As General Gowon turns 80
I was only twelve years old when I wrote Gowon a letter. I found that this dashing head of state and I shared the same birthday. I thought this had to be the best thing that happened in my life. Sharing my birthday with a head of state was an awesome state of affairs; after all, I was only twelve. The letter was short and to the point:
“Your Excellency, I am your birthday mate and I would like to meet you. My name is Eugenia Abu and I was born on the same day with you, the 19th of October. I am twelve years old; please do not throw this letter away.”
It was an important moment for me because I had harassed my father enough and the most distinguished Mr Alfred Amodu who understood children well decided to help me with this dream of mine, which went from admiration at some point to wanting to meet the head of state. He had the letter placed in a nice envelope for me and helped to address it with a nice cursive writing. State House, Dodan Barracks, Lagos. I was then invited to write the head of state’s name in my juvenile writing. It was my biggest moment as a twelve-year-old, an unforgettable day. My father put me in his white Opel and drove me to the post office. I was literally chuffed. With trembling hands, I posted it myself and then began to wait. I waited and waited for a reply. I waited two years and I was so sure the head of state was going to respond. Every time my father brought mail from the office, I was sure my name would be among the pile of envelopes, mail from the head of state with that famous seal from the state house.
One frustrating day, my father told me that he was sure that the head of state had replied but the letter was missing in the post. I believed my father. After all, General Gowon was a great man with a genuine smile. It has to be the post office people who had misplaced it. General Gowon himself, as far as I was concerned and still am, was a kind man who would not fail to reply a twelve-year-old who wanted to meet him. After a while, my teenage years kicked in and I began to forget about my letter.
When I was twenty-nine, seventeen years after my twelfth birthday, I met General Gowon with his lovely wife, Lady Victoria, in London. It was an incredible moment in my life. He was as charming as I thought he would be. I was star-struck, but I was also upset that he had not replied my letter. I walked up to him after felicitations and accused him of not replying the letter of a twelve-year-old girl whose only dream was to meet her head of state whom she greatly admired. He flashed his famous smile and offered a handshake and then asked me who the twelve-year-old was. I told him it was me. I also told him I had reported him to my father who had helped me post the letter. He smiled more, his eyes twinkling and asked what my father had said. I told His Excellency that my father said it had to have been missing in the mail. He nodded vigorously, agreeing with my dad. Then he told me in a low gavel, still smiling, “Your father is a wise man. The mail, that’s where it would have gone missing.” Of course, I forgave all.
A man of great stature, General Gowon is still admired after all these years. A true statesman, a soldier and a gentleman – with a wife that we all tried to emulate. With her fashion, gait and carriage, Mrs Victoria Gowon gave us reasons to keep our eyes on the head of state, and her swag way back then was unassailable. Is it her hairstyle aptly christened Victoria or her high fashion which made us all swoon, or her arresting beauty? She defined the role of the first lady for all first ladies after her and has remained an ageless beauty, as I saw in the pictures with the good General as he turned eighty.
From head of state to a prayer warrior for his nation, General Yakubu Gowon remains a role model and a statesman, ageing gracefully and giving us reasons to be so proud of a man so profound; a pride to his nation, an ambassador of his community, a father to all. As we both grow older, let me wish you well and shout from the rooftops. Happy birthday, sir!