By Charles Kumolu
FIRST child of the late Head of State, Gen Murtala Mohammed, retd, and Chairman Executive Officer of Murtala Mohammed Foundation, Mrs. Aisha Oyebode in this interview provides a rare insight into the life of the late Head of State and the challenges his death unleashed on his wife and children among other issues.
What does it feel like 40 years after the demise of your dad?
What I can say is that I am always humbled by his legacy. I also feel humbled when I see the kind of response that people have towards him 40 years after. So I really feel it is something that makes me very proud. At times I realise that he really was visionary because so many things that he talked about 40 years ago are the ones affecting us today.
Where were you on the day he was assassinated and how did you get the news of his assassination in a military coup 40 years ago?
I was a student at Queens College, Lagos. I was in Form 2. Actually I did not know for quite a while. As soon it happened, the Head Mistress called me into her office and said that I needed to go home. The lady that came to pick me was the Principal of the school that I went to earlier. She is Mrs. Nasiru a Lebanese, who was the principal of Lebanese Community School, Yaba. So, she took us to her home on the outskirts of Lagos.
I did not know what was going on that Friday. The only thing I knew was that martial music was playing on the radio but I had no idea of what happened. The following day, they took us to my uncle’s house in Yaba. He is my father’s very good friend. When we got there every one started crying and I asked what was going on they said my aunty was not feeling fine and I smiled.
Whatever they told me, I believed it. It was when we got to Kano the following day which was on Sunday morning that my father’s mother told us that my father had been killed. That was after he had been buried. All this while my mother was away, maybe if she was around we would have known earlier.
Obviously there are some peculiarities that come with being the daughter of the late Head of State Gen Murtala Mohammed, retd. Can we know these peculiarities?
I think that very big shoes, filling them can be very challenging. People’s expectations of you are very high which not bad because what it does is that it makes you determined as well. It makes one understand that his legacy is an important thing that has to be sustained. It is not easy. Sometimes living in the public glare for so long is not easy and people don’t realise that. And again I am not complaining, I am just stating the fact that when you live in the public glare, you have to work really hard. Sometimes it is difficult to maintain privacy by staying on your own lane and live a quiet life.
But the positive side of it especially when it comes to the work of the foundation is that it opens doors. It is like having a brand. If our foundation, Ford Foundation and Macarthur goes to any place in Nigeria, they will open the door first for me just because of our reputation. And I find that even in the remotest part of Nigeria where people are not receptive. I am usually the one they put in the front. It is not that it opens doors without hard work; it just makes things a lot easier. And it is a recognised brand if you want to use business terms. You do not have to work as hard as others to grow the reputation. People just acknowledge and recognise it.
What was the experience like growing up without your father?
I can say that living without him was very difficult. We live in a patriarchal society which means that it is really the man in the front that defines the family. After my father died life was really tough. There were six of us my, mother had to bring all of us up but it was very difficult for us financially. My mother was very enterprising and hard working but things were very difficult especially towards the later years when my younger siblings were in secondary school and the university. It was actually very tough.
What were your thoughts about Nigeria at that time?
I think I was so busy trying to get over my grief. And I was particularly close to my father because I was the eldest child. At that time the Federal Government gave us scholarship but it was not easy. Things are even much more efficient now because in those days every holiday we couldn’t go on vacation like some children. From the time I come home, we will be putting papers for our scholarship together so that we can take them to the Cabinet Office, the papers will now move from desk to desk and we were doing it so that we will not be late for school. And I did it for myself and my younger siblings. So you can imagine what we went through. So honestly I didn’t have time to feel any bitterness or anger.
For me it was just important to make sure that we all went to school. In my older years, when I look back I realise that it did not just have to be that difficult because other families of other Heads of States also have to go through what we went through trying to get through the Cabinet Office, and I know that some of them after a while had to give up at some point. But my mum was just determined. Yes, it was tough and I am sure if you ask any of my siblings they will tell you how tough it was. It is not that on the other side of it that we are now accomplished and then everybody thinks life was a bed of roses for us. No, it was not.
Being the eldest child and having been close to him, what kind of impression do you have of him?
My father was very passionate about everything and he was very passionate about Nigeria. Sometimes when people ask me why I am passionate about Nigeria, I tell them that it is probably because he used to talk a lot about Nigeria when he was young. When we were young, when we wanted to go to Kano, we will drive to Kaduna and sleep there before proceeding to Kano. It is usually with my younger brother and I and may be with a friend of my dad. And then they used to discuss Nigeria in their discussion all the way to Kano. And I think that is where my feelings and understanding of the country came from. He was passionate about development.
He was the one, who said to my mother that should anything happen to him, the only legacy she can give to his children is education especially the girls. So he really understood how important it was for the children to be well educated. My father was the one who was a horticulturalist before my mother. My father would plant the foreign apple that does not grow here locally. And of course the tree will grow but it will not bear fruits because we don’t have the climate for it. He used to have collection of birds. And then he was also technologically savvy.
All the latest technological gadgets of his time, he had them because he was in the signals. And he was a very handsome man. So I recall doing a lot of things with him. In fact we used to go swimming at the Federal Palace Hotel every Sunday. In fact I used to tell everybody that the first hamburger I ate was at the Federal Palace Hotel and no hamburger has ever tested like that! And some weekends we used to go shopping.
Having been that close to him, were there any particular thing that he often told you?
He emphasised so much on education, not just western education alone but also Quranic education. I think selflessness was something he always emphasised on. He often said that whatever one does, the person should not think about himself alone but also others. That was a very important lesson. And in fact if anybody ever got into trouble with my dad, he will raise his voice. He never raised his hands against any of us except for once that he hit my brother. He taught us selflessness; you just don’t do things and think about yourself alone. And that was a very important lesson.
Your dad was known to have pioneered the clamour for accountability in public service, how successful has the Murtala Mohammed foundation gone in promoting public probity?
It is part of the work that we do in terms of public policy and advocacy because accountability is about probity. How do we make the leaders accountable to the people? These are some of the things we do. That is why in our annual lectures we talk about issues of governance and how we can improve the lives of people. So these are some of the things that come from probity and accountability and also in everything we do at the foundation, we try to ensure that we are accountable.
The office of the Head of State is such that demands so much time, did you really miss him much when he became the Head of State and did he actually have time for his family at that time?
I don’t remember what I did. I tell people that I actually didn’t remember what happened during that time because of the traumatic experience of his death. I remember the day he became Head of State, I remember the day I was told he died. In between that time, I can’t remember much. All I can remember are feelings and those feelings chill much. I still remember that I was happy as a child because he was so protective. But it is like my mind shut down as a result of that tragic incident. May be sometimes, I may remember some episodes. He was very close to his children. There are some pictures that will be taken to the National Archives and in all he was with his children. As a person he was very gentle and well loved. My father had a lot of friends even now when they talk about him; it comes from his gentle side. He does not like to come home and his dinner will be late. He liked a lot of our native soups like Efo, Okro and he liked Tuwo
How has the relationship between your father’s immediate family and the children been?
Within 10 years that my father died, most of his brothers died. That was quite devastating as well. My father’s sisters actually stood in but they were women, so they did not really have the impact that my father’s brothers would have had. And then we had a close relationship with Alhaji Inua Wada, my father’s uncle, who recently passed on. In terms of saying if anybody actually stood in to replace him, there was nobody like that, maybe because after my father died, my father’s relations wanted to keep us in Kano and my mother said no. I think that caused some issues for many years but it did not stop us from interacting with them, it is just that they did not step in the way one would have expected them.
Did the absence of your father affect the Hausa part of your heritage since your mother is Yoruba and you grew up with her in Lagos without your dad?
I have a lot of my Kano heritage. I still go to Kano, I still relate with all my relations. Even last week I met with my father’s aunties in Abuja. I am still very much rooted in that culture but you know I am also unique. I tell people that I am a Nigerian because I crossed the divide. And I think what makes me who I am, is my Yoruba side and my Hausa side. And that is what I am. I am not one or the other. I speak Hausa and Yoruba fluently and relate very well with both sides of my heritage.
On special treatment
I don’t think I got any special treatment. I had a good relationship with everyone. Perhaps the only time that anything different or unusual happened was when he was killed because I was taken out of school. And when I came back, the Principal, Mrs. Coker, held a memorial service with the students for my dad. After that nothing else, I was like every other person.
On Murtala Mohammed foundation
We started the foundation actually because of the Daily Times lectures. When Daily Times started having problems, the idea of having a foundation was muted. Actually when they were having the initial discussion, I was not part of it. They went to Obsanjo and told him that it was a good idea to have a foundation. And of course they spoke to my mother. And Baba (Obasanjo) was the one, who said I should be made the executive secretary. I try to keep his memories very positive. I just think that we are lucky because I have so many good things to remember. When I look at his books I remember so many things about him. And we actually cared about his books because he had specially books.
Without prejudice to the national monuments named after Murtala Mohammed, do you think he has had a fair share of immortalisation?
Two weeks ago the National Museum because of the exhibition they want to do, asked us to get them the list of all the landmarks named after him and honestly to say that enough has not been done, we will be doing a disservice to Nigeria. Every city you go, landmarks are named after Murtala Mohammed. There are a lot of educational establishments named after him. There are so many of them. I think the most important thing is to maintain these monuments. And it will be nice to have a body that will be able to keep those monuments in a fitting state.
All over the country there are Murtala Mohammed parks. The other day, Enugu State government called us to know what we want to do with the Murtala Mohammed Park. And it is a huge expanse of land. I think we have done quite a lot. If there is anything that we have not done enough, it is the fact that we are not documenting our history very well because if we don’t document history, people will write it and that is the mistake that we are making. We need to start documenting history.