MURTALA RAMAT MUHAMMED (1938-1976)
Murtala Muhammed was born in Kano on November 8, 1938
and attended Barewa College Zaria. In 1959, his
coursemate cohort entered the Army. Initially educated
at the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst, UK, as a
regular combatant, he underwent subsequent courses in the tenth arm specialty of Signals. He was
commissioned 2nd lieutenant in 1961, rising to the
rank of Lieutenant 7 months later.
In early 1962, he served a tour of duty in the Congo
as part of the UN peacekeeping force before returning
to Nigeria to serve as ADC to Dr. Majekodunmi who
acted as Administrator of the Western region after the
declaration of a State of Emergency. Twenty eight
months after commission he made the rank of Captain at
which time he was given command of a signals unit at
the Brigade HQ in Kaduna. By late 1964 he had been
promoted temporary Major (T/Major).
He subsequently moved to Apapa in Lagos about the time
his Uncle (Alhaji Inua Wada) became Defence Minister
in 1965, following Ribadu's death, and was in Lagos
when the first coup took place in January 1966.
Indeed, without his knowledge, many soldiers from the
signals unit at Apapa were used by Major Ifeajuna for
Lagos operations during the first coup, a fact that
proved to be a source of immense embarassment to
Although still technically a substantive Captain (but
T/Major), he was elevated to the rank of temporary Lt.
Colonel in April 1966 by then C-in-C, Major-General
Aguiyi Ironsi who also made him Inspector of Signals,
Nigerian Army in an effort to placate far northerners
in response to what they perceived as a promotions
bonanza for Igbo officers.
After the military coup d'etat of January 15, 1966,
Major Murtala Mohammed played a crucial role in
mobilizing opinion among northern soldiers and
officers in Lagos for the second military coup.
However, the coup he (and others) planned and had
postponed no less than three times, was overtaken by
events on July 29, 1966, as a result of an unplanned
sequence of events at Abeokuta in which Lt. Colonel
Gabriel Okonweze, Major John Obienu and others were
impulsively shot to death in the officer's mess by
Once it became obvious to northern soldiers in Lagos
that killings had started in Abeokuta, Murtala
Mohammed, Martin Adamu and others got themselves
organized and launched operations in Lagos to "adjust"
to the situation. It was subsequently alleged that
Muhammed used his key position as Inspector of Signals
to communicate messages to northern conspirators in
other parts of the country. It was also alleged that
he was the leader of the initially separatist faction
among northern troops in Lagos and at one point
commandeered a passenger jet to transport northerners
out of Lagos back to the North in an apparent move to
secede. This murky charge has never been
As things settled down after the initial orgy of
killings in Abeokuta, Lagos, Ibadan and Kaduna, the
tentative Lt. Col. Yakubu Gowon (who was then Chief of
Staff, Army and professionally senior to Mohammed)
emerged as the choice of the northern rank and file,
barely edging out the charismatic Lt. Col. Murtala
Mohammed from the position of C-in-C. The bad feelings
generated by this power rivalry was to dog their
relationship from then on.
With Lt. Col. Hassan Katsina as the Military Governor
of the North, Mohammed lay low in the background in
Lagos as Lt. Col. Gowon traded banter with Lt. Col.
Ojukwu and negotiated the tortuous path through
various 1966 constitutional conferences and the 1967
Aburi meetings. This resulted in part because Gowon
was uncomfortable with Mohammed and kept him "out of
the loop". However, in the period leading up to the
outbreak of hostilities with Biafra, Murtala Mohammed
did not hide his feelings that peace talks or not, war
was coming and that preparations be made for this
inevitability. It is alleged that some of the earliest
preparations by northern civilians to import weapons
privately were made at his urging. As fate would have
it, Mohammed did not have long to wait.
On May 30, 1967, Lt. Col. Ojukwu proclaimed the
Republic of Biafra. Almost immediately, steps were
taken to bring the situation under control. A total
naval blockade of the bights of Benin and Biafra
(later renamed 'Bonny') was ordered. The 'police
action' land phase of what is now referred to as the
Nigerian Civil War subsequently began on July 6, 1967.
A few weeks later, faced with north-south and
south-north axes of federal advance, Ojukwu took a
On Wednesday, August 9, 1967, about 3000 Biafran
soldiers and militiamen, under the command of Lt. Col.
["Brigadier"] Victor Banjo, crossed the Niger Bridge
at Onitsha into Asaba. The seizure of the Midwest was
essentially accomplished within 12 hours. It became
obvious that Ibadan and Lagos were next. Desperate for
a bail out, Gowon turned to the 28 year old Lt. Col.
With Patton like fury, Mohammed hit the ground
running, commandeering officers, men, supplies, mammy
wagons, and weapons meant for other divisions which
had been waiting for clearance at the Ports. He
practically created a new Army Division from scratch
by building around a skeletal crew of units withdrawn
from other fronts and local units in Lagos and Ibadan.
Supported by Lt. Cols Akinrinade, Aisida and Ally as
his Brigade Commanders, Mohammed, launched a
lightening counter-offensive, eventually checking the
Biafran units at Ore as two brigades entered the
Midwest from Okenne and marched southwards furiously
in a flanking move toward Benin City.
The ancient city fell back to federal control at 6
p.m. on Sept 20, 1967. With supporting operations in
the Delta by units of Lt. Col Adekunle's third
division, much of the Midwest, except Agbor and Asaba,
were cleared simultaneously.
On arrival in Benin, one of several sensational
allegations made against Murtala Mohammed during his
lifetime came to life. Rumors said he had organized
the looting of the Central Bank in Benin. In fact he
did not. The Treasury and Central Bank were looted of
approximately $5.6 million by retreating Biafran
troops under the supervision of an Igbo civil servant,
on Ojukwu's orders. The money was used to support the
war effort - at least until the Federal Central Bank
in Lagos changed currency much later on during the
course of the war. The mystery of the Benin Central
bank looting was finally settled by the book by
Emmanuel Okocha titled "Blood on the Niger" in which
he actually named those involved.
On September 21, 1967, Lt. Col. Murtala Mohammed made
the following radio broadcast:
"My dear brothers and sisters of the Mid-Western State
of Nigeria: On behalf of Major-General Yakubu Gowon,
Head of the Federal Military Government and
Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces, I, Lt.-Col. M.
R. Mohammed, do hereby officially confirm the complete
liberation of the Mid-Western State of Nigeria except
Agbor and Asaba from rebel soldiers. The inhuman
atrocities suffered by all true Mid-Westerners through
the so-called Biafran soldiers, though short-lived,
have shocked all Nigerians wherever they may be. The
molestation of innocent civilians and the looting of
their property and the indiscriminate killing of men,
women and children recently undertaken by the rebel
troops has ended. All Mid-Westerners in the areas
where the rebel troops have been crushed are free to
move about as they please. No innocent citizen living
in any of the mentioned areas will ever be molested
again. The federal troops have been warmly received by
the Mid-Westerners everywhere they have gone. We
appreciate the friendship of the people and I
sincerely hope that this friendship will continue
forever. I would like to assure the people that my
soldiers will do everything in their power to maintain
this friendship. With regard to Emeka Ojukwu and his
rebel soldiers, I., Lt.-Col. M.R. Mohammed, do hereby
assure the people of Nigeria and the people of the
Mid-West in particular, that by the grace of God, we
will, in a very short time, crush the rebels in the
Central-Eastern State. To this end, I would like to
advise all innocent citizens of the Central-Eastern
State to keep out of the way of the federal troops.
The march to Enugu continues , and anybody that stands
in the way of the federal troops will be regarded and
treated as a rebel. I have already dispatched my
forces to deal with the rebels around Agbor and Asaba.
I would like to appeal to all my brothers and sisters
in the Mid-Western State of Nigeria to assist the
federal troops in locating, and in the eventual
destruction of the rebels that may be hiding around
the Mid-West. It is necessary to advise the people in
Benin City to remain indoors from nine o'clock tonight
until six o'clock tomorrow morning as mopping-up
operations will continue. The Administration has
suffered quite a lot due to the mischief brought about
by the rebel troops. On behalf of the head of the
Federal Military Government and Commander-in-Chief of
the Armed Forces, I appoint Lt.-Col. Samuel Ogbemudia
as the temporary administrator of the Mid-Western
State of Nigeria. All officers and men of the Nigerian
Army based in the Mid-Western State of Nigeria should
report for duty immediately at the Military
headquarters in Benin City. Brothers and sisters of
the Mid-Western State of Nigeria: May God bless you
all and good luck."
Unfortunately, discipline broke down locally and
reprisal killings against Igbos in Benin, deemed to
have betrayed the region took place on a large scale,
often coordinated with soldiers under Mohammed's
command. Similar killings occurred in other Midwestern
towns. To be fair to Mohammed, one can report at least
one case in which he personally intervened to prevent
such killings. An uncle of mine, for example, accused
of harboring Igbos, was saved from summary execution
at Ugonoba by the quick intervention of Colonel
Murtala Mohammed himself. But the worst was yet to
Upon arrival of the main spearhead of the Second
division at Asaba, hundreds of able-bodied males were
allegedly lined up and summarily executed, Nazi style,
for "collaborating with the enemy". At least one
authority opines that the delay occasioned by this
exercise may have resulted in a missed opportunity by
Mohammed to take Onitsha from the disorganized and
retreating Biafran forces without a fight. This
incident was, however, never officially investigated
although General Gowon has since apologized for it
many years after the war.
Against instructions from Supreme Headquarters, and
faced with disobedience from two of his brigade
commanders (Lt. Cols. Aisida and Akinrinade), followed
by a near fist-fight with a fellow divisional
commander (Col. Shuwa), Murtala Mohammed then tried
repeatedly to conduct an assault river crossing by
taking Onitsha frontally from Asaba. He lost thousands
of men and millions of dollars of supplies in three
carelessly planned attempts. At least one of these
attempts was made on the advice of marabouts.
Eventually, he acceded to military orders to swing
northwards, make an unopposed crossing at Idah, and
eventually take Onitsha via a north-south coastal
advance, with Col. Shuwa's 1st division protecting his
eastern flank. Even then, he suffered one more
humiliating loss at Abagana on March 31st 1968, when
Biafran troops ambushed a logistics column seeking to
link up with Major Yar'Adua's unit at Onitsha.
Gowon replaced the emotionally exhausted Mohammed as
the GOC of the badly mauled second division in mid
1968 with Colonel Ibrahim Haruna. Haruna was himself
later replaced on May 12, 1969 by Col. Gibson Jallo
when all divisional commanders were recalled. It is
alleged that after the Abagana debacle, Mohammed
simply went to Kano and then left the country on
vacation to London without bothering to inform Supreme
HQ. He was, however, promoted to Colonel in 1968 and
reappointed to the Inspectorate of Signals. But
tensions with Gowon and Army HQ continued. At one
point he accused the Ministry of Defence and its
contractors of inflating the cost of weapons and
ammunition, daring them to give him money to go abroad
to purchase ammunition himself. As the story goes, he
contacted his Uncle, Inua Wada, former civilian
Minister of Defence who arranged for him to get
weapons and ammunition abroad at cheaper rates,
embarassing the Army HQ in the process.
Close to the end of the war, Mohammed made another
interesting move. In late 1969, he approached then
Colonel Obasanjo, commander of the third division and
appealed to him to slow down the rate of advance of
his division, fearing that a quick victory over Ojukwu
would make Gowon unapproachable by fellow officers as
a victorious War Commander. What Mohammed had in mind
was that senior officers should force then Major
General Gowon to "share power" as a condition of
cooperating with him to end the war! Obasanjo refused
and pushed ahead furiously with the 3rd division's
advance which eventually cut Biafra into two parts and
ended the war in January 1970.
In 1971, Mohammed was nevertheless promoted to the rank of Brigadier. After further Army coursework
abroad, he returned again as Inspector of Signals. By
1974, then General Gowon felt he either had to coopt
or purge him, eventually choosing the former line of
action. On August 7, therefore, Brigadier Murtala
Mohammed became the Federal Commissioner for
Communications - while retaining his role as Inspector
of Signals in the Army. Tensions were already building
in the Army - accelerated in part by Gowon's decision,
announced on October 1, 1974, to renege on his promise
to hand over to civilians in 1976. But the main grouse
was that officers who "fought the war" felt excluded from patronage. Several solidarity meetings of senior
Army Officers were held. It is alleged that at one
such meeting Brigadier Mohammed advised General Gowon:
"If you want to prevent a coup, remove the cause".
In late 1974/early 1975, the cabal of civil war
frontline officers who felt they had been long
excluded from the corridors of power and patronage,
began actively plotting to remove General Gowon from
power. These officers, including Colonels Ibrahim
Taiwo, Abdulai Mohammed and Anthony Ochefu, Lt. Cols.
Shehu Yar'Adua, Ibrahim Babangida and Alfred Aduloju among others, co-opted Colonel Joseph Nanven Garba,
then Federal Guards Commander. Then they approached
Brigadier Murtala Mohammed for blessing. He reportedly
told them that he would not actively join them but
would do everything to 'save their necks' if they
failed. They timed their coup to coincide with the
absence of General Gowon at an OAU meeting in Kampala,
Uganda on July 29, 1975. Mohammed took the precaution of arranging an official trip to London to avoid being
asked to accompany Gowon to Kampala. Once Colonel
Garba went on air in Lagos, a plane left London for
Nigeria and was allowed to land in Kano even though
all airports were theoretically closed at the time.
That plane had an important passenger - Brigadier
Murtala Ramat Muhammed.
After a serious misunderstanding with the coupists, in
which they almost decided to drop him as their choice
to lead the country, Brigadier Murtala Muhammed
finally agreed to accept the position of Head of State
on their condition - that he would share power in a
troika with Brigadiers Obasanjo (who was senior to
him) and Danjuma (who was junior to him). Muhammed had
initially wanted absolute executive power.
On July 30, 1975 he delivered the following address:
Events of the past few years have indicated that
despite our great human and material resources, the
Government has not been able to fulfill the legitimate
expectations of our people. Nigeria has been left to
drift. This situation, if not arrested, would
inevitably have resulted in chaos and even bloodshed.
In the endeavour to build a strong, united and virile
nation, Nigerians have shed much blood. The thought of
further bloodshed, for whatever reasons must, I am
sure, be revolting to our people. The Armed Forces,
having examined the situation, came to the conclusion
that certain changes were inevitable.
After the civil war, the affairs of state, hitherto a
collective responsibility, became characterized by
lack of consultation, indecision, indiscipline and
even neglect. Indeed, the public at large became
disillusioned and disappointed by these developments.
This trend was clearly incompatible with the
philosophy and image of a corrective regime. Unknown
to the general public, the feeling of disillusionment
was also evident among members of the armed forces
whose administration was neglected but who, out of
sheer loyalty to the Nation, and in the hope that
there would be a change, continued to suffer in
Things got a stage where the head of adnministration
became virtually inaccessible even to official
advisers; and when advice was tendered, it was often
Responsible opinion, including advice by eminent
Nigerians, traditional rulers, intellectuals, et
cetera, was similarly discarded. The leadership,
either by design or default, had become too
insensitive to the true feelings and yearnings of the
people. The nation was thus plunged inexorably into
It was obvious that matters could not, and should not,
be allowed in this manner, and in order to give the
nation a new lease of life, and sense of direction,
the following decisions were taken:
1. The removal of General Yakubu Gowon as Head of the
Federal Military Government and Commander in Chief of
the Armed Forces.
2. The retirement of General Yakubu Gowon from the
Armed Forces in his present rank of General with full
benefits, in recognition of his past services to the
3. General Gowon will be free to return to the country
as soon as conditions permit; he willl be free to
pursue any legitimate undertakings of his choice in
any part of the country. His personal safety and
freedom and those of his family will be guaranteed.
4. The following members of the Armed Forces are
retired with immediate effect:
Vice Admiral JEA Wey - Chief of Staff, Supreme HQ,
Major-General Hassan Katsina - Deputy Chief of Staff,
Supreme HQ, Major-General David Ejoor - Chief of Staff
(Army), Rear Admiral Nelson Soroh - Chief of Naval
Staff, Brigadier EE Ikwue - Chief of Air Staff, and
all other officers of the rank of major general (or
equivalent) and above.
Alhaji Kam Salem - Inspector General of Police, Chief
TA Fagbola - Deputy Inspector General of Police
5. Also with immediate effect, all the present
Military Governors, and the Administrator of East
Central State, have been relieved of their
appointments and retired.
6. As you are already aware, new appointments have
been made as follows:
Brigadier TY Danjuma - Chief of Army Staff, Colonel
John Yisa Doko - Chief of Air Staff, Commodore Michael
Adelanwa - Chief of Naval Staff, Mr. MD Yusuf -
Inspector General of Police
New Military Governors have also been appointed for
the States as follows:
1. Lt. Col. Muhammed Buhari, North East 2. Colonel
George Innih, Midwest 3. Lt. Col. Sani Bello, Kano 4.
Captain Adekunle Lawal (Navy), Lagos 5. Lt. Col. Paul
Omu, South East 6. Colonel Ibrahim Taiwo, Kwara 7.
Captain Akin Aduwo, (Navy), West 8. Col. Anthony
Ochefu, East Central 9. Lt. Col. Usman Jibrin, North
central 10. Col. Abdullahi Mohammed, Benue-Plateau 11.
Lt. Col. Umaru Mohammed, North West 12. Lt. Col.
Zamani Lekwot, Rivers
The Structure of Government has been reorganized.
There will now be three organs of government at the
federal level namely,
(i) The Supreme Military Council (ii) The National
Council of States (iii) The Federal Executive Council
There will ofcourse continue to be Executive Councils
at the State level. The reconstituted Supreme Military
Council will comprise the following:
The Head of State and C-in-C of the Armed Forces
Brigadier Olusegun Obasanjo - Chief of Staff, SHQ
Brigadier TY Danjuma - Chief of Army Staff Commodore
Michael Adelanwa - Chief of Naval Staff Col. John Yisa
Doko - Chief of Air Staff Mr. MD Yusuf - IG of Police
1st Division, Brigadier Julius Akinrinade 2nd
Division, Brigadier Martin Adamu 3rd Division,
Brigadier Emmanuel Abisoye L.G.O., Brigadier John
Colonel Joseph Garba Lt. Col Shehu YarAdua Brigadier
James Oluleye Brigadier Iliya Bisalla Colonel Ibrahim
Babangida Lt. Col Muktar Muhammed Colonel Dan Suleiman
Captain Olufemi Olumide (NN) Captain H Husaini
Abdullahi (NN) Mr. Adamu Suleman, Commissioner of
Police Lt. Col. Alfred Aduloju Lt. Commander Godwin
All the civil commissioners in the Federal Executive
Council are relieved of their appointments with
immediate effect. The composition of the new Executive
Council will be announced shortly.
We will review the political programme and make an
announcement in due course. In the meantime, a panel
will be set up to advise on the question of new
states. A panel will also be set up to advise on the
question of the federal capital.
With due regard to the 1973 population census, it is
now clear that whatever results are announced will not
command general acceptance throughout the country. It
has, therefore, been decided to cancel the 1973
population census. Accordingly, for planning purposes,
the 1963 census figures shall continue to be used.
A panel will be set up to advise on the future of the
Interim Common Services Agency (ICSA) and the Eastern
States Interim Assets and Liability Agency (ESIALA).
The Second World Black and African Festival of Arts
and Culture is postponed in view of the obvious
difficulties in providing all the necessary
facilities. Consultations will be held with other
participating countries with a view to fixing a new
Finally, we reaffirm this country's friendship with
all countries. Foreign nationals living in Nigeria
will be protected. Foreign investments will also be
protected. The government will honour all obligations
entered into by the previous Governments of the
Federation. We will also give continued support to the
Organization of African Unity, the United Nations
Organization, and the Commonwealth.
Fellow Countrymen, the task ahead of us calls for
sacrifice and self discipline at all levels of our
society. This government will not tolerate
indiscipline. The Government will not condone abuse of
I appeal to you all to cooperate with the Government
in our endeavour to give this nation a new lease of
life. This change of Government has been accomplished
without shedding any blood; and we intend to keep it
Long live the Federal Republic of Nigeria."
With dizzying speed, a series of initiatives were
announced, including a mass purge of the civil service
and parastatals, often without regard for due process.
Probes of former officials were similarly flawed -
although popular at the time. Witch-hunting was the
rule rather the exception. But not all that was done
was inherently reckless or impulsive.
Muhammed launched an assertive foreign policy,
recognizing the MPLA government in Angola, for
example. However, it is unfortunate that the war in
Angola continues to this day.
Although unpopular within the military, a gradual
program for inevitable Army demobilization was
A 50-man Constitution Drafting Committee was appointed
- although some to this day would have preferred that
it was elected or that its recommendations should have
been approved by plebiscite.
Panels were set up to advise on assets investigation
of some former public officers, abandoned properties
in the three Eastern States, the location of the
Federal Capital and creation of more states.
The administration announced a "low profile" policy
for public officers and Muhammed chose to stay at his
home in Ikoyi rather than move into the more fortified
Dodan Barracks residence. He occasionally startled
observers by showing up at the Polo ground (for
example) without protection! In the weeks leading to
his assassination he was warned to be more cautious
but brushed aside all admonitions.
In January 1976, Murtala Muhammed was promoted to the
rank of full General (four stars). TY Danjuma and O
Obasanjo were also promoted to the rank of Lt.
Generals - in a move that proved to be controversial
within the uppermost echelons of the military. As
Chief of Army Staff, for example, Danjuma (who was
originally a Short Service Officer trained at Mons OCS
Aldershot) became senior to his own Defence Minister,
Major General Iliya Bissalla (a Sandhurst trained
Regular Officer) who was originally senior to him, had
commanded him during the civil war, and was still in
On February 3, 1976, following recommendations of the
Aguda panel, General Murtala Muhammed announced that
the Federal Capital would be moved to a "to a federal
territory of about 8,000 square kilometres in the
central part of the country." No plebiscite has ever
been organized to approve this momentous decision.
Subsequently, seven (7) new states were created and a
political transition program announced which was
scheduled to end with hand-over to civilians on
October 1, 1979.
Unfortunately, he was not to live to see the outcome
of his efforts. General Murtala Muhammed was
assassinated in the early morning hours of February
The coup attempt eventually failed, crushed by forces
rallied by Lt. General TY Danjuma, Chief of Army
Lt. General Olusegun Obasanjo became the Head of
The Defence Minister, Major General Bissalla was
arrested and shot for his alleged role in the plot,
along with Lt. Col. Dimka and many others, some
controversial to this day. Efforts to extradite
Muhammed's old rival, General Yakubu Gowon, from the
UK to stand trial for allegedly being involved in the
plot failed. He was subsequently dismissed in absentia
from the Army, but later pardoned (along with Lt. Col.
Emeka Ojukwu) by President Shehu Shagari after the
military left office.
General Murtala Ramat Muhammed's colorful life thus
came to a tragic end at the tender age of 38 years.
Many monuments in the country are dedicated to his
memory, including the International Airport in Lagos
and a park in Benin City.