By Emeka Obasi
General Yakubu Gowon will be 84 in October 2018. For a man who became Africa’s youngest leader at 32 in 1966, I am sure in his quiet moments he seeks the face of God to right the wrongs of the past. My appeal to the people of the old East is to forgive him.
Let us put ourselves in Gowon’s shoes. At 32 in 1966 and faced with an unruly battalion of blood hungry, mostly illiterate Non Commissioned Officers, pound for pound subalterns and some ambitious seniors, could we have followed a different path?
I am not Gowon’s Public Relations Consultant. I just want to let us understand that if there were demons who wanted to wipe out the former Eastern region during the war, Gowon was like an angel in their midst.
In the first Republic, politicians used the Nigeria Army to create deep holes within the rank and file. Gowon was a beneficiary, no doubt. He did not take part in the captain to Major promotion in Nigeria yet he was promoted Lt. Col in 1963 when some of his mates were senior captains.
But Gowon did not forget his course mates. They were Igbo. Alex Madiebo, Nduka Okwechime, Arthur Unegbe and Patrick Anwunah. By July 1966, all of them had become Lt.Cols. Gowon was Army chief, appointed by Gen. Johnson Aguiyi Ironsi, an Igbo.
Ironsi was assassinated same month and there was indeed confusion. Those who carried out the July 29 1966 coup were the worst set of officers and soldiers any army could boast of at the time. They did not have a particular date in mind and it was difficult to know who was really in control.
Major Yakubu Danjuma was sent to arrest Ironsi in Ibadan. He did but lost command to the other ranks. While he was questioning Gen. Ironsi and Col. Adekunle Fajuyi, the soldier shoved him aside and took the duo away for execution.
At that moment, the Regimental Sergeant Major[RSM] Fourth Battalion, Ibadan, Useni Fagge, was like a Brigade Commander. With him were Clement Dabang, Ibrahim Rabo among others.
Still in Ibadan, Sergeant Sabo Kwale, gunned down Lt.Col Gabriel Okonweze and Major John Obienu. Lance Corporal John Shagaya was running errands between Ibadan and Lagos. In Lagos, Sgt. Paul Dickson was like a war commander.
Captain Domkat Bali was so sure soldiers would take orders from him. He assured Lt. A.O. Olaniyan that no evil shall befall him. When it was time to save the young officer, Bali tried all he could. The NCOs did not listen. Olaniyan died shouting Bali’s name.
It was the same story in Kaduna where the RSM of the Third Battalion, Ahmadu Bello, tricked his Commanding Officer, Lt. Col Israel Okoro, to death. What followed was mass murder of officers: Maj. Ayodele Ogunro, Maj. Okpo Isong, Captain Paul Idika and many others.
Gowon knew about the coup but honestly did not seem to have planned to become Head of State. The officer whose ambition was to take over was indeed Lt.Col Murtala Mohammed. He never reckoned with his Barewa College, Zaria boss.
Murtala’s maternal uncle, Alhaji Inua Wada, was Minister of Defence in the First Republic. Murtala was by far Gowon’s junior in the army although they both wore the rank of Lt.Col in July 1966, thanks to Ironsi who promoted an acting Major to a substantive Lt.Col after the January 15, 1966 coup.
Gowon was in a tight corner. He knew he was not the next in command after Ironsi’s death. The man that should have taken over, Brig. Babafemi Ogundipe, tried to restore order. A Northern NCO almost shot him, insisting that he could only take orders from a Northern officer.
When Ogundipe raised an attack squad under Captain Ephraim Opara, these same unruly Northern NCOs ambushed the troops around the Ile Zik area of the Lagos-Abeokuta road and gunned them down. It dawned on Ogundipe that to raise another platoon would be suicidal.
Among the Northern plotters, argument raged. Murtala was ready to step in. In that situation, there was a reminder that Gowon was the most senior Northern officer. That was when Murtala knew the quest for control was over. At a time Gowon asserted his authority by threatening not to take over if the killings did not stop.
Gowon had tried to save Madiebo before the coup. There was supposed to be a board to select Officer Cadets on July 30. The latter was the only Southern Lt. Col. left out. Gowon facilitated a course for his pal at Joint Services Staff College, England. As Sandhurst Under-Officers, they visited Austria on holidays in 1955.
Madiebo did not understand that his friend was trying to save a life. Gowon said he could even go for the course with his family. Madiebo then agreed choosing a later date. On July 29, 1966, he flew to Kaduna from Lagos. Ten minutes after the Igbo officer left, the Lagos Airport was taken over by plotters.
That still affected Gowon. He had tried to send away one of his junior friends, Capt. P.C.Okoye. The mutineers arrested Okoye while he was waiting for his foreign flight. They crucified him like the Jews did to Jesus Christ.
Many do not remember that Gowon was supposed to lead investigations into the January 1966 coup. He never did thus sparing Igbo officers like Chukwuma Nzeogwu, Emma Ifeajuna,Chris Anuforo, Don Okafor, Iwuchukwu Chukwuka, Tim Onwuatuegwu, Emma Nwobosi, Ben Gbulie and their Yoruba colleagues, Wale Ademoyega , Ganiyu Adeleke and Festus Olafimihan.
The war cost Gowon his fiancé, Edith Ike. He once complained to Madiebo about difficulties in the relationship. Gen. Emeka Ojukwu also had a friend who was close to Edith.
Gowon ordered Nigerian commanders not to kill Biafran civilians and Prisoners of War. When the crisis ended, there were no medals of honour. For a man who apologized in 2002 for the 1968 Asaba Genocide and is now a Prayer Warrior for Nigeria, he deserves forgiveness.