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By: Amb Godknows Igali

Historical events often occur in parallels or set reoccurrences. Hence, the inference: “History repeats itself”. In ancient Roman lexicology, the Latin word “Ides” was used, rather to denote any date about the middle of each month. In the Shakespearean classic, ‘Julius Caesar’, the soothsayer warned the great Roman military General and Emperor, after whom the play was named to “beware the Ides of March”, i.e. 15th March, of the year 44BC when he was brutally murdered. Brought forward to Nigeria’s history, the word “Ides” will more fittingly represent the date, 13th February, 1976, on which the equally charismatic and dynamic, military General and Head of State, Murtala Ramat Muhammed, was murdered in broad daylight. Like Caesar, Gen. Muhammed who succumbed to the assassin’s bullets on that day was fearless, defiant, unheeding to well-intended admonitions on personal welfare and safety.
Caesar ruled Rome in a triumvirate including Pompey and Marcus Licinius Crassus for only one year. But his latter day comrade-in-death, Murtala Muhammed’s hold on power in Africa’s most populous country, Nigeria, along with General Olusegun Obasanjo and General Theophilus Danjuma, was even less; barely seven months. Worse still, Caesar, as great as he became in world’s history, died at just the age of 55. Regrettably, he was stabbed to death by a group of senators some of whom, like Marcus Brutus, were close political and personal associates. This happened whilst they were at a meeting of the Roman Senate on the said “Ides” of March (15 March). The conspiratorial foes, in a free-for-all, stabbed Caesar 23 times, making his listless body slump to death.
In the case of the slain Nigerian leader, he came down in death together with his Aide-de-Camp, Lieutenant Akintunde Akinsehinwa, in his black Mercedes Benz saloon car on 13th February 1976. The car in which he was riding, a lightly padded Mercedes Benz, 230.6, was vehemently ambushed on his way to his office at Dodan Barracks, which was the fortified military base from where Nigeria’s military rulers operated from 1966 to 1990s. (It was on 12th December, 1991 that the nation’s seat of power moved to the present Presidential Villa, Aso Rock, Abuja).

The killing of both military generals and statesmen, though thousands of years apart, was premised by the collaborators, debatably as acts to save the state. In particular, the shocking killing of Murtala, 42 years ago this week, was mourned bitterly, and bewailed in a manner worthy of a true nationalist by Nigerians, Africans and the global community. This was due to the fact that, though his regime was short-lived and fleecing, his vision, panache and direction were overarching and made great strides on both national and international matters. His appeal to many also received initial boost from the fact, that the overthrow of his erstwhile boss, General Yakubu Gowon, who had ruled Nigeria since July 29, 1966, was peaceful and devoid of violence. Facts now have it, that, in an era of fratricidal military coups and counter coups in Africa, he opted to edge out the then leader, through a palace coup. This occurred while the latter was attending Summit of African Heads of State under the aegis of the erstwhile Organization of African Union, (OAU), now known as African Union in Kampala, Uganda. General Gowon was actually billed to hand over the Chairmanship of the OAU to Gen Idi Amin Dada of Uganda at that 12th Summit of the body. Although Murtala served under Gowon as Minister of Communications, he had umbrage with his boss on issues bothering on perceived inability to fight corruption and indecision on return of the country to democracy and civilian rule. But then, these were rather familiar scripts and motifs for undemocratic political ascension to power; which curiously were often accepted in many African capitals, hook, line and sinker, like the proverbial Roman mob.

A TRANSFORMED CONSERVATIVEUntil becoming Head of State in 1975, Murtala Muhammed who had been enlisted into the Nigerian army in 1958, but was formally commissioned after completing the required military training in Nigeria, Ghana and at the prestigious Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst in England. It is worthy of mention that Sandhurst has kept a reputation as the elite institution for training both British and Commonwealth military top-cats. Its alumni include such global figures as Sir Winston Churchill, one-time British Prime Minister, General Hassan Katsina, Gen. Yakubu Gowon, Major Chukwuma Nzeogu, Gen. Fred Akufo and Gen. Akwasi Afrifa, the latter duo being from Ghana. Before his military career, he had attended the Barewa College, Zaria, which since its establishment in 1921, keeps the record of producing Nigerian leaders. These include pioneer Prime Minister, Tafawa Balewa, General Yakubu Gowon, President Shehu Shagari, President Umaru Musa Yar’adua and many of the country’s intelligentsia from northern Nigeria.
In the course of his military service, he had earned for himself a reputation as a conservative, ultra-northern and haughty person. In particular, he had been one of the Northern apparatchik that consolidated military rule in Nigeria. Indeed, he had been part of a small clique of hard-line military officers who insisted on taking their pound of flesh after the bloody January 1966 military coup, during which the cream of Northern political elite were assassinated. He was therefore among the front bench in the overthrow of Nigeria’s first military head of state, General Thomas Aguiyi-Ironsi, on 29th July 1966. Even more particular was the fact, that during the unfortunate Nigerian Civil War in which over three million lives were sadly lost, Murtala Muhammed was one of the military commanders that was in charge of the Second Division of the Nigerian Army. He had been accused of punitive military actions in the areas under his command, putting into action what some military officials called scotched-earth tactics: an unbleaching blight on his sterling stewardship. He is however reputed to have demonstrated unusual gallantry. By the time the war ended, he was handsomely rewarded as he rose to become a Brigadier General at just 33 years, a record which he still holds high in the annals of Nigerian Army.
Surprising however, Murtala Muhammed who had been considered sectional in his outlook to life, took a transformational and nationalistic poise when he became Head of State. This change included a more outgoing energetic and likable personality. Both within the country and around African continent, he became highly respected and strikingly influential. He improved on his personal charm, as well as communication and persuasive skills, thereby successfully earning tremendous admiration even from those who had hitherto found his way of life repugnant. Many Nigerians in particular thought he had good intentions, passionate and fully optimistic about the future of Nigeria. Indeed, this helped him to build a cult personality around himself in terms of support and admiration.

Murtala Mohammed quickly started a number of reforms riding on his larger-than-life image.

First were his series of public sector reforms, as he spared no time in correcting a number of worrisome national malaises, especially regarding public probity and governance. His massive public sector reforms were intended to restore order and transparency, as well as due diligence in the manner in which government businesses were being conducted.
Sadly however, he ended up sacking, unjustifiably, over 10,000 government workers and some of the best needed bureaucratic hands. The purge was widespread and to some extent disparate. Unfortunately, he did not allow time for an incisive analysis of the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats of the changes which he undertook. But on the flip side, many query that the decapitation of the Civil Service by precipitate removal of its best ever, sharply eroded sanctimonious traditions and ethos which bred service delivery, reward and integrity; these became a major blight on his sterling stewardship.

Next was his quick action at the time with respect to what the Nigerian community yearned for, that is, returning Africa’s most important country to civilian rule. Just few months after taking office, he quickly initiated programmes for returning the country to democratic governance. His idea was to bring about an eclipse of military dominance on national politics as a precursor to the consolidation of the democratic governance across Africa.

Accordingly, he came up on 18 October 1975, with a Constitution Drafting Committee (CDC), which was headed by Chief Rotimi Williams, Nigeria’s legal luminary and first Queen’s Counsel. Chief Williams was also the first Senior Advocate of Nigeria (a ranking which he shared with Dr Nabo Graham-Douglas, Former Attorney General of the Federation); having both been conferred SAN on 3rd April, 1975. Unfortunately, Murtala did not live long enough to receive the great work done by the CDC. Amongst other things, the CDC provided for formation of political parties on broad national lines and the desire that future leaders of Nigeria must receive 25% of vote cast in two-third of the states of the country. It also recommended that any future government must have a Minister from every state as a way of promoting national unity and harmony.

As a way of opening up a political space, it was also during the period of his regime, that the country’s state structure, which had moved from three regions in 1960 to four regions in 1963 and twelve state in 1967, was increased to nineteen states. On the economy, he undertook far-reaching reforms including the review of the Third National Development Plan (1975-1980).

These, many argued, helped set a process to improve the economic fortunes of Nigerians during the years following his short period in office. The success of his reforms was attributed to his “no nonsense” approach against corruption, which ensured that more funds and resources were available for government business. Public probity and accountability were raised to the extent that the word “with immediate effect” became part of the Nigerian socio-political psychic. In other respects, these reforms also led to the takeover of the hitherto privately-owned ‘Daily Times Newspaper’ of Nigeria and ‘New Nigerian Newspapers’. At the same time, he also ensured federal takeover of all universities in the country.

Another greatly enduring legacy to which Nigerians will always remember as a great landmark from his short period of governance, was the clear decision taken by him to relocate the federal capital from the city of Lagos from where it had been domiciled since 1914. Accordingly, he empanelled a high level committee to undertake and initiate study on moving the capital to a central location that was equidistant to all corners of Nigeria. This committee which was led by one of the county’s pioneer lawyers, Justice Akinola Aguda, who at a time served a justice of the Supreme Court of Nigeria, and later became Chief Justice of Botswana. Unfortunately, it was only in 1991, fifteen years after his death, that Gen. Muhammed’s dream of a new federal capital was realized in the official take-off of the city of Abuja.

Of all of Murtala’s short, but very inspirational stay in office, his impact on global politics remains recounted at a time when the thrust of Decolonisation and Fight against Apartheid Neo Colonialism were highest. He took a very strident stance against the Western world who vacillated on setting the continent free from the clutches of racism and minority rule. Although much of the continent was already becoming independent, the people of Southern Africa in particular, the Portuguese territories of Angola and Mozambique, though due for independence, had become thwarted by western powers. Although his angst over the continued jailing of Nelson Mandela was clearly unbidden, Angola in particular, was at the cusp of becoming free, led by the leftist Popular Movement for a Liberation of Angola (MPLA) was also of topmost priority. However, President Gerald Ford of America had made a clear stance of his objection for supporting that particular liberation group. On 7th January 1976, the American president had written to General Murtala Mohammed and a few other African leaders urging what they described as “friendly country of Nigeria in the spirit of friendship and cooperation” to tow the American line. President Ford stated inter alia,
“I wish you to see the MPLA as one of the legitimate factions of Angola to seek neither the destruction nor defeat of MPLA. But we do believe that it should not be allowed to assume total power by force of Soviet and Cuban arms. We hope a government of National Unity will emerge and we stand ready to provide reconstruction, assistance when that happens….”

Few days later, Gen. Muhammed who travelled to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia for the summit of the OAU to join other African Heads of State issued his bombshell entitled “Africa has Come of Age”. In a clear rebuttal, he directly replied President Ford as it were, to keep off from Africa. He insisted amongst other things, that: “Africa has come of age, it is no longer under the orbit of any extra continental power, it should no longer take orders from any country, however powerful. The fortunes of Africa are in our hands to make or to mar. For too long have we been kicked around; for too long have we been treated like adolescence who cannot discern the interest to act accordingly; for too long has it been presumed that the African needs external “experts” to tell him who are his friends and who are his enemies. The time has come when we should make it clear that we can decide for ourselves; that we know our own interests and how to protect those interests; that we are capable of resolving African problems without presumptuous lessons in ideological dangers which, more often than not, have no relevance for us, nor for the problems at hand.

That speech placed a death knell on the vacillations of both Africans and even the Western world on the independence of Angola led by the MPLA, which came about eventually on 11 November 1975. Sadly, General Murtala did not live long enough to see that day.

It was the great American human rights icon, Dr Martin Luther King Jr. who in his landmark speech stated that his dream for the United States of America was to see his children “live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character”. Gen Murtala’s life depicts what is said about most great men that “character is the moral strength to do the right thing even when it costs more than you will want to pay”. His impact on the Nigerian political landscape within a short period of time remains indelible by his integrity, fortitude, courage and forthrightness. Like Martin Luther King Jr., he did not live to see the Nigeria and Africa of his dreams but almost all his plans and visions have come to pass. Now 42 years after his demise, the effect of his positive attitude continues to reverberate in both Nigeria and the rest of Africa.

Gen Murtala’s final resting place is in the city of Kano, Nigeria.

Igali is a Fellow, Historical Society of Nigeria.


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