Continues from yesterday
On Thursday March 7, 1974 just after closing hours, I walked towards General Gowon's office in Dodan Barracks. In the antechamber, I overheard his voice.
He was in the middle of a telephone conversation. So I returned to the secretary's office, where one of his personal assistants confirmed that he was speaking with the Deputy Chief of Staff, Supreme Headquarters, General Hassan Usman Katsina. Thrice, I walked into the antechamber and each time I came back because I could still hear his voice. So I decided to wait in the secretary's office and requested the latter to let me know when he was free.
When the telephone signal light was off, I was duly informed and, with two unsealed envelopes in my hands, I walked into the Head of State's office.
At the time, he was just packing files he would look into at home.
When I entered, he looked up and asked what I wanted. I informed him about arrangements being made for the funeral of my deceased senior colleague, Mr. Moses Oladapo Awoyinfa, who died at the Lagos University Teaching Hospital after a brief illness.
Looking down, he said: "Poor Moses! Do you know I was to go and visit him in hospital? The doctor told him of my intention to visit but Moses sent word back to say I should wait a while until he felt better. He was so devotedâ-oe.May his soul rest in peace."
There were two other items I wanted to discuss with him. I broached the more difficult first, as was my custom.
The letters spoke for themselves. One was addressed to me and the other, marked "personal", to the Head of State by name. I had read both letters and discovered that the same person wrote them. It was standard practice for all official letters and packages addressed to the Head of State to be opened before being delivered. If any contained a bomb, he himself would be spared! Ordinarily, his personal secretaries opened his letters but, in this case, the letter was enclosed inside the envelope addressed to me by name.
I am sorry," I began, "to bother you with a little matter. Somebody delivered these letters to my address. One of them is addressed to me, and the other to you. I read mine first and yours afterwards. Mine is just a request from the author to deliver this letter and the message it contains to you.
I have made contact with the writer and established that he is real.
I think he's one of these religious people who claim to see visions. I thought it proper as this is the first time I have received such a letter to give it to you personally instead of passing it through any channels."
The General brought out the letter and read it.
Do you believe in this type of thing?" he asked. I replied that I did not but thought it was good for him to know about it. In any case, I did not want to have it on my conscience should it come to pass.
He asked me to reply to the man and thank him for his interest in him and his country.
Then he told me that he often received such messages.
If you heed all the warnings given by these prophets, you will not be able to do anything in life. You'd only have lived a coward's life.
"Do you know that during the War many people, even those I had great respect for, advised me to visit some mallams?"
He said he emerged from all of this feeling stronger in his faith in God. He then talked at length about his experiences in this regard. He recalled that, during the Civil War, he had received advice from many quarters, none of which he could accept because of his upbringing.
If he had not kept to most of the warnings, it was because they did not fall in line with his style of life, he explained. He then turned to the letter at hand.
This man may be well-meaning. He warns me to beware of two particular dates and also said it is dangerous for me to attend engagements in the company of my wife.
Everybody knows that I will be going to the Soviet Union in May and will probably be taking my wife with me. The second date, July 29, is the anniversary of the second coup of 1966. That is also a good guess! You see what I mean? If one had to keep to the advice of these people, one would end up living a coward's life and would therefore not be able to achieve all that one's God has set one out to achieve. I can't, therefore, heed warnings from any dreamers or visionaries."
By this time we had moved to the antechamber, which was separated from his oval-shaped office by glass-fronted sliding doors.
There he reminded me to reply the prophet. He said that it would be more rewarding for the man to say if he saw or heard anything that could affect the security of the nation.
We moved away from the antechamber to the gangway leading to the outer exit of his office. He stopped halfway and, turning to me, asked whether it was not ridiculous for anyone to suggest that he should not attend outside engagements in the company of his wife.
He pointed out that there were occasions when he could not go without her. If a visiting president of another country was accompanied by his wife, he, as host, must go to the airport in the company of his wife. Traditionally, he attended Sunday services with her. He mentioned several other such occasions.
He stressed that I should not allow myself to become a victim of visionaries and dreamers.
"The important thing," he emphasised, "is to have faith in your God. That has always been the guiding principle in my life."
I took my leave of him. Watching him go, I recalled my first meeting with him in March 1967.
I had been posted to New York the previous September and had been serving in the Nigerian Permanent Mission to the United Nations when a number of incidents occurred that tended to suggest unhealthy foreign involvement in the deepening political crisis in Nigeria, which was heading inexorably towards secession and civil war.
The Eastern Region had taken paid advertisements in the New York Times presenting their case and was already behaving as if it was a separate country; furthermore, information reaching us had it that a major Western power was backing their cause with money routed through the New York branch of a foreign bank. At about the same time, a telegram sent from one of the Latin American countries by a U.S. arms dealer was delivered to the wrong person at the Nigerian diplomatic mission in New York. Sent by one Mr. Cummings to a consular official who was later to defect, the telegram gave a situation report on a B26 bomber that the would-be secessionist regime was negotiating to buy.
Bearing in mind the activities of the public relations firm hired by the Eastern Region government, Chief S.O. Adebo, the then Nigeria's Permanent Representative to the United Nations, sent me to Lagos with some papers for the Head of the Federal Military Government. For security reasons, I was given a blank cheque to discuss directly with Gowon and avoid talking to the press.
On my arrival at Ikeja airport on March 12, I secured a Conference Visitors' Unit car that took me straight to Dodan Barracks, where I had an argument with one of the guards on duty.
It was not quite twilight but the rays of the sun had dimmed somewhat. I explained my mission but the guard refused me entry. I said that he just needed to announce my arrival or let the Head of State know that I was around. I reached for my calling card from the inner pocket of my jacket but he pointed his rifle at me and warned that he would shoot if I did not obey!
Presently, one of his colleagues approached us. I introduced myself and also told him that I had wanted to reach for my card, which bore my name and my office address in New York. While this was going on, an averagely built man wearing a white French suit quietly approached and asked what the matter was. The two soldiers stood to attention and I recognised the man whose photographs I had occasions to caption and distribute as Lt. Col. Yakubu Gowon, Head of the Federal Military Government and Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces of the Federal Republic of Nigeria.
I introduced myself but before I could say Chief Adebo sent me he asked me to come in. He moved ahead of me and did not look back until he opened the door of his residence. As I walked behind him, I wondered how a man could be so trusting. What if some enemy had eavesdropped on Chief Adebo's telephone conversation with him? What if I was someone else?
To my surprise, I saw that it was just two of us in the place. Before I began briefing him, he asked what drink I would like. I requested for a beer (the Lord had not yet touched my life then), which I sipped for the next three hours.
Knowing that I had just come straight from the airport and that I had not had any time to arrange for a hotel, he offered me his guest room. I thanked him but declined because I wanted to be free to contact friends before retiring. He asked me then to take my choice: Alhaji Hamzat Ahmadu, his principal secretary, could accommodate me; or I could stay at a hotel of my choice. He then telephoned Ahmadu to make the arrangements. I was to report back the following day to take some documents back with me for Adebo.
In the comfort of my hotel room, I made some notes underlining the new meaning of FAITH I had observed in Gowon's almost childlike trust.
Many years afterwards, when I was seconded to the State House as press secretary, it was natural for me to take every available opportunity to find out more about Gowon's background.
One such opportunity presented itself when Gowon's father passed away at the age of about ninety years. In order to issue a press release, I had to talk to a number of people who knew him. From them, I learnt that the late Mallam Yohana Gowon was born in about 1883 in Lur in the old Pankshin division of Benue-Plateau State. As in most other parts of Nigeria, there was no registry of births so Yohana Gowon's age was only an estimate.
The late Yohana Gowon was one of the many children of the Golong Lur (the paramount Chief of Lur) and was gaining prominence in the area as a successful farmer when the late Rev. Wedgewood visited Lur to convert the people to the Christian faith. Mallam Yohana was among those who listened to the missionary's sermon, which made a deep impression on him.
He returned again and again to listen to the missionary until an inner voice urged him to submit himself for baptism. The sincerity with which he embraced the new religion, coupled with his well-provided background as one of the sons of the Golong Lur, encouraged the missionaries to select him for training as an evangelist. Under the tutelage of the late Rev. and Mrs. Wedgewood, and later under the Bishop Smith, Mallam Yohana was given formal education and, thereafter, trained as an evangelist.
Mallam Yohana's decision to convert was unpopular with his family but he was already of age and was prepared for the consequences. Soon after he finished his training, he became the instrument for spreading the gospel among his people. He began his evangelical efforts under the auspices of the Church Missionary Society (CMS) in the closing years of the 19th century at Tuwan, near Kabwir. He met and married another Christian convert, Saraya Kuryan Goar, on April 26, 1923. Once married, Mallam Yohana travelled extensively in the course of his work in the old Pankshin division and remained with the CMS until the early 1930s, when a schism developed among the many missionary societies competing for converts in the region, which left the impression among some locals of different gods competing for their hearts and minds.
To resolve the problem, the various missionary groups arranged a conference to partition the region amongst the respective societies. In the process, the old Pankshin division came under the influence of the Sudan United Mission. Mallam Yohana was transfered to SUM but did not get along with their restritive style unlike the progressive and pragmatic style of the CMS especially in area of education. He had a choice of remaining in Pankshin and continuing under the new mission, or transferring to Zaria, the new CMS headquarters in the Northern Region. It was not an easy decision.
He already had six children by this time that would be greatly inconvenienced by the transfer but then he wanted the children to be educated. He also felt that, if it were the Lord's wish, then the Lord would surely find a solution. The answer came after he had resolved to put the matter to prayer. As he slept that night, he had a dream in which his father told him to move to Zaria because his services were needed there. This was in 1936. At the time, his son, Yakubu, was just two years old, and the youngest, Daniel, was just a baby.
After the family prayers the next morning, he narrated the dream to his family. He told his wife and children that the Lord wanted him in Zaria and they would have to go. When he later announced his decision to Bishop A. W. Smith, the latter assisted him in relocating.
In the meantime, Rev. and Mrs. Wedgewood, who had themselves moved to Zaria, persuaded the Emir to allocate a piece of land to their church. The Emir, who did not want his welcome to the foreigners confused with acceptance of the foreign religion, gave them a piece of land a mile square on the outskirts of the city, which later became known as Wusasa. In the early years of its development, the missionaries built a church, a hospital and a school and it was here that Mallam Yohana came with his family. He settled in quickly and resumed his evangelical work.
From his base at Wusasa, Mallam Yohana travelled to a number of places in the old Northern Region, propagating the Christian faith. His evangelical mission carried him to places like Chafe in the north-west; and Dutsen Wai, Soba, Maska, and Bakori in now Kaduna, Katsina and Zamfara states. As public transport was not as developed then as it is today, he journeyed to all these places on foot. There were no telephones either, so he relied on his faith that all would be well with his family. The children later said they always looked forward to his return because he never came back empty-handed.
Mallam Yohana did his best for his children. His earnings from his missionary work were meagre and he had to supplement them with farming. He was a man who would undergo any deprivation and forgo his own comfort to ensure that his children were well provided for.
The older children recalled the hard times during and after the Second World War and how he did all he could for them. He even had to work as a well digger - a job he performed with exceptional competence and accuracy - until he almost lost his life when a bucket taking the earth broke loose from a rope and hit him badly on the head while he was still digging. Yakubu was so concerned about this and wanted his father to stop well-digging. He swore he would work hard and do well at school and get a job to help look after his parents.
Meanwhile, Mallam Yohana's eldest son, Ibrahim, who was at St. Bartholomew's School in Wusasa, learnt about recruitment into the Nigeria Regiment of the Royal West African Frontier Force (RWAFF) under the command of the British Army for the prosecution of the Second World War. He informed his father of his desire to enlist and he advised him to put it to prayer. He enlisted and shortly after his military training he was sent to the front. He died soon after.
His younger brother, Peter, who also enlisted, went to the front and wrote letters back home describing the campaigns in Burma. He survived the war and was given an honourable discharge.
Five other children were born to Mallam Yohana and Saraya at Wusasa, bringing their number to eleven. With the loss of Ibrahim and the death, in 1942, of Ishaku, when he was just two years old, nine survived the old man when he died in 1973.
Mallam Yohana left one enduring legacy to his children: education. Fortunately, they did not have to go far because they lived close to St. Bartholomew's School, where they had their primary, middle and, in the main, secondary education. At the time, the school was one of the oldest and most advanced in the whole of the Northern Region. Moreover, it was free to the children of missionaries.
This privilege continued even after Mallam Yohana retired from active missionary work in the early 1940s, when he settled permanently in Wusasa and served as a lay preacher.
A deeply religious man, Mallam Yohana believed in the efficacy of prayers. He led the family in prayers and, even when the children were not old enough to appreciate the meaning of praying for people they did not know, he never omitted to pray for the leadership of the church and for the peace and progress in the country. He taught his children by personal example. He never bore malice and was never known to use foul language. He always saw the positive side in others and was always grateful to God for his mercies.
The advice he continually gave his children was not to envy others. To drive the point home, he related it to some episode in the Bible. In discussing the story of Naaman the Leper, for example, he would point out that, although Naaman was captain of the host of Syria and was very wealthy, he was a leper! Those who envied his position and his wealth would not wish to be like him. He would then stress that it was best to pray for God's will always.
Although a strict disciplinarian, Mallam Yohana seldom used the rod; the chastisement of his tongue was something dreaded by all his children. He led a very simple life and hardly ever had cause to visit the hospital until the last two months of his life. Nor did he miss his church services until towards the end of his life, when his health began to fail him. He neither drank nor smoked since his conversion. He drew a lot of lessons from life and always preached forgiveness, even to one's enemies.
It was in such a humble setting that Yakubu Gowon had his origins. In more respects than one, therefore, he was a chip off the old block.
Young Yakubu had a successful primary education at Wusasa. By the time he got to middle school, the authorities were sufficiently impressed with his fine qualities that he was recommended for placement in the highly rated Government College, Zaria which began life as Katsina College and later became Government College Kaduna and later Government Secondary School, Zaria until it was re-christened Government College, Zaria. After Gowon's time, its name was changed yet again to Barewa College, Zaria.
Gowon entered Government College, Zaria in the third form in 1950, when he was about fifteen years old. In no time, he marked himself out on the field and in the classroom as a bright student with leadership qualities. He became class monitor and, later, house prefect.
His classmates recalled that the year he started, his house lacked competitors for the annual cross-country competition. Although not considered strong enough by virtue of his age, especially as the race was intended for seniors, Gowon volunteered. At first, the seniors jeered at him and his classmates tried to dissuade him from participating but he was adamant. As he stepped out, he told one of his classmates that he was going to do well.
When the whistle blew, Gowon was initially edged out of place. He was almost last, as if confirming his detractors, but once the crowd had thinned Gowon steadily moved ahead until the last three miles, when news started spreading that a small boy was running side-by-side with the school champion, Dan Azunu, and his classmates started applauding, "Gowon Y! Gowon Y!" Encouraged by their reaction, Gowon kept up the pace but was piped at the post by the champion, a good half-mile ahead of the others.
That race demonstrated Gowon's potential in athletics and, in quick succession; he became captain of the school's athletic team, assistant house captain, and school prefect. He was regarded as an all-rounder.
It is not surprising, therefore, that even after he reached the sixth form, his class teachers, his house master, and the school's headmaster, almost all of whom had experienced military service in their country, advised him to consider a career in the Army. Indeed, Gowon was not the only one approached but all the bright ones in his class who were not conscientious objectors, including Sunday Awoniyi, another brilliant and hard working student and a good footballer!
Up until then, Gowon's career options were limited. Apart from the world he had been introduced to through his love of reading, his practical experience of careers was limited to professions practised in the environment in which he grew up. Initially, he considered teaching. The missionaries had given scholarships to him and his siblings, which greatly touched him. He felt obliged to repay their kindness by becoming a teacher himself. Even so, apart from his father, who was one of his earliest teachers, the people who influenced his life most at that early age were his teachers, who constituted part of the elite of the society.
The suggestion to join the Army coincided with a time when the British were faced with pressing demands for independence. After a series of constitutional conferences, the colonial masters introduced a new constitution in 1954 replacing the unitary system of government with a federal one. At the same time, they saw the need for training an officer cadre to understudy British military officers so that, when the time came, Nigerians themselves would take over the armed forces. As events were to show, the British did not intend to hand over control of the armed forces and the police precipitately. Indeed, the British appeared to want some sort of link with the new dispensation, hence the Anglo-Nigerian defence pact that was to survive the handover of power.
Against this background, the British decided to recruit a few qualified Nigerians to be commissioned into the Nigerian Army. One way they did this was to work with existing government schools, almost all of which were headed by Englishmen, to select the brightest boys for training. Government College, Zaria was one of them. The late Brigadier Maimalari and Lawan Umar were among the very first to be so enlisted, as was Kur Mohammed and Abogo Largema. Both were sent to the Military Academy in Sandhurst, England. By the time they and others were commissioned, Government College, Zaria could boast a substantial percentage of northern officers in the Army.
Abogo Largema was in his final year when Gowon entered Government College. Although he did not come across Maimalari at school, he had met him as an old boy because, even after joining the Army, Maimalari kept his contact with the school, encouraging select students in their final year to think of a career in the military. Kur Mohammed, James Yakubu Pam, and others knew Gowon not only as a brilliant student but as a well-behaved boy and a good athlete. Gowon and Pam cultivated each other's friendship and became like brothers.
Gowon's qualities had not passed unnoticed even at the highest level of the institution. The headmaster himself was disappointed to discover that he had not enlisted. Accordingly, he invited him to his office to find out why. He told Gowon that the Army was looking for the best students and he regarded him as one of them and urged him to put his name down. Gowon replied that he had not thought of it.
The following day, the assistant headmaster chanced to meet with Gowon and expressed a similar hope. He said that virtually all the British teachers from the headmaster down had served in the military and he knew that Gowon, who would turn nineteen in his final year, would make a success of it. Later on, both his housemaster and his mathematics teacher said the same.
In spite of this pressure, Gowon stuck to his love of teaching and did not budge. When he first mentioned the matter to his father, the old man simply told him to put it in his prayers but, the more he prayed, the more confused he became. He then arranged a blind ballot. He wrote all his career options on separate pieces of paper, which he folded and placed in different pages of his Bible. He closed the Bible and prayed hard and, with eyes closed, opened it and reached for one of the folded papers. When he saw his selection, he found he had chosen the Army. He repeated the exercise twice more and got the same result and concluded that the Lord wanted him in the Army.
Students who had been selected for the volunteer list were getting ready to set out for the military depot where the interviews were to be held. Gowon felt he had a duty to let his father know his decision before informing the headmaster so he dashed home, where he found his father agreeable, even though he had already lost one son by the same route.
His mother was opposed and started weeping but it was his father's opinion, which mattered more to him. He rushed back to school to inform the authorities, who wrote him a letter of introduction, and then rushed to catch up with the other students, who had already gone ahead. He caught up with them at the shopping centre in Zaria near the old P.Z. stores by the railway crossing. As he was crossing the Tudun Wada/ Kubanni bridge a smart young military officer on a bicycle pulled up beside him and, looking up, he saw that it was Captain Zakariya Maimalari, who called out to him: "Gowon, how are you? Where are you going?"
Gowon greeted the old boy with all respect and awe and told him that he was heading for the interview for the Army. Maimalari was thrilled and gave him some tips on how to answer the questions and wished him good luck. For Gowon, that meeting augured well for the interview, even though the delay had cost him time. When he reached the depot, the group ahead of him had already been called in and a general briefing was about to begin.
After handing his letter of introduction to the officer in charge, he was asked sternly why he did not register at the same time as the others. He replied that he wanted to make assurance doubly sure so that, should he sign up, there would be no question of turning back. That pleased the officer, who invited him to join the others for the interview.
The first test was a medical. Candidates could not proceed to the other stages if they did not pass it. Gowon, like most of the others, had no problems on that score. However, some parents objected to a career in the military for their children and they had to drop out. At the end of the process, only Gowon of the 10 - 12 candidates from his batch ended up in the military!
According to Gowon, those eight candidates were among the best in their set. They included Sunday Awoniyi, who was rated as brilliant all-round; Patrick Ogori, who was regarded as a wizard in mathematics and also another all-rounder; Aduba Ichakpo, for whom Gowon had to stand as godfather during that student's baptism; and Shuaibu Paiko, captain of Gowon's school house.
Once the selection process was concluded, Gowon was instructed to report to the military headquarters in Kaduna. The initial training took him first to the Regular Officers' Special Training School at Teshie, Ghana in 1954 and, on completion, to Eaton Hall Officers' Cadet Training School in Chester, England.
The training was tough. At each stage, the young cadets first had to satisfy a selection board before they could proceed to the next. The first was the War Office Selection Board, which determined which cadets could go on to Eaton Hall, Chester. At Eaton, he had to appear before another Board, the Regular Officers' Commission Board, before he could proceed for further training at Sandhurst Military Academy. Even so, cadets did not just go straight to Sandhurst. It was like going through a mill but Gowon worked hard and made it into Sandhurst in the autumn of 1955.
Among his Nigerian course mates at Eaton Hall, Gowon was the only one to pass the Regular Officers' Commission Board test at the first attempt.
Their stay in Sandhurst was most instructive and enjoyable. They went from being young green officer cadets to young responsible officers. And on December 21, 1956 they were commissioned Second Lieutenants and went on their young officers' courses at Hythe and later at Warminster between January and July 1957, when they returned to Nigeria for postings to their respective units.
Gowon's initial posting was to the 1st Battalion of the Queens Own Regiment, forerunner of the Nigerian Army but he ended up in the 4th Battalion because his posting orders were changed at the last minute. Although initially disappointed, he later came to believe that it was a blessing in disguise. He recalls with pride that he owed his later achievements in his chosen profession to the practical training he received at the 4th Battalion, which had exceptionally good officers like Col. Ken Wilson and Col. Humphrey, Wilson's successor, who made him Adjutant of the 4th Battalion, thereby unconsciously preparing him for a leadership role that would come in handy later in his career.
In 1960, the year of independence, Gowon was assigned to lead a platoon of his Battalion for operations in Southern Cameroon. He distinguished himself as platoon commander and, on his return, was selected as Adjutant of his Battalion - 4th Bn QONR. He later served with his Battalion the United Nations Forces in the Congo, from October 1960 to June 1961.
On his returned to Nigeria he was posted to the Army HQ Lagos as a junior staff officer. In recognition of his outstanding performance in the Congo, he was rewarded with a selection to the Staff College, Camberley in 1962. His selection three years ahead of his time made him the envy of his colleagues but it was generally agreed that he deserved it.
Gowon was at the Staff College at the same time as some of his senior colleagues like Kur Mohammed from the earlier set of Nigerian cadets from Government College, Zaria. After successful completion at the Staff College, he was posted as Brigade Major with the UN Forces in the Congo from January to June 1963. He was recalled home and promoted Lt. Col. and assigned to Army Headquarters as a senior staff officer - Adjutant General of the NA. It was at about this time that his solid but unassuming leadership qualities started getting noticed and it was generally expected that he would make the mark in his chosen career.
The most striking element in his character was that he was both a soldier and a gentleman. Never known to drink or smoke, he was levelheaded and always had his wits about him. His background was such that one of his most valued possessions was his Holy Bible, which he took with him everywhere. Like his father, he envied no man but always prayed for the Lord's will to be done.
While in the Congo, prayers helped him to be on course with his profession. He saw first hand the devastating effects of war on people and nation. The one thing he never wished for Nigerian was war. In 1961, he would have sworn that he would not be involved in a civil war affecting his own country.
In 1963, Nigeria adopted a republican constitution - a fact that encouraged British nationals who still occupied responsible positions in government to give serious thought to training Nigerians to take over. One of the early posts to be nigerianized in the Army was the post of Adjutant-General. Since such an officer would assist the General Officer Commanding (GOC) in discipline, promotions, and establishment matters, whoever was appointed had to possess qualities of honesty, objectivity, and fair-mindedness.
The Permanent Secretary, Ministry of Defence at the time, Mr. Abdul Aziz Atta, had to make the recommendation to the government. After going through the confidential reports of all eligible officers, he interviewed Gowon's superior officers to obtain, in confidence, their assessment of the young Lt. Col. vis-à-vis his other colleagues. All of them to a man suggested Gowon as best suited for the position. Atta also sounded the opinion of Gowon's course mates and other colleagues. All of them, including Ojukwu, concurred and so he was appointed.
Gowon brought his characteristic zeal and energy to bear on the job, and the justice and fairness he applied was such that many soldiers knew him as Adjutant-General rather than by his name.
During his tenure, he contributed to enhancing the unity of the Army and making it the one institution in the country that was truly national.
While Gowon was beginning his career in the Army, and was being groomed into being a true Nigerian, there were some in his secondary school set who opted for academic careers. The Nigerian College of Arts, Science and Technology in Zaria, later the Ahmadu Bello University, was one of the institutions of higher learning in the Northern Region at the time. Like the Army, the Nigerian College was a melting pot for all Nigerian ethnic groups and potential training ground for Nigerian nationalists. But while the Army positively encouraged the growth of true esprit de corps, the College and other national institutions of higher learning became breeding grounds for ethnic prejudices.
Architect Fola Alade, former Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Defence, recalled an episode in the College around 1957 when southern students protested the inclusion of tuwo, a staple of the North, in their diet. At the time, a number of prominent northerners were active in the student union, including Adamu Suleiman, who was to become the Inspector-General of Police; Abba Zarro, who was to be Managing Director of Radio Television Kaduna; and Yaya Abubakar.
In order to try and contain the crisis, which was embarrassing to the northern intelligentsia at the College, a meeting was arranged between representatives of the protesting student body and the catering authorities, where all the foods normally served were displayed. The purpose was to invite the representatives to pick and choose those food items they wanted and which they did not.
When the students made their choice, it turned out that the one preferred item by all the southern students involved happened to be the tuwo they were protesting against. Ironically, the item they rejected, and which they believed was tuwo, was a southern dish!
While Adjutant-General, and when the need arose for a Nigerian to be appointed to succeed the outgoing GOC, Gowon's input was sought. The obvious candidates were:
1. Brigadier Aguiyi-Ironsi
2. Brigadier Samuel Ademulegun
3. Brigadier Babafemi Ogundipe
4. Brigadier Zakariya Maimalari
Although Gowon felt a close affinity with Maimalari and recognised that he was better equipped for the position on account of his Sandhurst training, he also recognised that, having risen through the ranks, Ironsi's military experience compensated for his lack of formal education.
He also believed that, if the political leaders were confident of Ironsi's loyalty, then the choice of GOC should favour him as the most senior officer of the Army. Such a recommendation of a southerner coming from a northerner underscored Gowon's honesty and objectivity. Shortly thereafter, Gowon was nominated for a course at the Joint Services' Staff College, Latimer, England for which he left in May 1965.
Gowon was then going on thirty-one and thought it was time to give some serious thought to marriage. There were two women in his life, both pretty undergraduates called Edith.
He met Edith Ike, an Igbo, who was at the Federal School of Science, Onikan and later the University of Ibadan, through a mutual friend. They saw each other in Lagos whenever he visited her at the Science School or she visited him at his Ikoyi residence. From the onset, however, Gowon was aware of the age difference and other factors that would prove an impediment. Appreciating the vulnerability of the girl and his other earlier commitment to another girl, he was anxious not to hurt anyone.
Before his meeting with Edith Ike, Gowon had met Edith Matankari, of northern Christian parentage from Wusasa where she had grown up. Although Gowon was developing some friendship for her, he had to be careful. The Wusasa community was a small one in which everyone knew everyone else. As headquarters of the CMS, its residents found it incumbent on themselves to uphold the teachings of their faith by personal example.
At the early stages of the introduction of Christianity and Western education, one strong objection from the predominantly Muslim population was the education of girls. For a long time, therefore, most northern girls who received an education were those from Christian homes. Part of the proselytising effort by the Christian community was to show by example that women could receive an education and still remain 'proper'. Over the years, this became part of the subconscious of the average northern Christian female.
Gowon readily understood that he could not be serious with Edith Matankari without meaning it. Although there were other girls in Wusasa who attracted him, he hoped he would ultimately make the right choice. She was a particularly shy and reticent girl who showed little interest in any relationship. The relationship simply fizzled out.
Gowon did not fuss but prayed. The woman he ultimately married was a late find in his hunt. He had known the family of Victoria Hansatu Zakari earlier on. Like him, one of her parents was a Christian convert from Zaria. While he was seeing Edith Matankari, Gowon could not contemplate friendship with any other Wusasa-based woman. His relationship with Victoria came much later after he had finished with both Ediths.
However, they were to meet again in circumstances that would affect their lives in a more permanent way. By some inexplicable twist of fate, Gowon had become Head of State and, along with his military ADC, he also had a police ADC, Sani Yaroson, a Christian from Wusasa who also happened to have as a friend Miss Comfort Zakari, elder sister of Victoria, who was then training to be a nurse at the University College Hospital Ibadan School of Nursing. Victoria often visited Comfort and Yaroson. It was during one such visit that their romance started.
Within their first year of meeting, Gowon proposed marriage. Although she was fond of him, she asked for time to consider. At the time, she had a boyfriend who was equally serious about marrying her. If she gave in to Gowon, it would be thought that her major consideration was his position. She wanted to tell her other boyfriend about her new relationship but was advised against it in case her motives were misunderstood. She finally resolved to tell Gowon the truth so that his hopes would not be falsely raised.
At their next meeting, she found herself disarmed before she could begin. By the time she got around to mentioning that she had a serious boyfriend, he merely replied that she was attractive and so it was hardly surprising. He was not just proposing friendship; he was proposing marriage. Before she knew it, he had addressed a formal request to her parents asking for her hand.