General Murtala Ramat Muhammad
The first inkling that I had of anything occurring that was out of the ordinary was when a teacher entered our classroom to whisper a cache of words into the ears the teacher who was writing on the blackboard.
It might have been a geography class and the person instructing class 5B that morning of Friday the 13th at Command Children’s School, Ikeja may have been Miss Essien. She remained still as a look of concern came over her features.
The lesson resumed, but then another teacher entered to quietly exchange words in front of the class as we looked on in perplexity.
An announcement was soon made for all the pupils to gather in the assembly hall. We trudged there in orderly formation in our all-green uniforms which on this day would not be bearing the brunt of the wear and tear of children’s horseplay at our break times.
There would be no football today, no rolling around in the grass or jumping from the concrete edifices that seemed plentiful at our site, a second establishment of the formerly named Army Childrens’ School.
In the teeming assembly hall, the wall of sound quickly evaporated as our headmistress, the sternly and formidable Mrs. Kukoyi regretfully announced an astounding piece of news: school hours would not be going the full distance on this day.
We were we were grouped according to our standard transport arrangements. Those of whose parents served in the Nigerian Navy had a special school bus which every morning would make a journey from the Naval Dockyard in Apapa, stopping at a number of residential districts and military barracks before heading northwards onto our school which was situated within an army cantonment.
I remember it as something of a lengthy stay in the assembly hall before we embarked on our strange, almost surreal mid-day journey back to our homes. The roads were clear and the journey home exceptionally fast; this, a remarkable thing in the normally chaotic circumstances of Lagos city traffic. Something was definitely in the air. But what it was, I don’t recall being told either at school or in the bus.
No specific announcement had been made about the reason for this masterpiece of confusion. But at home it was finally mentioned to me that a military coup was underway and it was not certain who would emerge as the leader of the country.
The previous July, during the school holidays, a ‘bloodless’ coup had taken place. General Yakubu Gowon who had become the head of state back in 1966, had been overthrown while attending a Commonwealth nations summit in Kampala, the capital city of Uganda.
The import of a second coup occurring after only six months was not lost on my young mind. Nigeria was the as it is now a volatile country and as a current affairs-following and history-obsessed youngster, I was well acquainted with the fact that two army mutinies in 1966 had led to a protracted, bloody civil war which began in 1967 and ended in1970.
The cantonment on which our school was situated, I would learn later, had been a staging post in the macabre events of the second mutiny of 1966. This was the counter-coup staged by officers and men from the Northern Region and led by Lt. Colonel Murtala Muhammad who had succeeded General Gowon in 1975.
The Ikeja cantonment was one of the sites where the Notherners had seized the keys to the armouries and exacted what they considered to have been justified retribution against Eastern Region-originated soldiers for the earlier mutiny which had claimed a disproportionate amount of political and military figures from their region. The victims, drawn mainly from the Igbo ethnic group, were subjected to various acts of torture and summary execution.
From my window view on the bus heading home that mid-day, all had seemed quiet. I did not notice any tanks or armoured carriers or columns of troops at any point from our departing the cantonment or on the roads and flyways which led home.
At some point, as the day drew on into night, the news flittered through that General Muhammad had been ambushed and assassinated by a group of military officers earlier that morning while on his way to work.
This was shocking, frightful news. I remembered the morning just over a week earlier leaving home to wait for the school bus as my father sat in his naval uniform watching the loudly calibrated TV set while Muhammad delivered a national broadcast announcing his intention to create an additional seven new states to Nigeria’s twelve. My father had worked with Muhammad a few years earlier while posted to London as the Deputy Defence Adviser at the Nigerian High Commission.
Muhammad had been a genuinely popular Nigerian leader. His style reeked of simplicity. He dispensed with the extravagant ritual of travelling with motor cycle outriders and sirens blaring. The Mercedes Benz staff cars utilised by senior military officers were by edict replaced by the more modest Peugeot 504.
He projected a determined, no-nonsense approach to the affairs of the state. This was encapsulated in his inaugural address to the nation when he asserted that “this government will not tolerate indiscipline. This government will not condone abuse of office.”
He was bold in his policies such as the sacking of thousands of civil servants to promote efficient governance and the retrenchment of many soldiers of Nigeria’s heavily swollen and unsustainable post-civil war army.
“Gone are the days when we will ever bow to any so-called super power,” he defiantly intoned at an Organisation of African Unity conference held in Ethiopia in January of 1976.
Africa had come of age Muhammad had insisted, and his support of the Soviet-backed, Marxist MPLA party of Angola was hugely influential among the African nations, although it brought with it expressions of concern from the United States. Nigeria’s support for the frontline states which bordered Apartheid South Africa became more pronounced under his regime.
But as I grew older and learned more of him there were disturbing aspects to the man who I had grown to idolise. The second mutiny which he had led in July 1966 had witnessed the slaughter of a great many soldiers and civilians from the Eastern Region.
During the ensuing civil war, it is acknowledged that the massacre of civilians in Asaba, a part of the former Mid-Western Region which was populated by ethnic Igbos had been conducted by troops under his command.
There were claims that for all his later battles against Nigerian corruption, he had enriched himself by lootings which had occurred in the Civil War. Muhammad filed a libel action which was pending at the time of his death.
Yet, the reputation of Muhammad appears largely undimmed now as it was in the aftermath of his death. The international airport at Lagos, not far from my old school, is named in his honour. And the 20 Naira note of the Nigerian currency is adorned with his portrait.
I recall seven days of national mourning during which the regular pattern of TV programming was cancelled and mournful music was played on largely static TV broadcasts which bore his portrait and later pictures of the arrival of his body in his native Kano for burial according to Islamic rites.
I had been greatly excited by the visit of Pele, the legendary Brazilian footballer, to Nigeria. He had been due to play in a special match on Saturday, February 14th between the nations two top teams, Enugu Rangers and the Shooting Stars of Ibadan. The idea, if I correctly recall, had been to play for both sides during each half.
In the following weeks came the public executions. These were common enough spectacles for Nigerians during the post-civil war crack down on armed robbery when the convicted were tied to posts behind which were placed sand-filled drums and shot to death by a firing squad at Lagos’ Bar Beach.
The first batch of those who were condemned to death by a military tribunal included Major General Illiya Bisalla, the minister of defence, whose features were mutilated by a team of overzealous executioners. The second, in May, featured the key putchist Lt. Colonel Buka Suka Dimka, an officer of the Army Physical Training Corps, who had made an eccentrically-laced broadcast which purported to impose a curfew from “dusk to dawn”.
After the coup had been crushed Dimka had been apprehended, it was alleged, while slightly the worse for drink and in the company of a “lady of ill-repute.”
In the coming months, there would be numerous commemoration items: mugs, tea sets, plates, photographs and the like. I wore a much cherished T-shirt with his uniformed visage. A couple of years later as a secondary school pupil, I would make a trip to the national museum where his bullet-ridden black Mercedes Benz had been put on display.
What I came to understand as time developed was how important a figure such as Murtala Muhammad can be to a relatively young, turbulent and fractious nation such as Nigeria. If he himself had been at the centre of the ugly and destructive series of tribally motivated bloodlettings in the 1960s, the purposeful course of his brief time in power may have been partly motivated by a need to make amends.
There were mistakes no doubt. He was by nature an impatient man and for some who had known him intimately, his war against indiscipline was tinged with deep irony because they detected in aspects of his character a lack of discipline.
What his guiding principles were in terms of an overarching philosophical viewpoint are not known. He was trained in the field of soldiering and it was the accident of Nigeria’s history that he was earmarked to play a key role in its political evolution.
But from his deeds including the decision to weaken the hold over Nigeria by the three old regions, we can assume he was a nationalist by sentiment, and his role in defying the wishes of the United States over Angola, that he was pan-Africanist in his foreign agenda.
It is only within the realms of imagination and guesswork that we can contemplate on what he might have achieved had he lived and applied himself longer to his role as the leader of a nation.
But it is fair enough to say that Nigerians have often felt that all the leaders who have followed in his wake have lacked the sort of purpose, the resolve and dynamism required to take the troublesome Nigerian bull by it horns.
The more reason why I ruefully remember the day Muhammad died thirty-eight years on.
(c) Adeyinka Makinde (2014)
Adeyinka Makinde is a writer based in London.