Despite occupying a strategic position in the annals of Nigerian history, the memory of late military Head of State, General Murtala Mohammed, seems to be fading in the people’s memory.
Last week Thursday, July 30, 2015 was just like another day as Nigerians went about their normal routines. Even the military, government and the political sectors feigned ignorance about the importance of that day in the history of Nigeria. But the day marked the anniversary of a major political landmark in the Nigeria.
On that date, it was exactly 40 years when the late General Murtala Mohammed, in a military coup, sacked the nine year old government of General Yakubu Gowon.
Although the regime was relatively short, but its contribution towards the sustenance of Nigeria’s unity cannot be over emphasised, but last week, the date passed without its significance mentioned as the nation seemed too busy to remember Mohammed.
During the Nigerian civil war, he was General Officer Commanding (GOC) of the Nigerian Army’s 2nd Division, which beat back the Biafran Army from capturing the mid-western region, as well as crossing the River Niger.
He took decisions that were in defiance to superior orders when the war was on and he encountered problems as a result. First, was when he attempted to cross the River Niger to Biafra against the recommendation of his superiors at the Army Headquarters in Lagos that suggested that he should wait until the bridge that was blown off by Biafran forces was rebuilt. But he insisted on a riverine crossing and suffered causalities.
He was beaten back twice but due to his relentlessness. He eventually made it on his third attempt. His gallantry and historic military feats during the civil war won him national respect and it was recognised even among his adversaries. But despite their gallantry, the 2nd Division contended with the allegation of extra-judicial killings when an Army Lieutenant under the then Colonel Muhammed alleged that he ordered the summary execution of Biafran prisoners of war.
Brigadier Muhammed became the Head of State when General Yakubu Gowon was overthrown while attending an Organisation of African Unity (OAU) summit in Kampala, Uganda. It was then that Brigadiers Olusegun Obasanjo and Theophilus Danjuma (both eventually became Generals) were appointed as Chief of Staff, Supreme Headquarter and Chief of Army Staff, respectively.
It is still on record that it was during his coup d’état that the phrases ‘Fellow Nigerians’ and ‘with immediate effect’ were scripted into the Nigerian political dictionary. His administration came up with policies that won him popular support. He was decisive about what he intended to achieve and he attained the status of hero of the masses, particularly as regards his anti-corruption stance.
Though his regime was relatively too short to give room for proper evaluation of his anti-corruption campaigns but as the incumbent President, Mahammadu Buhari, he was regarded as a leader with zero tolerance for fraud. He came up with a comprehensive review of the Third National Development Plan. Concerned about inflation, which money he considered the main setback to the economy, he moved to cut over bloated contracts
Students of history would be able to draw catalogue of analogy between the Mohammed administration and the current Buhari administration in terms circumstances that brought them into power, their anti-corruption drive and far reaching policies that were aimed at repositioning the country among developed nations.
When Mohammed took over power, all the twelve military governors that served under Gowon were retired, he ordered a probe into their conduct in office and ten of the twelve were found to have illegally enriched themselves while in government. Apart from Shehu Shagari and Ali Monguno, all Gowon’s civilian ministers were also found guilty of corrupt enrichment and were stripped of illegally obtained assets.
Likewise, no fewer than 10,000 public officials and employees were dismissed without benefits, on accounts of age, health, incompetence, or malpractice. The massive purge affected the civil service, judiciary, police, armed forces, diplomatic service, public corporations, and universities. Quite a number of them faced trials on charges of corruption. Though, most of the ill-gotten assets seized by Murtala were returned in later years by the General Ibrahim Babangida’s administration for unexplainable reasons in what some considered as indication of the disapproval of his quest to rid Nigeria of corruption. Murtala was assassinated in his car on February 13, 1976 at the age of 37, along with his Aide-De-Camp (ADC), Lieutenant Akintunde Akinsehinwa in his black Mercedes Benz saloon car in an abortive coup led by late Lt. Col Buka Suka Dimka. He was succeeded by General Obasanjo, who actualised his planned orderly transfer to civilian rule by handing power to former civilian President, Alhaji Shehu Shagari, on October 1, 1979. To honour Mohammed, his portrait was put on the 20 Naira note and the Lagos International Airport was named after him.
Worried about the seeming negligence of the former leader, the current media aide to President Buhari, Alhaji Garba Shehu in an article titled: ‘Family Kills Murtala Muhammed again,’ expressed concerns that on Wednesday, February 13, 2013, which was a “Murtala Day”, being the 37th anniversary of the gruesome killing of the respected Nigerian leader, “the day passed with barely a whimper.”
“The family, which runs a foundation in his name, kept mute. Not a single event was held in his memory. No messages or newspaper pull-outs, no speeches, no essays, no editorials, no lectures, no symposia to remind the younger generations of the greatness of this leader who, in the view of many, is only next to the legendary Nelson Mandela on the continent. On that day, all I saw was a tail piece in the back page of The Nation, a full page in the new, vibrant Hausa Newspaper, Rariya, published by Dr. Aliyu Modibbo Umar and a short commemorative statement from the State House, Abuja,” Shehu bemoaned.
He would rather Nigerians go back to those good old days when the Murtala Day was marked with seminars held across the country, books published on the occasion; scholars revising his insights, thoughts and actions to determine what had flawed and what endured. He also wished personal or intimate accounts of associates, family and relatives, rendering compelling narratives of Murtala from his native Kano; testimonials from mates in school, college, the Army and at the pinnacle of his career where he held sway as Head of State and Commander-in-Chief.
According to him, while Mohammed is being relegated to the background in the memory of Nigerians, some other leaders of more, equal or even far lesser pedigree are celebrated year-in-year-out.
“You don’t have to look far to see and feel what veteran journalists in Western Nigeria make of Adekunle Fajuyi or of Obafemi Awolowo by the Awolowo Foundation. Surely, the reader must be familiar with the Anyiam-Osigwe Annual Lecture series and the Nnamdi Azikiwe Lecture and Awards. In the North, we celebrate the Sardauna, Sir Ahmadu Bello, General Yakubu Gowon, Shehu Musa Yar’Adua and many others.
“Murtala rises above many or all of these celebrities, especially in the light of his epic struggle for the decolonisation of Angola, Namibia, Zimbabwe, South Africa and the Saharawi Arab Republic. Murtala’s leadership of Africa’s biggest and richest country in his time was marked by genuine advocacy for the dignity and honour of the African. That was why it was supported by all freedom-loving people all over the world. At home in Nigeria, Murtala taught citizens to place national integrity and national interest above self. “The fact that Africans still don’t have equal rights in the global economic and political systems suggests that Murtala’s thoughts and struggle are as relevant today as they were in the 70s,” he stated.
Though July 30 marked the date he took over power and not the date he was killed, it was still enough to remember it in the annals of Nigerian political history, but considering the passion with which Shehu had lamented his negligence and the fact that in August 1975, he appointed President Buhari as Governor of the North-Eastern State, to oversee social, economic and political improvements in the state, one would expect that the Murtala legacies will be relived again.
There is however a glimpse of hope that he would be remembered next year by the foundation that was set up in his name, the Murtala Mohammed Foundation, which is run by his daughter, Mrs. Aisha Muhammed-Oyebode, as CEO and former President Obasanjo as the chairman of the Board of Trustees.
Other members of the board of trustees of the MMF are Lt. Gen. Theophilus Y. Danjuma (GCON) – Vice Chairman; General Ibrahim Babangida (GCFR) – Deputy Chairman; his widow, Mrs. Ajoke Muhammed- Vice Chairman; his son, Mr. Risqua Mohammed – Member and Alhaji Ahmadu Yaro – Member.
The MMF has long been recognised as a frontline advocate of democracy, education, human rights, women empowerment, disaster relief and betterment of the lives of Africans. The mission of the organisation is to improve the living conditions of Africans by contributing to reduction of poverty and elimination of conflict, while promoting self-reliance and self-fulfillment.
According to an inside source in the foundation, there are plans to commemorate February 13, 2016, which marks the 40th anniversary of his demise in office with a series of events and initiatives.