Yakubu Gowon knew he would be overthrown. The apprehension was such that he deliberately forgot his briefcase on his way to Kampala, the capital of Uganda. Yes, he left behind his bag where he had most of the papers to be used at the Organisation of Africa Unity (OAU’s) meeting. That was the story for the public. Whereas the real story was that before his departure, M D Yusuf, the then police officer in charge of intelligence, had called to inform him that his most trusted aide, friend and Commander of the Brigade of Guards, Col. Joe Garba was involved in a coup to overthrow him.
Gowon could not cancel the trip because of his position in the OAU: he had been chairman between 1973 and 1974 and was being looked upon to give directions in most of the issues concerning many African nations. But he took precaution. First, he confronted Garba: Are you involved in any coup planning? Garba denied with a curse: Why should I betray my benefactor! And Gowon finalised: Well, if you are plotting, let it be on your own conscience and let it be without bloodshed. I must go to Kampala, anyway!
So, Gowon left Lagos on 27 July 1975, to attend the OAU meeting of heads of state. Among members of his delegation were Dr Okoi Arikpo, the Federal Commissioner for External Affairs; Governor Usman Faruk of the North-Western state; Mr Joe Iyalla, Mr Hamzat Ahmadu, Muhammadu Gambo of the Special Branch and Lt-Col Mustapha Amin of the Nigerian Airforce. Gowon arrived Kampala the same day and took the second precautionary measure: he sent Lt-Col Walbe, his ADC, back to Lagos, ostensibly to pick up the forgotten briefcase, but actually to take a message back to Admiral Wey that should there be any problem, he should send Walbe to him with the aircraft to enable him return to Nigeria immediately.
But due to the need to service the aircraft, Walbe could not return to Lagos that day, until the 28th. On arrival, and unknown to him, he had stepped on the red button, scattering the plotters, for they could not fathom the reason why Gowon’s ADC would appear suddenly few hours to the commencement of the coup. Then they hatched a plan: while Garba invited Walbe to his house to be briefed on happenings since they left, Garba and Lt-Col Ochefu left his house for Walbe’s. There, they ransacked the ADC’s bags until they got the letter he brought from Gowon to Wey. They read the content and knew Gowon was aware of their plan.
They quickly returned to Garba’s house where Walbe was waiting for them. They seized him, ensuring he did not leave their sight nor had access to phone until the coup was over. He was surprised that Joe Garba, the number one protector of the head of state was in this, but there was nothing he could do.
And Gowon was waiting, he was in Kampala waiting for the return of his ADC. And as recorded by Jonah Isawa Elaigwu on this 28 July 1975 General Gowon gave a keynote address which set the tone for the conference. The title of his address was ‘The Unity of Africa’. This title was very apt as many African states had wanted to boycott the conference in Kampala. Nigeria had actually worked very hard to convince many member states to attend.
In this speech, Gowon advised the four new members admitted into the OAU to give their people good government and uplift Africa and mankind. He appealed to members to unite and work together for the unity and progress of Africa. Later, on the same day, General Gowon held meetings with other African heads of state. He also had a long session with the Nigerian delegation in order to get properly briefed.
The events of the fateful day of 29 July, 1975, were quite interesting. On the way to the conference hall in the morning, the general was accosted by General Mobutu of Zaire, who pleaded that both of them should discuss some problems affecting Africa, especially the Angolan crisis in which Mobutu was seeking Nigeria’s support.
This discussion lasted 30 minutes and thereafter Gowon proceeded to the conference hall. At the conference hall, Mr. Mbow of Senegal (the head of UNESCO) was addressing the organisation under the chairmanship of General Idi Amin. On Gowon’s entry, Amin called him to the high table and showed him a piece of paper on which something had been scribbled. The content of the paper was to the effect that there had been a coup in Nigeria and that General Gowon had ceased to be the head of state. General Amin then turned to General Gowon and inquired what was happening. Gowon retorted that he had not heard any news that there was a change of government.
However, he hoped that with time, the situation would become clearer. He believed that no coup would succeed without the co-operation of the Brigade of Guards. Ironically he believed that the Brigade of Guards was loyal to him and that they would do everything to quell a coup, should one occur. Gowon then left Idi Amin’s table and took his seat on the floor. As he sat quietly, without any show of emotion, listening to Mr Mbow’s speech, he was swarmed by press photographers who took several pictures of him.
Without giving out any obvious emotional reaction to the news he had just received, General Gowon turned to Alhaji Usman Faruk and said in Hausa, ‘Abinde mu kajinsoro, yafaruagida (What we have been afraid of at home has happened)’. The meaning of Gowon’s statement did not dawn on Alhaji Faruk and Gowon had to repeat the statement before the former understood. Faruk was most disappointed and this was betrayed immediately by the change in his countenance. Gowon had to console Faruk and told him, ‘1 have a clear conscience. There is nothing to worry about.
Later, Alhaji Ahmadu Ahidjou of Cameroon requested to see General Gowon. The leaders met and had discussions. Ahidjou wanted to know what had happened in Nigeria. Gowon said he did not have any details but understood that Brigadier Murtala Mohammed and Col Joseph Garba were mentioned.Ahidjou then wondered whether, in Gowon’s opinion, Garba would be involved in a coup against him. General Gowon sincerely did not know. But he knew one thing that a coup against him could only succeed if the Brigade of Guards was involved.
President Ahidjou was so emotionally moved that he was virtually in tears. Again, it was Gowon who had to console him and assured him that whoever was in power in Nigeria would maintain the cordial relationship between Nigeria and Cameroon. After these discussions, both leaders went back to the hall. At the end of the morning session, Gowon retired to his accommodation at the Nile Hotel.
General Gowon remembered vividly the role two officials in his delegation – Alhaji Mohammed Gambo of the Special Branch and Lt-Col Mustapha Amin of the Air Force – played in Kampala. Gowon got the impression that these two men were the ‘look-out men’ for the coup plotters because they did everything to ensure that he was not out of sight. Mr Gambo even tried to keep people away from Gowon – an action Gowon believed was aimed at keeping him in check. It came to a point when the general had to tell the two officers off, and later that afternoon went to play squash at Makarere University.
Generally, by all media accounts, General Gowon behaved in astonishing fashion. He was calm and collected and did not show any sign that something dramatic had happened to him and his country. Meanwhile, other heads of state visited Gowon to console him. But Gowon assured them that there was nothing to console him about, and that whatever government was in power in Nigeria, would continue to demonstrate Nigeria’s interest in the affairs of the OAU. Among such heads of state who visited him were Idi Amin, Nimeiri of Sudan and the then head of state of Ethiopia.
Within about 48 hours of the coup (i.e. 30th July, 1975) the names of the members of the Supreme Military Council were released. And when General Gowon saw the list of officers, he shook his head in disbelief. It was then that he realised that the coup was more widespread than he had thought. He was surprised that it included some of the officers in whom he reposed greatest trust, for example, Col. Garba, Col. Yar’adua, Brigadier Danjuma and others. Gowon was convinced that for them to be appointed into the SMC, they must have known or taken part in the coup. He was right. But Gowon had always believed that these same officers would act against any coup staged against him.
Having realised this, he called a conference. In his press statement which he punctuated with humorous lines, Gowon said:
From all indications a new government has been established in Nigeria. I wish to state that I, on my part has also accepted the change and pledge my full loyalty to my nation, my country and the new government. Therefore, in the overall Interest of the nation and our beloved country, I appeal to all concerned to cooperate fully with the new government and ensure the preservation of peace, unity and stability of our dear motherland.
As a Nigerian, I am prepared to serve my country in any capacity which my country may consider appropriate. I am a professional soldier and I can do any duty that I am called upon to do. May I take this opportunity to thank all the people of Nigeria and friends of Nigeria for the support and cooperation that you all gave me during my tenure of office and call upon all of you to give the new government of our nation the same support and cooperation in the interest of our beloved country. Long live one united, happy and prosperous Nigeria. Long live the Organization of African Unity. May God bless you.
By many accounts, including those of Mr Theo Ola of Nigeria’s Sunday Times, Nicholas Ashfield of The Times of London, and West Africa, General Gowon’s address drew overwhelming applause from his audience, the pressmen.
After the press conference, General Gowon sat down to think about what he should do in the circumstance. He could not return immediately give General Murtala Mohammed’s statement that General Gowon could return to Nigeria at a mutually agreed future date. Most African heads of state had offered him shelter, including General Amin, who invited him to stay in Uganda as long as he wanted. Of the various offers, Cameroon and Togo were closest to his heart as possible countries in which he could reside. General Gowon also recalled that if Hamani Diori of Niger were still in power, he would have preferred to settle down in Niger. On balance, he preferred Togo to Cameroon because it was not too far from home. But General Gowon had no intention whatsoever of living in the North, East or South Africa, or any other part of Africa, except West Africa. He resolved to go to Lome, Togo.
In order to establish a basis of confidence between himself and the Government of Nigeria, Gowon sent a message to Lagos that he was going to Lome and Lagos replied that this was okay.
On 29 July 1975, the ninth anniversary of the coup which had brought Gowon to power in 1966, he was overthrown. On August 1st, 1975, the ninth anniversary of his actual assumption of power as head of state, Gowon was on his way out of Kampala en-route to a new destination and a new life.
Before he left for Lome, Gowon addressed members of the Nigerian delegation and the staff of the High Commission in Kampala. Gowon had run out of money and members of the delegation and high commission staff decided to contribute part of their own per diem allowance which came to a total of about three thousand pounds sterling (£3,000).
This, they handed over to Gowon to begin a new life. It was a very touching scene and most members of the Nigerian delegation were in tears. General Gowon himself had to fight back tears.
Gowon remembers, vividly and humorously, that one reporter, Mr. Yakubu Abdul Azeez of the Herald newspaper (who had accompanied the delegation) had cried most and loudest, and was the same one who, when he got back to Nigeria, published in his newspaper that General Gowon was in tears .
After meeting the Nigerian delegation, President Amin gave Gowon his personal plane to fly him (Gowon) to Lome. On his way to Lome, General Gowon stopped at Garuwa to see President Ahidjou and explained to Ahidjou why he had to go to Togo instead of Cameroon. He told Ahidjou that he would want to join his family later in London, and since there was a direct flight from Accra to London, Lome provided greater travelling convenience given the situation in which he had found himself.
From Garuwa, he flew into Nigerian air space. While in Nigerian air space he decided to send a short message to General Mohammed, something to the effect: As I am over-flying Nigeria to Lome, Togo, a country that will be my base for some time, I want again to affirm my loyalty and to wish you and your government well.’ From the tower someone sent a message back; ‘All of us here wish you well and give you our best wishes”
In Lome, Gowon got a very warm and elaborate reception suitable for a head of state. He was given all honours as a former head of state and was later driven to the presidential palace. The Togolese government wanted to build a special mansion for Gowon so he could settle down in Lome. But he decided that he would rather go first to the United Kingdom to see his wife and be re-united with his family. He wanted to be able to discuss his future plans with his family before making a definite decision. In addition, he wanted to be fully occupied in order to avoid temptations of ‘the idle mind’ serving as the ‘devil’s workshop’. General Gowon wanted to be fully occupied and surveyed the possibilities of reading political science because he wanted to see what he had done wrong when he was head of state, as well as identify areas in which he could have done better. Moreover, having served as a general for so many years, Gowon wanted to have an academic degree after his name. This was an opportunity he could not let slip by.
After a short spell at Lome, General Gowon flew to London and stayed with his family for a few days. After consulting his family, he made up his mind to go for university education. He then returned to Lome to bid Eyadema good-bye. President Eyadema was still insistent on building a house for Gowon in Lome – at least, a place Gowon could return to for holidays or stay until such a time that the Government of Nigeria gave him permission to return home. However, after the events of 1976, it became inadvisable for Eyadema to build such a house since Nigeria regarded her as a ‘suspect country.
Mrs. Gowon had arrived London on 25 July, 1975. Mrs Victoria Gowon was most anxious to go to London during the sales period so that she could buy a number of items which would be on sale. The sales period was the best time usually for the average shopper to visit London and buy cheaply some fairly good quality wares or household goods. Gowon had wanted his wife to wait in Nigeria until his return from the Kampala meeting.
But since Mrs Gowon was insistent on going to London, her husband reluctantly yielded to the request. With the benefit of hindsight, General Gowon thanked providence that he had allowed her to travel to London when she did, because subsequent newspaper publications in Nigeria indicated that she should have reaped the same sour fate that had befallen Mrs Diori of Niger, if she had been at home.
Mrs. Gowon was staying in a suite at the Savoy Hotel in London. After the news of the coup, she then moved to a smaller room in a less prestigious hotel, the Portman Hotel. With her were her lady-in-waiting, Mrs Pam, Captain Barau Ibrahim and Mr. Yaroson (the police ADC).
They were still in London when Nigeria’s High commissioner to London, Alhaji Sule Kolo, got a message that he should tell Mrs Gowon to make arrangements to clear the personal effects of her family from the official residence of General Gowon. The High Commissioner was informed by telex message from FMG that Gowon was en-route to London and that the High Commissioner should make arrangements to receive him with the dignity accorded to former heads of state. The High Commission’s official car was driven to the tarmac and Gowon was led to the car to save him the embarrassment of answering questions from the press in the V.I.P. lounge.
It was clear that Gowon thought it unnecessary to hide his face from the press just because he had been overthrown. He refused to enter the car and insisted on having a brief stop at the V.I.P. lounge. His wishes were granted and he stayed for a short while in the lounge, refusing to answer any question before he proceeded to meet his wife at the Portman Hotel. From Ambassador Kolo’s account, Gowon was calm, collected and cheerful.
Before General Gowon left Lome, his friend, President Eyadema, gave him the equivalent of £10,000 in CFA francs. Together with the per diem he had been given by members of his delegation, Gowon came to London to begin a new life.