By Dapo Akinrefon
Nigeria’s history will be incomplete without the mention of former military head of state, General Yakubu Gowon (rtd).
This could be as a result of the significant role he played during the civil war era which prevented the break up of Nigeria.
Analysts have dubbed the civil war as one of the darkest periods in nation’s history.
Gowon’s philosophy of life could be wrapped up in the statement of former Israeli President and Nobel Peace Prize winner, late Shimon Perez: “We have to live together despite our differences, there is no life without peace and there is no peace without concessions and there are no concessions without difficulties”.
For a man involved in a deadly, very deadly war, to now be a prayer warrior without borders, traversing Nigeria and organising prayer sessions in a country not lacking in what can be described as ‘religiousity on steroids’ is, indeed, remarkable.
He is the founder of Nigeria Prays, a movement of sorts, with the believe in and penchant for praying for the Nigerian nation. He is also involved in the Guinea Worm Eradication Programme as well as the HIV Programme with Global Fund of Geneva.
Humble and always looking boyish as Head of State, Gowon typified (at the time of the war) the poser put forward by Philip Zimbardo: “What happens when you put good people in an evil place”?
Almost every action of Gowon after the war tended to suggest that he was a man with a soft heart who may just have happened on the scene not suited for him.
The Nigeria Prays movement has visited almost all the states of the federation organising prayer sessions while not latching onto any denomination.
What, perhaps, has stayed Gowon more on the lane of statesmanship, unlike the voyage of partisan demagoguery that some former presidents have launched, is the former’s seeming apolitical disposition. All through the Second Republic, Third Republic and the present Fourth Republic, Gowon has kept and is keeping a distance from politics and has not been known to express preference for any political party or politician of note.
And unlike others who visit Aso Rock Presidential Villa after which they wax pontifical, Gowon’s visit to the Villa has never been known to be controversial either in substance or post-visit statements, which had been for some an opportunity to demonstrate a sometimes silly disposition for eye-service.
Born on October 19, 1934, Gowon is fifth of 11 children of his parents, Nde Yohanna and Matwok Kurnyang.
He hails from Ngas (Angas) from Lur, a small village in the present Kanke Local Government Area of Plateau State, and grew up in Zaria, Kaduna State; he also had his early life and education there.
At school, Gowon proved to be a good athlete as he was the goalkeeper for his school’s football team, pole vaulter, and long distance runner. While he broke the school’s mile record in his first year, he was said to also be the boxing captain of his school.
Perhaps his passion for sports made him join the army at a young age.
In 1954, the young Gowon got recruited into the Nigerian Army and on 19 October 1955, precisely on his 21st birthday, he was commissioned as a
Second Lieutenant. He attended the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst, in the United Kingdom, between 1955 and 1956.
Also, he attended the Staff College, Camberley, UK, in 1962; as well as the Joint Staff College, Latimer, in 1965.
The first time Gowon saw action was in the Congo, Zaire, when he was part of the United Nations Peacekeeping Force, in 1960/61; and then in 1963.
From there, he advanced to battalion commander rank by 1966, at which time he was still a Lieutenant Colonel.
Gowon remained strictly a career soldier with no strings attached whatsoever in politics until January 1966.
Perhaps his unusual background as a Northerner, who was neither of Hausa or Fulani ancestry nor of the Islamic faith, made him a particularly safe choice to lead a nation, with tension-soaked air, when some soldiers, mostly of northern extraction, staged the now notorious counter-coup of July 1966.
Earlier, in January 1966, he became Nigeria’s youngest military Chief of Staff at the age of 31, because of a military coup by a group of junior officers.
The coup, led by Major Chukwuma Kaduna Nzeogwu, saw to the overthrow of the First Republic of Sir Tafawa Balewa who was Prime Minister. After the war in 1970, Gowon, whose name had been coined to represent ‘Go-On-With-One-Nigeria’, declared that there was no victor and no vanquished, a pronouncement given meaning by the federal government’s policy of three Rs – Reconstruction, Rehabilitation and Re-integration. Some still have issues as to the quality of vent given the policy under Gowon’s watch.
One of the major achievements of Gowon while he was the Head of State was the promulgation of the indigenization decree of 1972.
One of the flaws of his administration, which perhaps led to his overthrow on July 29,1975, was his announcement that Nigeria was not ready for civilian rule then and, therefore, the earlier date set for return to civil rule needed to be shifted. Gowon was the one who was shoved aside instead.
In addition, allegations of corruption were also leveled against his government, although he was never found complicit in the corrupt practices. After being toppled, Gowon, now abroad, returned to school for more studies and acquired a Ph.D. in political science from the University of Warwick in the UK.
As if the trauma of the toppling of his government was not enough, in February 1976, Gowon was to be implicated in another coup led by one Lt. Col Buka Suka Dimka, which resulted in the death of the head of state, Gen Murtala Mohammed.
Dimka mentioned, before his execution, that the purpose of the Coup d’état was to re-install Gowon as Head of State. As a result of the coup tribunal findings, Gowon was declared wanted by the federal government, stripped of his rank in absentia and had his pension cut off.
Gowon was finally pardoned (along with the ex-Biafran warlord, Emeka Ojukwu) during the Second Republic under President Shehu Shagari.
His rank (of general) wasn’t restored until 1987 by General Ibrahim Babangida.
He is married to Victoria and has a son, Ibrahim Bala, and daughter, Saratu Kankemwa Tani Gowon.
However, in a dramatic feat sometime ago, the former military ruler confirmed his paternity of a 48-year-old man, after a DNA test had proven that Musa Jack Ngodadi is his biological son.
For his apolitical disposition and praying mission for peace and progress in Nigeria, Vanguard editors were unanimous in picking Gowon as one of the Lifetime Achievement Award winners, 2016.