Murtala Mohammed

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Murtala Rufai Ramat Muhammed
Murtala Muhammed.jpg
4th Head of State of Nigeria
In office
30 July 1975 – 13 February 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)8 November 1938
Kano City, Northern Region, Nigeria, Colonial Nigeria
Died13 February 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 Nigeria
Branch/service Nigerian Army
Years of service1958 - 1975

Murtala Rufai Ramat Muhammed (8 November 1938 – 13 February 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 Muhammed Risqua (Riskuwa)[1] and Uwani Rahamat in Kurawa quarters of Kano, Nigeria.[2] He was born to a Fulani family of the Genawa Clan on the paternal side [3] [4] and Fulani family of the Jobawa Clan on the maternal side [5], his fulani paternal family has a history of Islamic jurisprudence as both his great-grand father and grand father held the title of Chief Alkali of Kano. His paternal family hold the royal titles of Walin Kano, Matawalle, Dangoriba, Talba and Magajin Gari while his maternal family hold the royal titles of Makaman Kano, Dandarman and recently Dokaji apart from the village head titles they hold in different villages of Kano South Senatorial Districts especially in Wudil, Garko, Sumaila and Takai. His father was related to Aminu Kano, Inuwa Wada, Aminu Wali and many members of the Wali family of Kano while his mother was related to the Fulani clan of Jobawa whose members include Makaman Kano and Abdullahi Aliyu Sumaila.[2] Mohammed was educated at Cikin Gida Elementary School which was within the grounds of the emir's palace, he then transferred to Gidan Makama primary school in Kano which was just outside the palace. He then proceeded to kano Middle School (now Rumfa College) in 1949 before attending the famous Government College (now Barewa College) in Zaria, where he obtained his school certificate in 1957.[6] At Barewa College, Mohammed was a member of the Cadet Corps and was captain of shooting in his final year. In 1957, he obtained a school leaving certificate and applied to join the Nigerian army later in the year.[2]

Military career[edit]

Murtala Muhammed joined the Nigerian Army in 1958. He spent short training stints in Nigeria and Ghana and then was trained as an officer cadet at Sandhurst Royal Military Academy in England.[7] After his training, he was commissioned as a second lieutenant in 1961 and assigned to the Nigerian Army Signals that same year, later spending a short stint with the No. 3 Brigade Signals Troop in Congo.[2]

In 1962, Muhammed was appointed aide-de-camp 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, while his paternal uncle, Inuwa Wada had recently been appointed Defense Minister. Unknown to Mohammed, majors planning the January 1966 coup recruited troops from the signal unit. The coup plotters later went on to assassinate leading politicians and soldiers from the Northern and Western region. After the coup plot failed, new military postings made by the new leader generated some discomfort in the North.[2] In April 1966, Mohammed was promoted to Lieutenant Colonel and was the inspector of signals[7] posted to Army Headquarters, Lagos in a move that was partly to pacify Northerners weary about the new military regime.[7] Mohammed was also appointed member of a Post and Telecommunications management committee.

Role during 1960s coups[edit]

Muhammed opposed the regime of Johnson Aguiyi-Ironsi, which took power after a coup d'etat on 15 January 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. The promulgation of Decree No. 34 restructuring Nigeria from a federal constitutional structure to a unitary structure also raised suspicions among many Northern officers and Mohammed and a few others began to contemplate separation of the Northern region from the country. [2]

In the night of 29 July 1966, northern soldiers at Abeokuta barracks mutinied, thus precipitating a counter-coup, which may very well have been in the planning stages. A group among the officers supported secession and thus gave the code name of the coup 'Araba' meaning secession in Hausa.[2] However, after the success of the counter-coup, a group of civilians including the Chief Justice Adetokunbo Ademola, Sule Katagum, head of the Federal Public service and Musa Daggash, Permanent Secretary, defense convinced the plotters including Mohammed about the advantages of a union.[2]

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).

The acceptance of Gowon as the Head of State was not supported by all the key military leaders, in particular, Odumegwu Ojukwu military governor of the Eastern Region. Mohammed soon felt a military option would ultimately be the outcome to keep all sides together. In January 1967, Mohammed still a Lieutenant-Colonel was appointed General Commanding Officer of the No. 2 Infantry Division.

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

At the start of the Nigerian Civil War, Mohammed led the newly established 2nd Infantry Division.[2] The first major act of the division was to stop the march of Biafran troops that had overran the Mid-West region and were marching towards the Western region. The division repelled the Biafran forces at Ore, Ondo State and later pushed back the rebels, driving them out of the Mid-West. The actions of the division during this period, mostly in Asaba became a subject of speculation. In a book published in 2017, 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.[8]

The 2nd division was responsible for the beating back of the Biafran Army from the Mid-western 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.[9]

In June 1968, he relinquished his commanding position and was posted to Lagos and appointed Inspector of Signals. In April 1968 he was promoted to colonel.

After the war[edit]

Between 1970 and 1971, he attended the Joint Service Staff College in England, his supervisor's report attributed him to having ''a quick agile mind, considerable ability and common sense. He holds strong views which he puts forward in a forthright manner. He is a strong character and determined. However, he finds it difficult to moderate his opinions and finds it difficult to enter into debate with others whose views he may not share''.[2] After the war, he was promoted to brigadier-general in October 1971. On 7 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.

Between 1971 and 1974, Mohammed was involved in routine activities within the signals unit of the army. However, he also disagreed with some of the policies being pursued by Gowon.

On 29 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.[10]

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.[11]

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 30 July 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.[12] 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.[13] 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.[14]

Towards the end of 1975, the administration implemented a mass purge in the Nigerian civil service. The civil service was viewed as undisciplined and lacking a sense of purpose. A retrenchment exercise was implemented as part of a strategy to refocus the service. However, because of the drastic nature of the purge, allegations that malice and revenge was used by heads of department in recommending people for retrenchment and little was done to scrutinize the details and reasons staff were disengaged.[2]

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 3 February 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.[15]

On 3 February 1976 the following seven Nigerian states were created by Murtala Muhammed: Bauchi, Benue, Borno, Imo, Niger, Ogun, and Ondo.[16] This brought the total number of states in Nigeria to nineteen in 1976.

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.[17]

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.[15]

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.

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.[18]

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, Lieutenant Akintunde Akinsehinwa, in his black Mercedes Benz saloon car on 13 February 1976. The 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, making his assassination an easy task. The assassination was part of an attempted coup led by Lt. Col Buka Suka Dimka.

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 1 October 1979. Today, Muhammed's portrait adorns the 20 Naira note and Murtala Muhammed International Airport in Lagos is named in his honour.

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.[19]

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. ^ "INTERVIEW: Why Fulani leaders dominate in northern Nigeria, and why they speak Hausa - Murtala Muhammed's cousin". Premium Times Nigeria. 16 December 2017. Retrieved 3 March 2019.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k Nigeria; Federal Department of Information (1982). Nigerian heroes. Lagos: Federal Dept. of Information.
  3. ^ Dasuki, Ibrahim Ado (1988). History and Genealogy of the Genawa. Kurawa Holdings. p. 391.
  4. ^ Max Siollun (2009). Oil, Politics and Violence: Nigeria's Military Coup Culture (1966-1976 ). p. 193.
  5. ^ Ogundupe, Taiwo (1980). The Hurricane:General Murtala Muhammad. Top Seal Com. p. 391.
  6. ^ Uwechue, Ralph (1991). Makers of Modern Africa: Profiles in History. Africa Journal Limited. p. 391.
  7. ^ a b c "MURTALA RAMAT MUHAMMED". Retrieved 2 March 2019.
  8. ^ Bird, S. Elizabeth and Fraser Ottanelli, The Asaba Massacre: Trauma, Memory and the Nigerian Civil War (Cambridge University Press, 2017).
  9. ^ Siollun, Max. Siollun, Max. Oil, Politics and Violence: Nigeria's Military Coup Culture (1966 - 1976). Algora. p. 163. ISBN 9780875867090.
  10. ^ 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.
  11. ^ Max Siollun (2009). Oil, Politics and Violence: Nigeria's Military Coup Culture (1966-1976 ). p. 193.
  12. ^ Falola, Toyin; Heaton, Matthew (2008). A History of Nigeria. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 052168157X.
  13. ^ Ndaeyo Uko, Romancing the Gun: The Press as a Promoter of Military Rule, Africa Research & Publications, 2004. ISBN 978-1592211890
  14. ^ Clapham, Christopher (1985). Third World Politics: An Introduction. Routledge. ISBN 0-7099-0757-5.
  15. ^ a b Ndujihe, Clifford (12 February 2016). "Murtala Muhammed's 198 days of action". Vanguard News. Retrieved 21 January 2019.
  16. ^ "How Nigeria got to 36 States[Timeline of State creation in Nigeria]".
  17. ^ Weekly, Concord (1985). Concord Weekly Issues 22-44. Concord Press of Nigeria. p. 13.
  18. ^ "The mining industry of Nigeria" (PDF).
  19. ^ "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
29 July 1975 – 13 February 1976
Succeeded by
Olusegun Obasanjo