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Profile of General Yakubu Gowon

Who is General Yakubu Gowon ? General Yakubu Gowon was Africa’s youngest Head of State when he came to power at 32....

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General Yakubu Gowon

Who is General Yakubu Gowon ?

General Yakubu Gowon was Africa’s youngest Head of State when he came to power at 32. A sincere Christian with a charming and open-minded personality, he emerged in 1966 to lead his country driven by coups and in danger of disintegration. His popularity with his fellow officers and following among the rank and file made him an automatic choice as leader. His problem was to restore order in a mutinous army and hold Nigeria together. He succeeded everywhere except in Biafra which declared secession. In the war, he was a moderate, pursuing a humane line against his hawkish advisers, insisting that Biafran civilians were misled by Nigerians, not enemies. His leadership brought the war to vindictive conclusion. Since 1970, he had maintained power to preserve stability in Nigeria “at least until 1976”. His major challenge was to eliminate corruption and make sure that Nigeria’s booming oil wealth is fairly divided among the people as a whole.

Birth and Parentage

He was born in October 19, 1934, in the Lur Pankshin division of the northern Plateau in the “Middle Belt”. His father, an Anga, was an early Christian convert and a keen evangelist. He was educated at St Bartholomew’s School, Wasasa, Zaria from 1939 to 1949, he got his school certificate at the Government College, Zaria in 1953. He was trained as an Officer at Teshie in Ghana followed in January 1955 by Eaton Hall until May 1955, then the RMAS, Anzio Company at Sandhurst from September 1955 to December 1956.

Military Ranks

From January to June 1957 he was at the Young Officers’ Course at Hythe and Warminster returning to Nigeria in July as a second lieutenant in the 4th Battalion. Early in 1960 he was on patrol on the Cameroon border and became the first Nigerian to be appointed adjutant of his battalion in November 1960. He served for two spells with Nigeria’s peace keeping mission in the Congo in 1961 and 1962. In June 1963, he was promoted lieutenant-colonel. Out of the country during the January 15, 1966, coup, he was appointed by the new leader, General Aguiyi-Ironsi as Chief of Staff to the Nigerian army and member of the military government.

After the second military coup of July 29, he was chosen as leader by the northern officers, being one of the most senior army officers and coming from the Middle Belt, which provided most of the rank and file of the Nigerian army. Young and inexperienced, he had a burning desire to preserve Nigeria’s unity. His first priority was to restore army’s discipline and allay the fears of civilians.

Civil War

His popular act was the release from prison of a veteran politician Chief Obafemi Awolowo on August 3, 1966 but, almost exactly two months after he took over, a violent massacre of Ibos took place in the North in October, causing them to flee home starting the inexorable movement towards the secession of Biafra.

He met Colonel Odumegwu Ojukwu at Aburi in Ghana on January 4, 1967, and made some concessions towards confederation, which he found were impracticable on his return to Lagos. Gingerly, he had to accommodate the wishes of his own divided supporters, but he spent the next seven months trying to persuade Ojukwu to drop his secessionist ideas. He failed: the Eastern parliament endorsed secession on May 26. Immediately Gowon declared a state of emergency and divided the country into 12 states, abolishing the old regions. This masterstroke united the rest of the country, removing the fear of Northern domination from the West.

Hostilities did not start before July when Gowon called for “a police action” to end secession. The war was to last two and half years. Gowon issued a “Code of conduct” to his troops and insisted that Biafran civilians were to be treated as Nigerians who had to be won back to the Federation. He allowed an International observer team to keep an eye on his own troops’ conduct. Throughout the war, he was a moderate, not believing in starvation or the quick kill. He ignored the illegal night flying of relief supplies into Biafra for over 15 months.

Gowon’s Amnesty to Biafrans

The war having come to an end, Gowon 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 a program of Reconciliation, Reconstruction and Rehabilitation, to repair the extensive damage done to the economy and infrastructure of the Eastern region during the war. He kept his word and prevented a bloodbath despite serious clashes with relief organizations over method. He allowed mercy missions to proceed and starvation and disease were reversed in Eastern Nigeria within a year. He also entrusted much of the country’s civil-reconstruction to a new generation of younger civil servants.

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In March 1972, his Nigerian Enterprises Promotions decree excluded a major proportion of the private sector from foreign business and ordered its transfer into Nigerian hands by March 1973. This indigenization decree, which declared many sector of the Nigerian economy off-limits to all foreign investment, provided windfall gains to several well-connected Nigerians. He spread development across the nation and developed the former capital of Nigeria – Lagos into an international city.


Gowon was a professional soldier and maintains greatly the ethics of the profession. He is the only Nigerian soldier and Head of State who has never retired to become a politician. Thus, he has set a precedent that is worthy of emulation by all retired Nigerian soldiers. He is gentle, upright and efficient professional soldier with all-round intellectual abilities. He started from a humble beginning and rapidly rose to the top. His manner is charming and his reactions are peaceful, passionately warm and spontaneous. He put his best to build Nigeria into a genuinely uncorrupt and progressive nation. He is the foundation we find ourselves today. He is indeed a great leader, distinguished Nigerian, academic, realistic soldier with a highly professional attitude to his career, and a hero of peace.

He is an exceptional personality who believes that God has given us so much to use for the good of humanity that after his government was ousted, he never stopped there. He enrolled in the University of Warwick in the UK, and studied to a Ph.D. level, a rare determination and feat. He is married to one wife, beautiful and charming Victoria Gowon. He is blessed with children and grand-children.

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