By Douglas Anele
Lt. Col. Yakubu Gowon, who was described in January 1962 in uncharitable terms by Major Pam, a Jos officer senior to him, was a thirty-two years old bachelor when he assumed the mantle of leadership, or more precisely, had it thrust upon him by Murtala Mohammed and other northern soldiers who participated in the revenge coup. At that point in time, Nigeria urgently needed an astute, disciplined and experienced detribalised leader who could muster enough courage to take and implement appropriate tough decisions for the good of the country.
But it is doubtful whether Gowon had those attributes because, as Prof. Achebe observes, he was “blinded by ego, hindered by a lack of administrative experience, and obsessed with interpersonal competition and petty rivalries” especially with the military governor of the defunct eastern region, Lt. Col. Chukwuemeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu. The curse of Sisyphus can be seen in the manner Gowon handled four extremely significant circumstances in his administration, namely, the pogroms against mostly the Igbo living in northern Nigeria which ultimately precipitated the civil war, the Aburi accord, the civil war and the post-war challenges of forging national unity based on trust, justice and inter-ethnic harmony.
The wanton killing of Ndigbo living in the northern region predated the emergence of Gowon as head of state. But when he did after the coup of July 29, 1966, his poor handling of the situation, epitomised by the federal government’s unwillingness or plain refusal to identify and prosecute those involved in the pogroms, led to strong suspicion in the east that Gowon never really intended to punish those who committed the atrocities.
Thus, because of the horrendous experiences of their kith and kin in the north, between July 29 and September 12, 1966 the Igbo started abandoning the idea of one nation, one citizenship and one destiny which their leaders had been championing even before independence. With the country lurching dangerously towards the edge of a very steep existential cliff after two military coups, a meeting facilitated by Lt. Gen. Joseph Ankrah, Ghana’s military ruler, was held in Aburi which lasted from January 4 to 5, 1967. Lt. Col. Gowon and military governors of the four regions attended the summit. Its aim was noble: to pull Nigeria from the brink by providing a conducive platform for Gowon and others to resolve the most contentious political and constitutional issues of the day, in addition to the problems created by pogroms in Northern Nigeria.
After two days of heated debates, an accord was reached which, had it been implemented, might have saved the country from the civil war that began about six months later. Unfortunately, the federal government reneged on the agreement after top federal civil servants led by Solomon Akenzua had persuaded Gowon that the accord was “unworkable.” With the benefit of hindsight, however, the real reason why Gowon backed off from the Aburi accord was the north’s desire to maintain a united Nigeria and, through the federal military government headed by a northerner, strengthen its power to obtain and maintain control of foreign exchange earnings from large crude oil deposits in the eastern region.
Consider for instance the tacit endorsement of the Sardauna’s and Balewa’s warped caliphate colonialist vision for Nigeria’s future by the dominant faction of the northern military-civilian establishment, which guided the responses of its members to national issues and prevented them from seeing the legitimate claims of easterners after the massacres of May and July 1966. Keep in mind also that when the Aburi accord collapsed, northern military officers at the forefront of secession or araba, led by Lt. Col. Murtala Mohammed and Major Martin Adamu, and their civilian counterparts, became obsessed with the idea of one Nigeria under a unitarist system of government. That obsession provided the psychological launching-pad for Gowon, buoyed mostly by warmongering northerners, to hastily declare war on the ill-prepared eastern region, thereby hammering the final nail into the coffin of the Aburi agreement.
Concerning the civil or Biafran war itself, I have written extensively about it in this column such that it is unnecessary to repeat what had been stated earlier. The major point I want to highlight now is that Biafrans grossly underestimated the length Gowon’s military government was willing to go in order to forcibly sustain the flawed colonial amalgam called Nigeria, whereas the latter felt confident that the secessionists would be overrun in a matter of days after a “short surgical police action” by the federal forces. Gowon did not reckon with the incredible capacity of emotionally exhausted and disillusioned group of human beings to fight for a just cause they believe in tenaciously.
Therefore, serious errors of judgement were committed by Gowon and Ojukwu, which prolonged both the war and its horrifying aftermaths unnecessarily. Gowon and his cohorts must bear greater part of the blame because had the federal government sincerely implemented the Aburi accord in spite of its imperfections, the east might not have seceded. As Max Siollun correctly remarks in his book, Oil, Politics and Violence: Nigeria’s Military Coup Culture (1966-1976), “Although many parts of the accords were impractical to implement, the all or nothing approach to them taken by the protagonists was myopic.” For Biafrans the secessionist attempt to create a viable, prosperous and egalitarian nation called Biafra was a monumental waste. More than two million people majority of whom were children died, while Igboland was, in the words of Achebe, “a vast smoldering rubble.” Once again, the Sisyphean curse seems to be at work.
Gowon’s efforts to build a united Nigeria in which the Igbo would be fully integrated were largely unsuccessful: the dominant conservative wing of the northern establishment and some elements of the Yoruba elite backing him were keen on extracting their pound of flesh from the defeated Igbo, as exemplified by various anti-Igbo policies instituted after the conflict. Meanwhile, the former eastern region had been forced back to Nigeria through violence, but deep down the Igbo people themselves did not fully embrace the forced remarriage. Gowon’s greatest undoing, aside from his inability to fully integrate the Igbo as bona fide citizens of Nigeria, was the mind-blowing misuse of the huge foreign exchange realised from the export of crude oil between 1970 and 1975.
It can be said, with some justice, that although corruption in government existed during the administration of Balewa, its most damaging malignant form emerged in the military regime of General Gowon who is reputed to have said, during the oil boom years, that Nigeria’s problem was not how to make money but how to spend it. Such a reckless claim, if true, sheds light on why his government failed to maximise the wonderful opportunity for greatness offered by the oil boom of the 70s.
A good example of Gowon’s absurd wasteful extravagance has been documented by Siollun concerning the “cement armada”: at one point, half of the world’s cement orders were headed for Nigeria without a coordinated system for unloading over twenty million tons of cement arriving at Lagos ports. It must be recognised that the deliberate refusal of subsequent governments since March 1976 to investigate elephantine corruption during Gowon’s government and deal with those involved is a grave disservice to this beleaguered country.
The curse of Sisyphus was also evident in the short-lived regime of Gen. Murtala Mohammed. We have already mentioned his name in connection with the coup of July 1966 and the quest by northerners to secede subsequently. It appears that Mohammed never really forgave Gowon for upstaging him by becoming head of state after Ironsi’s death. On July 29, 1975, precisely nine years after the bloody coup that brought Gowon to power, he was overthrown in a bloodless coup while away in Kampala attending a meeting of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU). Murtala Mohammed was a thirty-seven years old brigadier when he made a national broadcast on July 30, 1975.
Although he had mellowed down from the bellicose firebrand of the 1960s, ab initio it was evident that Mohammed’s style of leadership would be different from that of his immediate predecessor, Gowon. While Gowon was slow, deliberate, somewhat tardy and conciliatory, Mohammed was brisk, volatile and impulsive in taking even major decisions on issues that had profound consequences for the country. Soon after assuming office, he acquired a reputation that resonated with Nigerians as a no-nonsense leader whose orders must be obeyed with “immediate effect.” In a sense, two major actions stand out in Mohammed’s short-lived “corrective” regime, as he tried to demonstrate that his government would not tolerate underperformance and that nobody was untouchable. The first one was the mass purge of the civil service, aimed at dealing with corruption in the public bureaucracy but which later had the unintended effect of compromising efficiency by replacing experienced technocrats with incompetent neophytes.
The second is the war against corruption. In his book cited earlier, Siollun lists the names of prominent Nigerians allegedly guilty of corrupt enrichment and whose money and properties were confiscated by the federal military government. They include Anthony Enahoro, Edwin Clark, Samuel Ogbemudia, Abba Kyari, Philip Asiodu and so on. To be continued.