General Yakubu “Jack” Dan-Yumma Gowon (born 19 October 1934) is the former head of state (Head of the Federal Military Government) of Nigeria from 1966 to 1975. He took power after one military coup d’état and was overthrown in another. During his rule, the Nigerian government successfully prevented Biafran secession during the 1967–70 Nigerian Civil War.
Gowon is an Ngas (Angas) from Lur, a small village in the present Kanke Local Government Area of Plateau State. His parents, Nde Yohanna and Matwok Kurnyang, left for Wusasa, Zaria as Church Missionary Society (CMS) missionaries in the early days of Gowon’s life. His father took pride in the fact that he married the same day as the future Queen Mother Elizabeth married the future King George VI. Gowon was the fifth of eleven children. He grew up in Zaria and had his early life and education there. At school Gowon proved to be a very good athlete: he was the school football goalkeeper, pole vaulter, and long distance runner. He broke the school mile record in his first year. He was also the boxing captain.
Yakubu Gowon joined the Nigerian army in 1954, receiving a commission as a second lieutenant on 19 October 1955, his 21st birthday. He also attended both the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, UK (1955–56), Staff College, Camberley, UK (1962) as well as the Joint Staff College, Latimer, 1965. He saw 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.
Up until that year Gowon remained strictly a career soldier with no involvement whatsoever in politics, until the tumultuous events of the year suddenly thrust him into a leadership role, when 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 nation whose population were seething with ethnic tension.
In January 1966, he became Nigeria’s youngest military chief of staff at the age of 31, because 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. The then Lieutenant Colonel Gowon returned from his course at the Joint Staff College, Latimer UK two days before the coup – a late arrival that possibly exempted him from the coupist hit list. Success in twentieth century world affairs since 1919 and the subsequent failure by Major General Johnson Aguiyi-Ironsi (who was the head of state following the January 1966 coup-with Gowon his Chief of Staff) to meet Northern demands for the prosecution of the coup plotters further inflamed Northern anger. It should be noted that there was significant support for the coup plotters from both the Eastern Region as well as the mostly left-wing “Lagos-Ibadan” press. m
Then came Ironsi’s Decree Number 34, which proposed the abolition of the federal system of government in favor of a unitary state, a position which had long been championed by some Southerners-especially by a major section of the Igbo-dominated NCNC. This was perhaps wrongly interpreted by Northerners as a Southern (particularly Ibo) attempt at a takeover of all levers of power in the country. The North lagged badly behind the Western and Eastern regions in terms of education (partially due to Islamic doctrine-informed resistance to western cultural and social ethos), while the mostly-Igbo Easterners were already present in the federal civil service.
The original intention of Murtala Mohammed and his fellow coup-plotters seems to have been to engineer the secession of the Northern region from Nigeria as a whole, but they were subsequently dissuaded of their plans by several advisors, amongst which included a number of high-ranking civil servants and judges, and importantly emissaries of the British and American governments who had interests in the Nigerian polity. The young officers then decided to name Lieutenant Colonel Gowon, who apparently had not been actively involved in events until that point, as Nigerian Head of State. On ascent to power Gowon reversed Ironsi’s abrogation of the federal principle.
Role in the Biafran War
In anticipation of eastern secession, Gowon moved quickly to weaken the support base of the region by decreeing the creation of twelve new states to replace the four regions. Six of these states contained minority groups that had demanded state creation since the 1950s. Gowon rightly calculated that the eastern minorities would not actively support the Igbos, given the prospect of having their own states if the secession effort were defeated. Many of the federal troops who fought in the Nigerian Civil War, also known as the Biafran War, to bring the Eastern Region back to the federation, were members of minority groups.
The war lasted thirty months and ended in January 1970. In accepting Biafra’ unconditional cease-fire, Gowon declared that there would be no victor and no vanquished. In this spirit, the years afterward were declared to be a period of rehabilitation, reconstruction, and reconciliation. The oil-price boom, which began as a result of the high price of crude oil (the country’s major revenue earner) in the world market in 1973, increased the federal government’s ability to undertake these tasks.
The immediate reasons for the first-coup, however, concerned the nationwide disillusionment with the corrupt and selfish politicians, as well as with their inability to maintain law and order and guarantee the safety of lives and property. During the initial stages, Nzeogwu and his collaborators were hailed as national heroes. But the pattern of killings in the coup gave it a partisan appearance: killed were the prime minister, a northerner, the premier of the Northern Region, and the highest-ranking northern army officers; only one Igbo officer lost his life. Also killed was the premier of the Western Region who was closely allied with the NPC.
Gowon subsequently went into exile in the United Kingdom, where he acquired a PhD in political science as a student at the University of Warwick. His main British residence is on the border of north London and Hertfordshire, where he has very much become part of the English community in his area. He served a term as Churchwarden in his parish church, St Mary the Virgin, Monken Hadley.
In February 1976, Gowon was implicated in the coup d’état led by Lt. Col Buka Suka Dimka, which resulted in the death of the now Gen Murtala Mohammed. According to Dimka’s “confession”, he met with Gowon in London, and obtained support from him for the coup. In addition, Dimka mentioned before his execution that the purpose of the Coup d’état was to re-install Gowon as Head of State. As a result of the coup tribunal findings, Gowon was declared wanted by the Nigerian government, stripped of his rank in absentia and had his pension cut off. Gen Gowon was finally pardoned (along with the ex-Biafran President, Emeka Ojukwu) during the Second Republic under President Shehu Shagari. Gowon’s rank (of general) wasn’t restored until 1987 however by General Ibrahim Babangida.