#OneNGWeekly (episode20): Life History Of Muritala Muhammed

Muritala Muhammed
 Birth & Early Stage

Murtala Muhammed was born in Kano on November 8, 1938. He attended Barewa College in Zaria. He began his military training in 1959 and was commissioned into the Nigerian army as a second lieutenant in 1961. Like so many Nigerian army officers of his generation including future Head of State Yakubu Gowon, he trained at the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst in England. Early in his career, Murtala was taught military tactics by an eloquent and intelligent Oxford University educated officer named Chukwuemeka Ojukwu. 

Unknowing that student will realise that one day, they would end up as protagonists on opposing sides of the battlefield.

In 1962, Murtala served as a member of the Nigerian led UN peacekeeping force in the Congo. That UN peacekeeping force was later commanded by Major-General Johnson Aguiyi-Ironsi, who would subsequently become Nigeria’s first military Head of State. Murtala specialised in the army’s signals corps and was stationed in Lagos where his Uncle: Inua Wada served as the Federal Government’s Defence Minister. The emotionally volatile Murtala first came to prominence after Nigeria suffered what was to prove the first of many military coups, on January 15th 1966. Had a group of young army Majors not overthrown the civilian government of Tafawa Balewa, most Nigerians would never have heard the name “Murtala Muhammed”. 

Murtala Role During 1960s Coups
Muhammed opposed the regime of Johnson Aguiyi-Ironsi which took power after a coup d'etat on January 15, 1966. Aguiyi-Ironsi, as (General Officer Commander) GOC of the Nigerian Army, brought normality back to the nation by imprisoning the coup makers and intimidating the federal cabinet into handing over the helms of government to him. However, many northerners saw this and the reluctance of Ironsi to prosecute the coup leaders, and the fact that the army was purportedly giving exceptional privileges to the coupist as an indication of Ironsi's support for the killings. Consequently, northern politicians and civil servants mounted pressure upon northern officers such as Muhammed to avenge the coup. In the night of July 29, 1966, northern soldiers at Abeokuta barracks mutinied, thus precipitating a counter-coup, which may very well have been in the planning stages. The counter-coup led to the installation of Lieutenant-Colonel Yakubu Gowon as Supreme Commander of the Nigerian Armed Forces, despite the intransigence of Muhammed who wanted the role of Supreme Commander for himself. However, as Gowon was militarily his senior, and finding a lack of support from the British and American advisors, he caved in. Gowon rewarded him by confirming his ranking (he had been an acting Lt. Colonel till then) and his appointment (Inspector of Signals).
Muritala Muhammed

A Colonels decided that three of their superior officers: Brigadiers Murtala Muhammed, Olusegun Obasanjo and Theophilus Danjuma would lead the new regime. They explained to the three Brigadiers that decisions of the Supreme Military Council would only be taken with the concurrence of a majority of its members. Murtala immediately objected and insisted that as Head of State, he should be given a free hand to govern unrestricted by his colleagues. After some calming words from Danjuma and Obasanjo, Murtala agreed to the Colonels’ proposal. However, in typically forthright manner, Murtala told the Colonels that once in the hotseat, he would not allow himself to be a stooge of, or be dictated to by, the officers who had got him there. Murtala made it clear that he would be independent, would govern the country as he saw fit and that nobody would push him around. The unspectacular but efficient Brigadier Olusegun Obasanjo (then the Minister of Agriculture) replaced Vice-Admiral Joseph Wey as the Chief of Staff, Supreme Headquarters and served as Murtala’s deputy. While Murtala provided the muscle and aggressive energy of the regime, Obasanjo was seen as the sedate and effective influence behind the scenes. Brigadier Danjuma replaced Major-General David Ejoor as the Chief of Staff, Army. On assumption of this post, its title was changed to “Chief of Army Staff” -the designation which has been used till today.

It was as Head of State that Murtala etched his name into Nigerian folklore. Yet it was clear from the outset that Murtala’s character and governing style would be a stark contrast to that of Gowon. While Gowon was diplomatic, conciliatory and cautious in his governing style, Murtala was brisk, volatile and displayed decisiveness with major issues that bordered on impulse. Gone was the methodical pace of Gowon’s administration. All of Murtala’s decisions were “with immediate effect”. In his almost legendary book “The Trouble With Nigeria”, Chinua Achebe tells the story of how on the first morning of Murtala’s regime, the notoriously tardy Lagos employees managed to find a way to get to work on time – beating the stifling traffic and transport problems which had always formed part of their standard excuse for being late for work. The new helsman’s ferocious reputation was such that Lagosians dared not cross him on his first day in office. Despite the fact that there were just as many vehicles on the road, Lagosians got to work on time for fear of offending the military strongman from Kano.

Muritala Muhammed

Nigerian Civil War and Role in the Asaba Massacre

During the Nigerian Civil War, Muhammed was General Officer Commanding (GOC) of the Nigerian Army's 2nd Division. This division was responsible for the legendary beating back of the Biafran Army from the midwestern region, as well as crossing the River Niger and linking up with the 1st Division, which was marching down from Nsukka and Enugu. Lieutenant Ishola Williams, an officer who served under then Colonel Muhammed alleged that Muhammed ordered the summary execution of Biafran prisoners of war. Professors Bird and Ottanelli in a study titled "The History and Legacy of the Asaba, Nigeria, and Massacres" document the mass murder of civilians (often referred to as the Asaba Massacre) by troops of the 2nd Division under Colonel Murtala Muhammed.

Muhammed's encounter with disaster during the war happened shortly after, as he attempted to cross the River Niger to Biafra. Despite the recommendation of his superiors at Army Headquarters in Lagos that he wait for the bridge, which had been blown up by the retreating Biafran forces, to be rebuilt, he insisted on a riverine crossing. Twice he was beaten back, but he steadfastly kept resolve and finally made it through on his third attempt. Shortly after this, Muhammed fed up with reprimands from Army HQ, decided to quit his command and left for an extended holiday in the United Kingdom, but not before threatening to resign his commission. His historic military feats during the war won him National acclaim and respect even from his adversaries.

Head of State

On July 30, 1975, Brigadier (later General) Muhammed was made head of state, when General Gowon was overthrown while at an Organization of African Unity (OAU) summit in Kampala, Uganda. Brigadiers Obasanjo (later Lt.General) and Danjuma (later Lt.General) were appointed as Chief of Staff, Supreme HQ and Chief of Army Staff, respectively. In the coup d'état that brought him to power he introduced the phrases "Fellow Nigerians" and "with immediate effect" to the national lexicon. In a short time, Murtala Muhammed's policies won him broad popular support, and his decisiveness elevated him to the status of a folk hero.


Murtala Muhammed was killed at the age of 37, along with his Aide-De-Camp (ADC), Lieutenant Akintunde Akinsehinwa in his black Mercedes Benz saloon car on, February 13, 1976 in an abortive coup attempt led by Lt. Col Buka Suka Dimka, when his car was ambushed while en route his office at Dodan Barracks, Lagos. The only visible sign of protection was a pistol carried by his orderly, therefore making his assassination an easy task. He was succeeded by the Chief of Staff, Supreme HQ Olusegun Obasanjo, who completed his plan of an orderly transfer to civilian rule by handing power to Shehu Shagari on October 1, 1979. Today, his portrait adorns the 20 Naira note and Murtala Muhammed International Airport in Lagos is named in his honor.

Wikipedia, NigerianBiography, Dawudu.com

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