41 Years After Murtala


General Murtala Ramat Muhammed was the nearest we’ve ever had as a revolutionary leader in Nigeria. He is, to date, the only real national hero we’ve ever had too. In his 200 days as head of state, General Murtala galvanized and mobilized the nation like no other leader. Nigeria woke up from its slumber as the African giant became the centre of the African world. Every day was full of action during those days as he was busy attending to national and international issues of the moment, as if in a hurry to accomplish the tasks allotted to him in this world before he met his Creator.

General Murtala came to power on July 29, 1975, in Nigeria’s first bloodless coup. He set up an administration whose members are still active in the nation’s life, four decades after his demise. From the beginning he made it clear he wanted a collective decision-making process. That was why in everything he did he had his deputy, General Obasanjo, and members of the Supreme Military Council by his side to carry everyone along and for them to continue wherever he might have stopped.

Virtually every regime after General Murtala’s has been an offshoot of the Murtala regime: Obasanjo was his deputy, Shagari was a creation of their transition to civil rule, Buhari was a governor under Murtala,Babangida was a member of the Supreme Military Council, and Shehu Yar’Adua was his minister of transport whose younger brother Umaru became the third elected president of Nigeria under the presidential system. Most of that regime’s officials continued to influence the political and even economic direction of the country since then, conclusively proving his good choice of team to work with.

General Murtala was never an ethnic or religious bigot. In fact, he saw himself as a pan-African and gave practical expression to Nigeria’s Africa-centred foreign policy. He married a Yoruba, Ajoke, from the south while he was from the north. All his service chiefs – Danjuma for army, Yisa-Doko for air force and Adelanwa for navy – were all Christians. All he saw was competent and capable Nigerians to work with and not their faith or where they came from. Even Murtala’s ADC who was killed with him, Lt. Akinseyinwa, was Yoruba from the south. Murtala had a national vision and tried to create a national platform. In fact, he was the first leader to see the whole country as his constituency and thus had a national horizon with African continental outlook.

The war against corruption in Nigeria started with the Murtala regime. He set up a panel that probed the regime he took over from, found some military governors and other top government officials guilty of corrupt enrichment, and his government confiscated the ill-gotten wealth and set it back to government coffers. He sacked over 10, 000 public servants who were found wanting in the first great purge of the civil service, rightly or wrongly. He himself made sure that he led by example – when he died he left behind one house in Kano, one plot of land in Lagos and N13,000 in his bank account at Union Bank, Apapa, Lagos.

At the domestic level, he set up a committee under Chief Rotimi Williams to draft a new constitution for Nigeria which saw the adoption of the US presidential model. He set up a committee under Justice Akinola Aguda which recommended the movement of the nation’s capital from a congested Lagos to a virgin Abuja. He created seven more states bringing the total to 19 to bring government closer to the people. He made the local government an effective third tier of the federation. He flooded goods including meat from South America through the Nigerian Nation Supply Company to bring down prices and make products available to the people all across Nigeria.

When any official was found wanting, General Murtala sacked and punished that person appropriately “with immediate effect”. That was why he replaced a military governor immediately he was found wanting. Murtala was very decisive. He did not allow decisions and actions left hanging. He had no time to waste and was not known for frivolity. He was an action man. He made surprise visits to ministries and even to streets to see things for himself. That was why everyone was up and doing. Even his governors took a cue from him and started surprise visits to schools, hospitals etc. to see things for themselves and take immediate disciplinary or other remedial actions.

However, it was at the international level that Murtala made his greatest impact. He appointed Gen. Joseph Garba as foreign minister and Prof. Akinyemi was director-general of the Nigerian Institute of International Affairs (NIIA). That was the golden era of Nigeria’s foreign policy. Nigeria took active role in the decolonization process of especially southern Africa. Murtala recognized the MPLA as the sole legitimate representative of the Angolan people. He delivered one of the fieriest speeches at the OAU Extraordinary Summit in Addis Ababa on January 11, 1976, during which he blasted the imperial powers and spoke and stood for African interests.

President Gerald Ford of the US sent a letter to African leaders requesting them to do some pro-American bidding. Murtala found that very insulting to his African dignity. He not only published the letter in public but gave an appropriate response which was also made public. America was courting Nigeria and begging Nigeria but Murtala rebuffed them. The title of his OAU speech was apt, “Africa has come of Age”, and “will no longer take dictation from any extra-African power”!

As a soldier, General Murtala was a courageous one who fought and sacrificed for the unity of Nigeria. As a leader he was just and fair to all as everyone and every section had sense of belonging under him. As a person, he was unapologetically Pan-African, charismatic and patriotic. Murtala will be remembered for kick-starting the beginning of the end of apartheid and racial discrimination in Africa. He fought for Nigeria and Africa and died in the service of Nigeria and Africa.

History is on the side of the oppressed.


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