Nigeria’s second military ruler, Yakubu Gowon, says he did not believe a military coup could take place in Nigeria until the first one on January 15, 1966.
After that initiation which brought in Johnson Aguiyi-Ironsi as the first military Head of State, Nigeria experienced five other successful coups and many aborted ones before the birth of the Fourth Republic in 1999.
Gowon became Head of State after Aguiyi-Ironsi was killed in the counter-coup of July 29, 1966. The coup was staged by junior military officers from the northern region of Nigeria.
The officers said the coup was to avenge the killing of many northern and Yoruba political leaders and military officers in the earlier putsch.
Recalling the series of events that ended with him becoming Head of State before his 32nd birthday in 1966, Gowon said he thought “it was impossible” to have a coup in Nigeria.
He spoke a day after his 85th birthday on October 20 at a ceremony in Abuja where he was honoured with a `Lifetime Achievement Award` and Patron of the Civil Youth Society Group.
Until the political upheavals and military rebellion catapulted him into power, Gowon was a career soldier and had no involvement in politics.
“I had no ambition to go beyond reaching my zenith in my military career but certain development came through that I never thought of,” he said after receiving the award in Abuja.
Gowon remembered his encounters with foreigners while returning to Nigeria by sea shortly before the coup of January 1966.
“When I was coming back from the UK after taking one of my senior courses and I decided to take a holiday before coming home, of course, you never knew what could happen and upon my arrival, people were asking me silly questions,” he recalled.
“We were not political in the army and not trained to get involved in that aspect. But if such a thing happened and honestly, this was asked by most of the nationalities: the English, the Scot, Britain, people from West Africa and others from Gambia, Sierra Leone, Liberia and Ghana,” he said.
“Even some Nigerians onboard had to ask me, after the coup in Central Africa and West Africa, ‘what of Nigeria?’
“So I said to them, ‘let me not be a philosopher. Nothing is impossible in this world but if such a thing happens in Nigeria, I hope the few loyal ones amongst us will deal with the situation and return the status quo.’”
Gowon was Nigeria`s head of state for nine years covering the deadly Nigerian civil war which lasted 30 months and caused the death of thousands of Nigerians and dislocation of millions of others.
On the civil war, he said the Nigerian Army under his command fought “under a very strict code of conduct.”
He recalled the remarks by a Red Cross official that ‘Nigeria fought the war better than obeying the Geneva Convention’, “because I can assure you there was strict instruction on how the war was going to be fought against those who had taken up arms against the country remaining one Nigeria.
“That was (the reason) why we protected people, women and children and even anyone that should be treated as a Nigerian; and this was what we wanted,” he said.
He said Nigerians and his government had nothing against the Igbo.
The massacre of the Igbo people in some northern cities was the main reason the then governor of the then Eastern Region, Emeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu, cited for declaring the secession of the region as the Republic of Biafra.
“That is why when the war ended, we did not glorify the victory over defeated people,” Gowon said.
After the unconditional surrender of the Biafran rebels in January 1970, Gowon declared that the war produced ‘No Victor, No Vanquished.’
“The victor was Nigeria, that has now remained one and united,” Gowon said. “If I want to give glory to God, I will say ‘God, thank you, we remain united after 50 years and I hope we will be united for another 50 years and more to come.”