Great People

‘I Felt Perplexed When I Became Head of State at 31’ Yakubu Gowon

yakubu gowon
General Yakubu Gowon Credit: Premium Times

General Yakubu Gowon (retd.), Nigeria’s former military Head of State disclosed that he was perplexed when he became the nation’s military leader on August 1, 1966 at the age of 31.

General Yakubu spoke at a virtual reality history competition organized by ANISZA Foundation and Gallery to commemorate its second anniversay on Thursday evening. The title was  ‘How I Became Head of State at 31.’

The program was one of the activities marking the nation’s 60th independence. Gowon disclosed at an event that becoming a leader at that age was a surprise to him as he never planned to become Head of State. His ambition then was just to be a good soldier.

Yakubu Gowon, also known as Jack Gowon was born October 19, 1934, in Pankshin, Nigeria. He was a Nigerian military leader, who served as head of state from 1966 to 1975.

He hails from Plateau state in the middle belt of Nigeria.  Gowon was educated in Zaria and later became a career army officer. He was trained in Ghana and in England at Sandhurst and twice served in the Congo region as part of Nigeria’s peacekeeping force there in the early 1960s. He was educated at the prestigious Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, UK (1955–56), Staff College, Camberley, UK (1962) as well as the Joint Staff College, Latimer, 1965.

Gowon joined the Nigerian Army in 1954, and received his commission as a second lieutenant on 19 October 1955, his 21st birthday. He was part of the action in the Congo (Zaire), as part of the United Nations Peacekeeping Force, both in 1960–61 and in 1963. He advanced to battalion commander rank by 1966, at which time he was still a Lieutenant Colonel.

 A military coup d’état by a group of junior officers under Major Chukwuma Kaduna Nzeogwu led to the overthrow of Nigeria’s civilian government. In the course of this coup, mostly northern and western leaders were killed, including Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, Nigeria’s Prime Minister; Sir Ahmadu Bello, Sardauna of Sokoto and Premier of the Northern Region; and Samuel Akintola, Premier of the Western Region, Lt Col Arthur Unegbe and so many more.

Gowon became Nigeria’s youngest leader ever when he became Head of State on August 1, 1966, before his 32nd birthday on October. He was Head of State between 1966 and 1975. After the coup of January 1966, he was appointed Chief of Staff by Major General Johnson Aguiyi-Ironsi, the new leader.

‘I felt petrified when I took over as Head of State. I never planned to be the President, it just happened,’ He said.

 Gowon tried to resolve the ethnic tensions that threatened to fatally divide Nigeria. Although he was eventually successful in ending attacks against Igbo in the North, he was unable to affect a more lasting peace. In a final attempt to resolve the conflict, on May 27, 1967, Gowon declared a state of emergency and divided Nigeria’s four regions into 12 states. Three days later the Eastern region declared itself the independent state of Biafra with Odumegwu Ojukwu as its leader. Armed conflict began in July.

Gowon directed government forces to remember that they were essentially fighting Nigerians, who were to be encouraged to rejoin the country. A team of international observers were also assigned to monitor the conduct of his troops. After the government victory in January 1970, a remarkable reconciliation took place between the victors and the vanquished, largely attributable to Gowon’s personal influence.

 Gowon was emerging as an international leader by the mid-1970s and was involved in the establishment of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). However, on July 29, 1975, while Gowon was in Uganda for an Organization of African Unity summit meeting, the army removed him from office. He was exiled to Great Britain and stripped of his rank. He was accused of being involved in the assassination of his successor, Murtala Mohammed, in 1976. In 1981, he was pardoned by President Shehu Shagari, and his rank was restored by Ibrahim Babangida in 1987.

He further earned a Ph.D. at Warwick University in 1983 and became a professor of political science at the University of Jos in the mid-1980s.

Gen. Gowon is also involved in the Guinea Worm Eradication Programme as well as the HIV Programme with Global Fund of Geneva. Gowon founded his own organization in 1992 called the Yakubu Gowon Centre. The Centre works on issues of good governance, as well as infectious disease control including HIV/AIDS, guinea worm, and malaria.

In November 2004, Gowon won the World Peace Prize Top Honor (awarded by World Peace Prize Awarding Council) for maintaining national stability, promoting economic growth, and organizing a symbolic peace conference in the African region.

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The octogenarian who revealed some of his life experiences counselled young Nigerians on the right attitudes and values. He further engaged the participants at the virtual event on national issues, especially the role youths can play in national development.

General Gowon also interacted with the participants on issues ranging from their views on ‘one Nigeria’ and their personal commitments to ensure the nation remains united. He expressed his faith in the Nigerian youth and the country’s potential for greatness, noting that we can be able to live in peace and unity irrespective of religion and tribe.

With a lot of wit and humour, he also admonished young people, traditional and religious institutions to take up the responsibility of securing the national identity. He said everyone has major roles to play in harnessing national values that will spur growth and development across all sectors of the Nigerian life.

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