I MET General Yakubu Gowon for the first time in 2005. The setting was Bamako, the Malian capital. I was covering the meeting of the African Statesmen Initiative, a forum of ex-African Heads of State, which brought several old African leaders together in the setting of a lovely hotel close to the River Niger.
When I told him I was a reporter from Nigeria, his face lit up in delight and throughout the conference he was readily available for a conversation, in his typically polite and friendly manner. The Darfur crisis was on the front burner and I was very much interested in getting the former Sudanese Prime Minister, Sadig El-Mahdi to give me an interview on that hot subject; but he was not keen and all entreaties for a couple of minutes away from the Bamako initiative failed to impress him.
I was becoming fairly desperate and just as I was becoming despondent, General Yakubu Gowon came by and greeted me; I saw my opportunity. I told him that I had sought without success an interview with the former Sudanese Prime Minister. Darfur was the most important issue on the African plate and our readers would very much love to read his views. General Gowon promised to convince Sadig El-Mahdi and he did! I got a most illuminating interview on several issues around Sudanese politics and history. The material was later published inside WEEKLY TRUST.
On our way back to Nigeria, I met General Gowon again at the Abidjan airport. This time he asked of the whereabouts of Yakubu AbdulAzeez, famous former editor of the NIGERIAN HERALD newspaper in Ilorin, at the height of its glory in the 1970s. He was very sad to learn that he had died and he then told me that AbdulAzeez was on his entourage to Kampala for the fateful OAU Summit that provided the basis for his overthrew in July 1975. Gowon said Yakubu AbdulAzeez had broken down sobbing when the news broke from Nigeria that he had been overthrown but he was surprised to read AbdulAzeez’s report that he (Gowon) had cried!
He was still looking for the opportunity to correct the report with AbdulAzeez, but that was never to be. Our last encounter was in 2010, in Conakry, Guinea. He was heading the Carter Center’s Observation Mission for the Guinean Presidential elections. I was covering for DAILY TRUST. He was as charming, decent and welcoming as ever during the rounds of visit to polling districts around Guinea and at the dinner party hosted by the Nigerian Ambassador.
But General Yakubu Gowon loomed so large on the consciousness of Nigerians of my generation as the Head of State during the Civil War, 1967-1970. The slogan of: Go-On-With-One-Nigeria (GOWON) was very real for us because the war conditioned lives all through those tragic years. And as a ten year old in 1970, the end of the war was one period that seemed to have spiked a generous level of enthusiasm and patriotism amongst us all. I was very active in the Boys Scout Movement, in the 6th Ilorin Troop.
At the end of the war, General Yakubu Gowon went on a nationwide tour. He seemed more popular than ever; and those of us in the scouting movement were at the Ilorin Railway Station as part of a Guard of Honour and a few days later, a few of us were drafted to arrange the tables at the Government House for the State Banquet in honour of the visiting Head of State! It is remarkable that Gowon was overthrown 39 years ago; there was along list of accusations against his regime and the coup which removed him from power had been wildly celebrated. Yet, given all that Nigeria has gone through since his exit, we can look back and behold the decency of leadership; a more patriotic exertion by rulers and much lower levels of corruption than what we now have in Nigeria.
Today, theft, heist and monumental corruption have become fundamental objectives and directive principles of state. When we look at the states today, there are ex-governors who have become richer than the states they governed while the Nigerian state lies prostrate and enfeebled as a result of its serial rape by a predatory clan of bandit rulers. The Gowon period saw some of the most important development initiatives Nigeria witnessed and the draw back was that the period didn’t achieve as much as it possibly could.
On balance, as the decades have passed, General Gowon has continued to live a very modest life; there are no scandals around him and his family has never been intrusive in our lives.
He exemplified the background that he came out of, from the Barewa College in Zaria and the old values which bound communities and individuals together in the old Northern Nigeria. I think General Yakubu Gowon is the quintessential officer and gentleman who gave his very best in service to his fatherland. His humane leadership of the Nigerian Civil War and equally patriotic management of the aftermath have ensured his place in Nigerian history. Happy 80th birthday to General Yakubu Gowon!