A picture of Yakubu Gowon

General Yakubu Gowon is a retired Nigerian soldier who served as the Nigerian 2nd military head of state from 1966 to 1975. He came to power as the second Nigerian military head of state after the Counter Coup of July 1966 in which Aguyi-Ironsi was killed.

Yakubu Gowon is highly respected soldier among his contemporaries and the whole of Nigeria. He is always celebrated as a national hero due to his effort of keeping Nigeria as a one nation during the Nigerian Civil War fought between the Nigerian government and the Biafran secessionists.

Early Life of Yakubu Gowon

Yakubu Gowon was on 19 October, 1934, in Lur, Pankshin, Plateau State. While Gowon was a small boy his father Nde Yohanna took the whole family to Wusasa, Zaria, where he worked with the Church Missionary Society (CMS). At the age of five, Gowon enrolled into the St.Bartholomew’s School from 1939 to 1949. From 1950 to 1953, he attended Government College, Zaria.

Military Career of Yakubu Gowon

Since he was a student, Yakubu Gowon was very interested in the athletic activities. He became famous boxer among his fellow students in the school. Therefore, also developed interest in joining the army. Hopefully, in 1954 he joined the Officer Cadet Training School at Teshie, Ghana. In 1955, Gowon received the rank of the second lieutenant.

From 1955 to 1956, Yakubu Gowon attended the Royal Military Academy in Sandhurst, England. In 1957, he was at the Young Officers College at Hythe, Westminster, England. Gowon also attended Staff College, Camberly in 1962, and Joint Services College, Larimer in 1665, all in England.

On the part of rendering service and achievements, Yakubu Gowon rose to different ranks and participated in some missions. Between 1960 to 1961, he served as an adjutant in the 4th Battalion with the United Nations Peacekeeping Force during the Congo (Zaire) crises. Due to his commitment, he was promoted to major in 1962 and lieutenant-colonel in 1963. After the first coup in Nigeria that occurred in January 1966, Gowon was appointed the Nigerian Chief of Army Staff and member of the Supreme Military Council under the General Aguyi-Ironsi regime.

Head of State

Since the January 1966 coup that brought Aguyi-Ironsi into power, Nigeria remained in the ethnic crises and chaos. People in the Northern Nigeria were still furious over the killings of the top politicians. Also, top Northern army officers were hostile towards Aguyi-Ironsi as they accused him of prioritizing his Igbo brothers in the army. At last, the Northern top army officers conspired and carried out coup d’etat known historically as the ‘Counter Coup’ in response to the January Coup. During coup, the Northern soldiers killed Ironsi. After the Counter Coup, Gowon who was neither Hausa nor Muslim benefitted being a top Northern army officer, and therefore chose by the leaders of the Coup to be the Nigerian military head of state on 1 August, 1966.

After Gowon assumed leadership of Nigeria, he inherited many problems especially ethnic tensions which he have to solved. In the process, on 8 August, 1966, Gowon issued the Military Decree No. 9 reversed most of the unifying provisions of the Ironsi regime and Nigeria returned into the federal structure. On the other hand, ethnic tension arose again in the Eastern Nigerian Region. The Igbo accused Gowon of prioritizing the Northerners and also argued that their people in the Northern Nigeria were persecuted. Therefore, the Igbo people of the Eastern Region began threatening of a secession. On his, in order to arrest the situation, Yakubu Gowon held a peace talk in Aburi, Ghana, with the Eastern Nigeria Military Governor, Lt Colonel Odumegwu Ojukwu. Sadly, the Aburi Accord did not satisfied Ojukwu and therefore returned Nigeria with intention of a secession.

On 27 May, 1967, Gowon issued the Military Decree No. 14 in which he abolished the regional system and created 12 states in their place. Many historians believed that Gowon created the states for two reasons.

  • Firstly, in order to weakened the Igbo’s threat of secession.
  • Secondly, in order to give minority groups more participation in the government

In response to the creation of the states, Eastern Region under the leadership of Lt.Colonel Ojukwu declared their secession from the Nigeria on 30 May, 1967, and called their new nation the Republic of Biafra.


The secession of the Eastern Region from Nigeria marked the beginning of the Nigerian Civil War. Yakubu Gowon on the other hand have automatically became the Nigerian wartime leader. The task of his government was to preserve the unity of Nigeria.

During the Nigerian Civil War, Yakubu Gowon proved very effective wartime leader who used intelligent ways in dealing with the secessionist. However, during the war and aftermath, many war analysts described Gowon as brutal leader especially due to his blockade war strategy that led to the starvation of many secessionists more especially children. The war effort of Yakubu Gowon did not went in vain, because after about two and half years the Civil War ended on 12 January, 1970, with the Nigerian government under Gowon emerged victorious.

Aftermath of the Civil War

After the Nigerian Civil War, Yakubu Gowon introduced the 3 R’s Program. The 3 R’s stands for “Reconciliation, Reconstruction, and Rehabilitation. Under the Program, the Nigerian government repaired the damage made in the Eastern Region.

On the part of the Nigerian economy, there was much improvement. By the end of the year 1970, the was an ‘oil boom’ in which the price of the crude oil became high. Nigeria as one of the counties with rich petroleum resources benefitted very well. In February 1972, Gowon issued the ‘Indigenization Policy’ under the military Decree No. 4. Under the Indeginization Policy, the Nigerian government limited the ownership of private property and patronized the Nigerian businesses. Also, in order to bring unity among Nigerians, Yakubu Gowon introduced the National Youth Service Corps (NYSC) in 1973 under which every graduate Nigerian who was not more than 30 years was required to render a one year service to the country.


Despite Gowon’s effort, his government was criticized for being corrupt. Many corruption crises occurred in the government. These problems, began to affect the Gowon’s government into unpopular. Also, in 1974, Gowon broke his promise of returning back the civilian rule by declaring that the country was not ready for the civilian rule. All these problems caused dissatisfaction even among the army.

On 29 July, 1975, while Gowon was attending OAU meeting in Kampala, Uganda, the a group of some Nigerian army officers toppled his government and replaced him with Brigadier General Murtala Muhammad.

Later Life

After Yakubu Gowon was overthrown from government, he went into an exile and began new life in England. While in England, he enrolled in the University of Warwick where he earned a PhD degree in political science.

While Yakubu Gowon was living his life in England, an abortive coup occurred on 13 February, 1976, in which the Nigerian Head of State General Murtala Muhammad was assassinated. After the leader of the coup plotters Lt.Colonel Buka Dimka was caught and interrogated, he mentioned Gowon as a man behind the coup. Therefore, the Nigerian Military government under General Olusegun Obasanjo reprimanded Yakubu Gowon and demanded the British government to returned him back to Nigeria in order to face justice. However, the British government refused to returned back Gowon which caused some diplomatic tension between the two countries. Yakubu Gowon remained wanted by the Nigerian government until he was pardoned in 1980 by the civilian government of Alhaji Shehu Shagari.

After he was pardoned, Yakubu Gowon returned back to Nigeria happily and began enjoying the benefits of his service to the nation. Also, up to date Yakubu Gowon was respected in Nigeria as one of the greatest Nigerian presidents.

Ahmad Abdullahi, BA History

My name is Ahmad Abdullahi, I was born on 10th March, 1994 in Garun-Danga Town, Gabasawa L.G., Kano State. I attended FCE Demonstration Primary School from 2002 to 2007, FCE Staff Secondary School from 2007 to 2013, and Northwest University, Kano from 2013 to 2017, where I obtained bachelor degree in History.

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