Yakubu Gowon in Retrospect



A significant gap in the account of the political history of Nigeria is the inability and disinclination of the two main actors of the Nigerian civil war, General Yakubu Gowon and Chief Emeka Ojukwu to write their memoirs-thus fostering a critical vacuum in the collective and institutional memory of the nation. It gets more imponderable in light of the consideration that both lived for many years thereafter in relative leisure and possess the intellectual wherewithal to articulate their thoughts. And it is to the extent of this omission that the history of Nigeria is impoverished. Reinforcing this conspiracy of silence is the fact that there is also not in existence an authoritative compendium (a reader) on the civil war-post civil war Nigerian governments have uniformly adopted the attitude of the less said, the better; the ostrich catechism of see no evil, hear no evil and say no evil has become the norm.

The net effect of all these is that Nigeria has emerged from the civil war with no sense of what is right or wrong other than the criminalization of secession and the dubious exhortation to Nigerian nationalism and patriotism-the latter being the last refuge of the scoundrel. The fullness of this historical muddle has resulted in the contemporary apt observation that Nigeria is divided now than ever before-answerable only to the panacea of constitutional restructuring or dictatorship.

The tendency of the debate on restructuring (call for restoration of the federalist framework of the independence constitution) to degenerate into cacophony was lately deepened by the intervention of the former military ruler, Gowon. And the intervention itself raises the pertinent question of his culpable omission-failure to adequately account for the civil war and thereby help to make better sense of post 1966 history of Nigeria. Just how pertinent his witness can be was revealed in an extended interview he recently had with the African International Television, AIT. The revelation strikes at the root of the conflicting regional positions taken on the restructuring proposal. He said the North was originally opposed to the creation of states (which amounted to a break-up of the regions) in 1967 and he had to cajole the support of the region by marketing the policy as one that will result in the appropriation of more national resources to its coffers; that more states means more money.

Subsequently he went on to dismiss the call for restructuring with this argument “Nigeria is made up of over 500 ethnic groups, languages and dialects and so many various groups called nationalities and they want restructuring…This restructuring everybody is asking for, we will have about 500 different ideas of restructuring. There is call for restructuring to reduce the number of states to only a few either back to the old region or to the zones.”. This argument is self-contradictory in the sense that way back in 1967 he had demonstrated a clear conviction in restructuring when he broke the four regions he inherited into 12 states-thus launching a trend that culminated in the prevailing 36 states mockery of federalism. Ironically, the current restructuring advocacy is no more than a call for the rectification of the error Gowon initiated in 1967.

More important is the political revisionism and the repudiation of the independence constitution that this argument entails. Were there not ‘over 500 ethnic, languages and dialects’ in Nigeria when Nigerian representatives to the pre independence London constitutional conference negotiated and adopted the independence constitution (comprising three regions) as Nigeria’s foundational articles of association? If restructuring is now so wrong and implausible then why is the alteration of the country’s constitutional structure anticipated in the constitution in the first place?
If, indeed, any political actor is authoritatively positioned to recall the intricacies of the drastic political transition that Nigeria went through from 1966 to 1975 the prize should go to Yakubu Gowon. He was as much a creation of the sanguine and turbulent first half of the political era as he was a creator. From all accounts, he was almost oblivious of the Northern Nigeria army officers’ revolt (counter coup) of July 1966 yet he was vaulted to the topmost position of the resultant military government. At the onset (of the vengeful riposte), the objective of the coup makers was limited to wreaking revenge against the dominant Igbo officer corps of the Nigerian army whom they hold collectively responsible for the January 1966 coup that decapitated the political leadership of the Northern region; and thereafter take the Northern region out of Nigeria.

In the pursuit of this objective, Gowon would subsequently play a central role that neither he nor the masterminds of the counter coup anticipated. As the mission altered from secession to seizing the political leadership of Nigeria, so did the leadership of the Northern officers initiative changed from Murtala Mohammed to Yakubu Gowon-thanks to the covert intervention and guidance of the British government. His relative detachment from the conspiracy and affable temperament afforded Gowon a balanced and accommodating view of the evolving political situation at a time such quality was in short supply.

The utility of the cross-cutting cleavages of religion and ethno-regional identity in Nigerian politics (a political identity that cuts across the North-South divide- sharing the identity overlap of Northern geopolitical origin and Christian religious affiliation with a predominantly Christian South ) was called to service and proved a critical enabling factor in his subsequent mediatory and unifier role. On account of this identity overlap and cosmopolitan disposition he became the acceptable and agreeable face of the North in the volatile power politics engagement of that historical moment. Working together to bolster his appeal to the Western region, for instance, was the potential facility role of the prior political alliance between the Action Group, AG, and the United Middle Belt Congress, UMBC. On a lighter note was the reinforcement of his politically balanced appeal with the publicly advertised strong romantic relationship between him and Edith Okongwu (of Igbo origin). But alas, what cosmopolitan Lagos brought together was torn asunder by the eventuality of the civil war that pitted them as proxies of the antagonism between the East and the North.

Within the broader context of the Hausa-Fulani dominated Northern political establishment, there has always been the subordinate sub nationalism of the Northern Christians-geopolitically characterized as the Middle Belt. Relative to their civilian politician counterparts, (personified by the UMBC), the middle belt military officers are much more coopted and integrated to the charted political agenda of the Northern region. More than any other military officer of middle belt origin, Theophillus Yakubu Danjuma has emerged the standard bearer of this pedigree. Arising from his real time command role in the execution of the blood soaked 1966 countercoup and trademark confrontational bravura (he arrested and dispatched General JTU Aguiyi-Ironsi and Colonel Adekunle Fajuyi) he attained to the status of a somewhat venerated figure of Northern hegemony. This veneration has earned him the concession of a wiggle room whenever he chooses to play Middle Belt sub national irredentist politics and it is against this backdrop that explanations would be found for the godfather role he routinely assumes in middle belt politics.

Notwithstanding his long tenure as military head of state, Gowon has no such comparable political gravitas and his subsequent ouster from office in a 1975 military coup was (incidentally) substantially masterminded by Danjuma and another prominent officer of middle belt origins-Joseph Garba. In addition to the assassination of the military head of state, General Murtala Mohammed, the unique characteristic of the 1976 abortive coup was its valid perception as a middle belt military officers’ affair (including the participation of one of the highest ranking officers of the Nigerian army, General Ilya Bisalla). This perception was substantiated by the underlying mission statement of the coup as the restoration of Gowon to his prior position of head of state. Needless to say that whatever respect and political stature Gowon hitherto enjoyed was severely eroded by the tragic episode.

The coup equally enjoys the distinction of being the first time the military wing of the middle belt political class would take a political initiative autonomous of the expansive Northern regional umbrella. Gowon was consequently dismissed from the Nigerian army and declared wanted for the charges of alleged complicity to the abortive coup. After a stint of exile in Britain he was granted full state pardon by President Shehu Shagari in 1981. And in a manner of speaking, this marked the end of the second phase of his eventful life and the beginning of another.

There are a number of individuals whose personalities (as we come to know them) I find difficult to reconcile with their prior careers in the military especially their involvement in the bloody and chauvinistic interlude of 1966-70. Gowon is one of such- his sedate temperament and soft power disposition make him more suited to his latter day Christian evangelism vocation-Nigeria Prays (that he founded and led to spread the gospel of peace, love and brotherliness among Nigerians). He has cultivated the art of political evasiveness and appears uncomfortable with any political identity beyond the political correctness of opposition to the fragmentation of Nigeria.

It is ironical that these were the same qualities that served him so well in piloting Nigeria through the turbulence of the civil war and berthing the nation in one piece. Less flattering is the inability of Gowon to fulsomely reflect the productive years he spent in Britain studying political science up to the doctorate level at the Warwick University. We see little evidence of the rigor of this intellectual acquisition in his mostly simplistic understanding and assessment of Nigerian politics.

Yet we must not lose sight of the insight he inadvertently provided in the recall of the stratagem he employed to accomplish his own exercise of restructuring 50 years ago. Now, as in 1957, it seems as if it is the Northern region that needs to be persuaded to support and accept restructuring. Borrowing from his manual, the formula for success was the dangling of the carrot of more financial resources accruing to the region. Or at the very least, the region should not be poorer for it. Not a bad bargain?