By OWEI LAKEMFA
I AM not sure there is a former Nigerian ruler who was as loved as General Yakubu Jack Gowon. To begin with, his nine-year rule has been the longest. He appeared a simple, straight forward and easy going person who cannot hurt a fly. Yet he was a general who was overthrown in 1975 for allegedly being too dictatorial and out of touch with the people.
These accusations, to us, children of that generation, appeared cooked up. How can such a caring father of the Nation who smiled at every point be a dictator? Besides, he was a divine gift to the country as his name, Gowon was simply an acronym for ‘Go On With One Nigeria’. This was at a time, the country faced seccession.
As for being out of touch with the people; that perhaps was with the adults. For us children, we connected with him. To begin with, for any visit he made or whenever a foreign guest visited, we were turned out in our school uniforms in the hot sun, lining the routes and noisily waving miniature flags. We loved those frequent occasions for it meant we had no classes on such days, worked the streets, had the flags as mementos, and looked forward to each being rewarded with a packet of biscuits.
For us, children on the Lagos Island, Gowon’s era was magic. Each time he ventured out of the his Dodan Barracks Presidential Palace, the roads were closed ahead for some two or more hours especially on Sunday mornings when the man of God dutifully went to church. During the closure periods, motorcycle outriders in ceremonial uniform entertained with breathtaking acrobatic displays. It was so entertaining that some of us came to have our favourite outrider. The most popular was a dark burly man who when he got applause for particular stunts on the empty roads, simply rode back to repeat it to the delight of crowds who lined the routes. Sometimes in-between the displays and the appearance of Gowon, we played football on the roads.
It was not surprising that when his general uniform was yanked from him, he became a prayer warrior who today leads the Nigeria Prays group. On August 3, one of the children of that era, Shehu Sanni, a Senator paid the old general a courtesy call. As is won’t to happen when the old receive the young, Gowon relived his experiences. He said the obvious; that when in May 1967 his regime created a 12-state structure, it was a strategic move to stop Eastern Nigeria from seceding.
Apart from this, his narration of history appeared problematic. First he claimed he became Head of State by an “accident of history” In reality, there was a counter coup on July 29, 1966 when he was Chief of Staff, Army by mainly soldiers from the North where he belonged. It was successfully executed and he was the most senior officer from that Region. How can crowning him Head of State which was reward of that coup become an accident of history? He said he was chosen by those within his constituency. His constituency appears to be the Army . At that time, the Army was divided; I suspect he must have been chosen by his group, not the Army.
On the bloody January 15, 1966 attempted coup, Gowon claimed that he had the “responsibility to ensure the coup in Lagos did not succeed.” His account does not tally with historical accounts. On the day of that attempt, he had freshly returned from a course abroad, and had no troops at his command. Secondly from historical accounts, late General Aguyi-Ironsi who got whiff of the coup rallied soldiers on the Island and the Ikeja Cantonment to abort the coup. Thirdly, it is an open secret that the leadership of the Cantonment led troops to sack the plotters although Gowon was engaged in a follow-up operation.
Admittedly I was too young to dispute the tales of the old general but there are clear gaps in his narration. For example, he says: “I had never thought of becoming Head of State but there was a coup and all my senior colleagues were killed and I was the only one that survived.” The fact is that there were a number of officers in the Army senior to Gowon, who survived the coup. One of them was Babafemi Ogundipe the Deputy Head of State who was a Brigadier at that time when Gowon was a Lieutenant Colonel. In fact, the issue of seniority was one of the reasons Emeka Ojukwu gave for his insisting that Gowon could not be Head of State.
I love Dr. Gowon; he was one of my childhood heroes, I will therefore want to skip his governance at a period money was not a problem in Nigeria. Go On Sir!
General Ibrahim Badamosi Babangida who turned 75 this month, had well-choreographed interviews to mark his birthday during which he talked about his service to the country but forgot to mention Nigeria’s long service to him. As military ruler for eight years from 1985, he was like a driver who signals a left turn, but takes the right. Perhaps worried by his place in history, he sought to disprove a negative impression; “I am not the evil that quite a lot of people consider that I am” he cried. But whatever the perception of his person, all are agreed that he is a very skillful player on the political turf which earned him the sobriquet MARADONA. Nigerians believed that just as the legendary Diego Maradona mesmerized people on the football field, so did Babangida play Nigerians. He accused the Buhari regime of detaining people without trial but went on to detain more Nigerians and violate human rights on a far larger scale. When Nigerians protested against the planned imposition of ruinous IMF policies and conditionalities, he put it to a public debate, acknowledged that Nigerians rejected the policies, but went on to impose them under the Structural Adjustment Programme,SAP. When people protested, he detained them with the warning that they must accept that ‘There Is No Alternative (TINA). He asked Nigerians to form political parties of their choice; they did. He then banned all of them and established his own two political parties. His transition date to civil rule was continuously shifted; 1990 to 1992, then to January 1993 on to August 1993 before he was forced ‘to step aside’ His constant shifting of the goal post led the country into the hands of General Sani Abacha who turned the country into one big nightmare. People are free to write or re-write history, but they do so in vain.