Nigeria: A Cup of Tea From Yakubu Gowon

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Over the years, I have known that our Special Projects Unit at Media Trust works in overdrive to identify upcoming events, ceremonies and birthdays so it could invite advertisers to send congratulatory messages to the celebrants. When I saw one such notice advertising the 78th birthday of General Yakubu Gowon, I thought Special Projects had misfired. It is not a question of deserving; this country’s many AGIPs do not pay half a million naira for a colour page to congratulate anyone who is no longer in a position to award juicy contracts.

I was not surprised to see that only a few people cared to congratulate General Yakubu Gowon, the most notable one being Colonel Ahmadu Ali, whom Gowon made the first Director General of NYSC in 1973. Gowon has been out of power for 37 years now, a fact not lost on any Nigerian AGIP.

The youngsters of today hardly know Yakubu Gowon. Since his toppling from power in 1975, a lot of water has passed [cascaded is the better word] under the railings-less Nigerian bridge. There have been 10 or 11 Nigerian Heads of State since Gowon, depending on how you count. I think Obasanjo, who ruled in 1976-79 and again in 1999-2007 should be counted twice, if we are to follow the American example. Barack Obama is the 44th POTUS [President of the United States] because American presidential historians count Grover Cleveland twice [he was US president in 1885-89 and again in 1893-97].

Throughout our primary school days, we were always chanting “GOWON–Go On With One Nigeria!” More than that, I had a few personal brushes with Yakubu Gowon, if you can call them that. In April 1969, when the Head of the Federal Military Government was getting married to Miss Victoria Zakari, kola nuts were distributed all over Sokoto. I was squatting in the driveway of our house at Lodge Road when a Government House kit car drove in and handed to me ten big pieces of white kola nuts, which I took to our father.

In February 1974, Gowon came to Sokoto on a 9-day working visit to the North Western State. His plane landed at the Old Airport and as secondary school students we lined up the route all the way into the town. For hours before he arrived, a policeman did elaborate stunts on a power bike to keep us entertained. A police Land Rover then drove by with a “Road Closed” sign, after which followed Gowon’s elaborate motorcade. He was forever smiling and waving to the crowd.

In those days, every student loved Yakubu Gowon. He was young, charming, colourful, dynamic and very humane. He had a brisk walk, always held a baton in his armpit, and had a pleasant voice that resonated very well on the radio. All the students in Sokoto turned up at the Race Course to welcome Gowon, who suddenly left the podium and walked through our lines saying, “God bless you!” A year later, Gowon returned to Sokoto in company of President Moukhtar Ould Dada of Mauritania, and many more days of festivities followed.

Despite Gowon’s high regard among the populace, even then there were complaints in the newspapers especially against his eleven Military Governors and the Administrator, East Central State. The governors were unpopular in the newspapers and, as we learnt later, among the military brass as well.

The day General Gowon was overthrown, July 29, 1975, happened to be a day after my birthday. I bought a bottle of Coke from nearby Gawon Nama and as I sat down in one corner for a late birthday bash, I overheard my mother answering a phone call from my uncle in Lagos. She presently turned to me, with horror in her eyes, and said, “An hambare Gowon!” [Gowon has been overthrown].

In those days, there was no television in Sokoto, no mobile phones, no computers and no internet, not to mention cable television. Coups were frequent in Africa in those days. We quickly tuned on the radio and heard the broadcast by Colonel Joseph Nanven Garba. Even though we were saddened by Gowon’s overthrow, as impressionable youngsters we soon fell in love with his fiery successor General Murtala Mohamed. In contrast to the very tame Gowon, Murtala’s six-month reign had the force of a hurricane.

In the wake of Murtala’s death in the abortive coup of February 1976, the government headed by General Obasanjo accused Gowon of having fore knowledge of the coup. They said he had received coup leader Lt. Col Bukar Suka Dimka at his house in Britain. Personally I didn’t believe the story, because as far as we could see Yakubu Gowon was too gentlemanly to get involved with a counter coup. Recently though, when I read Alhaji Usman Faruk’s biography I entertained some doubt. Our former Military Governor of the North Western State narrated the story of how, ensconced in a Kampala hotel suite following his overthrow, Gowon briefly entertained the idea of accepting foreign troops to try to reverse the coup, until Faruk talked him out of it. I shouldn’t say too much about all that, a kid like me, since most of the leaders of the post-Murtala regime are still alive.

Sometimes good judgment appears to fail General Yakubu Gowon, despite his standing as one of Africa’s finest gentlemen. In early 1992, after General Babangida annulled the NRC and SDP presidential primaries, banned all 23 presidential aspirants and Prof Humphrey Nwosu then unrolled his Option A4 formula, to everyone’s surprise Gowon joined the fray and contested the NRC primaries in Zaria Local Government.

On that day I was sitting at the foot of General Hassan Usman Katsina and interviewing him for a commissioned biography. The sessions were proceeding very slowly because the old General had a telephone landline placed on a stool nearby, which rang every few minutes. I was soon transformed from biographer to secretary who answered all the calls. Presently, someone phoned and asked General Hassan about Gowon’s entry into politics. General Hassan was very displeased. I overheard him saying that a few days earlier Gowon visited him and he asked him if it was true that he was entering politics. He said Gowon was ambivalent, but that he urged him not to try it. Gowon subsequently lost to Dr Dalhatu Sarki Tafida.

Anyway, my favourite story about General Yakubu Gowon was told to me some 30 years ago by my late friend Danzaria, who was a student in Britain in the early 1980s. He said two of his colleagues from the Nigeria Television Authority [NTA] who were also studying in Britain at the time decided to visit Gowon who, following his overthrow, had enrolled at Warwick University and was then pursuing a Doctorate degree. In 1975, when it was reported that Gowon had enrolled at Warwick for a Bachelor’s degree in Political Science, there were many hostile comments in Nigerian newspapers. They said it was demeaning for a former Head of State and a former OAU chairman to sit in a classroom!

Back to our story, Danzaria’s two colleagues went to General Gowon’s hostel room at Warwick. Even though he did not know them, he received them warmly. One of them sat on the only available chair in the room while the other sat on the bed alongside Gowon, who then offered them tea. They accepted the offer and Gowon went out to get the tea. Assuming he had gone somewhere far away, the two boys began to gossip about Gowon’s changed circumstances. One of them was saying, “Look at this small bed! This is where our former Head of State now sleeps.” As he said so, Gowon stepped back into the room with two cups of tea in his hands. To their embarrassment, he overheard the gossip. Smiling broadly, Gowon said, “Yaro baka san duniya ba!” Small boy, you do not know this world!

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