General Yakubu “Jack” Dan-Yamma Gowon was born on October 19, 1934 in Lur, Kanke Local Government area of Plateau state, Nigeria. He was the fifth of eleven children and grew up in Zaria, Kaduna where he had his early life and education. His parents, Nde Yohanna and Matwork Kurnyang were early converts to Christianity and left for Wussa, Zaria as Church Missionary Society (CMS) in the early days of Gowon’s life.
Gowon later became a career army officer who was trained in Ghana and in England at Sandhurst and twice served in the Congo region as part of Nigeria’s peacekeeping force there in the early 1960s. He joined the Nigerian Army in 1954 and became a Second Lieutenant on his 21st birthday.
After the coup of January 1966, Gowon was appointed chief of staff by Major General Johnson Aguiyi-Ironsi, the new leader. Northern officers staged a countercoup in July 1966, and on August 1, 1966 Gowon emerged as the compromise head of the new government.
On April 19, 1969, Yakubu Gowon married Victoria Zakari, in Lagos. The wedding happened while the civil war was ongoing. The couple have been married for 49 years and have two children, Ibrahim Bala and Saratu Kamkewa Tani Gowon.
Gowon tried to resolve the ethnic tensions that threatened to fatally divide Nigeria. Although he was eventually successful in ending attacks against Igbo in the north, he was unable to affect a more lasting peace. In a final attempt to resolve the conflict, on May 27, 1967, Gowon declared a state of emergency and divided Nigeria’s four regions into 12 states. Three days later the Eastern region declared itself the independent state of Biafra with Odumegwu Ojukwu Odumegwu as its leader. This action initiated a bloody three-year civil war between 1967 and 1970.
Gowon directed government forces to remember that they were essentially fighting Nigerians, who were to be encouraged to rejoin the country. He also allowed a team of international observers to monitor the conduct of his troops. With the help of the United States, Great Britain and the Soviet Union, Gowon isolated Biafra diplomatically and the Nigerian Army and the Navy isolated it physically. On Janaury 12, 1970, Biafra surrendered as the government banned all Red Cross aid and restricted food supplies to Biafra.
After the government victory in January 1970, a remarkable reconciliation took place between victors and vanquished, largely attributable to Gowon’s personal influence. By the mid-1970s Gowon was emerging as an international leader and was involved in the establishment of the Economic Community of West African States. On July 29, 1975, however, while Gowon was in Uganda for an Organization of African unity Summit meeting, he was implicated in the coup d’état Lt. Col Buka Suka Dimka which led in the death of General Murtala Muhammed and he was declared wanted by the Nigerian government with the army removing him from office. Gowon was exiled to Great Britain and was stripped of his rank for allegedly participating in the assassination of his successor, Murtala Mohammed, in 1976.
However, in 1981, he and the ex-Biafran President Emeka Ojukwu were pardoned under the Second Republic by Shehu Shagari and his rank was restored by Ibrahim Babaginda in 1987. Having earned a Ph.D. at Warwick University in 1983, he became a professor of Political Science at the University of Jos in the mid-1980s and attained the status of an elder statesman of Nigerian politics.
In the 1990s, he formed a non-denominational religious group, Nigeria Prays. In 1992 he also founded the Yakubu Gowon Centre with the organisation said to work on issues in Nigeria such as good governance and infectious diseases like HIV/AIDS, guinea worm and malaria.
Today, he is based in the UK and serves an ‘elder statesman’ role in African politics, operating for example as an official observer at the presidential election in Ghana in 2008.