The Rollercoaster Life Of Murtala Muhammed By Max Siollun

Very few of Nigeria’s former military leaders are spoken of with any great affection.  The one notable exception is General Murtala Muhammed.  The time of his regime is recalled with nostalgia by many Nigerians (both civilian and military) as a golden age.  Whereas today, military rule, and military rulers, have been demonised, Murtala gave Nigeria a glimpse of the principled and dynamic leadership that its citizens crave.  Here, I attempt to give readers a closer look at the most popular Head of State in Nigeria’s history.

Murtala Ramat Muhammed was born in the Kurawa quarter of the ancient city of Kano on November 8, 1938.  His parents were Risqua Muhammed and Uwani Rahamat, and he was one of eleven children.  He was educated at Cikin Gida and Gidan Makama primary schools in Kano.  He followed in the footsteps of many of his northern colleagues in the army such as Brigadier Maimalari, Colonel Kur Mohammed, and Lt-Colonels Pam, Gowon and Largema, by attending the famous Government College (now Barewa College) in Zaria, and obtained his school certificate from there in 1957.  He began his military training in 1959 and like many Nigerian army officers of his generation including future Head of State Yakubu Gowon, he trained at the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst in England and was commissioned into the Nigerian army as a Second Lieutenant in 1961.  He joined the army’s signal corps.  He also attended the Catterick School of Signals in England.  Early in his career, Murtala was taught military tactics by an eloquent and intelligent Oxford University educated officer named Chukwuemeka Ojukwu.  Little did teacher and student realise that one day, they would end up as protagonists on opposing sides of the battlefield.  In 1962, Murtala served as a member of the Nigerian led UN peacekeeping force in the Congo.  That UN peacekeeping force was later commanded by Major-General Johnson Aguiyi-Ironsi, who would subsequently become Nigeria’s first military Head of State.  When he returned from the UN mission in Zaire, Murtala was appointed ADC to the Administrator of the Western Region of Nigeria, where the regional government had been suspended and a state of emergency declared due to a massive political crisis.  In 1963, he was appointed officer in chief of the first brigade signal troops in Kaduna.  He returned to Catterick School of Signals later in 1963 for a further advanced signals course in telecommunications.  In 1964, he was promoted to Major and appointed the officer commanding one signal squadron in Apapa, Lagos.


Murtala first came to prominence after Nigeria suffered what was to prove the first of many military coups on January 15th 1966.  Had a group of young army Majors not overthrown the civilian government of Tafawa Balewa, most Nigerians would never have heard the name “Murtala Muhammed”.  Murtala was in Lagos when a young and charismatic instructor at the Nigerian Military Training College in Kaduna named Chukwuma Kaduna Nzeogwu killed the premier of the northern region: Ahmadu Bello.  After a group of young army Majors (including Nzeogwu) toppled the civilian government in a violent military coup d’etat, Nzeogwu was in de facto control of the northern region of Nigeria.  At the 2nd battalion in Lagos some angry northern soldiers including Majors Murtala Muhammed, Martin Adamu and Captain Yakubu Danjuma decided to conduct their own investigations into what was going on.  They arrested and interrogated soldiers who had not been in the barracks when the battalion was given news of the coup.  At one point an enraged Muhammed cocked his pistol and interrogated the detained men at gunpoint.[1]  Some of the detainees were beaten up badly and confessions were extracted from them.  They were released from their angry captors into official custody after persuasion from Lt-Colonel Gowon.  Tense negotiations were conducted via intermediaries between Nzeogwu and the General Officer Commanding (GOC) the Nigerian army Major-General Johnson Aguiyi-Ironsi.  In the ensuing melee, Ironsi emerged as Nigeria’s first military Head of State.  Major Murtala Muhammed was one of the soldiers that arrested Nzeogwu when he eventually arrived in Lagos.  As the pattern of killings during the January 15th coup emerged, northerners (including Murtala) became convinced that the coup had been targeted specifically at them when it was revealed that the four highest ranking northern officers in the Nigerian army: the “astute and articulate” Brigadier Maimalari,[2] the acting Chief of Staff at army headquarters Colonel Kur Mohammed, the Adjutant-General Lt-Colonel James Pam, and the commanding officer of the 4th battalion Lt-Colonel Abogo Largema, had been murdered during the coup.[3]  In an attempt to dismiss charges of an anti-northern agenda, Ironsi with great courage surrounded himself with northern soldiers and promoted northerners to some sensitive military posts.  He had northern bodyguards and a northern aide de camp (ADC).  He also appointed Lt-Colonel Yakubu Gowon to replace Colonel Kur Mohammed as the Chief of Staff at army headquarters, and Mohammed Shuwa was promoted to Lt-Colonel and selected to replace Lt-Colonel ‘Emeka’ Ojukwu as the commander of the 5th battalion in Kano.  Ironsi promoted Murtala to Lt-Colonel and appointed him the Nigerian army’s Inspector of Signals.


Even with his new rank, the now Lt-Colonel Murtala Muhammed was still unhappy. Murtala and his northern colleagues were further infuriated when they learnt of the promotion of several Igbo officers.  Murtala made no secret of his dislike of Ironsi’s actions. In a typically outspoken outburst in the presence of Igbo officers, Murtala referred to Ironsi as a “fool” and made it clear that he would avenge the deaths of his northern officer colleagues.[4] The anger of northern troops at Ironsi’s regime was such that there was an undeclared consensus among them that they too would stage their own coup, except this time, Igbos would be the victims of the coup. Once this consensus was reached, Murtala became the effective leader of the northern faction in the Nigerian army. Using his sensitive position as the Inspector of Signals, northern soldiers met at Murtala’s Lagos house to plan for their “July rematch” with Igbo soldiers.  Murtala would also often pick up co-conspirators in his car at pre-arranged locations, then drive them around without stopping while they plotted.  While Igbos suspected that northerners were planning a revenge coup, northerners were convinced that Igbo soldiers were planning a second coup to finish them off.  On July 28, 1966 Murtala unexpectedly showed up at the house of the GSO (Grade I) at army headquarters Lt-Colonel Patrick Anwunah. Anwunah was an Igbo officer and although he was not one of the officers that plotted the January coup, he openly confronted Murtala with the accusation that he was planning a northern led coup.  The two had an angry exchange of words.  Anwunah hoped that the confrontation would convince Murtala to drop his coup plan.




Murtala and other northern soldiers had lost so much faith in the Nigerian federation that they now wanted to break the northern region out of Nigeria. This intention was personified by the codename of their revenge coup: operation “Araba” (an Hausa term meaning “separate us” – presumably separation from the rest of Nigeria).  When the northern revenge coup began on July 29 1966, Murtala coordinated events from Lagos and led a team of soldiers who took over the international airport at Ikeja. In a remarkable irony, the same airport which he had taken over by force was named after him a decade later.  Airplanes were hijacked by northern soldiers in order to ferry their families back to the north in anticipation of the northern region’s exit from Nigeria. At the airport itself, an Igbo officer (Captain Okoye) was captured by Murtala’s troops at the airport, tied to an iron cross, beaten and left to die in the guardroom.  In military units at Lagos, Ibadan, and Kaduna, northern troops mutinied and murdered their Igbo colleagues in frightening and gruesome reprisals for the Majors’ coup in January. The Head of State, Major-General Ironsi, was kidnapped, beaten and shot by soldiers including men from his own security detail.  Other incidents of shocking brutality took place across the country as northern soldiers rose up and slaughtered hundreds of their Igbo colleagues.  Murtala was the motivational inspiration behind the counter-coup, and commanded almost mythical loyalty from northern soldiers.  He was from an influential northern family with close links to the NPC, and his uncle Inuwa Wada, was the former Defence Minister. If anyone was going to rebel against a perceived anti-northern regime – it was Murtala.




After their blitzkrieg, the senior northern soldiers in Lagos converged at the Ikeja cantonment. The most senior surviving officer left in the army – Brigadier Ogundipe, dared not risk an open confrontation with them given the mood they were in.  He instead sent the Chief of Staff (Army) Lt-Colonel Gowon to go to Ikeja cantonment to bargain with the mutineers.  


The most vociferous and uncompromising advocate of northern secession was the volatile 28 year old Lt-Colonel Murtala Muhammed.  Murtala pressed for northern troops to destroy Lagos, pull out to the north and secede.  The Military Governor of the east Lt-Colonel Ojukwu was initially left out of the discussions but when he managed to contact Ogundipe, Ogundipe informed him that northern troops had stated their conditions for a “ceasefire”: (i) the repatriation of northerners and southerners to their respective regions of origin, and (ii) the secession of the northern region from Nigeria. Ojukwu replied “if that is what they want, let them go” and replaced the receiver.[5]  At this stage Ojukwu was willing to accept either northern secession or a continuation of the federation, but the latter choice on the condition that political leadership of Nigeria should follow army seniority.  Ojukwu argued that as Ironsi’s whereabouts were unknown, Brigadier Ogundipe should succeed him since he was the next most senior army officer. Ojukwu urged Ogundipe to take over with the promise that if Ogundipe made a broadcast to the nation, he would make a follow up broadcast in support within 30 minutes. However northern officers were still uninterested in a return to a southern led military government and refused to co-operate with, or accept the leadership of Brigadier Ogundipe or any southern officer.  The “limit” came for the Brigadier when a northern Sergeant quipped to him: “I do not take orders from you until my (northern) captain comes”. To a seasoned professional soldier like Ogundipe (accustomed to unquestioning obedience of his orders during a military career spanning over 20 years), such disobedience was beyond comprehension.  A northern Private similarly refused to obey orders from the Military Governor of Lagos State: Major Mobolaji Johnson.


When Gowon became aware of the gravity of the situation and the apocalyptic mood of his northern colleagues, he called the head of the police special branch Alhaji MD Yusuf and informed Yusuf that the northern soldiers had drafted a speech declaring the secession of the northern region.  Gowon asked for a lawyer to look at the draft speech (which Lt-Colonel Murtala Muhammed and Major Martin Adamu had been instrumental in producing).  Fortuitously, a northern judge, Mr Justice Bello was in Lagos at the time.  Bello reminded the soldiers that all the nation’s money was housed in the Central Bank of Nigeria in Lagos.  He hypothetically asked the soldiers how they would pay their troops’ salaries after secession without access to the Central Bank (this prompted them to throw a cordon around the Central Bank).   He also reminded them that Brigadier Ogundipe was the next most senior officer after Ironsi and after the northern region’s secession, might rally the support of friendly countries to attack the north.  The northern soldiers were joined by a number of federal secretaries, two Judges, prominent northern civil servants including the head of the northern region’s civil service Alhaji Ali Akilu, Mukhtar Tahir (a close acquaintance of Lt-Colonel Murtala Muhammed) and by the British and American ambassadors Sir Francis Cumming-Bruce and Elbert Matthews respectively.  Among the other civilians present were the Chief Justice Sir Adetokunbo Ademola, another judge Mr Justice Bello, and the Chairman of the Public Service Commission Alhaji Sule Katagum.  They were joined by several permanent secretaries including Alhaji Musa Daggash, Abdul Aziz Attah, H.A. Ejueyitchie, Yusuf Gobir, B.N. Okagbue, Ibrahim Damcida, Allison Ayida, and Philip Asiodu.[6] Police representatives included the Inspector-General of police Alhaji Kam Selem and the head of the police Special Branch Alhaji MD Yusuf.  Northern officers from other locations filtered in and out after the debate began.  For three days from Friday July 29 over the weekend of July 30 and 31, the northern soldiers engaged the civilians in an emotionally explosive debate. The debate raged in a dangerous power vacuum as the nation drifted precariously without a Head of State.  Most Nigerians do not know how perilously close their country came to disintegration over that weekend.  The civilian participants pointed out that northerners would have most to lose from seceding from the federation, and of the stark future that would face them if they left the federation: they would be trapped, landlocked between the south and the sea.  Gowon and other middle belt officers were the first to become convinced by this line of argument. They were anxious to avoid replacing their fear of Igbo domination in a united Nigeria, with Hausa-Fulani domination in a northern state.  However, they had now reached a dead end because while planning their revenge coup, they had formulated no political objective for Nigeria as a whole other than to get back at Igbos for their part in the death of northerners in January. Murtala repeatedly interrupted Gowon as the debate continued, leading Gowon to become so exasperated that at one point he threatened to step down unless the hardline northern soldiers agreed to listen to his views. The civilians managed to persuade the majority of the northern officers that secession would be injurious to their interests. 




After unsuccessfully arguing for secession, the northern soldiers agreed to drop their plan to secede, but on the condition that their most senior member; Lt-Colonel Gowon was appointed Head of State.  As a bachelor of only 32 years old, Lt-Colonel Yakubu Gowon became the youngest Head of State in Africa, despite the presence of several more senior officers in the chain of command (all from the south) such as Brigadier Ogundipe, Commodore Wey, Colonel Robert Adebayo, Lt-Colonels Nwawo, Imo, Kurubo, Effiong, Njoku and several other Lt-Colonels who were either commissioned before Gowon or were his cohorts.  In contrast to Murtala’s volatile character, the dashing Gowon, with his beaming smile, radiated a telegenic “good old Jack” bonhomie that endeared him to the northern soldiers.  He also appeared unthreatening to non-Igbo southerners due to his Christianity and personal charm.  In retrospect more blood would have been shed had one of the more volatile hotheads that staged the counter-coup become Head of State instead of Gowon.  Unlike his predecessor Ironsi, Gowon did not have an ethnically hostile army against him.  Many of the infantrymen in the army were like him, from northern minority ethnic groups in Nigeria’s middle belt.  Prominent among such soldiers were men such as Lt-Colonel Joe Akahan, Majors T.Y. Danjuma and Martin Adamu, Captains Gibson Jalo and Joseph Garba and Lt William Walbe (Walbe was from the same Angas ethnic group as Gowon and later became Gowon’s ADC).  The dichotomy between the soldiers from the middle belt and the far north was to resurface in bloody fashion a decade later.




In his early days Gowon moved very tactfully, slowly and with great caution, anxious not to further fan the flames of violence sweeping across the country.  This was an extremely wise move by Gowon, given the fate of his two predecessors Balewa and Ironsi.  Additionally Gowon’s position was not assured.  Apart from his power struggle with Murtala, he was unsure of his position as he was surrounded on all sides by men who were senior to him militarily, and in age and experience such as Commodore Wey of the navy and even his Military Governors like Colonel Adebayo of the army – both of whom outranked him.  Despite Gowon becoming Head of State, Murtala remained the power behind the throne.  Gowon’s ascension to power coincided with massive pogroms in the north during which tens of thousands of Igbos were killed by rampaging northern mobs.  Many members of Gowon’s own constituency, the army, joined in with the mayhem. These murders continued to occur even after specific assurances of Igbo safety had been given by Gowon.  Realising the separation between the political, and military leadership of the country, Gowon always checked with Murtala before giving assurances of safety.  However, some northern NCOs had got so wayward after the orgy of violence that no one, not even Murtala, could control their trigger happiness.


As Gowon tried to consolidate his political leadership of the country, Murtala lurked in the background at the army’s de facto strongman.  He made a nuisance of himself by turning up uninvited at SMC meetings. Tension between the two was never far beneath the surface, and simmered between them for a decade.  The Military Governor of the east, Lt-Colonel C.O Ojukwu continued to refuse to recognise Gowon as the Head of State.  While Gowon favoured a negotiated outcome to the impasse, Murtala was convinced that war with Ojukwu’s eastern region was inevitable and that steps should immediately be taken to prepare for that eventuality.  He felt that Gowon was treating the belligerent Ojukwu with kid gloves. On one occasion, Murtala gave Gowon a dose of his famed volcanic anger, and banged his first down on his table – threatening to march into, and overrun over the eastern region if Gowon did not stop being so soft with Ojukwu.  This threat was also sporadically repeated by other northern officers who were restrained by the ever conciliatory Gowon.  Murtala through his own civilian contacts independently took steps to procure weapons for the impending war.  In rumour rife Nigeria, this led to unfounded rumours that the weapons were to be used by Murtala to overthrow Gowon. 




When it became clear that the problems between the north and the east were not going to be resolved by negotiations, the east seceded from Nigeria in May 1967 and declared an independent republic of Biafra.  Gowon countered by ordering his troops to retake the east in a “police action”.  The police action turned into a full blown war when the Biafrans made a lightning invasion of the Midwest region which caught the federal army off guard and shook it out of its complacency.  Murtala was appointed GOC of the newly formed 2nd Division of the army, and had the task of evicting the Biafrans from the Midwest.  Murtala had literally built the 2nd Division from scratch.  When the Biafrans were getting too close to Lagos for comfort, Murtala chose some drastic measures to maximise his chances of success when he met them on the battlefield.  He commandeered all available vehicles (including those supposed to be used for other units and for other purposes) and men he could lay his hands on to form his new division.  Among the men drafted into Murtala’s division was an up and coming Lt-Colonel named Alani Akinrinade. Murtala also commandeered men from other divisions such as Captain Remawa and Lt Mayaki of the 1st division who had been sent to Lagos to collect vehicles for their own division but were instead drafted by Murtala, along with the vehicles they had procured for the 1st division.  Lt Shehu Musa Yar’Adua of the 3rd division was also commandeered by Murtala when he travelled to Lagos on an errand for his divisional commander Colonel Benjamin Adekunle. Murtala’s newly assembled 2nd  Division drove the Biafrans out of the Midwest region in a blistering counter offensive which was so efficient that it earned Murtala the nickname “Monty of the Midwest” after Britain’s leading world war two commander Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery.  Once the Biafran forces in the Midwest had been overrun, members of the 2nd Division carried out a terrible massacre of civilians so grotesque that General Gowon had to apologise for it decades after the end of the Nigerian civil war.  As punishment for their sympathy for the Biafrans, hundreds of Igbo civilians in the Midwest were summarily executed by soldiers belonging to the 2nd Division.  In an episode typical of his unpredictable nature, although his troops had killed hundreds of innocent civilians, Murtala personally saw to it that the mother of Major Nzeogwu was protected and not harmed.  After recapturing the Midwest, Murtala installed Major Samuel Ogbemudia as its new Military Governor without seeking or obtaining Gowon’s approval for the appointment.  Nonetheless Ogbemudia remained in that post for a further eight years until he was removed by Murtala in events that will be chronicled later in this chapter.




Buoyed by his Midwest success, Murtala’s next target was the strategically important Biafran city of Onitsha. Murtala’s attack plan for Onitsha changed dramatically when Biafran troops blew up the Niger bridge (the only land access he could use to get to the Biafran heartland) as Murtala was at the bridge’s entrance, considering driving across it.  The 2nd Division could now either attack Onitsha via: (a) a dangerous and direct assault via a river crossing or (b) by crossing the Niger river unopposed via territory held by the neighbouring 1st Division, then proceeding overland to Onitsha. 

Realising the dangers and complexities of a direct river based assault on Onitsha, Supreme Headquarters advised Murtala to choose option (b).  Murtala disregarded the advice of Supreme Headquarters and decided to proceed with the dangerous river crossing. On learning of the plan, Lt-Colonel Aisida (one of Murtala’s brigade commanders) urged him to reconsider the plan which Aisida regarded as suicidal. Murtala was unmoved and insisted that he would have his way.  So controversial was Murtala’s plan that even the commander of the neighbouring 1st Division: Colonel Mohammed Shuwa tried to intervene.  Murtala had a chequered relationship with Shuwa.  Shuwa was a conventional soldier, an “obedient, loyal….textbook commander”.[7]  The difference in the two men’s personalities was reflected in the manner in which they commanded their respective army divisions.  While Murtala’s 2nd division embarked on daring gung-ho assaults against the enemy (often against orders from Supreme HQ), Shuwa’s 1st Division was methodical and quietly efficient.  While Shuwa was cautious, Murtala was impulsive and fearless.  At a meeting between the two, Shuwa urged Murtala to drop his dangerous river assault plan for Onitsha, but Murtala refused and insisted that he would proceed with his chosen plan of attack regardless of the objections by Supreme HQ, his brigade commander Lt-Colonel Aisida and fellow divisional commander Colonel Shuwa.  During the exchange of words with Shuwa, Murtala became so greatly angry that Captain Baba Usman feared that in a fit of rage, Murtala might hit Shuwa. Usman had to stand between Murtala and Shuwa in order to forestall a physically confrontation between Murtala and Shuwa.


Despite protests from one of his brigade commanders, direct orders from Supreme HQ, and the personal intervention of a fellow divisional commander, Murtala proceeded with his chosen Onitsha attack plan.  Were he a citizen of any country other than Nigeria, he would almost certainly have been court-martialled for disobeying orders.  Murtala personally led his men during the crossing. However Biafran troops led by the tough Colonel Joe “Hannibal” Achuzia,  repelled and routed Murtala’s 1000 strong attack team – which lost several million pounds worth of equipment in the process, and suffered many casualties – some by drowning under fierce Biafran fire.  Among those federal soldiers lucky enough to survive the Biafran onslaught were Lieutenants Shehu Musa Yar’Adua and Ishola Williams. Undeterred by this setback, and displaying his characteristic never say die attitude, Murtala again tried the amphibious capture of Onitsha.  Federal troops were again routed by the Biafrans.  Still determined to get his way, and displaying great mental strength and determination after such heavy losses, Murtala tried the ambitious river crossing for a third time – and failed again.  After this third failure, Murtala swallowed his pride and agreed to execute the plan initially approved by Supreme HQ. He finally captured Onitsha.  But victory came at a price as by this time, 2 Division were dispirited, undisciplined and battered after suffering heavy losses against the Biafrans including the loss of an entire convoy of vehicles after an opportunistic Biafran soldier had disobeyed orders and fired the single last mortar in the possession of the Biafrans at Murtala’s convoy.  The plucky soldier scored a direct hit on, and blew up, a vehicle in the convoy carrying fuel. The resulting fire set the entire convoy ablaze and proved to be one of the most spectacular Biafran successes of the Nigerian civil war. Murtala was recalled from the front and replaced by Colonel Haruna.  However 2 Division was in such bad shape that Haruna himself was later replaced by Colonel Gibson Jalo. 


The Onitsha episode was instructive vis-à-vis Murtala’s positive and negative personality traits.  While Murtala’s seemingly limitless courage was undoubted – it could have during the Nigerian civil war cost him his career, or worse still, his life.  Murtala led his troops by example, and would often lead his men into battle from the front.  His willingness to share the physical danger of battle endeared him to, and emboldened, his men.  While he displayed extraordinary courage at embarking on an extremely dangerous river attack on Onitsha against all advice, he also exhibited extreme stubbornness.  His refusal to heed instructions from Supreme HQ is borne of his single-mindedness.  Retired Major-General James Oluleye noted that Murtala “had very little respect for constituted authority while he would not tolerate disrespect from subordinates”.[8]  Once he decided on a course of action, there would be no going back on his decision. He also demonstrated tremendous tenacity by picking himself up and refusing to be deterred after each defeat. His personal courage is undoubted.  After leaving the 2nd division Murtala returned to Lagos in March 1968 and resumed his pre-war post of Inspector of Signals.  He was promoted to Colonel in April 1968.



After the war, Murtala was promoted to Brigadier in October 1971, after a taking a staff college course at the Joint Service staff College in England.  Nigeria’s victory in the civil war made Gowon a hero. His success in uniting a fractured and volatile country behind the war effort gained him immense prestige locally and internationally.  While Gowon proved to be a great wartime leader, he was accused of procrastination and indecision in peacetime by Murtala, who was at times daringly critical of Gowon’s governing style and of other senior officers.  On one occasion, Murtala went so far as to say of Gowon: “we put him there, and we can remove him anytime”.[9]  The Chief of Staff (Army) Major-General David Ejoor also conceded that “Brigadier Murtala Muhammed was particularly difficult to handle”.[10]  Gowon was unwittingly supplying ammunition for Murtala’s barbs.  Whispers of corruption against cabinet ministers and the Military Governors turned to loud and open accusations.  The corruption rumours got so serious that a private citizen (Godwin Daboh) went to court to swear to allegations of corruption against a cabinet minister (Joseph Tarka).  Despite the press furore, Gowon did not sack Tarka, who instead later resigned under intense public criticism.  Brigadier Murtala Muhammed replaced Tarka as Commissioner for Communications in August 1974.  However Murtala combined his new political responsibilities with his military duties, and continued to serve as Inspector of Signals.  A civil servant named Chief Aper Aku also accused the Military Governor of Benue-Plateau State, Joseph Gomwalk of corrupt enrichment. A police investigation exonerated Gomwalk and the complainant Aku was arrested. 


Gowon was also under pressure to reenergise his regime by replacing the Military Governors – many of whom had been in office for nearly a decade.  However some of the governors refused to stand down and pointed out to Gowon that some of them had been in their positions throughout his leadership.  Their logic was that if they (the governors) were stale, then Gowon must be stale also since he had been in office as long as or longer than them.  Some civilians also began to accuse certain military officers of behaving as if they had a right to be in government, and forgetting that military rule was an aberration.  Gowon himself remarked that “by the time I leave office, I will be too old to return to the barracks”, thus giving the impression that he intended to remain in office for a much longer period of time.  On a rain soaked Independence Day parade on October 1, 1974, Gowon explained that the country was not yet ready for a return to multi-party politics and indefinitely postponed the return to civilian democratic rule. Among his convincing reasons was that the politicians had “learnt nothing and forgotten nothing”.




The head of the police Special Branch Alhaji MD Yusuf became suspicious when some middle ranking army officers starting frequently visiting his cousin Major-General Hassan Katsina.  Yusuf warned Katsina that the “delegations” visiting him were coup conspirators.  The next time Murtala came calling to Katsina, Katsina angrily dismissed him.[11]  This and the fact that Murtala’s name kept appearing on intelligence reports regarding coup plots ignited some latent hostility that Murtala had held dating back to the civil war days when the police searched the house of Murtala’s uncle Inuwa Wada in connection with allegations that funds in the Central Bank branch in Benin city had been looted.  Murtala regarded the search as a personal slight.  Yusuf informed Gowon of intelligence reports regarding coup plotting by middle ranking officers.  The names that featured prominently on these reports were the same officers that brought Gowon to power, and surprisingly included the commander of the Brigade of Guards (the unit responsible for Gowon’s personal security) Colonel Joe Garba.  Gowon doubted these reports and found it difficult to believe that his trusted security chief and kinsman could plot a coup against him, and was incredulous that the same officers who brought him to power could plot to overthrow him.  MD Yusuf pressed Gowon on the seriousness of the intelligence reports and offered to personally confront Garba with the allegations in the hope that it would “put the frighteners” on the plotters and give them the impression that their plot had been punctured.  This had a historical parallel with the manner in which Lt-Colonel Patrick Anwunah confronted Murtala nine years earlier on the eve of the “Araba” counter-coup to inform Murtala that he was aware of Murtala’s plans for a counter-coup.  Gowon restrained Yusuf and said that he would speak to Garba himself when he returned from an Organisation of African Unity (OAU) conference in Uganda.[12] Gowon may have placed great faith in the personal security apparatus around him and his security conscious ADC Colonel William Walbe who was so effective at isolating Gowon that Gowon did not even know the numbers of his own internal telephones. 


Unbeknown to Gowon the all star cast from the July 1966 coup was being quietly reassembled for a sequel nine years later.  Only this time, the lead role was to be given to someone other than Gowon.  As Gowon prepared for the OAU summit, a coup plot against him had crystallised.  At the centre of the plot were a group of Colonels who fought in the civil war and felt excluded from the corridors of power.  These were the same officers that (as Lieutenants and NCOs) had carried out the coup which brought Gowon to power in 1966.  Among them were Colonels Shehu Musa Yar’Adua, Ibrahim Taiwo, Abdullahi Mohammed (currently Chief of Staff at the Presidency), Ibrahim Babangida, Muhammadu Buhari, Paul Tarfa, and Brigadiers Jalo, Haruna and Bissalla. Then Lt-Colonel Ibrahim Babangida recalled that while en route to a football match with Lt-Colonel Shehu Musa Yar’Adua, Yar’Adua asked him whether the country’s political condition would remain the same. Babangida understood that this was obviously a leading question to elicit support from Babangida for a military coup. [13]  Yar’Adua’s conversation with Babangida was oddly reminiscent of the manner in which a decade earlier, Majors Nzeogwu and Ifeajuna would casually drop leading political questions into conversation with their colleagues as a way of ascertaining which officers they could recruit for a coup.  There were multiple reasons for the plot.  Ostensibly the coup plotters had reformist motivations and were frustrated by Gowon’s delay at returning the country to civilian democratic rule.  They also wanted to place brakes on the rapidly spiralling corruption spawned by the oil boom and influx of oil money.  However there were other less dramatic and altruistic reasons for the coup too. The personal ambition of these Colonels and jealousy of the incumbent governors may have been another motivating factor.  The head of the police Special Branch at the time Alhaji MD Yusuf noted that


“Life in the barracks had become different and an unhealthy class structure was emerging. Those military officers who had secured public appointments and their military aides had taken to displaying affluent, ostentatious and flamboyant lifestyles. Such tendencies did not manifest in just these military political appointees themselves, but in their wives and other members of their families. They strutted through the barracks like lords and ladies of the manor, displaying unspeakable material wealth, flashy cars, foreign trips, latest fashion and general affluence. They quickly became the envy of their peers.”[14]   


Some of the army’s officers had evolved from the apolitical and unassuming soldiers of the 1950s and 1960s, into immensely confident and powerful men with a large “following” of loyal soldiers in the army that made them de facto private warlords.  Having brought Gowon to power, and fought in the civil war which made him a hero, they were irked at their exclusion from the political decision making process, and their decreasing influence over Gowon.  Some of them also felt that the “Good old Jack” of the pre-war years had become “His Excellency, the Head of State and Commander-in-Chief of the Nigerian Armed Forces General Yakubu Gowon”.  Some officers were also impatient for more rapid promotion, while Gowon insisted that officers should cut their teeth in one rank for many years before being promoted to the next rank.  Shortly before his departure for an OAU summit in Uganda, Gowon finally decided to speak to the commander of the Brigade of Guards Colonel Joseph Garba regarding the rumours of a coup plot.  Garba denied all knowledge of, or involvement in, any coup plot.  Gowon replied that if indeed Garba was part of a coup plot, then he should “let it be on your own conscience” and “make sure there is no bloodshed”.[15]  Gowon departed for Uganda to attend the OAU summit in July 1975. 




Amongst themselves the Colonels had already decided which officers would replace Gowon and his senior officers.  The Colonels disclosed their coup plan to Murtala and asked for his co-operation. After witnessing two bloody military coups, and taking part in a civil war that cost the lives of over a million civilians, Murtala would not physically take part in the coup but gave his blessing and moral support for their plan, and promised to do everything to defend them, and save their lives should their planned coup fail.  The Colonels also contacted Brigadier T.Y. Danjuma, and elicited an identical pledge from him.  By this time, the Colonels had already decided that they wanted Murtala to be the next Head of State.  On the eve of the coup Brigadier Obasanjo was informed by Colonel Abdullahi Mohammed that a coup would occur.  Obasanjo asked Mohammed to make sure there was no bloodshed.  Colonels Anthony Ochefu and Shehu Musa Yar’Adua also approached Brigadier Martin Adamu at his house and hoped he would read their coup speech announcing Gowon’s overthrow.  However Adamu was less cooperative than Murtala and Danjuma and he refused to read the coup speech.  He pleaded that Gowon should be given another chance and bloodshed avoided.  He was reminded that his refusal to play ball might lead to bloodshed.  Late at night on July 28th 1975, the core officers in the coup such as Colonels Yar’Adua, Abdullahi Mohammed, Ibrahim Taiwo, Babangida, Buhari, Muktar Mohammed, Aduloju, Paul Tarfa, and Sani Bello met at the headquarters of the Lagos garrison to confirm each officer’s operational orders for the coup.  There was a last minute scare for the plotters when Gowon’s ADC Colonel William Walbe unexpectedly returned to Nigeria from Uganda, ostensibly to collect a file that Gowon had inadvertently left behind.  News of Walbe’s return spooked the plotters and they feared their plot had been uncovered.  When the plotters asked Walbe why he had returned to Nigeria, they did not believe his innocuous explanation and thought he had been sent back by Gowon to keep tabs on them.[16] 


On July 29th, while Gowon was still in Uganda, he was overthrown in a bloodless military coup announced by Colonel Joseph Garba! Speaking with a tense and emotional voice, Garba announced that Gowon had been overthrown.  Garba had been recruited into the plot and chosen to read the coup speech for strategic reasons.  As the commander of Gowon’s personal security unit the Brigade of Guards, the sound of his voice as the coup announcer would have a placating effect on Gowon’s other security officers who would be unlikely to resist the coup, and would assume it was an “inside” job if their commander was in on the plot.  Garba was like Gowon a member of the Angas ethnic group, and his involvement in the coup would be crucial for avoiding the ethnic overtones of the two coups of 1966.  The core conspirators in the coup against Gowon were Muslim officers from the far north, thus Garba’s participation was essential to avoid antagonizing the officers from middle belt ethnic groups who might interpret the coup as an attempt by officers from the far north to wrest power away from middle belt officers.  Garba may also have had other motivations for participating in the coup.  His relationship with Gowon’s wife Victoria had become increasingly frosty over time and the other plotters may have exploited this in order to recruit Garba.  The reader may be incredulous that officers would risk their careers, lives and those of their colleagues and families, and overthrow a government for personal disputes and professional rivalries, but this shows how politicized the army had become after nearly a decade of military rule. 


Close to midnight on the eve of the coup, Garba had dramatically showed up in the middle of the night at the house of Gowon’s ADC Colonel Walbe.  Garba was dressed in full combat fatigues and was accompanied by other troops.  In the presence of Walbe’s wife, Garba demanded to know whether Walbe was still loyal to Gowon or whether he would join the plotters.  When Walbe did not unequivocally commit to the plot, he was lured to the officers’ mess on the pretext that Brigadiers Adamu and Danjuma and Colonel Ochefu were there and wanted to see him.  Walbe now thought the coup was army wide and travelled with Garba to the mess to discover that of those he expected to see, only Ochefu was present.[17]  He had simply been taken to the mess in order to isolate and keep tabs on him so that he would not cause any problems for the plotters.  Exactly nine years to the day after Walbe and other junior northern soldiers led Major-General Ironsi and Lt-Colonel Fajuyi into a bush alongside Iwo road outside Ibadan and murdered them, Walbe discovered that coup plotting can be a double edged sword.


July 29th was the ninth anniversary of the bloody revenge coup that had brought Gowon to power and had been chosen as the date for the coup precisely for that reason, as the plotters reasoned that it would be the last day that anyone would expect a coup.  Once again, proving that coup plotting in Nigeria is a hobby or profession for some, many of the same officers that participated in the coup that brought Gowon to power were also instrumental in the coup that removed him, and in subsequent coups. The plotters had obviously learned a lesson from the cataclysmic events that followed their violent coup nine years earlier.  So this time, the coup plotters decided that a bloodless coup would avoid similarly disastrous consequences. The new leaders thanked Gowon for all he had done.  Gowon in return was his typically conciliatory self and wished the new leaders well.  He said that:


“a new government had been established in Nigeria. I wish to state that I on my part have also accepted the change and pledged my full loyalty to my nation, my country and the new government.  Therefore, in the overall interest of the nation and our beloved country, I appeal to all concerned to cooperate fully with the new government and ensure the preservation of the peace, unity and stability of our dear motherland.”


He then quoted a few lines from William Shakespeare’s “As You Like It”:


“All the world is a stage, and all the men and women merely players.  They have their exits and their entrances and one man in his time plays many parts.”


Gowon travelled to England and enrolled for a course in political science at Warwick University.  His wife Victoria was allowed to travel to England to reunite with him.  The lack of bitterness between the new and past leaders even led some to suspect that Gowon’s removal was in fact a cleverly orchestrated transfer of power from senior to middle grade officers. 



Murtala was in London at the time of the coup and the plane carrying him back to Nigeria from London was the only plane that was allowed to land in Nigeria.  However the drama was not over.  The Colonels decided that three of their superior officers: Brigadiers Murtala Muhammed, Olusegun Obasanjo and Theophilus Danjuma would lead the new regime, with Murtala replacing Gowon as Head of State.  They explained to the three Brigadiers that decisions of the new Supreme Military Council would only be taken with the concurrence of a majority of its members.  Murtala angrily objected and insisted that as Head of State, he should be given a free hand to govern unrestricted by his colleagues.  The Colonels warned him that they could easily pass him over and nominate someone else as Head of State if he did not agree, but Murtala continued to emphatically disagree, thus threatening the Colonels’ plan.  As MD Yusuf noted: “Argument with Murtala was always an impossible task”.  After some calming words from Danjuma and Obasanjo, Murtala agreed to the Colonels’ proposal.  However, in typically forthright manner, Murtala told the Colonels that once he assumed power, he would not allow himself to be a stooge of, or be dictated to by, the officers who had got him there. Murtala made it clear that he would be independent, would govern the country as he saw fit and that nobody would push him around. 


Murtala’s first act was to totally dismantle the apparatus of Gowon’s governing regime and his key men.  Gowon’s deputy Vice-Admiral Wey was retired and replaced as Chief of Staff, Supreme Headquarters by the Agriculture Minister Brigadier Obasanjo.  Brigadier Danjuma replaced Major-General David Ejoor as the Chief of Staff (Army).  On assumption of this post, its title was changed to “Chief of Army Staff” -the designation which has been used till today.  The heads of the air force, navy, police and deputy Inspector-General of police were also compulsorily retired along with all officers of the rank of Major-General and above (i.e. anyone that was senior to any member of the new regime).  The following senior redeployments were made:





Chief of Staff, Supreme Headquarters

Vice-Admiral Joseph Wey

Brigadier Olusegun Obasanjo

Deputy Chief of Staff, Supreme Headquarters

Major-General Hassan Katsina


Chief of Staff, Army

Major-General David Ejoor

Brigadier Theophilus Danjuma

Chief of Air Force Staff

Brigadier Emmanuel Ikwue

Colonel John Yisa Doko

Chief of Naval Staff

Rear Admiral Nelson Soroh

Commodore Michael Adelanwa

Inspector-General of Police

Alhaji Kam Selem

Alhaji MD Yusuf


Supreme Military Council


A new SMC consisting of the following members was formed:





Brigadier Murtala Muhammed

Head of State, Commander-in-Chief of the Nigerian Armed Forces, and Chairman of the Federal Executive Council

Brigadier Olusegun Obasanjo

Chief of Staff, Supreme Headquarters

Brigadier Iliya Bisalla

Commissioner for Defence

Brigadier Theophilus Yakubu Danjuma

Chief of Army Staff

Colonel John Yisa Doko

Chief of Air Staff

Commodore Michael Adelanwa

Chief of Naval Staff

Alhaji MD Yusuf

Inspector-General of Police

Brigadier Julius Alani Akinrinade[18]

GOC – 1 Mechanised Infantry Division – Kaduna

Brigadier Martin Adamu

GOC – 2 Division – Ibadan

Brigadier Emmanuel Abisoye

GOC, 3 Armoured Division – Jos

Brigadier John Obada

GOC, Lagos Garrison

Brigadier James Oluleye

Commissioner for Establishments

Colonel Ibrahim Babangida[19]

Commander, Nigerian Army Armoured Corps

Colonel Joseph Garba

Commissioner for External Affairs

Colonel Dan Suleiman

Commissioner for Health

Lt-Colonel Shehu Musa Yar’Adua

Commissioner for Transport

Lt. Colonel Alfred Aduloju

Commander, Signal Corps

Navy Captain Olufemi Olumide

Commissioner for Works and Housing

Lt-Commander Godwin Kanu (navy)[20]


Lt-Colonel Muktar Mohammed


As soon as Murtala became the Head of State, all of the twelve Military Governors that served under Gowon were immediately dismissed from their posts and retired.  Murtala also ordered a probe into their conduct in office.  Ten of these twelve governors were found to have illegally enriched themselves while in government.  Murtala said they had “betrayed the trust and confidence reposed in them by the nation….(and)  betrayed the ethics of their professions and they are a disgrace to those professions.  They are, therefore, all dismissed with ignominy”. Among the dismissed Military Governors was Brigadier Samuel Ogbemudia of the Midwest who had been appointed to his position by Murtala eight years earlier after Murtala had recaptured the Midwest region during the Nigerian civil war.  Only Brigadiers Oluwole Rotimi, and Mobolaji Johnson were found innocent of allegations of corruption.  Under Gowon, many members of the military government were members of the executive and the legislature since some officers were Military Governors and members of the SMC too (the SMC was the military government’s legislative body).  Under Murtala the new Military Governors were excluded from the SMC as a way of curbing the power of Governors who under Gowon, ran their states like personal fiefdoms and were difficult to control.  This achieved greater separation of powers (although that was the not the reason for excluding them from the SMC). New Military Governors were appointed as follows:






Chief Superintendent of Police Joseph Gomwalk

Colonel Abdullahi Mohammed[21]


Ukpabi Asika

Colonel Anthony Ochefu


Deputy Police Commissioner Audu Bako

Lt-Colonel Sani Bello[22]


Brigadier David Bamigboye

Colonel Ibrahim Taiwo


Brigadier Mobolaji Johnson

Navy Captain Adekunle Lawal


Brigadier Samuel Ogbemudia

Colonel George Innih


Brigadier Abba Kyari

Lt-Colonel Usman Jibrin


Brigadier Musa Usman (Air Force)

Lt-Colonel Muhammadu Buhari[23]


Police Superintendent Usman Faruk

Lt-Colonel Umaru Mohammed


Lt Alfred Diete-Spiff (Navy)

Lt-Colonel Zamani Lekwot


Brigadier Jacob Esuene (Air Force)

Lt-Colonel Paul Omu


Brigadier Oluwole Rotimi

Navy Captain Akin Aduwo[24]

An interesting footnote from the above table, and illustration of how easily Nigerian army officers fall out with each other is that the former Military Governor of Rivers State Lt-Colonel Zamani Lekwot who was later accused of complicity in a communal clash that left hundreds of people dead.  In 1993 Lekwot was tried and sentenced to death by a Civil Disturbances Special Tribunal created by the regime of Ibrahim Babangida. However Lekwot’s sentence was commuted to a prison sentence and he has subsequently been freed.  Apart from Shehu Shagari and Ali Monguno, all of Gowon’s civilian ministers were also found guilty of corrupt enrichment and were stripped of illegally obtained assets. Among those found to have corruptly enriched himself was the veteran nationalist politician Anthony Enahoro, who several years later would become a staunch opponent of military rule.  Much of the ill-gotten assets seized by Murtala were returned several years later by the regime of General Ibrahim Babangida for reasons that have never been fully explained.  This decision by Babangida was all the more baffling given that he was a member of the regime which stripped the assets in the first place.  Military rule had badly distorted the principle of separation of powers between the executive and legislature.

The July 1975 coup was a watershed for Nigerian military coups in that it was the first time in Nigeria’s history that the executors of a coup apportioned political appointments between themselves.  The two coups of 1966 were carried out by officers with real and perceived political and military grievances.  Despite their murderous intent, they had no interest in governing the country or personally participating in political activity.  Most of the key figures in the 1966 coups did not participate in government. The 1975 coup was the first Nigerian coup executed by officers with personal political ambitions.  Major Alex Madiebo also observed the evolving post 1966 rationale for coups in the following manner:


The ‘tribal coups’ of 1966 were followed by the season of ‘commercial coups’ after the civil war, and were master-minded mainly by the rough and tumble win-the-war officers. They were young army officers whose sense of discipline, humility and professionalism were adversely affected in the war fronts by a culture of violence and force as the best options for conflict resolution. Having tasted a considerable amount of power and wealth in conquered territories, they had become exposed to ambitions that are simply unattainable within the military.”[25]


While most perpetrators of the two 1966 coups were not appointed to political positions, the inner circle of the coup plotters that brought were appointed Military Governors and SMC members irrespective of seniority.  While the plotters could not reasonably be expected to risk their lives to stage a coup for the benefit of other officers, the July 1975 coup seemed to make coup plotting “fashionable”.  Prior to then staging coups had been considered dishonourable conduct.  However the ease with which the plotters overthrew the previous regime, moved into plush government offices and became wealthy motivated other officers to try to emulate them.




It was as Head of State that Murtala etched his name into Nigerian folklore.  It was clear from the outset that Murtala’s character and governing style would be a stark contrast to that of Gowon.  While Gowon was diplomatic, conciliatory and cautious, Murtala was brisk, volatile and displayed decisiveness with major issues that bordered on impulse.  Gone was the methodical pace of Gowon’s administration.  All of Murtala’s decisions were “with immediate effect”.  In his almost legendary book “The Trouble With Nigeria”, Chinua Achebe tells the story of how on the first morning of Murtala’s regime, the notoriously tardy Lagos employees managed to find a way to get to work on time – beating the stifling traffic and transport problems which had always formed part of their standard excuse for being late for work.  The new helsman’s ferocious reputation was such that Lagosians dared not cross him on his first day in office.  Despite the fact that there were just as many vehicles on the road, Lagosians got to work on time for fear of offending the military strongman from Kano.



Repeating the mantra of military governments all the way back to Major-General Ironsi’s regime, Murtala declared his government a “corrective regime” that would tackle the corruption that was increasingly infecting government institutions.  After dismantling the inner core of Gowon’s regime, Murtala turned his gaze to the civil service. Murtala unleashed a massive onslaught against public sector corruption and inefficiency on a scale never seen before in Africa.  This led to a wave of dismissals and retirements of over 10,000 public officials who were summarily dismissed or retired on the grounds of inefficiency or corruption. 


In response to national debate on the military’s continual hold on governance, Murtala announced plans for the military to disengage from politics.  Some officers were genuinely concerned that military rule had a corrosive effect on military professionalism.  Murtala therefore laid out the framework for the return of Nigeria to democratic rule on October 1st 1979.  Anxious to avoid the blatant ethnic based party politics of the 1960s, Murtala told the committee which would draft the new constitution, that the SMC would prefer it if they came up with a system of government without political parties.  In the end several “new” political parties emerged as clones of the parties of the 1960s.  He also stressed that the military did not intend to stay in office “a day longer than necessary”.  One of the justifications for the coup that removed Gowon was that Gowon had postponed the return to civilian rule.  However it is perplexing that on taking over power, the officers who overthrew Gowon then announced a four year transition to civil rule programme.  Murtala ignored the results of widely discredited 1973 census (the results of which have never been made public), and declared that the 1963 figures would instead be used for national planning purposes.  The number of states was increased from 12 to 19 with the creation of seven new states: Anambra, Imo, Niger, Ogun, Ondo, Oyo and Plateau. 




Gowon’s regime had remained neutral in the simmering “cold war” between the world’s then two super powers: the USA and the Soviet Union.  Gowon’s regime bought weapons from the Soviets while remaining on cordial terms with western nations. However, Murtala’s regime embarked on a more assertive foreign policy.  Contrary to the wishes of the USA, it unilaterally recognised the Marxist MPLA as the legitimate government of Angola.  Murtala then rallied other African countries to follow suit, and backed up his diplomatic action with massive financial aid to the MPLA.  Some western powers may have become concerned that the new regime in Africa’s richest country was galvanising African countries to recognise a government with communist ideology.  By his swashbuckling decisiveness, Murtala became the darling of the Nigerian public.  As stories of his no-nonsense reputation began to spread, Nigerians began to feel at last that they had a leader they could count on and look up to.  He “captured the latent idealism of Nigerians”[26]




The massive funds generated by the oil boom had seen Gowon’s regime embark on a series of grandiose construction projects for which tons of cement had to be imported from abroad.  This wasteful extravagance meant that at one point, half of the world’s cement orders were headed for Nigeria.  This caused a massive backlog at Lagos ports as over 400 ships battled for dock space and waited to offload.  The nation had somehow managed to order over 20 million tons of cement without bothering to consider how such a massive order could be unloaded, and that this was about ten times the total amount that the Lagos ports could handle in a year – even if they had no other cargo to unload.  Murtala’s regime finally ordered a halt to all shipping of cargo to its ports and appointed the tough “Black Scorpion” and civil war veteran Brigadier Benjamin Adekunle to ease the ports congestion. 




Another ambitious plan was announced: the relocation of the country’s federal capital away from the crowded, teeming, dirty, polluted and crime ridden Lagos.  With its exploding population and miles of traffic which slowed down commerce, Lagos was thought to be an unsuitable city to serve as capital for the world’s first anticipated black superpower.  Little did Murtala know that he would one day become a victim of the Lagos traffic.  Murtala’s regime decided to move the capital to a location near Abuja in the centre of Nigeria.  Although heralded at the time, in retrospect this proved to one of the least auspicious decisions that Murtala’s regime took as construction work in Abuja subsequently proved to be a massive strain on the federal budget and a source of corruption.  Although Abuja is today one of the most spectacular cities on Earth, it does not have the life and character associated with most world capitals.  Justice Akinola Aguda was the head of the panel that recommended Abuja to the Government as the site of the new capital.  Aguda was to remark a decade later that “Those of us who are still alive will continue to take the blame for recommending the relocation of the federal capital from Lagos to virgin land which we thought would be a blessing but has now turned to be the tragedy of Abuja”.[27]


Defence continued to be the largest budget item, and as Brigadier Danjuma pointed out, 90% of defence expenditure went on soldiers’ salaries.  It therefore made economic sense to reduce the army’s numerical strength in order to also cut defence expenditure.  Moreover, some elements of the army were viewed as little more than armed political parties that could threaten the existence of any civilian government. During the civil war, the Nigerian army had grown from a light colonial army of approximately 10,000 which most had thought would only be used for internal security, into a bloated and heavily armed force of 250,000.  Nigeria had no need for such a massive army, and an army of that size could actually be an internal security risk.  Murtala decided to cut the army’s numerical strength below 150,000.   However, some officers were not overjoyed at the prospect of being removed from the army and thrown into an uncertain life on civvy street.  While he was untouchable in the eyes of the civilian population, Murtala’s demobilisation plan (although making perfect economic sense) upset some in his primary constituency: the army.



While riding the crest of the wave of popular opinion, Murtala made the first of two mistakes that may have cost him his life.  When then Lt-Colonel Yakubu Gowon became the Head of State in 1966, he waited till the days preceding the outbreak of the Nigerian civil war in 1967 before promoting himself to Major-General.  After the war finished, Gowon promoted himself again and became Nigeria’s first four star General.  These promotions were necessary at first, in order to stabilise Gowon’s position as Head of State despite the presence of officers having superior rank in his regime (Commodore Joseph Wey and Colonel Robert Adebayo).  When Murtala came to office in 1975, he removed officers of superior seniority to himself.  Then a Brigadier, Murtala ordered the retirement of all armed forces officers of the rank of Major-General and above.  For several months, Murtala’s government functioned with four Brigadiers at its apex (Murtala, Olusegun Obasanjo, T.Y. Danjuma, and Iliya Bissalla).  This arrangement worked.  However in January 1976, Murtala’s regime embarked on a bizarre promotion exercise which served no purpose other than to create tensions within the regime.  Murtala was promoted to a four star General, his deputy, Olusegun Obasanjo, and the Chief of Army Staff, Theophilus Danjuma, were both promoted to Lt-General.  Strangely, these promotions had retroactive effect and were backdated to July 29, 1975 (the date that Gowon was overthrown).  The haphazard promotions placed many officers in positions of subordination to their former juniors, whom were now suddenly catapulted over their heads.  The most controversial promotion may have been that of the Defence Commissioner: Iliya Bissalla, who was promoted to Major-General only.[28]  This limited promotion for Bissalla defied all logic as it made him subordinate to the Chief of Army Staff: Lt-Gen Danjuma.  Bissalla was understandably unhappy that a former subordinate of his was now his superior.  Moreover, the limited promotion for Bissalla made little logistical sense as Danjuma’s post as Chief of Army Staff was within, and under, Bissalla’s Defence Ministry.  This placed Bissalla in a position where he was outranked by an officer that was supposed to be working under him.  These promotions distorted the chain of command within the Defence Ministry, and created bad blood between Danjuma and Bissalla.  Danjuma was also promoted over the head of his other seniors such as Mohammed Shuwa, Ibrahim Haruna, Gibson Jalo and Olufemi Olutoye.  These men now found themselves subordinate to their former juniors.  There was also no need for the promotion exercise as at that time, there were no officers in the army above the rank of Brigadier. 


Senior officers who were not on good terms with the coup plotters and/or with Murtala were also controversially excluded from the SMC.  These included senior officers such as Olufemi Olutoye and Mohammed Shuwa who were senior to the leading figures in the regime but found themselves leapfrogged by their juniors and excluded from the military governments most important decision making body. Murtala’s second fatal mistake was his failure to take his personal security more seriously.  Perhaps due to his personal popularity, Murtala had never bothered with the massive security detail characteristic of so many modern Heads of State.  He continued to live at his house at number 6 Second Avenue in Ikoyi, Lagos: a house he had lived in for over a decade.  Unlike his predecessors, Murtala declined to move into more opulent housing and continued to live at the same house.  Murtala mingled with the masses in the teeming streets of Lagos and drove around town without a motorcade.  He would startle others by arriving unannounced at various locations without security. Concerned by his boss’ lax attitude towards security, in early 1976 Murtala’s deputy, Lt-General Obasanjo urged him to take his personal security more seriously.  In typically stubborn manner, Murtala refused to heed the advice of his deputy, and replied that if anyone was planning to overthrow him, then “if they succeed in killing all of us, good luck to them” in running the affairs of Nigeria and the myriad problems associated therewith. He perhaps sealed his own fate with those words.




Security and routine do not go together.  Having dispensed with sizeable personal security and a motorcade, on Friday 13th February 1976, Murtala departed for work along his usual route.  As his car crawled in the infamous Lagos traffic outside the Federal Secretariat in Ikoyi, a group of soldiers rushed over to the car and fired a volley of gunshots which killed Murtala, his ADC Lt Akintunde Akinsehinwa, his driver Sergeant Adamu Minchika, and his orderly Staff Sergeant Michael Otuwe.[29]  Unbeknown to Murtala, as he made his way to work that day, a group of assassins including Lt-Colonel Dimka, Major Rabo, Captain Malaki and Lt William Seri were lying in wait for him.  Each man had a different task.  Captain Malaki was the “spotter” and his job was to signal Rabo and Seri when Murtala’s car approached.[30]  After only six months in office, Murtala Muhammed was assassinated in an abortive military coup led by Lt-Col Busa Sukar Dimka – the head of the army’s physical training corps.  Dimka was the officer who a decade earlier had been accused of murdering his commanding officer, Lt-Colonel Okoro in Kaduna and of participating in death squads that summarily executed Igbo soldiers during the northern soldiers’ mutiny of July 1966.  Yet somehow he had been allow remain in, and rise up the army.  Dimka had graduated from the Australian army officer cadet school in Portsea on December 13th 1963 along with Boniface Ikejiofor, an officer who took part in the Majors’ coup of January 1966.  The two men were the first Nigerian army officers to train in Australia and successfully complete the course.  Cadets from Australia, New Zealand, Malaysia, the Philippines and the Pacific Islands also trained with them.  Both young men ruined promising lives and careers by choosing to join different coup plots.  Ironically Arthur Unegbe (then a Major) who was murdered during the January 1966 coup in which Ikejiofor took part, had attended Dimka and Ikejiofor’s passing out parade in 1963.  Shortly after Murtala was murdered, Dimka rushed up the road to the nearby Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation from where he made the following nationwide broadcast that was interspersed with martial music:


“Good morning fellow Nigerians, this is Lt. Colonel B.S. Dimka of the Nigerian army calling. I bring you good tidings. Murtala Muhammed’s hypocrisy has been detected. His government is now overthrown by the young revolutionaries. All the Military Governors have no powers over the states they now govern. The state affairs will be run by the military brigade commanders until further notice. All commissioners are sacked, except for the armed forces and police commissioners who will be redeployed. All senior military officers should remain calm in their respective spots. No divisional commanders will issue orders to his formations until further notice. Any attempt to foil this plan from any quarter will be met with death. You are warned, it is all over the 19 states. All acts of resistance will be met with death. Everyone should be calm.  Please stay by your radio for further announcements.  All borders, airports and sea ports are closed until further notice. Curfew is imposed from 6am to 6pm. Thank you. We are all together.”


The clumsy syntax and inadvertent imposition of a “6am to 6pm” curfew in the above speech tells readers all they need to know about the intellect of the soldiers behind this coup (Dimka obviously meant 6pm to 6am, but got the hours the wrong way round).  Then came several gestures which although small in isolation – demonstrated Murtala’s popularity across Nigeria. The commander of the elite 1st mechanised infantry division in Kaduna: Major-General Alani Akinrinade, immediately made a radio announcement proclaiming his loyalty to Murtala and condemning the attempted coup.  Then when news of the coup spread, students at the University of Benin marched into the streets and staged an angry demonstration against the soldiers that had killed their hero.  Given the manner in which Nigerian soldiers had slaughtered civilians between 1966 and 1970, this was a brave gesture by the students. 

The Chief of Army Staff Lt-General Danjuma dispatched Colonel Ibrahim Babangida to dislodge Dimka from the radio station.  Babangida knew Dimka personally and came face to face with him inside the radio station.  Babangida spoke to Dimka in Hausa and tried to talk Dimka down, playing on Dimka’s knowledge of Babangida’s family and that he was a married man.  In circumstances that have never been fully explained, Dimka somehow managed to walk out of the radio station unscathed and fled.  The coup was eventually put down and many of the culprits arrested.  Seven days of national mourning were declared in Murtala’s honour.  At the end of these seven days, grief stricken Nigerians were given a public holiday. 




Dimka was arrested after a nationwide manhunt lasting several weeks, as were his accomplices.  According to Dimka he had been recruited into the coup plot by Major Dabang.  Major Rabo was allegedly in charge of distributing tasks among the plotters as follows: Major Rabo was to target Murtala Muhammed, Lt Dauda to target Lt-General Obasanjo, and Lt. Lawrence Garba was to target Lt-General Danjuma.  Major Gagara was to lead the coup in Sokoto.  The mutineers later justified their coup by explaining that they were angered by Murtala’s plans to reduce the size of the army (as they almost certainly would have been laid off).  They also felt that the SMC was “going communist”.  Their targets for elimination were the FMG’s leading figures General Muhammed, Lt-Generals Obasanjo and Danjuma, the four GOCs Abisoye, Obada, Akinrinade, and Adamu.  For reasons that are not immediately clear, Colonels Babangida, Ibrahim Taiwo, Bajowa, Abdullahi Mohammed, Umaru Mohammed and David Jemibewon were also on the hitlist.  All the above targets (except Muhammed and Taiwo) escaped death.  Taiwo’s body was discovered in a shallow grave. 


Investigations after the coup caused a public furore when it was disclosed that Dimka had visited the British High Commission while the coup was in progress and asked the High Commissioner Sir Martin Le Quesne to relay a message to General Gowon.  Although Le Quesne refused to relay the message and declared that he would not be Dimka’s messenger, Dimka’s visit severely compromised his position, and would later cost him his job. This allied to suspected CIA knowledge of the coup caused anti-British and American sentiment.  Matters came to a head when at the height of the national mourning for the slain Head of State, Le Quesne insensitively reminded Nigerians that he expected them to pay for the damage caused to the windows of the British High Commission by demonstrators.  Although correct in principle, Sir Martin’s statement showed poor timing and insensitivity to the mourning of his hosts. This proved to be the last straw for the government.  Sir Martin was declared persona non grata and told to leave the country.


Since the executors of the two 1966 coups were never tried there was no law in Nigeria prescribing punishment for coup plotting against a military regime.  The existing treason laws in Nigeria’s statute books did not contemplate the existence of a military regime. The SMC filled this lacuna by enacting the Treason and Other Offences (Special Military Tribunal) Decree, which empowered the FMG to set up a special military tribunal (composed of military officers) to try the coup plotters (including civilians) in a secret trial.  The tribunal was also empowered to impose the death penalty.  The board of inquiry that investigated the coup was headed by Major-General Emmanuel Abisoye.  The actual military tribunal which tried the suspects was headed by Major-General John Obada, and the other tribunal members were Deputy Inspector-General of Police Adamu Suleiman, Navy Capt Olufemi Olumide, and Lt-Colonels Muktar Mohammed, Joshua Dogonyaro and Mamman Jiya Vatsa.  Ironically Dogonyaro and Vatsa themselves became coup plotters in the 1980s.  Dogonyaro participated in coups in 1983 and 1985, and Vatsa was tried and executed in 1986 for his alleged role in a coup.  In the grief and atmosphere of vengeance following the coup, no one questioned why the plotters were being tried by a secret tribunal, under legal powers that had retroactive effect, and that suspects could be sentenced to death based on evidence that would not be made public.  Most of the defendants were from Gowon’s home state of Plateau.  Minority officers from the middle belt were the new treacherous scapegoats of the day.  The tension between middle belt officers and those from the far north resurfaced.  The coup investigation took on witch hunting proportions and officers were convicted on the most flimsy or circumstantial evidence, often based on Dimka’s uncorroborated testimony.  Over a hundred soldiers were arrested and interrogated.  Dimka’s confessional statements took on a life of their own as he made one confessional statement after another, implicating an ever increasing circle of officers.  He even found time to implicate General Gowon, claiming that he had visited Gowon in the UK to discuss the coup plot, to which Gowon has given his assent and advised “You boys make sure you take time and make no mistakes”.  There were some other disturbing links between Gowon and the suspects which alarmed the FMG sufficiently to declare Gowon a suspect and ask for his extradition from the UK (a request that was denied). Dimka was an in-law of Gowon and like Gowon, was also a member of the Angas ethnic group.  Although he admitted that Dimka visited him in the UK, Gowon denied the allegations against him and claimed that his only recollection of meeting Dimka was Dimka’s incoherent and drunken statements.  Gowon wisely declined the FMG’s invitation to come to Nigeria for interrogation.  His refusal led to him being declared a wanted person, being stripped of his rank and having his benefits revoked.[31]  His younger brother Isaiah was also arrested and imprisoned.  Dimka’s shocking revelations also implicated the Commissioner for Defence: Major-General Iliya Bissalla.  Despite protesting his innocence throughout, even as he was being led onto the execution ground, Bissalla was convicted of treason and executed by a firing squad, as were Dimka and over two dozen other officers.  The Brigadier Obada military tribunal originally acquitted some of the suspects.  However the acquitted men were retried by a second military tribunal chaired by Brigadier Pius Eremebor and some were sentenced to death and executed.  The former Military Governor of Plateau State Joseph Gomwalk and Gowon’s younger brother Isaiah were allegedly among those tried twice.  Gomwalk was sentenced to death by the second tribunal chaired by Brigadier Eremebor and executed.  Isaiah Gowon was originally acquitted by the Obada tribunal but then retried under Eremebor and sentenced to imprisonment.  A civilian broadcaster (Abdulkarim Zakari) was also executed.  Zakari allegedly provided Dimka with the martial music that he played with his coup broadcast, and was on duty on the day of the coup even though it was supposed to be his day off.  He allegedly showed Dimka into the broadcasting section of the radio station.[32]  32 of the condemned men were executed on March 11, 1976.  Dimka, Gomwalk, Colonel Isa Bukar, Major J.K. Afolabi, Lt S Kwale, Warrant Officer (II) E.Bawa and the police officer H Shaiyen were executed on May 15, 1976.  The executions were carried out at Lagos’ bar beach and at the Kirikiri maximum security prison.  Some of the executions (including Bissalla) were carried out in public in front of crowds and televised.  Macabre photographs of the bullet shattered bodies of the executed men got into public circulation (again including Bissalla).  The table below shows those that were executed:






Major General I.D. Bissalla (Defence Commissioner)



Lt-Colonel Busa Sukar Dimka



Joseph Gomwalk (former governor of Benue-Plateau state)



Mr. Abdulakarim Zakari (civilian radio broadcaster)



Colonel Isa Bukar          



Colonel A.D.S. Wya



Lt. Colonel K. Adamu



Lt-Colonel A.R. Aliyu              



Lt. Colonel Ayuba Tense         



Lt-Colonel A.B. Umaru             



Major J.K. Afolabi                



Major C.D. Dabang



Major K.Sagara



Major J.W. Kasai



Major M.M. Mshelia



Major Ola Ogunmekan               



Major I.B. Rabo                   



Captain A.A. Aliyu



Captain Augustine Dawurang



Captain J. Idi Fadah                    



Captain M.R. Gotip



Captain G. Parrwang



Captain S. Wakian                



Lt. Peter Cigari



Lt. Lawrence Garba



Lt. Sabo Kwale                      



Lt. Mohammed                      



Lt. William Seri



Lt. E.L.K. Shelleng



Lt. S. Wayah



Lt. O. Zagmi



Warrant Officer E.Bawa



Warrant Officer Monday Manchong



Warrant Officer Sambo Pankshin



Warrant Officer Dakup Sevi



Staff Sgt Richard Dungdang



Sgt Bala Javan



Sgt Sale Pankshin



Sgt Amadu Rege



Police Sgt Shaiyen



The following were sentenced to prison terms:




Major AK Abang


Captain AA Maidobo


Captain C Wuyep


Second-Lt A Walbe


Mrs Helen Gomwalk


Mr S Anyadofu


Mr D Gontu (police)


Gyang Pam (police)


Mr SK Dimka (police)


Warrant Officer (II) E Izah


Sgt J Bupwada


Lt-Colonel J.S. Madugu

2 years

Captain Isaiah Gowon[33]

15 years

Mr J Tuwe

10 years


Two of the coup suspects: Sergeant Clement Yildar and Corporal Dauda Usman were never apprehended and remain at large (if still alive) till today. Major Victor Malu was a guest of his friend Major Mshelia on the eve of the coup.  Malu was shocked to subsequently discover that his host and friend was one of those implicated in the coup plot and executed.  Some of the condemned men’s last words were sombre.  Major Gagara simply declared that his wife was “free to remarry”.


After the death of Murtala the SMC met to choose a new Head of State.  The Chief of Army Staff Lt-General Danjuma was offered the position but wisely declined.  The coup plotters were like Danjuma, from northern minority ethnic groups.  He doubtless remembered what happened to Major-General Ironsi when ten years earlier, Ironsi agreed to become Head of State after northern officers were killed in a military coup executed by officers mostly from his region.  The Chief of Staff, Supreme Headquarters, Lt-General (later General) Olusegun Obasanjo succeeded Murtala as Head of State and pledged to continue with the policies initiated by his predecessor (Obasanjo escaped death due to a case of mistaken identity that saw the mutineers mistakenly ambush and shoot up the car of Colonel Ray Dumuje thinking that Obasanjo was inside).  The emotional strain got to Obasanjo as he burst into tears when he was informed that he would be the new Head of State.  The SMC were keen to assuage Hausa-Fulani feelings after Murtala’s assassination and wanted to place another Hausa-Fulani soldier in a prominent position. Proving that no lessons had been learnt from the previous promotion exercise that partly served as a motivating factor for the coup, Lt-Colonel Shehu Musa Yar’Adua[34], a Fulani officer from an aristocratic northern family was catapulted over the heads of over a dozen non Hausa-Fulani officers and promoted to Brigadier (and later again to Major-General) and appointed to fill the position of Chief of Staff, Supreme Headquarters which had been vacated by Obasanjo.  So embarrassed were some of the senior officers he leapfrogged that they reported directly to Obasanjo as a way of avoiding the humiliation of reporting to their former subordinate Yar’Adua.  Obasanjo eventually returned the country to civilian rule on October 1 1979 as Murtala had promised.  As a lasting symbol of his legacy, Nigeria’s largest international airport at Ikeja in Lagos was renamed the “Murtala Muhammed International Airport”.  This airport is the entry point for most visitors to Nigeria, and is Africa’s busiest airport.  The bullet riddled car in which Murtala was killed is today on museum display in Nigeria. 




Murtala was survived by his Yoruba wife Ajoke (a dentist) and five children: Aisha (12) Zakari (10), Fatima (9), Risqua Abba (8), Zeliha (2) and Jumai – a young baby less than one year old.  His eldest daughter Aisha is a law graduate of Kings College, University of London.  She also has a Masters Degree in Business Administration from Imperial College, University of London, and runs an asset management company.  Fatima is a horticulturist (although she is also a qualified accountant).  Risqua is now Murtala’s only surviving son since his elder brother Zakari was shot dead in 1994, in an incident that has not been resolved to the satisfaction of some members of Murtala’s family.  Risqua undertook a business career after his graduation with a degree in Business Administration from the University of Lagos, and a postgraduate degree from the University of Cardiff.  Risqua was subsequently appointed as President Olusegun Obasanjo’s Special Assistant on Privatisation.  Zeliha is a graduate of Economics from Nottingham University in the UK, and works for a real estate survey firm in Lagos.  Murtala’s youngest child Jumai studied Economics at the University of London.  Murtala’s widow and family launched the Murtala Muhammed Foundation in his memory, and the organisation’s board of trustees includes his children Aisha and Risqua, his widow Ajoke, as well as prominent retired Nigerian army Generals such as Olusegun Obasanjo, Ibrahim Babangida and T.Y. Danjuma.  Murtala died as a man of great contradictions.  The former secessionist firebrand who fought to prevent a secessionist movement and became a nationwide hero.  He departed from Nigeria’s political scene in the same manner he entered it: in a hail of bullets.


**The above article is an extract from a forthcoming book by the author.


[1] Lindsay Barrett: “Danjuma: The Making of a General”.

[2] Madiebo – “The Biafran Revolution and the Nigerian Civil War”).

[3] Ironically one of these men had an Igbo wife.

[4] see Madiebo: “The Nigerian Revolution and The Biafran War”.

[5] See N.U. Akpan – “The Struggle For Secession”.

[6] Shagari – “Beckoned to Serve”.

[7] Elaigwu – “Gowon: The Biography of a Soldier-Statesman”.

[8] Oluleye “Military Leadership in Nigeria”.

[9] Shehu Shagari: “Beckoned to Serve”.

[10] Ejoor – “Reminiscences”.

[11] MD Yusuf – “Aristocratic Rebel”.

[12] MD Yusuf “Aristocratic Rebel”.

[13] Karl Maier – “This House Has Fallen: Midnight in Nigeria”.

[14] MD Yusuf “Aristocratic Rebel”.

[15] Elaigwu “Gowon: Biography of a Soldier-Statesman”.

[16] Elaigwu “Gowon: Biography of a Soldier-Statesman”.

[17] Elaigwu “Gowon: Biography of a Soldier-Statesman”.

[18] Later became Nigeria’s first Chief of Defence Staff.

[19] Later became Head of State.

[20] Later became Military Governor of Imo State.

[21] Currently Chief of Staff at the Presidency.

[22] Ironsi’s former ADC who was with him when he was killed in Ibadan in 1966.

[23] Later became Head of State.

[24] Later became the Chief of Naval Staff under President Shagari.

[25] Vanguard, Thursday, October 26, 2006.

[26] Isichei: “A History of Nigeria”.

[27] New African – November 1997.

[28] Others promoted from Brigadier to Maj-Gen were Emmanuel Abisoye, Martin Adamu, Alani Akinrinade, John Obada, Gibson Jalo, Olufemi Olutoye, Mohammed Shuwa, Ibrahim Haruna, James Oluleye, and H Adefope.  Commodore Adelanwa was promoted to Rear Admiral and Colonel Yisa Doko to Air Commodore.  These promotions (including that of Bissalla) took effect on January 1, 1976. 

[29] Some sources claim that Otuwe survived.

[30] Richard Akinola. – “Fellow Countrymen – The Story of Coup d’etats in Nigeria”.

[31] His rank and benefits were subsequently restored by President Shehu Shagari.

[32] Richard Akinola. – “Fellow Countrymen – The Story of Coup d’etats in Nigeria”.

[33] Younger brother of General Gowon.

[34] His father was a minister in the first republic and his younger brother is the current President.


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