Unorthodox,charismatic,daring and extremely self-willed, the tempestuous Sandhurst-trained Murtala was born on the 8th of November, 1938. He was commissioned into the Nigerian Army Corps of Signals in 1961. Having served as military Aide-de-Camp to Dr Moses Majekodunmi, the emergency-rule Administrator of the defunct Western Nigeria in the early 1960s, Murtala was firmly thrust into national limelight when he led the bloody counter-coup of 29 July 1966.
During the Nigerian Civil War(in August 1967) and whilst still on the rank of Lieutenant Colonel, he was appointed the pioneer General Officer Commanding, 2 Infantry Division, a posting which ultimately turned out to be a controversial one marked by a mixture of military setbacks, allegations of mass murder and some battlefield victories. He was relieved of his command of 2 Infantry Division in 1969.
Promoted to the rank of brigadier in 1972, he became the Federal Commissioner for Communications in 1974, a role which he combined with his military duties as Inspector General of Signals of the Nigerian Armed Forces.
After a successful coup was mounted against the Gowon regime by subordinate adoring officers, he was proclaimed Head of State on 29 July 1975.
Brigadier Muhammed probably had a clear vision of what he intended to see Nigeria become. Such was his reputation for ruthlessness that the famously tardy Lagos civil servants of his day, the stifling gridlock on Lagos roads and the notoriously bureaucratic Lagos ports all seemingly responded to his assumption of office on the very next day by going against popular conjecture.
In preparation for his anti-corruption crusade, Murtala reportedly drove himself in his Volvo car all the way to Kano and transferred ownership of his own questionably acquired spoils to his native Kano State Government(including the famous Gidan Murtala), days after he was appointed Head of State.
Between 30 July 1975 and 13 February 1976, he had set a date for the return to democratic rule for 1979, purged the military and the inefficient civil service of their overload, positioned Nigeria for continental leadership, proclaimed a new federal capital for Nigeria, established new universities and set up a Constitution Drafting Committee.
Unfortunately, Murtala who was promoted to the rank of General in January 1976, had a fatalistic religious outlook on matters pertaining to his personal security. This ultimately proved to be his undoing.
On the day(Friday, 13 February 1976) that he met his gruesome end, General Murtala had taken off unaccompanied ( no outriders, no blaring sirens or stern-looking soldiers to provide armed escort) as usual from his residence on First Avenue, Ikoyi, Lagos which had been his abode from his time as Federal Commissioner for Communications. He had not yet taken up residence inside the Presidential citadel that was Dodan Barracks. As such, it was normal for him to commute between his First Avenue residence and his office inside Dodan Barracks for work.
Unknown to him, an ambush had been laid for him by the trio of Major IB Rabo,Sergeant Clement Yildar (who remains a fugitive till today) and Lieutenant William Seri were dressed up in babanrigas (flowing gowns) and concealed weapons underneath. They hid under the trees in front of the Federal Secretariat, Ikoyi. When the unaccompanied car of the Head of State showed up and got caught up in the Lagos traffic jam, the killers emerged from under the trees and opened fire on the vehicle, whose occupants took cover.
After the initial assault, the General’s Aide-de-Camp (ADC) Lieutenant Akinsehinwa opened his own door and stepped out. This proved to be a fatal error for it confirmed that the targets had not been destroyed. The assailants closed in again, this time with lethal precision. The General and his ADC were killed, his driver and orderly injured. Thereafter, the killers jogged the 200m distance to Radio House to give Colonel Dimka the all clear for his moronic broadcast.
After the second onslaught on the General’s limousine, the General, his ADC and his driver Sgt Adamu Minchika lay dead. Unbelievably, his orderly Staff Sergeant Otuwe, whose name suggests that he may have come from the Ika area in the north of Delta state, SURVIVED. He continued his service in the army until the late 1980s and rose to the rank of Warrant Officer. His last known unit as of the late 1980s was the 2 Mechanised Division Headquarters Garrison.
Perhaps the Nigerian Army Records Unit, Corps of Education and the Directorate of Military Intelligence can do Nigeria a massive favour by tracking down that man(Otuwe) and recording his account of the events of that momentous day for posterity.
Thirty four years after his brutal assassination, General Murtala Muhammed remains as controversial in death as he was during his short but very eventful lifetime.
As a wartime commander, his memory evinces very strong and unflattering emotions among many Nigerians in the South East and in the states of Edo and Delta. This is largely on account of his leadership role in the 29 July 1966 counter-coup which was largely inspired by the quest for revenge in the wake of the decimation of the North’s military and political notables during the equally bloody first-ever and predominantly Ibo-led coup of 15 January 1966.
The other reason for this apparent indifference to the person and memory of General Murtala Muhammed stems from allegations of unethical conduct and mass murders which were allegedly carried out by soldiers against civilians within the Area of Responsibility of 2 Infantry Division under his command during the Nigerian Civil War.
Politically however, his memory is cherished to no end by many more Nigerians who remember his stint as Head of State as one which was characterized by effectiveness, a new way of doing things, dynamism and purposeful leadership. His death was marked by an unprecedented outpouring of grief. No Nigerian, living or dead, has nearly as many monuments, edifices, institutions and streets named after them. He died leaving behind a paltry bank balance of seven naira and twenty-two kobo (about US$11).
To this day, a monument today stands beside the AP gas station opposite the Federal Secretariat,Lagos. It marks the exact spot where General Ramat fell. The monument itself is made of marble and iron and bears a general’s rank insignia and dummy rifles held up in salute…in honour and loving memory of General Murtala Ramatallah Muhammed.