I am sure that if you ask Obasanjo himself or many of his diehard supporters who is the greatest Nigerian leader, they will probably tell you, without mincing words, it is Baba Iyabo for sure. If you have read “My Command”, one of the few books written by Obasanjo, you will have a better understanding of what I am talking about. To be candid, I would readily agree that Obasanjo is a great Nigerian by any standard of measurement. But what I am not so sure about, is how well he compares with other great Nigerian leaders and the few of them who have achieved greatness using the Military as their launching pad. I cannot now remember how many Generals Nigeria has produced in 40 years of Independence. They are two for a penny, and because Army officers from the rank of Brigadiers are by protocol addressed as Generals, you may sometimes feel confused as I do, that there are more Generals, Rear and Vice Admirals in our Military than foot soldiers or naval ratings and air men. But out of those Generals, I will submit, that one man has stood out. That is Murtala Mohammed whose portrait now adorn our 50 Naira which used to be our highest denomination of local currency in Nigeria before the 500 Naira denomination was issued for Nnamdi Azikiwe, and 100 Naira for Obafemi Awolowo and 200 or so for Sardauna Bello and so on and so forth. Murtala Mohammed happened to be our first career soldier to be so honored. He therefore occupies a special place in the hearts and psyche, and rightly so.
It therefore probably makes a lot of sense to compare Murtala to Obasanjo, and to find out how much they truly differ in their personality, their character profiles, their value system and the way they view power. It is true that birds of the same further do flock together. Yes, they do, but in the case of Obasanjo and Murtala, only for a short time, I would argue.
In 1975 when the two first assumed the leadership of Nigeria as number one and number two through a popular coup that ended the career of Yakubu Gowon, sending him into exile in Britain, many would have sworn that the two had shared a lot of attributes that go beyond sharing identical feathers. They were both top notch career soldiers and commanders in the Biafran War, and they have both had distinguished careers as upper mobility officers with a lot of clout and influence.
The two colonels were considered as action men who had come to power to change Nigeria for good. Even though Murtala Mohammed was the Head of State, most Nigerians believed either rightly or wrongly, at the time, that the real power behind the throne was Olusegun Obasanjo. He was believed to be the architect of many of the policies and programs that made their regime arguably the most popular in the history of military coups in our country.
To be exact, Murtala Mohammed had governed the country for only 200 days. But those 200 days had seemed like 200 years measured by the number of things his Administration was able to accomplish, and the very dynamic and swift manner he spoke and got things done. He was so different from General Gowon who after nine years in office, as a compromise choice, had become so laid back and confused about where he was really leading the country, and his motivation. The country was definitely adrift and his removal was good riddance welcomed by all and sundry as I recall.
Murtala Mohammed had left nobody in any doubt about what he was about and what he wanted done. He did not keep the nation guessing. He behaved and acted as a leader in a hurry, as if he knew he was not going to be there for long, and by so doing, he has earned for himself and his regime the respect and admiration of the great majority of Nigerians. He crafted the cliché, “with immediate effect and automatic alacrity”, because everything was done with clocklike precision. He had a plan of action and he followed the plan with the persistence of a demon. He was a Head of State with a difference.
I recall him getting out of his official car one time, to help in directing traffic in the busy streets of Lagos. He demonstrated leadership by example. He not only practiced what he preached, he made sure his Deputy and the rank and file of the Military, did the same thing. He made no pretensions that he was mini “God” and was therefore above mistakes like Obasanjo is now doing today. He was ready and willing to admit his mistakes and to say he was sorry. He understood that the closer any man can get to perfection is to admit his mistakes. He never at any time gave the impression he was wiser than any other Nigerians, and he truly believed that none of us is better than all of us, and he would bend over backward to listen to others and to take their views into consideration in making a final decision. He had no time to waste. Once he made his decision, he followed it with implementation. His sense of justice was congenital and he had a soft spot for the underdog in our society, and he truly believed that Justice delayed was Justice denied.
As Head of State he hated double standards and he often argued that what was good for the goose was equally good for the gander and he would go to great length to prove that in every instance. I am able to say all of this because I knew him very well. I did serve for two years under him as Chairman of the Recruitment Panel for senior military officers in the Defense Headquarters in Republic Building in Marina Lagos. I was Secretary to that panel in my capacity as Assistant Secretary (Army) in those days, and I knew the way he operated and his order of priorities as Chairman. Once the ground rules for the recruitment and interviews have been agreed to by members, he made sure, as Chairman, that nobody bent the rule to accommodate any candidate. He would tell you the Law is the Law, and that the Law is no respecter of persons. He was always focused and to the point.
If Murtala were still Head of State in 1979, the outcome of the 1979 Elections would have been different because he would have given the Electoral Commission a free hand to conduct the Elections because it was never in his DNA to stage-manage things or work to the answer. By the same token, if he were still President in 2003, he would never have allowed the Presidential and the Governorship elections to be so openly rigged by the PDP. Never. He had raised the bar of public probity to a height that he could not possibly compromise by behaving like Obasanjo is doing today He was one President who would have had Chris Uba and Governor Ngige arrested and tried once they confessed to him
they have rigged the elections in Anambra State.
He would not have wasted time waiting for the Court of appeal to rule on an election he knew was massively rigged. He would have called a press Conference to apologize to the nation that a bad mistake had been made and to tell the nation what he planned to do about it. Some might argue such a scenario was not possible in a democratic setting like the one we have today. But I will tell you that people don’t change that much. I can tell you that Obasanjo, even though an elected President today, still thinks and behaves like when he was in uniform. He had little respect for the Rule of Law and unlike Murtala Mohammed, he strongly believed he could bend the rule to accommodate his friends and supporters as often as necessary. Left to Obasanjo, the Appeal Court sitting in Enugu should simply have ordered a fresh election in Anambra and not award a victory to the APGA candidate who had been denied victory for three years out of a four year term. Why? Because in the convoluted mind of Obasanjo, he would rather see another PDP candidate elected again, than allowing Anambra voters to have a Governor they actually voted for. Murtala Mohammed would never have done that for sure.
To prove my point, I recall for you something that Murtala Mohammed had done in 1975 shortly after coming to power. He had set up the Justice Ayo Irikefe Panel or Commission to submit recommendations for the creation of additional states in Nigeria. Justice Irikefe with some marital ties to Ondo town had recommended the creation of seven additional states with Ondo State as one. The bone of contention was the town to pick as Ondo State capital. Influential Ondo citizens with their eyes on the State capital had found some ways to reach out to Justice Irikefe to help in making Ondo the capital.
In his final report submitted to the Supreme Military Council, Justice Irikefe in deference to Ondo, had suggested that three towns could be considered as Capital for Ondo State. He had named the three as Ondo, Akure and Ado Ekiti. But in his final prayers, he had had specifically recommended Ondo as capital over and above Akure which has been provincial Headquarters for years, and therefore has had the basic infrastructures in place that Ondo town did not. That awareness had been deliberately downplayed by Justice Irikefe. He had cleverly slant his report to favor Ondo by recommending Kano as capital of Kano State, Kaduna as capital of Kaduna State and Ondo as the capital of Ondo State by his well calculated logic. The prayers would have been approved by acclamation but for the timely and God-inspired intervention of three distinguished members of the Supreme Military Council.
The first was late Colonel Bisala, the then Federal Commisioner for Defense who has drawn attention to the Irikefe gamble by raising a point of order to ask why Akure is not being retained as capital since it has always been the Provincial Headquarters for many years. A ranking northern officer raising that kind of question was very significant for Murtala Mohammed who immediately sat up on his seat as he listened to the eloquent submission of the late Colonel Bisala, may his soul rest in peace? After Bisala came another speaker in Colonel James Oluleye from Efon Alaye in Ondo State who not only supported the observation of Colonel Bisala, but made another pertinent point of his own that it would amount to injustice not to retain Akure as capital. An Ekiti officer making that kind of comment on Akure had a lot of resonance with Murtala Mohammed who had told the nation, time and again, that his was a corrective regime. But that did not end the debate. Bringing up the rear, was the young Navy Captain Olumide from Lagos State repeating much the same sentiments and suggesting that the Council must rise to the occasion, and correct the anomaly. It was Akure’s finest moment, and God Almighty was clearly in control.
Murtala simply shook his head, picked up his green biro pen to take out the word “Ondo” and to replace it with “Akure” in his own handwriting. He then added his initial, “M.M.” before the memo was unanimously adopted. That was how Akure became Ondo State capital in a last minute effort. I have underscored this episode to reveal the character of Murtala Mohammed and to show how totally different a leader he was from Olusegun Obasanjo. Need I say more?
I rest my case.