"If you want to prevent
a coup, remove the cause."
The Murtala Muhammed Coup of 1975
By Nowa Omoigui, MD, MPH, FACC
Murtala Muhammed (see footnote about variations in his name) was born in Kano on November 8, 1938 and attended Barewa College Zaria. In 1959, his coursemate cohort entered the Army. Initially educated at the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst, UK, as a regular combatant, he underwent subsequent courses in the teeth arm specialty of Signals. He was commissioned 2nd lieutenant in 1961, rising to the rank of Lieutenant 7 months later.
In early 1962, he served a tour of duty in the Congo as part of the UN peacekeeping force before returning to Nigeria to serve as ADC to Dr. Majekodunmi who acted as Administrator of the Western region after the declaration of a State of Emergency. Twenty eight months after commission he made the rank of Captain at which time he was given command of a signals unit at the Brigade HQ in Kaduna. By late 1964 he had been promoted temporary Major (T/Major).
He subsequently moved to Apapa in Lagos about the time his Uncle (Alhaji Inua Wada) became Defence Minister in 1965, following Ribadu's death, and was in Lagos when the first coup took place in January 1966.Indeed, without his knowledge, many soldiers from the signals unit at Apapa were used by Major Ifeajuna for Lagos operations during the first coup, a fact that proved to be a source of immense embarrassment to Muhammed.
Although still technically a substantive Captain (but T/Major), he was elevated to the rank of temporary Lt.Colonel in April 1966 by then C-in-C, Major General Aguiyi Ironsi who also made him Inspector of Signals, Nigerian Army. After the military coup d'etat of January 15, 1966, Major Murtala Muhammed played a crucial role in mobilizing opinion among northern soldiers and officers in Lagos for the second military coup.However, the coup he (along with TY Danjuma, Martin Adamu and others) planned and had postponed no less than three times, was overtaken by events on July 29, 1966, as a result of an unplanned sequence of events at Abeokuta in which Lt. Colonel Gabriel Okonweze, Major John Obienu and others were impulsively shot to death in the officer's mess by northern NCOs.
Once it became obvious to northern soldiers in Lagos that killings had started in Abeokuta, Murtala Mohammed, Martin Adamu and others got themselves organized and launched operations in Lagos to "adjust" to the situation. Meanwhile, wearing a borrowed uniform, Major TY Danjuma, who was accompanying General Ironsi on a nationwide tour, cordoned Government House Ibadan with troops from the 4th battalion and arrested the General, along with Colonel Fajuyi. Shortly thereafter, certain junior officers and NCOs pushed Danjuma aside, took control of the situation and abducted both men. They were later shot. (Other accounts of the events indicate that Danjuma actually ordered the killing of Ironsi and Fajuyi).
It was subsequently alleged that Muhammed used his key position as Inspector of Signals to communicate messages to northern conspirators in other parts of the country urging action. It was also alleged that he was the leader of the initially separatist faction among northern troops in Lagos and at one point commandeered a passenger jet to transport northerners out of Lagos back to the North in an apparent move to secede. This murky charge has never been satisfactorily explained and it is hard to get consistent accounts about it.
As things settled down after the initial orgy of killings in Abeokuta, Lagos, Ibadan and Kaduna, the tentative Lt. Col. Yakubu Gowon (who was then Chief of Staff, Army, professionally senior to Muhammed) emerged as the choice of the northern rank and file, barely edging out the charismatic Lt. Col. Murtala Mohammed from the position of C-in-C. The bad feelings generated by this power rivalry was to dog their relationship from then on. (Recent accounts at the Oputa Panel allege that Gowon was a participant in that coup.)
With Lt. Col. Hassan Katsina as the Military Governor of the North, Mohammed lay low in the background in Lagos as Lt. Col. Gowon traded banter with Lt. Col. Ojukwu and negotiated the tortuous path through various 1966 constitutional conferences and the 1967 Aburi meetings. This resulted in part because Gowon was uncomfortable with Mohammed and kept him "out of the loop". However, in the period leading up to the outbreak of hostilities with Biafra, Murtala Mohammed did not hide his feelings that peace talks or not, war was coming and that preparations be made for this inevitability.
It is alleged that some of the earliest preparations by northern civilians to import weapons privately were made at his urging. As fate would have it, Mohammed did not have long to wait. On May 30, 1967, Lt. Col. Ojukwu proclaimed the Republic of Biafra. Almost immediately, steps were taken to bring the situation under control. A total naval blockade of the bights of Benin and Biafra (later renamed 'Bonny') was ordered. The 'police action' land phase of what is now referred to as the Nigerian Civil War subsequently began on July 6, 1967.A few weeks later, faced with north-south and south-north axes of federal advance, Ojukwu took a gamble.
On Wednesday, August 9, 1967, about 3000 Biafran soldiers and militiamen, under the command of Lt. Col. ["Brigadier"] Victor Banjo, crossed the Niger Bridge at Onitsha into Asaba. The seizure of the Midwest was essentially accomplished within 12 hours. It became obvious that Ibadan and Lagos were next. Desperate for a bail out, Gowon turned to the 28 year old Lt. Col. Murtala Mohammed. Aided in part by temporary hesitation on the part of the Biafran commander, Muhammed, with Patton-like boldness, hit the ground running, commandeering officers, men, supplies, mammy wagons, and weapons meant for other divisions which had been waiting for clearance at the Ports.
He practically created a new Army Division from scratch by building around a skeletal crew of units withdrawn from other fronts and local units in Lagos and Ibadan.Supported by Lt. Cols Akinrinade, Aisida and Ally as his Brigade Commanders, Muhammed launched a lightening counter-offensive, eventually checking the Biafran units at Ore as two brigades entered the Midwest from Okenne and marched southwards furiously in a flanking move toward Benin City.
The ancient city fell back to federal control at 6 p.m. on Sept 20, 1967. With supporting operations in the Delta by units of Lt. Col Adekunle's third division, much of the Midwest, except Agbor and Asaba, were cleared simultaneously.
On arrival in Benin, one of several sensational allegations made against Murtala Mohammed during his lifetime came to life. Rumors said he had organized the looting of the Central Bank in Benin. Other reports said the Treasury and Central Bank were looted of approximately $5.6 million by retreating Biafran troops under the supervision of an Igbo civil servant, on Ojukwu's orders. The money was allegedly used to support the war effort - at least until the Federal Central Bank in Lagos changed currency much later on during the course of the war. The mystery of the Benin Central bank looting was finally settled by the book by Emmanuel Okocha titled "Blood on the Niger" in which he actually named those involved.
On September 21, 1967, Lt. Col. Murtala Mohammed made the following radio broadcast:
"My dear brothers and sisters of the Mid-Western State of Nigeria: On behalf of Major-General Yakubu Gowon, Head of the Federal Military Government and Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces, I, Lt.-Col. M. R. Mohammed, do hereby officially confirm the complete liberation of the Mid-Western State of Nigeria except Agbor and Asaba from rebel soldiers. The inhuman atrocities suffered by all true Mid-Westerners through the so-called Biafran soldiers, though short-lived, have shocked all Nigerians wherever they may be''.
''The molestation of innocent civilians and the looting of their property and the indiscriminate killing of men, women and children recently undertaken by the rebel troops has ended. All Mid-Westerners in the areas where the rebel troops have been crushed are free to move about as they please. No innocent citizen living in any of the mentioned areas will ever be molested again''.
''The federal troops have been warmly received by the Mid-Westerners everywhere they have gone. We appreciate the friendship of the people and I sincerely hope that this friendship will continue forever. I would like to assure the people that my soldiers will do everything in their power to maintain this friendship. With regard to Emeka Ojukwu and his rebel soldiers, I., Lt.-Col. M.R. Mohammed, do hereby assure the people of Nigeria and the people of the Mid-West in particular, that by the grace of God, we will, in a very short time, crush the rebels in the Central-Eastern State''.
''To this end, I would like to advise all innocent citizens of the Central-Eastern State to keep out of the way of the federal troops.The march to Enugu continues, and anybody that stands in the way of the federal troops will be regarded and treated as a rebel. I have already dispatched my forces to deal with the rebels around Agbor and Asaba.I would like to appeal to all my brothers and sisters in the Mid-Western State of Nigeria to assist the federal troops in locating, and in the eventual destruction of the rebels that may be hiding around the Mid-West. It is necessary to advise the people in Benin City to remain indoors from nine o'clock tonight until six o'clock tomorrow morning as mopping-up operations will continue''.
''The Administration has suffered quite a lot due to the mischief brought about by the rebel troops. On behalf of the head of the Federal Military Government and Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces, I appoint Lt.-Col. Samuel Ogbemudia as the temporary administrator of the Mid-Western State of Nigeria. All officers and men of the Nigerian Army based in the Mid-Western State of Nigeria should report for duty immediately at the Military headquarters in Benin City. Brothers and sisters of the Mid-Western State of Nigeria: May God bless you all and good luck."
Unfortunately, discipline broke down locally and reprisal killings against Igbos in Benin, deemed to have betrayed the region took place on a large scale, often coordinated with soldiers under Mohammed's command. Similar killings occurred in other Midwestern towns. To be fair to Mohammed, one can report at least one case in which he personally intervened to prevent such killings. An uncle of mine, for example, accused of protecting Igbos from execution, was himself saved from summary execution at Ugonoba by the quick intervention of Colonel Murtala Mohammed himself. But the worst was yet to come.
Upon arrival of the main spearhead of the Second division at Asaba, hundreds of able-bodied males were allegedly lined up and summarily executed, Nazi style, for "collaborating with the enemy". At least one authority opines that the delay occasioned by this exercise may have resulted in a missed opportunity by Muhammed to take Onitsha from the disorganized and retreating Biafran forces without a fight. This terrible incident was, however, never officially investigated by a Board of Inquiry nor did it lead to a court-martial, although General Gowon has since apologized for it many years after the war.
Against instructions from Supreme Headquarters, and faced with disobedience from two of his brigade commanders (Lt. Cols. Aisida and Akinrinade), followed by a near fist-fight with a fellow divisional commander (Col. Shuwa), Murtala Mohammed then tried repeatedly to conduct an assault river crossing by taking Onitsha frontally from Asaba. He lost thousands of men and millions of dollars of supplies in three carelessly planned attempts. At least one of these attempts was made on the advice of marabouts.
Eventually, he acceded to military orders to swing northwards, make an unopposed crossing at Idah, and eventually take Onitsha via a north-south coastal advance, with Col. Shuwa's 1st division protecting his eastern flank. Even then, he suffered one more humiliating loss at Abagana on March 31st 1968, when Biafran troops ambushed a logistics column seeking to link up with Major Yar'Adua's unit at Onitsha.
Gowon replaced the emotionally exhausted Mohammed as the GOC of the badly mauled second division in mid 1968 with Colonel Ibrahim Haruna. Haruna was himself later replaced on May 12, 1969 by Col. Gibson Jallo when all divisional commanders were recalled.
It is alleged that after the Abagana debacle, Mohammed simply went to Kano and then left the country on vacation to London without bothering to inform Supreme HQ. He was, however, promoted to Colonel in 1968 and reappointed to the Inspectorate of Signals.
But tensions with Gowon and Army HQ continued. At one point he accused the Ministry of Defence and its contractors of inflating the cost of weapons and ammunition, daring them to give him money to go abroad to purchase ammunition himself. As the story goes, he contacted his Uncle, Inua Wada, former civilian Minister of Defence who arranged for him to get weapons and ammunition abroad at cheaper rates, embarrassing the Army HQ in the process.
end of the war, Mohammed made another interesting move. In late 1969,
approached then Colonel Obasanjo, commander of the third
and appealed to him to slow down the rate of advance of his division,
that a quick victory over Ojukwu would make Gowon unapproachable by
officers as a victorious War Commander. What Mohammed had in mind was
senior officers should force then Major General Gowon to "share power"
as a condition of cooperating with him to end the war! Obasanjo refused
and pushed ahead furiously with the 3rd division's advance which
cut Biafra into two parts and ended the war in January 1970.