I am pleased to share my thoughts on the legacy of a foremost statesman and hero of One Nigeria, His Excellency Gen. Yakubu Gowon, in tribute to him as he turns 80 this month.

As a historian, I appreciate the place of documenting the roles of key national figures in our history and making same available to as many people, particularly of the younger generation, as possible. This is particularly so in view of the dearth of heroes and role models for our younger generation, predominantly within the Public Service space in our country.

We often think of public servants as omnipotent figures that can make and remake history according to their whims and caprices. In reality leaders are shaped by their times as much, if not more, than they shape it. Assessing the records of political leaders therefore necessarily calls for understanding the temporal context in which they exercised power.

The mantle of national leadership fell on Yakubu Cinwa Gowon in very trying circumstances. The First Republic had fallen after politicians’ antagonisms had escalated into deadly rivalries. Serial mutinies heavily tinged by ethno-regional antipathies had undermined the solidarity of the armed forces and the nation at large. This coupled with the mass killings of easterners in Northern Nigeria had pushed the country to the brink of destruction.

Under these onerous circumstances, Gowon came to power as the unintended beneficiary of the chaos and immediately faced the task of preventing the giant of Africa from disintegrating.  Events at the time made civil war somewhat inevitable and the challenge became that of prosecuting a war of national unity in such a way as to prevent lasting hatred from taking root.   At the young age of 34, Gowon had to bear the burden of shepherding a young country through the severest test of its nationhood to date. As the legacy of inter-generational strife across Africa makes clear, this is a burden that has broken so many African leaders and their nations.

The material and human cost of the war was undeniably immense. By most accounts, it could have been far worse had Gowon not prosecuted it with remarkable magnanimity and generosity of spirit. Federal forces were issued a code of conduct that was unprecedented in the annals of warfare on the continent. There were, of course, notable and grievous violations of the code, but these were scandalous precisely because of the tone that Gowon had set for the prosecution of the war.

No Nigerian soldier was awarded a medal for valour because it was deemed unseemly to celebrate valour in a quarrel between brothers. From the onset and throughout the duration of the war Gowon maintained that the objective was not the military humiliation of the secessionists or their annihilation but reconciliation and a restoration of the union.

True to his word, the surrender of the secessionists was not followed by the genocidal slaughter predicted by many or by merciless occupation, but by a programme of reconciliation, rehabilitation and reconstruction.

It is no exaggeration to say that Gowon is to Nigeria what Abraham Lincoln is to the United States, a political leader charged with the terrible duty of prosecuting a war in order to forge national peace and unity. Just as Lincoln’s emancipation proclamation ended slavery and strengthened the American union, Gowon’s famous declaration that there would be no victor, no vanquished ensured that there would be no bloody recriminatory aftermath to the civil war. It set the tone for post civil war relations and aided reintegration and rehabilitation. To say that our union has its challenges is to state the obvious. But it should not stop us from acknowledging those statesmen whose exemplary labours have pushed us a little further on our quest for a national cohesion.

Of all of Nigeria’s military heads of state, none has exemplified the model of the officer and a gentleman as much as Gowon. When he was removed in a 1975 putsch, he turned his interests to further study, obtaining degrees in political science from Warwick University in the UK. His rather austere finances after his overthrow burnished his reputation for personal integrity and honesty, a reputation that would elude many of his successors in office. His remarkable humility and unfailing courtesy also set him apart from those who have walked the rarefied heights of power. Very much in keeping with his character, Gowon’s relationship even with those who effected his removal is characterized by a lack of bile and bitterness.

In retirement, Gowon has continued to be a voice of peace and reconciliation. He provides sagely counsel to current political leaders. He founded ‘Nigeria Prays’, a faith-based organization dedicated to peace building by mobilizing religious leaders and faith communities. I am immensely proud to have hosted him and benefited from his wise counsel during one of the organisation’s campaigns that brought him to the land of honour, Ekiti State, Nigeria. He has remained a messenger of moderation and tolerance in a country where the polity is charged with petty histrionics and polarizing acrimonies. Consequently, it is not surprising that he possesses a genuine national stature which transcends sectarian divides and yet commands the respect of Nigerians across the lines of faith and ethnicity.

It is fair to say that he has set the standard for a productive post-presidential life. Even in retirement, he continues to serve the country in both official and unofficial capacities, often as a special envoy sent to mediate in conflict areas by bringing his conciliatory spirit to bear upon the adversaries.

Few leaders can lay claim to the consistency of temperament and ethical conduct over such a long period spanning their time in office and in retirement. Gowon can do so and stands out as one of the great statesmen in our pantheon of national heroes. Some argue that the term ‘statesman’ has been bastardized on our shores through its frequent and reckless application to undeserving figures. This is true. However, when we contemplate the life and service of Yakubu Gowon, we are in the presence of a rare Nigerian political figure who is fully deserving of that accolade.

As he turns 80, I join all believers in a great Nigeria to wish General Yakubu Gowon (Rtd.) many more years in good health.

Dr. Kayode Fayemi, expert in military studies and civil society activist, was Governor of Ekiti State 2010-2014. He  wrote from Ado Ekiti.