Putin and Gowon: the case for staying at home

by Chris Chatteris SJ


It seems that President Putin will not be coming to South Africa for the BRICS summit after all. The change of plan made me wonder if Putin knows of one General Yakubu Gowon, the former military officer and Nigerian President. He is remembered for the very public way in which he was forced from office.


It was 1975. Having held power in Nigeria for 9 years, General Gowon went to the OAU meeting in Kampala. His absence was the ideal moment for a military coup back home, and he found himself in the embarrassing position of being an ex-head of state among assembled African leaders.


The coup was led by one of his most trusted military officers, something else Putin might have thought about at a time when there is clearly a great deal of unhappiness in the Russian military.  Some senior officers are either being killed by Ukrainian missiles or sacked by Putin himself for their lack of loyalty.


General Gowon’s response to his ousting was pragmatic but still impressive. He put his own interests second in place of those of the country. He did not appeal for the overthrow of the new regime or call its legal standing into question; rather, he immediately pledged his loyalty to it.


Having ruled through the terrible Nigerian civil war and having also tried to bring reconciliation to the country in the aftermath, he knew only too well the limits of violence as a way of solving problems. The dignified statement he made to the press at the time is still well worth a listen almost fifty years on.


Today General Gowon is going strong in his late eighties, a respected elder statesman credited by many with holding Nigeria together through his ‘no victor, no vanquished’ postwar policy. He has been awarded peace prizes even though he did prosecute the war against General Ojukwu’s Igbo Biafran breakaway attempt with a high degree of ruthlessness.


One can reasonably assume that Putin is no Gowon and that Russia today is very different from Nigeria back then. However, in at least two respects, there are similarities. Firstly, as in Nigeria in 1975, there is no real succession plan in Russia despite the Presidential election next year. This is always fertile ground for a coup d’état, as Gowon discovered. Secondly, the Russian Federation, like Nigeria, is a multi-ethnic country in which there has already been one separatist movement, namely in Chechnya, and the catastrophic invasion of Ukraine is currently putting the unity of the Federation to a serious stress test.


Putin was sensible to opt to attend the BRICS summit on Zoom. Even a failed coup or a significant Ukrainian blow on the battlefield would have further weakened him.


He might have saved himself a Gowon-like embarrassment, but whether history will judge him as leniently as Gowon has been judged seems unlikely.

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