Gowon is an Ngas (Angas) from Lur, a small village in the present Kanke Local Government Area of Plateau State. His parents, Nde Yohanna and Matwok Kurnyang, left for Wusasa, Zaria as Church Missionary Society (CMS) missionaries in the early days of Gowon's life. His father took pride in the fact that he married the same day as the future Queen Mother Elizabeth married the future King George VI. Gowon was the fifth of eleven children. He grew up in Zaria and had his early life and education there. At school Gowon proved to be a very good athlete: he was the school football goalkeeper, pole vaulter, and long distance runner. He broke the school mile record in his first year. He was also the boxing captain.
Gowon joined the Nigerian Army in 1954, and received his commission as a second lieutenant on 19 October 1955, his 21st birthday.
He has trained in the prestigious Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, UK (1955–56), Staff College, Camberley, UK (1962) as well as the Joint Staff College, Latimer, 1965. He saw action in the Congo (Zaire) as part of the United Nations Peacekeeping Force, both in 1960–61 and in 1963. He advanced to battalion commander rank by 1966, at which time he was still a lieutenant colonel.
In January 1966, he became Nigeria's youngest military chief of staff at the age of 31, because a military coup d'état by a group of junior officers under Major Chukwuma Kaduna Nzeogwu led to the overthrow of Nigeria's civilian government. In the course of this coup, mostly northern and western leaders were killed, including Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, Nigeria's Prime Minister; Sir Ahmadu Bello, Sardauna of Sokoto and Premier of the Northern Region; and Samuel Akintola, Premier of the Western Region, Lt Col Arthur Unegbe and so many more. The then Lieutenant Colonel Gowon returned from his course at the Joint Staff College, Latimer UK two days before the coup – a late arrival that possibly exempted him from the coupist hit list. Success in twentieth century world affairs since 1919 and the subsequent failure by Major General Johnson Aguiyi-Ironsi (who was the head of state following the January 1966 coup-with Gowon his Chief of Staff) to meet Northern demands for the prosecution of the coup plotters further inflamed Northern anger.
In 1966, Gowon was chosen to become head of state. Up until then, Gowon remained strictly a career soldier with no involvement whatsoever in politics, until the tumultuous events of the year suddenly thrust him into a leadership role, when his unusual background as a Northerner who was neither of Hausa nor Fulani ancestry nor of the Islamic faith made him a particularly safe choice to lead a nation whose population were seething with ethnic tension.
The corruption in Gowon's administration culminated in the notorious "cement armada" in the summer of 1975, when the port of Lagos became jammed with hundreds of ships trying to unload cement. Somehow, agents of the Nigerian government had signed contracts with 68 different international suppliers for the delivery of a total of 20 million tons of cement in one year to Lagos, even though its port could only accept one million tons of cargo per year. Even worse, the poorly drafted cement contracts included demurrage clauses highly favorable to the suppliers, meaning that the bill began to skyrocket if the ships sat in port waiting to unload (or even if they sat in their home ports waiting for permission to depart for Nigeria). The Nigerian government did not fully grasp the magnitude of its mistake until the port of Lagos was so badly jammed that basic supplies could not get through. By that time it was too late. Its attempts to repudiate the cement contracts and impose an emergency embargo on all inbound shipping tied up the country in litigation around the world for many years, including a 1983 decision of the U.S. Supreme Court.
1975 Nigerian coup d'état Edit
Further information: 1975 Nigerian coup d'état
These scandals provoked serious discontent within the army. On 29 July 1975, while Gowon was attending an OAU summit in Kampala, a group of officers led by Colonel Joe Nanven Garba announced his overthrow. The coup plotters appointed Brigadier Murtala Muhammad as head of the new government, and Brigadier Olusegun Obasanjo as his deputy.
Gowon subsequently went into exile in the United Kingdom, where he acquired a PhD in political science as a student at the University of Warwick.
In February 1976, Gowon was implicated in the coup d'état led by Lt. Col Buka Suka Dimka, which resulted in the death of the now Gen Murtala Mohammed. According to Dimka's "confession", he met with Gowon in London, and obtained support from him for the coup. In addition, Dimka mentioned before his execution that the purpose of the Coup d'état was to re-install Gowon as Head of State. As a result of the coup tribunal findings, Gowon was declared wanted by the Nigerian government, stripped of his rank in absentia and had his pension cut off. Gen Gowon was finally pardoned (along with the ex-Biafran President, Emeka Ojukwu) during the Second Republic under President Shehu Shagari. Gowon's rank (of general) wasn't restored until 1987 however by General Ibrahim Babangida.
Gowon married Miss Victoria Zakari, a trained nurse in 1969 at a ceremony officiated by Seth Irunsewe Kale at the Cathedral Church of Christ, Lagos.
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