Talking Drums

The West African News Magazine

Return of the Soldier

Elizabeth Ohene

Has the soldier been submerged totally and the statesman been polished? - A view of Gowon's 8 years absence from home.
At the height of his power, that is, just at the time he was overthrown, no praise was too much for him. General Yakubu Gowon, Head of the Federal Military government of Nigeria was courted by Kings, Queens, Presidents and Prime Ministers. Editorial writers outdid each other in singing his praises.

This was the man, after all, who had fought and won a war, the bloody civil war that engulfed Nigeria between 1967 to 1970. He had then led his nation from the bloody mess of the civil war into the oil boom which had transformed Nigeria from being the land of starving Biafran children into the land of the all-night-pink champagne party.

General Gowon himself had progressed from the painfully shy and inarticulate colonel that emerged as the leader of the Federal Military Government after the traumatic events of June 1966, who was openly mocked by his colleagues, the other regional military governors, through the courageous war general to the suave and sophisticated leader of his people presiding over an economic boom.

General Gowon matured visibly with every passing day and tempered obviously by the sobering reality of the civil war and the enormity of the burden involved in ruling such a big nation, the 'soldier's soldier' as he was described in 1970, matured into a leader of international dimensions.

It was his conduct of the victory more than his conduct of the war which won him much acclaim. The policy of "no victor and vanquished" introduced after the end of the war ensured that the animosities during the conflict could be easily forgotten and all energies directed at the reconstruction efforts.

It was lucky for General Gowon, and for Nigeria, that the end of the war coincided with the oil boom and reconstruction and further development could be carried out rapidly. Those were the years of fly-overs and bridges being built in seemingly endless and rapid succession. Those were also the years of the cement scandals when Nigerian ports were crammed with cement imports that the country virtually had to take over all the ports of all her neighbouring West African countries to be able to ease a record breaking congestion.

Those were also the years when the obvious and almost vulgar consumption of wealth led to Nigeria acquiring a reputation she finds hard to shed even during these days of austerity.

The false step that General Gowon took was to have gone back on the programme that had been drawn up for the return of the country to constitutional rule. Many will say that from that day, the General's days as Head of State of Nigeria had become numbered.


It was therefore not surprising that he became a member of the celebrated group of African leaders who are unable to return to their countries after attending Commonwealth or Organisation of African Unity Conferences. General Gowon had been overthrown by his deputy, the flashy General Murtala Muhamad.

The world was taken by surprise, but apparently General Gowon himself appeared either to have been expecting it or else his training as an officer (and gentleman?) took over from his years as a wielder and manipulator of political power and he took his exit from the height of political power with surprising calm.

While his country was plunged into a turmoil by the Murtala probes and sackings of corrupt government officials and the Nigerian Public Service was shaken to its very roots, General Gowon announced his intention to enter a University to study Politics, Philosophy and Economics.

The transformation was complete with the world-wide publication of the photograph of the one-time Head of State carrying his lunch tray from the students cafeteria from Warwick University. The enigma would have persisted but for the very sour note introduced by the murder of General Murtala Muhammad and the fact that General Gowon's name was mentioned

Suddenly General Gowon found himself in the same category as his one time arch-rival, Colonel Odumegwu Ojukwu whom he had defeated in the civil war and had been living in exile since the end of the war.

It is one of the ironies of the world that General Gowon should have found himself being granted a pardon in the same proclamation that gave a pardon to Ojukwu.

The differences between the two men's characters and styles which were so evident during the war, again came to the fore when Ojukwu immediately took up the offer of the pardon and went to Nigeria with as much fanfare as he could muster and entered the political arena still with the same bearing and controversy that he had before and during the war.

The more sober Gowon took his time, obviously monitoring the situation from the relative calmness of his British University and has only now decided to go home to test the waters himself. It is not surprising that there is so much speculation about General Gowon's future political plans and even though he is not committing himself yet, one way or the other, the surprise will come if he indeed avoids seeking a part in Nigeria's political life. At the time he went to Warwick University, the joke was that the General seemed to be doing things the wrong way around - having already ruled one of the biggest countries in the world for almost ten years, he was then entering a University to learn about Politics? What had he been doing all the time he was ruling the country then? What can a University teach him or any book for that matter, which he had not already learnt or experienced from the more realistic school of life?

Or could it be that he had not forgotten the jibes of Western correspondents who covered the war who never missed the opportunity to point out that Ojukwu was an Oxford graduate, went to a British Public School, was articulate, etc, Gowon was "rough and ready"? Or could it be that he had time on his hands and therefore decided to do "something" out that Ojukwu was about it?

Whichever way it was, it would be interesting to know what theoretical political philosophies and economies have done to the General.

Has the soldier been submerged totally and the statesman been polished?

Whatever the reception he receives as he pays his first visit home after eight years, it is quite clear the world has not heard the last from General Yakubu Gowon.

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