General Yakubu Gowon, Nigeria’s military Head of State from 1966 -1975, turned 85 on Saturday, October 19, 2019. In a congratulatory message, President Muhammadu Buhari described him as a living legend and a symbol of national unity. The statement from the Presidency gushed with phrases such as “visionary leadership style, wisdom, disciplined outlook…elder statesman, simplicity and humility, good governance… sacrifices, wide respect….”. There were other tributes: The Senate President, Ahmed Lawan praised Gowon for defending and preserving the unity and territorial integrity of Nigeria. Asiwaju Bola Tinubu, chieftain of the All Progressives Congress, described Gowon as a “statesman and national icon who contributed enormously to Nigeria’s unity and development.” Nigeria, he adds “owes Gowon a debt of gratitude”. Governors of the 36 states of Nigeria also concurred that “General Gowon is a rare gift to the state, Nigeria, and the world”. On Friday, October 18, The Institute for Governance and Leadership Studies in Africa organized a birthday dinner in Gowon’s honour where everyone got a chance to say something about his place and legacy in Nigerian history. I attended General Gowon’s 80th birthday church service in 2014 – I still have the gift item- a towel, distributed by his wife’s family as evidence- and I recall that the tributes were effusive then. They are even more so now, indeed, more saccharine.
But the only man who seems to differ is Femi Fani-Kayode. Femi Fani-Kayode’s father, the historic and inimitable man who was popularly known as Fani-Power was one of the key figures in pre-independence and post-independence Nigerian politics, and significantly a miraculous survivor of the July 1966 imbroglio. In many ways, Femi Fani-Kayode, known also as FFK, has followed in his father’s footsteps. He doesn’t take hostages. He is bold and assertive.
On the question of Gowon’s anniversary at 85, he is the only one who has said publicly, that he does not think Gowon is a hero. He provides an explanation: he says Gowon as Head of State presided over a war situation where over 3 million Igbos were massacred, and that such war crime does not qualify Gowon to be celebrated as a war hero or an icon of national unity. Indeed, during the civil war, one million Igbo children suffered, many died, others ended up in Gabon and Equitorial Guinea, others died of kwashiorkor, many Igbos perished. The world at a point began to sympathize with Biafra because the war began to look like genocide.
Fani-Kayode’s point as I understand it, is that while we celebrate General Yakubu Gowon, we should not forget what he sees as the humanitarian disasters that occurred in this country under his watch. Ironically, Gowon saved his own father’s life!
I note therefore, that in the past, Fani-Kayode had cause to praise General Gowon. So, I do not want to think that he despises him. But on the occasion of Gowon’s 85th birthday, Fani-Kayode brings up an issue that may continue to impinge on the Gowon legacy. The lazy, intellectual definition of the problem would be to say that Fani-Kayode is raising the issue of the civil war and Gowon’s role because he wants to suck up to Igbos, and defend his access to privileges in the other room, his wife being Igbo, thus romantically embedded as he is in Igbo matters. I consider such thinking absolutely lazy and mischievous. I argue that with or without Femi Fani-Kayode’s intervention, Gowon’s management of Nigeria’s civil war would always be part of the conversation around and about his place in Nigerian history.
Whatever we know about this subject is available in bits and pieces in the extant bibliography on the Nigerian civil war, and that is quite a large, cross-border, multi-disciplinary and inter-generational bibliography. It is unfortunate that General Gowon himself, has chosen to remain silent. He has not written an autobiography. He has left his place in history at the mercy of the definition of others, the most authoritative book on his tenure in office being Isawa Elaigwu’s Gowon: The Biography of a Soldier Statesman (1986). Other books include Yakubu Gowon: Faith in United Nigeria by John Digby Clarke (1987); General Yakubu Gowon: The Supreme Commander by Olufemi Ogunsanwo (2009) and thousands of commentaries in academic journals and periodicals. Gowon owes us an autobiography. The import of Femi Fani-Kayode’s intervention is how he draws our attention to the fact that long after Gowon would have become an ancestor, his handling of the civil war would still form the epicentre of his legacy. So, why don’t we start the debate right now in the General’s presence, at a time when he can speak up for himself and enjoy the right of reply? Those who do not know Nigerian history can dust up their books and let’s have a conversation. Is Gowon a hero or a villain? Did he preside over a genocide? And is that what defines his place in Nigerian history?
Let no one be in any doubt about it: the civil war, 1966-1970, will always be a big question at the heart of Nigerian politics and inter-ethnic relations. In many ways, there is indeed clear evidence that the war against Igbos has not ended. Nigeria nurses a huge, deep-seated prejudice against the Igbo man. It is the reason why there is so much dithering over whether an Igbo President should one day emerge or not. It explains why a Yoruba landlord is reluctant to lease his property to an Igbo man in Lagos, even if he ends up doing so in spite of himself, for economic reasons. Psychologically, he thinks the Igbo man will spread like cancer and over-populate the property with his kinsmen or probably take the property from him. It is also why the Hausa-Fulani believes that the Hausa-Fulani-Igbo rivalry will never end and that an Igbo Presidency would amount to an admission of defeat more than three decades after the war. The divisive tendencies in the country at this time take us back in history to the spirit of that same season of anomie. Nigeria’s civil war is all about the being-ness of Nigeria, whether indeed a mistake was made in 1914 by the colonialists or not. This is the Nigerian problem. We cannot run away from it. Yakubu Gowon was not the cause of the war, however. He helped to manage it as the man in the saddle at the time it erupted. Nigerians complain about Hausa-Fulani hegemony and the threat it poses. Gowon is even of Angas ethnic extraction from Plateau State. It is facile to argue that he was an agent of the Hausa-Fulani hegemonists. But those who cling to that should remember that after the January 1966 coup led by Nzeogwu and others, the Ironsi “interregnum”, and the July 1966 counter-coup, it was circumstances rather than design that threw up an Angas man as Nigeria’s Head of State.
When the civil war broke out, it was Gowon’s duty and responsibility to keep Nigeria together. We have a country today because he refused to shirk his responsibility. His training and office required him to defend Nigeria’s sovereignty and integrity. We owe the survival of Nigeria to Gowon’s determination. If he had dropped the ball, Nigeria would have long broken up. Those who refer to him as the “father of modern Nigeria” are in order to say so. Every believer in the idea of Nigeria must give credit to Gowon for the heavy burden of 1966-1970, and how his team of young men kept this country together in the face of the first major test it faced after independence. I use the word, team advisedly, because Gowon was not alone. Nigeria survived because he had around him and there were in circulation at the time, men and women who believed in the Gowonian ideology that keeping Nigeria One was a task that must be done. But there is another side to this viewpoint. The Igbos showed great valour in the battle-field. They demonstrated skills in engineering and warfare which if sustained and assimilated could have made Nigeria an industrial nation today. But Nigeria has failed to focus on the strength and qualities of the people. We focus instead on blame-games, and thus, Igbos may never forgive Gowon over the Aburi accord, the loss of their properties in Port Harcourt and the North, the failed 20-pounds policy and the killing of their people.
In this regard, in case the comment by Femi Fani-Kayode represents a mind-set, shared by a group or by others, I submit that it should be subjected to further interrogation to understand it properly. Fani-Kayode says, for record purposes, inter alia: “When the real history of the country is written, the role of Gowon and the other Nigerian commanders during the civil war will be put in proper perspective…The slaughter of 3 million Biafran civilians in that war is the greatest act of black on black genocide in human history. I cannot celebrate the birth of a man who presided over such carnage and neither can I describe him as a hero. Nigeria cannot make much progress or truly prosper until she apologises to the Igbos and Biafrans for the great evil that we visited on them during the civil war.”
It is right and proper to protest about genocide. Any form of humanitarian abuse is unacceptable be it in Northern Syria or Afghanistan or Biafra, Darfur or Srebenica. But General Yakubu Gowon does not deserve characterization as a war criminal. He is in every true sense a statesman of the first rank, for keeping Nigeria together in line with his professional mandate and for the steps he took subsequently to build a united nation. As soon as the war ended, he declared that there was “no victor, no vanquished.” Latter-day successors in a democratic dispensation probably need to learn something here. For them, every national issue is either “do-or-die”, and winner-takes-it-all with no in-betweens. Gowon introduced the concepts – the 3 Rs: Reconciliation, Reconstruction and Rehabilitation. Decades later, Nigeria has not succeeded with Reconciliation. Nigeria remains a divided country as seen in the various cases of violence in the country and the prevalent politics of division and distrust. It is the reason Igbos will not accept any apology. They are convinced that Nigeria is a country of insincere people. So much progress was made with Reconstruction. Gowon rebuilt Nigeria. The oil boom made that possible even if his critics also claim that the Gowon administration laid the foundation for the culture of waste, profligacy and corruption that turned Nigeria adrift. The Gowon administration simply went on a spending spree as oil money poured in, they say. Gowon even reportedly boasted that Nigeria’s problem was not money but how to spend it.
At the time he became Head of State in 1966, Gowon was just 32. He was the first and the only Nigerian Head of State to date to marry in office. He exchanged vows with a certain Ms. Victoria Zakari at the Cathedral Church of Christ, Marina, Lagos in 1969, meaning he ruled Nigeria initially as a young bachelor! It was nothing unusual at the time– many of his colleagues and others in other professions who were the leading lights of colonial and post-colonial Nigeria were all young men. Today’s youths in Nigeria have been unable to start at the top as early as their fathers and grandfathers did. Many blame Gowon for this: Rather than diversify the economy, he squandered Nigeria’s riches. He was allegedly too obsessed with how to spend money, he failed to prepare Nigeria properly for the future.
But there was Rehabilitation. Under Gowon, a lot was done to move beyond the civil war. Igbos were given an opportunity to re-integrate into Nigeria. he was instrumental to the formation of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). He built new universities. He established the National Youth Service Corps to promote national unity. However, his critics allege that although he did so much after the civil war, much of it was anti-Igbo, he also saw too much money and he began to over-enjoy his stay in office. He had planned to leave office in 1976, but he changed his mind, and that led to his being pushed out of office by his own boys in a bloodless coup in 1975. Gowon made the mistake of getting too comfortable in power. That is his hubris. He was even accused of involvement in the February 13, 1976 coup that led to the death of his successor, General Murtala Muhammed. He had to remain in exile in the United Kingdom until President Shehu Shagari granted him state pardon in 1981. He returned to Nigeria in 1983.
Nonetheless, in his years out of office, General Yakubu Gowon has remained a stabilizing force in Nigerian politics and society. He is the main spirit and influence behind the “Nigeria Prays” movement, a spiritual, inter-denominational movement that believes that a country can be made wholesome through spirituality. Gowon is the prototypical father-figure in the public space. He supports every government. He attends every state event that he can. He stays away from every kind of public combat or disagreement. He has tried to make up with those who disagree with his civil war policies including Professor Wole Soyinka who was detained under his watch. Gowon, the strong military dictator, has mellowed into a gentle old man who prays for Nigeria. He is also the first former military Head of State to develop himself educationally after office. He obtained a Ph.D in Political Science from the University of Warwick (1983). At 85, he can look back on Nigeria’s progress through the years, and reflect on the role he played, but whatever he thinks of the rot that has overtaken the country he keeps that information very closely to himself, perhaps out of guilt or hope or regret. The best tribute that Nigerians can pay in his honour is to rediscover the ideals of the three Rs and ensure that Nigeria never experiences another civil war. Gowon will be remembered as the Nigerian leader who fought a civil war and became an “apologetic” advocate for peace and reconciliation. But he must tell his story: what exactly happened in Aburi?
Reuben Abati was spokesperson and special adviser, media and publicity to President Goodluck Jonathan (2011 – 2015). A former chairman of the editorial board of The Guardian, Dr. Abati is one of the most respected columnists in Nigeria. He writes his syndicated column twice a week. He tweets from @abati1990.
The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the writer.