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Yakubu Gowon – Nigeria’s Prodigious War General
Yakubu Gowon – Nigeria’s Prodigious War General

By - Victoria Akindele

Posted - 18-07-2019

General Yakubu “Jack” Dan-Yumma Gowon was born on Oct. 19, 1934. He ruled during the deadly Nigerian Civil War, which caused the death of almost 3 million people, most of which were civilians. He took power after one military coup d’état and was overthrown in another. During his rule, the Nigerian government was able to prevent the Biafran secession during the Civil War, (1967 to 1970). Gowon is fifth of 11 children of his parents, Nde Yohanna and Matwok Kurnyang.

READ ALSO: Nigeria’s Civil War – A Homeland conflict

He hails from Ngas (Angas) from Lur, a small village in the present Kanke Local Government Area of Plateau State, and grew up in Zaria, Kaduna State where he had his early life and education. At school, Gowon proved to be a good athlete as he was the goalkeeper for his school’s football team, pole vaulter, and long distance runner. While he broke the school’s mile record in his first year, he was said to also be the boxing captain of his school.

In 1954, young Gowon got recruited into the Nigerian Army and on Oct. 19, 1955, precisely on his twenty-first birthday, he was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant. He also attended both the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, United Kingdom (1955 to 1956), Staff College, Camberley, United Kingdom (1962) as well as the Joint Staff College, Latimer, 1965. He saw action in the Congo (Zaire) as part of the United Nations Peacekeeping Force in the years 1960, 1961 and 1963. He advanced to battalion commander rank by 1966, at which time he was still a Lieutenant colonel.

Until that year, Gowon remained strictly a career soldier with no involvement whatsoever in politics, until the tumultuous events of the year suddenly thrust him into a leadership role, when his unusual background as a Northerner who was neither of Hausa nor Fulani ancestry nor of the Islamic faith made him a particularly safe choice to lead a nation whose population were seething with ethnic tension.

In January 1966, he became Nigeria’s youngest military Chief of Staff at the age of 31, because of a military coup by a group of junior officers. The coup, led by Major Chukwuma Kaduna Nzeogwu, saw to the overthrow of the First Republic of Sir Tafawa Balewa who was Prime Minister at that time. After the war in 1970, Gowon, whose name had been coined to represent ‘Go-On-With-One-Nigeria’, declared that there was no victor and no vanquished, a pronouncement given meaning by the federal government’s policy of three ‘Rs’ – Reconstruction, Rehabilitation and Reintegration.

Furthermore, Gowon tried to resolve the ethnic tensions that threatened to fatally divide Nigeria. Although he was eventually successful in ending attacks against Igbo in the north, he was unable to affect a more lasting peace. In a final attempt to resolve the conflict, on May 27, 1967, Gowon declared a state of emergency and divided Nigeria’s four regions into 12 states. Three days later, the Eastern region declared itself the independent state of Biafra with Odumegwu Ojukwu as its leader which led to the beginning of an armed conflict July 6, 1967.

Gowon directed government forces to remember that they were essentially fighting Nigerians, who were to be encouraged to rejoin the country. He also allowed a team of international observers to monitor the conduct of his troops. After the government victory in January 1970, a remarkable reconciliation took place between victors and vanquished, largely attributable to Gowon’s personal influence. By the mid-1970s Gowon was emerging as an international leader and was involved in the establishment of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS).

On Oct. 1, 1974, in flagrant contradiction to his earlier promises, Gowon declared that Nigeria would not be ready for civilian rule by 1976, and he announced that the handover date would be postponed indefinitely. This radicalised his civilian opponents (like the late educationist, Dr. Tai Solarin, who printed a handbill, “The beginning of the end”, which he mass circulated, after newspapers would not publish the opinion on their pages) and gave the military the excuse to move against him. Also, because of the growth in bureaucracy there were allegations of rise in corruption. Increased wealth in the country resulted in fake import licenses being issued. This was one of the flaws of his administration, which provoked serious discontent within the army.

On July 29, 1975, while Gowon was attending an Organization of African Unity (OAU) summit in Kampala, a group of officers led by Colonel Joe ,jNanven Garba announced his overthrow. The coup plotters appointed Brigadier Murtala Muhammad as head of the new government, and Brigadier Olusegun Obasanjo as his deputy.

Additionally, after being ousted, Gowon, was exiled to Great Britain where he returned to school for more studies and acquired a Ph.D. in political science from the University of Warwick in the UK. He was stripped of his rank for allegedly participating in a coup led by one Lt. Col Buka Suka Dimka, which resulted in the death of the then head of state, Gen Murtala Mohammed, in February, 1976. Dimka mentioned, before his execution, that the purpose of the Coup d’état was to re-install Gowon as Head of State.

As a result of the coup tribunal findings, Gowon was declared wanted by the federal government, stripped of his rank in absentia and had his pension cut off. Gowon was finally pardoned (along with the ex-Biafran warlord, Emeka Ojukwu) during the Second Republic under President Shehu Shagari. His rank (General) was not restored until 1987 by General Ibrahim Babangida. Having earned a Ph.D. at Warwick University in 1983, he became a professor of political science at the University of Jos in the mid-1980s and attained the status of an elder statesman of Nigerian politics.

Gowon is married to Victoria (nee Zakari) and has a son, Ibrahim Bala, and daughter, Saratu Kankemwa Tani Gowon. However, in a dramatic feat some time ago, the former military ruler confirmed his paternity of a 48-year-old man, after a DNA test had proven that Musa Jack Ngodadi is his biological son. Musa Gowon, who had been in jail in the United States (U.S) for 22 years, was pardoned by President Barrack Obama in 2015, cutting short the 40-year prison term he was to serve for alleged drug related crime of which he was found guilty on Nov. 18, 1992.

Musa, a striking lookalike of the former head of state, returned to Nigeria on Jan. 1, 2016, after the U.S. Immigration officials deported him. He was the product of a romance in the 1960s between General Gowon, then a military head of state, and one Igbo damsel, Edith Ike-Okongu, who was said to have ended her love affairs and parted ways with the ex-military ruler over the Nigerian Civil War and how it was being prosecuted under Gowon’s watch.

One of the major achievements of Gowon while he was the Head of State was the promulgation of the indigenization decree of 1972. The Gowon regime was also an era of scrupulous four-year national development plans, under which ambit the regime wrought great infrastructural achievements like Eko Bridge, Ijora Causeway Complex, in Lagos and other groundbreaking roads nationwide. The regime’s expansion of opportunities into universities, with scrapped tuition fees and heavily subsidised meal tickets, also showed a military regime willing and ready to invest the new oil wealth in its citizens. That cannot be said of the so-called “corrective regimes” that came after him.

As Gen. Gowon gracefully ages, he again epitomises what Nigeria can have but strangely appears beyond its reach. He was the most federalist of Nigeria’s military heads of state, with a masterful juggling of federal diversity and the military’s command structure. The Nigerian military exited power in a dust of disgrace, earning the tag of an institution that killed itself with the sweet poison of power. But Gen. Gowon eternally emits the noble image of the military, before the loss of innocence and rectitude.

For his apolitical disposition and praying mission for peace and progress in Nigeria, Vanguard editors were unanimous in picking Gowon as one of the Lifetime Achievement Award winners, 2016.

READ ALSO: JUNE 12: The 1993 Annulment and the Search for Justice

“We are indebted to you for life; if not for you, there would not have been one Nigeria because keeping Nigeria one was a task which you did well,” – said, Governor Oluwarotimi Akeredolu of Ondo State.
However, Gen. Yakubu Gowon (rtd), now Patron of the Bible Society of Nigeria (BSN), has asked Nigerians to be grateful to God for His benevolence in holding the nation together in spite of the harsh economic realities.

Gowon, who delivered a speech on July 4, 2019 at the Special Members Forum, fourteenth Annual Luncheon & Awards Ceremony with the theme: Kingdom Builders: The Nehemiahs of Our Time, said he was grateful to God for the unity of the country, in spite of the challenges facing it.


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