By Obi Nwakanma
Dr. Jacob “Yakubu” Gowon was celebrating his 78th birthday on October 19. Reporters cornered him, and asked him for a comment on Nigeria.
The General, former Military Head of State of Nigeria said, in reference to his leadership of the civil war, “I’ll ever be grateful to all those who supported one Nigeria.” To keep Nigeria one was his battle cry. He won a decisive battle over the secessionist republic of Biafra. He kept Nigeria one.
For that, Jack Gowon deserves his place as a defender of the republic. I did say that Gowon and the Federal Army won the decisive battle. But it seems it has not won the war. The war seems to be raging still in the quiet corners of Nigeria; in various homes; on the Nigerian streets, and up north and down south.
He won a war but not the peace because true peace is just and it is not merely declarative; nor does it thrive on the silence of the oppressed. Wars are won when peace returns to the land. But Nigeria is not at peace with itself, and many of us know why. Nigeria is not destined to be at peace in Jack Gowon’s life time, and the signs are all there, because what Gowon won was a peace of the graveyard, in which he declared the hollow truce “no victor, no vanquished.”
The fragility of Nigeria today stems from the irresolute and unfinished nation which Gowon and his war cohort left as legacy to Nigeria. As the Igbo would say, given the current situation, “onweghi ebe anyi ji azu eje” – we ain’t going anywhere soon. We seem mired to one spot.
Even the General knows this, and that is perhaps why none of his children lives in Nigeria. His children are in some sort of permanent exile in the UK. For a man who fought to keep Nigeria one, it seems like an ambivalent gift to his own children – that war “for unity” fought even on the graves of other innocent children who were deliberately starved to death.
So, what is this Nigeria that General Gowon fought to keep one? For whom did he fight? The idea of a “One Nigeria” seems loaded with possibilities. Let me make a confession: I do not mind one Nigeria. I love the idea of a great and vibrant multi-ethnic nation interfusing the cross-current energies of all its parts to form a colorful and powerful whole.
This was the dream and the vision of the Nigerian anti-colonial liberation movement. As a Zikist intellectual, I’m stirred by that vision. But I’m equally not unaware of the cynical use of the word “unity” that has shaped contemporary Nigeria.
The debate this past number of weeks of Achebe’s memoir for which Achebe has suffered contumely from certain parts demonstrate the broad divisions and the fault lines that continue to determine and characterize Nigeria. There’s no real unity of insight that conceives of the common good. There’s also the sad truth that the absence of a well-developed idea of nation has failed to materialize beyond the hollow concept of “One Nigeria.”
The question, again, is “One-Nigeria to what end? As we look closely at Nigeria, its past promise and its failure, something rings very hollow in Gowon’s birthday message. Here is why.
The “One Nigeria” that his generation bequeathed us is a fractured, corrupt, flatulent, ignorant, impoverished, neo-colonial nation. It even stopped being a sovereign nation. It is buffeted by many hates. Nigerians resent themselves.
Achebe says Nigerians generally resent the Igbo. But it has to be said also that the Igbo themselves are not without their own disdain of others. The worst of them are distrustful of the Yoruba, intolerant of the Hausa, and dismissive of the rest. Yet the Igbo seem to be the glue of the nation in many unique and important ways – in a sense far more tolerant of the rest perhaps because of their unique location and situation in the nation. But this very fact seems to be the basis of their troubles.
The January 15, 1966 coup overthrew the government of the first republic. The Prime Minister was killed and so were the premiers of the North and the West, as well as senior military officers from the North and the West and one senior Igbo officer, who seem always forgotten and conveniently ignored in the annals of that coup. The coup failed, foiled by Ojukwu in the North, and Ironsi in the South. Ironsi became Supreme Commander and Head of state.
On July 29, he too was murdered in a coup masterminded by Northern officers led by Gowon but spearheaded by Murtala Muhammed and T.Y. Danjuma. Gowon became head of the military government in Lagos with Ojukwu foiling the coup in the East.
Disputes about political succession and the pogrom of the Igbo led to war when the East and Nigeria did not press home the compromises arrived at in Aburi. Nigeria went to war with Biafra from July 1967, when Ojukwu declared the secession of the East. Gowon led the federal government of Nigeria to restore the nation.
Gowon fought on the grounds of “One Nigeria.” He won; reunited the secessionists, and governed till 1975 when he was overthrown. History shall be kind to the General for two reasons if “one Nigeria” survives: he led a war that restored Nigeria to its “oneness” and he supervised a post-war peacemaking process that was relatively without witch-hunt and extreme bloodshed in spite of the pressures by the hawks within his cabinet; and he ran a comparably capable administration that was set on positioning postwar Nigeria on a keel towards economic and political stability and leadership in Africa. Although he may not escape the judgment of history on the charge of war crimes perpetrated under his watch, his personal apology to the victims will humanize him.