THROWBACK: How Gowon declined U.S. President’s invitation to visit America

Former Head of State, General Yakubu Gowon
Former Head of State, General Yakubu Gowon

President Muhammadu Buhari is on his way to the United States to honour an invitation for a state visit to Washington, extended to him by President Barack Obama on June 25.

Mr. Buhari would be in the U.S. for four days, meeting President Obama, top level officials of the American government, American business leaders, Nigerians in the Diaspora and members of the American War College Class of 1980 in which he was a participant.

But let’s flash back to 1971, 44 years ago, when a Nigerian leader – Yakubu Gowon – diplomatically spurned the kind of invitation Mr. Buhari is honouring today. [We are publishing this just for historical purpose only].

According to declassified diplomatic documents seen by PREMIUM TIMES, the 37th President of the United States, Richard Nixon, had written to then Nigeria Head of State, Major General Gowon, requesting him to make a state visit to his country in October of that year.

Mr. Gowon initially accepted the invitation, saying he would request Nigeria’s foreign ministry officials to work out a convenient itinerary for the visit.

But the Nigerian leader, then just 37, later changed his mind, writing to President Nixon to say he was too busy at home, and in Africa, for any visit to America.

In the September 18, 1971 letter, Mr. Gowon wrote, “I am afraid I am still not free of my immediate preoccupations at home and in Africa. With the coming fall and winter, and having regard to the arrangements which you will have to make in so short a time to receive me in the midst of your other many pressing engagements, I hesitate to suggest that the visit be postponed till later in the year.”

He added, “I deeply regret my inability to visit your country this year. The decision has been forced on me by circumstances beyond my control. As a man with an abiding interest in my country and Africa, I trust that you will understand my position.” [Read full letter below].

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In his October 29, 1971, response to Mr. Gowon, a disappointed President Nixon said he had looked forward to meeting the Nigerian leader in Washington D.C. and regretted the postponement of the visit.

“I want to assure you that my invitation remains open, and I hope that, as our respective commitments for next year become clearer, it will be possible to find a mutually convenient time for our meeting.” [Read Mr. Nixon’s full letter below]

If Mr. Gowon had accepted that invitation and proceeded on the journey, that would have been his first and only visit to the U.S. during his about nine-year tenure.

It is not clear whether American Presidents before or after Mr. Nixon (who resigned from office in 1974 in the wake of the Watergate scandal) extended similar invitations to the Nigerian leader, but Mr. Gowon did not visit the U.S. until he was overthrown in a coup d’état on July 29, 1975.

Those familiar with Nigeria’s diplomatic posturing of that time said Mr. Gowon was only “courteous and diplomatic” by telling President Nixon the visit should be postponed to a later date.

They said once Mr. Gowon received Mr. Nixon’s invitation, a decision was taken by the Nigerian authorities that Mr. Gowon should “tactically decline” in what was conceived to be a powerful message to the American authorities that Nigeria remained disappointed by “the U.S. snobbish and cunny posturing during the Nigerian civil war”.

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Nigeria had at the time just come out of a brutal 30-month civil war with the secessionist Republic of Biafra, a conflict which led to the killing of more than 100,000 soldiers and over a million civilians.

Although the U.S. tried hard to be seen as neutral during the war, the Nigerian authorities believed the country tacitly supported Biafra by failing to sell arms to the Nigerian Army and then accusing Nigeria of killing civilians through a deadly blockade of relief efforts.

The 1970s is believed to be the golden era of Nigeria’s foreign diplomacy. The country had competent and confident diplomats almost always able to stand up to American and European officials to push Nigeria’s interest.

On one occasion that speaks volumes of that era, a blunt Nigerian official told a United States ambassador that Nigeria was not one of America’s “banana republics,” stirring anxiety in Washington.

The comments were made by Joe Iyalla, a permanent secretary in the Gowon administration and a respected career diplomat.

In 1972, according to diplomatic documents seen by PREMIUM TIMES, Mr. Iyalla summoned the US ambassador to Nigeria, John Reinhardt, and detailed to him the sins of America, in a peculiar way worthy of reference today.

He accused the United States of maltreating Nigerians in the U.S, and failing to investigate the killing of a Nigerian amongst other shortcomings in what he said formed a “trend and pattern” showing the Richard Nixon administration’s effort at undermining Nigeria.

One case, for which Mr. Iyalla also sought explanation for, was the case of American businessmen and politicians arriving Nigeria for a business interest, and gearing to have an audience with the then head of state, Mr. Gowon, without prior appointment.

“I think we got them straight,” Mr. Iyalla told Mr. Reinhardt, “and they now realize that Nigeria is not one of your banana republics.”

Mr. Reinhardt regretted the events, but explained that the U.S. government could not be held responsible for all the transgressions of its citizens abroad. [READ FULL ARTICLE HERE]

BELOW IS GOWON’S LETTER TO PRESIDENT NIXON

STATE HOUSE
DODAN BARRACKS
LAGOS, NIGERIA
18th September, 1971.

His Excellency
Mr. Richard M. Nixon
President of the United States of America,
The White House,
WASHINGTON, D.C.

My dear Mr. President,

I wrote to you earlier in the year to accept with profound gratitude your very kind invitation to me to visit the United States of America. While our officials were trying to suggest mutually convenient dates for the visit, I continued my programme of State Visits to a number of African countries particularly to thank their Governments and peoples for the unwavering support they gave to me during the civil war in my country as well as to promote vital interests common to our peoples.

At the same time, I was, and continue to be, intensely preoccupied with the formulation and implementation of my country’s current Development Plan. In the midst of the foregoing commitments, I have had to accept a number of urgently necessary assignments under the aegis of the Organisation or African Unity affecting the peace and progress of Africa. In the firm belief that my visit to your great country would cement further the cordial and friendly relations which so happily exist between our two countries, I still hoped to be able to visit your country this year. Hence the delay in indicating my preferences for the dates in October suggested by your officials.

I am afraid I am still not free of my immediate preoccupations at home and in Africa. With the coming fall and winter, and having regard to the arrangements which you will have to make in so short a time to receive me in the midst of your other many pressing engagements, I hesitate to suggest that the visit be postponed till later in the year. Consequently, I want to take the liberty of our friendship to express the hope that your invitation to me to visit you remains still valid and open. I shall therefore be highly delighted if another mutually acceptable date for my visit can be fixed through our diplomatic channels, preferably not within this year.

I deeply regret my inability to visit your country this year. The decision has been forced on me by circumstances beyond my control. As a man with an abiding interest in my country and Africa, I trust that you will understand my position.

Accept, Mr. President, the assurances of my highest consideration.

(MAJOR-GENERAL YAKUBU GOWON)
Head of the Federal Military Government,
Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces
of the Federal Republic of Nigeria.

BELOW IS PRESIDENT NIXON’S RESPONSE TO MR. GOWON
THE WHITE HOUSE
WASHINGTON
October 29, 1971

Dear General Gowon:

Thank you for your kind letter of September 18 explaining the urgent concerns in Nigeria and Africa which rule out for the present your undertaking a journey to the United States.

I have looked forward to our meeting and genuinely regret its postponement. At the same time, however, I am encouraged by the ongoing success of your Government’s policies at home and the broadening scope of your personal involvement in decisions affecting peace and prosperity in Africa.

In these endeavors, you have my continuing support and my warmest wishes for success. I want to assure you that my invitation remains open, and I hope that, as our respective commitments for next year become clearer, it will be possible to find a mutually convenient time for our meeting.

Sincerely,
Richard M. Nixon
His Excellency
General YAKUBU GOWON
Head of State and Commander-in-Chief
of the Armed Forces Lagos.

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