Murtala Muhammed: remembered
If it not for death, former head of state, General Murtala Mohammed would have turned 81 today, 8 November. He was born the same day in 1938, in Kano.
However, here is what happened before Muhammed became head of state as the coup to remove Yakubu Gowon was being hatched.
How we dragged Murtala Muhammed into our plot
By Joe Garba
Brigadier Murtala Ramat Muhammed had not wanted to be Head of State. But he had been our choice since the day in April when a few of us, distraught over the state of the country, began to conceive the idea of the coup. Lieutenant Colonel Shehu Musa Yar’Adua and I went to his house one evening to talk to him about it, and found him reciting Koranic verses to the accompaniment of tapes pre-recorded for the purpose. He was in the middle of one of them and barely acknowledged our presence.
We waited in silence for some forty minutes, until the tape had finished. I had not been to his house for a long time, indeed, not since 1969. And even though I had been responsible for reconciling him with General Gowon in 1972, which led subsequently to his appointment in as Commissioner of Communications in the 1974 cabinet reshuffle, he and I only maintained a correct relationship, despite our having been very close in the days leading to the July 1966 coup. He and Shehu yar’Adua, however, had a closer relationship, and I therefore left the talking to Shehu.
When Yar’Adua finished speaking, I interjected a few words in amplification. He looked at us steadily for some moments, and then said, “I have no intention of taking up arms for Nigeria again. Gowon is too far gone, and I would as soon let him stew in his own juice. If you boys want to stage a coup, which I agree is long overdue, I will not stop you. However, I reject your offer to be Head of State. Indeed, I refuse to have anything to do with it. But since I believe your motives are correct, the only undertaking I will give you is, should you fail, and anyone wants to execute you, I would do my utmost to save your necks.”
With that he went back to reading his Koran. After some moments, we left, Shehu Yar’Adua saying to me not ro worrry; he would try to make him come around. He must have done a good job because eventually Murtala gave his tacit approval, wanting, however, to be distant from the events. Though he was told all of the details and time, etc, he arranged to be out of the country, and was thus in London when the coup actually took place. The only aircraft we allowed to land on that morning was the one carrying him back to Lagos via Kano where de deplaned.
We members of the “Junta” had agreed among ourselves about structural changes in how decisions would be made in the new government. The Supreme Military Council would become supreme in deed as well as name, and a new Head of State would be the most senior member among the selected officers, but in contrast to its predecessor under Gowon, excluding the state governors. Murtala had known none of these details, and now had to understand and accept them; hence, a closed-door meeting with him.
It fell to me to put this to me, and the other members of the “triumvirate”, to secure their agreement. When I finished my talk, Murtala burst out, “To hell with all of you! I have said I don’t want to be anybody’s Head of State. But if you’re inviting me to be one, I’m not going to allow you to tie my hands behind my back. I must have executive authority and run the country as I see best.” I tried to reason with him, but twenty minutes later he was still arguing.
The dozens of officers waiting in the Conference Room were getting restive, and Brigadier Godwin Ally, in whose territory we were, since he was Commander of the Lagos Garrison Organization, looked in once or twice to find out what was going on. Clearly something had to be done, and I requested Murtala to leave the room. Knowing him, we had anticipated this reaction and had made contingency plans. We offered the leadership first to Obasanjo and then to Danjuma but both declined supporting Murtala as the obvious choice and imploring us to do all we could to persuade him. I invited him back into the room, and asked whether he had reconsidered. He said no.
I was beginning to lose my temper. I was very tired having been up and awake for forty-eight hours and under considerable pressure the whole time. Suddenly one of my colleagues, Colonel Abdullahi Mohammed, took over. He turned to Murtala, and in some solemn and stern voice (which surprised me, since as Head of Nigerian Army Intelligence, he usually spoke little and, when he did, softly), said as best as I can remember it:
“Brigadier Muhammed, when we were planning this coup, we assessed all the senior officers in the Army, and we decided that you were the best man to lead the country. We also agreed on some fundamental changes in how our new government should work. Garba has explained this to you. If you do not accept it, we cannot force you. But we happen to know you have a very large following in the Army and in the country at large. If we appoint someone else as Head of State instead of you, there are those who will wonder why, and they may create problems for us. We can appoint another man if we have to, but to pre-empt these your admirers, before doing so, we will first tell the whole nation about this meeting, and our conditions and the fact that you refused them. Once more, I am going to explain to you what it is we are asking of you.”
He then went over the same ground again.
After this explanation Murtala exploded, shouting, “This is blackmail! I am not going to have you blackmailing me”. We could see behind this somewhat theatrical outburst that he would give in, but not gracefully. Then, he said, but protesting all the while, that all this should have been explained to him before. He then accepted our terms. Thus, we had a new Head of State.