Murtala Mohammed: What if everything you’ve heard about the late head of state is a lie?
For some who know Mohammed on different terms, he is not the hero that almost was or the one who he is packaged to be.
Very few Nigerian heads of state can claim to enjoy adulation or love of the kind that General Murtala Mohammed has been adorned with since his death on that February morning in 1976.
There’s no denying that his short tenure and his policies, which passed for progressive at the time, endeared him to many and left them looking back at what could have been.
Yet, for some who know Mohammed on different terms, he is not the hero that almost was or the one who he is packaged to be.
Almost everything you’ve heard about Mohammed has praised his legacy but what if everything you heard about the late general was a lie?
Here are 5 reasons why Mohammed is not loved in certain circles
(1) The 1966 Northern Pogroms
Anyone who looks back at the accounts of Nigeria’s first coup in January 1966 will easily observe that soldiers like Kaduna Nzeogwu did a lot to affect the perception that the coup was motivated first and foremost by issues of tribe.
Whether it was or not, nothing could justify the bloodletting that followed. For many Igbos who were in the eye of the storm, Murtala Mohammed was one of those responsible.
After the coup and Aguiyi-Ironsi’s failure to deal decisively with the coup plotters became an issue, a group of Northern soldiers began a wave of ethnic cleansing that left thousands of Easterners dead and more running for dear life.
It is hard to substantiate the claims that Mohammed was responsible for this. But later, he would be one of the main coup plotters when Aguiyi-Ironsi was removed from power and replaced by Yakubu Gowon.
(2) He hijacked the International Airport in Ikeja
When the northern revenge coup began on July 29 1966, Murtala was in the thick of things. He pulled the strings from Lagos and led a team of soldiers to take over the international airport at Ikeja.
It is ironic that after his death, the same airport which he had taken over by force would be named after him. The northern soldiers hijacked airplanes in order to ferry their families back to the north.
The reason was simple; they had planned to take the North out of Nigeria and after taking the lives of thousands of Igbo not long before, they were desperate to avoid the same fate befalling their kin.
At the airport itself, an Igbo officer, reportedly named Captain Okoye was captured by Murtala’s troops at the airport, tied to an iron cross, beaten and left to die in the guardroom.
(3) The Asaba Massacre
The Nigerian Civil War will be remembered as the result of long burning tensions and bad decisions. At the time, Murtala Muhammed was General Officer Commanding (GOC) of the Nigerian Army’s 2nd Division.
In his role, he was responsible for beating back of the Biafran Army from the midwestern region, crossing the River Niger and connecting with the 1st Division, which was marching down from Nsukka and Enugu.
However, in the course of this journey, Mohammed is said to have committed unspeakable evils against the people of the South-South. It started in Benin where federal forces under his command reportedly murdered Igbos in large numbers in Benin.
Asaba was next. Numerous young men were lined up in the streets of Asaba and executed in cold blood, supposedly on Mohammed’s orders. Similar atrocities were committed in Calabar.
(4) Onitsha Remembers:
The East of Nigeria was the main theatre of the Nigerian Civil War.
The Nigerian Army measured progress by the number of cities it could capture and Onitsha was one of the most important.
As a further testimony to the bloodlust and depravity demonstrated by Murtala Muhammed and his forces, few kilometres away in Onitsha, another barbaric massacre was unleashed in the Apostolic Church.
Here, over 300 civilians, devout Christians including women and children who had stayed back and continued in their prayers after the fall of Onitsha were brutally murdered in cold blood.
(5) He may have been the first to push for war
After Gowon came to power, Murtala lurked in the background as the army’s de facto strongman. He made a nuisance of himself by turning up uninvited at Supreme Military Council meetings.
While tensions simmered, Lt-Colonel C.O Ojukwu continued to refuse to recognise Gowon as the Head of State. Gowon preferred to have dialogue but Murtala was hungry for war and he asked that steps should immediately be taken to prepare for that eventuality.
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.
Murtala independently took steps to buy and stockpile weapons for the impending war.