By Obadiah Mailafia
I love Nigeria. But there is a part of me, to echo the poet, Rupert Brooke, that is forever England. Perhaps it’s on account of her medieval knights and Plantagenet troubadours; her baroque royal trumpets; her decency and manners; her poets and seers; her afternoon teas with scones — her love of liberty.
On Monday, November 23, following a 200,000-strong petition, the British Parliament held a special debate to consider sanctions against Nigeria. In September, the same venerable house had written to Commonwealth Secretary-General Patricia Scotland to investigate genocide in Nigeria. Nigerians in the UK have become a powerful lobby. They can no longer be ignored. Several have been elected into parliament, among them Olukemi Badenoch, recently appointed by Prime Minister Boris Johnson as Minister for Children and Families.
The Mother of Parliaments is as old as Magna Carta. Despite the Nazis and the blitz, it has never stopped sitting for 600 years. It commands moral authority.
During the debate, Tom Tugendhat, Conservative MP for Tonbridge, stirred the hornet’s nest when he declared: “Some people would remember when General Gowon left Nigeria with half of the central bank, or so it was said, and moved to London.”
When I heard the story, I phoned the General: “Baba, they said you made away with half of the central bank.” The old man burst into laughter. He then asked me, “As a former Deputy Governor of the CBN, do you believe I could have stolen half of the central bank?” I answered honestly that I did not think so.
Many social media warriors of the Yahoo generation believe the man is guilty, since “there can be no smoke without fire”. Others describe him as a “war criminal” who slaughtered millions of Biafran children.
In an interview with the London-based Ben TV following the furore, the General was quoted as saying: “I won’t respond to the baseless accusation…you don’t make blank statements discrediting anyone because it suits a picture you want to paint. I served this country to the best of my abilities and the records are there for anyone to verify.”
Foreign Affairs Minister Geoffrey Onyeama sent a diplomatic note to the British Government protesting the defamation of a respected former Head of State. On her part, Charlotte Pierre, Head of the Africa Department at the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, responded that the comment of one MP does not reflect the views of Her Majesty’s Government and that the administration cannot control the speeches of MPs.
Yakubu Gowon was born among the Angas of Plateau State, on October 19, 1934. His father, a saintly and revered Anglican missionary evangelist, migrated with the family to Wusasa, Zaria. Yakubu attended the famous Barewa College, where he was a Head Boy and star athlete. He had intended to study engineering at university, but his British schoolmasters persuaded him to join the army. He enrolled at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst and was commissioned into the Nigerian Army as a 2nd Lieutenant in 1955.
Gowon was just returning from staff training in Britain when Major General Johnson Aguiyi-Ironsi was felled in the counter-coup of July 29, 1966. Fate catapulted him to the high magistracy on August 1, 1966, aged 31. He ruled our country for nine years, until his ouster in July 1975 whilst attending an Organisation of Africa Unity Summit in Kampala. Gowon accepted his fate with stoic equanimity. Echoing Shakespeare, he declared that the world is a stage and all of us are mere players in it.
It has been said that M.D. Yusuf, his security chief, warned him about an impending coup. When it was revealed that the ring-leaders were some of the people closest to him, he realised that his time was up.
Gowon was virtually penniless when he left power in 1975. Members of his entourage and staff of the High Commission in Kampala contributed £3,000 to help him settle in exile. He survived on hand-outs from loyal permanent secretaries such as Philip Asiodu and Allison Ayida and his friend President Gnasingbe Eyadema of Togo. When he enrolled at Warwick University, pictures of him carrying a tray in the students’ cafeteria caused no small embarrassment to the Murtala administration. It was at that point that they decided to put him on a pension.
When Murtala was assassinated in the failed Dimka coup of February 1976, the Obasanjo-Yar’Adua government requested Gowon’s extradition to face trials. To this day, he has strenuously insisted on his innocence. His cousin, former military Governor of the old Benue-Plateau State, Joseph Dechi Gomwalk, was not so lucky. A first-class honours graduate of University College, Ibadan, Gomwalk was martyred for a crime he did not commit. If the British had been prevailed upon to extradite him, Gowon would almost certainly have met a similar fate. It is one of those scars that he will carry to his grave.
Gowon certainly had his share of mistakes. He has always regretted the death of so many during the civil war. The “cement scandals” were a big shame; in addition to the Udoji bonanza and failure to adhere to the agreed time-table on transition to multiparty democracy. Whatever his shortcomings, he was an incorruptible patriot. The same, alas, could not be said for the robber-barons who succeeded him.
If Gowon had made off with half of the central bank as has been alleged, there is no way he could have hidden the loot so skilfully for 45 years. Harvard-trained economist Clement Isong was the CBN Governor during those years. If the former Head of State had rampaged the national treasury, Isong surely would have known. And I don’t think he would have remained silent.
According to the Jamaican sociologist Patrick Wilmot, when rumours first transpired that Gowon had looted the national treasury, the Murtala administration set up a panel of inquiry. They found out that Gowon had a total of the UK £15,000 in his bank accounts. Then as now, it is remarkable for a public official, more so one who served as Head of State for almost a decade. He executed the war effort without borrowing from the World Bank or the international capital markets. Even when the petrodollars started flowing in, he never got his snout into the trough. Only four houses are attached to his name: the family home in Wusasa; the bungalow in London; the family house in Jos; and the Asokoro-Abuja property, built with help from the Federal Government. He lives with Spartan frugality.
Gowon is our greatest leader by far. Most of the infrastructure we have today were built by him. Abuja was his idea. He is our Abraham Lincoln. His cabinet remains unrivalled to this day: Obafemi Awolowo, Tony Enahoro, Shehu Shagari, Aminu Kano, Taslim Olawale Elias, Okoi Arikpo and others. He walked with great humbleness and he wielded power with justice and compassion. When he left in 1975, Nigeria was at the verge of an industrial-technological take-off; the naira was at par with the pound sterling and exchanged at two dollars to the naira.
He has spent his evening years praying for our country and pursuing humanitarian causes. He has resisted the temptation to heckle succeeding leaders, unlike one Owu High Chief. I think he has carried the aloofness too far, given the rampant insecurity and genocidal killings we face today.
It was a known fact that Murtala Mohammed looted the CBN Branch in Benin during the civil war. During the Babangida years, former CBN Research Director, Chief Samuel Falegan, revealed that the Mint went into overdrive printing naira that were then carted off by the truckloads. Even an ogre like Idi Amin would not have committed such daylight rapine.
Gowon towers heads and shoulders above the Lilliputians who call themselves leaders today.
Did Gowon loot the central bank?
By Obadiah Mailafia