It does appear that General Yakubu Gowon, the man who became Nigeria’s Head of State under very controversial circumstances, is weighed down by a certain hangover. He still thinks that the only way a country can be ruled is by diktat. He is yet to come to terms with the fact that power, in a democratic setting such as ours, must flow through popular consent. More than 40 years after he was booted out of office, Gowon still wishes for a static Nigeria, where the old order must continue to hold sway.
When, the other time, some secessionist groups gave Nigeria cause to worry about its unity, Gowon clearly went livid. He made nostalgic references to the Nigeria he fought to keep together. He was afraid that the trophy he took home some four decades ago was about to be snatched away from him. Many clearly understand the passions of the likes of Gowon over one Nigeria. He considers Nigeria’s unity as his life-time legacy. He does not want it to be toyed or tinkered with.
As an elder statesman, Gowon is entitled to his nostalgia. He is free to feel romantic about the Nigeria of his era. But in doing this he must not be impervious to change. He must recognise that no condition is permanent. He has, no doubt, played his part in the making of Nigeria. But he must allow the passage of time to shape and moderate the course of history. As an elder, Gowon should also know that silence can be golden at times. You do not talk for the sake of it. When an elder speaks, his intervention should illuminate discourse. It should not obfuscate issues. An elder should not court controversy when there is no need for it. Unfortunately, Gowon has acted in ways that suggest that he does not reckon with the wisdom of the ancients.
A few days ago, for instance, Gowon spoke carelessly about the vexed issue of restructuring. He said Nigeria should be left the way it is because, as he put it, “Nigeria is made up of over 500 ethnic groups, languages and dialects and so many various groups called nationalities and they want restructuring. This restructuring everybody is asking for, we will have about 500 different ideas of restructuring.”
This must be a lazy and off-handed way of dismissing an idea that is being seriously canvassed by various segments of the country. As a former head of state, we expect Gowon’s intervention on this and any other important national issue to be worth the while. If Gowon were to be the likes of Nasir el-Rufai, the governor of Kaduna State, who is engaged in an imaginary supremacy contest with the South of the country, we would forgive the exuberance and misdirection. But Gowon is not in the mould of el-Rufai. He is mature and, therefore, cannot afford the verbal diarrhea of the likes of el-Rufai.
Whereas the el-Rufais of the North are interested in which segment of the country controls the larger share of the national cake, Gowon and his ilk have a different kind of mindset. Gowon’s problem is driven by a certain hangover. For nine odd years, he presided over the affairs of Nigeria. What defined his era was war and acrimony. That being the case, Gowon, regardless of his avowals on reconciliation, rehabilitation and reconstruction, had in place a set of decrees that imposed harsh penalty on the vanquished. He needed to do this so that another circumstance that could lead to Nigeria’s breakup does not arise.
But Gowon’s era is long gone and the realities have changed. What he has going for him is that a good number of Nigerians still share his passion about one, united Nigeria. However, there is a significant number of Nigerians who want the present order to give way so that the unity that Gowon is obsessed with remains. This latter group are the apostles of restructuring. In 1967, for instance, Gowon restructured Nigeria as a strategy to keep the country one. He abolished the four regions and gave the country 12 states. It worked for the period. It served the purpose for which the restructuring was brought about. However, time has continued to wear thin the gains and attractions of the past. That explains the clamour and advocacy for a new order. Regrettably, the likes of Gowon smell a rat. They suspect that there is more to this restructuring than meets the eye. The suspicion is that regional autonomy or anything close to it could eventuate in the dismemberment of the country. And since Gowon does not want Nigeria to disintegrate in his life time, he has decided to dismiss the idea of restructuring without sparing a thought for its possible gains. This manner of fixation is unbecoming of someone whose position on issues ought to be tempered by experience and exposure.
After more than 40 years out of power, Gowon should begin to change his mindset. He should take steps that are capable of righting the wrongs of the past. Significantly, he has a pet project called Nigeria Prays. The ex-head of state has been promoting this project for over 20 years. Yet he has not made any impact on the minds of Nigerians. The reason is simple. Gowon has not sent out the right message to Nigerians. Sometime in the past, he said something that sounded like an apology to western Igbos whose brothers and sisters were massacred in their numbers by Gowon’s army for showing sympathy to their beleaguered kinsmen from the East during the Biafran debacle. However, Gowon has since betrayed the fact that he did not regret the genocide visited on western Igbos. His comments and disposition since then do not bear his apology out.
Rather than see the unity of Nigeria as the biggest legacy he would leave behind, he should seek true reconciliation. Those who were needlessly killed by Gowon’s army need restitution. They want to see repentance on the faces of their oppressors. As the head of state during that trying period, Gowon must accept responsibility for every action taken. As a Christian, he must work to free his soul from baggage. For, according to the Holy Bible, what shall it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses his soul? Gowon should worry more about eternal salvation and pay less attention to the things of the world such as the unity of Nigeria. Fortunately for him, he has a number of disciples who subscribe to the unity of the country. President Muhammadu Buhari is one such person. He fought on the same side with Gowon to keep Nigeria one. To ensure that their passion remains evergreen, they should learn to move with the times. Buhari, like Gowon in 1967, has a historic opportunity to restructure the country to make it stronger and more united. Contrary to what Gowon thinks, the modalities for the restructuring are not as riotous as he will have us believe. Those in position of authority know what to do if they mean well for the country. If Nigeria is restructured today along regional or zonal lines, the country will witness relative peace and stability for a long time to come. But to insist on retaining an old and jaded structure that has made Nigeria a babel of sorts is a recipe for more trouble. Gowon and his cohorts should think again.