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General Gowon at 85: Reading the general’s mind


Yakubu Gowon

General Yakubu Gowon turned 85 last week. No bells and whistles. Only those who dispense patronage receive saccharine congratulatory messages in the newspapers on such occasions. It has been a long time since the four-star general and former head of state and commander-in-chief of the armed forces had and exercised that power, the great power that draws hordes of hypocrites to the shrines of the powerful and the well-heeled.

At 85, Gowon has seen it all and he has done it all. When I think of him, as I often do, I think of him as a child and the maker of our country’s chequered history rolled into one. I think of the man who, at 32 years of age, was thrust on the burning political stage by fate or destiny and rose up to the challenges of saving our country – “to do my duty to my country.” I think of the man whose cool head made the complex and complicated task of keeping Nigeria one a mission possible and a mission achievable. Our country emerged from that crucible of its civil war, warts and all, because of who Gowon is.

I think of him as our authentic statesman who never allowed his achievements to go into his head and whose patriotic credentials are impeccable and unassailable. I think of the man who has kept his family out of the pubic domain. I have never heard of his son or daughter trawling the federal ministries and state houses in search of contracts. His wife, Victoria, defined the place of the first lady and placed herself under the shadow of her husband. She sealed her lips and invited no controversy or scandal upon herself or her husband. And I think of the fact, the painful fact, that fate can do and undo: make a man a hero but also reduce him to a villain.


A man with modesty and humility wired into his DNA, Gowon has never hugged the limelight. When he lost the throne to the political intrigues of his comrades-in-arms and their civilian backers, he chose not to be a cry baby or whine over the hand that fate had dealt him. He accepted that he had had his time on the stage, played his part and had to leave when his time was up. He quietly went to Warwick University in the United Kingdom where he earned his first, second degrees and a doctorate. No man before him any where in the world had done that.

At an interview Ray and I had with him in Jos shortly after he returned to the country from exile in 1986, I asked him why he chose to return to school after all he had achieved. His answer was typical of his humour. He said he had always wanted to have the suffix of university degrees after his name because they are written in capital letters, whereas military certificates were written in small letters, as in psc, recds.

When I think of Gowon, I think of a man who, like the late South African president, Dr Nelson Mandela, has no bile or bitterness in him. I have never heard Gowon speak ill of anyone. He is a unique human being whose gentle heart has no room for pettiness.

The radical generals after him reduced the civil service, once a respectable institution run by our first generation of permanent secretaries trained in elite British educational institutions – Oxford, Cambridge and the London School of Economics – is in tatters today. It no longer has security of tenure, the main attraction the institution had for those who sought to work in it. Corruption is entirely driven by civil servants from the bottom to the top. I wonder how Gowon feels now about graft being the defining character of our public service.

You may think I am rhapsodising the man. Not quite. I am only trying to see Gowon for who he is. I am trying to see the man whose moral stature towers above that of the many men who had tried mightily to build a shrine of self-importance for themselves.

The point of all this is that a few days after his birthday, I set myself a tough task. I wanted to see if I could get into Gowon’s mind, read it and tell the readers of this column what I saw. I wanted to see if I could capture his feelings about what the country has made of itself since we dethroned virtues and enthroned vices as our national ethos. I am trying to see what the man who once ruled a country respected by other countries now feels about its being turned into a butt of international contempt and derision. It has lost the right to fame but now holds onto notoriety.

I wanted to see what he feels about the young Igbo men who want the actualisation of the state of Biafra for the so-called indigenous peoples of Biafra. I wonder if he feels pained by the antics of these young men and their older supporters heating up the polity and behaving as if the costly prosecution of the civil war in human lives and resources as sacrifices Nigerians made to keep our country one and indivisible, count for nothing.

General Gowon fundamentally altered the physical structure of our country when he created the 12 states on May 27, 1967. He did not do it out of sentiment or to please the privileged men in the corridors of power. He did it partly in response to the long-standing demands of the minorities and partly as a fundamental strategy to persuade Ojukwu to abandon his secessionist plans. Each of the 12 states was big enough and quite capable of generating the bulk of its financial resources internally. We never heard of those states waiting to get monthly hand-outs to run their affairs.


I wonder what the general thinks of what the generals after him made of the creation of states by shifting the paradigm of political pragmatism to the politics of popularity. The Nigerian state is paying a high price for the moral sin of the lips that cheered on Generals Murtala Muhammed, Ibrahim Babangida and Sani Abacha when they created more and more states.

Now the states, all 36 of them, have, in the immortal view of Chief Obafemi Awolowo, become glorified local governments. Even worse, they are uniformly useless to our development aspirations. They are a drag on our development; because of them, the Nigerian state exists merely to service its recurrent expenditures. The states cannot meet their basic statutory obligations such as paying the salaries of their civil servants and pensioners. They are, and I am speaking generally, the ugly faces of a failed nation. I wonder if this worries Gowon.

Well, I knew when I set out on this voyage of interrogation and discovery that I would make less than a great success of it. As the Onitsha man would say, it is not easy. No man’s mind is penetrable. And no man’s mind is readable. All I can say is, I have tried. I did not fail but, and I say this without contradiction, I did not succeed. My attempt could be placed somewhere between success and failure.
Happy birthday, General.

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Yakubu Gowon
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