Real reason Yakubu Gowon was overthrown as Nigeria’s Head-of-State in 1975

What we have been afraid of at home, has happened.” General Yakubu Gowon quietly told Alhaji Usman Faruk, then Military Governor of North-Western State in Nigeria (1967–1975).

What really happened?

It was the overthrow of General Yakubu Cinwa Gowon (born October 19, 1934) on July 29, 1975 while attending an Organization of African Union (OAU) summit in Kampala, Uganda.

Image of General Yakubu Gowon in Kampala, Uganda, on the day he was overthrown.
General Yakubu Gowon in Kampala, Uganda, on the day he was overthrown, July 29, 1975.

Nowa Omoigui in his 2003 article, Military Rebellion of July 29, 1975: The coup against Gowon, wrote, “At the Nile Hotel in Kampala, getting up early on that second day of the OAU conference, General Gowon, a former Chairman of the organization, prepared himself for the usual diplomatic push and pull of the summit. During opening formalities the day before, he was the keynote speaker.  His speech, an inspiring one by all accounts, on behalf of Nigeria, was titled ‘The Unity of Africa.’

On his way to the Nile Mansions conference hall, Zaire’s General Mobutu delayed him for about half an hour, discussing the Angolan situation. Thereafter, Gowon entered the hall. Mr. Mbow of UNESCO was delivering a speech at the time.   Ugandan President Idi Amin then called Gowon to the high table and gave him a note, which contained the news that he had been deposed in a coup.

What indeed led to the overthrow of Nigeria’s longest ruling Head of State? First, let’s take a look at the life of the man – Yakubu Gowon.

The Man Gowon

General Yakubu Cinwa Gowon was the fifth child of his father – a Christian evangelist who had to take up farming (once again) after relocating from Pankshin in modern day Plateau State to Wusasa near Zaria. He was born on October 19, 1934 and grew up in humble and sometimes difficult circumstances occasioned by difficulties his father had trying to settle down as an evangelist in his new home – appropriately described as an island in an otherwise predominantly Islamic environment. His mother was reportedly very strict.

Gowon attended then Government (now Barewa) College Zaria.  Thus, he shared the same alma mater with some of the Northern Peoples’ Congress (NPC) leaders and senior northern Army officers of his day.  As is well known, these leaders were assassinated on January 15, 1966.  Gowon himself narrowly escaped being killed.

The strategic success of Gowon as a wartime leader must be acknowledged. He led a large and complicated country through a difficult crisis.  Although reviled as “weak” and “compromising” by his critics who hold him partly responsible for the long duration of the war, there are many well-informed officers who still hold the view that only someone with his forgiving and tolerant character could have held Nigeria together at that time.

Although his eldest brother died in active service during the Second World War and another brother survived the conflict, how Yakubu Gowon decided to enter the Army is quite interesting. Encouraged by his British Principal and Vice-Principal to join the military, he was nevertheless torn between a career in the Army and competing options as a teacher, engineer, or physician. So he wrote out the options on little pieces of paper, placed them inside a Bible and prayed. Then, with his eyes closed, he opened the Bible and picked one at random. It was the Army.

Throughout his military career he would repeatedly approach issues with a rifle in one hand and a Bible in the other.  Years later he would come to be regarded by most as a model of a “kinder, gentler” soldier.  Some have nicknamed him “The Preacher”.

Gowon the Soldier

Gowon enlisted into the Nigerian Army and trained in Officer Cadet Training School, Teshie, Ghana in 1954. He was the first indigenous Adjutant, Fourth Battalion, Queen’s Own Nigerian Regiment (QONR), as the Nigerian Army was known then, between 1960 and 1961 and was Brigade-Major of UN Peace-Keeping Forces, Luluabourg, Congo between January and June, 1963.

He was promoted Major in 1962, Lieutenant-Colonel in 1963, named Adjutant-General, Nigerian Army from 1963 to 1965, was Chief of Staff in January 1966, became the second military ruler on August 1, 1966, promoted Major-General in 1967 and became a four-star General in 1971.

Yakubu Gowon was 31 years and 9 months old when he succeeded Major-General Johnson Thomas Aguiyi-Ironsi as Nigeria’s Head-of-State in 1966 and he remains the second-longest serving Commander-in-Chief in Nigeria (President Muhammadu Buhari could break the record in December 2022) after General Olusegun Obasanjo who ruled for eleven years (1976-1979, 1999-2007). Gowon ruled for nine years.

During the weekend of July 29, 1966, following a violent rolling mutiny, as the most senior northern army officer, Gowon emerged as the new Supreme Commander of the Nigerian Armed Forces – even though (by most accounts) he did not plan the mutiny/coup and did not partake in implementing it.

Gowon the Diplomat

The strategic success of Gowon as a wartime leader must be acknowledged. He led a large and complicated country through a difficult crisis.  Although reviled as “weak” and “compromising” by his critics who hold him partly responsible for the long duration of the war, there are many well-informed officers who still hold the view that only someone with his forgiving and tolerant character could have held Nigeria together at that time.

His decision to create 12 States in May 1967 – on the advice of civil servants – is still regarded by many on both sides of the isle as a masterstroke that helped spell doom for Biafra.

His wartime code of conduct for troops was the first of its kind in Africa – although it was often ignored. His handling of the difficult diplomatic scene was also brilliant – although Biafra proved to be a formidable adversary on that front. Nevertheless, none of Nigeria’s neighbors supported the break-up of the country. His magnanimity after victory in 1970 won him international stature.

However, the structural weaknesses that would eventually consume the Gowon regime were put in place fairly early. Soon after he was anointed as the new “Supreme Commander”, the “separation” from the Army began. Like Ironsi, the title “Supreme Commander” conferred certain absolute powers on him. 

Nevertheless, complex political negotiations with regional representatives who in turn were reporting to the various regional military governors set the tone for Federal-State relations and the subsequent emergence of powerful State Governors.

These Governors used the distractions of the federal government first with restoration of law and order in the barracks and later with the prosecution of the war to consolidate their powers. It was not that obvious during the conflict but became apparent afterwards, particularly from the standpoint of their military colleagues in the barracks. At federal level, Gowon, who had little prior experience in non-military public administration, was soon ensconced within the outstretched arms of sophisticated civil servants.

The Nine Point Plan

In October 1970, Gowon announced a six-year nine-point plan, which he said, must be accomplished “before the government of the country can be handed over with a full sense of responsibility.

The points were as follows:

  1. Reorganization of the Armed Forces.
  2. Implementation of the National Development Plan and reconstruction of wartime damage.
  3. Eradication of corruption.
  4. Creation of more States.
  5. Adoption of a new Constitution.
  6. Introduction of a new revenue allocation formula.
  7. Conducting a National census.
  8. Organization of new genuinely national political parties.
  9. Organization of elections at state and federal level.

According to Gowon, “The target year for completing our political program and returning the country to normal constitutional government is 1976.”

Political misadventures

Although it was one of the few items among his “nine points” that he pursued with vigour, perhaps the most serious political misadventure of the Gowon era was the 1973 census. Results released in May 1974 (against the advice of the Census Commission Chairman) indicated that Nigeria’s population (supposedly 79.76 million) had increased by 43.3 percent since 1963, far more than any other any developing country.

With 64 percent of the reported population, the North had registered an increase of 72.4% since the 1963 result that was controversial even then. The Midwest had increased in population by 27.6 percent, and the East by 11 percent, while the West decreased by 6.0 percent. Lagos increased by 71.5 percent.

In spite of the ban on political activity (which Gowon had re-instituted in light of public acrimony about States creation) prominent Nigerians went public with angry protests about the results. 

It just can’t be true,” Chief Obafemi Awolowo (1909–1987) said in a major speech.

Others, including some military officers from areas that “improved” their scores, made public statements praising the count. Gowon did try – unconvincingly – to reassure the nation that post-enumeration check (but not a recount) would be conducted and that the final result would be released in October 1975.

Economic misadventures

The effect of wartime economic policies on wartime trade union tensions and post war inflation has already been alluded to. But certain government actions after the war, although intended to increase real earning power in light of inflation, paradoxically encouraged even more inflation. 

In January 1971, Gowon, reeling under accusations that his wartime actions (rather than international economic dynamics) were responsible for inflation, implemented the recommendations of the Chief Simeon Adebo (1913–1994) Wages and Salaries Commission and increased the salaries of workers.

Surprisingly, labour unrest resulted, some say aggravated by the not so tactful announcement by Information Commissioner, Chief Anthony Enahoro (1923–2010) that those private companies that had increased their salaries at least once since 1964 would be exempted.  Following the second and final report of the Commission, however, a subsequent controversial pay raise (with arrears) was again approved by the Supreme Military Council in October 1971.

In early 1975, oil production fell steeply because of a sudden decline in world demand, resulting in lower prices and shortfalls in revenue expectations.  Although prices recovered somewhat later in the year after an intervention by OPEC, the temporary economic gloom – and alleged mismanagement that caused it – combined with the widespread industrial action in May and June which brought the country to standstill, helped in rationalizing the overthrow of the government in July.

Corruption

Although Gowon was not personally corrupt, some persons in his regime allegedly engaged in corrupt practices. For example, by the time of the coup, the average commercial property holding of his Governors was estimated at about eight houses each in the range of ₦49, 000 – ₦120, 000, along with farming estates. This was a big deal at that time, although, using standards of Nigerian corruption in subsequent regimes, Gowon’s Governors were, in retrospect, Boy Scouts, as far as stealing is concerned.

Nevertheless, like many regimes that came after, he did make an initial and ongoing effort to be seen combating corruption, such as with the Investigation of Assets Decree No. 37 of 1968 and subsequent efforts to investigate and punish deep seated post-war corruption in the military.

Unfortunately, some Army officers were privately getting tired of Gowon. Some began to be alarmed that they might be destroyed if they remained allied with him in the face of opposition from the Army and increasing public tension.

Two important things to note about the July 29, 1975 coup, is that it was bloodless and was carried out by Gowon’s kinsman, his right hand man, then Colonel Joseph Nanven Garba. He was the Commander of the Brigade of Guards. He announced the coup on Radio Nigeria and it was rumored he was also from the same town as Gowon.

The officer who made the announcement was no ordinary Colonel. He was the Commander of the elite Brigade of Guards in the federal capital. He was also widely regarded as a confidant of General Gowon and trusted loyalist of the regime.  His co-option and active participation or neutralization was crucial to the bloodless nature – and success – of the coup.

After the July 29, 1966 coup, Garba assumed the command of the unit formally (on August 16th).  He was instrumental (along with then Lieutenant-Colonel Murtala Mohammed) in selecting the former residence of the late First Republic Minister of Defence, Alhaji Muhammadu Ribadu, as the new residence of the new Commander-in-Chief within the Dodan Barracks perimeter. During the Civil War, Garba selected a special unit of men drawn from the Ngas tribe and charged them with Gowon’s personal safety.

Coup Factors

During the Nigerian Civil War (1967-1970), Gowon the Supreme Commander (Gowon) had no prior field command experience above the sub-unit level.  He was very well trained no doubt (perhaps one of the best trained), and had plenty of staff experience, but he had never actually commanded a battalion (except over the weekend of January 15), let alone a Brigade – and certainly not a Division.

The divisional commanders were mostly independent, doing what they wanted to do.  When they misbehaved, Gowon preferred a non-confrontational approach.

Interestingly, Gowon hardly visited the warfront – the first time being in early 1969 after the war had already been in progress for almost two years. He also had a penchant for communicating directly with Field Commanders, using a radio set at Dodan Barracks, bypassing the Army headquarters.

There was plenty of waste and massive corruption not only in the Ministry of Defence but also among arms purchasing teams (and dealers) sent abroad to acquire weapons and ammunitions.

Climax

Political undercurrents were never far from the surface either. When he created States in May 1967, he openly promised that those who were dissatisfied with it would get a chance to make amends.

In January 1969, Gowon warned the Army that they had limited capacity to run a complex civilian administration and that a process for handing over the country to elected government was essential after the war. As noted earlier, he promised to handover in 1976 but in an Independence Day broadcast on October 1, 1974 he reneged on that promise.

Also, in 1969, Gowon got married to Miss Victoria Zakari in a State and Society wedding in Lagos which, considering the wartime situation and ongoing suffering, appeared lavishly distasteful and imperious to many observers, including warfront commanders. The presence of a resident woman in his life naturally resulted in a decrease in Gowon’s interactions with former fellow bachelor, and wartime pal, then Lieutenant-Colonel Garba.

Gowon also compounded his situation by gradually becoming distant from his constituency – the Army.  After September 1974, his increasingly frustrated Guards Brigade Commander, for example, had to book an appointment just to see him. Many other officers who could ‘drop in’ in the past or came to expect occasional ‘working dinners’ found access to him increasingly restricted by a small coterie of inner circle mandarins.

Unfortunately, some Army officers were privately getting tired of Gowon. Some began to be alarmed that they might be destroyed if they remained allied with him in the face of opposition from the Army and increasing public tension.

Among those who felt this way were two of his closest protégés, Colonels J.N Garba of the Guards Brigade and Anthony Ochefu, Provost-Marshall.  After a private meeting in Garba’s office they both resolved that Gowon must leave office – preferably in a bloodless putsch.

to be concluded next week

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