Former Head of State, Gen. Yakubu Gowon
By Nseobong Okon-Ekong
More than four decades after the Nigerian Civil War, one of the key actors and former Head of State, Gen. Yakubu Gowon, has expressed regrets about the carnage, saying he did everything possible to avoid it.
He said: “Whatever the cause, there was no need to go into a civil war.”
Gowon also said the call for the Islamisation of Nigeria by Boko Haram should not be interpreted to mean the position of the entire North.
Speaking at the Eko Hotel and Suites in Lagos at the weekend at the sixth edition of the Silverbird Man of the Year event where he was honoured with a Lifetime Achievement Award along with Gen. Muhammadu Buhari and Gen. Theophilus Danjuma, he said: “It was not my wish or the wish of those serving with me at the time (to prosecute the war). We did everything to make sure it did not happen.”
Referring to the effort of the late Ghanaian Head of State, Gen Ankrah to reconcile the Biafran secessionist leader, late Chief Chukwuemeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu and himself at a parley in Aburi, which later became famously known as the 'Aburi Accord', Gowon disclosed that a decision was reached to give Ojukwu everything he wanted, “including giving up my own power”.
In a veiled pointer indicting Ojukwu for not keeping his part of the bargain, Gowon implied that the war was forced on him.
According to him, “if there was no secession, the situation would not have degenerated into war. In a situation where Nigeria was to be dismembered, we had to order a police action to bring back that part of the country. But in 24 hours, the Biafran army had overrun parts of Western Nigerian and were heading towards Lagos. Of course, their intention was not to come and shake hands with Gowon. If they had succeeded, Ojukwu would have been Head of State of Nigeria and he would have defended Nigeria.”
In an emotion-laden voice, Gowon, who spoke after watching highlights from a film, “Making of a Biafran Legend: Reminiscences of a Boy Soldier” by Basil Okafor, said the film brought back sad memories.
“My heart bleeds to see that (film) clip with those kwashiorkor-stricken children. God knows how much effort I made to send food to those children, but it was sabotaged by propaganda that the federal troops had poisoned the food,” he said.
Speaking on the popular interpretation of his name, Go-On-With-One-Nigeria, the former head of state said: "I did not produce that coinage. I read it on the pages of newspapers like everyone else. Then I thought to myself, 'is this what Nigerians want me to do?' This made me more resolved in the task of keeping Nigeria one."
Gowon, who is yet to write his memoirs, recalled the warm welcome he got from children in eastern Nigeria who survived the war.
“They sang songs of welcome and acknowledged us as their fathers and leaders. It drew tears from my eyes and I promised them that if I had anything to do with Nigeria, I will make sure we did whatever we can to restore the hope of those children.”
Acknowledging the efforts of former soldiers, officers and administrators who have written books on the Nigeria Civil War, Gowon said: “This calls for me to write my own story.”
However, the former head of state regretted the current state of insecurity in the country and said emphatically that the call by Boko Haram for Islamisation of Nigeria and its attendant carnage were being done by that particular sect and should not be misconstrued as the stance of the whole North.
“I feel very bad with what is happening (the way we kill ourselves). I had hoped that after the civil war, there will be no more killing. We must do whatever we can to halt this trend,” he said.
Gowon also said the way out “is for us to love Nigeria and believe in Nigeria; good or bad, right or wrong. In the name of God, stop the excesses and imbibe the love of your country. Bring all your grievances to the table for discussion. Let us get together truly and sincerely and find a solution to our differences.”
Gowon, who was Nigeria’s longest serving military head of state, was described by Chief Edem Duke, Minister of Culture, Tourism and National Orientation who presented him with the award on behalf of the organisers, as a “living legend”.