sent was already detained as he refused to join the coupists (Walbe was actually an Angas, same ethnic group with Gowon). So, Gowon was up in Kampala, all alone (his wife, Victoria, had gone to London for shopping just before he left for Uganda), stripped of power, betrayed but very calm (I must say I love his calm disposition to the most challenging things in life, thing that would have turned some other men into something else). All those who conspired to bring Gowon to power in 1966 met together in 1975 to remove him. Gowon came unprepared for office and left unprepared.
Later, wearing a white agbada and cap to match, he called a press conference with international journalists in attendance. His opening that fateful day still remains one of the most memorable in Nigerian history. Gowon started off by quoting Shakespeare’s As You Like It:
“All the world ‘s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players.
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts…
Then he continued with the rest of the speech:
“From all indications a new government has been established in Nigeria. I wish to state that I on my part have also accepted the change and pledge my full loyalty to my nation, my country and the new government. Therefore, in the overall interest of the nation and our beloved country, I appeal to all concerned to cooperate fully with the new government and ensure the preservation of peace, unity and stability of our dear motherland.
As a Nigerian, I am prepared to serve my country in any capacity, which my country may consider appropriate. I am a professional soldier and I can do any duty that I am called upon to do.
May I take this opportunity to thank all the people of Nigeria and friends of Nigeria for the support and cooperation that you all gave me during my tenure of office and call upon all of you to give the new government of our nation the same support and cooperation in the interest of our beloved country.
Long live one united, happy and prosperous Nigeria. Long live the Organization of African Unity. May God bless you all.”
When Ojukwu, safely in Ivory Coast heard of Gowon’s overthrow, a warm smile formed on his face. But Africa was more interesting then, and other African leaders at the meeting sympathized with the young Gowon who became cash-strapped and stranded immediately he was overthrown. Members of the Nigerian delegation that followed him broke down in tears at the sudden turn of events and had to donate 3,000 pounds for Gowon to start a new life. (Awon leaders wa of today ti jasi baje baje…lol!) Idi Amin gave his presidential jet to fly Gowon to Lome, Togo first, via Garoua, Cameroon. While flying, their route meant Gowon would pass over the Nigerian airspace at a point, and he used the opportunity to send a radio message to the Murtala regime affirming his loyalty to the new strongman. Thereafter, they landed in Togo into the waiting arms of President Gnassingbe Eyadema who offered Gowon permanent asylum in Togo but he preferred to join his family in the United Kingdom. Eyadema (now late) gave him a donation of 10,000 pounds to take care of himself and the family. Then he made a call to Murtala in Nigeria to ask for basic assistance, after that, Gowon left for London.
In London, the Nigerian government offered him housing but for a number of reasons, he turned down the offer. Later, he moved in to a friend’s house. Although Gowon spent nine years in power, he did not build himself even one house whether within or outside Nigeria and no one could accuse him of stealing even a single kobo. All his savings of N75,000 was trapped in Nigeria. He registered as a student and his wife, Victoria, the former First Lady and a nurse also became a catering student at a college in London. When pictures emerged of Gowon carrying trays at a student restaurant, an embarrassed Murtala sent Danjuma to him to adopt a more dignified stance but Gowon rebuffed them all, telling them he was fine with his new status. #Agbele…lol!
CONTROVERSIES AND CRITICISM
Even though Gowon himself was not directly accused of corruption, his lieutenants and those in his government were not free from such accusations. The governors of the states were seen to be extremely corrupt and eventually, tensions would build up and Gowon would finally be overthrown. Gowon had earlier promised to hand over power on the 1st of October, 1976 but this led to an argument between him and his wartime commanders who felt they had not ‘gained enough’ from his regime (o boy, e don tey we people don dey chop national cake o…lol! ), so he kept postponing the handover date until he was eventually ousted in 1975.
Following the assassination of Murtala in 1976, there were some fingers pointed in Gowon’s direction. Gowon, who was safely in London, was accused of being the man behind the mask. His case was worsened when Buka Suka Dimka, who led Murtala’s assassination went straight to the British High Commission after killing Murtala and declared he be placed across to Gowon on the phone in London, that they wanted Gowon back as the leader. A very popular wartime leader, Gowon’s reputation suffered a blow with Nigerians protesting against him. But Gowon vehemently denied all the accusations and there is no tangible evidence linking him to the killing of Murtala. Again, Buka Suka Dimka was also of the same Angas ethnicity with Gowon.
Also, there are those who believe that Gowon is a bloodthirsty war criminal who should be tried at the Hague alongside Charles Taylor and others for acts against humanity. It must also be chipped in here that the man who would later become Gowon’s ADC, Walbe, was the man who led Ironsi and others to where they were killed alongside Iwo Road outside Ibadan -in the bush. Also, Gowon’s war commanders were accused of orchestrating some of the most heinous war crimes, even using rape, indiscriminate bombing, widespread looting and execution of civilians as weapons of war, even though Gowon denied this, the book of one of his commanders, the dreaded Benjamin Adekunle (Black Scorpion) seems to lend credence to this. Major General Ibrahim Haruna, General Officer Commanding (GOC) of the 2nd Division of the Nigerian Army later said he does not regret any of his actions during the war, especially for the Asaba massacre in which over 500 Igbo soldiers were killed. He stated before the Oputa Panel in October 2001:
“As the commanding officer and leader of the troops that massacred 500 men in Asaba, I have no apology for those massacred in Asaba, Owerri and Ameke-Item. I acted as a soldier maintaining the peace and unity of Nigeria. If Gen. Yakubu Gowon apologised, he did it in his own capacity. As for me I have no apology,….it was as barbaric as the 1966 coup; it was as barbaric as the pogrom, if there was also any other atrocity, the Kano extrajudicial killing was as barbaric as that.”
-At the end of the civil war, Gowon declared that every single Biafran who had a bank account in Nigeria should be given 20 pounds each irrespective of the amount they had in their accounts before. This move was criticized as it led to rampant begging, looting and armed robbery.
Following his overthrow and knowing that he had been betrayed on all sides, Gowon could not return to Nigeria and his exile started, from Uganda, he went to the United Kingdom. The new government of Obasanjo later stripped him of his rank as a General and stopped his pensions for allegedly taking part in Murtala’s killing. It was not until 1981 that President Shehu Shagari granted him a presidential pardon (alongside Ojukwu) to return back to the country, and in 1987, the regime of General Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida restored Gowon’s rank. During his exile in the United Kingdom, Gowon accepted his fate with a philosophical mien and even earned a doctorate degree at University of Warwick in 1983 and by the middle 1980s, he was a professor of political science at the University of Jos. While in the United Kingdom as a student, he lived in North London/Hertfordshire border, integrated into the local English community and even served as warden in the local church.
By the time Gowon landed in the United Kingdom on the 10th of August, 1975, he was flat broke. No penny for pocket. Gowon was so broke that there were nights in the United Kingdom he and his family members went to bed without food. It was so difficult for the former and once-powerful Nigerian leader that as a student in Warwick, Gowon had to depend on cheap public transport, and survived on handouts from generous friends. But his spirit was never broken. He battled on, bagged a degree in political science and made himself relevant even outside power (something others found impossible to do).
Gowon returned to Nigeria in the 1980s, and in the 1990s, he established Nigeria Prays, a non-denominational religious group.
FUN THINGS ABOUT GENERAL GOWON
-Gowon’s dad, Nde Yohanna, is proud of the fact that he married his wife, Matwok Kurnyang the same day as King George VI of England married Queen Mother Elizabeth.
-After the war, Gowon became so popular that Nigerians coined a new definition for his name: Go On With One Nigeria (GOWON).
-In the 1970s, Nigeria was making so much profits from the oil boom that General Gowon said Nigeria’s problem was not money but how to spend it. Today, we all know Nigeria’s problem.
-Like him or hate him, one thing you cannot really accuse General Gowon of is corruption. Although those who worked under him were widely despised and hated for being corrupt, Gowon is generally perceived as a clean leader. Many may accuse him of other things but surely not of corruption.
-While a cadet at Sandhurst, he was asked his name by a British drill sergeant, and he told him it was Yakubu, the sergeant could not pronounce the name fluently and decided to give him a new name: Jack.
-As a leader, Gowon was accused by some of his aides for being too undecisive atimes. This was one of the reasons stated by one of the coup plotters, Colonel Ibrahim Taiwo, later Governor of Kwara State under Murtala regime. Some other analysts disagree with this, stating that Gowon was just a conciliatory leader who liked to listen to all sides before making a decision unlike Murtala Muhammad who was seen as being too impulsive and single-minded. But under some circumstances, Gowon can be rightly viewed as either been indecisive or unnecessarily too accommodating. For example, when allegations of corruption were rife against his ministers, a civilian named Godwin Daboh went as far going to court to swear to allegations of corruption against Gowon’s Commissioner of Communications, Joseph Tarka. What followed was intense media uproar but Gowon did not remove Tarka, who resigned when the biting criticism was too much. Tarka was replaced in August 1974 by someone you know like your N20 note: Murtala Muhammed. When Joseph Gomwalk, the governor of Gowon’s Benue-Plateau State was accused of corruption, Gowon publicly supported him instead of instituting a panel of investigation.
-When Gowon came to power, he was too young and there were many officers who were far advanced beyond him in both age and military rank. Coupled with that and to compound his problem was Murtala Muhammed who was extremely influential among the northern troops. But Gowon was wise: he moved very slowly (to the point of being accused of vacillating), deployed tactics and ensured he would not provoke further violence. Bearing in mind what happened to his predecessors (Balewa and Ironsi) who were killed mercilessly, Gowon was smart enough to survive in power for nine long years even as he was surrounded by power-hungry cats.
-Although Nigeria made millions of dollars in oil profits, Gowon’s government was not successful in making reasonable use of it as far as raising the living standards of Nigerians was concerned. I can only say that the money was frittered away -and is still being frittered away.
-Gowon remains one of Nigeria’s greatest leaders and he tried as much as possible to prevent conflicts but there are times things went even beyond the control of the Commander-in-Chief of the Nigerian Armed Forces. He was also (and remains one) a leader with patient disposition. When the issue of Ojukwu came up before the Civil War, Murtala accused Gowon of being too soft on Ojukwu and that a war was imminent. During one of the meetings, Murtala was so enraged that he banged his fist on the table and declared to Gowon that if he remained too soft on Ojukwu that he (Murtala) would invade the Eastern Region on his own and make the entire area capitulate under federal fire. Other northern military officers supported the firebrand approach of Murtala but Gowon calmed them down with cool and soothing words.
-When Danjuma and his clique were on their way to capture Aguiyi-Ironsi, Nigeria’s first military head of state, Gowon pleaded with them on phone to avoid bloodshed, and Danjuma promised there would be no bloodshed as they were only going to arrest him. Ironsi was later killed in the most hideous manner.
HONOURS, AWARDS & LEGACY
-General Yakubu Gowon is a Grand Commander of the Order of the Federal Republic (GCFR). The GCFR is the highest of all the Nigerian National Honours.
-In 1992, the Yakubu Gowon Center for Advocacy on Developmental Issues and Good Governance (YGC) was established in his honour as a private and independent non-governmental organization that promotes community development by focusing on health, education, agriculture and peace.
-In 2008, the Yakubu Gowon Foundation was established by a ‘Committee of Friends’ as a ‘non-religious, non-political and not-for-Profit perpetual Foundation that leverages on a sustainable government-donor-community partnership for development. The Foundation strives to be at the frontline of social transformation and community development in Nigeria and beyond.’
Areas of focus:
The Foundation operates as an implementing and grand making organization with focus on four core areas (HEAP)
- Today, General Gowon is an active elder statesman in Africa and he is still consulted in Nigeria on various issues. In 2008, he was an Official Observer at the Ghana Presidential Elections. He is also involved in the Guinea Worm Eradication Programme and the HIV Programme with Global Fund.
- In 2011, he led the Commonwealth Election Monitoring Team to Zambia during the presidential elections. Although Gowon left power 38 years ago, his relevance today is not in any doubt. A calm and honest leader, full of philosophical and witty sayings, he remains a true general who tries to be fair to all, and yes, he never tires.
- In October 2015, he dismissed the agitations of those calling for the breakup of Nigeria and the secession of Biafra saying ‘with Biafra, it is finished.‘