Today marks 42 years since General Murtala Ramat Muhammed was assassinated in Lagos. Understandably, Murtala represents different things to different people. One thing stands out; his six months reign as Head of State of the Federal Republic Of Nigeria remains indelible in our history.
Murtala Muhammed was born on 8 November 1938 to the family of Risqua Muhammed and Uwani Rahamat. He attended Cikin Gida and Gidan Makama primary schools in Kano, the proceeded to the famous Government College (now Barewa College) in Zaria, (one of the elite schools of the Northern Nigeria). He began his military training in 1959 and was commissioned into the Nigerian army as a second lieutenant in 1961. He also trained at the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst in England. Murtala married Hafsat Ajoke, a Yoruba woman with Fulani roots in 1963. The marriage was blessed with six children.
To many, Murtala was a true son of Africa, he had a clear direction of where he wanted Africa to be and how he wanted Africans to be seen and accepted by the rest of the world. His famous speech at the OAU summit on the 11th of January 1976 made him one of the most respected leaders of the time. For him, freedom was (and still is) what Africa needs, freedom from western colonization and hegemony.
The speech reads in part: “Africa has come of age. It is no longer under the orbit of any extra-continental power. It should no longer take orders from any country, however powerful. The fortunes of Africa are in our hands to make or to mar. For too long have we been kicked around: for too long have we been treated like adolescents who cannot discern their interests and act accordingly.
For too long has it been presumed that the African needs outside ‘experts’ to tell him who are his friends and who are his enemies. The time has come when we should make it clear that we can decide for ourselves; that we know our own interests and how to protect those interests; that we are capable of resolving African problems without presumptuous lessons in ideological dangers which, more often than not, have no relevance for us, nor for the problem at hand.”
Some conspiracy theorists have propounded that certain sections of that speech signed his death warrant. Especially delivering such a speech at a time it wasn’t fanciful to speak against the western hegemony. Ramat was a strong believer of Africans for Africa.
Brigadier (later General) Murtala Muhammed became the head of state on July 30, 1975, in a bloodless coup d’état. It is to his credit the phrases, “Fellow Nigerians”, “with immediate effect” and “compulsory retirement with or without benefit” found their way to the Nigeria lexicon.
His policies and actions won him broad popular support, and his decisiveness of critical national issues elevated him to the status of a folk hero. One of his first steps was the cancellation of the controversial 1973 census, which was believed in several quarters to have been “written” in favour of northern Nigeria. He reverted to the usage of the 1963 census as the official figure with which Nigeria is known and official figure to be used in Government circuit.
Murtala Muhammad was described by many as a man who didn’t believe in formalities. Throughout his days as the Head of State, he maintained a low profile policy; little surprise that he lived in the same house he had occupied as Director of Army Signal Corps and drove to work at the Dodan Barracks every morning from his house with no siren, convoy nor outriders.
Muritala was reported to have shunned the sirens and convoy and rode alone with his driver, from Lagos to Kano in his personal car few days after his assumption of office as the Head of State.
He was a benevolent Military Head of State who respected human rights and believed the court of law should decide people’s fate in civil cases. A classic example of this was a case of a former Lagos University Lecturer Dr Obarogie Ohonbamu wrote in his magazine, African Spark that Murtala had corruptly enriched himself before becoming Head of State, and accused him of owning fleets of trailers and houses, Murtala did not handle the matter as the soldiers of that time. He instituted a libel case against the lecturer in Igbosere magistrate court. At the last hearing, the case was adjourned till 17th March 1976, but Murtala was assassinated on 13th February. No State Secret Service was involved in the matter.
In managing the nation’s economy and international relations, Murtala Muhammad initiated a comprehensive review of the Third National Development Plan. Singling out inflation as the greatest danger to the economy, he reduced the money supply that had been swollen by government expenditures on public works. He also announced that his government would encourage the rapid expansion of the private sector into areas dominated by public corporations.
He reappraised Nigeria’s foreign policy and was driven by the theme “Nigeria First”. This theme 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 Muhammad 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 (UNITA). The realignment strained relations with the United States of America which argued for the withdrawal of Cuban troops and Soviet advisers from Angola. In October the Nigerian Air Force took delivery of Soviet-built aircraft that had been ordered under Gowon.
As we remember this African great today, the best we can do for him is to remember what he stood for. His values are captured in the Murtala Muhammed Foundation led by his first daughter Mrs. Aisha Muhammed-Oyebode.
May the labour of our heroes past never be in vain.
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