My friend, Tony Uba was at the National Museum, Onikan in Lagos yesterday to see the main attraction there.
Incidentally, yesterday was the 38th Anniversary of the Assassination of Nigeria’s most loved Head Of State (I stand to be corrected though), probably the only one so loved across the various divides that make up the contraption that’s called Nigeria.
Tony later wrote on Facebook that the bullet-ridden Mercedes Benz car, conveying the late General Murtala Mohammed was the only significant item on display at the museum (the state of Nigeria’s museum will be a topic for another day).
General Murtala Ramat Mohammed toppled Gowon’s government, while the latter was attending an Organization of African Unity, OAU summit in Kampala, Uganda on the 29th of July, 1975.
Gowon, who had ‘helped’ to keep Nigeria one, who at the end of the war had not asked for the heads of the leaders of the rebellious BIAFRA, nor asked for the repatriation of it’s self-exiled leader (though surely it was widely held sentiment that if the tables were turned his life and those of his aides wouldn’t have been spared by the other side), was no longer wanted by the same people who asked him to ‘Go On With One Nigeria’.
One of his failings was in dilly-dallying on the handover of power to civilians, as well as the massive corruption that was going on under his nose.
Murtala Mohammed was the man accepted by his peers to clean house. Many of those who fought or led troops were now heading military commands at this time, or were in the military command in one capacity or the other.
One notable member of this group that was conspicuously missing at the helm was the ‘Black Scorpion’, under whose leadership of the Third Marine Commando Division, 3MC Nigeria achieved several victories against the ‘Republic Of Biafra’ from the Port Harcourt axis, working with the former leader of Nigeria’s first rebel group, the Niger Delta Volunteer Force, NDVF Major Adaka Boro (who was arrested and charged with treason for attempting to form a secessionist state in the Niger Delta area by the General Aguiyi Ironsi regime, but released and drafted into the Nigerian army with the rank of Major by General Gowon).
Benjamin Adekunle (who was retired as a Brigadier General in 1974) aka ‘Black Scorpion’ was ruthless in his approach to the war, vowing to kill any moving object in Port Harcourt (then subdued by the Nigerians with few Igbo population) and any moving and non-moving object in the Biafran heartland. Adekunle also helped to bring to effect the blockade policy of Finance Minister, Chief Obafemi Awolowo as he ensured that food aid meant for the famished within Biafra couldn’t and wouldn’t go in by land. Many suspect that he had Major Boro killed after one of the victories he helped the Nigerian win because he was afraid Boro may outshine him, seeing that he was quite popular not only amongst his handpicked one thousand ‘militia’ of Niger Delta stock, but also within the members of the Nigerian army who made up Adekunle’s men. His actions disgusted the Nigerian government, who were already facing a barrage of criticisms from the West occasioned by the efficient Biafran propaganda machine.
Benjamin Adekunle would later become of unsound mind and be relieved of his duties, to be replaced by Olusegun Obasanjo who helped to bring the war to a conclusive end, go on to become War Hero and rule Nigeria twice as Military Head Of State and Civilian President, while Adekunle after he was retired in 1974 disappeared from public view showing up many years later in conditions appallingly different from the ones his peers and those after him had gotten used to.
Murtala Mohammed was one of those men who fought in the war and came out of it to ‘run things’ in Nigeria.
His takeover of power in a bloodless coup was welcomed by Nigerians. He promised to sanitize the ‘system’, and appeared to hit the ground running in going about his business. Most importantly he set a timetable that will culminate in the return of power to Civilians by 1979.
On the streets, Nigerians that were unwilling to be orderly were whipped into line, by the military men that were just about everywhere to maintain order.
The Civil Service bore the brunt of Murtala’s ‘Holy Anger’ the most, to the wide applause of many Nigerians as they had long complained about the inefficiency, ineffectiveness and the corruption inherent in government business, placing most of the blame at the doorstep of the rank and file of the Civil Service.
General Murtala Mohammed brought to an end the reign of the ‘Super Permanent Secretaries’ who held sway under General Gowon. Many senior civil servants were also tried for corruption and fired without emoluments.
For the first time, there was job insecurity in the civil service, necessitating the need for civil servants in later years to ‘make hay while the sun shined’, the harbinger of the larger scale of corruption that will hit Nigeria in later years, define Nigerianess to some extent (especially before Western Foreign Media and State Organs), and become Hydra-Headed and impossible to nip in the bud, eating into the fabric of everyday life of Nigerians.
He created 19 states out of the 12 Gowon had carved out of the regions in 1967.
On the 13th of February, 1976 in keeping with the myth of Black Friday, General Murtala Mohammed was assassinated on his way to work.
Obasanjo assumed power, being the second-in-command naturally (though that isn’t an easy word to use in Nigeria, considering that there was power play after General Abacha died in 1998 before General AbdulSallam Abubakar was installed by the military as his successor, and even during the Civilian Rule, the National Assembly had to invoke the ‘DOCTRINE OF NECESSITY’ to ensure that Vice President, then Acting President Goodluck Jonathan ascended the position of President, which was his democratic due, but was frantically challenged by Northern Nigerian political interests), then set to task the capture of the coup plotters led by Lieutenant Colonel Buka Suka Dimka.
They were tried by a military tribunal, sentenced to death and executed. Obasanjo ruled Nigeria in the shadow of Murtala Mohammed elevating him close to the level of a Demi-God, such that though he was dead his portrait continued to adorn government offices and official locations. The International Airport at Ikeja in Lagos was named after him, so were many roads and streets, the =N=20 note bore his image, and I remember that there were white metallic washing basins with his portrait on them, even some mothers named their new born sons after him.
We may not know how things would’ve turned out had he not been cut short in his prime (as many military and civilian rulers of Nigeria were also popular within six months in office but later begun to disgust Nigerians to the level of revulsion.
He was given no time to do wrong by his adversaries, who till date remain unknown. Accusing fingers were initially pointed at the exiled General Gowon, who was enjoying the protection of his puppeteers (while he was in power) in the United Kingdom, while some looked to the beneficiaries of the failed coup for clues as to their involvement.
Most Nigerians still speak loftily of the Murtala days, many like you would hear in legends embellished their stories with impossible tales about the person of the late Head Of State. Of most importance to the generality of people was that he came to equity with clean hands. No kobo of government property was found in his possession at the time of his death.