“My greatest wish is that Nigeria will never witness any act of violence again after the of the civil war” – General Yakubu Gowon

I had a morning flight to catch from Lagos to Abuja.

I left 2 hours before my flight anticipating a bit of traffic, though the trip should have taken 20 minutes from where I stayed. I was getting a bit anxious because the traffic around Ikeja was rather heavy. Anyway, I got there an hour before my flight only to discover that I was in the wrong terminal, so my chaperone and I quickly called a taxi that took us to the right terminal. It was about 40 minutes to take off.

I went to the check-in counter and politely asked for a window seat (I just like that seat; it gives me opportunity to look out or just focus on my book without any distraction).

“Madam, you want window seat, you didn’t come on time…” the young man at the counter told me.

“Are you saying there is none?”

“There is but at the back,” He responded.

“At the back?” I asked. “Why do you think I’ll like to sit at the back?“

“You asked for a window seat and that’s the only one available. Otherwise, there’s a space close to the front but you’ll sit in the middle.”

“Oh mine! Now you want to sandwich me.  OK, give me the window seat.”

“It’s the last seat o madam.”

“I don’t mind as long as it takes me to Abuja.”

“Alright then, here’s your boarding pass and safe journey.”

“Thanks, and have a blessed day”, I said.

As I left the airline desk, I checked the number of my seat 23F was boldly written.

I put my mind off it and consoled myself it’s only an hour flight and I would still be seated at the window. While waiting to board, I took out my kindle and was reading a short story.

About boarding time, I got a call from my sister-in- law, Ronke, asking for my itinerary, I told her we were yet to board but waiting. I ended the call and was looking forward to seeing my brother, Gbenga and family in Abuja, and mentally planning the surprise I wanted to give my friend Lara Wise on her birthday.  We started boarding 15 minutes to take off and I was the fourth person to board, so I went straight to my window seat at the rear of the plane. The overhead cabin on my seat was already filled, so I had to put my hand luggage elsewhere, and I told the young man seated in the middle to allow me passage to my seat. He was about doing that when this ebullient middle-aged man came rushing after me. “I’m sitting there,” He bellowed while pointing to the same seat I was about to take.  I looked at him with a fixated smile and said, “But that’s my seat.” “Look here!” I showed him my boarding pass with seat number while thinking there’s a kind of mix-up somewhere. “Yes, but I’m sitting there,” he responded almost in an authoritative manner. When I asked him why, he said, “you’d take my seat 1C and I’ll take yours.” He brought out his boarding pass and showed me his seat number too. I looked askance at him and I thought he was crazy. Then he repeated it, “Go to my seat in the Business class and I’ll take yours.” I was going to query him further, then an inner voice said, “Just go there and stop asking why over and over.”  I then agreed to take his seat and the other passengers around my supposed seat were just musing and enjoying the little drama. The fellow then turned to the crew member around and notified her that we were changing seats from 23F to 1C and vice-versa. She urged him to tell her superiors in the front. He said he already did. This time, other passengers were coming in and I couldn’t get to my new seat in the Business class. I told him this, and he replied, “If it means waiting for all the passengers to board before taking the seat, wait.” So, I waited until everyone took his or her seat, then took my luggage and went all the way up to sit of course not on 1C but 1A. Because my mind was fixated on the window seat.

Then my co-traveller came in and it was General Yakubu Gowon. And alas! I was on his seat.

So you see I didn’t pay for my Business class seat, I was “conscripted “ there.

A case of the last becoming the first?

After pleasantries were exchanged, I introduced myself to the former Nigeria head of state and told him upfront that I’m a journalist, so he knew he might be quoted. After I told him my name, he repeated my last name, Dan-Ekhator and told me he had met someone with that name. I told him he is my husband and he  is also a journalist and writer, that we publish a magazine in Rome. He quickly recalled that it was while the Oba of Benin, Oba Ewuare II was an Ambassador in Rome that he met him. He asked after Dan and we talked about him for a while.

General Gowon has an unmistaken passion for a united Nigeria. He talked animatedly about Nigeria being one because that is where our strength as a nation lies. He narrated with nostalgia how the National Youth Service Corps (NYSC) was born. “It was after the civil war and the youth were becoming disenchanted and a number of students suggested some kind of combatant roles. “We wanted them to channel their activities and energies into rebuilding the nation and for every Nigerian youth to believe in the unity of the country. Wherever you are from you have a stake in the country, so the scheme was introduced.”

The Decree 51 of 16th June 1973 established the NYSC. He said the scheme was to help change the attitude of the youths through mutual experience, eliminate ignorance about other regions and highlight our shared beliefs and commonalities. The aim is to integrate them and supply the needed manpower and prepare them for leadership.

Asked if he thinks the NYSC is still relevant, he enthused that it was even needed more than ever now.

In the same vein, he reminiscened about how the Federal schools started. It was an experiement that paid off because according to him it was first started with a pilot school in the North, then other ones in the South and East. It recorded a lot of success in the regions that all the states of the Federation later asked for one. Parents could send their children or wards to other parts of the country without any apprehension.

The General was not too happy about the state of education in the country as he lamented the quality of graduates churned out in the country and the rate at which Nigerians seek foreign education. “It used to be they coming to us, but now we go to them.” I interjected that the rot actually started from the elementary level up to tertiary and he acquiesced.

The former head of state noted how students were cared for in the 70’s, with free accommodation and meals of N1.50 and when there was an increase of 50 kobo to the cost of their meal they protested. “Do you remember ‘Ali must go’?” He asked. “I was in the secondary school then.” I responded. “That was what led to the protests. Ali Ahmadu was the Federal Commissioner for Education then. There was not enough money and we tried to make the students see reason but they were adamant. They kept on insisting on “Ali must go.” He said jokingly that some of the students were playing on his name Ali Ahmadu. “However, I had to remind them that I am a military man by training, troops had to come in.”

Talking on the state of insecurity in the country, he said “We used to have the fear of the unknown, the it became economic fears, then fear of bomb explosions during the Abacha era, then kidnappings, tribal fears, now it is the fear of the Fulani herdsmen. “The herdsmen that we know used to carry sticks around to steer their animals and were harmless. However, now there are these reports of killings by the herdsmen. It’s quite unfortunate.”

He was optimistic that the nation will be great again. He decried violence in the land and mentioned a viral video he watched, where  a young man was pleading  for his life with an officer and he was shot point blank without any remorse from the killer. “How did we degenerate to this level?” He asked rhetorically.  “My greatest wish is that Nigeria will never witness any act of violence after the one of the civil war.” He added.

“I believe that Nigeria could still go back to the days of yore that prompted the “Pray for Nigeria project.” He recollected how he was praying and he came across the verse, “If my people, which are called by my name, shall humble themselves, and pray, and seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways; then will I hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin, and will heal their land” (2Chronicle 7:14). He approached the late General Sani Abacha on the project and he was enthusiastic about it. He only said, “That would be nice but why not add the muslims to the prayer project since you said it’s a prayer for Nigeria.” He continued that the General agreed to the project and concluded that the nation neeeded the prayers. 

As we appproached the Nnamdi Azikwe International Airport, the former head of state tried showing me the hill and relived the history of how the Federal Capital Territory (FCT) came to be. He said the creation of the FCT was debated and planned by succesive governments starting from the first republic and down to his regime. Eventually, the government of General Murtala Mohammed made the decision to move in 1976. The initial work was carried out by General Mohammed and Obasanjo while the move from Lagos to Abuja was actualised in 1991 during the regime of General Ibrahim Babangida.

As we bade out our goodbyes, it suddenly dawned on me that the man that had offered me his seat was a secret service operative, and I couldn’t help but salute the General in my heart for his passion for Nigeria and the ease with which he recalled history. For a man in his 80s, that’s some ball, and Gowon is certainly still in the game.