By Bisi Lawrence
On this day, February 13, General Murtala Mohammed, Nigerian Head of State, was assassinated. Exactly 40 years ago today. He was on his way to work at Dodan Barracks, a distance of less than three kilometres from his residence in Ikoyi. He was killed along with is aide-de-camp, the only company he had. It was not his style to garland his way with a massive escort of despatch riders and armoured cars, in the midst of wailing sirens. Although he had himself seized power some six months earlier, he was casual about the personal protection his position naturally warranted.
Having cut down their quarry, the murderers made their way straight to Broadcasting House, Ikoyi, in the prescribed manner of their like. That is the usual second step they take—which is to announce the success of their dastardly act to the nation and the whole world. The Broadcasting House was only one 150 metres away and they burst into the compound with upraised weapons. I was the Controller, National Programmes. It was my fifth day in a position I have wanted to occupy from the first day of my employment.
I saw them enter the building; in fact, they swept by me where I stood trying to complete my ritual of inspecting the premises. There really was never anything much to inspect, but I wanted to stamp my authority on the proceedings in the offices and let people know who was in charge. It almost landed me in serious trouble.
I immediately recognised the officer in charge of the group of five or six soldiers. It was Lt. Colonel B.S.Dimka, my companion in several escapades in which young men get themselves involved. Our paths came together in sports administration. He was the head of sports in the army and attended all important sports occasions, at which I also was duty bound to be present, and sometimes also cover, as the head of radio sports broadcasting throughout the country. This was, of course, before other radio organizations sprouted up with sports sections of their own.
BS and I got into no end of scrapes and we were always glad to be together. But this morning, he simply pretended that I was not there as he bounced up the stairs to the Director-General’s office. I was dressed in a blazer which he always admired and I always enjoyed his banter about it, but he would not talk to me this day. However, he engaged someone on his way upstairs, to whom he explained that a wild cow had broken lose which he and his friends had laid low, and were now here to explain why to the whole country. I do not know, till this day, why I did not call him back. It all seemed so strange.
As I turned to go into my office, I saw another group of soldiers coming in through the gate which also led into the offices of the External Office. All of them were armed. The leader, who hardly hid the fact that he was quite inebriated, said “Be happy! Die happy. Take me to the Director!”
The authorities of the broadcasting industry, throughout the country had already issued a guide about how to behave in the circumstance of a coup d’etat to all broadcasters. One point that was emphasized was on cooperation with the coup-makers— it should never happen.
Well, what could be more cooperative than obeying that request? I asked the soldier to follow me, quickening my pace. I had a good lead on him at the turn to the External Service section, and there I took my chance. I dashed round the corner, confident that shots do not go around corners, and dived into the office of my counterpart in the external service, Mrs. Enoh Irukwu. By the time the soldier came around the corner, the corridor was empty. But there was still the fear that he might come to look into the offices; fortunately, he did not while I told Enoh and her secretary that the place was under “military occupation.” Her secretary, gentle soul, fainted.
But Enoh was made of sterner stuff. With a whimsical smile, she reached out to her radio and switched it on. The normal programme we butted into went on for several minutes. And then came the harsh sound of military music which had been banned from use on the air after the previous “coups”. After a while came the announcement we were waiting for, and which put all doubt to naught. “The Head of State had been slain, stay calm and go about your business ..blah, blah, blah, blah….”
It was like a sudden darkness had descended to envelop the entire surrounding. And yet, it was shining bright just before noon. We were almost stunned for good while, but the lethargy gradually faded. I returned to my office and found a crowd at the doorway, who were wondering what had happened to me. We entered the office and began a spontaneous meeting. First on the agenda was the state of the health of everybody.
The continuity announcer on duty, Mrs. Ogunro, had been on her own in the announcer’s cubby-hole all morning. Any time she was on duty, it was the habit of three young men to pay court to her. As a matter of fact, I had driven them away that morning during my so-called inspection round. No one seemed to have been hurt except a technician who had been shot dead by the very soldier whom I had earlier encountered. The man, that is the soldier who was said to be a major, was indeed drunk and I began to appreciate how lucky I had been.
Next, we tried to analyse the danger of the situation and how we could keep ourselves safe. We were just beginning to guess for how long we would be kept within the operational area, wondering if we could organise a “shift” system that would make it possible to rotate so that some could take a rest whilst others were at work, when a rude voice crashed in. The owner was, of course, a soldier who wanted to know why we were gathered together holding “this kind of meeting”. We replied that it was an “operational” meeting, whatever that meant. He said we could hold any kind of meeting but that no one should even “think” of leaving the premises. We resumed our meeting.
Someone then mentioned that the announcement of the coup had specified a curfew that was supposed to last “from dawn to dusk”. It was ridiculous of course, an obvious mistake compounded by tension. In other situations, it might even have been considered funny, but no one saw the humour. How could it be corrected? Who produced the recording of that announcement, in the first place? But the storm in a teacup soon blew over as the necessary correction was duly made.
Now that we knew we were in there indefinitely, I began to think of our survival. It was getting past lunch time and the resources of our canteen were limited. So, I issued a decree proscribing the sale of any item till further notice. The man in charge was Ogunwa “OJ” Nanna who was the Head of Operations. Then came the business of the station. We had been playing military music now for about three hours. We decided to get the News Department to issue out a bulletin every hour, in a manner approved by the “army of occupation”. But we could not clear the matter with Dimka who had suddenly left Broadcasting House. However, he soon returned from wherever he went—some people later said it was to the British High Commission—and it was decided that I should now approach him.
He had taken residence in an office at the end of a long corridor which also housed the office of the Director Programmes, the football commentator nonpareil, Ishola Folorusho, of beautiful memory. I was just stepping out of my office to join Dimka and consult with him about further programming, when there was a commotion at the other end of the corridor. A sprucely dressed officer was being brought into the presence of the coup-leader. I had no knowledge of who he was, but he was cool, man, —really cool. He stood about 30 yards away from Dimka, who had come out into the corridor, and spoke to him in Hausa.
“I am coming directly to you,” he said with all sincerity. “I bear no arms but only wish to talk with you. May I come on?”
Dimka was standing between two of his soldiers, one of whom was armed. He was the one who refused. However, Dimka was for the visitor to draw nearer, but the soldier got into an argument with him and Dimka had to disarm him forcibly. Then he asked his visitor to draw nearer. The newcomer, who was a full colonel by the insignia of his uniform, kept asking for permission at each step as he drew nearer, and Dimka replied favourably. We, Ishola Folorunso and I, were the only ones in sight of the corridor, the only witnesses to the historic meeting. And then, the colonel began to plead with Dimka.
“Leave this thing alone, you hear? What has got into you?”
“My life is totally involved now, and I can’t give it up,” Dimka replied. Then he looked down the corridor and remembered that Hausa was a language we often communicated in on our drinking sprees, so he asked us to leave the corridor. I quickly made to leave, but not so, my Director of Programmes. He said no one was going to order him around in his office. In vain I pleaded with him. I had known Isola, man and boy, then for over 30 years. Never had I seen him grow so obstinate over a point. And so, Dimka had both of us locked in Ishola’s office while they continued their conversation.
After a while, we were let out. Dimka was accompanying the other officer down the corridor to one of the corporation’s car. As the door was held open for him to enter, the Colonel took a step back and gave a very smart salute before departing. We all then tried to settle down, but really could not. We were asking who that brave officer was that dared to engage assassins still wet with the blood of their victim on their hands? And Dimka let him go just like that? And what got into Ishola that made him stand up in that manner to Dimka?
We were still in that mood of near-relaxation when the guns started cracking in the compound. We looked out of the window and saw soldiers running all over the place. Some then came into the corridor and waved us out into the open compound, yelling, “Run! Run! Run!” And did we run!
In the distance, we saw Dimka climbing into a vehicle which sped down the road. But not for us the road …oh no! We streamed through the nearby cemetery, and behind it, until we burst out some streets away from our beloved Broadcasting House. Dimka’s “coup” was over. But we were back bright and early in the morning for another day’s broadcasting. It was then we learnt that the gallant colonel who came to save us was Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida. He went on to make more history later, but that is the story for another day.