By Dare Babarinsa
General Yakubu Gowon, who marked his 87th birthday this Tuesday, October 19, is the first Nigerian ruler to grow old. His two predecessors, Prime-Minister Abubakar Tafawa-Balewa, was a 54-year old statesman at the top of his career when he was killed. Balewa’s successor, Major-General J.T.U. Aguiyi-Ironsi was a young general at 42 when coup plotters too cut him down. It was Ironsi’s death that paved the way for Gowon. With Nigeria having 12 Chiefs of State since Gowon’s ouster in 1975, there is still a lingering feeling of what could have been with Gowon’s unfinished transition programme.
Gowon’s rise to power was a classic case of fate on duty. After the killings of many senior officers during the January 15, 1966 coup, Gowon was the lone most senior officer from Northern Nigeria who survived. He was a dashing lieutenant colonel of 32; a bachelor who had survived being killed by sheer luck. There were only two senior officers left who were superior to Gowon. One was Brigadier Babafemi Ogundipe, whom Ironsi appointed his deputy as the Chief of Staff, Supreme Headquarters. The second one was Colonel Adeyinka Adebayo, who was in uncomfortable exile in the United Kingdom and was without any command appointment. Ironsi then made Gowon his Chief of Army Staff, the post earlier held by Adebayo.
There were three other persons in the power constellation. Commodore Akinwale Wey, matured, experienced and stoic, was the commander of the fledgling Nigerian Navy. The Inspector-General of Police inherited from the ousted Balewa Regime was Louis Edet, who was also a part of the power structure. Ironsi then appointed young lieutenant colonels as the military governors to manage the regions. The four were David Ejoor, Mid-West; Emeka Ojukwu, East; Adekunle Fajuyi, West and Hassan Usman Katsina, North. Ironsi knew they were young and inexperienced, therefore he appointed the former governors who served the last civilian premiers, as their special advisers.
Ironsi then decided that Nigeria has to be ruled as one unit instead of a federation. Nigeria was ruled as one unitary estate from the time of the amalgamation in 1914 until the colonial regime introduced the Federal Constitution in 1954. Many top politicians, including Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe, had preferred Nigeria to remain a unitary state, but the majority, especially those from the North and the West, wanted federalism. With the coup of January 1966, many Nigerians were now clamouring for a return to a stronger centre to curb “tribalism, regionalism and sectionalism.”
Ironsi listened to them to his damnation. When Ironsi abolished the regions and replaced them with group of provinces, the reaction was muffled. Not many people were clapping. The politicians, especially those from the North, interpreted it to mean an instrument to further the domination of Ironsi’s people from Eastern Nigeria who were already very visible in the public service. There was also the gathering storm in the barracks over what the soldiers called the “lopsided killings” of military officers during the January coup. Even in killings, Nigerians prefer federal character! These were the two issues that led to the ouster of Ironsi and his assassination. When Gowon came to power, he learnt his lessons from Ironsi’s missteps.
Gowon’s tenure was however to prove more riotous and bloodier. Two issues were to dominate Gowon’s nine-years reign. One was the Civil War in which an estimated one million people died. The second was his ultimately futile return to civil rule programme. I believe the Civil War was not inevitable, but was propelled to happen by the struggle for personal power, personal prestige and personal greed. I would like to dwell more on Gowon’s ill-fated return to civil rule programme.
Before the Civil War intervened, Gowon and his team had thought that latest by 1970, the military would return to the barracks. Then the Civil War happened. After the war, Gowon pledged to return the country to democratic rule by October 1, 1976. By that time, he would have been in power for 10 years. However, on October 1, 1974 during his Independence Day broadcast, Gowon announced that “1976 is unrealistic.” His reasons: “the politicians have not learnt their lessons.”
Though Gowon came to power as a soldier, he actually ruled as a democrat who believes in true federalism. The 12 state governors were also members of the Supreme Military Council (SMC). At the Aburi Peace Meeting in Ghana, Ojukwu had insisted that Gowon dropped the title of Supreme Commander for that of the less intimidating title of Commander-in-Chief. Therefore, when there were heightened agitations for the removal of the governors, there was no way for Gowon to move against them because it would require a decision of the SMC where the governors were dominant.
There were open grumblings in the barracks when Gowon said he would no longer hand over power in 1976. He did not announce a new date. He had apparently fallen under the influence of fellow African leaders like General Gnassingbe Eyadema of Togo, who believe that power is a life-long career. Some young officers, led by the likes of Colonel Joe Garba, Lt. Colonel Shehu Musa Yar’Adua and Colonel Ibrahim Taiwo, decided to stage a coup against Gowon.
The coup that toppled Gowon was a bloodless one, the first in Nigerian history. He was just 41 and a full general. The war commanders, led by Brigadier Murtala Muhammed, came to power. In the new triumvirate were also Brigadier Olusegun Obasanjo and Brigadier Yakubu Danjuma. Murtala Muhammed drove the regime in its early days to achieve things that many thought were impossible. He announced the creation of a new national capital in a virgin land called Abuja. He created more states and the 12 states structure became 19, disturbing the balance between the North and the South that had existed since Nigeria became a federation in 1954. Now the North had 10 states to the South 9. In the long run, despite the excitements and dramas of that era of “with immediate effect,” Muhammed regime was to prove more disruptive.
If Gowon had honoured his pledge to hand over in 1976, mostly likely the trajectory of Nigerian history would have followed a different path. He would have handed over a federal structure of only 12 states. If that democratic experience had endured, Nigeria would still be a federation of only 12 states today. It has been proven since 1999 that the civilian regime is simply incapable of creating new states. It can only make noise about creation of states. We have been hearing the noise since 1999.