On January 15, 1966, a group of young army majors led by the charismatic Major Chukwumma Kaduna Nzeogwu overthrew the civilian government of Prime Minister Abubaka Tafawa Balewa. Their aim was to restore sociopolitical and economic stability and to eradicate corruption. Between 1962 and 1965, Nigeria had witnessed many crises, which ranged from the disputed census and the controversial federal elections to the inconclusive, violent western regional election of 1965, all of which collectively eroded Nigeria’s stability and unity.
But the partial and selective manner in which the military operation was conducted left much to be desired. In Kaduna, Ibadan, and Lagos, the event was marked by much bloodshed and led to the assassination of both top military officers and leading politicians. The Igbo-controlled eastern and mid-western regions were left unscathed by the event. However, the forceful intervention of major general J. T. U. Aguiyi-Ironsi, General Officer Commanding, and other loyal officers like Lieutenant Colonel Yakubu Gowon, Commander, Second Battalion Nigerian Army, Ikeja and his men, aborted the assumption of office by those who masterminded the plot. At the end of the day, the loyal troops under Ironsi, assumed the reins of power. The overthrow of the civilian politicians was initially welcomed in the south and tolerated in the north. However, as events unfolded and the identity of the coup-makers and their victims became known, the event of January 15, 1966, began to be seen as an Igbo bid to dominate Nigeria. Consequently, every action of Ironsi, especially the enactment of the unification decree that abolished regionalism in place of unitary government and unified administration, became misrepresented as part of an Igbo grand design to rule the country. The nonprosecution of the plotters was another sore point the northern officers and men held against him. These views, whether founded or not, generated much disquiet in the north and culminated eventually in the violent May riots against the Igbo in various northern cities.
On July, 29, 1966, a countercoup took place, spearheaded by northern officers and soldiers who said they acted to forestall further Igbo attacks on them. Major-General Ironsi, Lt. Col. F. A. Fajuyi, (military governor of the western group of provinces), and many Igbo officers and men were killed in Lagos, Ibadan, and Abeokuta. For three uncertain days Nigerians had no head of state. The northern instigators of the countercoup chose the most senior northern officer, Lt. Col.
Yakubu Gowon, Army Chief of Staff under Ironsi, as their candidate for the office of head of state.
On August 1,1966, Lt. Col. Yakubu Gowon became the head of state and supreme commander of the Nigerian Armed Forces. Prior to his elevation, he was largely unknown to most Nigerians, but was popular with the army, where he had held important posts as adjutant general and army chief of staff positions that had endeared him especially among the northern officers corps and the rank and file. Yakubu Gowon had attended the renowned government (now Barewa) College Zaria and on graduation, joined the army in 1954 as an officer cadet, and by 1963 had risen to the rank of lieutenant colonel.
Gowon inherited a Nigeria that was politically unstable and on the verge of disintegration. His assumption leadership displeased Lt. Col. Odumegwu Ojukwu, military governor of eastern Nigeria, who refused to recognize. The armed forces, which had struggled with credibility issues since the January coup, faced total collapse. Furthermore, massacres of Igbo in northern cities, and the exodus that followed, made any prospects for “one Nigeria” highly unlikely, as far as the Igbo were concerned. Mutual trust was now replaced by ethnic suspicion and hatred. Though worried, Gowon did not allow these problems to overwhelm him. In an effort to win public acceptance for his regime, he abolished the unification decree and reverted to a federal structure. He won over the largely Yoruba population of the western region when he released political prisoners, including Obafemi Awolowo and his colleagues (who had been charged with treason in 1963).
The failure of Gowon and Ojukwu to reach amicable compromise necessitated the meeting of the Supreme Military Council (SMC) at Aburi Ghana on January 4-5, 1967. Gowon’s political inexperience manifested itself when he agreed, with Ojukwu, to accept confederation. But, when the SMC met in Benin to ratify the draft decree of the Aburi agreement, Ojukwu refused to attend on security grounds and so disowned its provisions. With his mind already made up to secede from Nigeria, he hastily promulgated the Revenue Edict, which appropriated taxes from the east due to the federal government. Further attempts at peaceful resolution, by the National Reconciliation Committee under Awolowo, failed.
As a result, Gowon’s attitude hardened and on May 27, 1967, he declared a state of emergency and split the country into twelve regional states. The creation of two states for the eastern minorities was intended to undermine support for Ojukwu and present an excuse for attacking the Igbo. On May 30 Ojukwu, as expected, declared the state of Biafra and the country was embroiled in civil war for 30 months.
On January 12, 1970, the Biafran forces formally surrendered to Nigeria. To allay the fears of Biafran returnees, Gowon declared his famous policy of “no victor no vanquished.” He embarked on the “3R” program of reconstruction, rehabilitation, and reconciliation. In principle it was a laudable scheme but in practice it left much to be desired in its implementation. Winning the war was the high point of Gowon’s administration, but he failed to win the peace. He lost what goodwill Nigerians had for him when he was unable to successfully implement his program.
Gowon reneged on his promise to return the country to civil rule in 1976, pronouncing the date unrealistic in 1974. Public confidence in his administration was further eroded when allegations of impropriety were leveled against his officials. The incidence of corruption reached a new height and he appeared both unwilling and unable to do anything about it.
On the international level, Gowon pursued the non-aligned policy by making Africa its main focus. He was a founder of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS).
He was overthrown on July 29, 1975, in a bloodless coup, while attending the Organization of African Unity (OAU) summit in Kampala, Uganda. He went immediately to Britain and enrolled at the University of Warwick, where he graduated with a doctorate in political science. For a time, he was implicated in the 1976 Dimka abortive coup in which his successor, Murtala Muhammed, was assassinated. He was granted amnesty by President Shehu Shagari in1980. Despite his shortcomings, history will not forget the role of General Yakubu Gowon in keeping Nigeria united.
J. O. Ahazuem
Akinrinade, S., and A. Oghuma. “Gowon Clinches the Saddle.” Newswatch. Special Edition, 3, no. 3 (January 20, 1986). Elaigwu, J. I. Gowon. Ibadan: West Books Publishers, 1985. Harneit-Sievers, A., J. O. Ahazuem, and Sydney Emezue. A Social History of the Nigeria Civil War. Enugu: Jemezie Associates and Lit Verlag Hamburg, 1997.
Jemibewon, D. M. A Combatant in Government. Ibadan: Heinemann, 1979.
Kirk-Greene, A., and D. Rimmer. Nigeria since 1970. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1981.