By Dare Babarinsa
First Published in THE GUARDIAN
16 March 2016
It is an aching feeling to contemplate what would have been, if the truth had surfaced far, far earlier for Musa, the love child of General Yakubu Jack Gowon and Edith Ike Okongwu, who is now late. Edith was Gowon’s lover when the latter was a dashing bachelor living in his pad at the Ikeja cantonment before the deluge came in 1966. It was a whirlwind romance that got caught in a wilder whirlwind of national politics. Now Gowon is an old man, Edith is dead and Musa Jack has lived a life burdened by the truth only his mother was sure of.
Last week, General Gowon issued a brief statement stating that after 48 years, he has come to accept the paternity of Musa. He wanted the public to respect the privacy of his family in this period now Musa needs rehabilitation after serving more than two decades in an American prison. He is right for Musa is not just a survivor of a bitter-fight between two lovers. He has paid a heavy price. If the Nigerian Civil War lasted for only 30 months, his has lasted for a lifetime of 48 bitter years.
From available pictures, Musa looked strikingly like his father. He was born in 1968 at the height of the Nigerian Civil War when Gowon was the Commander-in-Chief of the Nigerian Armed Forces. Gowon’s official residence was not the State House, Marina, where the great Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe lived for six years as Nigeria’s last Governor-General and later the first President. Azikiwe was a journalist who reigned at a less turbulent time. Gowon was our leader who came into power through the barrel of the gun. He lived in the austere Doddan Barracks and never contemplated moving back to the opulence of the State House. All his successors lived in the same cramped space of Doddan Barracks until General Ibrahim Babangida effected the transfer of the nation’s capital to Abuja. That decision had earlier been taken by the Administration of General Murtala Muhammed in1976.
But before Gowon became a household name and the acronym for Go On With One Nigeria, during the Civil War, he was a lad who was in love. His lover was Edith, the beautiful high-spirited Igbo girl who had an opinion about many things. Gowon was trained in the best British military tradition at Sandhurst and was a fast rising military officer and a gentleman. He was one of the beneficiaries of the rapid Nigerianisation drive of the regime of Prime-Minister Abubakar Tafawa-Balewa and his Minister of Deference, Muhammadu Ribadu. The two lovers were thinking of marriage and as it was in those days, they were already co-habiting together.
But Fate had a bigger role for Gowon that neither of the two lovers could have contemplated by the end of 1965. Within a year, the unknown young lieutenant-colonel was at the centre of national events. Tafawa-Balewa had been killed to be succeeded by General J.T.U Aguiyi-Ironsi, the first Nigerian commander of the Army who never planned a coup but found himself at the head of a military government. Ironsi, with the killings of senior military officers in the January coup of 1966, made Gowon the Chief of Army Staff for he was highest ranking surviving military officer of Northern origin. After Ironsi was killed in July 29, 1966, Gowon was installed the new military ruler by the victorious plotters. He moved from the pad in Ikeja to the Doddan Barracks fortress. Edith moved in with him. Trouble also moved in to keep them company.
Edith was Igbo and at that time of national tension, those who brought Gowon to power regarded Igbo people as the enemy. Their intention was not to seize power, but to avenge the killings of January 15, and then take the Northern Region out of the Federation. Better reason prevailed and Gowon found himself at the helm of affairs of a country afflicted with self-doubt and dangerous emotions. By the time the shooting war started in 1967, the love affair was virtually over; Gowon was at war in response to the declaration of Biafra by the Military Governor of Eastern Nigeria, Lt. Colonel Chukwuemeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu. Edith fled to Germany and later the United States. She had become an expectant mother.
Who could have believed that a pregnancy out of the war zone could still be a victim of a shooting war? It is trite to speculate now why Gowon did not accept responsibility for the pregnancy. He was the Commander-in-Chief of an army at war. How would the troops in the trenches feel if they learn that he was literally sleeping with the enemy? Yet, it was Gowon who, sought out a lecturer at the University of Ibadan, Dr Ukpabi Asika, and made him the Administrator of East Central State (now balkanised into Abia, Imo, Enugu, Anambra and Ebonyi states). Edith tried to make a new life and open new beginnings, but the old door would not close.
Musa’s childhood must have been full of emotional problems. Here was a fatherless child whose father was alive and also one of the most powerful men in the world. Musa drifted into bad company and then ended up with a jail sentence of 40 years for drug related offences. He pleaded his innocence but his famous surname was of no help. After 20 years behind bars, he was paroled by President Barak Obama. He had been a model prisoner who read law and bagged a degree from behind bars and exhibited excellent conduct. He came home and insisted that a DNA test must be conducted, arming himself with an order from the court. The result proved that his mother was right all along.
I remember Edith now, a spirited, fair-complexioned beautiful woman. She had a sticking resemblance to Victoria, the lady Gowon finally married in 1969. The last time I saw her was at a book presentation in the auditorium of the Nigerian Institute of International Affairs, Victoria Island, about 1992. Present at that event were many of the Nigerian elite, including Chief Emmanuel Inwanyanwu, the publisher of Champion. Even then, the topic of her son with Gowon was never far from the surface and how she was the First Lady that never was. And she did carry herself like a First Lady.
Fate had dealt Musa and his mother a heavy blow, but not a fatal one. If Gowon had died earlier, what could he have done? There was no DNA in 1967 and even if there were, who would have compelled a military ruler to subject himself to that test? Now that the truth has been established would General Gowon approach Edith’s family to make peace at last? By failing to ascertain the truth at the earliest opportunity through DNA and fighting Edith all the way to the bitter end, Gowon needs to apologise to members of Edith family. This is the least that is expected by a man Cambridge University once described as a man of “Christian muscularity.”
It is a great thing for Musa that despite the trauma he had passed through, he still summoned enough courage to ascertain the truth and restore the honour of his mother’s name. The Gowon-Edith love tango shows how national events can affect the lives of ordinary people and their destinies. How many other less famous people have been caught in the cross fire of national events? It is a lesson that our leaders need to be careful in taking actions and decisions because these do have consequences. We may never know now what impact it would have had on the prosecution of the Civil War if the wife of the Commander-in-Chief had been an Igbo woman.
Now the dead can rest in peace, as they say. For Musa, justice has come at last, albeit at a heavy price. Though his mother is dead and could not savour this victory, Musa’s father lived long enough to take the DNA test. That was what Edith wanted all along. Now the soul of the dead can be at peace.