By Echika Ezuka

This story is about General Yakubu Gowon that I am forced to tell now because of the December 25, Christmas Day killings in Plateau State. 

The killings perceived as ethnic cleansing by many, but described as sheer criminality by politicians again mirrored Nigeria as a country that has been boxed in by extreme positions in religion, culture clashes, land grabbing and politics.

Nigeria again has been projected as the giant that lacks the will to wake up. The President and Commander-in -Chief of the Nigeria Armed Forces, Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu has referred to the massacres as heinous and ordered the security forces to go after the criminals. The Northern Governors Forum referred to the attacks that left over 115 people dead, as reprehensible while the Governor of Plateau State, Caleb Mutfwang has described it as unprovoked.

The Nigerian media have bold headlines condemning the carnage. The informal public space seems to have all the answers that the governments and the media are searching for. By public space here I am referring to those informal platforms for conversation, for example, train coaches, buses, beer parlours, lounges, social meetings, sports centres and gyms, groups in churches and other places where more than two may be gathered. Possibly as a result of years of disappointment in the ruling elite, Nigerians have formed a habit of configuring the truths that lead their lives not from the mass media, but from these informal platforms where conspiracy theories are treated with the same respect as verses from the Holy Book.

I was at one of those informal platforms on Christmas Day and the outrage was palpable. How a whopping 155 people (the beer parlour figures) be killed over two days without any reaction from the security forces. No Police, Army, Civil Defense, not even vigilante. That bearded one, who leaves everyone wondering how he funds his very heavy drinking habits offered that – “the attacks in Bokkos and Barkin Ladi Local Government Areas of Plateau State follow a traditional pattern of herders- farmers’ conflict. The Fulani herdsmen sack farming communities and take over their land”. He continued that there are also nomadic fighters from the desert North of Africa who see the vast arable land of the Middle Belt in Nigeria as available for grabs.

Unfortunately, many of these  nomads  fleeing  from  the  desert,  political  instability  and  in  search of  religious  homogeneity,  claim Fulani  affinity  and  have  sympathizers  in Nigeria.  This  has  led  to  flip-flop approaches  to  security  in  Northern Nigeria.


What  have  these   to do with  the   highly  respected  former  Head  of   State   General Yakubu  Gowon? Political  will and  single- mindedness.  I will tell you  how  I  personally  benefitted  from  these rare qualities.

The civil war ended in January 1970 and we returned to Aba, the city where we lived before the war, in 1967. People surged back in the city from every angle like water being pumped into a very large pot from different giant pipes at the same time. Weeks after the war the Eke Oha market along Ehi Road was humming so noisily one would think that thousands of beehives were feeding their queens. The Christ the King Church by Asa Road was full to capacity,   with  five Masses each Sunday.  Aba,  was  back to  its old swinging self  as  a key  industry  and  commerce  hub  of  the country.

However, all was not the same because there was a new actor in the social life of Aba that was threatening to ruin everything. That stranger was armed robbery. We were  living  at 4B  Ngwa  Road in a face-me-I-face-you upstairs owned by the legendary late Dick Tiger Ihetu, the World Middle Weight Boxing Champion, Ngwa Road was a very long road stretching from Obohia Road to Ohanku Road and there are dozens of streets off Ngwa Road like Orlu Street, Ndiuche Street etc. This neighborhood at the end of the war was lawless. Every night armed robbers attacked for hours and the police dare not intervene. Robbers wrote letters to streets and attacked from Number 1 to the end of the street. Houses were robbed as scheduled and the citizens were helpless. In some cases the victims knew who the robbers were and where they came from.   

There was an outcry and the Commander -in -Chief, then Col. Yakubu Gowon reacted decisively.

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His orders were crisp and short – SHOOT AT SIGHT. The Army implemented the order unambiguously and deployed the ‘Gwodogwodo’  a  breed of Nigerian   soldiers,   tested   and   rugged   in  battle.  The  Igbo  called  them  the   ‘Gwodogwodo’   because  of  their   larger  than  life   performance  during  the  war.   From  10:00 p.m  sporadic  shooting  could  be  heard  in  the  neighborhood.  Often,  in  the  morning  bodies  of  young  men  littered  the  streets.  Most   of  these  young  men  seemed   to  have demonstrated,  without  any   visible  means  of  income,  the rare capability  of  owning  Swannex  shirts immediately  after  the  war. 

General  Gowon  demonstrated  that  political will followed by unambiguous execution achieves short and long term results. Within two weeks that stupidity of daily terrorizing the populace with armed robbery stopped in Aba.

Apart   from  security, the  young Head of State and Commander-in-Chief demonstrated similar characteristics in education. How? Early in 1970 Col. Yakubu Gowon took a tour of the Southeast to reassure the people of the Southeast that there was no victor, no vanquished. He spread the message of the 3Rs everywhere he went he preached the policy of Reconciliation, Rehabilitation and Reconstruction promulgated by the Federal Government of Nigeria to focus citizens on a united, bigger, brotherly and viable Nigeria. The Aba stadium was full, mainly of young and middle age people gathered more to see the enigma, Colonel Yakubu Gowon, who has dictated the pace of their lives in the past three years. Tens of thousands of people, many of them had played key roles in Biafra, surged towards the entrance as a siren announced his arrival.

How we returned to school in 1970: 

I was in that crowd, just returned to Aba from Ubomiri where we took refuge during the war. I had an exciting dodgy experience in Biafra, ending the war with one of those six digit Kampala Biafran Army numbers. Yakubu Gowon had charisma and it worked in Aba. He mounted the podium with Ukpabi Asika.

They had brief ceremonials and he commenced with his speech. I read many years later that he talked elaborately on the 3Rs, but as a young boy standing there in front of the podium, I was carried away by the crisp well-fitting  khaki that he wore. Only once or twice, when I served at the Commando Training School at Madonna did I see such smartly dressed officers.

Soon, he was done and was being driven out of the stadium with Dr. Ukpabi Asika beside him and suddenly the issue of school fees swelled up again inside me, how was I going to pay my school fees and without any spur, spontaneously I started screaming “Free Education!!!, “Free Education!!!, “Free Education!!! The crowd picked it up and it resounded like a rehearsed chorus.

“Free Education!!!, “Free Education!!!, “Free Education!!!, “Free Education!!! Yakubu Gowon asked the driver of his jeep to stop and he turned to Ukpabi Asika and seemed to ask  him “what are they saying?” and he re-echoed  Free Education. Gowon announced free education there and then. The P/A systems picked it up that His Excellency, Col. Yakubu Gowon has granted free education to all pupils and students with immediate effect. He demonstrated political will with that announcement.

On Monday, when we got to Sacred Heart College, Eziukwu Aba, the implementation was unambiguous. The principals and school authorities in the Southeast implemented the declaration – free education. The classrooms were full again – few could afford the boarding houses, but you could notice hundreds of children going to school in the morning and trooping home tired in the late afternoons. Everyone, including my humble self, went to school. The declaration had no if, no but, it simply stated that no Nigerian child should be sent out of school on account of school fees. That declaration saw me through school.

Shoot on Sight or Free Education, the single-mindedness witnessed in the implementation of both orders has been completely lacking in the past eight years of our national life. Perhaps, if the regular condemnations of terrorism and banditry were matched with the sincerity of unambiguous implementation, no one, herder or nomadic fighter, would ever think of sacking Nigerian communities to grab their land.

• Ezuka writes from Lagos, Nigeria