Dedicated to Nigeria's History, Socio-Economic and Political issues
Military Rebellion of July 29, 1975:
The Coup Against Gowon - Epilogue
continued from http://www.dawodu.com/omoigui46.htm
FROM KAMPALA TO LOME TO LONDON
AND BACK TO NIGERIA
It is my expectation that General Yakubu Gowon (rtd) will publish his memoirs some day. When that eagerly awaited event takes place, much more will fall into place than has so far been possible based on available literature, personal observations and interviews.
Nevertheless, as I indicated at
the outset how and why General Gowon lost grip in July 1975 was multi-factorial.
His pre-military background, personal character, military training and
experience, the crisis circumstances under which power was placed in his hands,
the dynamic evolving nature of Nigerian society and its Armed Forces over a
period of unprecedented challenges and his reaction to those changes and
challenges were all important. In the final analysis, the late Professor Billy
Dudley observed that,
"Gowon could conceivably
have ruled for much longer - if he had had the continued support of his own
'constituency', the armed forces. But the 'constituents' over the years had
become alienated from their 'representative.' "
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 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 Muhammed, 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. (Conceivably nothing could have been more embarrassing than to be overthrown while attending an OAU summit). 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.
After a coup scare in December 1975, which was linked (by unsubstantiated rumors) to the Togolese government under Eyadema, General Gowon was later publicly linked (by the surviving successor Government under Lt. Gen. Olusegun Obasanjo) to the aborted coup bid of February 1976 ( http://www.dawodu.com/dimka.htm ).
Lt. Col. BS Dimka, an officer from the Angas ethnic group of Plateau State, announced the botched February coup bid. Tragically, General Muhammed was killed, along with Colonel Ibrahim Taiwo and a few others. His other surviving colleagues, eager to avoid the notion that only northern officers could rule, elevated then Lt. General Obasanjo to the position of Head of State and C-in-C. Then Lt. Col. SM Yar’Adua, who had been outside the country on an official trip when the coup took place, was double-promoted to the rank of Brigadier and appointed to the position of Chief of Staff, SHQ (COS-SHQ). The official explanation for this – echoed by regime figures in public interviews - was that the decision was made to placate the Moslem far north, which allegedly viewed the coup attempt as an act of “Plateau/Middle Belt” vengeance. The officer, who actually coordinated the military resistance to the coup attempt, then Lt. Gen. TY Danjuma (then COAS) remained as COAS. Indeed, it was Danjuma that nominated Yar’Adua for the position of COS-SHQ, although they later fell out in what became a nasty feud, said to have been driven by Yar’Adua’s desire to assert himself over senior officers and corner political appointments for his cronies. To be fair, it must be noted, however, that Yar’Adua’s side of the story of his misunderstanding with Danjuma, Yisa Doko and others, was never really publicly articulated before he died.
Anyway, 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. He was even officially informed that his brother had been released from detention when in fact he had not.
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. Befuddled by the
matter, it was not until January 18, 1979 that Vol. 66, Official Gazette No. 3,
formally declared him wanted as a fugitive offender (along with Captain
Dauda Usman and Sergeant Clement Yildar - and, funny enough, Emeka Ojukwu).
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.
In 1980, not long after President Shehu Shagari took over from General Obasanjo, Gowon made a detailed legal representation through his lawyers, Messrs. Godfree Amachree and Solomon Asemota (now Senior Advocates of Nigeria). He supplemented this with a letter of his own to Shagari (his former Finance Commissioner). When there was no response after one year he wrote to Shagari again, in August 1981. These activities triggered a lively debate within and outside the military. Some of Gowon's "enemies" from the coup of July 1975 were still in the army, but – coup scares apart - the majority of the post-1979 officer corps was in favor of an amiable resolution. The matter briefly became politically charged - particularly when linked to appeals for a concurrent pardon for former secessionist leader Emeka Ojukwu.
On October 1st, 1981, after consultations with the National Council of States, 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”. Shagari released and pardoned former Police Commissioner Mr. SK Dimka, Mr. Gyang Pam (also of the Police), Mrs. Helen Gomwalk, Major AK Abang, Captain Isaiah Gowon, Captain C. Wuyep, Captain AA Maidodo, WO II E Isaiah, Sgt. J Bupwada, Lt. A Walbe, Mr. S. Anyadufu and Mr. J. Inuwa.
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. This occurred under the leadership
of then Major General (later General) Ibrahim Babangida, one of the officers
that conspired (as a Lt. Col.) to remove him in 1975, but then seized power for
himself in 1985. Babangida also reversed some other decisions of the Murtala
Muhammed era Supreme Military Council, such as the dismissals of and property
seizures from other figures of the Gowon era. One of the criticisms was that
the tribunals that had made some of those decisions in 1975 had done so in an
atmosphere of witch-hunting - without due process or fairness. However, there
are some in the polity who feel that the decision by Babangida to reverse the
decisions of those “1975 corruption tribunals” is as controversial as the
original Tribunal decisions, particularly since it did not appear (publicly) to
have been preceded by “due process” judicial review.
General Yakubu Cinwa Gowon (rtd) is still alive and active as an elder statesman. He ventured briefly into elective politics and lost. He leads a religious group – Nigeria Prays – and has worked on the eradication of guinea worm infestation.
BACK IN NIGERIA AFTER THE COUP
Back in Lagos, having announced the membership of the Supreme Military Council and National Council of States, there remained the issue of what to do about the Ministry of External Affairs. It was the one ministry for which no Commissioner had been appointed - in spite of massive lobbying - and it was delaying the announcement of the cabinet. According to the late Major General JN Garba, then Lt. Col. SM Yar'Adua, then Lt. Col. JT Useni and then Major John Shagaya came to his house one morning to convince him to accept a Federal Ministerial appointment. Yar'Adua's argument was that as a member of the original coup junta he would be lonely in the Federal Executive Council. He wanted – he said - Garba there for support. Useni - who was the 3 S & T Battalion commander in Port-Harcourt at the time of the coup, had been tapped after the coup to become the Director of the Corps of S & T, and is from Langtang like the late JN Garba - argued in support of Yar'Adua. Then Major (later Brigadier) Shagaya - then Commanding officer of the Second Guards Battalion which had deployed in support of the coup - is also Langtang like the late Garba. He added the pitch that having made a "sacrifice" for the coup, soldiers of the Brigade were beginning to grumble about Garba's apparent lack of prominence in the new regime. Thereafter, Garba says his wife was 'won over' and he 'had no choice but to accept their advice.' That was how – by his account - he became Nigeria's Commissioner for External Affairs, a position in which - to the surprise of some - he would later distinguish himself. He became – by most accounts - one of Nigeria and Africa’s foremost diplomats of the 20th century, the untidy mechanism of his rise to prominence notwithstanding.
Garba eventually rose to the rank of Major General in the Army. In a July 1978 cabinet reshuffle, supposedly preparatory for return to civil rule, he was posted as Commandant to the NDA – the same institution he had refused to serve as Deputy-Commandant in 1975. In 1980 he was sent to India for an advanced course and suddenly retired from the military while abroad. Like Gowon, he used the opportunity to continue studying by enrolling for a Masters Degree program at Harvard University and writing books. He later returned to the diplomatic service in 1984 after the overthrow of the Shagari regime and became Nigeria’s permanent representative to the UN, Ambassador-at-large to Namibia, and Chairman of the Special Committee against Apartheid.
The Muhammed regime, as
previously noted, was short-lived, interrupted by an abortive coup attempt on
February 13, 1976 (http://www.gamji.com/nowa3.htm). In the slightly over six
months of the regime’s tenure FESTAC was postponed, seven new states were
created, a decision was made to shift the capital of the country from Lagos to
Abuja and a massive purge of the public service was launched (as part of an
anti-corruption drive). What is referred to by some as a “dynamic foreign
policy” was launched, a target for return to civil rule set and a Constitution
Drafting Committee appointed. The regime also plunged into a concerted – and
controversial - effort to demobilize the military.
By the time the ‘great public
service purge’ was suspended, about 10,000 public servants - including 216
military officers - had lost their jobs and status for ‘divided loyalty’,
‘declining productivity’, or ‘abuse of office’. The Obasanjo regime later
stopped the exercise when it realized that the negative consequences of the way
the exercise was being carried out far outweighed whatever benefits were
expected to be accrued. Many people lost their jobs unfairly and it destroyed
the confidence and sense of stability of the civil service, perhaps forever. As
former President Shagari once observed, some individuals that should have been
retired or dismissed were not, while others that should not were in fact
unfairly retired or dismissed.
Of the 12 State Governors under Gowon, two (Brigadiers Johnson and Rotimi) were reportedly cleared of charges of ‘abuse of office’. Of the civilian commissioners in the Gowon cabinet, two (Alhaji Shehu Shagari and Alhaji Shettima Ali Monguno) were cleared of charges of ‘abuse of office’.
After an exhaustive investigation, Gowon was personally cleared of any acts of corruption whatsoever although an issue was made by some of wedding gifts he received in 1969. It is not clear whether the other military and police members of the Gowon cabinet – other than Gowon himself - were so investigated. Such men included Hassan Katsina, Emmanuel Ekpo, Murtala Muhammed, Olusegun Obasanjo, Henry Adefope, Emmanuel Abisoye, Inuwa Wushishi, Dan Suleiman, Olufemi Olumide and Adamu Suleiman.
General Muhammed’s unfortunate death on February 13, 1976 came as a result of several factors. First was the growing resentment of some elements within the middle belt political and military leadership, particularly the plateau sub region that got the impression that it had been shortchanged by the events of July 1975. Some thought about it as an act of unnecessary ‘far north’ power play – from their point of view.
The second contributory factor was the regime’s “low profile” policy in which Muhammed (and other key elements in the regime) drove around largely unprotected in part to project the populist impression that they loathed the pomp and pageantry of Gowon’s motorcades. This unfortunate policy – no matter its advantages - was an invitation to those who would dare, sort of like the way the Swedish foreign minister was recently stabbed to death while shopping without protection. This factor was especially highlighted by the Abisoye panel, which investigated the event. In an interview some years ago Abisoye also opined that there might have been a degree of cultural fatalism involved.
Third was the naïve failure to reorganize the allegedly “middle-belt heavy” Brigade of Guards. Apart from the appointment of a new Brigade Commander (then Lt. Col. M. Sani Sami, from Zuru in present Kebbi State) and Brigade Major (then T/Major Sarki Muktar, from Kano), most of the soldiers and units remained intact from Gowon’s days. Indeed the latter two security related issues reportedly prompted Lt. Col SM Yar’Adua at one point to lobby General Muhammed – unsuccessfully – that he be redeployed away from the Transport Ministry and made the Commander of the Brigade of Guards in place of Sami.
Interestingly, it will be recalled that the same Yar’Adua had maintained surveillance of Garba – by offering him a military assistant - while they were planning the July coup together. He then ‘convinced’ Garba to leave the Brigade of Guards after the coup to take up a cabinet post ‘to keep him company’.
Anyhow, it was not until after the assassination of Muhammed that the Gowon era Brigade of Guards was finally disbanded and reconstituted. Then Lt. Col. Sani Sami, a course-mate of Ibrahim Babangida, who had replaced JN Garba in August 1975, was posted out to Makurdi and a new Commander, Colonel Mamman Jiya Vatsa, (also a course-mate of Ibrahim Babangida) appointed in his place along with completely fresh troops. Vatsa did not take part in the July 1975 coup. He was at that time Commander of the 30 Infantry Brigade at Ogoja in the Southeast. After the coup he was redeployed as Commander of the 13 Infantry Brigade in Calabar. It was from this position he was appointed Secretary of the Board of Inquiry in Lagos into the Dimka coup bid – and subsequently, Commander, Brigade of Guards.
Fourthly, although well-intentioned, Muhammed’s style of simultaneous frontal assault (and exploitation) on multiple sensitive political and military issues, in a complicated country like Nigeria, potentially created many enemies for himself in a short enough time span that they were able to coordinate and concentrate their resentment. Within the Army, aggressive pursuit of demobilization, “conversion” of short-service officers to regular combatants, and anti-corruption measures – which some viewed as selective and hypocritical - back lashed. On the external front, there are some that still hold the view, without specific evidence, that his “dynamic” foreign policy – specifically his actions in Angola – may have been a factor. Less well analyzed is the role of the new regime’s decision to oppose the decision of Gowon to concede the HQ of ECOWAS to Togo. Gowon had done so originally – not because Eyadema was his “friend” as Garba implied in one of his books, but in order to allay the usual Francophone suspicions of Nigeria’s motives in campaigning for the creation of ECOWAS, which France opposed. Togo’s subsequent emergence as a suspect, particularly during the coup scare of December 1975, and then again in February 1976 when Dimka took it upon himself (by his own account), to ask Gowon to come to Togo, could conceivably have been related to this – assuming the suspicion was valid. I have no evidence that it was – neither does anyone I have spoken to on the issue.
Last, but not the least, after the July coup, some senior officers of middle belt origin had been co-opted and ‘pacified’ based on the notion that while Gowon had been an alleged “lone star,” the middle belt officer corps in general could not be antagonized. Some of these officers later found to their chagrin that there may have been classes of citizenship within the new hierarchy. The notion that regimental principles of seniority and hierarchy would not apply to members of the ruling triumvirate did not go down too well with others. For example, the titular Defence Minister, Iliya Bissalla, had been Muhammed’s course mate at Sandhurst and was senior to Danjuma, the COAS. In January 1976, Muhammed became a General and Danjuma became a Lt. General while Bissalla – who had been Danjuma’s Commander during the civil war and had even acted as Chief of Staff (Army) after the death of Joe Akahan - was only promoted Major General. Officers like Godwin Ally, the Ogoja born Brigadier who had been Yar’Adua’s former Boss at the LGO chose to leave the service in revulsion. Others like Oluleye and Haruna that held cabinet positions – in part because they were too senior to be posted within the military - did not react openly (although uncomfortable about the promotions and their institutional effects). While Obasanjo reconciled himself with serving under his junior (having been compensated with what he regarded as real power), Bissalla’s personal and regimental unhappiness – aggravated by his perceived exclusion from decision making - drove him into the Dimka-announced plot.
Presidential Guard Units,
Kinsmen and Coups
It must be noted for historical accuracy, that then Colonel JN Garba was not the first Commander of the Brigade of Guards (or Guards Company) to be involved in a Nigerian (or even non-Nigerian) coup plot. On December 13, 1960, the commander of the Imperial Bodyguard, General Mengistu Neway, attempted a coup in Ethiopia that eventually failed. Emperor Haile Selassie was abroad when it took place. The first – in Nigeria – was Major Donatus Okafor in January 1966, followed by a younger (T/Capt) Garba in July 1966 and an older (Colonel) Garba in 1975. Nor was Garba the last. Lt. Col AA Sabo Aliyu was an active conspirator as acting Brigade Commander when President Shagari was removed in 1983. Then Brigadier General (later Major General) Bashir S. Magashi was Brigade Commander when he accompanied then Lt. Gen. Sani Abacha to depose ING Chairman Shonekan in November 1993. Interestingly, as a Captain, he (Magashi) had been the second-in command at the 4 Guards Battalion in Epe in the months leading up to July 1975. On April 9, 1999, members of his personal guard led by the Commander, Major Daouda Mallam Wanké, assassinated General Ibrahim Maïnassara Baré of Niger Republic.
Nor was Garba the first or last
person in Nigerian (or world) history to betray kinship ties. On July 23, 1970,
his son, Qabus ibn Said, overthrew Sultan Said of Oman. The Minister of
Defence, Muhammad Oufkir, who was the right hand man of King Hassan II, led the
unsuccessful coup of August 1972 in Morocco.
In 1983, President Shagari of Nigeria was overthrown in a coup organized
and led by his kinsmen in the military. In 1995, Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani
staged a successful coup against his father, Sheik Khalifa Bin Hamad al-Thani,
then Emir of Qatar.
Nevertheless, in a eulogy marking the first
anniversary of Major General JN Garba’s death on June 1, 2002, Oseloka Obaze,
his one time Special Assistant wrote:
“The Joe Garba I knew, carried with him until his death the burden of his role in the 29 July 1975 coup that ousted his kinsman General Yakubu Gowon. That he eventually paid the price for such alleged mistrust with his premature retirement from the Nigerian army did not assuage those who saw him as ambitious, and even some of those who benefited from the change of government. Surely, and naturally Garba was ambitious, but his, was not a self-consuming blind ambition. He pushed himself and those around him hard. He was energetic and an avaricious reader. He educated, groomed, polished and honed his skills as a diplomat. Most importantly he had learned to think on his feet, but was not shy about seeking advice. He had a good eye for talent and tapped such talents without apologies. Because Garba had been accused of disloyalty to General Gowon, he took great pains and passion to underscore and show loyalty to his friends, and in turn elicited such loyalty in reciprocity.
For many years before his death, Garba was tormented by trenchant criticisms and jibes from his fellow Middle-Belters for partaking in the ousting of General Gowon. They won’t let him live its down. In the summer of 1988 or thereabout, conscious of his torment over the Gowon affair, I told him he should publicly lay the speculation about his continued estrangement with General Gowon to rest. “Henry how?”, he asked. (He preferred calling me Henry. Even though I never liked it, he saw it as his privilege and a General’s prerogative). I suggested that he should host a reception for General and Mrs Gowon who were visiting the New York. He did. I had the honour of recording that memorable historical event for posterity in photographs. Some months later Dan Agbese eventually published a photo from that event in NewsWatch. The ghost of the July 29 1975 coup was laid to rest, but not the pain and cost to Joe Garba, of not being able to retire from the Nigerian Army on his own terms; and certainly, not the notion held in some quarters, that his ascendancy to fame came through the betrayal of a kith and kin.
I am not privy to how Garba and
Gowon reconciled, and if he did apologize to General Gowon. I will not be
surprised if he did. I know that 14 June 2002 General Gowon and his wife
Victoria, were at Garba’s 7 Niven Road residence in Jos to sympathise with the
Garba family. They were also in Langtang at Joe Garba’s graveside when he was
committed to mother earth. General Gowon’s magnanimity towards Joe Garba and his
true value as a Christian has been recorded for posterity. But I suspect that
there are still some out there, who even in death still cannot find it in
themselves to forgive Joe Garba’s sins, whatever they may be.” [
I am still investigating the
source of funding for the July 1975 putsch, but it must be recognized that the
coup was unique in the sense that it was truly bloodless, and, as the late Major
General JN Garba once said (with some exaggeration),
‘…no senior officer went unapprised of both the
conditions felt to require action and the fact that action would take place…’
Nevertheless, that it turned out that way was in part due to the reaction of General Gowon within Nigeria (before the coup) and outside Nigeria (immediately afterwards). According to him he did not crack down before he left the country because he did not “want heads to roll.” Furthermore, there is anecdotal evidence that some officers – who could easily have taken action – showed considerable restraint. The GOC, 2 Division, is said by a source to have opposed a request by some officers at a meeting – including, interestingly, then Lt. Colonels Tunde Idiagbon and Sani Abacha – to move against the coup. This source has also gone further to say that then Brigadier (later Major General) Oluleye later wrote a letter to General Gowon explaining why he did not resist the coup. I have not independently confirmed these two items of information. However, I do know for a fact that the COS-SHQ, Vice-Admiral Wey, turned down a Major who came to him that afternoon (before the senior officers’ meeting at Dodan Barracks) to seek permission to resist the unfolding coup. There seems to have been an unwritten conspiracy of the mind among all involved to avoid the tragic bloodletting of the coups of 1966. This is commendable.
No leader is perfect. In the course of this essay, I have pointed out the political and military successes and failings of General Gowon, sometimes bluntly – but truthfully. He was served well as well as poorly by some of his lieutenants. Friend and foe alike betrayed him. He ignored clues that anyone in his position – and he, in retrospect would agree – should not have ignored.
The Nine-Point Plan, 33 years
The business of government is
an endless proposition. When Gowon outlined the nine-point plan in 1970, the
targets he set for his government were extremely ambitious. To recap,
1. Reorganization of the Armed Forces.
2. Implementation of the National Development Plan and reconstruction of wartime damage.
3. Eradication of corruption.
4. Creation of more States.
5. Adoption of a new Constitution.
6. Introduction of a new revenue allocation formula.
7. Conducting a National census.
8. Organization of new genuinely national political parties.
9. Organization of elections at state and federal level.
As of now, in October 2003, 33 years later, the armed forces are still being reorganized (under the new name of ‘democratization’). Implementation of the National Development Plan (or its successor plans) is continuing (with all sorts of hiccups), and Nigeria – according to Transparency International - is the second most corrupt country on earth. The corruption probes of the late sixties against officials of the prior civilian regime did little to stop corruption. Nor did the corruption probes of 1975. The vexed problem of ‘Ghost soldiers’, which Gowon tried to address in 1970, is still with us, although it is mainly now with the pensions scheme. So many more States have been created (36 in all) that some are questioning the wisdom of the seemingly endless exercise of State creation and are now advocating consolidation to minimize overhead. Interestingly, this was one of Gowon’s fears in 1974.
We are still not agreed on a
constitution. The two ‘operational’ constitutions of 1979 and 1999 cannot
really be described as the exclusive expression of the will of the people of
Nigeria. Highly controversial aspects - like the Land Use Decree, among others -
were inserted by the military and then locked in place with onerous requirements
for amendment. Even the highly expensive presidential system of government,
‘suggested’ by the military from the bully pulpit, and thereafter ‘advocated’ by
some members of the ‘constituent assembly’, has powerful critics. These and
other issues continue to fuel demands for what some call a “National Conference”
using the 1963 constitution as a starting point.
Revenue allocation remains highly controversial.
We did – finally - manage to conduct a census in 1991, 18 years after the controversial 1973 census. But even then it was still controversial, albeit less so because ethnic identification was de-emphasized. But controversy about population is still an issue in Nigeria, whether directly (by popular count) or indirectly, by the relative numbers of local government areas, zones, etc. Whether genuinely national political parties have truly emerged in Nigeria (rather than conglomerations of personalities whose common interest is to expropriate resources) or organization of elections at local, state and federal level has met with basic standards is a matter of opinion.
Foreign Policy Controversies
Even on the matter of conduct of foreign policy, the most contentious of all – the Bakassi dispute – turned out after a long and expensive dalliance at the World Court, to be less than was being made out to be in the months after Gowon’s overthrow. He was accused by his successors of “selling” the Bakassi peninsula to Cameroun by initialing the Maroua Declaration of June 1975. However, the decisions of State that acknowledged the Bakassi peninsula as being geographically in pre- and post-independence ‘Southern Cameroon’ and later ‘Cameroun’ were made before Gowon joined the Army in 1954 or became Nigeria’s leader in 1966. The September 3, 1970 legal opinion of Nigeria’s Attorney General, the late Teslim Elias, hinged on the 1913 Anglo-German Treaty and subsequent events, was basically upheld by the World Court judgment of October 2, 2002 (http://www.gamji.com/nowa43.htm). Even Justice Ajibola – who wrote a dissenting opinion at the World Court - admitted this much in a recent interview. Although understandably sensitive about the issue of displaced populations, the Attorney General of the Federation and Justice Minister, Chief Akin Olujimi has said Nigeria wishes to avoid “meaningless and avoidable conflict with any of its neighbours". Although border skirmishes and misunderstanding with Cameroun has been an ongoing matter since 1965, Nigerian troops were only ordered to permanently take positions inside the peninsula by General Abacha in December 1993. What has amazed me over the years is why commentators never seemed to pay attention to the timing of the 1993 military muscle flexing. In my view it was part of a Machiavellian ploy to divert domestic attention consequent upon Abacha’s coup a few weeks earlier on November 17, and the self perpetuating power script he planned thereafter (http://www.gamji.com/nowa53.htm). Although President Ahidjo had nudged Gowon along those lines in 1974, it was also Abacha’s regime that agreed to high-risk World Court adjudication in spite of the known legal hazards of such an approach.
Had this basic appreciation
been there all along, national attention would have, more appropriately, been
placed on the controversial question of the 1971 offshore “compromise
line” to the 3-mile limit. And efforts would have been more so stepped up over
the years to pursue regional integration in a manner that would de-emphasize the
unfortunate legacy of artificial colonial land borders in Africa. In this regard
an enduring legacy of the Gowon years is his contribution to the establishment
of ECOWAS shortly before his overthrow. Perhaps Cameroun - which has joined
the Commonwealth - should be encouraged to join ECOWAS.
What could Gowon have done
Perhaps, in retrospect,
therefore, Gowon ought to have limited himself to a four-year term of office
after the civil war, set broad policy guidelines, and placed the country on
a path to civil rule in 1974 without trying to do it all. It may not have
prevented subsequent military coups –, as we now know – but it would certainly
have allowed him to leave when the ovation was loudest. Although some of them
achieved a lot in their states, he did not need to allow his military governors
as a group hang on to him like a boat anchor – particularly considering the
irritant and demoralizing effect it had on front-line civil war era officers.
They could have been redeployed to the military, preferably after a
Military/Police course abroad to brush them up, or sent away as ambassadors. He
could have announced promotions just before he left or a major shake-up in
postings. He could have been more open with his military ADC and others and
shared the intelligence reports he was getting from the Special Branch, even if
military intelligence was no longer reliable. It would have been possible to
get such officers to discretely investigate the Guards Brigade Commander, rather
than rely on his word. He could have canceled his trip to Uganda.
The phenomenon of
Nevertheless, while engaged in
academic post-mortem and Monday quarterbacking, we must recognize that Gowon is
not alone among African leaders who have had to confront attempted coups while
outside their domains. Those –like Gowon in 1975 - who were successfully
overthrown while away from home include Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana (1966), King
Idris of Libya (1969), Milton Obote of Uganda (1971) and Kofi Busia of Ghana
(1972). Among those who successfully crushed such “out-of-country” coup attempts
are Emperor Haile Selassie (December 1960) and Colonel Mengistu Mariam (May
1989), both of Ethiopia. Former Sudanese leader Jaffar Nimiery survived 22 coup
attempts before the 23rd one succeeded. Among the 22 unsuccessful
attempts were at least one or two that were staged either while he was away or
just returning from abroad. Even the one that eventually succeeded, on April 6,
1985, occurred while returning from the US through Egypt. Former Gambian
President Dauda Jawara likewise regained his position, in 1981, with the help of
Senegal when he was first overthrown while attending a royal wedding in London.
And most recently, on July 16 this year, the leader of Sao Tome, President
Fradique de Menezes, was overthrown while attending a conference in Nigeria. He
too was restored after concerted regional and worldwide diplomatic activity. It
will be noted, however, that practically all leaders who have survived
“out-of-country” coups at one point or the other were eventually removed from
office by coup. We must not forget, though, that Ghana’s General Ignatius Kutu
Acheampong who - because he removed Busia while away in the UK for medical
treatment - very rarely traveled for fear of coups, was still successfully
overthrown by his deputy in July 1978.
Leadership style and
On the question of leadership, there is no one leadership style for all seasons. What some called Gowon’s ‘prevarication’ and ‘forgiving nature’ is precisely the kind of cautious approach to vexatious issues in a complex country that is sometimes required. But there is also a season for decisiveness and even aggression – as he showed at key junctures when the corporate integrity of the country was threatened. His successor, General Murtala Muhammed, a great man too in his own way, struck a chord with many for this reason but then his style may not necessarily have been ideal for all times either.
The ideal Nigerian leader is one who should be able to switch roles and personality to deal dynamically – in quantity, quality and time - with various threats and issues. In every Nigerian leader so far there is some aspect of their individual personalities which can be distilled out as being desirable and others as less desirable or undesirable. The key, though, is to have a highly professional civil service that acts as a bridge of continuity between governments, helping to steady the course of public policy and governance in a manner that focuses on the big picture – service to the Nigerian people, no matter who is in charge.
Nevertheless, as far as personal honesty, decency and integrity are concerned, one must emphasize that General Gowon was second to none as a military officer and Nigerian leader. He may have equals but certainly no superiors on this score. And that counts for a lot, considering just how easily he could have become a multimillionaire if he had wanted to be one – and just how wealthy some of those subsequently entrusted with the leadership of the country at one time or the other have become.
It was former President Shagari
that remarked – in his memoirs – that,
“Except in an official sense, Nigeria, it seems,
is one country without national heroes. Every former leader is a fit object for
ridicule and vitriol or at best only worthy of a place in the political museum.
Perhaps even General Mohammed who was reckoned by many to have died a national
hero might have earned a different epitaph had the Dimka-led coup been
successful; or had Mohammed himself survived, pressed on with his stern crusade,
and eventually relinquished power.”
With this in mind, it was,
therefore, with considerable interest that I went perusing recent Gowon related
comments in Nigerian newspapers. An editorial in THIS DAY newspaper of
October 3rd, was commenting on President Olusegun Obasanjo’s
Independence Day Speech of October 1st, 2003. The title of the
editorial was “Obasanjo and State of the Nation.” In the penultimate paragraph,
the newspaper observed that,
“The Head of State who did the most to promote (this) national integration was Gen. Yakubu Gowon. He not only opened up the country with a vast network of federal highways, he instituted the National Youth Service Corps Scheme. That was almost 30 years ago and succeeding governments have not matched, not to talk of improving on the Gowonian initiative.“
"I would like to point out that when General Gowon
was in charge of Nigeria and Awolowo was his finance minister, they did a
wonderful job. In spite of the war that we fought, as far as the rest of Nigeria
was concerned anywhere, we were reasonably better off. There was plenty of
foodstuff and so on.”
It should be noted that Alhaji Shehu Shagari, an honest man in his own right, was the successor to Chief Awolowo as Finance Minister, and loyally served Gowon and Nigeria in that capacity for the same four-year duration.
Nevertheless, given such
increasingly publicly expressed comments, it would seem that much water has
passed under the bridge since the Military rebellion of July 29, 1975 and the
heady days that followed.
APPENDIX: THEN AND NOW
It is always instructive in a historical exercise such as this one to place the lives and careers of key players in perspective. In the course of this essay the names of many former active-duty military officers were mentioned. I have selected a number of them – particularly those in the Army - and constructed the table below – based on exhaustive research work in progress over many years. Although documentation and memory in Nigeria tends to be poor, even when obtained directly from some of the concerned officers or their family members, any errors are mine and should be brought to my attention for appropriate changes.
This institution or program is no longer in existence, having been discontinued
entirely or folded into other programs (e.g. NMTC became the Nigerian Army
School of Infantry – NASI – and subsequently, the Infantry Centre and School
Head of the
Federal Military Government
The fact that one or more
officers at a meeting of officers of the 2nd Division at Ibadan on
July 29, 1975 were urging their GOC, Brigadier James Oluleye, to resist the coup
does not necessarily imply they were opposed to the putsch. Among them were
certainly some that were part of the conspiracy but may have been playing a
complex double game. The nature of the subject makes any conclusions
speculative. It is in this context that the reported behavior of Lt. Cols.
Abacha and Idiagbon must be viewed. They may well have been Gowon loyalists, but
then it is just as plausible that they were not. Lastly, an officer may oppose
a coup, not on principle, but because he feels slighted that he was not taken
into confidence by plotters.
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