General Yakubu Dan-Yumma Gowon, the man who was at the centre of Nigeria’s struggle for unity during its darkest years, signifies different things to different citizens, depending on their geographical, ethnic and religious backgrounds or leanings. For millions of Nigerians, this Ngas (Angas) native of the sleepy village of Lur, in the present-day Kanke Local Government Area of Plateau State, is a valiant but humane hero. He played a crucial role to keep Nigeria together between 1967 and 1970). But a lot of other citizens see him as a dictator who oversaw a brutal civil war that ended the lives of thousands of Nigerians and destroyed an uncountable number of properties.
No matter how different citizens or even non-Nigerians see him, General Gowon can be rightly described as the “Father of Modern Nigeria. This is because he successfully led the Federal Government through that devastating 30-month civil war and saved the country from disintegration. Not only did he stop the country from disintegrating, but Gowon also re-united it after the war through his famous declaration that there was “No victor, no vanquished.”
He also instituted many policies that aided national reconciliation, including the 3Rs: Reconciliation, Reconstruction and Rehabilitation.
From 1970 till the end of his regime in 1975, General Gowon had a good agenda for the development of the country. Among the things he did was a review of the civil service salary structure (Adebo Commission, 19710), followed by a wider and deeper civil service salary review (Udoji Commission, 1973); national census (1973); change of currency from pounds and shillings to naira and kobo (1973); change from right to left-hand driving (1972); All Africa Sports Festival (1973). He also started organising the popular Festival of African Culture, commonly referred to as FESTAC. As part of preparations for the FESTAC, Gowon started building the FESTAC Village in Lagos, as well as the National Theatre at Iganmu, Lagos.
It is also to the credit of the General Gowon administration that we now have second-generation universities in Jos, Plateau State; Maiduguri, Borno State; Sokoto, Sokoto State; Ilorin, Kwara State; Benin, Edo State; Calabar, Cross River State, and Port Harcourt, Rivers State.
It is also public knowledge that his administration established the National Youth Service Corps (NYSC), a scheme that has become very popular across the length and breadth of the country for the significant role it has been playing to enhance the unity of Nigeria.
Instructively, Gowon got the mantle of leadership of this country at a very young age of 31, making him one of the youngest and exceptional leaders this country has ever produced.
Born on October 19, 1934, Gowon, who was the fifth of 11 children of Nde (Chief) Yohanna and Matwok Kurnyang, was taken to the Wusasa area of Zaria as a result of the missionary activities of his parents. They were of the Church Missionary Society, commonly known as CMS.
He grew up in Zaria and had his early education there, until 1954 when he joined the Nigerian Army. The retired general, who left office 44 years ago, following a military coup in 1975, has remained active in national life, attending many public and private functions.
Last week, he led the presentation of awards to winners of the 2019 Nigeria Liquefied Natural Gas (NLNG) Prize for Literature in a colourful dinner held at the prestigious Transcorp Hilton Hotel, Abuja. He was also present at a dinner organised for him by the Institute for Governance and Leadership Studies in Africa, at the Nicon Luxury Hotel, Abuja, to celebrate his 85th birthday anniversary.
General Gowon is also very active in Nigeria Prays, a non-governmental organisation he has been promoting for the last 25 years to organise prayers for Nigeria and its leaders. He has also chaired the boards of several private corporations in Nigeria and was a visible member of the National Council of State and patron of the Arewa Consultative Forum (ACF) and the Barewa Old Boys Association (BOBA). He had his secondary education at the popular Barewa College, Zaria, which has produced hundreds of distinguished citizens of Nigeria, including Prof Jubril Aminu, a renowned cardiologist and former Nigerian ambassador to the United States of America (USA); Alhaji Muhammad Saad Abubakar III, the reigning Sultan of Sokoto and president-general of the Nigeria Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs (NSCIA); Governor Nasir Ahmad El-Rufai of Kaduna State; and a former governor of Jigawa State, Alhaji Sule Lamido; Prof Iya Abubakar, the first person from northern Nigeria to obtain a first class degree in Mathematics; the late Alhaji Abdulkadir Ahmed, one of the longest-serving governors of the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN). He served in that capacity from June 28, 1982, to September 30, 1993, among others.
The former military head of state also set up the Gowon Foundation, which at one time took over the fight against guinea worm in Nigeria, especially in the Abakaliki area of the present-day Ebonyi State.
Gowon’s existence, from adulthood to this ripe age, has not been without some controversies, apart from his leading role in the civil war. For instance, in 1972, the general promised a return to civilian rule in 1976, but during his October 1, 1974, national broadcast, he declared that 1976 was no longer realistic. This was a major factor in the overthrow of his government the following year.
Afterwards, the Obasanjo military regime accused him of complicity in the February 13, 1976, abortive coup, in which General Murtala Ramat Mohammed was killed. But because the evidence against him was not convincing, the late President Shehu Shagari granted him a full pardon in 1981, which resulted in his return from a six-year exile to the United Kingdom.
Last year, General Gowon was heavily criticised for his perceived silence over the persistent killing of farmers and other hapless citizens by suspected herdsmen.
Now at the ripe age of 85, the former military head of state has been a very stabilising factor in Nigeria, always preaching peace and healthy coexistence.
His mature and peaceful nature was seen in the manner he handled the news of the overthrow of his administration in 1975 when he led the Nigerian delegation to a meeting of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU), now African Union (AU) in Kampala, Uganda. This act attracted numerous admirers to him, not only in Nigeria but across the world; hence he became known in some quarters as “The man of peace.”
We join millions of Nigerians and friends in celebrating this exceptional citizen as he marks his 85th birthday. Happy birthday, General!