Remarks by His Excellency, General Yakubu Gowon, GCFR (Former Head of State of the Federal Republic of Nigeria) at the 17th Wole Soyinka Lecture marking the 80th Birthday of Professor Wole Soyinka at the June 12 Cultural Centre, Abeokuta on July 11th, 2014
1. Sometime in April this year I received advance notification of the hosting of this event. Subsequently, I received about two or three reminders. In spite of all, I noted the date of event as 13 July, 2014, which is Sunday. For that reason, I scheduled my arrival from Accra where I was to attend an ECOWAS function for Saturday, 12 July. When, I brought out the letters again to confirm the date, I discovered to my horror that I had been scheduled to be here today Friday, 11th July, 2014. I promptly telephoned the gentleman that signed all the letters to me, and it happened to be Mr. Ide Owodiong Idemeko, whose designation was NAS Cap’n. I thought an ex-Naval Captain. I sought to know if he was a Navy Captain! He said No, that he· was NAS Cap’n. I did not know what to make of that because I had hoped to harass him a bit, after all, as an Army General, I was senior to a Navy Captain. I suspect that Idemeko, too, would have wondered at the audacity of a ‘luber’ questioning his captaincy of his deck. Well, as everyone knows too well, with Prof. Wole Soyinka, you have got to get accustomed to surprises. I gave NAS Cap’n Idemeko my word that his ‘odas’ (orders) had been favourably considered and that I would be here today. For the sake of the Special Guest of Honour at this event, I gave up the rest of the ECOWAS event in Accra, just so that Prof. Soyinka would not construe my absence to mean that I was afraid of him making me his guest this time around as he was my special in the late 1960s.
2. It is my pleasure, therefore, to be here to join the celebration of a national and global icon. I also warmly welcome each and every one of the distinguished guests here present to this Special Birthday Lecture in honour of Prof. Wole Soyinka 80th. The theme of this lecture immediately caught my attention upon receipt of the invitation letter. I find it gratifying that NAS, which prides itself as a humanitarian and advocacy group that unapologetically stands up for the weak and the voiceless, is committed to the long term survival of Nigeria, hence the theme: This House Must not Fall: Renegotiating Nigeria’s Social Contract after 100 Years of Nationhood.
3. The continuing survival of Nigeria is a matter that has been dear to my heart from birth and as I grew up. It got to be the more so when I had the honour of leading the nation and had the challenge and opportunity of keeping the country united. On my watch, Nigeria did not fall and no matter what happens, I am strongly confident that the nation still will not fall for I have great faith in the ability of our younger generations of Nigerians to do it better and well. I was born exactly 20 years after Nigeria was officially born, amalgamated; I readily accepted the fact that the country is an accident of (colonial) history, just as all nations on earth are products of one accident of history or the other, either through conquests or amalgamation. We need not quibble over this fact. I am a proud Nigerian; I know of just one Nigerian nation made up of, according to the Bible Society of Nigeria (BSN) research, over 500 linguistic groups, not the 250 that was previously believed. I grew up in an era in which it never mattered that one was Hausa, Ibo, Yoruba, Kanuri, Nngas (Angas), Zuru, Beni, Ijaw etc., we all were brothers; we only were competitors in class/academics or in the field of sports. Colonialism made us believe we were one until our political leaders/forefathers began the clamour for Independence.
4. We are the world’s largest black democracy and we have very high hopes that we will do better than our Colonial-Masters, the colonialists. Nigeria at 100 years of age in 2014, it is only natural that questions be asked: what progress have we made? Has Nigeria failed? I think these really and truly beg the question. If we had failed as a nation, we would not be here talking. True, we have challenges; true, we have gone to the brinks but equally true is the fact that we have almost always found solutions to our problems by ourselves. The first and second coups d’etat in 1966 marked the incursion of the military in politics; these dislodged democracy and did not strengthen the principles of democracy.
5. Some of us were caught in the web of history. A few days before the January 15, 1966 coup led by the so called five Majors – The young Turks of the Nigerian Army, I was on board a ship sailing home after attending an officers’ course abroad. Before we arrived home, about three coups had occurred in West and Central Africa. This caused some of my fellow passengers to ask me if I thought a coup was possible in Nigeria. Although I am a soldier, I believe in democracy and believe I am a democrat by nature. I said ‘No’ because we were trained to be loyal to the government of the day and are apolitical. But I added rather philosophically that should one happen here, the few loyal ones amongst us would aim at restoring the status quo, democracy. A coup happened in Nigeria less than 36 hours of this discussion and as I arrived and disembarked. Since then we have travelled a tortuous route to the democracy that we enjoy today.
6. Our distinguished guest of honour today, Prof. Wole Soyinka, was a part of the moves to bring back democracy, even if he had an unorthodox way by which .he had hoped to get rid of us the Military leadership at the time in order to achieve just that. Regrettably, our politicians continually encourage soldiers to believe that they could solve all problems of this nation. This is wrong. Rather than allow the Military to see itself as panacea to the myriads of challenges, Nigerians continue to vote and ensure that these votes count.
7. One of the reasons that my administration fought to keep Nigeria together was that we believed strongly in Nigeria. After the war, we achieved reconciliation in a way that had not been done anywhere in the world. We tried our best to move Nigeria forward. We planned for development, as embodied in our audacious 3rd National Development Plan, which was a massive vision that would have ensured 15 per cent growth in the foreseeable future. That plan was designed by Nigerians who believed we could make a success of our country. So strong was my faith in the plan that I mandated then Commissioner of Economic Planning, Prof. Adebayo Adedeji, to start preparing for a 4th National Development Plan that would be 100 per cent bigger than the 3rd that we have just launched. Sadly, the Plan never materialised, as the 3rd was tossed overboard by my successors that I had thought shared our vision of a great nation. The lack of continuity in government should be discouraged. Successor governments should always carefully study the vision of their predecessors with a view to continuing what is in the best interest of the nation, not to embark on change for its own sake.
8. As a people, we should discard the penchant for always looking for the worst in Nigeria and its leadership. Distinguished ladies and gentlemen, things have improved; we must not continue to pull ourselves down. Although I am mindful that there are so many old ‘brigade’ at the National Conference who are still reawakening old issues and prejudices, I urge our younger generation and people to take up the challenge of ensuring that they do better than their forefathers.
9. If I have spoken as though I were the guest lecturer at this event on the proactive side not the negative/critical side, I plead that you understand the passion that the theme of the lecture has ignited in me and, I am certain, so many of the guests here. Truly, Nigeria House must not fall, must not fail.
10. My role is to set the tone for the lecture as well as the discussions that will follow. There is little doubt that we are here for serious business. All the ingredients are in place: the subject is ‘hot’, especially when you consider the rider ‘Renegotiating Nigeria’s Social Contract’; the guest of honour, Prof Soyinka, is very hot and the guest lecturers, Bishop Matthew Hassan Kukah and Dr. (Mrs) Oby Ezekwesili are exceptionally ‘hot’ and patriotic Nigerians. I do not need to introduce them. Perhaps, the only cool thing here today is the air conditioning system, which, I pray, would not overheat when the fireworks start.
11. I congratulate my old friend, Prof. Wole Soyinka, for attaining the landmark age of 80 and pray that Nigeria be transformed soonest to allow him a breather from the trenches in which he has been ensconced from his early years. I thank his ‘children’ and ‘grandchildren’ in NAS for celebrating this global icon. Truly, Nigeria is blessed.
12. I thank you all for listening.
General Dr. Yakubu Gowon, GCFR
11 July, 2014