General Yakubu Gowon turns 80 on October 19th. A couple of things stand out when you meet him for the first time. Firstly, he is a people person. His gregarious nature is such that you know he loves good company, though he does not seek to dominate proceedings. Secondly, he can be disarmingly humble, offering you his handshake in a respectable rather than condescending manner as some of our “very important personalities” tend to do. Thirdly, the General can be wickedly funny. He would make fun of you, but not before he has poked fun at himself. Once in a while I hold my breath until the punch line is delivered. I have myself been at the receiving end of his barbs particularly as regards my height or my silver hair.
I first met General Gowon in October 1980 at Warwick University where I had enrolled for a master’s degree while he was pursuing a doctoral programme in Politics. To be candid, I did not know what to expect. After all, the last time I saw him was about six years before in Kaduna at a public function which I covered for the New Nigerian. Then, as Head of State, he had the panoply of Nigerian officialdom, the ceremonial outriders, the security detail and the equipage. As a reporter among my colleagues, I think the best we got was a smile, his trademark grin, towards us. At Warwick what would be the story? How do you relate to your former Head of State now turned fellow student? Would he be friendly? Do you keep punctuating your discussions with “your excellency”?
If only I had known that with Gowon such thoughts, no matter how felicitous were unnecessary. Firstly, he actually left a word for me that he was on campus from his base in London. Secondly, he insisted on being on first name basis like every other student. So, if you cared, call him Jack. If my memory serves me well, I believe we had tea together on the ground floor of the University library. Any lingering doubts that Gowon had adjusted after a nine year stint as Nigeria’s military head of state, all were blown away by his unaffected simplicity and charm.
There were no nostalgic references to “when I was in power”, nor did he seem to miss the trappings of it. Of course you cannot forget his patented “honestly” or “sincerely” as he spoke. We drank from disposable plastic cups with the obligatory plastic spoons. He would stand up to greet fellow students, engage in small talk about the weather, the train ride from Euston Station to Coventry and whatever was of interest. He took in good spirit, criticism of his regime, displaying a loyalty streak to his much-criticized subordinates, particularly most of the governors.
On a personal level, Gowon reminisced about times with my maternal uncle, the late Mr Abdul Aziz Atta who had been Permanent Secretary, Ministry of Finance and later Secretary to the Federal Government under him. He would also ask after my elder brother, Mr W. O. Baiye who was his French interpreter and translator. For the one year I was at Warwick we saw each other fairly often. And when it seemed too far between, he would call or leave a note in my carrel or at the department. His capacity to relate very well has spun many a yarn and will still do, but a few factual encounters will be adequate.
Once, a friend, Mohammed Sagagi (a doctoral student in Economics) and I were in the supermarket on campus. Then, we saw Gowon across several aisles in the shop. Our concern was that no matter how hard we tried, Gowon would not let us carry his basket to the till. So, to avoid the embarrassment of not being seen to be courteous and helpful to a former head of state and an elder at that, we opted to feign ignorance of his presence. Unfortunately, we did not reckon with those giant mirrors in the supermarkets. Gowon not only identified us, he walked towards where we were! After pleasantries he not only insisted on carrying our items to the cashier’s till, he offered to pay. His action had very little to do with the state of his cash flow; it spoke much about his generosity of spirit, something those who have been much closer to him can adduce copious evidence of.
On another occasion, Gowon was on a visit to Nigeria sometime in the mid-80s. I went to visit him at the State House, Marina, where he was lodged. He apologised for not ever inviting me to visit their home in London. While I was trying to negotiate my way through an apology, Mrs. Victoria Gowon, rightly handed me a rebuke for not visiting as she believed that a formal invitation was not necessary. I am sure I would not be the first to say that the charming, thoughtful, and warm-hearted Victoria is a straight talker. After the visit, Gowon saw me to the car, waited till we drove off and waved goodbye. My driver was so chuffed by the fact that the Gowon he had heard about so much came to the car to greet and see us off. So carried away was Alabi, the driver, that I had to advise him to calm down and focus on the traffic!
One of my time consuming habits is to read about the subject of Leadership. For me, memoirs and biographies provide the substance of that subject. Some great leaders wrote very helpful and thoughtful stuff but so did some not-so-great leaders such as George W. Bush, America’s President from 2000-8. His book DECISION POINTS is a readable account of his stewardship. On the contrary, former President Richard Nixon wrote that “leaders are uncommon men. They should not try to appear to be common. If they do try, they will come across as unnatural-not only phony, but condescending.” So wrote Nixon in his book LEADERS, published in 1982. Happily, Gowon has retained the common touch without being phony. That is why he deserves an eighty gun salute.
Happy birthday, General Gowon.
Clem Baiye, formerly Managing Editor at the NEW NIGERIAN, is a business executive based in Lagos.