Gen (Dr.) Gen. Yakubu Gowon
Prof. Chinua Achebe
Gen. Yakubu Gowon
Prof. Chinua Achebe
He held many appointments
in the Nigerian Army. He was Gen Ironsi’s Chief
of Army Staff in 1966 when Ironsi was killed in a counter coup of young Northern officers on 29 July 1966 and he
became Head of Federal Military Government and Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces throughout the civil war
years of 1967-70. He was toppled while attending the OAU
Following the Col Buka Suka Dimka-led aborted coup of 13 February 1976 in which Gen Murtala Ramat Mohammed was killed, the Federal Military declared him wanted and stripped him of his military rank. In 1981, President Shehu Shagari offered him state pardon, which he rejected. His military rank was restored in 1987.
Gen Gowon was very instrumental to the formation of the Economic
Community of West African States, ECOWAS. He
was chairman of OAU 1973-74. He was awarded honorary doctorate degrees
by Universities of
Gen Gowon leads an NGO,
He was interviewed by PINI JASON.
General, you have played a major role in world affairs and have now become a respected elder statesman in the country.
What are your fears, today; your disappointments, regrets concerning
A. It is a great shame that the event of 1975 occurred when it did. If you
Instead of beginning the development plan in April 1970, we waited until October so that the Igbo areas affected by the war would have recovered and become sufficiently rehabilitated to play their proper role as equal partners, and not as a part of the country requiring special favours because of the war. But then come 1975; just when we had planned the next Development Plan. I don’t know if you saw the document…
Q. I happened to be in
A. Without a doubt, the development plan would have laid a strong foundation for
Unfortunately, there was a change. The government that came after us, even though its leadership had been part and parcel of our development Plan, virtually abandoned it. Since then, it is my observation that things are being pursued in a rather ad hoc manner, rather than as an integrated effort. That is the saddest aspect of it all; we do not have a culture of planning from a truly national perspective. Any government with a sense of responsibility does not dispense with a programme simply because of its ties to a previous administration! Perhaps, slight modifications might be made in order to make things a greater success, and even as other, greater programmes are being planned for the future. Then, our desired goals are easily achieved.
If the government that took over from me had continued with the 1975-80 Development Plan, it would have had the opportunity of commissioning one programme after the other, and received credit for them. And if they so chose, they could have given credit to those who initiated the plan or claimed that it is more difficult to execute than to plan (laughter) so that they got all the credit. However, that was not done. And this became a pattern whereby successive administrations abandoned the initiatives of those before them and started their own; concomitantly, their own plans were as well abandoned with a change of government. So – yet another plan is begun, and, consequently, we are left with so many abandoned projects, which cannot augur well for the future of the economy of the country. What we were involved in, in my time, was purely an integrated economic plan.
Q. You are speaking of an intervention in your government during what you referred to as “the commanding height of the Nigerian economy.” And your government did seriously seem to take responsibility for driving the economy. But sadly, this is not the case, today. We now have a situation where the government is selling off some of the very accomplishments of your time, and seems to be distancing itself from even its very basic social responsibility with removing subsidies, introducing monetization, privatization and all kinds of policies that only impose further hardship on the people. Ultimately, the private sector ought to drive the economy; but is the speed, the haste, the right direction?
A. I do not personally feel that things have to move as fast as seems to be happening today. But I want to correct an impression -- the term we used was that Nigerians (and not the government) would take command of the height of the economy. There is a difference between government taking command of the economy, and the citizenry doing so. And my government did not begin with a policy of privatization, but one of indigenization; gradually, we would have gone into various other areas, but in such a way as to have added value and strength, and the participation of Nigerians in the running of our economy.
With privatization, foreigners take over areas where Nigerians should rightfully take advantage of and control. But, I think that what pertains now is simply a difference in government approach. Perhaps, the present leadership, in its wisdom, has decided that what you refer to is the best way of accomplishing things, and it may have received acknowledgement from the powers that be – the World Bank or the IMF -- the powers that virtually enforce control of the economy of the world. Now, that is what we have to live with; but let us hope that whatever decision is taken, profit does not only go outside the country. Otherwise it would be really counter-productive. That is my own personal view.
I would probably not have moved on things as quickly as the present government;
Just to give you an example – in my period of leadership, the plan was to involve the Federal and
state governments very much involved in large-scale agricultural development. My government also encouraged the
private sector and enterprising individuals as well. Now, if everyone was involved in developing agriculture on
a grand scale -- the Federal Government, state governments, and the private sector, who would become the beneficiary?
Would it not be Nigerians? Food would be cheaper. And since my government’s development plan was based on establishing
an agro-allied industry, we would have began to think about making our products more profitable.
Prior to 1973, especially during your leadership, agriculture occupied a prominent place in the country’s development
plans. But as a result of the Yom Kippur war, there was an Arab boycott of oil supplies to the West, and the subsequent
increase in oil revenue influenced
A. The Yom Kippur war or the Arab-Israeli war really had nothing to do with it. If you recall, my government’s developmental plans took off in 1975; that is how many years after the Yom Kippur war? And yet, the agricultural sector has not developed in any significant way. Well, to be very honest with you, the war you mentioned, yes, increased oil prices from US$2.50 to $5.00, $8.00 and then to $10.00, $15.00 and so on. But that was in October 1973, and you, yourself, know that even if there is a price hike, the benefits are not immediate. This is realized six months later, at the very earliest. This means that we did not realize the benefit until, say, January 1974. And remember, the price advantage hardly went beyond $25.00; unlike today’s price that is well above the $60.00 mark. So bear that in mind.
But it was with that money that we were able to carry out the amount of development we planned for and accomplished. And do not forget that I only had the benefit of that increase in revenue from January 1974 to July 1975; roughly 18 months. So please -- when there is talk of the oil boom that we had, do remember that it was for 18 months! Yet we were able to achieve a great deal, and invest much in agriculture and other industries so as to develop the entire country. Look at the road network that we built, the seaports and the airports; education, too, and so on. Just think back to what was going on at the time. So there was never any question of my government being mesmerized by a great amount of money, and not knowing what to do with it. For you journalists to quote me as saying….
Q. Did you really say so?
A. All right, I said so. But come along; it was merely in a manner of speaking! People had been saying to me that there was all this money, and therefore the government should spend it. And I will tell you who said so -- the Governor of the Central Bank. He rang me one day on the hot line to say that he wanted to see me. I cancelled all engagements thinking something serious had happened. That was my fear. I was worried about paying salaries, paying off our debt, and still being able to embark on the plans we had earmarked. If there was a problem with our finances, there was a big problem. However, the governor of the Central Bank only came to tell me that he had so much money he did not know what to do with it!
I became very angry with him! What do you mean -- you have so much money, and you do not know what
to do with it, I said to him. Is that all that you came to tell me? For God’s sake, I thought you would have told
me that since we have all this money, there are some excellent ideas on how we can invest it. And I asked him --
who told you that one can have so much money he does not know what to do with it? I suggested that, in lieu of
any good ideas, he should go pave the streets of
The important thing was not to fritter away the money. I said to the Central Bank Governor: look
– the government has pledged to improve small scale industries as well as the agricultural sector and the educational
system; we can go ahead and invest in all of these, or defer our plans for a short period and find something else
that would provide us with even more funds. As a matter of information –
Q. I would like to return to the indigenization decree, if I may. You became the Head of State of
A. Just to show you
Col. Ojukwu and Col. Gowon
Col. Ojukwu and Col. Gowon
It is sad that as a result of the civil war, some people had to suffer various inconveniences to
life that should have been avoided. Unfortunately, if there is a situation like that, there is nothing you can
do. People are bound to suffer in
Refugee camp victims of the Gowon/Awolowo "starvation is a legitimate weapon of war" doctrine
Refugee camp victims of the Gowon/Awolowo "starvation is a legitimate weapon of war" doctrine
And that was why one was prepared to open a corridor where aid and assistance for food could go into the East in order to save, especially the little children that bore no responsibility, at all, for the war. I can say that I was able to bear it, because I tried to ensure that everything was done with a human face and feeling for the suffering of those on the other side. Those on the other side, I claimed as mine. That is why I could not feasibly allow them to suffer.
Q. Did you think the civil war was inevitable?
A. No! It was the action of the leaders! When it got to the stage whereby the leaders would not
agree then a decision had to be taken. There would not have been a civil war had there not been secession! If there
was no decision to break away from the country, certainly there wouldn’t have been any reason to start fighting.
The civil war was as a result of the East and the leadership of Ojukwu deciding to break away. Now, I had a duty
and responsibility. I swore allegiance to
Honestly, if you
Yakubu Gowon imposed a blockade, preventing food and supplies from reaching starving Biafran children,
millions of whom suffered and died of kwashiokor.
Biafra (1969): Christopher Kip Warr of Oxfam buries a 4-year Igbo child victim of hatred and genocide.
(Courtesy: Patrick Watson and Benjamin Barber)
Yakubu Gowon imposed a blockade, preventing food and supplies from reaching starving Biafran children, millions of whom suffered and died of kwashiokor.
Biafra (1969): Christopher Kip Warr of Oxfam buries a 4-year Igbo child victim of hatred and genocide. (Courtesy: Patrick Watson and Benjamin Barber)
Q. The Aburi Accord appears to have been the final straw that broke the camel’s back. Why was there a controversy surrounding its interpretation?
A. One thing about the interpretation is that one can take it as a sign of open-mindedness, a sign of weakness, or that it was simply not understood. My stance was this: if you demonstrate that it was weakness that governed your actions, then I will show you that I cannot be taken for granted. The agreement was that everything must be done on consensus, and I was supposed to come back, and then make a statement. But what happened? Ojukwu went back, and made an announcement, and I was woken up by (Major-General David) Ejoor to say that this is what he heard Ojukwu say. And I said: but did we agree to that? And he said, no, we did not. I said this is not on! Was I not supposed to issue a statement first and then, thereafter, all the others would proceed with theirs? If he, indeed, had gone ahead to make that statement, virtually forcing us to accept the memorandum that he came with, then we could not agree. It was from his memorandum that most of his claims were based.
We did not go to the meeting armed with specific terms, because I wanted a discussion that would be followed up with subsequent discussions to get things done. But it was generally agreed upon that we do things by concurrence, in order to give the East the feeling that it was still part and parcel of the nation! I accepted, though I did not want, the name, ‘Supreme Commander.’ I never wanted the name ‘Supreme Commander, at any time!” Probably, I was a fool to have agreed to this. Perhaps, I could have stood my ground to say no to all those things, and, therefore, Aburi would never have occurred. But then, Ojukwu declared: “On Aburi, They Stand!” and I returned: “From Aburi, You Will Fall!” (Laughter).
Q. Commentators blame the controversy on your so-called Super Permanent Secretaries at the time who it is said complained, when you returned from Aburi, that you had given away too much; that you had dismembered the country…
A, (Cuts in) No, no, no! Well, one can go ahead, and blame our Super Perm Secs if they chose, but the truth is this: I was not feeling well at all; I had very high fever when I came back from Aburi. I was really down, and could not even prepare the statement that I was to make, which would have committed everybody to what had been agreed upon. Then Ojukwu, as we arrived, made his statement, and as I told you, I was woken up in the early hours of the morning to be told that this was what was being said. I said -- is that what we agreed to? And the reply was “no.” I then said that if that was Ojukwu’s interpretation, I was rejecting it.
What we did at NIFOR (the Nigerian Institute for Oil Palm Research on the outskirts of
Q. Now, you spoke passionately about how the sufferings, especially in the war zones, pained you. With that at the back of my mind, I want to ask you: why then was starvation part of your instrument of war?
A. If that were the case, would I have agreed with the international community to have a corridor
to supply food, etc to the people? The only thing I said was that a lot of the so-called relief flights that were
going into the war zone were not relief flights, and we knew that! It is postulated that one of the flights that
Christopher Okigbo supervised was referred to as a “relief flight,” but what do you suppose was in that aircraft?
Was it not arms and ammunitions etc? (By the way some of those flights crashed in places like the
Q. (Cuts in) Tractors! (General laughter)
A. So you knew?! There you are! So all that we said was that if those were, indeed, relief flights
then let them come through where they could be inspected by the international bodies. Our intention was not to
control the movement of the flights. After inspection, the planes could then take off to a designated airport in
the East for relief services. But certainly; starvation was never, never, at any time, the
policy during the war! If any thing at all, I can assure you that during the war, when contacts were made with
friends of ours in the East, a lot of assistance was sent to them through some of my relations. My younger brother,
Isaiah did quite a lot of that, at the time. And I will say with all sense of responsibility and sincerity, that
no; I can never wish to see anyone starve, especially children. What have they done to cause such suffering on
them? But the actions of their leaders caused some of this hardship to befall them.
Q. Was there any time you entertained fear of losing that war?
A. No! I don’t think there was any fear, at all, at any time. There were anxious moments, like when Gen Hassan (Katsina) came to tell me that “Warri has fallen!” And he came with all his staff officers! “Warri has fallen; how come?” I demanded. When did things degenerate so much for the rebels to come right across to take Warri?” But it was not Warri that he meant! He paused and then said: “Oh Sir, not Warri in Mid-West, Warri in East Central!” Owerri! (General laughter) But I also knew that the situation at Owerri, at one stage, had degenerated, and there was the issue of how to extricate our troop from possible total annihilation! There were anxious moments like that.
total loss, no! But for my policy of ‘no total war’ it would have been a different thing. If it was a total war
and, therefore, an “anything goes to destroy anything to get to the destination,” stance was adopted, it would
have been an entirely different story. But it was a controlled and, as much as one can call it this, humane war.
You probably know about our code of conduct. There was no question of going all out to destroy. But because the
war had continued longer than anticipated, we got to a stage when I said that the day we linked up Umuahia and
It was getting to a stage, however, where I decided that, in the event, that prospect failed, I would arm the First Division with the latest artillery pieces that we had recently acquired as reinforcement. And from wherever the Division was, linking from Umuahia right up to just North of Nnewi, it would start a new operation -- almost a scorched earth policy. And the soldiers had begun the training for this; I was about to give them the orders when the surrender came, and I had to give orders to “stop, no further use!” And I thank God, because, otherwise, it would have been destruction that would have been inflicted on ordinary people. I don’t know if I would have been able to live with that.
to finish the war quickly…my instructions to Obasanjo was—once you link up between Umuahia and Aba,
and the rebels are on the run, don’t stop. This was because, we had shrunk the rebel area to a small size, and
the only direction they could run was towards the First Division. And the First Division could hole its ground
firmly; it was extremely disciplined. And there was the lesson of history, too. We stopped at
You mention the
General Effiong and General Gowon at the January, 1970 Armistice
General Effiong and General Gowon at the January, 1970 Armistice
you should remember about the time -- and, at least, give us some credit for it -- is that we did not take what
would be considered normal action under such circumstances. In such an instance, all the senior officials involved
-- politicians as well as in the military -- would have been strung up for their part in the war. This is what
happened at the end of the Second World War in
Q. I know.
A. His own instance was a political one. Remember that because of what subsequently happened, I was accused of something, became a wanted man, and then they tried to give me pardon. But I refused. I said I was not going to accept any pardon, because it meant I was guilty and needed to be forgiven. And I refused to accept that. I had nothing to do with what they accused me of! I was a very busy student at this point. I had no time, and it was a good thing that I was not sitting idle to even begin thinking of such a stupid thing.
But in the case of Ojukwu, he had committed treason against the country! No matter how you see it, as far as the Nigerian context was concerned, he was the guilty party. In other areas, he would have been eliminated, and I thank God that He never put him in my hands. Otherwise I would have found it very difficult to save his life, even though I would try my best to save his life, because he was an old colleague, an old friend. But the public pressure would have made it impossible. So that was what happened in the case of people like Effiong. A few of the senior ones that were directly involved, we felt they should go. I think Effiong was dismissed. All that happened to the others was that they lost the few years of seniority gained during the period of the civil war.
The civil war was fought ostensibly to keep
at least the nation is still together. All manner of aberrations are bound to occur with human beings, and people
do have the freedom of expression -- so long as this does not create a threat that plunges the nation into another
crisis. I truly pray to God that none of this happens, for it would be a very sad, tragic thing. I have prayed
that, no matter what happens, we must never again become involved in a situation whereby we start killing and destroying
one another. But would that stop some of these things happening? Look at what is happening in
Those who staged the coup used it as an excuse to overthrow the government of the day! I can understand they have the right to express their feelings, but I hope they do not take things to the extent of taking up arms against the lawful government of the nation, and thereby forcing a situation where the nation is embroiled in another crisis like we had from 1967 to 70.
Much earlier you said in respect of the war: “thank God, at least the Igbo came back.” But, today, I am sure you
must have heard the word “marginalization” used by the Igbo to describe their fate in
is a pity that they think this way. The indigenization decree -- I think it was 1972 or 73…that decree was really
to ensure the participation of every part of the country, unlike the privatization policy now in place. Businesses
are indigenized within one’s own area -- in the North, in the East in the West, etc. And who are the beneficiaries
in those areas? It is mostly the people native to the particular area. And I am sure that by 1972, many Igbo had
recovered sufficiently enough to participate, not only in their own area, but also in
Q. (Cuts in) Two years with twenty pounds; the Igbo were still trying to find their feet! They were in no position to buy into any company!
Remember, what was being indigenized before it was speeded up were some of the small Lebanese businesses like textile
stores, in which, in any case, the Igbo were very well established, yesterday, today and even tomorrow. Probably
Q. The Biafran Pound.
A. Is it the Biafran Pound? But now, I am told that it is selling like hot cake! I am told that it is being used especially in the West Coast! So I said, well, you see the ingenuity of the Igbo man? (General laughter). People say it is even more valuable than the Naira!
Q. May be as a collector’s item!
A. But there it is! No. I think the policy of twenty pounds was never an attempt to impoverish the Igbo people. The government was very generous in giving funds to Ukpabi Asika so that the government of the East could circulate money and get businesses off the ground, as well as embark on various rehabilitation and reconstructions that were taking place. Probably the exchange rate in Nigerian currency for the Biafran pound seemed not to be on equitable terms. If we said they could exchange at par…
Q. (Cuts in) I would have been a millionaire!
A. You’re telling me! (General laughter) And probably bought off the rest of the country! That was not the policy of indigenization. It was meant to help. For example, the government was able to provide Asika with funds so that people could get Nigerian currency even as a loan. It was probably some of the bigger businesses indigenized later that you are talking about; but that occurred only after my overthrow. The government of Obasanjo, I think between 1975 and 79, speeded up taking over some of the big businesses, especially in Lagos, which was to the advantage of his people, because they were the ones on the spot, and a lot of their people were in the banks and knew how to use the banks to give loans to their own people to buy some of these things. But this was not the case in other parts of the country. So when it comes to that, you can rest assured that it was not only the Igbo that felt left out; other parts of the country that were not as well positioned as the people from the West, felt the same way.
Another issue was that of Abandoned Property, especially in
A. There was no doubt that it was a very knotty issue. I think there should have been justice and fair play. And as far as I was concerned, although pressure was being brought by the Governor and the Government of Rivers State at the time, my position was, if any property was to be taken for the use of the government, it had to pay proper compensation. And true enough, I think at the time, there were many Igbo who wanted to sell their property. Therefore there was hardly any problem from that point of view. But I know that later, the Rivers state indigenes themselves became fully involved, and virtually pressurized the subsequent government.
honestly, that a lot of the damage was not done during our time. At least, we were keeping it under control, and
working hard to ensure that there was justice. Since it was one
Q. In your October 1st 1974 broadcast, when you launched the Third Development Plan, you did say that Nigerians had not learned the lessons of the civil war and, therefore, it would be “utterly irresponsible to leave the nation in the lurch by a precipitate withdrawal.” Reflecting on the intolerance of our politicians today, do you think they even remember that a civil war was fought to keep this country one?
is very difficult for me to comment on that. But to be honest, I meant
BNW Advocates' Island
BNW Advocates' Island
And I said that we could not leave the nation in a lurch. I said it would be wrong; it would be irresponsible to do so! Therefore what I wanted to do was to hold back political activities and concentrate on economic development so that we could arrive at the desired goal. Once you were able to get the economy going, when the politicians returned, they would be thinking more along the lines of ensuring that the economy was going well. The economy would have had its momentum. The people would have told the politicians to stop talking rubbish; to talk, instead, of improving the economy, rather than becoming involved in tribal and all manner of questionable politics. Then we would be thinking in terms of politics that could improve the nation.
But the momentum itself could not be stopped by any incoming government of any particular party or military group, because the momentum had already gathered sufficient force, and like a rolling stone, would be gathering more and more moss as it went, and would have become thrice as big as it was. And so when people think of becoming involved in politics, it would not be the politics of poverty, but the politics of the well being of people, because that is what politics is all about.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in the interview are not necessarily those of the Chinua Achebe Foundation. The Chinua Achebe Foundation, an intellectual and cultural organization, believes in the right of every Nigerian to express their opinion.
Founder and Chairman, Board of Directors of the Chinua Achebe Foundation
Chinua Achebe Foundation Interview Series: Gen. Yakubu Gowon in Conversation with Pini Jason, Part I