Recently, I was a part of a quartet that was guest of former Nigerian Head of State, General Yakubu Gowon at his quiet residence in Ikoyi, Lagos. Much earlier, I had been contemplating a write-up to document my impression of his nine year reign. I had intended a review of his times as the nation's helmsman and to wish him well over his ascent unto the exclusive club of Octogenarians. Privileged achievement indeed, considering the abysmal rating of life expectancy at birth in this country, which the 2014 Human Development Report of the United Nations Development Programme put at 52.62 years for the entire population and even lower at 51.63 years for men. General Gowon thus deserved the rolling of drums for achieving the feat and I am glad that the opportunity of having a feel of him helped with informed opinion.
The meeting with General Gowon brought nostalgic recall of my first sight of this man. That was in Benin City in 1974 when he had paid a state visit to the then Mid West State alongside the Late President of Togo, Gnassingbe Eyadema. The entire city was decorated with banners reading “Bien venue President Eyadema". It was my first year in Edo College and the school had us file along 3rd East Circular Road chanting as much of Francais as we could comprehend. Despite the pummel from the sun, we were happy seeing the duo and the host governor, then Brigadier Samuel Ogbemudia.
It's been an amazing four decades between that first sight and now. How could I have imagined that a day would arrive that I would be in the living room of that revered General? Within those years, the country has witnessed a potpourri of challenges in the quest for nationhood. He was overthrown on July 29, 1975. Ever since, Nigeria has continued to witness upheavals at a political front that keeps being fraught with instability. In almost four decades after Gowon's reign was ended, we have had ten heads of state, each serving for an average of four years! The nation is far from achieving the much desired socio-cultural cohesion, the different ethnic groupings hardly consenting to mutual harmony.
As we awaited the arrival of the Octogenarian, I got lost in thoughts about the nation's desired Uhuru that keeps prolonging. Just then the door opened. I was closer to him and had to receive his outstretched hands. I hesitated to allow the team leader in the rear do the introduction. That hesitation view in his view was longer than due. “You should have introduced yourself” the soldier in him emanating. Luckily, the Team leader, Mr Philip Akinola, Convener, Covenant Keeper’s Network smartly came in to save the day. Pleasantries over, we settled to explain our mission.
The delegation, made up of ministers of the gospel was a representative of the Covenant Keepers Network, a coalition of church leaders determined to mobilize the remnant faithful Christian community towards taking a stand at stemming social vices chiefly corruption.
A month earlier, the Covenant Keepers Network had its inauguration and had planned having the General as Chairman. He couldn’t make it, explaining his busy schedules. Besides, there were a series of programmes lined up to mark his ascent to the octogenarian cadre. Worse still, his representative couldn’t make it. He tendered apologies assuring of his appreciation of our initiative which in part had necessitated the consent to pay him a visit.
What we had expected a barely thirty minutes. However, our discussion snowballed unto a lively, fun-filled and educative over three hours meet. There reasons for the prolong meeting. We hadn’t planned it, but it turned out that in our delegation was a journalist, a former activist of the defunct National Union of Nigerian Students (NUNS) and an ex- Biafran soldier.
General Gowon tried as much as he could to have us relaxed by throwing in banters at every opportunity. He was polite to a fault and ensured that we properly understood whatever he said. Amidst the discussion, he realized that I was a journalist from which point he went on rib cracking and some sad tales of how sometimes journalists misquoted him either erroneously or out of mischief just to make attractive headlines. One of such was a headline cast giving the impression that he had described President Olusegun Obasanjo, then a serving Head of State as a “Demon in Aso Rock”. According to him, the statement had rattled some of Obasanjo’s aids, who had expected fisticuffs at the Council of State meeting. He saved day, when he refuted making the statement.
The General found it interesting seeing Pastor Olufemi Martins, an ex- Students Union activist who as a member of the NUNS Senate was forefront during the restiveness of the 1978 Ali Must Go student’s protests. General Gowon disclosed that unknown to the protesting students, Col Ahmadu Alli, then Federal Commissioner for Education was amidst the students at the heart of the protest. According to him, Col Alli kept yelling alongside the students “Ali Must Go” till he found a convenient opportunity to escape to safety. General Gowon sustained the repartee that at a time, the government was at loss over which Ali was to go – was it Dr Ahmadu Alli or Dr Shetima Ali Monguno, the then Federal Commissioner for Petroleum and Energy.
The ex- Biafran soldier in our delegation Dr Kofi Obiako has a bi- national parentage - a Ghanaian mother and an Igbo father; ex- Nigerian soldier who served in Kaduna. Gen Gowon pulled another joke - wondering what was to happen now that the warlord had come face to face with him. As fate would have it, Dr Obiako was closer to the General than he knew - he was quite close to the General’s brothers and sisters. Dr Obiako spoke Hausa fluently which General Gowon well acknowledged. Beside, having grown in the military barracks in Kaduna, Dr Obiako had narratives of several of Gowon’s contemporaries like Major Kaduna Nzeogwu, Colonel Joe Achuzia etc. They got entrapped in tales about several soldiers that were to become central in the nation’s history. We also discussed the unfortunate January 15, 1966 coup which General Gowon who had barely arrived from foreign training described as really shocking. There were also reminisces of the early Christian community in Kaduna and the environ and as well as barrack life.
Days before meeting the General, I had read the interview of General Gowon which was serialized by The Guardian. Besides, I have read quite a number of accounts on the civil war as “ Why we struck” by Col. Ademoyega, “My Command” and “Nzeogwu” both authored by General Olusegun Obasanjo, “There was a country” by the Late Professor Chinua Achebe and “Ojukwu” by Frederick Forsyth, etc . Also, I hardly missed opportunities to read interviews granted by the Late Biafran leader Dim Odumegwu Ojukwu while he yet breathe. Although we had not planned it, the drift of discussion afforded me an opportunity to hear the General, first hand.
It was interesting hearing him reiterating off cuff the same positions he held in the interviews. For a number of times during our discussion I found myself affirming that I had read some of what he was saying. That to me was heartwarming, implying credibility which is a much endangered virtue especially among political big wigs. It is said that “The greatest advantage of speaking the truth is that you don't have to remember what you had earlier said".
There was one other impression about the General – he is humane. He was curious for instance, about how Dr Obiako who was then in his teens got some education during the war. According to Dr Obiako, it was the rave among young men to join the Biafran army. General Gowon was curious if he had opportunities to learn. Dr Obiako explained that he took some books along with him to the war front. General Gowon also lamented the frustration of several efforts made to deliver food aid especially to the starving of children of Biafra. You could appreciate his pains. According to him, there was virile propaganda machinery in Biafra which rather had people believe that foods arriving through aids were poisoned. He regretted that the Biafran propaganda machinery twisted facts. One of such was that when Enugu had been captured, Radio Biafra kept peddling lies that it was broadcasting from Enugu to the chagrin of his government!
He also narrated the ordeal of members of his immediate family especially over the trumped up charge that he had hands in the February 13, 1976 coup masterminded by Lieutenant Colonel Buka Suka Dimka that blighted out the life of the late Nigerian Head of State, General Ramat Murtala Mohammed. We sympathized with him over the loss of his brother Isaiah whom he described as the sacrificial lamb that bore the brunt for the "sins" of his runaway brother. He explained as he had done via the Guardian that he was strongly inclined to coming home to defend himself but was counseled otherwise by the then Vice Chancellor of Warwick University.
As we wrapped up discussion, I felt obliged to appreciate him for some of the physical development carried out in Lagos, a city where I have lived for over four decades, yet like most other Nigerian, I come from a home state. I itemized them - National Arts Theatre, National Stadium, the Sea Ports, Festac Town, Durbar Hotel, virtually all the flyover bridges in Lagos. In discussion, he reminded that it used to be only the old Carter that connected Lagos Island to the mainland. But for the great works of Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu and his handpicked and worthy successor, Governor Babatunde Raji Fashola, most of the enduring infrastructure of in Lagos can be traced to General Yakubu Gowon. We were to be taken aback by his reaction to our commendation. He laughed -"But Prof Wole Soyinka called them white elephant projects"! That lament betrayed to me the burden that some of our leaders have to bear especially under heavy criticism.
Of course I have maximum respect for our eminent Nobel Laureate and I am not privy to reasons behind the view he held over those projects. In my opinion, I think critics sometimes need be a bit fair on our leaders. Nonetheless, both the critic and the criticized have their places in the development of nations and human society. The critic need sustain the service of keeping our leaders on their toes while leaders should follow through on their persuasions. Eventually, posterity would reveal who was right or wrong. Said a sage: “I hate posterity - it's so fond of having the last word.”
One final thing, the simplicity and civility of the man who by the records didn’t succumb to filthy lucre had me wish that someday soon, Nigeria will discover a civilized messiah that would be decorous, who wouldn’t loot our coffers dry - the pastime of our swelling tribe of shameless kleptomaniacs and unconscionable minds that call themselves leaders. Leaders that fit the prescription of the management czar Peter F. Drucker - “Management is doing things right; leadership is doing the right things”. Oh that our national leaders would appreciate as did the late American Civil Rights pugilist, Dr Martin Luther King, Jnr in his book – “Why we can’t wait” that Nigeria CAN’T WAIT again - sustaining indolence, ethnic chauvinism, religious bigotry, bereftness of ideas and lackluster administration of our beleaguered nation.
By Niyi Egbe