Murtala Mohammed

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Murtala Rufai Ramat Muhammed
Murtala Muhammed.jpg
4th Head of State of Nigeria
In office
July 30, 1975 – February 13, 1976
Preceded byYakubu Gowon
Succeeded byOlusegun Obasanjo
Federal Commissioner for Communications
In office
General Officer Commanding 2 Division, Ibadan
In office
August 1967 – May 1968
Succeeded byIbrahim Haruna
Personal details
Born(1938-11-08)November 8, 1938
Kano City, Northern Region, Nigeria, Colonial Nigeria
DiedFebruary 13, 1976(1976-02-13) (aged 37)
Lagos, Lagos State, Nigeria
Political party(None)
Spouse(s)Ajoke Muhammed
Alma materBarewa College
Regular Officers Special Training School
R.M.A. Sandhurst
Military service
Allegiance United Kingdom Nigeria
Service/branch Nigerian Army
Years of service1958 - 1975

Murtala Rufai Ramat Muhammed (November 8, 1938 – February 13, 1976) was the military ruler (Head of the Federal Military Government) of Nigeria from 1975 until his assassination in 1976.

Early life[edit]

Murtala Muhammed was born on 8 November 1938, one of eleven children of Risqua Muhammed and Uwani Rahamat in Kano, Nigeria. He was educated at Cikin Gida and Gidan Makama primary schools in Kano, attending the famous Government College (now Barewa College) in Zaria, where he obtained his school certificate in 1957.[1]

Military career[edit]

Murtala Muhammed joined the Nigerian Army in 1958. Muhammed was trained as an officer cadet at Sandhurst Royal Military Academy in England. After his training, he was commissioned as a second lieutenant in 1961 and assigned to the Nigerian Army Signals that same year.

In 1961, Muhammed was appointed aide-de-camp (ADC) to M. A. Majekodunmi, the federally-appointed administrator of the Western Region.

In 1963, he became the officer-in-charge of the First Brigade Signal Troop in Kaduna, Nigeria. That year he traveled to the Royal Corps of Signals at Catterick Garrison, England for a course on advanced telecommunications techniques.

On his return to Nigeria in 1964, he was promoted to major and appointed officer-commanding, 1st Signal Squadron in Apapa, Lagos.

In November 1965, he was made acting Chief of Signals of the Army.

In January 1966, he was promoted to Lieutenant Colonel and was the inspector of signals in Lagos.

At the start of the Nigerian Civil War, he led the newly established 2nd Infantry Division for which he was made the first General Officer Commanding in August 1967. In March 1968, he was redeployed to Lagos and was appointed Inspector of Signals. In April 1968 he was promoted to colonel.

Between 1970 and 1971, he attended the Joint Service Staff College in England. After the war, he was promoted to brigadier-general in October 1971. On 7th August 1974, the head of state, General Yakubu Gowon appointed him as the new Federal Commissioner for Communications, which he combined with his military duties as Inspector of Signals at the Army Signals Headquarters in Apapa, Lagos.

On 29th July 1975, General Yakubu Gowon was overthrown while attending the 12th summit of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) in Kampala, Uganda. Muhammed took power as the new Military Head of State.[2]

On Friday 13 February 1976, Muhammed set off for work along his usual route on George Street. Shortly after 8 a.m., his Mercedes Benz car traveled slowly in the infamous Lagos traffic near the Federal Secretariat at Ikoyi in Lagos and a group of soldiers (members of an abortive coup led by Dimka) emerged from an adjacent petrol station, ambushed the vehicle and assassinated Muhammed.[3]

Role during 1960s coups[edit]

Muhammed opposed the regime of Johnson Aguiyi-Ironsi, which took power after a coup d'etat on January 15, 1966. Aguiyi-Ironsi, as GOC of the Nigerian Army, brought normality back to the nation by imprisoning the coup makers and intimidating the federal cabinet into handing over the helms of government to him. However, many northerners saw this and the reluctance of Ironsi to prosecute the coup leaders, and the fact that the army was purportedly giving exceptional privileges to the coupist as an indication of Ironsi's support for the killings. Consequently, northern politicians and civil servants mounted pressure upon northern officers such as Muhammed to avenge the coup. In the night of July 29, 1966, northern soldiers at Abeokuta barracks mutinied, thus precipitating a counter-coup, which may very well have been in the planning stages. The counter-coup led to the installation of Lieutenant-Colonel Yakubu Gowon as Supreme Commander of the Nigerian Armed Forces, despite the intransigence of Muhammed who wanted the role of Supreme Commander for himself. However, as Gowon was militarily his senior, and finding a lack of support from the British and American advisors, he caved in. Gowon rewarded him by confirming his ranking (he had been an acting Lt. Colonel until then) and his appointment (Inspector of Signals).

Nigerian civil war and role in the Asaba Massacre[edit]

During the Nigerian Civil War, Muhammed was General Officer Commanding (GOC) of the Nigerian Army's 2nd Division. This division was responsible for the legendary beating back of the Biafran Army from the midwestern region, as well as crossing the River Niger and linking up with the 1st Division, which was marching down from Nsukka and Enugu. However, this was only achieved after several failed river crossings in which thousands of troops were killed by drowning or enemy fire. During his time as Division Commander, Murtala Muhammed was implicated in several violations of appropriate conduct; Lieutenant Ishola Williams, an officer who served under then Colonel Muhammed alleged that Muhammed ordered the summary execution of Biafran prisoners of war.[4] In a 2017 book Professors S. Elizabeth Bird and Fraser Ottanelli document the 1967 mass murder of civilians (often referred to as the Asaba Massacre) by troops of the 2nd Division under his command. They also discuss the events leading up to the massacre, and its impact on Asaba and on the progress of the war, as well as other civilian massacres carried out by soldiers of the 2nd Division at Onitsha and Isheagu.[5] Murtala Muhammed was replaced as Commander of the 2nd Division in the spring of 1968.

Federal Commissioner for Communications[edit]

On 7 August 1974, General Yakubu Gowon appointed Muhammed as the Federal commissioner (position now called Minister) for communications to oversee and facilitate the nation’s development of cost effective communication infrastructures during the oil boom.

Head of state[edit]

On July 30, 1975, Brigadier (later General) Muhammed was made head of state when General Gowon was overthrown while at an Organization of African Unity (OAU) summit in Kampala, Uganda.[6] Brigadiers Obasanjo (later Lt. General) and Danjuma (later Lt. General) were appointed as Chief of Staff, Supreme HQ and Chief of Army Staff, respectively. In the coup d'état that brought him to power he introduced the phrases "Fellow Nigerians" and "with immediate effect" to the national lexicon.[7] In a short time, Murtala Muhammed's policies won him broad popular support, and his decisiveness elevated him to the status of a folk hero.[8]

Naming Abuja as the new Federal Capital Territory[edit]

As head of state, Muhammed put in place plans to build a new Federal Capital Territory due to Lagos being overcrowded. He set up a panel headed by Justice Akinola Aguda, which chose the Abuja area as the new capital ahead of other proposed locations. On February 3, 1976, Muhammed announced that the Federal Capital would in the future move to a federal territory location of about 8,000 square kilometres in the central part of the country.[9]

The creation of seven states in February 1976[edit]

On 3rd February 1976 the following seven Nigerian states were created by Murtala Muhammed: Bauchi, Benue, Borno, Imo, Niger, Ogun, and Ondo.[10] This brought the total number of states in Nigeria to nineteen in 1976.

Demobilization of troops, after civil war[edit]

After the war and after he took power as head of state, Muhammed started the reorganization and demobilization of 100,000 troops from the armed forces. The number of troops in the armed forces decreased from 250,000 to 150,000.[11]

Federal control of the media and federal control of state-run universities[edit]

Muhammed took federal control of the country’s two largest newspapers – Daily Times and New Nigerian; all media in Nigeria was now under federal control. He also took federal control of the remaining state-run universities.[12]

Foreign policy[edit]

Murtala Muhammed reappraised Nigeria's foreign policy, stressing a "Nigeria first" orientation in line with OPEC price guidelines that was to the disadvantage of other African countries. Nigeria became "neutral" rather than "nonaligned" in international affairs. The shift in orientation became apparent with respect to Angola. Nigeria had worked with the OAU to bring about a negotiated reconciliation of the warring factions in the former Portuguese colony, but late in 1975 Murtala Muhammed announced Nigeria's support for the Soviet-backed Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola, citing South Africa's armed intervention on the side of the rival National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA). The realignment strained relations with the United States, which argued for the withdrawal of Cuban troops and Soviet advisers from Angola.

Oil boom[edit]

As head of state Murtala Muhammed inherited an immense amount of oil and petroleum resources and enormous but untapped natural gas reserves. But in 1975, Muhammed saw reduced revenue due to low levels of petroleum production; this meant that the military government lacked the projected funds to meet Nigeria’s development plan for 1975. The decline in petroleum production in 1975 was due to a global fall in demand, high costs of spare parts and high labour costs.[13]

Murtala Muhammed initiated a comprehensive review of the Third National Development Plan. Singling out inflation as the greatest danger to the economy, he was determined to reduce government spending on public sector development projects. Muhammed also announced that his government would encourage the rapid expansion of the private sector into areas dominated by public sector corporations.


Car in which Murtala Muhammed was assassinated.

Murtala Muhammed was killed, aged 37, along with his Aide-De-Camp (ADC), Lieutenant Akintunde Akinsehinwa, in his black Mercedes Benz saloon car on February 13, 1976, in an abortive coup attempt led by Lt. Col Buka Suka Dimka, when his car was ambushed en route to his office at Dodan Barracks, Lagos. The only visible sign of protection was a pistol carried by his orderly, therefore making his assassination an easy task. He was succeeded by the Chief of Staff, Supreme HQ Olusegun Obasanjo, who completed his plan of an orderly transfer to civilian rule by handing power to Shehu Shagari on October 1, 1979. Today, Muhammed's portrait adorns the 20 Naira note and Murtala Muhammed International Airport in Lagos is named in his honor.

Personal life[edit]

Murtala Muhammed was married to his only wife Ajoke. They had six children together. In order of elder to youngest: Aisha, Zakari (deceased), Fatima, Abba (also known as Risqua), Zeliha and Jummai.[14]

Abba Muhammed was a Special Adviser to President Olusegun Obasanjo on Privatisation.


Murtala Muhammed had received several awards and medals. In alphabetical order they included:

  • Forces Service Star (FSS) Forces Service Star (Nigeria)
  • General Service Medal (GSM) General Service Medal (Nigeria)
  • Meritorious Service Star (MSS)
  • National Service Medal (NSM) National Service Medal (Nigeria)
  • Republic Medal (RM)

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Uwechue, Ralph (1991). Makers of Modern Africa: Profiles in History. Africa Journal Limited. p. 391.
  2. ^ Solomon Obotetukudo (2011). The Inaugural Addresses and Ascension Speeches of Nigerian Elected and Non-elected presidents and prime ministers from 1960-2010. University Press of America. pp. 66–68.
  3. ^ Max Siollun (2009). Oil, Politics and Violence: Nigeria's Military Coup Culture (1966-1976 ). p. 193.
  4. ^ Siollun, Max. Siollun, Max. Oil, Politics and Violence: Nigeria's Military Coup Culture (1966 - 1976). Algora. p. 163. ISBN 9780875867090.
  5. ^ Bird, S. Elizabeth and Fraser Ottanelli, "The Asaba Massacre: Trauma, Memory and the Nigerian Civil War (Cambridge University Press, 2017).
  6. ^ Falola, Toyin; Heaton, Matthew (2008). A History of Nigeria. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 052168157X.
  7. ^ Ndaeyo Uko, Romancing the Gun: The Press as a Promoter of Military Rule, Africa Research & Publications, 2004. ISBN 978-1592211890
  8. ^ Clapham, Christopher (1985). Third World Politics: An Introduction. Routledge. ISBN 0-7099-0757-5.
  9. ^ "murtala muhammed's 198 days of action".
  10. ^ "How Nigeria got to 36 States[Timeline of State creation in Nigeria]".
  11. ^ Weekly, Concord (1985). Concord Weekly Issues 22-44. Concord Press of Nigeria. p. 13.
  12. ^ "murtala muhammed's 198 days of action".
  13. ^ "The mining industry of Nigeria" (PDF).
  14. ^ "12 interesting facts about murtala mohammed you should know".

 This article incorporates public domain material from the Library of Congress Country Studies website

Military offices
Preceded by
Yakubu Gowon
Head of the Federal Military Government of Nigeria
July 29, 1975 – February 13, 1976
Succeeded by
Olusegun Obasanjo