BY OCHEREOME NNANNA
SATURDAY, February 13, 2022 was the 48th anniversary of the assassination of General Murtala Mohammed by Col. B. S. Dimka. As Head of State, Murtala was immensely popular because he was taking knee-jerk military measures to rid Nigeria of the “rot and corruption” of his predecessor, General Yakubu Gowon.
Gowon led Nigeria through the Biafra-Nigeria war which ended at the cusp of the first oil boom. Gowon used much of that oil money to lay the infrastructural foundation of the Federal Capital, Lagos, which we still enjoy. He built most of the flyovers, bridges, causeways and expressways (such as Apapa-Oworonsoki and Ikorodu Road).
In his miscarriage of reforms, Murtala destroyed the structure of the civil service and predisposed governance to the unrequited corruption we see today. He did not steal, but he unwittingly threw the treasury’s door open for future robbers. As he ran roughshod over the political firmament with his naïve “messianic” policies, the ever gullible Nigerian public clapped for him and called him a “hero”.
On Friday, February 13, 1976, he was blown to smithereens by Dimka at Ikoyi while returning from Jumat prayers. Dimka’s act was apparently a retaliation for the ouster of Gowon who, like him, hailed from Plateau State. Six years after the Civil War, the Middle Belt was still a very powerful subset of the victorious Nigeria Army. They felt also entitled to the crown.
With top generals like Lt. Gen. TY Danjuma, the Army Chief; Major Gen. Joe Garba, Major General Zamani Lekwot and a host of others who played leading roles on the federal side of the Civil War, the Middle Belt seemed an emergent independent (of Arewa) power bloc. The overthrow of Gowon and ascendance of Murtala Muhammed as Head of State, with a Yoruba man, Brigadier Olusegun Obasanjo, who was his Deputy, infuriated some senior Middle Belt officers who felt sidelined.
Arewa North had endured nine years of a Christian (Gowon) occupying a position which they felt entitled to. With his ouster, Arewa wanted their power back. They deftly forged an alliance with the Yoruba subset of the military establishment as a means of eventually reclaiming the presidency. When Murtala was killed, Arewa allowed the most senior officer, Obasanjo, to take the lead subject to terms and conditions.
Firstly, Col. Shehu Yar’Adua, a core Fulani royal and son of a First Republic Minister, Alhaji Musa Yar’Adua, was given double promotion to Major General and made Obasanjo’s Deputy. Some Middle Belt officers were annoyed that Danjuma was bypassed for Yar’Adua. They had lost a lot of officers in the execution of Dimka and other coup plotters. They were to lose so many more in future failed attempts such as those of Major General Mamman Vatsa (December 1985) and Major Gideon Orkar (April 1990) through public executions.
The Middle Belt people, as “Northerners”, had been actively involved during the pogroms that saw the massacre of thousands of Easterners, mainly Igbo, in the North. But after the war, the Middle Belt was relegated.
During the war, though the Nigerian Army “wore the mask” of Arewa (or “Hausa”), the main fighters who stopped the Biafra secession were soldiers of Middle Belt, South West and South-South extraction. After the war, the South West gained immense political capital through their alliance with Arewa. They produced the Head of State three times (Obasanjo, 1976-1979; Ernest Shonekan (81 days) 1993 and Obasanjo: 1999 to 2007). South-South got one president (Goodluck Jonathan, 2010 to 2015). Even the South East had one Deputy President, Commodore Ebitu Ukiwe, 1985 to 1986). The Middle Belt got nothing, except juicy commands in the armed forces and civilian postings.
Strangely, Southern Kaduna, Plateau, Taraba and Benue became the first takeoff points of the ongoing herdsmen attacks to “conquer” indigenous people and seize their lands for the settlement of Fulani from all over Africa. The Middle Belt has been systematically subdued more than at any other time in their history!
And so, Murtala Muhammed was either a pawn or party to the Arewa plan to take back power after using the Middle Belt, the South West and South-South to neutralise the East, the only part that has challenged them militarily. Murtala’s father was from Aviele in today’s Edo State, while his mother was from Kano. Murtala was more a son of his mother than father. His maternal uncle, Inuwa Wada, was an influential Arewa politician and second Defence Minister after Muhammadu Ribadu. Wada had personally enrolled Murtala in the Army.
Murtala demonstrated his Arewa commitments during the Civil War. Fringe elements tend to be “overzealous angels” to prove they also belong. When you see Dr. Rabiu Kwankwaso being so passionate about the North, it could be a ploy to divert attention from his alleged Igbo roots.
Murtala Muhammed committed horrendous and cowardly war crimes. He killed thousands of unarmed civilians, mostly men from the Igbo-speaking Delta in Asaba. This was graphically documented in the late Emma Okocha’s book, Blood on the Niger. Some army officers who killed Northern leaders in the 1966 coup were from the Asaba area.
Murtala killed unarmed civilians as revenge. Therefore, his assassination was a karmic fulfilment of the dictum: “He who kills by the sword dies by the sword”. Every charitable and uncharitable attitude is a boomerang.
As a Head of State, Murtala Muhammed positioned himself as a “patriot”. Whose patriot, I ask? Arewa patriot, obviously! His transition programme was packaged to ensure the handover of power back to Fulani in 1979. When he was killed, Yar’Adua was appointed Obasanjo’s Deputy to make sure of that, though Obasanjo is a natural willing tool of Caliphate rule.
Murtala Muhammed lived, fought, killed and died for Arewa. He is their hero, not mine. A war criminal can’t be my hero.