• Tuesday, June 18, 2024
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Yakubu Gowon and the verdict of history


As a schoolboy in my early teens, I was asked to serve at High Table during the visit of then Head of State, General Yakubu Gowon, to our well-ensconced missionary school in the old Benue-Plateau State. He was in company of the Governor, Police Commissioner Joseph Gomwalk. Immaculately turned out in my blue and white uniform, I served them soft drinks and snacks. At some stage, they looked at me and smiled at each other. I recall them encouraging me to work hard on my studies and me nodding shyly. Such encounters would leave their mark forever on any schoolboy.

Decades later, when I reminded the General of that visit with Gomwalk in 1971, he corrected me by saying, “No, it was 1972!” Yakubu Gowon celebrated his 80th birthday on Sunday 19th October. He has the memory of an elephant. His walk may be a little less sprightly, but his charisma is undiminished.

Yakubu Dan-Yumma Gowon was born on 19th October 1934 in Garam, near Pankshin, in Plateau State. His father, Pa Yohanna Gowon, was among the early converts to Christianity among the Angas people in the Pankshin area of Plateau State. As Bishop Benjamin Kwashi tells us in his scholarly works on Christianity in the Upper Plateau, the white Anglican missionaries settled in Kabwir, in Ngas land as early as 1904. Pa Gowon trained as an evangelist with the Cambridge University Missionary Party (CUMP). He later emigrated farther north to Wusasa, Zaria, in 1936.  Although he is Angas by birth, Yakubu Gowon grew up a Hausa by acculturation. Revered for his piety and regarded as a saint, Pa Yohanna passed away in 1973, age ninety-one.

As a missionary child myself, I believe there is a light that follows missionary children wherever they go. That light has followed Gowon through the triumphs and tribulations of an illustrious life. He attended the local Anglican St. Bartholomew’s School in Wusasa before proceeding to the prestigious Government College Zaria (Barewa) during 1950—1953. He was College Captain as well as a star athlete. He had intended to study medicine, engineering or education, but his British teachers persuaded him that he had the makings of a great commander. Gowon enrolled in the army in 1954 and was commissioned 2nd Lieutenant in 1955; attending prestigious military institutions such as Sandhurst, Warminster and Camberley. 

Yakubu Gowon never dreamt of becoming Head of State. His o3ne ambition was to be GOC. When the leadership of the country was offered to him in July 1966, it was after much persuasion that he accepted – with fear and trembling. He ruled Nigeria for nine eventful years; years of upheaval – years of blood and iron — to echo the poet Christopher Okigbo.

Some people have tried to tar Gowon with the brush of villainy. He has even been accused of having tacitly approved of the terrible pogrom against Ndigbo and waging a genocidal war on Biafra. Nothing could be farther from the truth. The woman he intended to marry was late Edith Ike-Okongwu, a daughter of Ndigbo, until he was advised that it would be impolitic in a time of belligerence. He later settled for the winsome Victoria Hansatu (née Zakari), a woman of beauty and grace from the beloved Wusasa of his childhood.

Yakubu Gowon is the Abraham Lincoln of Nigeria. Like the American statesman, he waged a war to save the union. He tempered power with compassion and mercy – a man of justice.

Contrary to our revisionists, General (Dr.) Yakubu Gowon was the best leader we ever had. His Reconciliation, Reconstruction and Rehabilitation programme and “No victor, no vanquished” policy constitute the most successful ante-bellum settlement in modern history. Under him, Nigeria was at the verge of industrial-technological take-off. His government was a brains trust comprising men of distinction: Obafemi Awolowo, Barau Dikko, Anthony Enahoro, Phillip Asiodu, Allison Ayida, Abdul-Aziz Atta, Taslim Elias and Solomon Akenzua (Now Oba Erediauwa I of Benin). Gowon made Lagos the world-class commercial city that it is today. Nobody has built more highways, bridges and harbours. The NYSC was equally his brainchild, as was our new federal capital of Abuja.

Gowon made some mistakes. He could have reined-in the licentiousness of some of the governors. The ‘cement scandals’ were a monumental blunder. The Udoji salary increases were a disastrous miscalculation; fuelling inflation and robbing us of public finances that could have gone into building world-class infrastructures.  The take-over of missionary schools by government was awful betrayal. Some have dated Nigeria’s shameful decline from the year mission schools could no longer bring out young men and women who combine intellect with virtue and character. Although the philosopher Plato banned poets from his ideal republic, Wole Soyinka was not worth the trouble of incarceration. Gowon’s waterloo came when he postponed the promised hand-over date for the return to democracy in 1976.

After the Dimka coup and assassination of Murtala Mohammed in February 1976, there were desperate efforts to rope-in Gowon on trumped-up charges. His kinsman Joseph Dechi Gomwalk died a martyr – executed for crimes he did not commit. Victoria Gowon’s only brother, Abdulkarim Zakari, perished under similar circumstances.  In 1987, religious extremists despoiled his father’s grave before burning up the family home in Wusasa. Gowon bore the persecutions with the equanimity of a Roman Stoic. He also realised, for the first time, that he belongs in the Middle Belt and not “Arewa”.

Yakubu Gowon called the bluff of intellectuals who view soldiers as academic dropouts by enrolling as an undergraduate at Warwick University, working his way up to PhD in Political Science. He wrote a 700-page dissertation that shows originality and independent thought. In retirement, he has busied himself with charities and the boardroom. His foundation played a key role in the eradication of Guinea-Worm. His Nigeria Prays ministry has had a huge impact. A sentinel for national unity, an angel of peace, reconciliation and justice; he towers head and shoulders above the corrupt tyrants that have ruled Nigeria.