"Now, some people will remember when General Gowon left Nigeria with half of the Central Bank, so it was said, and moved to London….”- Tom Tugendhat, MP for Tonbridge, Edenbridge and Malling, Chairman, Foreign Relations Committee, House of Commons.
The above are the words of Tom Tugendhat, a British Conservative parliamentarian while discussing the Nigerian government's response to youth protest against police brutality at a meeting of the Petitions Committee of the UK Parliament on Monday, the 23rd of November, 2020. Tugendhat spoke broadly and knowledgeably about the problem of bad governance and corruption in Nigeria and even paid a great tribute to Chinua Achebe for writing “the greatest book in English” in Things Fall Apart. This obviously was him making a comparative illustration of Nigeria’s intellectual capacities versus the vacuousness of leadership lootocracy, something he thinks would clearly appeal to the sensibilities of his British and international audiences and the British government he is urging to help Nigeria and Nigerians with accountability. But General Yakubu Gowon was his notorious example of a Nigerian leader stripping the nation of its wealth and carting it abroad.
I listened to his speech with mixed feelings precisely because of the aspect of his comment highlighted above, but I was hoping Nigerians wouldn’t dwell on it because I just believe it’s a diversion. On a day the British parliament took it upon itself to discuss sanctions against elements of the Nigerian government for their role in soldiers shooting down young Nigerian peaceful protesters belching out the National Anthem and holding aloft our National Flag, talking about the putative corruption of a leader who left office almost half a century ago cannot be the way to focus on the grave matter at hand. Well, as things have turned out, Tugendhat’s comment on Gowon is the bone Nigerians have seized and locked their jaws on. And somehow, I don’t blame most of them, even though a lot of the reactions have been more emotional than reasonable and it’s not difficult to understand why.
Mr Tugendhat’s comment implies two things – one, that Gowon stole half of Nigeria’s national wealth at the time and two, that people he’s addressing (the British, Nigerian and international publics) know this. And the latter is the problem most Nigerians challenging Mr Tugendhat have with his talk. We do not remember what he’s talking about. In what universe did this happen? Nigerians have never heard anyone say it until Mr Tugendhat said it. We have never read any record of the corruption under Gowon (and there is a lot of that) that says Gowon moved money to London during his time at the helms or when he left office. Those who overthrew him in a coup did not accuse him of that and when they indicted him in absentia over the February 13 1976 abortive coup that killed Murtala Muhammed and they threw everything, including the kitchen sink at him, no one mentioned him stealing Nigeria’s money and stashing it away anywhere abroad. What we have in the public record is a Gowon who was outside Nigeria at an OAU Summit in Kampala when he was overthrown and who became a charity case right there with the Nigerian delegation with him tearfully contributing about 3000 pounds for him to start his new life in exile. Add to that 10,000 pounds given to him by Gnassingbe Eyadema, the then Togolese leader and the accommodation given to him in London by one Mr Emmanuel Otti and that’s about all what Gowon was worth.
In the post-Gowon era of the continuing oil boom, we read stories in the British press of ostentatious Nigerians competing with Middle-Eastern sheikhs in their spending sprees all over Europe and America. In all these stories, not once was Gowon’s name ever mentioned. Instead, we read about him struggling as a student at the University of Warwick to the embarrassment of his colleagues, the new Nigerian rulers, who tried to fund him as they thought appropriate for his status. We knew he refused. Gowon who was out of Nigeria in England for more than seven years is 86 years old today and nothing in his life has told us he’s enjoying some looted or secretly stashed away wealth. What we know is that upon his return to Nigeria, he was rehabilitated by friends in the corporate world who made him chairman or member of this and that board to earn some financial respectability. Gowon had no foreign account abroad at the time he was overthrown. He had no property in London and he had none in Nigeria. And since his return, we haven’t seen him, his wife or children display unconscionable opulence like some of the shameless characters he was in government with and some of those who’ve come after him. So, what happened to this mythical half of the Nigerian Central Bank he carted away to London?
However, this sober questioning of Mr Tugendhat’s story isn’t something the populist fulminators against corruption now using Gowon as a poster child of the perfidy want to engage in. They will never question the baseless claim of a British MP, yeah, because he’s a British MP, a White man who apparently will never lie or get it wrong. These are the ones now all over the place complaining that they were taught Gowon is a hero in school only to now find out he’s a rogue. Yet, if they really had the right education, they would have known that teachers don’t imprint a hero in your heart; your intellect, consciousness and capacity to do your own research do. Just for the record, Gowon is not my hero, but I don’t need a British MP to smear him to realize he’s not.
The problem with those who are up in arms against Gowon because of this new “revelation” is that they are not interested in facts. They are plain sensationalists who confuse conflation for conviction. They are those who in response to this news declare that Gowon is guilty because he’s a mass murderer for his role in the Nigerian Civil War. They are the ones saying he must have indeed taken half of Nigeria’s Central Bank to London because he served the “Northern oligarchy” and has always supported any government in power. Indeed, they have a litany of many supposed Gowon sins that have fully convicted him on the charges levelled against him by Tom Tugendhat. But where is the sense in using the platform of an unfounded allegation to raise other extraneous issues to justify the same unfounded accusation? Of course, our focus should be on the specific accusation and whether or not it’s true and, in this case, it is evidently not true.
If Tugendhat needed a real example of a ruler who looted the Nigerian nation with evidence abundant in public space internationally, he should have looked no further than General Sani Abacha. But he chose to accuse General Gowon of taking half of our Central Bank to London, an accusation no one has ever made against Gowon in more than 45 years since he left office. Tugendhat who just celebrated his second birthday when Gowon was supposed to have engaged in this heist couldn’t have known anything the rest of the world didn’t know about Gowon until now. Whatever he knows could only have been told to him or researched. So, where did he get this information because we know as a matter of fact that there is nothing on this in any public record anywhere?
Again, Mr Tugendhat need to address an important question arising from his accusation against Gowon. Now that he is claiming we all remember this thing he’s talking about, how come this very massive loot in London has so far escaped the attention of investigators worldwide tracing Nigeria’s looted money abroad and helping us repatriate it? General Sani Abacha has been dead for more than two decades, but we are still receiving money repatriated from money he stole and stashed away abroad. So, what’s happening with Gowon’s loot in London? If Tugendhat believes his accusation against Gowon, then he should tell us why action has not been taken by him and the British government to repatriate this money if it’s stashed away in London as he’s implied.
Now, it’s important people understand what the argument is. For persons like us weary of defending any Nigerian leader against charges of corruption, this is not a case of supporting Gowon against Tugendhat’s charges. Gowon has actually spoken for himself. He has since described Mr Tugendhat’s claims as “rubbish”, insisting his record is there for all to see. The onus is now on Mr Tugendhat to bring evidence to support his claim. Mr Tugendhat used his privilege as an MP to speak on the floor of parliament against Gowon, so he should not expect any legal consequences because there would be none. But he must also not hide under parliamentary privilege to perpetrate a smear on a Nigerian citizen. If indeed he believes his accusation against Gowon is true, he now has to present evidence in public space to back up his talk. Gowon does not have to do more than he has done, which is deny the accusation. Tugendhat is the one with the responsibility to prove his assertion. This is important, so we know the international fight against corruption and his willingness to help join the fight against the perfidy of Nigerian leaders are not predicated on lies and prejudices as well. Everyone, be they accused and accuser, deserves justice and truth is the bedrock of true justice. If Mr Tugendhat cannot find evidence to support his claim, he should apologize to General Gowon and get on with his mission to help Nigeria and Nigerians fight the scourge of bad leadership and corruption. If he does this, he will continue to have the full support of a grateful Nigerian nation.