About Nigeria’s Genuine Mai-Gaskiya (The Sincere one), the Real McCoy. An Exemplary Paragon of Integrity and Epitome of Humility and A Man for All Seasons condensed from Nowa Omoigui’s; From Kampala To Lome To London and Back To Nigeria
How and why General Gowon lost grip was multi-factorial. On July 29, 1975, nine years to the day a coup he did not plan brought him to power at Ikeja Barracks, elements within his ‘constituency’ “recalled” him. Former secessionist leader Emeka Ojukwu, who was still in exile in Ivory Coast, reacted to the news of the coup against Gowon – according to Frederick Forsythe – with a smile.
Nevertheless, General Gowon, far away in Kampala, had friends. Many offers of residence came to him in Kampala from various African countries. He notified the new regime in Lagos that he would leave Kampala for Lome in Togo. Since he was financially broke, teary-eyed members of the Nigerian delegation along with staffers at the Nigerian High Commission in Kampala donated 3000 pounds sterling to enable him begin a new life. He was flown to Lome – via Garoua in Cameroon – aboard President Idi Amin’s executive jet. Part of the flight passed through Nigerian airspace and Gowon took the opportunity to transmit a radio message reaffirming loyalty to and support for Brigadier Murtala Muhammed’s new regime. Although offered permanent domicile in Togo he chose to join his family in the United Kingdom. He received an additional 10,000 pounds sterling donation from General Eyadema.
Following a telephone call to Brigadier Murtala Muhammed (his Barewa College and Royal Military Academy junior) during which he made requests for elementary federal assistance, he left for London.
When he got to London, he was offered official accommodation by the Nigerian government which he, however, turned down for a variety of reasons. After some weeks at the Portman Hotel, he moved into the house of an old friend – Mr. Emmanuel Otti – at 472 Finchley Road, London. The delay was to enable the house to be redecorated by Mr. and Mrs. Otti and Brigadier Sam Ogbemudia (who had been in the UK when the coup took place in Nigeria). Other friends came to the assistance of the family. It was not until September 1975 that he began to get his pension and gratuities as a retired Four-Star General. In the nine years he had been Nigeria’s ruler he had not built himself a single house, inside or outside the country, nor did he expropriate one kobo of government money. Unlike some of those who served under him, his TOTAL savings throughout his service years as well as his years as Nigeria’s leader was N75,000 – all of which was inside Nigeria.
In time to come this would stand in stark contrast to the conduct of and personal fortunes of most of those who conspired to remove him from office – or benefited from it.
Once settled in with his family, the General, who was offered several Masters Degree programs, signed up for undergraduate studies in Political Science at Warwick University. Newspapers in Nigeria later carried news items and photographs depicting the former Nigerian leader carrying trays in a student cafeteria in the UK. The Muhammed regime was embarrassed and therefore dispatched Brigadier TY Danjuma (who, took Kano born Col. Wali along) to ask Gowon adopt a supposedly more dignified stance. Gowon rejected the overture and reassured his “embarrassed sympathizers” that he was comfortable with his situation. He made friends among the Nigerian students at Warwick, including a family friend of mine, Desmond Guobadia, now a legal practitioner in Lagos. Meanwhile his spouse, the former First Lady, Mrs. Victoria Gowon (who was a nurse) registered as a catering student at a University College in London.
Col. BS Dimka, an officer from the Angas ethnic group of Plateau State, announced the botched February 1976 coup bid. Tragically, General Muhammed was killed, along with Colonel Ibrahim Taiwo and a few others. Gowon vigorously denied the allegation of complicity. In an atmosphere of open press speculations, suspicion and outright condemnation, he was invited by Brigadier SM Yar’Adua, to appear before the investigating board in Lagos. In the meantime, all his privileges were suspended. Even his pension, which was his right – and not a privilege – was also illegally suspended. His brother, Air Force Major Moses Gowon, was detained (because he was his brother) – and later discharged from service. Another brother, Captain Isaiah Gowon, was jailed for 15 years – after a second court-martial – because of an innocuous visit to the School of Artillery in Kaduna on February 13.
Fearful of the press-hyped atmosphere and presumption of guilt prior to investigation and trial Gowon suggested a neutral country as the venue of his submissions to the investigating board. He also offered swearing to an affidavit and responding point by point to any questionnaire of the government’s choosing. The government, urged on by a mob-like mentality that pervaded the Press, refused. Instead, efforts were made to get the General to return to Nigeria by subterfuge.
Mistrustful of the intentions of the regime, Gowon wrote a lengthy and very detailed letter of explanation offering to assist the government to find a solution to “the endemic problem of coups and counter-coups in Nigeria.” One week later, a government announcement monitored over the Voice of America asserted that General Gowon had been stripped of his rank, honours and entitlements. However, no official letter was ever sent to that effect – in part because the government cannot forfeit the rank of an officer unless such an officer has actually been convicted of treason or other serious felony – which had not happened.
With no further income from his pensions, Gowon once again had to rely on old friends. Mr. Otti absolutely refused to collect rent from him. Gowon wrote a letter to some African leaders explaining his situation. None, except one, responded. This African leader – with whom Gowon had no prior personal relationship – gave him $50,000 to purchase a house. On another occasion then President Ahidjo of Cameroon – who did not respond to Gowon’s initial appeal – sent his children some pocket money during a visit to London. The school fees of his first son were paid for by an old Caucasian friend. Some members of his family in Nigeria sent money too from time to time. A wealthy international businessman from then Bendel State reportedly gave him a monthly stipend of 500 pounds sterling for 18 months while the Nigerian Ambassador to an unnamed European country offered him an old Volkswagen Passat. In the meantime, barely scraping a living, the General continued his undergraduate and, later, graduate studies at Warwick – including a PhD thesis on ECOWAS
On October 1st, 1981, after consultations with the National Council of States, President Shehu Shagari deftly rescinded the order published in Vol. 66; Official Gazette No. 3 dated January 18, 1979. Since Gowon was never convicted, there was no basis for a “pardon”.
The public reaction was overwhelmingly positive. Gowon, during a subsequent interview with the BBC, said he would return to Nigeria upon completion of his studies. He also added his voice to appeals for the government of Shehu Shagari to pardon his wartime opponent, Emeka Ojukwu – an event that later took place in 1982. It was also late in 1982 that traditional rulers from Plateau State launched a fundraiser to build a house in Jos for the former Nigerian leader.
It would be some years to come before his rank and privileges – wrongfully terminated without trial – would finally be fully officially re-acknowledged. General Yakubu Cinwa Gowon (rtd) is still alive and active as an elder statesman.
*Copied from Ahmed Yahaya Joe Facebook post