Murtala Mohammed and his
legacy for Africa
Former President, Federal Republic of Nigeria
I FEEL a sense of personal elation in chairing today's occasion. In
retirement, one gets invited ever so often to preside over or be present at
many occasions. For me, this is not just another occasion. It is an annual act
of remembrance and of veneration of one of modern Africa's most illustrious
leaders. Personally, the honour is not just in presiding over yet another
public lecture. I can modestly claim to have been part of the dreams and
ideals for which the late Gen. Murtala Mohammed lived and died.
As I look in this august assembly, I am encouraged that many of our
compatriots still value those ideals and the promise they hold for our country
several years after the tragic loss of Gen. Mohammed. As I look among the
audience today, I see the face of one harmonious nation, which in spite of our
diversity is united and held together by a sense of optimism about the future
of our great country. It is that sense of optimism that was awakened by the
late Gen. Mohammed. I believe that this gathering is yet another occasion for
us as a people to show our collective sense of gratitude for the hope which
Gen. Mohammed symbolised not only for our nation but also for Africa as a
I am emboldened by the fact that I am surrounded by two of Africa's foremost
statesmen: my brother, former President Masire of Botswana and our own
President Olusegun Obasanjo, the organisers of this event could not have made
a better choice of a guest lecturer than President Masire. He is a living
witness to those days when in the fight against apartheid, Nigeria was
regarded and indeed acted as a frontline-state. That status was earned through
the practical leadership of the late Gen. Murtala Mohammed.
In many ways, the late Gen. Murtala Mohammed lived ahead of his time. The
actions he took in those days anticipated the challenges that confront Africa
today. He was perhaps unconsciously developing a model of leadership for
today's Africa. He insisted on probity and accountability at a time when those
words were still alien to African leadership and public officers.
He underlined the need for efficiency in all spheres of life, the triumph of
free market economics and the attendant capitalist work ethics. He emphasised
fairness even in his firmness. His insistence on the principle that the
innocent should not be made to suffer with the guilty, echoes the classic
democratic belief that a just society can only be built on the principles of
equity and fairness in the context of the rule of law. Above all, he bridged
the ideological divide of the Cold War years by embracing people from both
sides of the divide in the pursuit of the national interest.
He understood the national interest in very strategic terms by linking the
destiny of Nigeria to that of the rest of Africa. For him, therefore, no
African country could be considered free while any part of Africa was under
colonial or racist tutelage. Thus was born an Afrocentric foreign policy for
His vision was that of an Africa that had a proud heritage that had come of
age in spite of overwhelming external influence. He insisted that our actions
as individual nation states must revolve around the larger interests of Africa
pointed to the situation in today's world where once again Africa is being
challenged by the attitude of the rest of the world to look inwards and master
Above all else, Gen. Mohammed was impatient with Africa's slow pace of
development. He believed in the possibility of quick, decisive and positive
change in all spheres of African life. Underlying his optimism and impatience
was the belief that Africa could attain modernity in the lifetime of the then
As we reflect today on the legacy of this illustrious son of Africa, we are
invited to ponder the current crisis of development in Africa. As we speak,
the world is at the brink of a major war in a strategic part of the world.
The interesting point, however, is not that there is likely to be conflict in
the Middle East. It is that in the calculations about the possible
repercussions of such a war, Africa is hardly mentioned nor are we being
consulted in the run up to a possible conflict in a part of the world with
which Africa shares a hemispheric and cultural closeness.
I have only pointed this out as a way of emphasising the crucial challenge
that today confronts Africa. It is the challenge of becoming relevant in the
shortest possible time. The world cannot wait for Africa. Africa must leap
frog to meet a world that is changing by the second. We may not seek to equal
the technological wizardry of the West, but we should at least uplift the
standards of living of our people so that they can realise their humanity and
Ours is, therefore, not strictly a challenge of development but one of rapid
modernisation. This modernisation must begin in our mindset, in the methods
that we adopt towards solving the problems that hold our people hostage. We
must be impatient with the lot of our peoples. We must reject the status of
perennial victims of the worst calamities that afflict humanity. We must
reject the spread of senseless wars on our continent. We must replace the guns
that we do not need with the ploughs and laboratories that we must have now.
We must reject the repeated cycle of providing the rest of the world with
photo opportunities and television images of famine and senseless blood
These challenges are even more strident today as more and more African
countries embrace formal democracy. Democracy without modernisation and
genuine development is a farce. A society can only be truly democratic when
the people to whom the heritage of democracy ultimately belongs understand the
rights to which they are entitled under democracy. Such an awakened populace
is the best guarantee for the sustenance of democracy and its perpetuation.
Yet the pursuit of modernisation and economic development must not be at the
expense of those values and attribute that distinguish us as different people.
Africa's material culture, our artefacts, our cultural displays, our
indigenous social institutions and organisations add colour to the emergent
rainbow that is today's world. Through developments in information technology
and telecommunication, the African world and its glorious landscape have
become part and parcel of the idiom and spectacle of the emergent world order.
I am beginning to suspect that perhaps the world takes us more seriously than
we tend to take ourselves.
Here then is the decisive challenge of democratic leadership in Africa today.
Our leaders must rise above the quest for power for its own sake.
The time is past when the African leader could expect to rule and reign at
once. Those who seek to reign must first of all lead positively. Rulership in
today's Africa must take a secondary role to leadership. Unelected persons
tend to rule while elected people are compelled to lead.
But in today's Africa, true leadership must be driven by ideas. Not just any
set of ideas. As we have come to learn from history, some ideas are
detrimental to human development and the history of our common humanity. After
all, Nazi Germany was driven by an idea, so was Apartheid South Africa and the
blur of racism in America under the Ku Klux Klan.
The ideas that are required of Africa's democratically elected leaders are
those that can liberate the energies of our people and free them from the
clutches of hunger, disease and superstition. Already, some progress is being
made in this regard. I believe that such initiatives as the birth of the
African Union and the ideas behind NEPAD need to be sustained and deepened in
this regard. I want to salute the courage and foresight of outstanding
statesmen like our own President Olusegun Obasanjo, Thabo Mbeki and Muamar
Ghadaffi in spearheading these initiatives.
Incidentally, it is difficult to find leaders who combine a philosophical and
idealistic mindset with the pragmatic dynamism which rapid modernisation and
development requires. The ideal leadership, which Africa needs to cultivate
today, is that of the visionary realist. The nationalist, who is a man or
woman of ideas and also of action, the kind of action that can positively
transform the lives of the majority of Africans and thus endear our leaders to
the hearts of the many.
It is precisely because he approximated this ideal that we are here gathered
to remember and honour the late Gen. Murtala Mohammed.
Former President Ibrahim Babangida delivered this as the opening remarks
the 2003 Murtala Mohammed Lecture (MMF) in Abuja recently.
Mohammed lived ahead of his time. The actions he took in those days
anticipated the challenges that confront Africa today. He was perhaps
unconsciously developing a model of leadership for today's Africa. He insisted
on probity and accountability at a time when those words were still alien to
African leadership and public officers
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