Editor’s note: Femi Fani-Kayode researches and subjects to an analysis the figure of Murtala Muhammed, whom, forty years after his assassination, Nigerians equally praise and vilify.
If there was one man that had a profound effect on our history, perhaps more than any other, it was Gen. Murtala Ramat Mohammed. Sadly, he was assassinated 40 years ago, on February 13th, 1976. In a clime and a nation in which there are few true heroes, he was certainly one of them.
The first among equals
I could write a whole book on this man. It is a pity that the younger generation of Nigerians don’t know much about him or about what he did and achieved for our nation both before and after he became head of state in 1975. Forty years after his murder, his name still brings joy and admiration to his associates, friends and loved ones, and terror and trepidation to his detractors and foes.
Of all the former heads of state and leaders in our country, I admire him the most. His courage, focus, brazenness, righteous anger, strength of character, bellicose nature, passion and ability to take the bull by the horns and do what needed to be done, no matter whose ox was gored and no matter what the consequences were, was exemplary and outstanding.
In these days of cowardice, guile, deceit, doublespeak, subterfuge and political correctness, Mohammed would not have found much pleasure or joy, and neither would he have been fully appreciated. He was blunt, fearless and irrepressible and, as they say, he was “as tough as nails”. He was all that a real warrior ought to be. Most important of all he was inspirational: he scorned death and he had no fear of it.
Nigeria at her best
What a man this was: truly the first among equals. He was a living example of the veracity of the adage that says “who dares, wins”. His life was a manifestation of the fact that truly fortune favors the bold. Our domestic policy under his watch brought positive and monumental changes to the fortunes of our country and the character of our people. Our foreign policy under him, throughout the six months that he was head of state, was a sight to be seen. It was Nigeria at her proudest and her best.
In those days we were rich, loud and boisterous. We could boast of having Africa’s strongest army and her most outstanding and best-educated middle class. We were big, strong and powerful, and when Nigeria spoke the world listened. When we sneezed, Africa literally caught a cold. When we roared, the world shook. We wielded this great power and influence on the world stage with immense dazzle and razzmatazz. Yet we were also cautious, restrained and deemed as being highly responsible. That is when Nigeria was regarded as the Giant of Africa, and rightly so.
Without General Murtala Mohammed, the eventual liberation of Angola, Zimbabwe and South Africa would not have been achieved when it was. Though he did not live to see it, he set the ball rolling and he threw down the gauntlet to the Western powers and all those that supported racial tyranny and apartheid in the nations of Southern Africa.
Some historians have even argued that that is precisely why he was eventually murdered. Yet if that was the motivation for organizing his assassination, it did not stop anything because the cat was already out of the bag and his legacy had already been established and taken root.
This is confirmed by the fact that his extraordinary and dynamic foreign policy vis-à-vis the total liberation of our brother African nations and his unrelenting opposition and resistance to white minority rule in South Africa and Rhodesia (as it then was) continued under the able leadership of his second in command, General Olusegun Obasanjo, after he took over as the head of state on Feb. 14th 1976. The rest is history.
Permit me to end this contribution with an aside. I am mindful of the fact that many people do not share my views about Mohammed and some regard him as a complete villain. The truth of the matter is that he was not perfect and neither did I attempt to confer sainthood on him in this piece. He was no angel and neither was any other person that has ever ruled this country or indeed any other country.
His detractors often cite his leadership of and role in the northern revenge coup of July 29th, 1966, during which hundreds of Igbo army officers were killed, as his greatest sin, whilst others cite his brutality during the course of the Civil War. The irony is that those that share that view often eulogise people like Major Kaduna Nzeogwu and Major Emmanuel Ifeajuna, the leaders of the January 15th, 1966 coup, for killing innocent and unarmed civilians in their homes (and in some cases with their family members) in the middle of the night whilst they denigrate Major Murtala Mohammed (as he then was), Major T.Y. Danjuma (as he then was), Major Martins Adamu and others for their reaction to such barbarity. I do not seek to justify the events of July 29th or to endorse the murder of those that were killed but we must put and see these things in their proper context.
In any case my take is that you cannot judge a man by one or even two events in his life. You have to look at the whole gamut of activities throughout his soujorn on earth and weigh the good against the bad. In the case of Murtala Mohammed it is my view, and that view is unapologetically subjective, that the good certainly outweighs the bad.
Clearing the confusion
Finally it is pertinent to note that many have attributed to him a tendency and trait that he certainly did not harbor. The first is that he was a tribalist and a religious bigot. This is false. As a matter of fact nothing could be further from the truth. If he was either of the two I would be the first to say so and I would not only expose him but I would also vent my spleen on him and his legacy. Many can testify to the fact that if there is anything or anyone that I despise more than anything else it is those individuals that suffer from the delusion of tribal and racial superiority and religious bigotry. Thankfully, Mohammed was not afflicted with that particular malaise.
How anyone can describe him as a tribalist when he married a Yoruba woman as his first and only wife amazes me. How anyone can call him a hater of southerners when the greatest beneficiary of his tenure of office was a southerner by the name of Chief MKO Abiola? It was when Murtala Mohammed was head of state that Abiola managed to secure the numerous ITT communication contracts in Nigeria that made him one of the richest men in the world.
If Mohammed had been a tribalist he would have found a fellow northerner and Hausa-Fulani to give contracts to and he would not have given them to a Yoruba man. His numerous friends in the south, which included people like my late fathers’s law partner, the late and brilliant Chief Sobo Sowemimo SAN, together with many others puts a lie to the suggestion that Mohammed was a northern supremacist. He was far from that.
The second allegation which is often made against him is that he was responsible for the infamous Asaba massacre which took place in 1968 during the Nigerian Civil War and in which over 1000 innocent elderly Igbo men and young boys were slaughtered. I have written about the Asaba massacre probably more than anyone else over the years, and the sheer horror of that event is mind-boggling and chilling. It has always been my view that all those that were involved in it ought to be made to face justice. This is because, apart from the starving to death of over one million Igbo children, the Asaba massacre was probably the greatest war crime and crime against humanity that took place during our civil war.
It is true that Murtala Mohammed was the commander of the Second Division in the mid-west but he was not in Asaba when the massacre took place. He was not involved in the killings and neither did he order for them to be carried out. Whilst the killings were taking place he was at the divisional headquarters of his command in Umunede and he was nowhere near Asaba.
Some notable historians such as the British author John De St. Jorre in his book titled ‘The Nigerian Civil War’ have asserted that the Asaba killings were ordered and personally executed by an individual whom he described as “a young Igbo-hating Major from Benin” who was outraged at the fact that many of his soldiers were killed during the course of the siege.
He claims that Mohammed knew nothing about the massacre until well after the evil act was concluded. I accept this narrative because De St. Jorre’s book is probably the most profound and objective historical account of the Nigerian Civil War. He was a highly respected historian of international repute. The second reason that I accept his account is because Murtala Mohammed himself often told those that cared to listen that he knew nothing about the murders in Asaba and that once he found out about them he went to great lengths to discipline and sanction the officers that were involved. He went further by urging the then-head of state, Lt. Col. Yakubu Gowon, to apologise for the the killings on behalf of the Nigerian Army, and this was done.
One thing is clear: if Mohammed had indeed ordered the Asaba killings, he is the type of man that would have said so openly and he would not hide behind a lie. That is the type of leader and officer that he was: he was prepared to take responsibility for his actions, whether good or bad. Given this, I think that it is historically inaccurate and most unfair to blame him for the atrocities that were committed in Asaba, even though he was indeed the commanding officer of the second division in the mid-western eegion.
The truth is that in military conflicts all sorts of terrible things happen, and we must never forget what those that suffered, that were starved to death and that were butchered in their millions were subjected to during our civil war. By the same token we must not forget the hundreds of thousands of officers, soldiers and innocent civilians that sacrificed their lives and put everything on the line to keep Nigeria one. There were angels and demons on both sides of the conflict, and our prayer must be that Nigeria never experiences such a civil war again.
We must also acknowledge the fact that it would be a great sin for us to judge any man solely on what we perceive to be his negatives, whilst at the same time attempting to disregard or play down his positives. There were many sides to the enigma called General Murtala Ramat Mohammed: some good and others bad. That is what made him human. That is what made him special and unique. I have done the research and I have weighed the man. To me, regardless of conflicting views which are more often than not held and voiced passionately, he remains a hero even though he was cut short in his prime.
May the general his courageous soul continue to rest in peace and may those that are in power today resurrect his spirit and build on his great legacy.
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