General Gowon: A Rare breed


Tochukwu Ezukanma



It may have been the first time in human history that a conqueror, instead of extracting his pound of flesh from his totally defeated enemies, and ruthlessly lording it over them, reached out to them and declared: “There is no victor and no vanquished”. With that hagiography declaration, Yakubu Gowon levitated from a soldier/politician to a historic icon. Even by the genteel standards of the civilized world, Gowon’s generosity of spirit at the end of the civil war was legendary. He is a rare breed in the brute and vindictive milieu of African politics.

A few days after the civil war, I picked up a leaflet. It had the picture of Yakubu Gowon and a message from him. The message was written in English and Igbo. It urged the Igbo not to resist the federal soldiers because they are not out to kill anybody but to keep the peace. It said that there had already been so much fighting, bloodshed and suffering, and it was time to end all the fighting and live in peace. I was stunned, totally petrified, by that message because any inkling that Gowon was human was beyond my comprehension. And that he could, by any stretch of the imagination, want peace or be disturbed by the dying and suffering of his fellow human beings dumbfounded me. This was because the Biafran propaganda demonized him to the point where he, in the minds of many Igbo, was a beast, monster and the devil in human form.


There is an unbelievable gulf between the man, Yakubu Gowon, and the murderous, satanic Yakubu Gowon depicted by the Biafran propaganda. For example, Gowon was not involved in the coup that killed Aguiyi-Ironsi on July 29, 1966. Muritala Mohammed was the leader of the coup, and it was Theophilius Danjuma and his group that seized Ironsi at Ibadan. With Ironsi dead, the next highest ranking army officer in the Nigerian army, Babafemi Ogundipe, tried to take charge. The Hausa/Fulani soldiers around him made it clear that they would not take orders from him, and were ready to force that reality down his throat, if need be.


Bewildered by that egregious breach of military ethics, Ogundipe sent Gowon to Muritala Mohammed and his men, “his northern brothers”, who were ensconced at Ikeja Cantonment, to find out what exactly they wanted. Mohammed made it clear to Gowon that they wanted Araba: northern Nigeria’s secession from Nigeria. Northern political leaders were opposed to secession. So, some of them gathered at the cantonment, and others, calling in by phone, and, in concert with the British and American ambassadors, convinced Mohammed and his group to drop the idea of secession. They agreed on one condition: the new Head of State must be a northerner. Consequently, they appointed Yakubu Gowon, the highest ranking northern army officer in their midst, the Head of State.


The one time defense minister, Domkat Bali, who, as of July 1966, was a 2nd Lieutenant, participated in the coup and was one of the hot-headed proponents of Araba. He later summed up the events at the Ikeja Cantonment on that day, “We, the northern minorities, were the first to be convinced of the need not to secede. I am from a small tribe, the Tarok tribe in Langtang. If the North secures its independence from Nigeria, the Hausa/Fulani will be so dominant that they will lord it over us whether we like it or not. A bigger Nigeria will check such excesses. So, the bigger Nigeria is, the freer my tribe and I will be.” In his book, Why We Struck, Adewale Ademoyega also corroborated these events. He wrote, “Gowon was sent to find out what (they) wanted, and he ended up becoming their spokesman.”   


Gowon came to power on August 1st, 1966. The next day, he released Obafemi Awolowo and other political prisoners from prison. The country was in crisis; and there was a desperate need for peace. The peace was found at Aburi, the Aburi Accord. In line with the advice of his advisers, Gowon, “in other to still retain the corporate existence of Nigeria”, made minor adjustments to the Accord, and implemented it with Decree 8, and “the regions acquired more powers than they have ever had”. Ojukwu lied to the Igbo that Gowon did not implement the Aburi Accord. All the signatories to the Aburi Accord (regional governors and other members of the Supreme Military Council), accepted Decree 8. Only Ojukwu rejected it. Ojukwu’s advisers, including his secretary, N.U. Akpan, and the highest ranking army officer from Eastern Region, Hilary Njoku, advised him to accept Decree 8 “because Gowon had gone more than far enough”. Still, he refused.


As the wrangling between Ojukwu and Gowon over the Aburi Accord continued, Ojukwu came up with his Survival Edict, which stopped Eastern Regions (financial) remittance to the federal government and confiscated the properties of the federal government in Eastern Region. Gowon responded by blockading Eastern Region. Fearing that the situation was degenerating to a war, a delegation of eminent Nigerians visited Enugu, and brokered a truce: Gowon will remove the blockade, and Ojukwu, in turn, will retract the Survival Edict. Gowon removed the blockade, but Ojukwu refused to rescind the edict. In addition, Ojukwu sought and received the approval of the Eastern Region Consultative Assembly to secede from Nigeria. In sequel, Gowon created 12 states; and Ojukwu declared Biafra. And, like in almost every attempt at secession, war ensured. As in every war, soldiers on both sides of the divide fought and killed each other; planes bombed and strafed military and civilian targets; and people starved to death.


From the start, Biafra was totally enfeebled militarily, economically and diplomatically, and had no chance of ever winning the war. Naturally, it collapsed after 30 months of fighting. As Biafra surrendered unconditionally, the federal forces made nonsense of the Biafran propaganda about a planned extermination of the Igbo. As Gowon stated in the leaflet, Nigerian soldiers were not out to kill anyone but to keep the peace. We were awe-struck by their disciplined and benign might, and pleasantly surprised by their geniality. Biafran soldiers melted into the civilian populace. Once a Biafran soldier shed his military uniform and donned a civilian outfit, even, if it was obvious that he was a soldier, he was not, in anyway, perturbed by federal forces.    


My family arrived from Orlu (our last place of refuge in Biafra) to Enugu broke and broken: penniless and helpless. The next day, my father went to his office at the Ministry of Local Government. And, in line with the government policy of giving state government employees, returning from the Biafran enclave, one month salary advance, he got a one month salary advance. This immediately obviated hunger and financial calamity for my family. Life would have been unbearably bleak for the Igbo, if the Gowon administration, in concert with the government of East Central State, had not made elaborate plans to alleviate the financial hardship of the former Biafrans. With this policy, millions of Nigerian pounds were immediately injected into the economy of East Central State, which accelerated the return of life to normalcy in the state.


Biafran army officers that were carry-overs from the Nigerian army were corralled into detention, and later released. A few of them, like Ebitu Ukiwe, Ndubuisi Kanu and Emeka Omeruah, were re-absorbed into the Nigerian army and the rest dismissed. And interestingly, Gowon and the other Nigerian army officers personally helped many of these dismissed Biafran army officers to re-establish their lives. For example, General Philip Effiong (whom I got to know personally because my father, who was an estate surveyor, did valuation/appraisal work for him) through the government of East Central State had concessions from the Nigerian Cement Industry, Nkalagu; he lived in the comfort and serenity of Enugu GRA. And, at the instruction of Yakubu Gowon, Ukpabi Asika gave Colonel Ogbugo Kalu a job, as Chairman of the ECS transportation company, the Oriental Lines. 


Still, the Igbo are angry and bitter; and we continue to seek justification for our bitterness. For long, we lamented the twenty Nigerian pounds given to us, irrespective of the amount of Biafran pounds (one, hundreds or thousands) the individual deposited into the bank. It is important to note that Biafra surrendered unconditionally. Thus, the federal government owed us nothing, not even, a penny. So, the paying of twenty pounds (the equivalent of about fifty to sixty thousand naira in today’s purchasing power) each to millions of former Biafrans, whom you owed no money, for their worthless currency, was a huge favor. And for the bank accounts, not operated during the war, and thus, not converted to Biafran pounds, the Igbo got back their money in full. For example, my uncle, Egbuniwe, who died fighting for Biafra, had a savings account, with the African Continental Bank, that was not operated during the war. With his account documents, his wife was paid his money in full. Ninia Nwodo once talked about his family’s rebound, after the war, with the recovery of the four thousand (4, 000.00) pounds his father had in a saving account at Standard Bank. 

Following a war, the defeated, usually pay a heavy price, as in the American South and South Vietnam after their respective civil wars. For example in Vietnam, the defeated South Vietnamese government officials and military officers were subjected to severe punishment. They were sent to “re-education” camps, where some spent several years. In these camps, they were tortured and brainwashed, and forced to do hard labor in inhospitable areas of the country. Many of them died in the camps, and some were never seen again or accounted for. Even, till now, family members of former Vietnamese army officers and high government officials are still subjected to stigmatization and discrimination.        


Quite naturally, the Igbo paid the price of defeat. However, it was significantly mitigated by Gowon’s magnanimity. In his magnanimity and deliberate, determined effort to reintegrate the Igbo into the Nigerian social life, he assuaged our fears, gave us a glimmer of hope, and provided us the enabling environment for a phoenix-like regeneration.


Born on October 19th, 1934, Gowon will be eighty nine (89) years old on October 19th, 2023.

General Gowon, Happy Birthday.  


Tochukwu Ezukanma writes from Lagos, Nigeria.