The carnival-like visit to Bayelsa of former Head of State Gen. Yakubu Gowon, which ended on Thursday last week, is likely to be talked about by the hosts and their guest for a long time to come, writes Emmanuel Addeh
It was meant to be just another routine inauguration of projects embarked upon in the last few years by the Bayelsa State Government, but it turned out to be more than that.
The visit of the 82-year-old Plateau State-born General conjured even deeper memories, even more profound connections between the people of the state and Gen. Yakubu Gowon, who landed in the ‘Glory of all Lands’ on Wednesday, July 12 for what eventually turned out to be an unforgettable experience.
His gentlemanly mien, his ageless looks, his flawless diction, delivered in unblemished Queens’s English and even his largely successful attempts at rib-cracking jokes combined to endear him to the hearts of his audience.
About 42 years after he was forcefully removed by his colleagues in a bloodless coup as Nigeria’s leader and over five decades since circumstances put him in the saddle, the man popularly nicknamed ‘Jack’ by his contemporaries, now appears more measured in speech, carefully selecting each word proceeding from his mouth.
He, along with his wife, Victoria, walked long distances during the ‘inauguration’ unaided, shaking hands firmly and in some cases still remembering vividly how and where he had met the subject.
Gorgeously dressed Ijaw women who had lined the streets to welcome him did not also disappoint as they danced to indigenous traditional tunes while the men drummed away.
Immediately he landed at the newly completed Bayelsa heliport, the former Head of State headed straight to the Secretariat of the Traditional Rulers Council, led by the first governor of Old Rivers State, Alfred Diette-Spiff, the king of Twon-Brass.
During the ceremony, Gowon who was resplendent in Ijaw traditional attires, received the chieftaincy title of Se Ebi Daubi, meaning the benevolent father of the nation, and expressed pleasant shock at the elaborate reception accorded him.
Apparently because he also hails from a minority tribe called Angas in Plateau, Gowon told the monarchs that he understood the fears of the smaller groups within Nigeria, reason he pioneered the creation of states in the country.
“I was delighted to create those states. At that time, the political situation was very difficult. There were fears of the country breaking up.
“Fears of domination of the minority and the question was, what were we going to do in order to remove this fear causing problems in Nigeria? The creation of states was to solve these fears,” he told his audience.
His convoy thereafter proceeded to the new Governor’s Office, where the people of Bayelsa, including some of their best musicians, choirs and dancers first regaled him with their entertainment skills, before he settled down to one of his tasks for the day; the official opening of the multi-billion naira edifice from where official business of government would be executed henceforth.
During the show which was masterfully compared by Mr. Bisi Olatilo, a veteran broadcaster assisted by Ebi Avi, the government’s official Master of Ceremony, several speakers made glowing remarks about the masterfully built edifice handled by A&K Contractors.
Gowon variously described the imposing structure as ‘iconic’ and the occasion as ‘historic’. However, a theme that ran throughout the ceremony as to why the people of Bayelsa trooped out to welcome the octogenarian was his decision to create the Old Rivers State which eventually gave birth to Bayelsa.
Aside his beautiful wife, Victoria, Gowon also led other dignitaries from all parts of the country to savour the state’s beautiful sceneries.
On hand to lend support to the former Nigerian leader were ex-deputy governor of Sokoto State and former Water Resources Minister, Muktar Shagari, a former Minister of Information, Mr. Labaran Maku, Ijaw leaders, including Chief Edwin Clark.
Also present throughout the ceremonies were the wife of the governor, Dr. Rachel Dickson, retired federal Permanent Secretary, Amb. Godknows Igali, Prof. John Pepper Clark, Dr. Gabriel Okara, Senators and House of Representatives members from Bayelsa State as well as some former military administrators in the state.
In his speech, Gowon expressed his love for the Ijaw people and his surprise at the warm welcome he received and lauded Governor Seriake Dickson for his forward-looking approach to governance.
While thanking the people of Bayelsa for the invitation, the octogenarian described the occasion as one of its kind, noting that what Nigerian people desire from their leaders at all levels was undiluted commitment.
“Thank you (Bayelsa people) for getting your governor to invite me to this great occasion. This occasion is historic. This is a beautiful edifice behind me. It is iconic,” he said while opening his speech.
“You (Governor Dickson) certainly did not destroy what your predecessors have done, but you built on them, improved on them. I am sure there will be no abandoned project while you are here.
“You may be a governor from a particular party, but once you become governor, you are governor of all irrespective of political party affiliation, so you look after others the way you will your own.
“Your commitment is to the well-being of the state. That is the responsibility of any leader. If you do not do that, it will not be appreciated,” the former Nigerian leader noted.
Recounting his experiences as Head of State, he acknowledged the roles of Major Isaac Boro and Chief Harold Dappa Biriye and expressed gratitude to the people of Old Rivers State for their unflinching support to his government and the unity of the country.
By the time Gowon, founder of ‘Nigeria Prays’ finished, the day had been far-spent and almost everybody had become fatigued.
On the second day of the former leader’s visit, the ‘party’ moved to Kaiama in Kolokuma/Opokuma, where the ex-soldier would later inaugurate the massive Ijaw National Academy, a free boarding, free tuition school which has the capacity to admit 2,000 students.
The 1,000 current students also used the opportunity to present a portrait of the former military leader crafted by an SS1 student of the school, Ebidoumene Godsfavour, to him.
Gowon said the importance he attached to education during his rule made him establish unity schools all over the country, especially after the civil war.
He urged other states to learn from the government of Bayelsa and make education a priority, stressing that education remained the key to the country’s growth and development.
He urged the students of the academy to make use of the school correctly and properly and protect the facilities therein.
”I hope you young people will make very good use of it, you will ensure that you will not only use it correctly and properly but also defend it to the last of your blood.
”That means, I hope you will never think of creating any problem in this Academy to destroy these excellent facilities that have been provided for you.” He advised the students who had waited patiently for his arrival.
He added that Dickson’s approach to educational development would turn around the fortunes of Bayelsa State in the near future.
Describing the facilities at the Academy as impressive, the former Head of State noted that the vision behind the setting up of the free boarding secondary school is commendable and would enhance capacity building.
That done, the convoy moved back to Yenagoa, the state capital, where Gowon visited the Heroes Park, already wearing a new look, where he paid homage to Ijaw fallen heroes.
The Sandhurst-trained former soldier went on to lay wreathes at the graveside of celebrated Ijaw hero, Major Boro who first declared a Niger Delta Republic in 1966.
The ex-Nigerian leader also made a worthy mention of Capt. Sam Owonaro, Boro’s second in command who also fought against the federal forces in a battle that lasted 12 days before the ‘rebels’ were overwhelmed, tried and jailed.
Gowon emphasised that the contribution of the Ijaw people to the development of Nigeria must not be under-estimated by anyone.
He noted that many Ijaw elders, including Clark encouraged him to create several states out of the then existing regions in order to ensure that minority groups were not subsumed by bigger ethnic groups in the country.
“A lot of your elders encouraged me to see that we created the states so that the minorities can contribute to the development of the country. Even your Chairman (Clark) worked with me and many others from this part of the country.
“The Ijaw people have contributed to the development of this country and have guarded its unity jealously. Some of them we have now lost. You have made efforts to keep the nation one,” he said.
Later in the evening, at a state banquet held in his honour at the Diepreye Alamieyeseigha Memorial Hall, Yenagoa, dignitaries from all walks of life were present to round off what many described as a highly successful outing.
At the end of the banquet which lasted deep into the night, Gowon, along with his entourage, thanked Governor Dickson and the people of Bayelsa for the hospitality extended him, describing them as some of the most hospitable people he had met.
An excited Dickson throughout the two-day event took time out to eulogise the former Head of State, extolling his example-setting qualities.
He danced, sang and spoke passionately about his vision for the state and what he was doing to take the state to the next level, especially with the focus on infrastructure and education.
He used the opportunity of the INA event to present cheque of N97m in addition to the N100m earlier released to the newly established Education Trust Fund, including a five per cent contribution to the fund from the state monthly internally generated revenue.
The governor said he was proud of his achievements in the education sector, noting that it was under his leadership that the first boarding schools were established and funded by the state government, 20 years after the creation of Bayelsa.
The governor named the access road linking the Academy to the East-West Road after Late Prof. Kay Williamson, in recognition of her contribution to the development of the Ijaw language and culture.
A day earlier, in his remarks, Dickson had described Gowon as a father of the nation, who has contributed tremendously to the unity and the progress of the country, both during and after his reign as Head of State.
He said even in the face of the prevailing economic circumstances, the inauguration of the edifice marked the beginning of the unveiling of the new Bayelsa, where excellence in education, health, security and other critical infrastructure would be pursued with renewed vigour.
Ijaw National Leader, Chief Clark attributed the lack of development in Ijaw land to the absence of educational institutions in the area.
He called on the people to support the free education policy and programmes of the Dickson’s administration, regardless of their political differences.
He commended Dickson for his wisdom in using education to fight poverty and underdevelopment, expressing optimism that the Academy would achieve its set objective of producing high quality students for higher institutions of learning both within and outside the country.
Chairman of the state Traditional Rulers Council, King Alfred Diette-Spiff, noted that the Ijaws in Bayelsa would not have witnessed the level of development, if not for the benevolence of Gowon, who created the Old Rivers State from which Bayelsa was carved out 21 years ago.
Beyond the pomp and pageantry, the high points, the projects inauguration, it was obvious that Bayelsa people had thoroughly enjoyed their 48 hours with a man that gave them a chance to have their own state, even if not directly.