Urhobo Historical Society

"My Quarrel with Murtala Muhammed Was One of the Reasons He Overthrew Gowon"

By Chief T. O. Akindele

Culled from:
Saturday, 20 Feb 2010


Chief T.O. Akindele

Otunba Theophilus Oluwole Akindele was the Director-General of Communications at the time the late Nigerian Head of State, Gen. Murtala Ramat Muhammed, was the Federal Commissioner for Communications during the regime of Gen. Yakubu Gowon. The 88-year-old retired civil servant who is billed to launch his memoirs at the Nigerian Institute of International Affairs, Lagos on Thursday, provides a fresh insight into the bickering that led to the overthrow of the Gowon regime in 1975. He speaks with VINCENT AKANMODE.

My Civil Service Days

I retired from the Nigerian Civil Service on the 15th of September, 1975 after spending about 32 years in the service. But I did not retire voluntarily. I was forcibly retired. That was during the military era when about 260 civil servants were retired. And I was the last to be retired on September 15, 1975.

In fact, since then, the civil service has not come back to what it used to be during our own time, because so many experienced people were retired.

What position did you hold at the time you were retired?

I was the Director-General of Communications. I was the first Nigerian Director-General of Communications. I took over from the Europeans a few weeks after Independence. I took over from the expatriate Director-General of Communications, which was the highest position in the communication field. If you can remember, during the colonial era, there was noting like a cabinet. What we had were departments, and all the heads of department were responsible to the Governor-General.

Being the first indigenous director-general of communications must have been challenging...

It was very challenging. In fact, that is one of the reasons I had to write an autobiography. A substantial number of Britons were still in the service. They were going to hand over one by one. But when Nigeria first got her independence, they were happy to work for Nigeria as technical officers or engineers. That gave us time to train our own people, and I was one of the people to be trained to take over from the Europeans. I went to Britain, became an engineer, came back in 1949 and started working as an executive engineer in the P&T Department as it was called at that time. The P&T Department was a very big department then. It took charge of even what the Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation is doing now. We also took care of the train services so that two trains would not collide on a lane. I was the principal Telecoms Engineer in charge of Lagos area. Now they are called Territorial Controllers. At that time, we had thousands of names on the waiting list. So, even up till the time I retired, telephone services were still insufficient. When I came in, there were about 50,000 lines throughout the country. At the time I left, there were a little over a million lines. So, it was a challenging job.

Working for the colonial government

It was mixed feelings. We were very friendly with the Europeans. They did not act as if they were masters. We thought together. We held meetings together. But the feeling was still there, that this is our country and we would take over at the appropriate time. And the Europeans were given an option when we had independence. Those who wanted to stay in the Nigerian service should make it known. Those who wanted to leave, because they were taken over from the British Post Office, they could go back there. They were to give between six months and one year notice as the case may be. But many of them did not go immediately; they decided to finish their contracts. For example, the man who was in charge of the P&T technical school that I attended was an European. He was the one who elevated me to the post of technical director in that same school before I went overseas for my engineering qualifications. So, the condition was very friendly. But in my book, I stated one or two instances where we clashed.

How difficult or easy was it to become the Director-General of Communications?

They day I heard about it, I was in the United States of America having a meeting. Mind you, before I left, I was already the Director of P&T. The next position would be that of Director-General. There were five directors under the Director-General. Directors-general and permanent secretaries were only appointed by the head of state. If they were going to be sacked, it would also be done by the Head of State. So, before I left for the US, I took permission from the Secretary to the Federal Government, Abdul Attah, to spend two weeks after the meeting before I would come back home. We started the meeting in America on December 17 and ended it on December 21. I decided that I would observe Christmas in America and then go to London to spend the remaining time because I was more used to London. I wanted a quiet time, so I did not allow the people at the Nigerian embassy to know that I was still in the US after the meeting. On December 24, I woke up in the hotel and went to the dining room but everything was empty. The only office that opened was the cashier‘s because if you were going out, you had to pay. The cashier told me the hotel always observed one week holiday during Christmas. There was no food to eat and I was very hungry. I jumped into the plane and headed for London. Unknown to me, they had started looking for me in Lagos. They rang the Nigerian embassy in the US and the people said I had left. They rang the High Commission in London, they said they had not heard anything about me. I didn‘t report to them because I was on holiday. On January 2, as I was going towards Coventry Market, I saw one of the officials of the Nigerian High Commission called Oki. He said, ‘Ah, Mr. Akindele, where have you been? We have been looking for you.’ My mind just went pram! I concluded that I had lost somebody at home and they were looking for me. I asked him if he knew why they were looking for me and he said no. That worsened the anxiety. When I got back to my hotel room, I rang the High Commissioner. He said, ‘Ah, Mr. Akindele where are you speaking from? The SFG has been looking for you.’ I said I didn‘t know why he should be looking for me, I had an authorised leave for two weeks and still had seven more days. I asked if he knew why the SFG was looking for me but he said he was sorry, that he did not even remember to ask him. I rang the Deputy Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Communications, Mr. Iwajomo, at 4 am because I could not sleep. He said, ‘Who is that?’ I said don‘t you know my voice again? I am Akindele. He said, ‘Ah! DG, congratulations! We have been looking for you everywhere. You better hop on the next plane. They didn‘t allow the man to go because he must hand over to you.‘ I said this is January, so it cannot be April fool. I rang Attah and he said, ‘Akin, what is happening to you? Congratulations!’ I said so it is true. I had my ticket, so the following day I travelled back to Lagos. My public relations officer had to come and meet me at the airport. I saw protocol officers and there were photographers and journalists. They had announced my appointment on the radio, so pressmen wanted my reaction. But I told them I had heard nothing officially yet, and that they should see me when I had resumed. That was how I became the Director-General without expecting it at all.

And what were your experiences as the DG?

The things that happened thereafter were just acts of God. The military came in and things changed. You know that if you say no to a military man, you are risking your life. But my no was no. Any paper that I could not sign, I told them I would not sign it. The federal commissioners, who were mostly military people, would send in a paper and say this paper is meant for you to go through and put up a white paper accepting the conditions and so on. They are contracts actually. And when I looked at them, I would say no. That was part of the reason why Gowon was overthrown, because he stood by me. Murtala Muhammed was the Commissioner of Communications. He could not sack me, because the only man that could sack me was the head of state. He had reported me and said that I should be sacked for indiscipline. And we went on and on and on. Gowon stood by me in spite of the fact that Murtala masterminded the coup that brought Gowon into office. Gowon was somebody who would only do the right thing. He kept telling Murtala that if anything went wrong, I would be the one to answer for it. That was always Gowon‘s stance, and that was one of the reasons why they planned the coup that unseated him. But they gave the reason that Gowon reneged on his promise to hand over power. But it was the decision of the Supreme Military Council to shift the handover date because they said Nigerians had not learnt their lessons. They would not tell the public the real reason.

So, what kind of man would you say Murtala was?

I came to adore him as a man of conscience because of some events that happened later. Eventually, I took him as a model of a Nigerian. He once rang me and said a certain man was coming to me and he wanted me to give him a contract to supply nails. I said yes, sir, I would do so. I wrote to the Controller of Stores and said, ‘This man is from the Commissioner. He wants to be on your list of suppliers. Please help if he meets the conditions given in awarding contracts.’ I put it in writing. I think he got the job because his conditions were right. After about six months, the man came to me and I did not really recognise him. He introduced himself. As I was about to apologise to him, he said no, that he was actually given a job. He gave me an envelope and said it was just a small gift. I rejected it and told him that he should not try that with me again. A few minutes later, Murtala rang and said, ‘That man that I sent to you, never you allow him into our premises again.‘ I said sorry, sir, but what happened? He said, ‘He came to bribe me.’ I said, well, he means well. He said, ‘Yes I know he means well. But now we should learn one lesson. I take bribes but not from fellow Nigerians, but from these Europeans who came to take all our money away. I don‘t even mind taking 50 per cent of their profits, but not from fellow Nigerians.’ That was the first thing I learnt from him.

Why I said I hold him in high esteem is that he became my hero in the long run. I was the last person to be retired out of about 260 civil servants that were retired by him. Whereas everybody had thought I would be the first to be retired because the papers had been reporting that we were quarrelling. The Daily Times, especially. That was why Babatunde Jose was sacked, because Murtala said he was the one publishing nonsense. He created a committee and made Allison Ayida, who was then the Secretary to the Federal Government, the chairman. The Permanent Secretary, Establishment was the Secretary. He gave them a lot of names and gave six criteria for which they should be retired if they were guilty of any. The people looked at all the criteria and what they found was that out of the two hundred and something names, they found nearly everybody guilty in one or two areas. But they said in my own case, they did not find me guilty in any of the six areas. They therefore appealed to the Head of State to be lenient with me. They said I had been promoted about three times in one year and got the Queen‘s commendation, so why should I go? The files went back to him and he agreed to everything. But he kept my own file. The secretary called me and said my file did not come back from Oga (Murtala), so I was all right. Two weeks after everybody had been retired, he wrote to the SFG, that is Ayida, and said my retirement must be announced on Radio Nigeria during the 1p.m news bulletin unfailingly. It was written in long hand that they should go on air and announce that Mr. T.A ( I am T.O) Akindele, the Director-General of Communications, has been retired with immediate effect. When Ayida got this, he was knocked off his feet. He ran to Murtala‘s office with the aim of persuading him to change his mind, but he had gone to the mosque because it was a Friday. But they said he would be back before 1pm. Meanwhile, he said the announcement must be aired at 1 p.m. unfailingly. On Fridays, the news was aired at 1:30pm and not at 1 p.m. So, Ayida seized that opportunity to wait for the head of state. Unfortunately, he (Murtala) did not come back from the mosque as expected. By the time Ayila had waited till 1:20 p.m. and Murtala did not return, he started running to the NBC. He knew that his name was also on the list of those to be retired but Murtala was still grooming (Adamu) Ciroma to take over from him. So he knew that he would go that very day if the announcement was not made. So, he ran to the NBC and knocked at Christopher Kolade‘s office and said, ‘Please, help me. I don‘t want to go today.’ The news was already being read. So, Kolade had to write a note to the newscaster and said, ‘Immediately you get this note, please pause and announce that there is a newsflash. Then read the announcement below and say this is the end of the news flash before you continue with the news.’ They tucked the note under the door and the announcement was made. Meanwhile, I did not hear the news but all my other directors heard it. The first man who came was the Director of Posts. He came because he thought I had heard. When he discovered that I had not heard, he went away. The next person that came was the Director of Finance. He came and said, ‘Oga, sorry o.‘ I said I hope nothing is wrong. He said nothing is wrong sir and went away. I closed at 3 p.m. and went home. My wife had travelled to the UK that very day. Our maid served my food, I ate and decided to read the papers. Then I heard ‘This is the 4 o’ clock news.‘ The first thing in the news was ‘Mr T.A. Akindele, the Director-General of Communications has been retired with immediate effect. I didn‘t know what to do. I finished my food and went to sleep. At about 7 p.m., I heard a knock at the door, and it was Babatunde Jose. He said, ‘Egbon, what are you doing?’ I asked him what was happening. He said, ‘Look through the window and see.’ I looked through the window and saw hundreds of people in the yard and many of them were journalists. At that time, soldiers used to surround my house. I told myself that if I said anything they would kill me. Even before then, he (Murtala) had wanted to trap me but God did not allow it. I took the Chief Magistrate of Lagos High Court’s car and went out. By the time I returned around 10 pm, there were just about four people left, and those four people were more or less family members. I went in. I rang our workshop at Ijora and told them to send me a vehicle to move the few things I had in the house. By 10 a.m. the following day, I was in my house in Surulere. I built it in 1958.

Were you prepared for retirement at that time?

Well, I had spent 32 years in service. But I was not prepared because I still had three more years. About 12 days after I came into my house, Grey Longe sent me a letter and said the Head of State had instructed him to tell me that I could live in my official house for another 12 months. I replied to the letter, telling him to thank the Head of State for the gesture and to tell him that I was already in my own house, and that I did not need any favours. The next thing that came was my salary for 15 days at work, because I was retired on the 15th. The next one was three months salary in lieu of notice. When that one came, I rang Longe and said that people didn‘t get those things until three or six months after retirement. Are you people trying to get rid of me? He said let me read to you what the man wrote: ‘I have retired Mr. Akindele not because he offended me in any way. He is one of the most intelligent directors I have worked with. If I asked him a question on communication, he answered without telling me he would ring me back. If I asked him a question on post, he would say the same thing. These were questions that took other directors two days to answer. And he was one of the most honest.

How did you receive the news of his death?

Oh my God! That is another story entirely. What happened was that two days after I was retired, all the newspapers carried it. On the front page of London Times, it was written that due to the ongoing reshufflement in Nigeria, the Director-general of Communications, Mr. T.O. Akindele, has been retired with immediate effect. The United Nations saw that and they sent me a telex commiserating with me and saying that they had a vacancy that had not been filled for five years. They said nobody was better suited for the job than me. The salary was more than 10 times what I earned as director-general. But they added a caveat that I could only have the job if the government of my country presented me in conjunction with other countries. I said they had made the job impossible for me to take. How could a man who had just dismissed me support my candidacy? They had already sent a copy of the letter to the Ministry of External Affairs. Six days after, they wrote that they had not heard anything from my government, and they asked me to follow up. I said this was a man who said that all my entitlements should be paid within 48 hours. An hour after my three-month salary, there were other monies that came in and they were more than my salary for three years for leaves that I did not take. We once had an altercation during an executive council meeting when he said I should go on forced leave because I refused to sign a contract. He said I should go, that he would recall me after 45 days. I said, ‘Sorry sir, don‘t recall me in the next six months, because I have not gone on leave for 10 years.‘ I did not know that he took note of that. So, when that money came in thousands (we were still using pound sterling), I rang Grey Longe and said, ‘Grey, I thought you were my friend. I didn‘t know that you are one of the people conspiring to throw me into prison.‘ He said, ‘Oga, let me tell you what the man wrote: ‘I understand he (Akindele) has not gone on leave for 10 years. Pay him all his dues from the time he entered the department when he had not gone on leave.’ So, the leave I did not go as an area engineer, or senior engineer, more than 18 months, they paid me everything with the salary grade of a Director-General. It made me rich overnight. This was a man who at the time I was retired said I should not be found within the radius of 100 yards of any ministry or I would be shot.

I rang Ayida and told him about the UN’s offer of appointment. He said it was not possible to give me such an appointment without vying with people from other countries. He said anyway, I should let him see the letter. I reminded him about the instruction to steer clear of any ministry. But he said he would say he was the one that authorised me. He was shocked to see that it was true. He rang the foreign affairs ministry, they confirmed that they got the letter and it was sent to the Ministry of Communications and the permanent secretary said the letter came but the commissioner said he could not forward a letter in respect of somebody who abused the head of state. But Ayida said sorry sir, this has nothing to do with you. Whatever you want to write, you should write it and forward it to us, then we will take it up with the Federal Government. The commissioner said the letter would not leave his office because I was rude to the Head of State. Ayida said okay, I know what to do, we are having the Supreme Military Council meeting tomorrow. I will talk to the Head of State. I said please, don‘t do anything like that; the man would kill me. He said I should not worry, that when they finished the meeting at 6 p.m, he would call me and tell me what he (Murtala) said. When by 6 p.m. I didn‘t hear from him, I started packing my things because I thought they were going to arrest me. At about quarter past nine, the phone rang. I said Allison, what happened? He said this your man is a very funny man. The meeting closed at about 6.30 p.m. and he said that all other matters should come in next Wednesday. When they all stood up to go, I went to him and said sorry sir, there is a very important matter I want to discuss with you. He said no, no, no, any important matter should wait till next Wednesday. I said this is an international matter, and they need a reply. I said the United Nations has offered somebody a job and they want you to endorse his appointment. The next thing he said is don‘t tell me it is Mr. Akindele. I said yes, and he said I don‘t know what is wrong with you civil servants. I have told you that the man has committed no offence whatsoever. Why have you not taken action? I told him the commissioner had refused to take action because he said Mr. Akindele had abused you. He said what! He sent his messenger to go and call the commissioner. When the man came and sat down, he (Murtala) yelled at him and said who told you to sit down! Come on get up! I don‘t know what is wrong with you. Whoever sat on that paper is a bloody fool. He said so three times. He then ordered the commissioner to write a reply to the United Nations the following day and send a copy to you (Akindele). That was how I went to the United Nations.

Did you get to meet him again before he was assassinated?

After I had worked for six months in Geneva he sent a military officer to invite me to see him. I told him (officer) that he was crazy. The officer was two years my junior in school. I told him that I left with my life, now you want to kill me. He said that if Murtala wanted to kill me he would not be the one to be sent. He was a Major-General already. He spoke, but I told him that I would not go; that I was enjoying my life with the United Nations. I had 21 countries under me which I could go at anytime I wanted. We slept on the same bed. Then in the night, I dreamt that I was struggling with Murtala and I was shouting that he wanted to kill me. By the time I woke up, I was sweating. I didn‘t wake the officer. But when I slept again and started having the same dream, I woke the officer but he said I should not disturb him. I told him I was ready to go with him. You needed to see the excitement. He was very happy. I travelled with him the following day. The car that came to take him from the airport brought me here in my house. Then I asked the officer what he wanted me to do. He said I needed not do anything, that he would tell him that I was here and give him my address. If he needed to see me, he would come here or send for me. My wife asked me what I had come to do and I lied to her that I actually came to Johannesburg (South Africa) and felt I should branch home to do one or two things. If I had told her why I came, she would have said that I was crazy. Around 10 am the following day, a staff sergeant came here on a motorcycle. He asked who was Mr. Akindele and I said I was the one. He handed me a handwritten note from Murtala. It read, ‘Thank you for accepting my invitation to come and see me. If it is convenient, I will like to see you in my house at 6 o‘ clock, at number 6, Second Avenue, Ikoyi. Once again, thank you for coming.‘ I said okay. At about 4 o‘ clock, I called my driver who has been driving me for 52 years now. He was driving my wife then. I told him to take my wife‘s sports car, that we were going out. When we got to Number 4, Second Avenue, which was the house of the then Permanent Secretary of Health, I told him to wait there. And I said if he didn‘t see me by 7 o‘ clock, he should go to Number 6 and tell the people there that he brought his oga and he had not come out. I was shivering. I opened the door and saw six people with Murtala sitting with his back to the door. When he turned and saw me, he jumped up. Then he held me tight and said thank you for coming, thank you for coming. I burst into tears. He said he saw the light of the day within 24 hours after he retired me. He dismissed the other people and we went upstairs where we sat together and spoke at length. He told me that my best friends were my worst enemies. He said for six months he had not been able to fill my position because all my friends were quarrelling over it, while he was able to fill all the other positions within 24 hours. But he said he had seen the truth and he wanted me to come back to occupy a higher position in his government and I would be the one to nominate the person that would fill the post. I told him I was sorry, that I was enjoying my job with the UN. He said that Obasanjo would come in within a few minutes. And Obasanjo came truly and said, ‘Egbon se eti gbo ebe wa (I hope you have yielded to our plea)? Then Murtala said, ‘Asi nbe ni (we are still begging him). I was shocked to the marrow. I never knew that he understood Yoruba. I had abused him in Yoruba during our altercations. I would say, ‘E gbo nkan ti were yi nwi. Akobi mi fi odun meta julo o (can you hear what this mad man is saying? My eldest daughter is three years older than him). Other people would laugh but I would not laugh. That day, Murtala became my hero. We finished at about 8.30pm. The following morning, I was going to confirm my flight back to Geneva when I heard that there was a coup and he had been killed.