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Murtala In Perspective: A New Understanding?

Brigadier Murtala Muhammed was a prime force in the Nigerian coup of July, 1966, which brought Gowon to power, and is one of the two principal plotters against Gowon for the past two years. He commanded a division during the Nigerian civil war, was involved in the only documented cases of genocide

– Chukwudi A. Chukwudi

Last week presented Nigeria another opportunity to celebrate the life of a man who many do not know. And will not know because, as a nation, we had taken a decision, not to teach or study our own history. Gen. Murtala Ramat Mohammed was assassinated by the coupists gang led by Col. Bukar Dimka. I have read a lot about tendencies that led to the coup that shoved Gen Yakubu Gowon off power. Whatever the tendencies, I do not accord any coupists the tag of national leaders. I see them rather as opportunists. That is what they are, and shall remain, in my own perspective. This has nothing to do with what anyone else thinks of them.

Several of Murtala’s colleagues in the arms profession hold different views of him. Those views, like mine, may be right or wrong depending on the lens with which you look at history. So, I was not surprised when President Muhammadu Buhari made an eloquent attempt to situate him in the history of leadership for Nigeria’s national integration. Murtala, to our president, is one of the great men who put their lives on the line to forcefully preserve Nigeria’s unity. This is irrespective of views, by many too, that the young army officer was a genocide coordinator of the federal republic.

But I am a bit more confused. I read President Buhari’s perspective on Murtala where he said: “By the time Murtala was given Command during the Civil War, the Federal side was on the defensive. The rebels had over-ran the then Mid­West, and reached as far as Ore, just 100 miles from


Lagos. By dint of sheer bravery, improvisation and resourcefulness, he mustered a rag-tag group of soldiers, integrated them into an entirely new division, knocked them into fighting shape, recovered Mid-West and ventured across the Niger. Alas, there were terrible casualties on both sides”.

He also said: “What was Murtala like as a man? Although he was much more senior to me in the Army, I developed a great liking and respect for him on account of his professional excellence, competence, straightforwardness and genuine interest and concern for up-and-coming officers like myself. Of course, no one is without flaws. He was a man in a hurry, and sometimes this could make him appear abrupt or even moody. But what he could not tolerate was incompetence and idleness”.

Those were kind words of a subordinate no doubt. But when I put those against contents of a document alleged to be a ‘briefing memorandum’ of the US Department of State, which was marked ‘SECRET’, dated August 18, 1975 and declassified on May 4, 2006, I begin to wonder if what we know of the late General is the same thing that the US Department of State know of him.

The said document, now in circulation on several online media and blogs, allegedly emanated from John E. Reinhardt and mailed to someone addressed simply as “the secretary” at the US


Department of State. It was titled ‘Nigeria After the Coup of July 28’. The alleged briefing was introduced thus: “This memorandum is presented in response to your request of August 14. It is concerned with the nature of the new government, its prospects, and continuing American interest”.

Writing about the new Nigerian leadership, as requested by the secretary, Reinhardt wrote: “the leader of the coup against General Yakubu Gowon is an erratic, vainglorious, impetuous, corrupt, vindictive, intelligent, articulate, daring Hausa. Brigadier Murtala Muhammed was a prime force in the Nigerian coup of July, 1966, which brought Gowon to power, and is one of the two principal plotters against Gowon for the past two years. He commanded a division during the Nigerian civil war, was involved in the only documented cases of genocide, won one important battle, and thereafter coasted for upwards of two years until Gowon finally removed him from command and placed him in charge of Army signals, a position which he held until last month, though he combined his military role with the civilian position of Commissioner (minister) of communications from July, 1973, until the coup”.

The memo further stated that “Muhammad inherits from Gowon vast petroleum resources (potentially 3-3.5 million BPD, based on known reserves), considerable but neglected agricultural
wealth, tremendous but untapped natural gas reserves, other minerals (coal, tin, columbite, uranium), by African standards an excellently trained civil service, and the dubious asset of eighty million people”.

I do not know which to believe between the two perspectives. But it seems to me that both hold some truth. Buhari somehow referenced the later perspective when he said “there were terrible casualties on both sides”. The word here for me is ‘terrible’.

The synonyms for terrible are: dreadful, awful, appalling, horrific, horrifying, horrible, horrendous, atrocious, abominable, abhorrent, frightful, fearful, shocking, hideous, ghastly, grim, dire, hateful, unspeakable, gruesome, monstrous, sickening, heinous, vile; serious, grave, acute, desperate, grievous, distressing, lamentable, severe, extreme, intense, excruciating, agonizing, unbearable, intolerable, unendurable, insufferable among others.

The Merriam-Webster dictionary of English language defines terrible simply as “very shocking and upsetting; very bad or unpleasant”. The above shows that President Buhari may not be far from acknowledging the content of the said US Department of State briefing memorandum where it described Murtala as being “involved in the only documented case of genocide”. Genocide cannot be pleasant. It can only be a terrible thing. For me, both President Buhari’s words and contents of the declassified US Department of State briefing memorandum, gives a new perspective in understanding and situating late Gen Murtala Muhammad.

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