By Emmanuel Aziken, political Editor
Practically everyone in the main hall of the Convention Centre of Eko Hotel and Suites rose to the feet that evening as Gen. Yakubu Gowon was called up to receive his Lifetime Achievement Award last Saturday. The affection for one of Nigeria’s enduring former military rulers was overwhelming at the Vanguard Awards. The grin and gusto of the about two thousand persons gathered in the hall applauding Gowon was easily perceptible.
Whereas many of the other recipients had received their awards from individuals, few were surprised that two distinguished men, Vanguard publisher, Mr. Sam Amuka and former governor of Ogun State, Aremo Segun Osoba, themselves distinguished men were called upon to jointly present the award to Gowon.
Mr. Amuka and Osoba, remarkably, carved their own names in journalism roll of honours during the Gowon era between 1966 and 1975.
For the younger generation not too familiar with the nationalism that earned Gowon fame and favour, Mr. Amuka told the audience that the slogan in his time was “Go On With One Nigeria,” a phrase that he said, summarised the life of Gowon as Head of State of the country.
A gentleman officer to the core, Gowon again demonstrated the courteousness for which he is well known for last Saturday when he removed attention from himself to other honourees. He particularly paid honour to Governor Ben Ayade, a man, who was yet a toddler at the time he, Gowon was commander-in-chief of the armed forces. Noting Governor’s Ayade’s well publicised inclinations to the welfare of civil servants in his state as reflected in the prompt payment of civil servants’ salaries, Gen. Gowon said last Saturday: “I say well done to Governor Ayade as I want all other governors to follow his example by taking care of their civil servants because civil servants are the custodians of any good work any governor or even president is doing.”
Though a war time general cum political leader, Gowon, has ironically been known more as a man of peace than a man of war. He was as such in his elements last Saturday at the Vanguard Personality of the Year Award when he said that the future of Nigeria would depend on the way citizens decide to relate with one another in peace.
“We have come a long way as a people and must do everything possible to save our nation,” he said.
“Building and sustaining existing federal institutions of learning in all parts of the country will engender the coming together of people of different cultures from young ages,” he further asserted.
As Head of State, Gowon established several institutions to forge the unity he canvassed last Saturday. Among the institutions that have endured are the unity colleges and the National Youth Service Corps, NYSC.
Though the concept of the unity colleges preceded his emergence as head of state in 1966, he as a matter of policy multiplied them to make them as a basis for forging unity among the young population.
A few years ago, Gowon at a reunion of old students of Federal Government Colleges in Sokoto, had given his reasons for expanding the Federal Government Colleges which were only four at the time he came to power.
According to him he had paid a visit to the college in Sokoto in 1973 and seen the sense of unity exhibited by the students despite the diverse cultural and religious backgrounds they came from.
“Students from all over Nigeria were studying and living together peacefully and without rancour. There was no rancour what so ever even though the students came from different states and different ethnic groups,” he had said.
Besides the establishment of the federal colleges in each of the 12 states that existed at that time, Gowon also in 1973 established the NYSC, a scheme conceived to pool graduates from institutions of higher learning together for a year of national service.
Initially, the scheme was seriously opposed by students of tertiary schools who believed the scheme would delay their quick entry into the then lucrative and luring job market where companies were willing to entice young graduates with the good things of life.
Following his exit from office in 1975 and his resort to academics in England, Gowon returned to Nigeria at the beginning of the eighties. Not long after his return, the primordial divisions that he had in his time sought to eliminate began to resurface. But without the levers of office, he resorted to the spiritual realm for a solution..
He has used Nigeria Prays, a Non-Governmental Organisation to pray for the unity of the country and to address the cleavages that divide the nation.
He was also able to, through his Yakubu Gowon Centre, address the significant incident of guinea worm disease in the country and many states in the country would credit him for the elimination of the scourge.
Though all former Heads of State may be credited with differing levels of patriotism, however, no one among them can be said to have shown or have been more consistent in the drive for national unity as Gowon. His simplicity despite being the one that left office farthest among former Nigerian leaders is also remarkable. Gowon has no airs as anyone that may have come across him would attest.
It was thus no surprise that for his lifetime of service to Nigeria that Gowon won Vanguard’s Lifetime Achievement Award.