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October 3, 2007 - December 2, 2007



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Max Siollun


Very few of Nigeria’s former military leaders are spoken of with any great affection.  There is on notable exception: General Murtala Muhammed.  The time of his regime is recalled with nostalgia by Nigerians of both civilian and military persuasions as a golden age.  Whereas today, military rule, and military rulers, have been demonised, Murtala gave Nigeria a glimpse of the principled and dynamic leadership that its citizens crave.  Here, I attempt to give readers a closer look at the most popular Head of State in Nigeria’s history.


Murtala Muhammed was born in Kano on November 8, 1938.  Like many of his northern colleagues in the army, he attended Barewa College in Zaria.  He began his military training in 1959 and was commissioned into the Nigerian army as a second lieutenant in 1961.  Like so many Nigerian army officers of his generation including future Head of State Yakubu Gowon, he trained at the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst in England.  Early in his career, Murtala was taught military tactics by an eloquent and intelligent Oxford University educated officer named Chukwuemeka Ojukwu.  Little did teacher and student realise that one day, they would end up as protagonists on opposing sides of the battlefield.

In 1962, Murtala served as a member of the Nigerian led UN peacekeeping force in the Congo.  That UN peacekeeping force was later commanded by Major-General Johnson Aguiyi-Ironsi, who would subsequently become Nigeria’s first military Head of State.  Murtala specialised in the army’s signals corps and was stationed in Lagos where his Uncle: Inua Wada served as the Federal Government’s Defence Minister.  The emotionally volatile Murtala first came to prominence after Nigeria suffered what was to prove the first of many military coups, on January 15th 1966.  Had a group of young army Majors not overthrown the civilian government of Tafawa Balewa, most Nigerians would never have heard the name “Murtala Muhammed”. 


Murtala was in Lagos when a young and charismatic instructor at the Nigerian Military Training College in Kaduna named Chukwuma Kaduna Nzeogwu (“an incorruptible idealist without ambitions of power, in many ways a man born before his time” – see Muffett – “Why They Struck”) killed the premier of the northern region: Ahmadu Bello.  After a group of young army officers (including Nzeogwu) toppled the civilian government in a violent military coup d’etat, Nzeogwu was in de facto control of the northern region of Nigeria.  Tense negotiations were conducted via intermediaries, between Nzeogwu and the General Officer Commanding the Nigerian Army: Major-General Johnson Aguiyi-Ironsi.  In the ensuing melee, Ironsi emerged as Nigeria’s first military Head of State.  After a few days of these negotiations, Nzeogwu, wearing his trademark white scarf, emerged to address reporters.  He agreed to hand over the administration of the northern region to the officer hand picked by Ironsi: the newly promoted Lt-Colonel Hassan Usman Katsina.  He also agreed to surrender to, and come to Lagos in the company of Lt-Colonel Conrad Nwawo (an officer trusted by Nzeogwu and who had been recalled from his post as Nigeria’s military attaché in the United Kingdom for this purpose).  Murtala was among the troops who along with Nwawo took Nzeogwu from Kaduna to Lagos.  However, Murtala’s co-operation with Ironsi’s regime and policies did not last long after this episode. 

As the pattern of killings during the January 15th coup emerged, northerners (including Murtala) became convinced that the coup had been targeted specifically at them when it became evident that the four highest ranking northern officers in the Nigerian army: the “astute and articulate” Brigadier Maimalari (see Madiebo “The Biafran Revolution and the Nigerian Civil War”), the acting Chief of Staff at army headquarters Colonel Kur Mohammed, the Adjutant-General Lt-Colonel James Pam, and the commanding officer of the 4th battalion Lt-Colonel Abogo Largema, had been murdered during the coup.  In an attempt to dismiss charges of an anti-northern agenda, Ironsi with great courage surrounded himself with northern soldiers and promoted northerners to some sensitive military posts.  He had northern bodyguards and a northern ADC.  He also appointed Lt-Colonel Yakubu Gowon to replace Colonel Kur Mohammed as the Chief of Staff at army headquarters, and Mohammed Shuwa was promoted to Lt-Colonel and selected to replace Lt-Col ‘Emeka’ Ojukwu as the commander of the 5th battalion in Kano.  Murtala himself was promoted to Lt-Colonel and appointed as the Nigerian army’s inspector of signals. 

However, Murtala and his northern colleagues were still not happy and were further infuriated when they learnt of the promotion of several Igbo officers, and worse still, that some of these Igbos has been promoted to occupy the posts previously held by the northern officers slain in January.  Murtala made no secret of his dislike of Ironsi’s actions. In an outspoken outburst in the presence of Igbo officers, Murtala referred to Ironsi as a “fool” and made it clear that he would take steps to avenge the deaths of his northern officer colleagues.  The anger of northern troops at the perceived Igbo bias of Ironsi’s regime was such that there was an undeclared consensus among them that they too would stage their own coup, except this time, Igbos would be the victims of such a coup. Once this consensus was reached, Murtala became the effective leader of the northern faction in the Nigerian army. Using his sensitive position as the inspector of signals, northern soldiers met at Murtala’s Lagos house to plan for their “July rematch” with Igbo soldiers.  


While Igbos suspected that northerners were planning a revenge coup, northerners were convinced that Igbo soldiers were planning a second coup to finish them off.  Lt-Col Patrick Anwunah openly confronted Murtala with the accusation that he was planning a northern led coup.  The two had an angry exchange of words.  Anwunah hoped that the confrontation would convince Murtala to drop his coup plan.  It had the opposite effect.  Realising that the plot had leaked, Murtala decided that he had to strike immediately. This allied to wild conspiracy theories of a grand Igbo design to annihilate northerners convinced northern soldiers that they had to take pre-emptive action.  At their lowest level, these theories claimed that Igbo soldiers were planning to kill all remaining northern soldiers, and at their highest level, that Igbos were planning to kill all northern males whether military or civilian.  That many northern soldiers believed these stories must be taken into account when assessing the brutality of their response to Igbos. 


Murtala and other northern soldiers had lost so much faith in the Nigerian federation, that they now wanted to break the northern region out of Nigeria. This intention was personified by the codename of their revenge coup: operation “Araba” (an Hausa term meaning “separate us” – presumably separation from the rest of Nigeria). 

When the northern revenge coup began on July 29 1966, Murtala coordinated events from Lagos and led a team of soldiers who took over the international airport at Ikeja. In a remarkable irony, the same airport which he had taken over by force was named after him a decade later.  Airplanes were hijacked by northern soldiers in order to ferry their families back to the north in anticipation of the northern region’s exit from Nigeria. At the airport itself, an Igbo officer (Captain Okoye) was captured by Murtala’s troops at the airport, tied to an iron cross, beaten and left to die in the guardroom.  In military units at Lagos, Ibadan, and Kaduna, northern troops mutinied and murdered their Igbo colleagues in frightening and gruesome reprisals for the Majors’ coup in January. The Head of State, Major-General Ironsi, was kidnapped, beaten and shot by soldiers including men from his own security detail.  Other incidents of shocking brutality took place across the country as northern soldiers rose up and slaughtered hundreds of their Igbo colleagues.

After their blitzkrieg, the senior northern soldiers in Lagos retreated to Ikeja cantonment. The most senior surviving officer left in the army – Brigadier Ogundipe, dared not risk an open confrontation with them given the mood they were in.  He instead sent the Chief of Staff, Army, Lt-Colonel Gowon to go to Ikeja cantonment to bargain with the mutineers.  When Gowon arrived, he was placed under arrest on the orders of Murtala.  Murtala and the other northern soldiers were suspicious of Gowon’s high profile role in Ironsi’s regime.  Eventually the northern soldiers were joined by British diplomats and senior civil servants who engaged them in a lively debate.  Murtala became the spokesman of the northern soldiers and he was vociferous and uncompromising in his insistence that the north should secede from Nigeria.  He argued passionately for the secession of the north and declared that the northern soldiers would observe a “ceasefire” only when their conditions had been met. Namely –

  1. the repatriation of northerners and southerners to their respective regions of origin
  2. the secession of the northern region from Nigeria.

The civilians disagreed with Murtala’s secession plan and urged him to drop it. The  British and American ambassadors (Sir Francis Cumming-Bruce and Albert Matthews respectively) were effective at convincing middle belt officers that the north would have most to lose from a break up of Nigeria since they would lose access to the sea, become landlocked, and be cut off from federal revenues accrued in the South.  Gowon and other middle belt officers were the first to become convinced by this line of argument. They were especially anxious to avoid replacing their fear of Igbo domination in a United Nigeria, with Hausa-Fulani domination in a northern state.  However, they had now reached a dead end because while planning their revenge coup, they had formulated no political objective for Nigeria as a whole other than to get back at Igbos for their part in the death of northerners in January. This was displayed by a comment made by Lt-Colonel Joe Akahan following the northerners’ revenge coup when he remarked that there would be no more killing by northern soldiers “since events had now balanced out”. However, the stance of the civilians and foreign diplomats presented them with a state of affairs they were unprepared for.  They now had to find a way of reconciling the orgy of violence, with the continued corporate existence of Nigeria.


After days of tense negotiations in Lagos, the northern soldiers agreed to remain in Nigeria, but only if their most senior member, Lt-Colonel Gowon, became Head of State.  They got their wish.  Gowon’s ascension to power coincided with massive pogroms in the north during which tens of thousands of Igbos were killed by rampaging northern mobs.  Many members of Gowon’s own constituency, the army, joined in with the mayhem. These murders continued to occur even after specific assurances of Igbo safety had been given by Gowon.  Realising the separation between the political, and military leadership of the country, Gowon always checked with Murtala before giving assurances of safety.  However, some northern NCOS had got so wayward after the orgy of violence that no one, not even Murtala, could control their trigger happiness. For example, Major Ekanem who had been promised safe passage, was shot dead on Cater bridge by a northern NCO while en route to an errand for Gowon.  This was typical of the total breakdown of military discipline at the time.  Orders which had been routinely obeyed in the past now became simply a “basis for discussion”.  It is arguable that the Nigerian army, and society, have never recovered from the wild days of 1966. 

As Gowon tried to consolidate his political leadership of the country, Murtala lurked in the background at the army’s de facto strongman.  Tension between the two was always beneath the surface, and simmered between the two for a decade.  The military governor of the east, Lt-Col C.O. Ojukwu refused to recognise Gowon as the Head of State.  While Gowon favoured a negotiated outcome to the impasse, Murtala was convinced that war with Ojukwu was inevitable and that steps should immediately be taken to prepare for that eventuality.  He felt that Gowon was treating the belligerent Ojukwu with kid gloves. On one occasion, Murtala gave Gowon a dose of his famed volcanic anger.  Murtala banged his first down on his table and threatened to march into, and run over the eastern region if Gowon did not stop being so soft with Ojukwu.  This threat was sporadically repeated by other northern officers.


When it became clear that the problems between the north and the east were not going to be resolved by negotiations, the east seceded from Nigeria in May 1967 and declared an independent republic of Biafra.  Gowon countered by ordering his troops to retake the east in a “police action”.  The police action turned into a full blown war when the Biafrans made a lightning invasion of the Midwest region which caught the federal army off guard and shook it out of its complacency.  Murtala, now a Colonel, was in charge of the 2nd Division of the army, and had the task of evicting the Biafrans from the Midwest.  Murtala had literally built 2 Divison from scratch.  When the Biafrans were getting too close to Lagos for comfort, Murtala chose some drastic measures to maximise his chances of success when he met them on the battlefield.  He commandeered all available vehicles (including those supposed to be used for other units and for other purposes) and men he could lay his hands on to form his new division.  Among the men drafted into Murtala’s division was an up and coming Lieutenant-Colonel named Alani Akinrinade.

Murtala’s newly assembled 2 Division drove the Biafrans out of the Midwest region in a blistering counter offensive which was so efficient that it earned Murtala the tag “Monty of the Midwest” after Britain’s leading world war two commander: Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery.  Once the Biafran forces in the Midwest had been overrun, members of 2 Division carried out a terrible massacre of civilians that was so grotesque that General Gowon had to apologise for it decades after the end of the Nigerian civil war.  As punishment for their sympathy for the Biafrans, hundreds of Igbo civilians were summarily executed by soldiers belonging to 2 Division.  In an episode typical of his unpredictable nature, after his troops had killed hundreds of innocent civilians, Murtala personally saw to it that the mother of Major Nzeogwu was protected and not harmed.


Buoyed by his Midwest success, Murtala’s next target was the strategically important Biafran stronghold of Onitsha. Murtala’s attack plan for Onitsha changed dramatically when Biafran troops blew up the Niger bridge (the only land access he could use to get to the Biafran heartland) as Murtala was at the bridge’s entrance, considering driving across it.  

2 Division could now either attack Onitsha via:

(a)                 a dangerous and direct assault via a river crossing or;

(b)                 by crossing the Niger river unopposed via territory held by the neighbouring 1st Divison, then proceeding overland to Onitsha. 

Realising the dangers and complexities of a direct river based assault on Onitsha, Supreme Headquarters advised Murtala to choose option (b).  Murtala disregarded the advice of Supreme HQ and decided to proceed with the dangerous river crossing. On learning of the plan, Lt-Col Aisida (one of Murtala’s Brigade commanders) urged him to reconsider. Murtala was unmoved and insisted that he would have his way.  So controversial was Murtala’s plan that even the commander of the neighbouring 1st Divison: Colonel Mohammed Shuwa tried to intervene. Murtala had a chequered relationship with Shuwa.  Shuwa was a conventional soldier:  the “obedient, loyal….textbook commander” (see “Gowon: The Biography of a Soldier-Statesman” by Elaigwu) of the 1st army division.  The difference in the two men’s personalities was reflected in the manner in which they commanded their respective army divisions.  While Murtala’s 2nd division embarked on daring gung-ho assaults against the enemy (often against orders from Supreme HQ), Shuwa’s 1st Division was methodical and quietly efficient.  While Shuwa was cautious, Murtala was impulsive and fearless.  At a meeting between the two, Shuwa urged Murtala to drop his plan, but Murtala refused to do so and insisted that he would proceed with his chosen plan of attack regardless of the objections by Supreme HQ, his brigade commander and a fellow divisional commander.  During the exchange of words, Murtala got so heated that Captain Baba Usman feared that in a fit of rage, Murtala might hit Shuwa. Usman had to stand between Murtala and Shuwa in order to forestall the risk of Murtala physically assaulting Shuwa.


Despite protests from one of his Brigade commanders, direct orders from Supreme HQ, and the personal intervention of a fellow divisional commander, Murtala proceeded with his chosen Onitsha attack plan.  Were he a citizen of any country other than Nigeria, he would almost certainly have been court-martialled for disobeying orders.  Murtala personally led his men during the crossing. However Biafran troops led by the tough Colonel Joe “Hannibal” Achuzia,  repelled and routed Murtala’s 1000 strong attack team – which lost several million pounds worth of equipment in the process, and suffered many casualties - some by drowning under fierce Bifran fire.  Among those federal soldiers lucky enough to survive the Biafran onslaught were Lieutenants Shehu Musa Yar’Adua and Ishola Williams. Undeterred by this setback, and displaying his characteristic never say die attitude, Murtala again tried the amphibious capture of Onitsha.  Federal troops were again routed by the Biafrans.  Still determined to get his way, and displaying great mental strength and determination after such heavy losses, Murtala tried the ambitious river crossing for a third time – and failed again.  After this third failure, Murtala swallowed his pride and agreed to execute the plan initially approved by Supreme HQ. He finally captured Onitsha.  But victory came at a price as by this time, 2 Divison were dispirited, undisciplined and battered after suffering heavy losses against the Biafrans including the loss of an entire convoy of vehicles after an opportunistic Biafran soldier had disobeyed orders and fired the single last mortar in the possession of the Biafrans at Murtala’s convoy.  The plucky soldier scored a direct hit on, and blew up, a vehicle in the convoy carrying fuel. The resulting fire set the entire convoy ablaze and proved to be one of the most spectacular Biafran successes of the Nigerian civil war. Murtala was recalled from the front and replaced by Colonel Haruna.  However 2 Division was in such bad shape that Haruna himself was later replaced by Colonel Gibson Jalo.

The Onitsha episode was instructive vis-à-vis Murtala’s positive and negative personality traits.  While Murtala’s seemingly limitless courage was undoubted – it could have during the Nigerian civil war cost him his career, or worse still, his life.  Murtala led his troops by example, and would often lead his men into battle from the front.  His willingness to share the physical danger of battle endeared him to, and emboldened, his men.  While he displayed extraordinary courage at embarking on an extremely dangerous river attack on Onitsha against all advice, he also exhibited extreme stubbornness.  His refusal to heed instructions from Supreme HQ is borne of his single-mindedness.  Retired Major-General James Olululeye noted that Murtala “had very little respect for constituted authority while he would not tolerate disrespect from subordinates”.  Once he decided on a course of action, there would be no going back on his decision. He also demonstrated tremendous tenacity by picking himself up and refusing to be deterred after each defeat. His personal courage is undoubted. 


Nigeria’s victory in the civil war made Gowon a hero. His success in uniting a fractured and volatile country behind the war effort gained him immense prestige locally and internationally.  While Gowon proved to be a great wartime leader, he was accused of procrastination and indecision in peacetime by Murtala, who was now the Minister of Communications, and at times was openly critical and contemptuous of Gowon’s governing style.   On one occasion, Murtala went so far as to say of Gowon: “we put him there, and we can remove him anytime”.

By 1975 a group of civil war veteran Colonels who felt excluded from the corridors of power had decided that Gowon should be overthrown.  These were the same officers that had carried out the coup which brought Gowon to power in 1966.  Having carried out the coup which brought Gowon to power, and fought in the civil war which made him a hero, these middle ranking officers were irked at their exclusion from the political decision making process, and their decreasing influence over Gowon.   The Colonels disclosed their plan to Murtala and asked for his assistance. After witnessing two bloody military coups, and taking part in a civil war that cost the lives of over a million civilians, Murtala replied that he had seen too much bloodshed in his life and would not be able to physically take part in the coup.  However, he gave his blessing and moral support for their plan, and promised to do everything to defend them, and save their lives should their planned coup fail.  By this time, the Colonels had already decided that they wanted Murtala to be the next Head of State.

Gowon received some disturbing security reports regarding a coup against his regime.  He was particularly concerned since many of these reports named men who were high profile members of the Government and of his security detail.  In a bid to get to the bottom of the matter, Gowon confronted the commander of the Brigade of Guards (which was responsible for Gowon’s personal security), Colonel Joseph Garba with allegations of the coup plot.  Garba denied all knowledge of, or involvement in, any coup plot.  Gowon replied that if indeed Garba was part of a coup plot, then he should “let it be on your own conscience” and “make sure there is no bloodshed”.  Gowon departed for Uganda to attend an Organisation of African Unity summit in July 1975.  On July 29th, while he was still in Uganda, he was overthrown in a bloodless military coup announced on national television by…….Colonel Joseph Garba!

Speaking with a tense and emotional voice, Garba announced that Gowon had been overthrown.  July 29th was the ninth anniversary of the bloody revenge coup that had brought Gowon to power. Once again, proving that coup plotting in Nigeria is a hobby, or profession for some, many of the same officers that participated in the coup that brought Gowon to power were also instrumental in the coup that removed him, and in subsequent coups. Among these were Colonels Shehu Musa Yar’Adua, Ibrahim Babangida, Muhammadu Buhari, Ibrahim Taiwo, Abdullahi Mohammed (currently President Obasanjo’s Chief of Staff at the presidency), Paul Tarfa, and Brigadiers Jalo, Haruna and Bisalla.  They had obviously learned a lesson from the cataclysmic events that had followed their violent coup nine years earlier.  So this time, the coup plotters decided that a bloodless coup would avoid similarly disastrous consequences. The new leaders thanked Gowon for all he had done.  Gowon in return was his typically conciliatory self and wished the new leaders well.  The lack of bitterness between the new and past leaders even led some to suspect that Gowon’s removal was in fact a cleverly orchestrated transfer of power from senior officers to middle grade officers.


The Colonels decided that three of their superior officers: Brigadiers Murtala Muhammed, Olusegun Obasanjo and Theophilus Danjuma would lead the new regime.  They explained to the three Brigadiers that decisions of the Supreme Military Council would only be taken with the concurrence of a majority of its members.  Murtala immediately objected and insisted that as Head of State, he should be given a free hand to govern unrestricted by his colleagues.  After some calming words from Danjuma and Obasanjo, Murtala agreed to the Colonels’ proposal.  However, in typically forthright manner, Murtala told the Colonels that once in the hotseat, he would not allow himself to be a stooge of, or be dictated to by, the officers who had got him there. Murtala made it clear that he would be independent, would govern the country as he saw fit and that nobody would push him around.  The unspectacular but efficient Brigadier Olusegun Obasanjo (then the Minister of Agriculture) replaced Vice-Admiral Joseph Wey as the Chief of Staff, Supreme Headquarters and served as Murtala’s deputy.  While Murtala provided the muscle and aggressive energy of the regime, Obasanjo was seen as the sedate and effective influence behind the scenes.  Brigadier Danjuma replaced Major-General David Ejoor as the Chief of Staff, Army.  On assumption of this post, its title was changed to “Chief of Army Staff” -the designation which has been used till today.

It was as Head of State that Murtala etched his name into Nigerian folklore.  Yet it was clear from the outset that Murtala’s character and governing style would be a stark contrast to that of Gowon.  While Gowon was diplomatic, conciliatory and cautious in his governing style, Murtala was brisk, volatile and displayed a decisiveness with major issues that bordered on impulse.  Gone was the methodical pace of Gowon’s administration.  All of Murtala’s decisions were “with immediate effect”.  In his almost legendary book “The Trouble With Nigeria”, Chinua Achebe tells the story of how on the first morning of Murtala’s regime, the notoriously tardy Lagos employees managed to find a way to get to work on time – beating the stifling traffic and transport problems which had always formed part of their standard excuse for being late for work.  The new helsman’s ferocious reputation was such that Lagosians dared not cross him on his first day in office.  Despite the fact that there were just as many vehicles on the road, Lagosians got to work on time for fear of offending the military strongman from Kano.


Murtala declared his government a “corrective regime” that would tackle the corruption that was increasingly becoming part and parcel of government institutions.  His “corrective” methods involved a house cleaning operation to sweep away all remnants of Gowon’s regime.  As soon as Murtala became the Head of State, all of the twelve governors that had served under Gowon were immediately dismissed from their posts and retired.  Murtala also ordered a probe into their conduct in office.  Ten of these twelve governors were found to have illegally enriched themselves while in Government.  Murtala said they had “betrayed the trust and confidence reposed in them by the nation….(and)  betrayed the ethics of their professions and they are a disgrace to those professions.  They are, therefore, all dismissed with ignominy”. Only Brigadiers Oluwole Rotimi, and Mobolaji Johnson were found innocent of allegations of corruption.  All civilian ministers except Shehu Shagari and Ali Monguno were also found guilty of corrupt enrichment and were stripped of illegally obtained assets. Among those found to have corruptly enriched himself was the veteran nationalist politician Anthony Enahoro, who several years later would become a staunch opponent of military rule.  Much of the ill-gotten assets seized by Murtala were returned several years later by the regime of Ibrahim Babangida for reasons that have never been fully explained.  This decision by Babangida was all the more baffling given that he was a member of the regime which stripped the assets in the first place.


In addition, the heads of the army, air force, navy, and police were retired. Even the head of the Nigerian postal service was not spared Murtala’s axe.  Next he turned his gaze to the civil service. Murtala unleased a massive onslaught against public sector corruption and inefficiency on a scale never seen before in Africa.  This led to a wave of dismissals and retirements of over 10,000 public officials who were summarily dismissed or retired on the grounds of inefficiency or corruption. 

In response to national debate on the military’s continual hold on governance, Murtala announced plans for the military to disengage from politics.   Some civilians had accused some military officers of behaving as if they had a right  to be in government, and forgetting that military rule was an aberration.  Murtala therefore laid out the framework for the return of Nigeria to democratic rule on October 1st 1979.  Anxious to avoid the blatant ethnic based party politics of the 1960s, Murtala told the committee which would draft the new constitution, that the SMC would prefer it if they came up with a system of government without political parties.  In the end several “new” political parties emerged as clones of the parties of the 1960s.  

Gowon’s regime had remained neutral in the simmering “cold war” between the world’s then two super powers: the USA and the Soviet Union.  Gowon’s regime bought weapons from the Soviets while remaining on cordial terms with western nations. However, Murtala’s regime embarked on a more assertive foreign policy.  Contrary to the wishes of the USA, it unilaterally recognised the Marxist MPLA as the legitimate government of Angola.  Murtala then rallied other African countries to follow suit, and backed up his diplomatic action with massive financial aid to the MPLA.  Some western powers may have become concerned that the new regime in Africa’s richest country was galvanising African countries to recognise a government with Communist ideology.

The massive funds generated by the oil boom had seen Nigeria embark on a series of grandiose construction projects for which tons of cement had to be imported from abroad.  This wasteful extravagance meant that at one point, half of the world’s cement orders were headed for Nigeria.  This caused a massive backlog at Lagos ports as ships waited to offload.  Murtala appointed the tough “Black Scorpion” and civil war veteran Brigadier Benjamin Adekunle to ease the congestion at the ports. 

By his swashbuckling decisiveness, Murtala became the darling of the Nigerian public.  As stories of his no-nonsense reputation began to spread, Nigerians began to feel at last that they had a leader they could count on and look up to.  He “captured the latent idealism of Nigerians” (Isichei: “A History of Nigeria”).

Another ambitious plan was announced: the relocation of the country’s federal capital away from the crowded, teeming, dirty, polluted and crime ridden Lagos.  With its exploding population and miles of traffic which slowed down commerce, Lagos was thought to be an unsuitable city to serve as capital for the world’s first anticipated black superpower.  Little did Murtala know that he would one day become a victim of the Lagos traffic.  Murtala’s regime decided to move the capital to a location near Abuja in the centre of Nigeria.  Although heralded at the time, in retrospect this proved to one of the least auspicious decisions that Murtala’s regime took as construction work in Abuja subsequently proved to be a massive strain on the Federal budget and a source of corruption.  Although Abuja is today one of the most spectacular cities on Earth, it is a virtual ghost town with little of the life and character associated with most world capitals.  Justice Akinola Aguda was the head of the panel that recommended Abuja to the Government as the site of the new capital.  Aguda was to remark a decade later that “Those of us who are still alive will continue to take the blame for recommending the relocation of the Federal Capital from Lagos to virgin land which we thought would be a blessing but has now turned to be the tragedy of Abuja”.   The Economist also lamented that “Abuja was supposed to be a proud symbol of African modernity, today the place is almost deserted”.


Defence continued to be the largest budget item, and as Brigadier Danjuma pointed out, 90% of defence expenditure went on soldiers’ salaries.  It therefore made economic sense to reduce the size of the army’s personnel in order to reduce defence expenditure.  Moreover, some elements of the army were viewed as little more than armed political parties that could threaten the existence of any civilian government. During the civil war, the Nigerian army had grown from a light colonial army of less than 10,000 which most had thought would only be used for internal security, into a bloated and heavily armed force of 250,000.  Murtala decided to cut the army’s numerical strength below 150,000.   However, some officers were not overjoyed at the prospect of being removed from the army and thrown into an uncertain life on civvy street.  While he was untouchable in the eyes of the civilian population, Murtala’s demobilisation plan (although making perfect economic sense) upset some in his primary constituency: the army.


While riding the crest of the wave of popular opinion, Murtala made the first of two mistakes that may have cost him his life.  When then Lt-Colonel Yakubu Gowon became the Head of State in 1966, he waited till the outbreak of the Nigerian civil war in 1967 before promoting himself to Major-General.  After the war finished, Gowon promoted himself again and became Nigeria’s first four star General.  These promotions were necessary at first, in order to stabilise Gowon’s position as Head of State despite the presence of officers having superior rank in his regime (Commodore Joseph Wey, Colonel Robert Adebayo).  When Murtala came to office in 1975, he sought to remove officers of superior seniority to himself.  Then a Brigadier, Murtala ordered the retirement of all armed forces officers of the rank of Major-General and above.  For several months, Murtala’s Government functioned with four Brigadiers at its apex (Murtala, Olusegun Obasanjo, T.Y. Danjuma, and Iliya Bissalla).  This arrangement worked.  However in January 1976, Murtala’s regime embarked on a bizarre promotion exercise which served no purpose other than to create tensions within the regime.  Murtala was promoted to a four star General, his deputy, Olusegun Obasanjo, and the Chief of Army Staff, Theophilus Danjuma, were promoted to Lieutenant-General.  However, the most controversial promotion was that of the Defence Commissioner: Iliya Bissalla, who was promoted to Major-General only.  This limited promotion for Bissalla defied all logic as it made him subordinate to the Chief of Army Staff: Lt-Gen Danjuma.  Bissalla was understandably unhappy that a former subordinate of his was now his superior.  Moreover, the limited promotion for Bissalla made little logistical sense as Danjuma’s post was theoretically within, and under, Bissalla’s defence ministry.  Whereas Gowon’s promotions were required to cement his position as Head of State, Murtala’s promotions were unnecessary, distorted the chain of command within the defence ministry, and created bad blood between Danjuma and Bissalla.

Murtala’s second fatal mistake was his failure to take his personal security more seriously.  Perhaps due to his personal popularity, Murtala had never bothered with the massive security detail characteristic of so many modern Heads of State. Murtala mingled with the masses in the teeming streets of Lagos and drove around town without a motorcade.  He would startle others by arriving unannounced at various locations without security. Concerned by his boss’s lax attitude towards security, in early 1976 Murtala’s deputy, Lt-Gen Obasanjo urged him to take his personal security more seriously.  In typically stubborn manner, Murtala refused to heed the advice of his deputy, and replied that if anyone was planning to overthrow him, then “if they succeeded in killing all of us, good luck to them” in running the affairs of Nigeria and the myriad problems associated therewith. He perhaps sealed his own fate with those words.

It has been said that security and routine do not go together.  Routine was to prove fatal for Murtala’s security.  Having dispensed with personal security and a motorcade, on Friday 13th February 1976, Murtala departed for work along his usual route.  As his car crawled to a halt in the infamous Lagos traffic outside the Federal Secretariat in Ikoyi, a group of soldiers rushed over to the car and fired a volley of gunshots which killed Murtala, his driver, and his ADC.  After only six months in office, Murtala Muhammed was murdered in an abortive military coup led by Lt-Col BS Dimka – the head of the army’s physical training corps.   Then came several gestures which although small in isolation – demonstrated Murtala’s popularity across Nigeria. The commander of the elite 1st mechanised infantry division in Kaduna: Major-General Alani Akinrinade, immediately made a radio announcement proclaiming his loyalty to Murtala and condemning the attempted coup.  Then when news of the coup spread, students at the University of Benin marched into the streets and staged an angry demonstration against the soldiers that had killed their hero.  Given the manner in which Nigerian soldiers had slaughtered civilians between 1966 and 1970, this was a brave gesture by the students.  The coup was eventually put down and many of the culprits arrested.   Seven days of national mourning were declared in Murtala’s honour.  At the end of these seven days, grief stricken Nigerians were given a public holiday.  

Investigations after the coup caused a public furore when it was disclosed that Dmika had visited the British High Commission while the coup was in progress.  Nigerian authorities were angered that the British took their time before warning them of Dimka’s movements and intentions.  This allied to suspected CIA knowledge of the coup caused anti-British and American sentiment.  Matters came to a head when at the height of the national mourning for the slain Head of State, the British High Commissioner in Lagos, Sir Marin Le Quesne, insensitively reminded Nigerians that he expected them to pay for the damage caused to the windows of the British High Commission by demonstrators.  Although correct in principle, Sir Martin’s statement showed poor timing and insensitivity to the mourning of his hosts. This proved to be the last straw for the Government.  Sir Martin was told to leave the country.

The mutineers later justified their coup by explaining that they were angered by Murtala’s plans to reduce the size of the army (as they almost certainly would have been laid off).  They also felt that the SMC was “going communist”.  Dimka (after a nationwide manhunt) and his accomplices were arrested and placed on trial before a Special Military Tribunal. Under interrogation, Dimka made a number of shocking revelations which implicated many other officers (including the Commissioner for Defence: Major-General Iliya Bissalla who had been present at Murtala’s funeral) in the coup plot.  Despite protesting his innocence throughout, even as he was being led onto the execution ground, Bissalla was convicted of treason and executed by firing squad along with Dimka and scores of his accomplices. The Chief of Staff, Supreme Headquarters, Lt-General (later General) Olusegun Obasanjo (who escaped death due to a lucky case of mistaken identity that saw the mutineers mistakenly ambush and shoot up the car of Colonel Ray Dumuje thinking that Obasanjo was inside) succeeded Murtala as Head of State and pledged to continue with the policies initiated by his predecessor.   He eventually returned the country to civilian rule on October 1 1979 as Murtala had promised.  

As a lasting symbol of his legacy, Nigeria’s largest international airport at Ikeja in Lagos was renamed the “Murtala Muhammed International Airport”.  This airport is the entry point for most visitors to Nigeria, and is Africa’s busiest airport.  The bullet riddled car in which Murtala was killed is today on museum display in Nigeria.  He departed from Nigeria’s political scene in the same manner he entered it: in a hail of bullets.



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This page was last updated on 10/27/07.