24th November, 2020
By Bayo Onanuga
British MP, Tom Tugendhat in a speech in Parliament on Monday attacked Nigerian leaders of corruption.
He specifically singled out General Yakubu Gowon of stealing half of Nigeria’s Central Bank of Nigeria, when he moved to the UK on exile after his overthrow on 29 July 1975.
Although Tugendhat said a lot of other things, in support of Nigerian youth and excoriation of the leaders in visiting violence on them. He praised Chinua Achebe’s novel Things Fall Apart and even called it ‘the greatest book in English’.
But none of those statements were underscored in Twitter trend than the accusation against Gowon.
All through Monday and early Tuesday, Gowon was a top trending topic on Twitter, with Nigerians either supporting Tugendhat or expressing doubts about the correctness of the accusation.
Did Gowon loot the CBN, like General Abacha did 1993-1998?
Gowon, who was about 32 years old when he came to power in July 1966, was away from Nigeria, at a summit of the Organisation of African Countries in Kampala Uganda, when the coup that brought General Murtala Ramat Mohammed to power happened.
His wife, Victoria had travelled to the UK several days earlier for holiday shopping, hoping to benefit from summer sales in high end shops in the country.
Thus it was inevitable that when Gowon was overthrown, his most reasonable destination would be England where his wife was at the time.
Gowon had some ties with England. After military training in Ghana, Gowon had also studied in the elite military school in Sandhurst, between 1955 and 1956.
He also attended Staff College, Camberley, UK (1962) as well as the Joint Staff College, Latimer in 1965.
As a soldier, he distinguished himself as a UN peacekeeper in Congo in 1961 and 1963 and became the head of Ikeja battalion in 1966.
He was in that position when Nigeria experienced its first military coup in January 1966, with General Aguiyi Ironsi becoming the first head of state.
Gowon became the chief of army staff. He was just 31 years old.
When the counter-coup occurred, Gowon was chosen as Ironsi’s successor and governed through nine rocky years, that included a pogrom of Igbos and then civil war between 1967 and 1970.
Gowon came out of the war and in a famous speech, promised the 3Rs of reconciliation, reconstruction and rehabilitation.
Managing war time was of course different than managing peace time, for Nigeria’s youthful leader.
He promised a return to civil rule in 1974, but reneged on this.
He promised to combat corruption, which he also did not fulfil.
By 1974, accusations of corruption against a minister, Joseph Tarka and a governor Joseph Gomwalk flooded the newspapers.
Tarka was forced to resign, but Gowon curiously supported Gomwalk and indeed Gomwalk accuser Aper Aku, who later became governor of Benue, was arrested.
Such actions built up resentment for the regime. The resentment was accentuated by the disputed census of 1973, student revolt over the introduction of the National Youth Service Corps in 1974, cement armada at the ports, when officials corruptly awarded cement importation contracts without due process, just like the import licence bazaar in the Shagari era.
Yet, there was no proof that Gowon corruptly enriched himself. He only failed in other departments of governance.
The coup plotters who pushed him out did not nail him for corruption. Even the probes of public officers, instituted by Murtala Muhammed, Gowon’s successor did not indict him.
When Muhammed gave his first speech as head of state and tried to justify, why the 41 year-old Gowon was overthrown, he only mentioned three key factors for the coup.
He accused Gowon of inaccessibility, insensitivity and ignoring advice.
Not a word of corruption. Not a word of looting the Central Bank of Nigeria.
Gowon himself decades after must have had traducers such as Tugendhat in mind, when he declared in 2018, that there was no corruption under his watch, but after he left the scene.
He was roundly carpeted for the generalised remark. Critics expected him to speak for himself and not the entire government, as there were many cases of corruption unearthed by Murtala Muhammed probes, leading to asset seizures.
In England, Gowon could not have looted the CBN, when as a PHD student at University of Warwick, he was seen on the queue, waiting to have his share of lunch with other students.
The military regime, then in Lagos was embarrassed and must have rushed to him his pension, promised to be paid when he was overthrown.
As a former military leader, Gowon had never been seen, showing ostentation or flaunting wealth.
Paul Mamza, writing about Gowon in 2004 on his 70th birthday said:
“He had every opportunity more than others to enrich himself while in power but General Gowon left power as a poor man who relied on support from friends and well-wishers to pay school fees for his children abroad!.
“General Gowon is a radiating example of a selfless leader. He ruled Nigeria during the oil-boom era when money was not Nigerian’s problem but how to spend it yet did not as others after him show any penchant for self-enrichment”.
Such a view has persisted.
Senator Shehu Sani, a human right activist thrashed Tugendhat allegation against Gowon:
“The claim of ‘looting the CBN’ made by the British Minister for Africa as represented by Mr James Duddridge against Gen Gowon is nothing but outright falsehood. Gowon exited power without any evidence of wealth & that remains, for over four decades after power”.
JJ Omojuwa shared a similar view in his reaction: “I am not a fan of Gen. Gowon. I think rather than use his influence & privilege to speak truth to power, he often rather chose to cozy up to every government of the day. But to say he stole half the CBN considering how he left office? That’s irrational. People gotta be reasonable”.
There are very few Nigerian leaders such perceptive minds could vouch for. Gowon is one of such ex-leaders.
Conclusion: There is no proof whatsoever that Gowon stole half of the Central Bank while in office.
Rather, the picture we have is of a former leader, who did not enrich himself unilke many others who did when they succeeded him.