Talking Drums

The West African News Magazine

'It's nice to be back' - Gowon

Ben Mensah

Nigeria has been lifted from the group of barbaric countries in Africa which resort to force as a means of changing their leaders, who are then either killed or left to die prematurely in exile, in disgrace away from their homes.
A nostalgic return to Nigeria by the country's former Head of State, General Yakubu Gowon was reflected in his appreciation for the crowd that welcomed him. He said to them "it's nice to be back home".

And with that, another chapter spanning eight years of exile for another African leader in Britain ended and signalled another historic development in Nigeria's political record, with far reaching implications for the rest of West Africa.

Yet despite the hero's welcome accorded General Gowon, reminiscent of a similar one that also greeted the return of the General's adversary in the bitter civil war, Colonel OdumeguOjukwu, the visit of the ex-Head of State has invoked some bitterness among a section of the Nigerian community.

They are those who have never been satisfied by General Gowon's protestations of innocence in the Murtala Muhammed murder. General Gowon was subsequently declared a wanted person and his extradition was demanded by General Obasanjo's government. This request was, however, turned down by the British government.

The General does not readily admit that he was ever in exile, as he is reported to have told a press conference in Lagos, he was never in exile, he had only been held back for so long in Britain by his academic work.

But the fact that he could set foot on Nigerian soil only after he had been pardoned by President Shehu Shagari testifies to the limitations on his movements and also to the fact that he was a wanted man in his own country for his suspected involvement in the assassina tion of General Murtala Muhammed, the man who succeeded him.

These reservations notwithstanding, it is a dramatic coincidence that as General Gowon, former Head of State returned to an enthusiastic welcome from Nigerians, not very far away in another black African country, Central African Republic, Jean Bedel Bokassa who in his time crowned himself an emperor, is pleading for permission to return to the country he once ruled.


Ensconced in France after his expulsion from his sanctuary in the Ivory Coast by President Houphouet Boigny, Emperor Bokassa presented a ready topic for discussion on the occasion of the 23rd independent anniversary of the Central African Republic when its President Kolingba warned of the danger posed by the imminent return of 'mad and blood thirsty adventurers'.

The French authorities who feel embarrassed by his presence have initiated diplomatic steps to ensure his departure to another country.

Comparison between ex-Emperor Bokassas's plight and General Gowon's triumphant return to his country is relevant only for the timing of the two cases. For there are many West African countries where due to the violent nature of change of governments, there are no surviving elder statesmen.

Ghana, the first country in the region to attain independence in 1957, stands out with the highest number of military coups and therefore the best example of violent elimination of her leaders. The best known leader Dr Kwame Nkrumah died in exile in Guinea after his overthrow by the military in 1966. The second civilian leader, Professor Kofi Busia, similarly died in exile in England. Three military Heads of State, Generals Afrifa, Akyeampong and Akuffo were also executed by Flt-Lt Rawlings' Armed Forces Revolutionary Council in 1979.

To date, General J.A. Ankrah who was forced out of office as Head of State in disgrace remains as the country's only surviving ex-Head of State, together with Dr Hilla Limann who was overthrown by Flt-Lt Rawlings' second coming two years ago and who is now free on bail. Perhaps it is Rawlings' own phobia for what could possibly happen to him as an ex-Head of State which might have propelled him into the December 31st 1981 coup d'etat in which he overthrew the man who succeeded him.


There are other gruesome instances of violent elimination of leaders in several West African countries, includ ing Nigeria whose first Prime Minister, Sir Tafawa Balewa was murdered and a number of his ministers castrated in the January 1966 military coup. However, General Gowon's return to his country to be received by President Shagari who was the General's Minister for Economic Affairs, has lifted Nigeria from the group of barbaric countries which resort to force as a means of changing their leaders who are then either killed or left to die prematurely in exile.

This assessment of General Gowon's return is reinforced by other developments. These are the peaceful transi- tion of power first from General Obasanjo's military regime to the civilian administration of President Shehu Shagari in 1979 followed by the conduct of general elections in 1983 in which President Shagari was returned to power.

Above all these was the similar pardon granted to ex-leader of Biafra's seccessionist attempt, Colonel Ojukwu which enabled him not only to return from his exile in the Ivory Coast, but also to contest a senatorial seat in the last elections.

Then also is the joy of having around, past leaders such as ex President Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe, former Heads of State Generals Obasanjo and Gowon and also of Col Ojukwu to add to Nigeria's treasure of political maturity and sophistication.

The enormous fund of experience possessed by these former leaders must serve as a useful source of reference not only for President Shagari and his ministers but also for a society that is eager to improve upon its past through evolution rather than a violent break with the past through revolution.

General Gowon has ruled himself out of partisan politics but has indicated his willingness to participate in the meetings of the Council of State. He told reporters in Lagos, "I will participate in the meetings of the Council of State if and when I am invited and I know I will be able to play my role as honourably as others, without being partisan."

This is the hallmark of an elder statesman whose knowledge and experience must not only be utilised to benefit his countrymen, but that his presence in the country he once ruled should be an eye-opener to other West African nations.

"Necessity is the plea for every infringement of human freedom, it is the argument of tyrants, it is the creed of slaves"

(William Pitt Speech 18th November 1783)

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