Reference Entry

Gowon, Yakubu 1934–Soldier, statesman, and former head of the military government of Nigeria.

Robert Fay

in Africana: The Encyclopedia of the African and African American Experience, Second Edition

Published in print January 2005 | ISBN: 9780195170559
Gowon, Yakubu 1934–Soldier, statesman, and former head of the military government of Nigeria.

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Former Nigerian president Yakubu Gowon was born in Plateau State, Nigeria. As the country’s military ruler from 1966 to 1975, he advocated unity for Nigeria and national reconciliation after the conclusion of the Biafran War. After his ouster in a bloodless coup, Gowon took the role of a senior statesman and continued to work toward regional cooperation in West Africa.A Christian missionary’s son, Gowon was born into the Anga ethnic group in the Northern Region of Nigeria. He completed secondary school in Zaria, Nigeria, in 1953. Gowon joined the Nigerian army and began his military training in Teshie, Ghana in 1954. In 1955 he moved to Great Britain, where he completed his studies at the Royal Military Academy in Sandhurst the following year.Gowon served in Ibadan, at the Nigeria-Cameroon border, and in The Democratic Republic of Congo. He attained the rank of lieutenant colonel by 1963. At the beginning of 1966 he commanded the Second Battalion. As the senior northern officer who survived the January 1966 Igbo-led coup, Gowon was appointed army chief of staff. Northern officers chose him to head the new military government after the northern-led counter-coup of July 1966.Once in power, Gowon desired a quick return to civilian rule, but Nigeria faced civil conflict. Massacres of Igbos in the north frightened and outraged Nigeria’s Igbos, who dominated the Eastern Region. In 1967 Gowon declared a state of emergency and divided Nigeria’s four regions into twelve states. This redrawing of internal boundaries effectively put most of Nigeria’s lucrative oil fields just outside Igbo territory. Consequently, under Igbo leadership, the Eastern Region seceded in 1967 as the independent state of Biafra.After the Biafran War in 1970, Gowon sought reconciliation and declared that there would be “no victor and no vanquished.” From 1970 to 1975 he implemented policies aimed at reconstruction. He helped establish the National Youth Service Corps (NYSC) and the Economic Community of Western African States (ECOWAS). He issued a nine-point transition program by which power would be transferred to a civilian government in 1976.In July 1975, however, the army overthrew Gowon while he attended a meeting of the Organization of African Unity in Kampala, Uganda. Gowon fled to Great Britain, where he lived in exile and earned a doctorate in political science from Warwick University. He later returned to Nigeria and continued to advocate national reconciliation. After the 1993 military coup, he promoted a peaceful return to democratic rule. During the 1990s, Gowon headed the committee to review the ECOWAS treaty, assumed the post of chairman of the National Oil and Chemicals Marketing Company, headed Nigeria Prays (a religious organization dedicated to social, political, and religious reconciliation in Nigeria), and continued to work with the NYSC. He worked with the Arewa Consultative Forum, a political organization in northern Nigeria. Gowon remains active in politics on the continent, though usually in an unofficial capacity.

Reference Entry.  492 words.  Illustrated.

Subjects: History

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