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Gowon and corruption: Why Tom Tugendhat should apologise

It is difficult to understand how a Member of the revered British Parliament worth his salt, could have left himself open to ridicule by levelling…

It is difficult to understand how a Member of the revered British Parliament worth his salt, could have left himself open to ridicule by levelling the unfounded, irrational and bizarre allegations of corruption against General Yakubu Gowon, our former Head of State and to the hilt, the nation’s poster face of probity in public life.

In the wake of the #EndSARS protest by Nigerian youths,  Mr. Tom Tugendhat (MP for Tonbridge and Malling) decided rightly to stand on the side of Nigeria. However, perhaps owing to sheer ignorance, carelessness or prejudice, the respected MP made a bizarre and irrational allegation of corruption against General Gowon by accusing him of having moved half the Central Bank of Nigeria when he was overthrown in a military coup in 1975. The very idea that Mr. Tugendhat would believe such stupidity and proceed to broadcast it publicly beggars belief.

For example, what does moving half of the Central Bank mean even in the most abstract language? How could such a feat be accomplished by a man who had just been overthrown from power and was obviously a wanted man in his own country? How do you move half of a Central Bank or any bank for that matter? Which individuals, bureaucratic or financial institutions facilitated the attainment of this feat and how? Assuming for the sake of an argument that Mr. Tugendhat is fractionally concerned about corruption in Nigeria, would he not start by gaining access to the existing trove of detailed information over financial flows from Nigeria to the United Kingdom? A good part of that information is accessible. The entire accusation is so riddled with inconsistencies and incoherence, it raises questions about Mr. Tugendhat moral capacity to even pursue his case against General Gowon’s stainless record of public lies before his country men and women and the world to see.

It is curious that General Gowon, who arrived the United Kingdom when Mr. Tugendhat was only two years old in 1975, has seen the back of eight British Prime Ministers, has never been questioned by the British Police, should suddenly be found to have lived off half of Nigeria’s Central Bank. It is doubtful that Mr. Tugendhat has ever read a book about Nigeria not to talk of having travelled to the country. It is curious that he would have displayed such shameful ignorance and made such ill-conceived allegations with no scintilla of evidence, even when, at the click of a button, he could have had access to General Gowon’s financial records and business dealings in his over 45 years of living in the UK .

Anyone interested in General Gowon’s records of public service would have to ask a few questions. First, unlike his predecessors, is it not curious that even the military government that overthrew him did not for one day raise an allegation of corruption against him? The facts show that the bar of integrity in public service only began to be lowered from the time the General was overthrown. Almost all ministers and governors who served under General Gowon are still hailed as the paragons of integrity till date? Most of our ailing national infrastructure owe their origins to that period.

For the education of the Tugendhat and his ilk, let me draw from verifiable evidence of General Gowon’s integrity as attested to by a cross section of Nigerians. I will draw from a source that I was particularly involved.

Towards the end of 2003, when I heard that General Gowon was going to turn 70 the following year on October 19, 2004, I was quite excited. I began to wonder how this great gem would be celebrated. I knew that I had no qualifications for making any serious suggestions. I decided to choose what I believed I could have control over. I opted to get a collection of tributes to honour the great man. I shared this idea with both his wife, the very much respected Victoria Gowon and Ambassador Maurice Ekpang, who was then the Director of the Gowon Centre. Madam demurred for the obvious reason that she knew her husband’s deep sense of modesty. She herself loved the shadows and was very protective of the integrity of her husband and her family.

With the support of Ambassador Ekpang, I got to work. I drafted a letter and we drew up a list of eminent people around the world, from Nelson Mandela, Eyadema to Jimmy Carter. At home, we reached out to technocrats, men and women who served under him or who had associated with him. I reached out to diplomats and almost all the key traditional rulers in the country. In the letter, I merely introduced myself and said that as part of celebrating this great man, I was, in my personal capacity requesting them to write tributes to General Gowon for a publication I wanted to submit to him as part of the celebrations of his 70th birthday.

The enthusiasm with which people responded was quite amazing to me. Responses came from former presidents and heads of state, traditional rulers, bureaucrats and a wide range of Nigerians across the board, literally everyone we reached out to. In all, the final publication covered a total of 259 pages. For the purpose of this essay, I wish to refer to just a few of these tributes just to draw the attention of the Honourable Tugendhat to the foolishness of his allegations against the General whom he himself perhaps never met or even associated with.

First, in his tribute, President Shehu Shagari (1979-1983) spoke eloquently about the General. Among many other things, he said: I believe it is only an extraordinary person that can lead this nation through thick and thin, to win a civil war and then declare that there was no winner, no vanquished. I believe that it is only an extraordinary person that can lead his country from the ravages of war to unity, prosperity and progress in record time. I believe that it is only an extra-ordinary person that can unite a multiplicity of diverse people into a strong nation…Thank goodness, in all these struggles, he has turned out clean as the winner.

Alhaji Atiku Abubakar, the Vice President (1999-2007) recounted the sterling qualities of the General and finally concluded that: Not too many people would have left, after nine years, all the trappings of power and headed straight for the lowly and bare life of a student!

In a lengthy tribute dated September 25, 2004, in which he dwelt extensively on the sterling record of service and remarkable achievement of the Gowon regime, Chief Ernest Shonekan, former Head of the Interim Government (1993-1995) noted that: You have the honour of having the mantle of leadership of our great country at a relatively young age, yet you were imbued with wisdom and needed humility to lead at a most difficult time…..You have continued to demonstrate that a man’s life consists not necessarily of silver and gold alone or how much wealth he is able to gather but most importantly on how many lives he is able to touch positively. I honestly believe that if the leaders of today have an appreciation of this point, there will be less emphasis on acquiring so much for themselves resulting in the pervasive corruption that we have in the land.

Philip Asiodu, one of most brilliant and diligent civil servants of his time, one of the famous super permanent secretaries, drawing extensively from his trove of knowledge as a key player and an insider in the management of the finances of the government of the General. In his over four page tribute, he stated as follows: Despite the wild rumours before the overthrow of his regime and the hostile investigations and the enquiries which followed the overthrow, the actual proven cases of misconduct and corruption amongst General Gowon’s closest officials and the military governors and the figures of monies to be recovered were meagre. How well the nation would have been served and fared if objectivity and proper perspective had been observed. Perhaps the psychological context would not have been created which permitted the colossal scandals that have subsequently occurred in the administration of public resources.

I believe there is no need to continue.

Perhaps of all the tributes, the one that caught my attention even at that time the most was that of Major General Muhammadu Buhari (rtd). It is tempting to reproduce almost the entire 3-page letter because it was so rich in personal narrative. The General had, in personal conversation further narrated a few other very insightful thoughts about General Gowon that ordinarily would have led to a bitter relationship, but it was a measure of his greatness that he bore no animosity towards the General.

In his opening paragraph, Major General Buhari stated that writing the tribute was a duty  because; General Gowon’s place in Nigerian history is permanent for all time. His Tribute was the most intimate and also the most revealing. In his words: I was  among the candidates recommended to be his ADC. Why it never happened was a secret only he and I knew!….One of his most astounding attributes is that General Gowon is a man of conscience, a man of sincerity, a man of accountability and a man of integrity. He continued: Major projects were undertaken with the proceeds of the 1973 oil windfall. There was never a serious accusation linking the General personally with any scandal in that period (my emphasis). And then, here was the clincher: A pointer to his personal integrity was when I was Head of State and the General, though my senior, treated me with embarrassing deference in the course of informing me that he could not pay his children’s school fees. A man who presided over the federal government’s big spending spree yet did not plan for the rainy day is somebody special.

I have gone to this length just to show that Honourable Tugendhat has committed such an egregious act and a faux pas that he owes his family and the British Parliament a first apology for the great embarrassing show of foolishness. He owes the members of the #EndSARS protesters for damaging the credibility of their evidence of corruption in Nigeria. He owes General Gowon and his family an apology for trying to impugn and besmirch the hard earned and unassailable reputation of a truly good man by reading a prepared text blindfolded by prejudice.


Matthew Hassan Kukah is the bishop of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Sokoto

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