By Emeka Obasi
Politics throws itself up in various forms leaving those who think they are professional politicians losing out without realising their place in the new order until it becomes way too late. I must give General Yakubu Gowon credit for doing what most Nigerians found difficult to do in the past.
Gowon dealt a devastating blow to regional politics and got away with it. And he ruled the country for nine years; one third of it was during the Civil War which pitched the nation against the Eastern Region.
Following the counter coup of July 29, 1966, Gowon, then 32 and Army Chief, became Head of State against the wishes of some of his colleagues especially those from the Eastern region. At a time, Lt. Col. Murtala Mohammed,who led the plotters wanted to share power with his superior, the Commander-in-Chief.
The new leader began to show his stuff after the creation of 12 states. The Northern region was balkanised. Six states emerged. The Western region was renamed Western State but lost Badagry, Epe, Ikorodu and Ikeja to the new Lagos State. Midwest remained in tact. The Eastern region was split into three new states.
In appointing military governors, all the states had their sons in charge except the core Hausa /Fulani states of North Western, North Central and Kano states. And two of the governors were police officers.
Deputy Commissioner of Police (DCP) Audu Bako governed Kano. He hailed from Sokoto but was born in Kaduna to a police man who was Chief of the Sabon Gari area. Governor of North Western State, Usman Faruk, was a Superintendent of Police (Supol) from Pindiga in Gombe.
The only soldier, Major Abba Kyari, an Artillery officer and Governor of North Central was a Kanuri man, born in Dewa, Niger Republic. The other Northern governors : Joseph Gomwalk, Benue-Plateau, Musa Usman, North-Eastern, David Bamigboye, presided over their states of origin.
In choosing Gomwalk, Gowon was smart. That was the Head of State’s home so before anyone could accuse him of sending police officers to Sokoto and Kano, he could say he also sent one to Jos. Beyond that, there was much between the governor and his Commander-in-Chief.
They hailed from Pankshin Division. Gomwalk from Amper, was also related through family ties to another officer close to Gowon,Col. Iliya Bisalla. Mildred (nee Kwashie), Bisalla’s wife, was Helen Gomwalk’s younger sister. The Kwashies, like the Gowon’s, had settled in Wusasa as missionaries. Archbishop Benjamin Kwashie of Kaduna is from the family.
In appointing Service Chiefs, Gowon showed his stuff. He retained Commodore Akinwale Wey, an Efik/Yoruba as head of the Navy. Police Chief Kam Selem was a Kanuri man. In picking the Chief of Army Staff, Gowon overlooked Col. Hassan Usman Katsina, a Fulani prince and settled for Tiv officer, Lt. Col. Joe Akahan.
When Akahan died in a chopper crash on August 5, 1967, Gowon bypassed Katsina and chose Bisalla as replacement. Now let us see the game. Hassan joined the Army in 1956 and was commissioned in 1958. Akahan enlisted in 1957 and became an officer in 1960. Bisalla, like Murtala, followed in 1958 and emerged as a Second Lieutenant in 1961.
Bisalla did not last as Army chief though. Somehow, Hassan got the nod and took over all through the war years. At the end he was shoved aside for his senior,Major General David Ejoor. And during the war, most of the divisional officers were not of Hausa /Fulani stock.
Murtala could have given Gowon the much needed excuse to sideline the Hausa-Fulani. His stint as GOC was a huge disaster. He did not help matters when he disappeared to England after the River Niger failure. His place in the Second Division, was taken by Sandhurst mate, Col. Ibrahim Haruna. When Haruna left,Lt.Col. Gibson Jalo took over. Bisalla would eventually replace Col. Mohammed Shuwa in the First Division.
Bisalla was close to Gowon and it is to his eternal credit that as war commander,he was not as brutal as some of his colleagues in murdering Igbo civilians. When the Nigerian ruler got married in 1969, Bisalla was the Military coordinator. Mildred, was one of the Ladies in Waiting.
When Gowon’s Air Chief, Col. Shittu Alao, an Ogbomosho Yoruba,died in another air crash, Col. Emmanuel Ikwue,an Idoma man from Gowon’s state stepped in. Gowon could have gone for Col. Musa Usman, a Kanuri who at some point was close to Murtala, Bisalla, Shuwa and IBM Haruna, just like Ikwue.
Musa Usman was then Governor of North Eastern State. He was good for Gowon’s project of one Nigeria, not one North. Married to an Igbo woman, Jumai Nwachukwu, with Hausa flavour, Usman was born in Enugu. His mother was Igala, from Ankpa.. And he was trained as an Army officer before joining the Airforce with his South Eastern colleague, Col. Jacob Esuene.
What the United Middle Belt Congress (UMBC ) could not achieve through politics and the Tivs failed to gain through riots, came through a very articulate Gowon who was derided by his foes. And he did it without bloodshed. Today, he holds a doctorate in Political Science.
Somehow Gowon suffered religious bigotry. In March 1987, his family house in Wusasa was torched by Islamic fundamentalists. Pa Yohana Gowon’s grave was desecrated. Dr. Yakubu Gowon is a prayer warrior now, preaching forgiveness. His brother, Captain Isaiah Gowon, died and was buried in Wusasa.