How Gowon's Leadership Style Saved Nigeria


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How Gowon's Leadership Style Saved Nigeria




Chief Sunday Awoniyi



October 22, 2004


This is to honour a man whose life should be a lesson to all of us. Power is intoxicating, and probably more so in Nigeria, with  our ever present battalions of praise singers and flatterers. But General Gowon exercised power and authority at the dizzy height  of military Head of State of our beloved country, Nigeria, and he did so with unsurpassed humility. This humility is firmly  anchored on his never forgetting that he is human and in absolute dependence on his God before whom he believes he would  have to answer for every thing he does or fails to do.
He has experienced great triumph and wide public adulation of his countrymen and earned himself sincere respect internationally.  But he never allowed success and praise to go to his head. The greatest attribute of truly great leaders is their ability to make it possible for others, the high and the lowly, to feel that they are part of their leader's success. General Gowon possessed this  attribute abundantly. He never failed to give credit generously and spontaneously to others who deserved such credit.

The great man we know today as General Dr. Yakubu Gowon GCFR, PhD was born on 19th October 1934; the fifth of eleven  children born to a devout Christian Pastor and Preacher, Mallam Yohanna Gowon and Mama Saraya Kuryan Gowon, who  took pride in having been married on the same day as Her Majesty the late Queen Elizabeth the Mother, spouse of King George  VI.

He attended St. Bartholomew CMS School, Wusasa, Zaria, 1939-49, Government College (now Barewa College), Zaria,  1950-53. At Barewa College, Zaria, he was House Captain of one of the six Houses. A good and painstaking student, an  all-round athlete, college football goal keeper, college pole vaulter, college long distance runner who broke the college mile record in his first year at college, the college boxing captain who in our 4 years at college never exchanged blows with anyone in  anger.
He enlisted in the Nigeria Army and trained at the Officer Cadet School, Teshi, Accra, 1954; Royal Military Academy,  Sandhurst, UK, 1955-56; Staff College, Camberley, UK, 1962; Joint Staff College, Latimer, 1965.
He had two spells in the Congo (Zaire) on United Nations Peace Keeping Force, first in 1960-61 and later as Brigade Major in  1963. He saw at first hand in the Congo how a country can easily descend into chaos when leaders lose their heads and foreign powers take advantage to promote their own economic and political interests. The lesson was not lost on him when he had to  cope with the Nigeria crisis in 1966.
His progress in the army was rapid. Promoted Major, 1962; Lieutenant Col., 1963; the first indigenous Adjutant-General of the  Nigeria Army, 1963-65; Chief of Staff, Army, 1966. He served as a member of the Federal Executive Council and the  Supreme Military Council from January 1966 until he became Head of the Federal Military Government and  Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces, July 1966.


A staunch Christian whose exertion has always been to spread peace and harmony amongst his fellowmen, as his Lord Jesus  Christ taught him; this man of peace who hated strife and hated war even more, by a queer turn of fate had the leadership of the  country thrust upon him in July 1966 at a point when the total disintegration of the country seemed irreversible.
He was a young likeable Lieutenant Colonel, handsome and impeccable in his bearing and conduct. He was good< to behold in  his immaculate military uniform. But he was only 32, inexperienced and dangerously trusting of his fellowmen in the  intrigue-ridden atmosphere of 1966. I recall in those dark days in Kaduna, a British journalist looking at me with pity in his eyes  in the Governor's Office where I worked and then asking me:
"I gather you know this fellow, Col. Gowon. How do you expect  a boy scout like that, to keep together, this complex and difficult country of yours?" The sceptical journalist had a point.
We all knew that Gowon's love of peace was absolute; his abhorrence of violence almost equal to that of a pacifist. Regrettably  also, we all knew that he had to negotiate with people whose programmes were diametrically opposed to his commitment to  save the country. He made concessions after concessions and some costly compromises for peace. The most topical in those  dark days being the concessions made at Aburi in Ghana.
But when it became absolutely clear and certain that it was impossible to save the corporate existence of his beloved Nigeria  without a fight, he went to war. Moving from Police action to full-scale war. The slogan: "To keep Nigeria One Is A Task That  Must Be Done" encapsulated the purpose of the struggle. By sheer act of Providence, his very name translated to the acronym  for the Nigeria Enterprise and Objectives -- GOWON -- GO ON WITH ONE NIGERIA.
Throughout those difficult war years, he was always conscious, and more so than many of the people around him, that after the  thunder and fire, after the fury and the bitterness of a civil war, there must follow the equally arduous task of reconciliation. He therefore tried to fight the war with minimal venom. He issued a Code of Conduct to his troops. He allowed the unprecedented  introduction of International Observers to take to the field to ensure that his field commanders prosecuted the war in a humane  way.
In addition to prosecuting the war as humanely as possible, the day-to-day administration of the country and the management of  its economy had to continue. He ensured that the daily lives and welfare of the people remained, as far as possible, undisrupted.
He ensured that the war was financed without external borrowing or deficit financing. A volunteer force fought the war. No  conscription. No emergency laws.
When at the end of the war he pronounced "No Victor, No Vanquished," he truly meant it. It is to his
eternal credit that in spite  of great pressures, he stood his ground and refused to be vengeful. There were no trials, no executions. No legal encumbrances, and no political disabilities were imposed on any one, or on any parts of the country. Such magnanimity, such large heartedness  is unprecedented in the history of civil wars.
With great zeal and urgency he set about the task of Reconciliation, Reconstruction and Rehabilitation. He showed great  courage and resilience and often, when the interest of the Federation and its people were involved, he displayed a stubbornness,  which many never knew he was capable of. He took the very brave step of creating 12 states. He appointed governors for 11  of the states and an administrator for one of them. He restored true federalism, by allowing the states to operate as true  federating units, as the old regions did, without undue interference by the Federal Government even in a Military Administration. He thereby put an end to the distortion of the Federal/State relationship by ending the unitary system, which the preceding  regime had sought to impose.
Into his Federal Executive Council, he appointed men of ability and distinction as Commissioners with powers to run their  ministries without hindrance. They were carefully chosen for their patriotism, experience, representation, open mindedness, credibility and courage. They were all older than he was. He respected them for their ability, forthrightness and devotion to the  country, and they reciprocated with loyalty to him and to the noble course he had set for the country.


After the widest possible consultation, he drew up and launched a bold, farsighted Second National Development Plan,  1970-74. It has to be said that never has there been a clearer and more succinct definition of our national objectives than those spelt out in that Plan some 34 years ago. The objectives bear repetition even today. They are:
i. A united, strong, self-reliant nation.

ii. A great and dynamic economy.

iii. A just and egalitarian society.

iv. A land bright and full of opportunities for all citizens.

v. A free and democratic society

That plan was not just TV and radio talk; platitude and rhetoric, and photo opportunity. General Gowon backed up the plan  objectives with a large number of enabling Decrees followed by pragmatic actions to enhance the success of the Nigeria  Enterprise, which he envisaged.
An Annual Capital Budget, which flowed from the National Plan, was drawn up, always on time, every year, and meticulously  executed. Planning and budgeting touched the lives of all Nigerians. There was something in them for everybody and for all parts of the country.

He quickly gave legal authority to consolidate the states he had created. He introduced or established the National Institute for  International Affairs, the River Basin Authorities, the International Institute for Tropical Agriculture, the National Commission for Rehabilitation, the National Insurance Corporation of Nigeria (NICON), Decimal Currency, Steel Authority, Public Safety  Laws, Offences Against Persons Laws, Flags of Nigeria Ships Laws, Investigation of Assets (Public Officers and other Persons)  Laws, Recovery of Public Property Laws, National Library, Right Hand Change Over Laws, Standard Organisation of Nigeria (SON), Administrative Staff College of Nigeria (ASCON), Federal Government Staff Housing Board, Corrupt Practices Laws,  Nigeria Pilgrims Board, etc.
The Unity Schools and the National Youth Service Corps (NYSC) were established to give the Youths opportunities to know  themselves and their country< better and to foster national cohesion and integration.
Aided by his knowledgeable Federal Executive Council, a loyal Supreme Military Council, a bold, dedicated and patriotic Civil  Service, all of whom he carefully listened to, General Gowon turned out a series of people oriented policies, established  institutions and organs of administration and government, and created an atmosphere for the development of a middle class. A  strong middle class is the bedrock of all democracies and he wanted a middle class capable of playing more than cosmetic roles  in the nation's economy.


Throughout the war years, the day-to-day administration of the country and its non-military pursuits continued. General Gowon  paid great attention to the management of the economy, particularly its finances. National Income was carefully watched and  expenditure stringently monitored and controlled. The provisions of the finance laws were enforced. There were systems and procedures to follow and adhered to by all, high and low, thus preventing rash, ad hoc, impulsive, ill-thought out episodic and  costly decisions. The result was that Nigeria had a strong and stable economy.
Our foreign reserve grew and Nigeria became a grade "A" country, able to finance its imports up to seven months.
Our rate of exchange was carefully monitored and the naira strengthened and became at par with the British pound. Our people  were well fed and well clothed. Money was poured into development of new industries and the rehabilitation of damaged ones.  Airports, Railways, Seaports were planned and built. New Universities and new Federal Polytechnics were planned or  established. After an extensive over flight of the area in which we are now gathered today, he decided that the area be studied as the site for  the new Federal Capital.
The international hostility of the war years changed to international respect.
Nigeria was on the march to a great future.
The man called the Boys Scout by the sceptical British journalist had saved Nigeria!


When in July 1975 he was literarily stabbed in the back while attending an OAU meeting in Kampala, Uganda, and toppled  from power by the very people whose lives, progress and careers he had helped to nurture, he bore the treachery with  exemplary long-suffering dignity.
His reaction to those events showed his unique strength of character and fortitude, and his love of peace and country. In a  portion of the brief statement he made to the world press in Kampala, he said:
"From all indications, a new government had been established in Nigeria. I wish to state that I on my part have also accepted the  change and pledged my full loyalty to my nation, my country and the new government.

"Therefore, in the overall interest of the nation and our beloved country, I appeal to all concerned to cooperate fully with the  new government and ensure the preservation of the peace, unity and stability of our dear motherland."
He then made only one off-the-cuff remark to the pressmen. He quoted the famous lines in William Shakespeare's play: "As  You Like It":

All the world is a stage,
and all the men and women merely players.
They have their exits and their entrances
and one man in his time plays many parts.

Even at the height of his powers, he maintained that unique Christ-like generosity of spirit, which made it possible for him to bear  gratuitous insults and injury and to endure unpleasant graceless people with patience and forgiveness, when he could have  wreaked cold malice and vengeance on those who maligned and betrayed him. To General Gowon everybody makes
mistakes  and everyone who offends can be reformed by exhortation, by good example and patience. Those are his distinguishing  attributes right from college. He could never knowingly and or deliberately do anything wrong or plot evil against his fellow man.


With typical humility, he enrolled as an undergraduate at Warwick University, UK, to read for a degree; carrying meal plates like  any other student. He subsequently earned his doctorate degree and he is today a visiting professor in Political Science to the  University of Jos.
This surely must qualify for mention in the Guinness Book of Records for a former Head of State.


At this point it is fitting to express great tribute and gratitude to Mrs Victoria Gowon for providing the domestic tranquillity  needed in the great task thrust on our leader and friend, General Gowon. Sharing with him the long nights of worry and  uncertainty; shoring him up in the loneliness of overall command and responsibility. Madam, we thank you also for sharing with  him moments of joy and triumph, in private and in public, with a calm, low profile, self-effacing dignity devoid of arrogance and  conceit. Mrs. Gowon we salute you.


In retrospect the overthrow of General Gowon on 29th July 1975 marked a watershed in the history of this country. A  benchmark of what we had been and what we can still become given the right leadership. He is a watershed between humane,  predictable, carefully planned governance on the one hand, and arbitrariness, insensitive rulership masquerading as dynamism on  the other hand. Today, nearly three decades down the years, we have experienced a decline in probity in governance.  Everything that is honourable in us individually and collectively has all been compromised through duplicitous, self-serving  manipulative leadership. We have witnessed the destruction of time tested systems and procedures which are indispensable to  orderly, transparent governance. The purpose of systems and procedures in government is to ensure orderly, predictable and  quantifiable progress and development. To do away with them is to destroy the basic ingredients for transparency and  accountability and to facilitate the enthronement of corruption in the conduct of public affairs through arbitrariness, impulsive  decisions and actions.


Since his return from exile, General Gowon has devoted himself, full time, to good causes. His Nigeria Prays Programme draws  people closer to God and encourages religious harmony. Through his international contacts, he established a Guinea Worm  Eradication Programme in collaboration with the former United States' President's Carter Centre, and an HIV Programme with Global Fund of Geneva.

Today, the call on him to support one good cause or individual or community or other is so great that his engagement diary is  probably more chocked up than when he was Head of State. His presence in any gathering in Nigeria invests the gathering and  the proceedings of the gathering with a degree of aura of integrity and worth which no other person in Nigeria can confer today.
Finally, I wish to leave you to ponder the following
thoughts on this great man.

  If General Gowon had been a self-seeking man, a self centred man with selfish ambitions, a man who did not care to what  level he was prepared to stoop to attain his selfish ends, where would Nigeria have been today?
  If General Gowon had been a duplicitous leader rather than a clean honest leader of true transparency in words, thought and  deed, a leader who is known to be incapable of dissembling, how would he have earned the trust of millions of his country men  and women who fought with him to save the country from disintegration?
  If General Gowon had been a vengeful, unfeeling, unforgiving, malicious man, what colossal and irreversible mischief could he  not have unleashed against reconciliation and national togetherness in this country at the end of the civil war?
General Gowon is worthy of emulation and he merits our deepest and undying appreciation.
General Gowon, God bless you and all those who love you.  


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