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General Gowon at 80: The true measure of a man

We heard and saw this very dashingly young and handsome man in great admiration. We were all elated when he married his beautiful and elegant…

We heard and saw this very dashingly young and handsome man in great admiration. We were all elated when he married his beautiful and elegant wife, Victoria. They seemed to be a perfect pair that dropped from heaven. At a time when the cross-no-gutter skirt seemed the highest form a fashion statement, the First Lady had a practiced gait that combined a deep moral backbone resting on a beautiful soul. She seemed to do everything right. She was not flamboyant but exuded character, grace and beauty. With her husband, they both commanded national attention and adulation.
This tribute is for the General, not his wife. However, for me personally, there is something very special about this couple based on the rare privilege that I have had since they unexpectedly opened their doors to me many years ago.
First, the coup that overthrew Gowon then, as now, remained the subject of controversy. The man exhibited no crooked bone in his body, no visible form of bitterness and, for a country coming out of a war; his healing balm of no victor no vanquished had begun to take effect. For those of us who loved the man, we did not understand nor accept all the claims that the coup plotters had made against him. The coup against Gowon would later become a metaphor for treachery in the eyes of my simple mother.
After my ordination, she found time to counsel me. Like my grandmother, my mother, then as now, love to speak in metaphors, anecdotes or proverbs to elicit human lessons. You know, she said, if those who were so close to Gowon could betray an innocent, good and God-fearing man like him, then anything is possible. Learn not to expect too much from even your closest friends. Only God is ever faithful. My mother has had to return to this theme even in ordinary conversations and whenever any news of treachery comes up. It has been so many years, but I have not forgotten those words.
Growing up, I never imagined that I would meet General Gowon in real life. Fate however smiled on me sooner than I had ever expected or dreamt of. In 1986, I arrived London to pursue a doctoral programme at the School of Oriental and African Studies. Not knowing any Nigerians in London, I immediately sought out Mr Eddie Iroh who had settled as the London Editor of The Guardian. His home would later become my little hang out where I was a frequent guest and was sure of the best pounded yam and all forms of soups that Eddie’s culinary skills could summon at the shortest notice. In Eddie’s house, every Sunday was an exciting seminar of sorts.
In the course of one of my visits, he invited me for the launch of a newly published biography of General Gowon. I was excited at the prospects of seeing General Gowon since I was convinced that an actual meeting was totally out of the question. I arrived the venue and was met by Eddie and Ms Donu Kogbara. I was chatting with Donu when Eddie walked up and disrupted our conversation as General Gowon walked in:  Let me introduce you to the General, Eddie said, literally seizing my hand. I was just thrilled by this unexpected luck, but a more serious shock was just two steps away.
It turned out Eddie had no need making the introduction because as we got close to him, it was the General who stretched out his hand, saying: You are Father Kukah, as we approached him. I enjoy reading your column, The Mustard Seed, in the New Nigerian. Well done, you write well. I was too dumbfounded to speak and just managed a rather fake smile and mumbled a thank you. General Gowon knows me, General Gowon knows me, a little voice kept saying inside me.  This little voice literally drowned everything else around the hall and refused to stay quiet. Yes, I had been writing a column at the behest of my friend, Mohammed Haruna in the New Nigerian on Sunday. However, I really could never have imagined or dreamt of the fact that anyone had taken any serious notice, not to talk of General Gowon. More luck lay ahead.
I did not meet the General again until two years later after I returned from one year of field research for my thesis. In the course of my research, I had stumbled on claims and counter claims that required some clarifications. I then decided to seek out General Gowon to hear some sides of his story. I got his number and called his home. To my shock, he picked the phone. His gentle voice put me at ease almost immediately; sounding as if he was speaking to a friend he had known for a long time. I doubt that he even noticed the trepidation in my voice as I pleaded with him that I wanted to interview him over some issues in my research. Without hesitation, he agreed and we fixed a date. When I asked how to get to his house, it turned out he was less than twenty minutes drive from where I was staying in the New Barnet area. We agreed to talk on the date of the interview just to be sure that nothing had happened to make him unavailable.
On the fateful day, I put a call to his house and again, he personally picked up the phone. I had barely introduced myself when he picked my voice. I said very little because his next statement stunned me. I know where you are, he said. I will come there and pick you myself. No need to take a taxi. I will be there in the next half hour, he said. Yes Sir, Ok, Sir, I said rather clumsily and fumbling to put down the receiver.
I was too stunned to tell the priests who were staying with me because I still did not believe what I had just heard. I rehearsed the words and spoke to myself: General Gowon, former Head of State of the Federal Republic of Nigeria is coming to pick me to his house himself. Lord God Almighty. The white priests I was living with had worked in Nigeria and they knew him very well but by reputation. I put my excitement in check so as to avoid the embarrassment that could arise if he failed to turn up. I decided to take it easy because I also knew that my stocks would rise in the house.
I must have had the doorbell ring many times in my imagination. And, yes, less than thirty minutes later, the real doorbell rang. I went to the door, opened it and there was General Gowon, with no driver but himself. How could I capture these moments, I wondered? We drove off immediately with me sitting right beside this great man. But the General did not seem capable of running out of surprises.
When we arrived the house, he got out of the car, got out his keys and opened the main door. The house looked normal, but I expected to be surrounded by stewards and all kinds of assistants who were to open the door of the car, collect my bag, lead me to the door and open it for me. He opened the door himself. The house was quiet and it was obvious we were the only ones. He took my cheap and rumpled winter coat befitting of a student and hung it. He turned to me as if apologizing and said to me: Uwargida ba ta nan and the children are in school. The General, I later realized had a tendency for making Haus-ingli sentences. Now, this is new, fake vocabulary but I do not know how else to refer to someone who speaks both Hausa and English in one sentence!
After he sat me down, he went into the kitchen and brought a medium sized tray with teacups. He went back to the kitchen again and brought out a kettle, sugar, assorted biscuits and sand witches. Perhaps, for the reader, I was rude for not offering to help him. I decided to obey my head and not my heart and my refusal to help him pleased me because it was for the records too because I thought to myself: Why would I spoil the historic joy and fun worth an entry in the Guinness Book of Records of being served by my former Head of State and hero? I felt that making any contribution to the service by a trip to the kitchen would have amounted to a contamination of what to me seemed like a sacred ritual. After he set out everything, he took a seat apologized again for the absence of Uwargida and then said he was ready for the interview.
When we finished, he drove me back to my residence. I pleaded with him to come because the priests would be glad to meet him since they had all worked in Nigeria. He came in and of course, feeling very much like a new Chief of Protocol, I summoned all the priests who were around. Everyone was in shock and after the pleasantries; we all accompanied him to his car. Yes, I felt on top of the world, and yes, the word did go around that General Gowon had come to the house, and, everyone was reminded that he came and picked Matthew to his house and brought him back!
With General Gowon, one can go on and on. I am indeed really humbled by the chance to refer to him as someone I know and grateful to God that our paths have crossed. Like millions of other Nigerians, he is one person whose faith in our country continues to serve as a means of encouragement. Gowon’s love, passion and commitment to our country sometimes elicit a childlike faith. But this is a faith grounded in the knowledge that God has plans for our country. His personal faith is the anchor on which all his altruism and passion reside.
At his age, it is incredible the things he continues to do. His agility and ubiquity are an inspiration and an encouragement that no distance is too long to cover for our country. Whenever I tease him about his fresh looks, he often adjusts his head, smiles and says, Perhaps, it is, alluran soja (the proverbial high performance testosterone enhancing military injections that are the stuff of mythology). His inner strength has a sound moral foundation. It is a lesson for real belief and trust in God.
General Gowon remains a pride to the military and soldiering in Nigeria and Africa. He turned the military institution from being a profession to being a vocation. Thus, he is not just a summary of the dual qualities of an officer and gentleman. His reputation stands on a tripod of an officer, a gentleman, and, in every sense of the word, a truly and truly quintessential good man. They hardly make them anymore.
It will soon be 40 clear years since General Gowon was overthrown. Yet, he exudes such charm, with a total absence of malice of any sort. With uncommon passion and total forgiveness, he still loves both the military and the country that more or less betrayed and humiliated him. Despite being the oldest surviving Head of State, he still remains the most visible, voluble and the most ubiquitous. While others seek to expand their frontiers of business and power, Gowon’s business card reads: Nigeria Prays.
He has distanced himself from the Oil wells, the Discos and other choice contracts that fall on the laps of the powerful men of yesterday. Not for him the struggle   for neither more filthy lucre nor the seduction of the power of control and god fatherism that haunts the leaders of yesterday. Not for him the obsession with who rules. Not for him the quest to decide who will govern his state of Plateau or who will be installed as president. For some time, the road to his house in Kaduna was full of potholes. And, until the government built a house for him in the city, he did not have a plot of land in Abuja, the city that he himself helped to conceive. For all this and for want of a better word, this is what constitutes the true measure of a man. He is a man in whom God and nation are truly well pleased. Sir, you are a reason for our hope in a great Nigeria. We love you. Your place in our history and Abraham’s bosom are assured. God bless Uwargida for looking after you so well. May the children live up to your outstanding standards of probity and character.  A happy birthday, Sir.
Bishop Kukah is the Bishop of Archdiocese of Sokoto State

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