General Yakubu Dan-Yumma Gowon, Nigerian head of state during its civil war, was born in the Northern Nigeria in 1934. Gowon joined the Nigerian army in the 1954, and then became a Second Lieutenant on his 21st birthday in 1955. From this point until 1966, Yakubu Gowon was a professional soldier with no interest in politics. In 1966 he was a Lieutenant Colonel.



When the mostly Igbo military junta, which overthrew the Nigerian civilian government in January 1966, was itself overthrown in September of that year, most of the senior military officers who survived both coups were driven out of the Army. Leadership of the country then fell onto 32 year old Gowon. He 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.



A young officer orders an attack during the Biafra conflict in Nigeria in 1969.



Gowon’s government first had to reestablish order. Anti-Igbo rioting broke out especially in Northern Nigeria. By the end of the 1966 when more than 30,000 eastern Nigerians were killed, the Military Governor of Eastern Nigeria, Colonel Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu, called for his region to secede from the Nigerian nation and create its own government.



Wounded Biafran soldiers are transported across a river in June 1968.



A Biafran soldier carries an elderly woman from the wreckage of her home following an artillery bombardment by the Nigerian army in June 1968.



When a last minute meeting between the two leaders failed to establish a compromise, Gowon declared a state of emergency and quickly divided Nigeria into 12 new states; two of these states were in the Eastern region.



A group of emaciated children photographed in 1970. During the war, the Biafran government reported that Nigeria was using hunger as a weapon to win, and sought aid from the outside world. Nigeria led multiple blockades preventing relief materials from getting into Biafra. As a result, thousands of people starved.



They were formed to divide the Igbo people and undermine Ojukwu’s support. In response Colonel Ojukwu declared the state of Biafra on May 30, 1967, initiating a bloody three year civil war between 1967 and 1970.





Lt Col. Ojukwu, military governor of Biafra, inspects Biafran troops on June 11, 1968.





Jubilant Biafran soldiers celebrate on top of a destroyed Nigerian army armored personnel carrier.



Yakubu Gowon, with the support of the United States, Great Britain, and the Soviet Union, isolated Biafra diplomatically and the Nigerian Army and Navy isolated it physically. By the second year of the war the Nigerian government occupied well over half of the original Biafra.



Refugees flee the fighting in July 1968. Estimates of the number of dead from fighting, disease and starvation during the 30-month civil war are estimated at between 1 and 3 million.



When resistance by the Igbo stiffened, the government on June 30 banned all Red Cross aid to Biafra and two weeks later restricted food supplies.



Nigerian troops enter Port Harcourt after taking it from Biafrian forces in 1968.



Nigerian police push back crowds of demonstrators outside the French Embassy in Lagos on September 16, 1968. An estimated 2,000 demonstrators presented the French ambassador with a letter protesting French assistance to Biafra. France provided weapons and mercenary fighters to Biafra and promoted their cause internationally, describing the situation as a genocide.



What remained of the secessionist state was starved into submission. During the 30 month conflict more than one million of the country’s thirteen million people had died of starvation. On January 12, 1970, Biafra surrendered. After the surrender, General Gowon instituted a policy of “no victor, no vanquished.” Winning this civil war was the high point of Gowon’s regime. His attempt to enforce his 3R program of reconstruction, rehabilitation, and reconciliation across the country failed.





Nigerians in the capital city of Lagos cheer the surrender of the Biafran forces on January 12, 1970. Nigerian leader Maj. Gen. Yakubu Gowon accepted the Biafran surrender and asked all Nigerians to greet the former rebels as brothers.



While the idea was laudable, its implementation was flawed and thus most of Nigeria, regardless of the side they were on during the recent civil war, lost faith in Gowon and his administration. His promise to return Nigeria back to civil rule by 1976 was broken and the rapid growth of corruption in his administration further eroded the country’s confidence in him.



A starving Biafran family during the famine resulting from the Biafran War.



Oguta lake is the largest natural lake in Imo State, southeast Nigeria. Oguta town served as Biafra's major supply line for arms and relief material during the war.



General Yakubu Gowon was overthrown in a bloodless coup on July 29, 1975 and replaced by General Murtala Muhammed. He left immediately for Great Britain. While there, he studied at the University of Warwick and then graduated with a doctoral degree in political science. Yakubu Gowon returned to Nigeria in 1983, where he currently resides.





Starving children pose in a refugee camp near Aba, on August 06, 1968 during the Biafran war.