Murtala Muhammad: A dauntless cove

Africa Zainab Sulaimon
Murtala Muhammad

The coup that took the lives of Ahmadu, Tafawa, and many others (majorly northerners) created chaos leading to hold on democracy. The revered leaders of the North were all gone overnight. Only two things became an alternative for the northerners – justice or counteraction. The coup plotters made use of many soldiers from Murtala’s Signals without his knowledge. This became a source of immense embarrassment to him and it played a crucial role in retaliating by mobilizing the northern soldiers with sentiments to prepare for a counter-coup in July that year.

More so, the provocations against the northerners including mockery of the dead leaders, automatic relegation to the bottom of the civil service in terms of pay, and the inability by the government in power to bring the perpetrators of the coup to book, were also factors that preempted the counter-coup.

Life and times of Murtala Muhammad

Murtala Muhammad was born 8th of November, 1938 in Kano, Nigeria. From a lineage proficient with the Islamic Jurisprudence, he also attended Quranic classes in the evenings after school. He was educated at Cikin Gida elementary school which was located inside the Emir’s palace. He continued his education at the Barewa college and obtained his school certificate in 1957. During his days at college, he was a member of the Cadet Corps and was captain of shooting. He moved on, after college, to join the Nigerian Army in 1958. He was trained at the Sandhurst Royal Military Academy in England.

Murtala was an altruistic, “no-nonsense” and quite a rancorous man. His life, career-wise, was loaded with a lot of accomplishments, amongst which includes:

  •  2nd Lieutenant in 1961
  •  Member of the Nigerian-led United Nations Peacekeeping Force in the Congo in 1962
  •  ADC to the administrator of the Western Region
  •  Officer-in-Chief of the First Brigade Signal Troops in Kaduna in 1963
  •  Major and Officer Commanding 1 Signal Squadron in Apapa Lagos in 1964
  •  Lieutenant Colonel under Ironsi’s regime but it didn’t make Murtala happy nor stop him from avenging the deaths of the slain northern leaders

His role in civil war

  •  General Officer Commanding (GOC) when the civil war began
  •  Colonel in 1968
  •  Brigadier in October 1971, after the civil war, only at 33 years of age
  •  Federal Commissioner for Communications in August 1974
  •  Sworn in as the 3rd Military&4th Head of State of Nigeria on 30th July, 1975
  •  Nigeria became neutral in international affairs
  •  Determination to reduce government spending on public sector development projects
  •  Encouragement of the expansion of the private sector into areas dominated by public sector corporations
  •  Invention of the words “with immediate effect” and “Fellow Nigerians” into the Nigerian Political Vocabulary
  •  Retirement of anyone who was senior to any member of the new regime
  •  Tackled Corruption effectively as the Head of State, dismissing and retiring over 10,000 public officials on the grounds of widespread corruption
  •  Establishment of 7 new states to the previous 12 states
  •  Relocated the capital of the country to Abuja from Lagos
  •  Planned the structure for Nigeria to return to Democratic rule

His assassination

Murtala can be considered an element of desired change by many, but unfortunately, he had the shortest reign in ruling Nigeria. Just when it clocked his 200th day in the office, in the usual routine, he got into his car with his driver, ADC, and orderly staff. On their way to attend the day’s business at the Dodan Barracks Ikoyi, they got stuck in the usual traffic. Without suspecting anything, a group of Soldier-Assassins walked over to the Mercedes Benz and sprayed it with a surfeit of bullets without showing mercy. Murtala, alongside his driver and ADC, were killed. His orderly staff was terribly injured. All conspirators including the Soldier-Assassins were later caught, interrogated, and executed by firing squad in May 1976.

Some gripping facts about the life of Murtala Muhammad

  • His regime was the shortest in the history of Nigeria spanning from 30th July 1975 to 13th February 1976 with a failed coup attempt.
  • The Mercedes Benz in which he was executed still lies at the National Museum, Onikan, Lagos, with the bullet holes and bloodstains still visible.
  • Even though some found his life to be a bit controversial in terms of being good and vengeful at the same time, he wasted no time in doing what he thought was best for the nation.
  •  At only 37, he remains the youngest to have attained such rank in the Nigerian Army and the youngest Nigerian Head of State to die in office.
  •  One of the busiest airports in Africa, The Murtala Muhammad International Airport, Lagos, is named after him in his honour.
  •  His portrait adorns the 20 naira Nigerian banknote, making it the only banknote with a military official on it and if not, the most beautiful.
  •  There is a “Murtala Muhammad way” in almost every major capital city in Nigeria.

(Written by Zainab Sulaimon)

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