General Yakubu Gowon (Nigeria’s Head of State 1966 – 1975)

General Yakubu Gowon is majorly associated as the Head of State during the Nigerian-Biafran War. However, before the war, he was never really interested in politics. This article will be discussing the life and times of General Yakubu Gowon.

Early Life, Childhood, and Education of Yakubu Gowon

Yakubu Gowon, named Jack Gowon at birth, was born on October 19, 1934, in Pankshin, Plateau State, Northern Nigeria. His parents, Nde Yohanna and Matwok Kurnyang were early Christian converts and missionaries. 

Gowon had his primary and secondary school education in Zaria. He was a good athlete in school: he played football, ran long-distance races, and was the captain of his boxing team.

Early Career: Military Career of Yakubu Gowon

In 1954, Yakubu Gowon enlisted in the Nigerian Army at the age of 20. 

By 1955, he became second lieutenant. Between 1955 – 1956, he took training courses at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst. 

In 1962, he attended the Staff College, Camberley, UK. In 1965, he attended the Joint Staff College, Latimer. Between 1960 to 1963, he served twice in the Congo region as part of the United Nations Peacekeeping Force.

In 1966, he rose to the rank of battalion commander despite still being a lieutenant colonel.

Yakubu Gowon: the January 1996 Coup

On January 15, 1966, Major Chukwuma Kaduna Nzeogwu led the first-ever military coup that saw the killings of civil leaders, military, and police officers.

Most of those killed were Northern Nigerians, including the prime minister, Sir Tafawa Balewa; the Sardauna of Sokoto, Sir Ahmadu Bello, and his wife, Hafsatu Bello; Zarumi Sardauna; Lt. Colonel Abogo Largema; and Colonel Kur Mohammed. 

So, it was not long before fellow Northerners began to make accusations of a conspiracy. Following the coup, Gowon rose to the status of military chief of staff. At the age of 31, he was the youngest military officer to achieve that feat. 

Reports have it that Gowon was on the hit list, but a two-day delay of his arrival to Nigeria from his training course in the UK saved him.

Shortly after the coup, Major General Johnson Aguiyi-Ironsi assumed the office of Nigeria’s first Head of State. Major General Aguiyi-Ironsi then appointed Gowon as the military chief of staff to appease the aggrieved Northerners. 

However, despite condemning the coup, he failed to punish the coup plotters. The majority of the prominent people of Eastern Nigeria also vocally supported the coup. 

The Eastern media also published cartoons that humiliated the slain Northern leaders. All these further strengthened the belief of the Northern Nigerians that there was indeed a conspiracy against their ethnicity.

Furthermore, Aguiyi-Ironsi gave a decree (Decree 34) that abolished the federal system of government and put a unitary state instead. The Northerners interpreted this move as a hostile takeover by the Eastern region as they were already lagging in Western education and civilization.

Yakubu Gowon: the July 1966 Counter-coup

On July 28, 1966, northern military officers led by Lieutenant Colonel Murtala Muhammed led a counter-coup against the January 15 coup. They killed Major General Johnson Aguiyi-Ironsi and Lieutenant Colonel Adekunle Fajuyi, his host in Ibadan. After that, they rendered null the Aguiyi-Ironsi government, and in his place, Gowon became Head of State.

Yakubu Gowon: Nigeria’s Head of State (August 1, 1966 – July 29, 1975) 

Before his rise to power, Gowon had never been involved in politics. However, because he was a Northerner and of the Christian faith with a good reputation, those in power thought him the most suitable for the position. When Gowon ascended to power, he reversed the Aguiyi-Ironsi’s abrogation of the federal principle.

Owing to the 1966 coups, Nigeria was now in a state of ethnic discord, and it was hard to keep the peace. Between June to October 1966, the Northerners killed over 30 thousand Igbo people in Northern Nigeria. 

Due to the 1914 amalgamation of the Eastern, Northern, and Southern regions as one Nigeria, many Igbo people migrated to live in the North. The reason why the Northerners were able to kill that many Igbo people. 

Following the massacre, millions of Igbo people fled the North, terrified for their lives. Although Gowon tried to calm the situation by promising the fleeing Igbo people safety, he could do little to protect their lives. The Northerners were mad with lust for Igbo blood.

On May 27, 1967, Gowon divided Nigeria’s four regions into twelve states. This decree separated the Eastern Region into Rivers State, South Easter State, and East Central State. This decree meant that the Igbo people would lose most of their petroleum. 

As expected, this did not sit well with their leaders. So, on May 27, 1967, three days after the decree, Lieutenant Colonel Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu declared the entire Eastern Region as an independent state: the Republic of Biafra.

Yakubu Gowon: the Nigerian-Biafran War (July 6, 1967 – January 15, 1970)

Yakubu Gowon and his government did not accept the breakaway of the Eastern Region from Nigeria. This then resulted in a war between Nigeria and Biafra that lasted for three years. Records have it that over three million Igbo lives were lost in this war.

In the media, photos made rounds of starving Biafran children suffering from kwashiorkor. On January 15, 1970, the Biafran forces surrendered to the Nigerian troops.

This was mainly because amidst famine, shortage of trained soldiers, and weapons of war, Lieutenant Colonel Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu, the leader and self-appointed president of the Biafran Republic, fled the Eastern Region to the Ivory Coast on a plane.

After the war, Gowon gave this speech, the “No Victor, No Vanquished” famous speech:

“The tragic chapter of violence is just ended. We are at the dawn of national reconciliation. Once again, we have an opportunity to build a new nation. My dear compatriots, we must pay homage to the fallen, to the heroes who have made the supreme sacrifice that we may be able to build a nation, great in justice, fair trade, and industry.” 

Yakubu Gowon: Post-Biafran War and Exile

During the Nigerian-Biafran war, Gowon promoted himself twice: as Major General and as General. Despite being praised for his integrity, Gowon was criticized for bringing corrupt leaders to judgment. 

Furthermore, Gowon announced that Nigeria would never go back to civilian rule, an announcement that did not sit well with most of his supporters. 

On July 29, 1975, while he attended an Organization of African Unity summit meeting in Uganda, the army announced his removal from office. In his place, they appointed Brigadier Murtala Muhammed as the new Head of Government.

As a result of his removal, Gowon went into self-exile in Great Britain. There, he bagged a Ph. D in political science. However, in February 1976, Lieutenant Colonel Buka Suka Dimka assassinated General Murtala Mohammed to overthrow his government. The coup was unsuccessful, and Dimka was arrested.

Following his arrest, Dimka confessed that he had met with Gowon in London, who supported him in his coup. As a result, the Nigerian government declared Gowon wanted and stripped him of his rank without pension.

However, in 1981, President Shehu Shagari offered him a pardon, and General Ibrahim Babangida restored him to his rank in 1987.

Yakubu Gowon’s Personal Life and Later Life

In 1969, Gowon married Victoria Zakari, a trained nurse at the Cathedral Church of Christ, Lagos. A love affair with an Igbo woman, Edith Ike-Okongu, produced a son for Gowon, Musa Jack Gowon. In 2021, he lives in Great Britain.

In November 2020, Tom Tugendhat, a Member of the UK Parliament, accused Gowon of looting half of the Nigerian Central Bank. This was a shocking statement as Gowon had always been praised as a man of impeccable character. Later, the Foreign Office distanced themselves from the accusation by claiming that it did not reflect their views.

Yakubu Gowon’s Honours, Awards, and Recognition

● World Peace Prize Top Honor for maintaining national stability, promoting economic growth, and organizing a symbolic peace conference in the African region — November 2004

Yakubu Gowon Quotes

“The Igbos, when they are returned to the fold, must be given their rightful place and as a people who have been misguided and misled by their leaders, the rest of us have a duty to bind their wounds and give them our right hand of fellowship.”

“One of the challenges of the future is the extent to which our Universities can meet the needs and aspirations of the society which they are established to serve, without in any way compromising the autonomy that is so essential for a healthy academic atmosphere.”

“In spite of Ojukwu’s wicked propaganda, religion has never been a cause of conflict in Nigeria and it is my fervent hope that all Catholics, Moslems, and Protestants will continue to work and live together in harmony.”

“The trouble with military rule is that every colonel or general is soon full of ambition. The navy takes over today and the army tomorrow.”

“Foreign meddlers have been doing their very best under various pretexts to prolong our crisis. They place every possible obstacle in the way of peace and support rebel propaganda and intransigence. They will surely fail. I do believe that the end is in sight and that we will be able to settle down soon and concentrate on the task of national reconciliation and reconstruction.”


Britannica (2021)

Ogbemudia, V. (2020)

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