Remembering General Murtala Muhammed

by Sheyi Oriade

Today, exactly to the day, thirty-three years ago, Nigerians woke up to the sounds of martial music and the inebriated voice of a Lieutenant Colonel Buka Suka Dimka of the Nigerian Army on Radio Nigeria. In the course of its history, Nigeria has experienced many coups, but not until the morning of Friday, 13 February 1976, had it witnessed a coup inspired drunken moment amplified over the airwaves. It became clear to listeners that something was, at once afoot and amiss, as Lt. Col. Dimka slurred his words in reading his coup speech; imposing on the nation, as he slurred his lines – a dawn to dusk curfew – the first of its kind in Nigeria. This curfew in purport and effect meant that Nigerians were required to remain within doors during the day until nightfall when they could then venture out. But that was not highlight of his speech, neither was his slurring of it, the highlight was the memorable way in which he ended it, declaring:

Thank you, we are all together’.

God alone knows what brand of brew Lt. Col Dimka had imbibed that morning, but whatever it was, it had evidently hit the spot. If the early moments of the coup were filled with the hilarity of Lt. Col Dimka’s inept performance over the airwaves; the levity of the moment was soon to be shattered, as news that the Head of State, General Murtala Muhammed, had been assassinated. It then dawned on Nigerians, that a coup was really taking place.

That coup was also to claim the lives of Colonel Ibrahim Taiwo, and Captain Michael Akinfenwa, the ADC to the Head of State. General Muhammed’s killing came as a shock to many Nigerians who had begun to take to his energetic and proactive leadership style and agenda. And of course, many admired him for his decision to travel about his business without pomp and circumstance and reduced security; a decision, which in retrospect may have cost him his life.

From the moment of his assumption of office in July 1975, he proved to be a man in a hurry, perhaps subconsciously aware that he did not have much time left. He set in motion the basis for the return to Civilian rule and it is doubtful that he would have sanctioned the participation in that process of many of the political predators who later emerged beneficiaries of it, to ruin the nation. He also engendered a proactive and robust climate of ideas which ensured that Nigeria enjoyed, perhaps, its best foreign policy spell ever.

He took on and took out with military alacrity those he perceived to be spokes in the wheel of bureaucratic corruption and complacency in the nation’s Civil Service. In hindsight, he does appear to have been somewhat overzealous and hasty in his actions, doing too much, too quickly and not thinking things through properly. Although, every fair-minded person realises that he meant well for the nation.

Unfortunately, in some cases his hastiness was to result in the ‘wheat and the chaff’ being thrown out together without proper discrimination between the two. This would result in the nation losing the benefit of the experience of many of its seasoned public servants; and thereby, hampering the smooth running of successive governments. His actions in some cases also unwittingly compounded some of the very issues he tried to resolve. For from that point on, the notion of job security in the Civil Service was lost. And thereon serving and subsequent office holders were to preoccupy themselves first of all with feathering their own nest, before any government business.

Some victims of his actions became so scarred by their experience that it affected the quality of their contributions to the nation in future years. A case in point is that of the late Dr. Clement Isong who was relieved without notice from his position as Governor of the Central Bank. Up until his dismissal from the bank, he was reputed to have had an unblemished record of service; and his dismissal was thought to have more to do with an ‘ancient’ disagreement between the men going back to the Civil War. At his dismissal Dr. Isong was left practically destitute. It was an experience he was never to forget and one he would guard against in future roles; this was clearly demonstrated in subsequent years, when he became Governor of the old Cross River State.

Prior to his ascendance to the leadership of Nigeria General Muhammed was something of an enigma with a chequered past. Of fiery temperament, he was famed for having played a pivotal role in the coup of July 1966 and was thought to have been a vociferous voice calling for the splintering of Nigeria after that coup. Hardly anyone back then would have thought that he would one day emerge to be the nation’s Head of State.

His fiery nature was to be seen in action during the Civil War when he was reputed to have undertaken a number of disproportionate risks and military excursions which endangered the safety of those in his charge. His actions were thought to have left many a military strategist and tactician at Military HQ aghast.

But on the cessation of the conflict, he settled down well, undergoing a seemingly cathartic experience. He took charge of the Army’s Inspectorate of Signals and become the nation’s Communications Minister; from where he was tapped to become Head of State in 1975. It was to be a short ‘tour of duty’ as he was killed in under a year in 1976, in what became known as ‘Dimka’s’ Coup.

As for Lt. Col Dimka, after his drunken performance at Radio Nigeria, he miraculously escaped the station’s premises, to resurface in the East, where he was apprehended, after momentarily punctuating his escape efforts, to sample the delights of a local prostitute. His was to be an ignoble end, and he was to be widely vilified across the nation; before being shot by firing squad. In one such example of vilification, a ditty was put to verse and school children encouraged to sing it to the tune of ‘Clementine’, it went thus:

‘In Nigeria, West-Africa,
There was once a bloody coup,
On the 13th of February
When the wicked devil Dimka,
Killed our Head of State,

Thirty-three years hence, since General Muhammed’s untimely demise, Nigeria has yet to make the sort of progress he envisaged. He would be disappointed at this fact. But today we remember him for his boundless energy and attempts to renew Nigeria. In many ways, he is remembered more often than he could possibly imagine. For each time we pass through or by the International Airport which bears his name and every time we handle the currency note that bears his image, we are reminded of him.

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