By Clifford Ndujihe, Deputy Political Editor
ARGUABLY, late General Murtala Ramat Mohammed, Nigeria’s fourth head of state, is one of the country’s most popular rulers. He came to power on a promising note, showed readiness to deliver and was taken out of power when the ovation was loudest.
The 198 days he spent in office were eventful and loaded with activities that strategically shaped and are still shaping the affairs of the nation 40 years after.
His low profile and flamboyance-shunning approach to governance; zero tolerance for graft, ineptitude and laxity; and resolution of issues with despatch, which has come to be known as ‘military alacrity,’ endeared to him to most Nigerians but also won for him, strident critics and enemies, who opposed his style.
Murtala Mohammed mounted the saddle of leadership on July 30, 1975 but was killed less than seven months later in an abortive coup of February 13, 1976. But before his assassination, Murtala Mohammed had left his footprints on the sands of time.
Benefiting from the toppling of General Yakubu Gowon, on account of failure to meet the expectations of Nigerians, reneging on returning power to civilians, ruling the country without consultation, neglecting the armed forces and being insensitive to the yearnings of Nigerians among others, Murtala Mohammed had before him urgent and crucial decisions to take.
And that he did with despatch in an unmistakable manner. Beginning with his first broadcast, Mohammed announced a series of initiatives, which he pursued with a dizzying speed.
The initial decisions include: Retirement of Gowon, then serving military governors and some members of the Armed Forces with immediate effect; reorganizing the structure of the Federal Government into three organs – the Supreme Military Council, National Council of States and Federal Executive Council; promise to review the political programme and to set up panels on the question of new states and the federal capital; and cancellation of the controversial 1973 population census and reversion to the 1963 census among others.
He was to follow up with more concrete steps. He announced plans for an orderly return to civilian rule by October 1, 1979. He appointed a 50-man Constitution Drafting Committee headed by Chief Rotimi Williams, to hammer out a new constitution for the country in readiness for the return to civil rule. Panels were set up to advise on assets investigation of some former public officers, abandoned properties in the three Eastern States, the location of the Federal Capital and creation of more states.
The administration announced a ‘low profile policy for public officers and he chose to stay at his home in Ikoyi rather than move into the more fortified Dodan Barracks residence. He occasionally startled observers by showing up at many places such as the Polo ground without protection. In the weeks leading to his assassination he was warned to be more cautious but he brushed aside all admonitions.
A simple leader with populist ideas, Murtala Mohammed had no speeding convoys. He refused heavily-armed security details and preferred to stay in the traffic with his ‘fellow Nigerians’ until it eased.
Creation of seven states: He set up a panel headed by Justice Ayo Irikefe on the creation of seven more states (Niger, Bauchi, Gongola, Benue, Ogun, Imo and Bendel) to the 12 existing ones on December 22, 1975. The panel came up with a report which was utilized in the formation of new states in 1976.
Making Abuja new Federal Capital Territory: To give the country a befitting capital as Lagos was becoming over-crowded, Mohammed set in motion plans to build a new Federal Capital Territory. He set up a panel headed by Justice Akinola Aguda, which chose Abuja ahead of other proposed locations. On February 3, 1976, 10 days before he was killed, he made an announcement that the Federal Capital would be moved to a ‘federal territory of about 8,000 square kilometres in the central part of the country.’
Civil service purge
He removed top federal and state officials to break links with the Gowon regime and to restore public confidence in the Federal Government. He went on sack more than 10,000 public officials and employees on account of age, health, incompetence, malpractice or corruption. The purge affected the civil service, judiciary, police and armed forces, diplomatic service, public corporations, and universities. Some officials were tried for graft.
Demobilisation of 100,000 troops: Although unpopular within the military, Mohammed embarked on the demobilization of 100,000 troops from the swollen ranks of the armed forces.
Implemented diarchy: Mohammed also operated diarchical system of government by incorporating civilians. Twelve of the 25 ministerial posts on the new Federal Executive Council went to civilians even though the cabinet was secondary to the executive Supreme Military Council.
Entrenching unitarism, media control: The Federal Government took over the operation of the country’s two largest newspapers – Daily Times ans New Nigerian, made broadcasting a federal monopoly, and brought remaining state-run universities under federal control.
Other achievements: Murtala Mohammed initiated a comprehensive review of the Third National Development Plan. He announced that his government would encourage the rapid expansion of the private sector into areas dominated by public corporations.
He reappraised foreign policy, stressing a “Nigeria first” orientation in line with OPEC price guidelines that was to the disadvantage of other African countries. Nigeria became “neutral” rather than “non-aligned” in international affairs. The shift in orientation became apparent with respect to Angola. Nigeria had worked with the OAU to bring about a negotiated reconciliation of the warring factions in the former Portuguese colony, but late in 1975 Murtala Muhammed announced Nigeria’s support for the Soviet-backed Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola, citing South Africa’s armed intervention on the side of the rival National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA).
Dreams and projects
The realignment strained relations with the United States, which argued for the withdrawal of Cuban troops and Soviet advisers from Angola. In October, the Nigerian Air Force took delivery of Soviet-built aircraft that had been ordered under Gowon.
However, he did not live long enough to realise most of his lofty dreams and projects. Murtala Mohammed was killed, aged 37, along with his Aide-De-Camp (ADC), Lieutenant Akintunde Akinsehinwa in his black Mercedes Benz saloon car on, February 13, 1976 in an abortive coup attempt led by Lt. Col Buka Suka Dimka, when his car was ambushed while en route his office at Dodan Barracks, Lagos.