OPINION: Murtala: Reminiscences of an ex- schoolboy! By Abdulrazaq Magaji

Date: 2016-02-17

Photo: Muritala Mohammed; Ibrahim Taiwo

Date: Friday, February 13, 1976. Place: Ahmadu Bahago Teachers' College (ABTC), Minna, capital of Nigeria's north central state of Niger. We have just returned to campus after six weeks of the mandatory second and final teaching practice exercise, a core component for the award of Teachers' Grade Two certificate.

Ten days earlier, the corrective Murtala/ Obasanjo military administration had created seven additional states to take the total to seventeen. One of them, Niger, was carved out of the then north western state which had its capital in Sokoto. The state creation exercise came during the teaching practice, so we freely discussed General Murtala Muhammad's speech on state creation, especially, the aspect that warned against 'demonstrations in favour or against the exercise' with our hosts. There was much on the agenda as we returned to Minna.

Our rendezvous was a public garden directly opposite the school. We had barely settled down to discuss the unfolding events of the last several hours when an army Land Rover screeched to a halt. Even before we made up our mind to scram, a private had jumped out of the back of the truck and held the cabin door open for an officer wearing the rank of a captain to jump out. His swagger stick that pointed in our direction increased our anxiety.

But what paralyzed us was the face of the officer. Boy! Did he scare us! Ordinarily, average residents of these parts should not be 'scared' with the officer's facial marks which easily gave wearers away as members of the Dakarkari ethnic group of Zuru emirate in present-day Kebbi state. We had an unsmiling one in high school. 'Bad man', that was the name he was called, had few friends and had the reputation of keeping to himself! And, there we were, in the evening of February 13, 1976 at the mercy of an army officer who could have been Bad man's sibling!

We had stiffened to school boy attention by the time he reached us in three swift steps. By then, we had completely lost our voices and could barely mutter any answer to his greetings. Then, the make-or-mar question: Do you know what is happening in the country right now? Of the six of us assembled that evening, I had barely recovered my voice and was able to muster a yes answer. I told him we were students (pointing in the direction of ABTC) and were aware of the failed coup in Lagos. Even in those days, cherished news and some of us had portable transistors. I was clutching to one.

"Good", the officer said, even though we saw nothing good in the man spoiling our party with his appearance. "Do you know the head of state has been assassinated?'' No answer, but he must have seen from our faces that we wished someone else broke the sad news. He continued: 'Well, the head of state, General Murtala Muhammad has been assassinated. As we mourn, go back to your school compound, be good students and pray for us to catch those who killed him.' If retired Brigadier-General Tanko Ayuba is reading this, he should, in his characteristic humility, take the honour of being top of the fast-receding list of authentic Nigerian patriots!

Forty years on, and in an attempt to reconnect with history, I returned to our rendezvous on Saturday, February 13, 2016. Even as I did so, it quickly dawned on me that, for good reasons, February 13 has become a prominent date on the nation's calendar. It was not for fun that, when Nigerians marked the fortieth anniversary of the death of General Muhammad last Saturday, opinion leaders were unanimous that February 13 be officially recognised as Heroes' Day.

The February 13, 1976 coup plotters planned a partial elimination of the top echelon of the military but succeeded in hitting General Muhammad, his aide-de-camp Lieutenant Akintunde Akinsehinwa as well as the governor of Kwara state, Colonel Ibrahim Taiwo, aka Ibrahim Kagara. General Olusegun Obasanjo escaped partly because the assassins', in their Dutch courage, trailed the wrong guy, one Colonel Ray Dumuje, whom the plotters shot and wounded believing their victim was General Muhammad's deputy.

In their desperate bid to garner global support, the renegade Colonel Bukar Suka Dimka who led the February 13, 1976 coup claimed General Muhammad had to die because his government was drifting left, a synonym for communism. It must have been the gallantry displayed by then Lieutenant-Colonel Shehu Musa Yar'adua in mobilising loyal troops from his base in Ibadan to confront the coup plotters that informed his promotion to the rank of brigadier-general as well as his elevation to the position of chief of staff, supreme headquarters, in succession to General Obasanjo.

Away from history! Now, the suggestion to consider February 13 as Heroes' day is not an idle one. This is not the first time the suggestion would be made and, as far as General Muhammad's name is involved, there is nothing to suggest that the clamour would wither. Truth is, proponents of the suggestion do so in view of the lofty dreams the general had for Nigeria and Africa. In practical terms, he achieved little in translating those dreams but, in the two hundred days he executed the presidency, General Muhammad fired the patriotic zeal of Nigerians and, for the first time, Nigerians began to believe in their country. Even in death, General Murtala Muhammad remains Nigeria's best gift to Africa.

As Nigerians mourn, any school-going kid of the 1970's, especially those who followed the arrests, trial and execution of the coup plotters believed then, as many still believe today, that the full story of the conspiracy that claimed the life General Muhammad and others has not been told. For instance, but for Dimka, few would have believed Major General Iliya Danjuma Bisalla, was neck-deep in the conspiracy.

But, the greatest revelation of the Dimka coup was the name of former head of state, General Yakubu Gowon, that cropped up at every stage of the investigation. In fact, it was deep-throat Dimka that told interrogators that General Gowon was not only privy to the conspiracy but had, at a point in time, cautioned the boys 'to make sure there was no mistake!' As Dimka also claimed, was there an agreement for General Gowon to fly into Lome, capital of Togo, as guest of his friend and former president, Gnassingbe Eyadema, from where he was to monitor events in Lagos and await instructions? Was Dimka crazy as some claimed? Did he touch a raw nerve? Or, did he have more sense than Nigerians attributed to him?

Certainly, the Generals who succeeded General Muhammad did not think Dimka was crazy. A freewheeler, yes, but his revelations during the trials showed Dimka was in complete control of himself. So, when General Gowon balked at all entreaties to return home and clear his name so badly stained by Dimka's revelations, the Obasanjo administration promptly withdrew all privileges the former head of state enjoyed while in exile. General Gowon has since been pardoned and had his rank restored. But after forty years, there is litedetle to suggest that the Generals who succeeded General Muhammad are convinced about General Gowon's claim of innocence.

More questions surround the whereabouts of Captain Dauda Usman and Corporal Clement Yildar, two principal actors in the coup that claimed the life of General Muhammad. The exact role both men played in the run-up to February 13, 1976 remains hazy even though there have been suggestions that both men could have substantiated most of the claims made by Dimka. It had been suggested in the past that both men were probably tracked, while they were on the run, and killed to shut out another deep-throat from spilling the beans!

Do all these matter now? Not really, especially, at a time some Nigerians are praying while others mourn! But, General Muhammad's widow, Hafsat Ajoke Muhammad, and her children have good cause to hold their heads high. For as long as they live, they can take solace in the fact that the man around whom their lives revolved did not die in vain!

Magaji writes from Abuja.


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