3rd President of Nigeria In office
August 1, 1966 – July 29, 1975
General Yakubu "Jack" Dan-Yumma Gowon (born October 19, 1934) was the head of state (Head of the Federal Military Government) of Nigeria from 1966 to 1975. He took power after one military coup d'etat and was overthrown in another. During his rule, the Nigerian government successfully prevented Biafran secession, and he subsequently followed a magnanimous "no victor, no vanquished" policy that did much to restore the goodwill that had been lost between the Igbo and the rest of Nigeria during the 1966–1970 Civil War.
Yakubu is a 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 Yakubu's life. He grew up in Zaria and had his early life and education there.
Yakubu Gowon joined the ranks of the Nigerian army in 1954, receiving a commission as a Second Lieutenant on October 19, 1955, his 21st birthday. He had 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 genuine Northerner who was neither of Hausa or Fulani ancestry nor of the Islamic faith made him seem a particularly safe choice to lead a nation seething with ethnic tension.
In January 1966, a military coup by a group of mostly Igbo junior officers under the Major Chukwuma Kaduna Nzeogwu, led to the overthrow of Nigeria's civilian government. In the course of this coup, many 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; Samuel Akintola, Premier of the Western Region, as well as several high ranking Northern army officers; by contrast, only a single Igbo officer lost his life. This gave the coup a decidedly ethnocentric cast that aroused the suspicions of Northerners, and the subsequent failure by Major General Johnson Aguiyi-Ironsi to meet Northern demands for the prosecution of the coup plotters further inflamed Northern anger.
The final straw seems to have been 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 the Igbo-dominated NCNC; this was interpreted by Northerners as an Igbo attempt at a takeover of all levers of power in the country, as the North lagged badly behind the Western and Eastern regions in terms of education, while the Igbo were already present in the federal civil service out of all proportion to their numbers as a percentage of the Nigerian population. On July 29, 1966, while Ironsi was staying at Government House in Ibadan, northern troops led by Major Theophilus Danjuma and Captain Martin Adamu stormed the building, seized Ironsi and his host, Lieutenant Colonel Adekunle Fajuyi, and subsequently had the two men stripped naked, flogged and beaten, and finally machine-gunned to death. Other northern troops, led by Lieutenant Colonel Murtala Mohammed, the real leader of the counter-coup, then seized the Ikeja airport in Lagos.
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, as well as emissaries of the British and American governments. 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. Gowon wasted no time in reversing Ironsi's abrogation of the federal principle upon his ascent to power.
In the meantime, the July Counter-Coup had unleashed pogroms against the Igbo throughout the Northern Region. Hundreds of Igbo officers were murdered during the revolt, and in the North, as commanding officers either lost their control of their troops or actively egged them on to violence against Igbo civilians, it did not take long for Northerners from all walks of life to participate. Tens of thousands of Igbos were slaughtered throughout the North. The persecution precipitated the flight of more than a million Igbo towards their ancestral homelands in eastern Nigeria. Lieutenant Colonel Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu, the Ironsi-appointed military governor of the Eastern region, who had managed to quash any attempts by Northern soldiers stationed in his region to replicate the massacres of Igbo officers that had occurred elsewhere, then began making ever more openly seccesionist statements and gestures, arguing that if Igbo lives could not be preserved by the Nigerian state, then the Igbo reserved the right to establish a state of their own in which their rights would indeed be respected.
All of this served to stoke tensions between the Eastern region and Gowon's federal government, and on 4-5 January 1967, in compliance with Ojukwu's desire to meet for talks only on neutral soil, a summit attended by Gowon, Ojukwu and other members of the Supreme Military Council was held at Aburi in Ghana, the stated purpose of which was to resolve all outstanding conflicts and establish Nigeria as a confederation of regions. The outcome of this summit was the Aburi Accord, the differing interpretations of which would soon become a major cause in pushing Nigeria to civil war.
The Aburi Accord did not see the end of Ojukwu's moves to seize federal powers in the Eastern region for himself, the most consequential of which was his decision to take control of all Federal Statutary Corporations in the region and to retain all revenues collected for his own government - including oil revenues from the non-Igbo Niger delta region, which while not yet great in scale, were expected to increase in the coming years, huge reserves having been discovered in the area in the mid-1960s. Despite his denials in later years, it appears that Ojukwu's insistence on secession at the time was heavily influenced by his knowledge of the existence of these oil reserves; vast oil revenues would have made Biafra a viable state regardless of any measures the Nigerian government might have chosen to take, and there would have been far more oil revenue per head in a Biafra that did not have to share with the rest of Nigeria. The one fly in the ointment was that most of these oil reserves lay in areas in which the Igbo were not the predominant population.
In reaction to Ojukwu's revenue grab, on May 5, 1967, Gowon announced the division of the 3 Nigerian regions into 12 states - North-Western State, North-Eastern state, Kano State, North-Central State, Benue-Plateau State, Western State, Lagos State, Mid-Western State, and, from Ojukwu's Eastern Region, a Rivers State, a South-Eastern State, and an East-Central State. The overwhelmingly non-Igbo South-Eastern and Rivers states had the oil reserves and access to the sea, while the East-Central state, which was predominantly Igbo, had neither. Gowon's calculation was that the minority ethnicities of the Eastern Region would not be nearly as sanguine about the prospect of secession, as it would mean living in an Igbo-dominated nation in which their voices would carry no weight whatsoever. Subsequent events were to prove Gowon correct in this assumption, as many non-Igbo living in the Eastern Region either refrained from offering active support to the Biafran struggle, or actively aided the federal side by enlisting in the Nigerian army and feeding it intelligence about Biafran military activities.
On May 30, 1967, Ojukwu responded to Gowon's announcement by declaring the formal secession of the Eastern Region, which was now to be known as the Republic of Biafra. This was to trigger a war that would last some 30 months, and see the deaths of more than 100,000 soldiers and over a million civilians, most of the latter of which would perish of starvation under a Nigeria-imposed blockade. The war saw a massive expansion of the Nigerian army in size and a steep increase in its doctrinal and technical sophistication, while the Nigerian Air Force was essentially born in the course of the conflict. The end of the war came about on January 12, 1970, with the capture of Biafran Radio by Colonel Olusegun Obasanjo, and Obasanjo's acceptance of the surrender of Biafran forces on the same day. Gowon subsequently declared his famous "no victor, no vanquished" speech, and followed it up with an amnesty for the majority of those who had participated in the Biafran uprising, as well as a program of "Reconciliation, Reconstruction, and Rehabilitation", to repair the extensive damage done to the economy and infrastructure of the Eastern Region during the years of war.
The postwar years saw Nigeria enjoying a meteoric, oil-fueled economic upturn, in the course of which the scope of activity of the Nigerian federal government grew to an unprecedented degree, and this unexpected good fortune made it possible for Gowon to carry out a large part of his program for the reconstruction of the former Eastern Region. Another fateful decision made by Gowon at the height of the oil boom was to have severely negative repercussions for the Nigerian economy in later years, although its immediate effects were scarcely noticeable - his indigenization decree of 1972, which declared many sectors of the Nigerian economy off-limits to all foreign investment, while ruling out more than minority participation by foreigners in several other areas. This decree provided windfall gains to several well-connected Nigerians, not the least important of whom was MKO Abiola (who Fela Anikulapo Kuti was later to lampoon as "International Thief-Thief" for his role as an inactive, nominal majority shareholder in a joint venture with ITT), but proved highly detrimental to non-oil investment in the Nigerian economy.
On October 1, 1974, in flagrant contradiction to his earlier promises, Gowon declared that Nigeria would not be ready for civilian rule by 1976, and he announced that the handover date would be postponed indefinitely. This provoked serious discontent within the army, and on July 25, 1975, while Gowon was attending an OAU summit in Kampala, a group of officers led by Brigadier Murtala Mohammed announced his overthrow. Gowon subsequently went into exile in the United Kingdom, where he acquired a Ph.D. in political science as a student at Warwick University.
He returned to Nigeria during the Second Republic under President Shehu Shagari.