With the trial of the alleged killers of Burkina Faso's Thomas Sankara’s under since October, we take a look at the destinies of eight African presidents who were assassinated. In this first part of our series, we revisit the death of Togolese President Sylvanus Olympio, which occurred on the night of 12 and 13 January 1963.
This is part 3 of an 8-part series
Muhammed, one of the military rulers who led Nigeria through years of dictatorship, has his name engraved on some of Nigeria’s most important infrastructure, including the international airport in Lagos. He was in his early 20s when he joined the Nigerian army and exited, as a slain military head of state, at the age of 37.
One of his significant moments as a military officer was after the January 1966 coup that ousted and led to the death of then-prime minister Tafawa Balewa. Murtala was posted to the army headquarters in Lagos as a lieutenant colonel and appointed inspector of signals. The coup was seen as targeting the north, while Aguiyi Ironsi, an Igbo military officer who emerged as the head of state, was accused of favouring the Igbo ethnic group of the southeast and parts of the south-south.
A counter-coup was eventually carried out, this time targeting thousands of Igbo officers. Murtala was seen as a significant force in this coup, which paved the way for the emergence of Yakubu Gowon’s regime, the one that led Nigeria into and out of the 1967–1970 civil war.
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In 1975, while attending the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) summit in Uganda, Gowon was deposed and replaced by Murtala. Although he did not directly take part in the coup, Murtala was believed to have inspired and supported it.
Murtala oversaw bloodshed, warned of one and fell to one.
The thought of further bloodshed, for whatever reasons, must […] be revolting to our people. The Armed Forces, having examined the situation, came to the conclusion that certain changes were inevitable.
In his inaugural speech as Nigeria’s head of state on 30 July 1975, a few years after he had led Nigerian troops in killing thousands of Igbos – also during the Asaba massacre – Murtala announced a number of measures, each accompanied by the phrase ‘with immediate effect’. He warned that Nigeria risked more chaos and bloodshed if things did not improve and if the government still failed to “fulfil the legitimate expectations of our people.”
“In the endeavour to build a strong, united and virile nation, Nigerians have shed much blood. The thought of further bloodshed, for whatever reasons, must […] be revolting to our people. The Armed Forces, having examined the situation, came to the conclusion that certain changes were inevitable,” he said. Little did he know that his blood would be shed in an abortive coup just seven months into his regime.
As Murtala’s government was gradually kicking off, Lagos – then capital of Nigeria – remained on the edge. It was the season of coups, and it didn’t take long before another one occurred.
Stuck – and murdered – in Lagos traffic
13 February 1976. Many Nigerians still remember this date because of the hundreds who witnessed its dark moments. On that day, like most, Murtala had left for Dodan Barracks, the seat of government in Lagos that was still being renovated following Gowon’s ouster.
Unknown to Murtala, he was never going to make it to the barracks alive. He had left for work in his black Mercedes Benz and with Akintunde Akinterinwa (his aide-de-camp), who sat at the back; Staff Sergeant Michael Otuwe (his orderly) and Sergeant Adamu Michika (his driver). There was no escort vehicle.
“He used to drive alone with just two people… giving himself away to any would-be assassin,” Emmanuel Waye, a prominent elder statesman in northern Nigeria, tells The Africa Report.
I saw some people in agbada (Babanriga) and when they lifted them up, they brought out AK-47 rifles and fired at us…”
A low profile was supposed to shield the former number-one citizen from public eyes and possible attacks, but instead, it made him more vulnerable. At Alagbon junction in Lagos, about five minutes after the trio had left Murtala’s residence in Ikoyi, a traffic warden stopped the cars in their direction. He had not seen the two flags in front of the former head of state’s car because there had been five other cars ahead.
As they waited for the green light, a red one came instead. Bullets rained on them, with the Benz as their only shield. A coup led by Lt. Col Buka Suka Dimka was underway.
As the orderly would recall in an interview with Abuja-based Daily Trust newspaper a few years ago, “I saw some people in agbada (Babanriga) and when they lifted them up, they brought out AK-47 rifles and fired at us. […] a masked man [shot] the driver, Sergeant Adamu Michika, in the head and he fell on the armrest where the suitcase containing the General’s mufti was. I took cover and fell on the driver. The General and the ADC also took cover.”
The gunshots stopped, but that had only been the first round. The soldiers and military officers who had ambushed him started to leave, thinking that they had killed Murtala. They were heading to the National Broadcasting Corporation to announce a successful takeover before the unexpected happened.
Murtala’s aide-de-camp, not knowing that one of the soldiers still had their eyes on the car, opened the car door to help the former head of state. The soldiers noticed the movement and ran back to the scene. As Michika puts it, during the second round, they “emptied their bullets in us.”
He (Dimka) […] preferred Gowon to remain the head of state and not General Murtala Muhammed…”
Michika survived the incident as he was shot in the arm and the hip. He says it was at the mortuary that he “recovered from [a] coma when the breeze from the air conditioner [blew my way] and the pain woke” him up.
Dimka was eventually arrested and executed, but why was he after Murtala? Waye says: “Dimka and the others felt he was not doing well and had a bad government.”
“He (Dimka) […] preferred Gowon to remain the head of state and not General Murtala Muhammed. Dimka even went to the British High Commission and demanded that they […] bring Gowon back (from the UK where he had gone on exile) and [have him] stay in one of the West African countries since it was Murtala who overthrew him but the high commissioner drove him out,” he tells The Africa Report.
Similar rhythms: Northern Nigeria in the spotlight
Murtala’s death was reminiscent of the ones the north had suffered during Nigeria’s first coup 10 years earlier, in January 1966. Tagged an ‘Igbo coup’ and led by Major Kaduna Nzeogwu, it resulted in high-profile deaths in northern Nigeria, creating a huge leadership vacuum. Among those killed were Tafawa Balewa, then prime minister of the northern region Ahmadu Bello, and some of the region’s highest-ranking army officers.
In the turmoil that followed, some Islamic leaders were said to have accused Christians of plotting Murtala’s removal from office because he was a Muslim.
This narrative, Waye says, was being pushed by Abubakar Mahmud Gumi, a prominent Islamic scholar who had capitalised on the phrase “I bring you good tidings,” which Dimka used to announce Murtala’s death. He claimed that the former leader had been killed in a plot targeting Muslims in the country.
A hero or villain?
Murtala’s death also showed that “violence has no place in government,” says Dr. Hakeem Baba-Ahmed of the northern-based Northern Elders Forum, who adds that while Murtala brought a glimmer of hope, he came by force and arms and “left that way.”
Baba-Ahmed, a holder of a doctorate degree from the University of Sussex in the 1980s, also contends that there was a bigger problem after the military insisted on remaining in power following Murtala’s death. According to Baba-Ahmed, “the people who killed Murtala killed a dream. The people who took over from Murtala killed the hope that the military [could] make such a stay brief and final. We missed a chance to reap from the event itself; the purpose for which he was killed. We didn’t learn any lesson.”
He was not a thoughtful person, and he never expressed remorse or a desire to retrace his footsteps when he went wrong.
For Waye, the former head of state will be remembered for taking “major decisions about the country in just six months, “winning some battles and losing some.” Cheta Nwanze, lead partner at Nigerian political risk analysis group SBM Intelligence, however begs to differ.
He tells The Africa Report that Murtala was far from being a great leader as his administration “destroyed Nigeria’s civil service” and brought untold suffering to many with the sacking of thousands of civil servants – some of Nigeria’s best minds – without benefits. For Nwanze, this move was the worst.
The “immediate effect” with which Murtala’s regime often announced and implemented his policies and decisions “was deficient and would ultimately have caused […] problems [for us] in the medium to long term,” he says. “He was not a thoughtful person, and he never expressed remorse or a desire to retrace his footsteps when he went wrong.”
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