The story was told about the former Nigerian military leader, Murtala Muhammad and how he was killed a some years ago.
It generated a popularity that had wavered since Nigerian politicians lost the confidence of the Nigerian people in the First Republic, but that mattered when General Murtala Ramat Mohammed was shot 42 years ago , February 16, 1976 On the way to work by putschists in the middle of Ikoyi’s traffic.
Today, anyone who grew up around typical Nigerian displays of power would have a hard time understanding why a sitting military head of state would drive through Lagos traffic without security.
Yet this was only a reflection of the sleek and almost carefree lack of personal importance with which Murtala, as he was affectionately called by most Nigerians, went about his business.
Murtala was born on November 9, 1938 in Kano, one of his parents’ 11 children, and joined the army at the age of nineteen.
Within 10 years, on the strength of his work ethic and numerous diplomas and training programs, he was made a colonel, just 30 at the time.
During this time, Murtala played a role in the removal from power, Aguiyi Ironsi, after the latter took the seat in January 1966.
On July 29, 1975, General Yakubu Gowon was overthrown while attending the 12th Organization of African Unity (OAU) summit in Kampala, Uganda.
Murtala, who had recently been appointed Federal Commissioner for Information (equivalent to the role of the Minister of Information and Communications in running today) assumed power as the new military head of state.
Murtala, with Olusegun Obasanjo as chief of staff, defense headquarters, (a role that was pretty much the same as being vice president), set about changing many of the policies and reviewing the institutions that had made Gowon unpopular in his final days at the power .
A popular leader
In 201 days, he was able to restore the love of the nation, a clear sense of patriotism that was lost when Nigeria’s first civilian leaders first demonstrated that the key to the vault means money begins to disappear and then shows up in unexpected places , in expensive cars and fat bank accounts.
After the rigors of the civil war, Murtala set out to reorganize and demilitarize a large wing of the Nigerian army, reducing the total number of active soldiers by 100,000.
General Murtala Muhammed was assassinated in his Mercedes Benz (Naija Underground)
As head of state, Murtala made plans to build a new Federal Capital Territory due to overcrowding in Lagos.
A panel led by Judge Akinola Aguda chose the Abuja area as the new capital before other proposed locations.
On February 3, 1976, Murtala announced that the federal capital would in future move to a federal area of around 8,000 square kilometers in the central part of the country.
After the 1973 census was alleged to be heavily tilted in favor of the North, Murtala canceled and annulled the results, much to the delight of the other regions that were desperate for equitable representation.
These actions reflected the ethos of a man who believed he would treat everyone the way he wanted to be treated.
Murtala was seen to be very straightforward and treated his mates and everyone else with a sense of expectation.
Many at the time say he was a natural born leader, charismatic, direct and ambitious. His resolve, in particular, earned him popular support among Nigerians.
However, Murtala was a young soldier from the north. Among his region and other soldiers who felt they deserved a greater say in the direction of the country, his changes seemed too abrupt, too radical, even too intense. Some called it mercurial.
Ultimately, coupled with his belief that his reckless abandonment, this led a group of soldiers to demand time from his government and reduce it to its peak.
Murder in the Capital
On February 13, 1976, Major General Murtala Ramat Muhammad was on his way to work at Dudan Barracks. Sitting in his Black Mercedes Saloon with his assistant camp (ADC), Lt. Akintunde Akinsehinwa, he was ambushed by a group of soldiers.
His assassination was part of a coup attempt led by Lieutenant Colonel Buka Suka Dimka, who was the head of the Nigerian Army Physical Training Corps. After killing the Head of State, the coup leaders went into action, primarily taking the media.
In the late afternoon, that day, Dimka announced on the radio that the young revolutionaries had taken over the government. He declared a curfew of 12 hours.
This development increased an already tense atmosphere. Many knew that Murtala had been killed and in a country where the war was only a recent memory, there was already a rumor-based list of things to look forward to.
Dimka’s announcement confirmed that this was an attempt, however successful, to wrest power from the government.
The disorder and confusion was not limited to Nigerians alone.
At 3pm, the Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation went off the air. The federal government wanted to take over the radio station from the coup leaders.
Dimka narrowly escaped rifle fire. After the site was recaptured, the radio station was broadcast again with highlife music.
The silence on Murtala‘s death was lifted when on February 14 the Federal Government announced that Murtala had passed away and Olusegun Obasanjo was the new Head of State.
The FG also announced a seven-day mourning period for the killed leader.
The feeling at the time, and which persists to this day, was that the CIA had killed Murtala. Nigeria was not the right place for any foreigner to be in those days.
Following a court martial, Lieutenant Colonel Dimka and 38 other military and civilian officers were executed by firing squad.
Gone, but not forgotten
Looking back today, it says a lot that Murtala enjoys perhaps the cleanest legacy of any Nigerian military leader.
Our failure to address this part of our history worked in his favor, as did many of his peers. But that doesn’t take anything away from the work he did afterwards.
Despite spending just over half a year in power, he left an imprint of dedication and empathy.
He was the first Nigerian to have his depiction on Nigerian currency, specifically the 20 Naira banknote.
We hope today that the military era of Nigeria’s past is over for good, but while we benefit from it in hindsight, we’ll look back on days like that fateful morning in February and ponder what it could have been.