Yakubu Dan-Yumma Gowon is a retired Nigerian Army general and military leader who served as Nigeria’s head of state from August 1, 1966, to July 29, 1975. In his regime as the third head of state.
In an effort to foster healing and reconciliation, Gowon presided over the contentious Nigerian Civil War, which took place between July 6, 1967, and January 15, 1970, and gave the popular “no victor, no conquered” speech at the end of the war.
History has it that Yakubu Gowon was Nigeria’s youngest military chief of staff at the age of 31, as a result of the military coup d’état orchestrated by some junior officers during the administration of Major Chukwuma Kaduna Nzeogwu, which led to the overthrow of the civilian government.
Furthermore, the early years of Gowon were dedicated to serving as a military man, politician, and leader, which made him serve twice as Nigeria’s head of state. In fact, during the Nigerian-Biafran war, Gowon diplomatically isolated Biafra with help from the US, UK, and the Soviet Union, and the Nigerian Army and Navy physically isolated it.
In this piece, Naijabiography explains the early life and career of Yakubu Gowon, his administration as the head of state, as well as his strategies for ending the civil war, and his assassination.
Young Yakubu Dan-Yumma Gowon was born on October 19, 1934 into the family of Nde Yohanna and Matwok Kurnyang. Gowon, popularly known as Jack Gowon, had parents who were missionaries. At an early age, his parents (who were Ngas, from Lur, a small village in the present Kanke Local Government Area of Plateau State) moved to Wusasa, Zaria, because they were Church Missionary Society (CMS) missionaries.
History has it that his father took great satisfaction in the fact that he wed the future King George VI on the same day as the future Queen Mother Elizabeth. However, Gowon was the fifth of a total of eleven children.
Gowon was born and raised in Zaria, where he also had his early education. Gowon reportedly excelled in sports at school, playing goalie in football, pole vaulting, and long-distance running. In his first year, he smashed the school mile record. In addition, he was in charge of boxing at the time, serving as the captain.
Gowon enlisted in the Nigerian Army in 1954, and on his 21st birthday, on October 19, 1955, he was commissioned as a second lieutenant. He received his training at the esteemed Royal Military Academy in Sandhurst, England (1955–1963), the Staff College in Camberley, England (1962), and the Joint Staff College in Latimer, England (1965).
History has it that Gowon participated in operations in the Congo as a member of the UN Peacekeeping Force in 1960–1961, as well as in 1963. However, in 1966, while still a lieutenant colonel, he rose to the post of the battalion commander.
Gowon as a Militant in the 1966 Coup
At the age of 31, Yakubu Gowon became the youngest military chief of staff in Nigeria after the civilian government of Nigeria was overthrown in a military coup by a group of junior officers led by Major Chukwuma Kaduna Nzeogwu.
The 1966 Coup led to the execution of Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa (the Prime Minister, Sardauna of Sokoto and Premier of the Northern Region), Sir Ahmadu Bello (Premier of the Western Region), Samuel Akintola, Lt. Col. Arthur Unegbe, and many others.
Meanwhile, two days before the coup, Lieutenant Colonel Gowon, who was attending the Joint Staff College in Latimer, UK, returned from his course. However, his late arrival was said to have saved him from being assassinated by the plotters’ hit list.
It was said that Major General Johnson Aguiyi-Ironsi, who took over as president after the coup in January 1966 and had Gowon as his chief of staff, failed to comply with Northern demands that the coup plotters be put on trial, further fueling their resentment. However, the report has it that both the left-leaning “Lagos-Ibadan” press and the Eastern Region provided substantial support for the coup plotters.
Following Aguyi Ironsi’s Decree Number 34, which advocated for the unitary state to replace the federal system of government, it was a position that had long been supported by some Southerners, particularly by a sizable portion of the Igbo-dominated National Council of Nigeria and Cameroon (NCNC). Perhaps the Northerners mistook this for a Southern (especially Igbo) plot to seize control of all the country’s levers of power.
While the majority Igbo of the east were already represented in the federal civil service, the North lagged well behind the Western and Eastern regions in terms of education (in part because of Islamic doctrine-informed hostility to western cultural and social ethos).
However, history has it that the military regime of General Murtala Muhammed had the intention, alongside his coup members, to engineer the secession of the Northern region from Nigeria as a whole. Meanwhile, they were continually ripped off their plans by their advisors, which included high-ranking civil servants and judges, as well as the British and American governments, who at the time, were interested in Nigerian political affairs.
However, this led to the appointment of Lieutenant Colonel Gowon as Nigerian head of state. This is because, according to the young military officers, he was not aware of the conflict that surfaced at the time.
Head of State
Yakubu Gowon was appointed the head of state in 1966. Before the turbulent events of the year suddenly thrust him into a leadership role, Gowon had strictly been a career soldier with no involvement in politics. His unusual background as a Northerner who was neither of Hausa nor Fulani ancestry nor of the Islamic faith made him a particularly safe choice to lead a country whose population was seething with ethnic tension.
Gowon remained the head of state for two terms. However, Commodore Joseph Wey, Brigadier Babafemi Ogundipe, and Colonel Robert Adebayo were all members of the administration, and their military seniority to Gowon made things unpleasant. Gowon was a Lt. Colonel when he rose to the top of the new Federal Military Government of Nigeria on August 1, 1966.
Later, Gowon elevated himself to the rank of Major-General immediately before hostilities in the civil war began in 1967 and to the rank of full General at the conflict’s conclusion in 1970 in order to maintain his position as head of state.
Nigerian Civil War
Gowon acted swiftly to erode the region’s base of support by announcing the creation of twelve new states to replace the four regions in preparation for an eastern secession. Minority groups in six of these states had been calling for the establishment of states since the 1950s.
Given the likelihood of gaining their own states if the independence attempt was unsuccessful, Gowon correctly predicted that the minority in the east would not actively back the Igbos. Minority group members made up a large portion of the federal forces that fought in the Nigerian Civil War, also known as the Biafran War, to reunite the Eastern Region with the federation.
The war concluded in January 1970 after a duration of thirty months. There would be neither a victor nor a vanquished, Gowon announced in recognizing Biafra’s unqualified cease-fire. The next years were designated as a time of rehabilitation, reconstruction, and reconciliation in this spirit.
The federal government’s capacity to carry out these activities increased during the oil price boom, which got started as a result of the high price of crude oil (the nation’s main source of income) on the international market in 1973.
Tension developed between the Eastern Region and the Gowon-led, northern-controlled federal government. In accordance with Ojukwu’s request to hold talks only on neutral territory, a summit attended by Gowon, Ojukwu, and other Supreme Military Council members was held at Aburi in Ghana on January 4–5, 1967. The summit’s stated goals were to settle all unresolved conflicts and create Nigeria as a federation of regions.
The Aburi Accord was the result of this summit. The Aburi Accord was never implemented because the Gowon-led government gave great emphasis to potential earnings, particularly oil revenues, which were anticipated to rise as a result of deposits being found in the region in the middle of the 1960s.
Unverified reports claim that Gowon and Ojukwu were aware of the vast oil deposits in the Niger Delta region, which are now the backbone of Nigeria’s economy.
However, Gowon announced on May 5, 1967, that the three regions of Nigeria would be divided into 12 states: North-Western, North-Eastern, Kano, North-Central, Benue-Plateau, Kwara, Western, Lagos, Mid-Western, and three from Ojukwu’s Eastern Region: Rivers, South-Eastern, and East-Central. This was done to limit the influence of Ojukwu’s government in the East.
To separate the Igbo territories into an East-Central state, the non-Igbo South-Eastern and Rivers states, which had oil reserves and access to the sea, were created. Gowon’s controversial annexation of Port Harcourt, a sizable city in the Niger Delta, in the South of Nigeria (the Ikwerres and Ijaws), which sits on some of the country’s largest reserves, into the new Rivers State and weakened the area’s migrant Igbo population of traders, was one contentious aspect of this move.
History has it that at the end of the war, the possessions they left behind were claimed by the natives of Rivers State. It was stated that their flight back to their communities in the “Igbo heartland” in Eastern Nigeria, where they felt safer, was in conflict with Gowon’s “no winner, no conquered” doctrine.
Therefore, the minority ethnic groups in the Eastern Region were not very optimistic about the possibility of secession because it would entail having to live in what they perceived to be an Igbo-dominated country. Some non-Igbo residents of the Eastern Region either chose not to actively support the Biafran cause or actively helped the federal side by enlisting in the Nigerian army and providing it with information about the military activities of the Biafran people.
Furthermore, it was reported that N.U. Akpan (the Secretary to the Government), Lt. Col. (later Major-General) Philip Effiong (the Chief of Defence Staff of Biafra), and Chiefs Bassey and Graham-Douglas had important positions in the Biafran government.
In response to Gowon’s statement, Ojukwu announced the legal secession of the Eastern Region, which would thereafter be known as the Republic of Biafra, on May 30, 1967. This was to start a conflict that would endure for over 30 months and result in the deaths of more than 100,000 soldiers and over a million civilians, the majority of whom would starve to death due to a blockade imposed by Nigeria.
The Nigerian army’s strength and doctrinal and technological competence both significantly increased during the war, and the Nigerian Air Force was basically created as a result of the fighting. However, there has been much controversy surrounding the Nigerian Forces’ aerial operations when some Biafrans, including Red Cross workers, foreign missionaries, and journalists, claimed that the Nigerian Air Force had deliberately targeted civilian populations, aid centres, and markets.
However, one of his wartime commanders, Benjamin Adekunle, appears to lend some credence to these claims in his book, while excusing them as unfortunate by-products of war. Gowon has vehemently denied those claims, as well as claims that his army committed atrocities such as rape, mass executions of civilian populations, and extensive looting in occupied areas.
Gowon’s No Victor, No Vanquished Speech
The Civil War came to an end on January 13, 1970, when Colonel Olusegun Obasanjo accepted the Biafran forces’ surrender. The following day, Obasanjo made a statement about the situation on Radio Biafra Enugu, a former insurgent radio station.
Gowon then delivered his well-known “no victor, no vanquished” speech, which was followed by an amnesty for the vast majority of Biafran uprising participants and a “Reconciliation, Reconstruction, and Rehabilitation” program to repair the extensive harm done to the Eastern Region’s economy and infrastructure during the years of war.
Additionally, foreign and local aid workers criticized Gen. Gowon’s administration’s policy of giving 20 pounds to Biafrans who had bank accounts in Nigeria prior to the war, regardless of how much money had been in their accounts, as this resulted in an unprecedented level of begging, looting, and robbery in the former Biafran areas after the war.
In blatant contrast to his past statements, Gowon announced on October 1, 1974, that Nigeria would not be prepared for civilian administration by 1976 and that the handover date would be postponed forever. Additionally, there have been claims of an increase in corruption due to the expansion of the bureaucracy. As the nation’s riches increased, bogus import permits were issued.
However, there were rumours that tons of sand and stone were being brought into the nation, and General Gowon himself told a foreign reporter that “Nigeria’s main issue is figuring out how to spend the money she has.”
Gowon’s Overthrow Government
Gowon was overthrown by a group of officers led by Colonel Joe Nanven Garba on July 29, 1975, while he was in Kampala for an OAU conference. The coup plotters chose Brigadier Murtala Muhammad and Brigadier Olusegun Obasanjo as the new government’s leaders.
Years in Exile
Later, Gowon fled to exile in the UK, where he studied at the University of Warwick for his PhD in political science. His primary domicile in the United Kingdom is on the boundary between Hertfordshire and north London, where he has assimilated with the local English population. He held the position of churchwarden for a time at St. Mary the Virgin, his parish church in Monken Hadley.
Murtala’s Assassination and Gowon’s Detention
Gen. Murtala Mohammed was killed in February 1976 after a botched uprising led by Lt. Col. Buka Suka Dimka, who also blamed Gowon. According to his “confession,” Dimka allegedly saw Gowon in London and got his support for the coup.
Additionally, Dimka stated before his execution that Gowon’s re-installation as Head of State was the goal of the coup. Gowon was declared wanted by the Nigerian government as a result of the coup tribunal’s conclusions, had his rank taken away in his absence, and had his pension terminated.
During the Second Republic under President Shehu Shagari, Gen. Gowon was finally pardoned (together with the former president of Biafra, Emeka Ojukwu). But it took General Ibrahim Babangida until 1987 to reinstate Gowon’s status (as a general).
Later in the 1980s, Gowon joined the University of Jos as a political science lecturer after receiving his doctorate from the University of Warwick. In 1992, Gowon established his own company, the Yakubu Gowon Centre.
According to reports, the organization works on issues in Nigeria, including good governance and the prevention of infectious diseases like Guinea worm, malaria, and HIV/AIDS. Additionally, Gen. Gowon collaborates with the Global Fund of Geneva on the HIV Program and the Guinea Worm Eradication Program. Following his ouster in the coup d’etat of 1975, Gowon was accused of plundering “half of the Central Bank of Nigeria” by Tom Tugendhat, an MP who was advocating for the 2020 police riots in Nigeria.
The Foreign Office later distanced itself from the comment, claiming that “the said MP’s comment does not reflect the views of Her Majesty’s Government” and that “the British Government has no mechanism for controlling the actions and speeches of members of Parliament.” Thus, this came after the Nigerian government officially demanded an apology.
In 1969, Seth Irunsewe Kale presided over a wedding ceremony between Gowon and Miss Victoria Zakari, a qualified nurse, at the Cathedral Church of Christ in Lagos.