He spent two-hundred-and-one days in government. But those days were like months and many thought he ruled for more than six years. Even now, his name is still respected, and many Nigerians are of the opinion that his government, so far, was the best in Nigeria. Probably because of the short period he stayed in power, or because he was just the best among the pack. But the fact remains: no one forgets him.
General Murtala Ramat Mohammed was born on November 8, 1938, to Risqua Muhammed and Uwani Rahamat in the ancient and historic city of Kano. He had his early education in Kano and finished up at Government (now Barewa) College, Zaria in 1957.
General Mohammed enlisted into the Nigerian Army and was sent to Britain for training at Sandhurst Royal Academy as an officer cadet. His other advanced training courses and successes paved way for his rapid promotion in the rank and file of the Nigerian Army. Trained as a regular combatant at Sandhurst, he later took courses in Army Signals. He was commissioned as a 2nd lieutenant in the Nigerian Army in 1961 and became a lieutenant seven months later. In 1962, he was drafted to Congo as part of the United Nations Peacekeeping Force. Upon returning to Nigeria, he served as the aide-de-camp (ADC) to Dr. Mathew Koyejo Majekodunmi, the Western Region Administrator put in place following the declaration of a state of emergency. In May 1962, he was later appointed the Officer-in-Chief, First Brigade Signal Troops Kaduna after which he went again to Catterick School of Signals for an advanced course in telecommunications. Twenty eight months after he was commissioned, he was promoted and became a captain and appointed to oversee a signals unit at the Brigade Headquarters, Kaduna.
He rose to the rank of Brigadier in 1971. After a year’s course at Joint Services Staff College in England, he took his first political appointment as Commissioner for Communications in 1974 which he combined with his military duties. It was after this he became the head of state.
Brigadier Murtala Ramat Muhammad had not wanted to be head of state. But he had been the choice of the coup planners known then as the Junta, since April when a few of them, distraught over the state of the country, began to conceive the idea of the coup. When after the completion of the coup on the 29th of July 1975, the Junta leaders: Colonels Joe Garba, Abdullahi Mohammed and Shehu ‘Yar’adua offered the leadership of the Nigerian nation to Murtala.
However, it was not an easy task because it was in the plan of the junta to control whoever they put in power, reading the writing on the wall, Murtala flared up telling them to go to hell with their offer, he will never be a figure head, in as much as they wanted him as the head of state, he would rule the nation the best way he deemed fit.
The junta had offered the leadership first to Brigadier Obasanjo and then to Brigadier T. Y. Danjuma, but both declined; supporting Murtala as the obvious choice and implored the Junta to do all they could to persuade him. When Murtala finally accepted to be head of state, nobody knew that he was making a pact with history and destiny to make the supreme sacrifice for the Nigerian nation 201 days later.
Murtala jolted a sleeping nation into life. The vibrancy in his voice was arresting. The fire in his eyes charmed and awed the nation. In contrast to the extravagant style of Gowon, Murtala adopted a low profile policy; the 504 replaced Mercedes Benz as the official government car. Only the head of state rode a Mercedes Benz: not bullet proof and not the 600 series type.
For the 200 days Murtala was head of state, he lived in the house he had occupied as the Director of Army Signal Corps. As a matter of fact, He drove to work at the Dodan Barracks every morning from his house accompanied by his driver, his orderly and his ADC without any convoy, sirens or outriders. No head of state had done that before and none did it after him.
After his assumption of office, Murtala shunned the sirens and convoy and rode alone with his driver, from Lagos to Kano, a journey of more than one thousand kilometers, in his personal car. For the first time after a sagging administration, the past was gone and the new government was firm, the pace was fast and principled.
The populace could say or conclude that the government of Murtala was the best among his predecessors but this also could not be justified because he had just spent 201 days in office before he was killed.
He was a no nonsense man unlike Gowon, he sacked a lot of incompetent civil servants, he brought the corrupt to book, During his tenure, civil servants geared up and performed their tasks for the fear of getting sacked.
Murtala had most of the brilliant members of the armed forces like General Olusegun Obasanjo, Ibrahim Babagida, Muhammadu Buhari Major Generals Alani Akinrinade who were competent and ready to be disciplinarians like their head of state.
After the coup, Obasanjo performed the unpleasant task of inviting the former civilian governors to inform them of their loss of jobs/positions. On August 1, 1975, the four former governors, which were; Brigadier Oluwole Rotimi of the Western state, Col. David Bamigboye of Kwara state, Police Commissioner Joseph Gomwalk of Benue-Plateau state and Brigadier Jacob Esuene of the South-Eastern state under the Gowon government moved out of their official residence in various parts of the federation and were replaced by military personnel. During their sworning-in-ceremony, Murtala warned them of any short-coming of their predecessors and the consequence that would emerge if they failed to perform their numerous duties as administrators. The new government had sought to bring change in the national life.
So far, the revolution remained incomplete, and for the revolution to be complete there must be a clean house. The new leaders had to start afresh with a crop of permanent secretaries and redefinition of their parameters of power, to tackle the numerous problems facing the nation. Murtala adopted two methods: he set up different commissions of inquires to probe the activities of the state governors, commissioners and permanent secretaries both at the state and federal levels,who served in the previous regime. The panels also probed the activities of government-sponsored projects, most of the governors and many commissioners were found guilty of the crime. For instance, the report produced revelations in which all but two of the former state military governors and the administrator of the East Central state abused their offices. The administrator, left undone most of the massive reconstruction of the civil war damage. It was reported that he failed to utilize N3 million to resettle war refugees, an amount which the previous government reportedly made available to the East Central government three years earlier for that purpose.
Another aspect of the corrupt regime took place in the Ministry of Defence which had entered into contracts to import massive quantitiy of cement into the country. Indeed , to have made the probe results public was itself a major achievement. In his first broadcast as the head of state, he announced the set up of a panel for the creation of more states, the panel, with the committee of four who were: Dr A.D Yahaya, Mr. S.D. Lar, Brigadier Godwin G. Ally and Mr. C. Audifferen, with Dr P.D. Cole of the Cabinet Office as its secretary, started work almost immediately.
The new panel was set up to advise on the creation of more states, if it finds this necessary, to decide on the boundaries of such states and their capitals’ viability. This exercise, beside proving political stability also brought government nearer to the people, the creation of more state thus further decentralized the administration’s machineries and provided a politically stable nation which could guarantee the security of the individual.
The exercise contributed in unifying the nation during the period when Nigeria was on the brink of fragmentation. The formation of the panel generated confidence in both the minorities and federalists.
After he came into office, Murtala noticed some ills inherent in the old constitution, which made its operation prone to uncertainty; he said, “it is evident that some of our difficulties may have been created by political leaders who operated the old constitution.” He, thus on October 4, 1975, set up a new Constitution Drafting Committee under the chairmanship of Chief F.R.A Williams, a distinguished Nigerian lawyer, who accepted the challenge to be the brain behind the panel.
The creation of more states had uprooted one of the ills the old constitution carried as a baggage, it eliminated the fear of domination of parts of the country by another section and the Constitution Drafting Committee was one of the vital achievements of the administration of Murtala.
There was deliberation on moving the capital of this nation from Lagos. Another panel the Murtala set up was to probe the dual role of Lagos as a federal and state capital.The panel, with Mr. Justice T. A Aguda as Chairman, included Col. Monsignor Martin, Mr. M Tai Solarin, Chief Owen Fiebai, Mr. Muhammed Isma, Professor O.K Ogan and Dr. Ajato Gandonu. The committee were given up to December 31, 1975, to submit its recommendation to the Federal Government.
On August 2, the administration had the courage to cancel the 1973 census, his government announced that the 1973 census, if published will not command the general acceptance throughout the country and had to be cancelled. The fear of domination in Nigeria had been centered around the question of population of the different ethnic groups and more important, the size of the regions.
Not only that, he also postponed the Second World Black and African Festival of the Arts and Culture (FESTAC) and this had the support of the generality of the Nigerian public.
On August 5,1975, 25 new commissioners were appointed to the Federal Executive Council and allocated ministerial responsibilities. Out of the 25 commissioners, 13 were members of the armed forces while 12 were civilians. Five of the 13 members of the armed forces were former federal commissioners, three of them retaining their former posts. Lt. Col. (Dr) A. A. Ali retained his post as Commissioner for Education; Col. M. 1. Wushlshi remained the Commissioner for Industries; while Bragadier H.E.O Adefope became the Commssioner Health. Col. Dan Suleimen (former Commsioner for Special Duties) became the Commissioner for Works. Others were : Brigadier I. D. Bisala, former Commandant of the Nigerian Defence Academy, Kaduna, became the Commissioner for Defence; Brigadier J. J. Oluleye, the former General Officer Commanding (GOC) Second Division of the Nigerian Army was appointed the Commissioner for Establishments, Colonel Joseph Nauven Garba, who became the Commissioner for External Affairs, was until his appointment, the Commander of the Brigade of Guards. Brigadier M. Shuwa, the new Commissioner for Trade ,was the General Officer Training of the First Division, before becoming the General Staff Officer, Supreme Headquarters. The new Information Commissioner, Brigadier- I. B. M. Haruna, was the GOC, of the First Division and Brigadier Olufeml Olutoye, the Commissioner for Youth and Sports, was Commandant of the Nigerian Army Resettlement Centre, Oshodi. Commander O. P. Fingesi took over from Chief Anthony Enahoro as the Commissioner for Special Duties (Black Arts Festival). Lt -Col S. M Ya adua took over from Captain Olumide among others.
On August 13, 1975, Murtala, while addressing the inaugural meeting of the new Federal Executive Council announced an anti-inflation task force to wage war against inflation in the country. His government bravely fought inflation.He said the anti-inflation task force was to examine the current tendencies in the economy and identify the causes and recommend appropriate solution.
Many people in the eastern region had abandoned their landed property during the civil war. The South-Eastern and the Rivers state governments set up bodies which managed the abandoned property in the state while the East Central State government didn’t consider them as abandoned but vacant premises. On September 8, 1975, a five-man panel was also set up headed by Colonel S. Daramola to look into the issue of abandoned property in the three Eastern states. Panic gripped officials of the APA in Rivers State following the set up of this panel.
By middle of August, he had also set up a panel under the chairmanship of Alhaji A.A Baba Gana to look into the issue and future of Interim Common Service Agency (ICSA) and Eastern States Interim Asset and Liabilities Agency (ESIALA) which he recommended must be scrapped.
He had made effort on the diversion of traffic in Lagos through re-routing on the Island and Mainland and also put in plan for the decongestion of the ports.
The Times reported on September 12, 1975, that the Federal Government, after appropriate consultations with the Federal Public Service Commission and the Head of Civil Service, removed officers from service with immediate effect for lack of competence. With this show of discipline, civil servants intensified their efforts in the tasks before them.
After the probes, over 10,000 public servants lost their jobs, properties were confiscated due to inefficiency, abuse of office, corruption, incompetence, poor health, malpractice, and in some cases old age. It had never happened before and it is yet to happen again.
His government, on January 5, 1976, set up a panel to look into rents throughout the country with a view to harmonise them with the existing housing situation. The panel headed by the then chairman of Lever Brothers, Dr Michael Omolayole, was expected to submit its report on the 31st of March 1976.
He reappraised the Nigerian foreign policy, stressing a “Nigeria first” orientation in line with OPEC price guidelines that was to the disadvantage of other African countries. Nigeria became “neutral” rather than “nonaligned” in international affairs. This shift in orientation became apparent with respect to Angola. Nigeria had worked with the OAU to bring about a negotiated reconciliation of the warring factions in the former Portuguese colony, but late in 1975, Murtala Mohammed announced Nigeria’s support for the Soviet-backed Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola, citing South Africa’s armed intervention on the side of the rival National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (União Nacional para a Indepêndencia Total de Angola–UNITA).
On January 11, 1976, he emphasized at the extraordinary summit conference of the OAU now African Union (AU) in Addis Ababa that “the MPLA is the most dynamic, most nationalistic movement, representing the interest of the Angolan people, because it possessed the attributes of an effective government.
Murtala had made an impressive speech during the Addis Ababa summit; he had warned his fellow African heads of state that Angola was merely the excuse for those who did not want to reconcile themselves to the realities of the new era.
“Let us therefore make no mistake”, he emphasised “about the problem which confronts us at this session: it is not the question of a simple solution in the African tradition.
“It is a much deeper danger of extra-Africa powers in collusion with the inhuman and obnoxious apartheid regime in Pretoria trying to frustrate the will of a people, who, having sustained a heroic struggle against a most brutal colonialist repression, are in the threshold of a glorious dawn of national self-determination. If the colonialists succeed, then our hopes for Southern Africa would have been dashed”.
He stated categorically that “Africa is no longer under the orbit of any super power, Africa is for Africans to make or mar……” Murtala’s dynamic foreign policy was largely responsible for the respect Nigeria earned as “a Big Brother” among sister African nations and many recognized liberation movements. He reappraised our foreign policy.
The realignment of Murtala strained Nigeria’s relations with the United States, which argued for the withdrawal of Cuban troops and Soviet advisers from Angola.
All the probes and panels of General Murtala became necessary for the efficient running of the affairs of government. His war against corruption began to work miraculously that even the general public could attest to it.
For instance, there was an incident back then involving a man who committed a traffic offence and was arrested, the offender offered the policeman 20 naira as bribe, as reported, the policeman shook his head and said “look, mister, this is Muhammad’s regime, if you ‘chop’, you ‘quench’ I don’t want to be retired”
The offender still persisted that bribery had been the usual way to escape an offence, he increased it to 30 naira and he remarked that “If you don’t take it, I am sure your boss at the station will be only be too glad to take half of it”
The policeman replied him saying “that’s where you are wrong, mister, things have changed, just as they are watching us, we are also watching them. Boss or no boss, anyone caught ‘chopping’ is going to be punished”
That was how he disciplined and cleaned the nation to a major extent.
On February 3, 1976, Murtala addressed the nation. In his last major speech, he announced the decision of the Supreme Military Council on the outcome of assets investigation of some former public officers, abandoned property in the three Eastern states, location of capital and creation of more states and he emphasized “the spirit of give and take”, the need for sacrifice which was the song he sang during his short stay in office.
His concern for Nigeria, Nigerians and humanity was immeasurable, Murtala was determined to do something concrete to achieve his objective of creating “a new and great country that will cater for the needs of its people and foster its hopes and aspirations”
But his life was cut short. And the beat stopped. How was Murtala killed? Read The Dimka coup: the coup that killed Murtala Muhammed in the next edition of Historical Flashback on 28 August 2013.