Yakubu Gowon (born 19 October 1934), affectionately known as Jack Gowon, is a retired Nigerian Army general and military leader. As Head of State of Nigeria, Gowon presided over a controversial Nigerian Civil War and delivered the famous “no victor, no vanquished” speech at the war’s end in an effort to promote healing and reconciliation.
The Nigerian Civil War is listed as one of the deadliest in modern history, with some accusing Gowon of crimes against humanity and genocide. Gowon maintains that he committed no wrongdoing during the war and that his leadership saved the country.
An Anglican Christian from a minority Ngas family of Northern Nigeria, Gowon is a Nigerian nationalist, and a believer in the unity and oneness of Nigeria. Gowon’s rise to power following the July 1966 counter-coup cemented military rule in Nigeria. Consequently, Gowon is the longest serving head of state of Nigeria, ruling for almost nine years until his overthrow in the coup d’état of 1975 by Brigadier Murtala Mohammed.
Gowon is a Ngas (Angas) from Lur, a small village in the present Kanke Local Government Area of Plateau State. His parents, Nde Yohanna and Matwok Kurnyang left for Wusasa, Zaria as Church Missionary Society (CMS) missionaries in the early days of Gowon’s life. His father took pride in the fact that he married the same day as the future Queen Mother Elizabeth married the future King George VI. Gowon was the fifth of eleven children. He grew up in Zaria and had his early life and education there. At school, Gowon proved to be a very good athlete: he was the school football goalkeeper, pole vaulter, and long-distance runner. He broke the school mile record in his first year. He was also the boxing captain.
Gowon joined the Nigerian Army in 1954, and received his commission as a second lieutenant on 19 October 1955, his 21st birthday. He was trained in the prestigious Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, UK (1955–56), Staff College, Camberley, UK (1962) as well as the Joint Staff College, Latimer, 1965. He saw action in the Congo as part of the United Nations Peacekeeping Force, both in 1960–61 and in 1963. He advanced to battalion commander rank by 1966, at which time he was still a lieutenant colonel.
Head of state
In 1966, Gowon was chosen to become head of state. Up until then, Gowon remained strictly a career soldier with no involvement whatsoever in politics, until the tumultuous events of the year suddenly thrust him into a leadership role, when his unusual background as a Northerner who was neither of Hausa nor Fulani ancestry nor of the Islamic faith made him a particularly safe choice to lead a nation whose population was seething with ethnic tension.
Gowon promoted himself twice as Nigerian Head of State. Gowon was a Lt. Colonel upon his ascendancy to the top of the new Federal military government of Nigeria on August 1, 1966 however other senior military officers such as Commodore Joseph Wey, Brigadier Babafemi Ogundipe, and Colonel Robert Adebayo were a part of the government and their military seniority to Gowon was awkward. To stabilize his position as Head of State, Gowon promoted himself to Major-General just before the start of the civil war hostilities in 1967 and to full General at the end of the civil war in 1970.
On 29 July 1975, while Gowon was attending an OAU summit in Kampala, a group of officers led by Colonel Joe Nanven Garba announced his overthrow. The coup plotters appointed Brigadier Murtala Muhammed as head of the new government, and Brigadier Olusegun Obasanjo as his deputy.
Years in exile
Gowon subsequently went into exile in the United Kingdom, where he acquired a Ph.D. in political science as a student at the University of Warwick. His main British residence is on the border of north London and Hertfordshire, where he has very much become part of the English community in his area. He served a term as Churchwarden in his parish church, St Mary the Virgin, Monken Hadley.
Gowon married Miss Victoria Zakari, a trained nurse in 1969 at a ceremony officiated by Seth Irunsewe Kale at the Cathedral Church of Christ, Lagos.