The late General Murtala Ramat Mohammed's rule as Nigeria's third military Head of State from July 29, 1975 to February 13, 1976 (approximately 7 months) recorded unprecedented achievements guided by purposeful leadership. Born on 8th of November, 1938, Mohammed was assassinated on February 13, 1976 in an abortive coup. He is widely recognized as a national hero, because of his devoted love for the country and its people.
Some vital decisions taken during the period of his administration laid the foundation for the continued existence of the Nigerian state and its democracy.
The magnanimity and passion with which some of his vital decisions and actions were executed clearly demonstrated the political will and perpendicular integrity of his leadership qualities to the extent that both the participants in government and the citizens knew that a serious government was in place at that time. Following the performance of Murtala's government, many Nigerians have been left to wonder whether the military truly had any disproportionate burden of blame to take in the maladministration of this country in view of some vital and thorny decisions taken in order to move the country forward.
It was within the seven months of his administration that the untouchable decision to move the Nigeria's capital out of Lagos to a more appropriate location was taken on the recommendation of the Justice Akinola Aguda panel. The penal recommended that Nigeria's capital be moved to a more central location, consequently, Abuja became the new location.
One of his first acts was to scrap the 1973 census and returned to the 1963 count for official purposes. In anti-corruption fight, he removed top federal and state officials to restore public confidence in the Federal Government. More than 10,000 public officials and employees were dismissed without benefits, on account of age, health, incompetence, or malpractices.
In his commitment to hand over power to civilian government, he constituted the 50-man Constitution Drafting Committee (CDC), to draft a new constitution for the Federal Republic of Nigeria as part of the major tasks of a transition programme that will lead to handing over power to civilian administration in 1979.
As part of his purposeful reform agenda, General Murtala constituted the Ibrahim Dasuki panel which recommended the departure from the Native Authority (NA) system to Local Government Councils, with designated functions and powers as the third tier of government in Nigeria and now contained in the Constitution.
In an effort to bring government closer to the people, Mohammed created more states rising from 12 to 19, which brought a lot of development to the Nigerian state. In announcing the creation of the new states in his nationwide address in February 1976, he concluded and warned that, "this Government will not tolerate any threat to law and order; neither will it condone any provocative demonstrations or celebrations in support or against the creation of these states."
He abolished cattle tax (Jangali), reduced head tax to N4 (Four Naira) only, made public water taps free and created the Public Complain Commission with state offices all over the country for the public to have a listening ear or seek redress. He introduced the Universal Primary Education (UPE) all over the nation. Though many critics faulted the rush at the UPE programme, yet there was no any other second attempt to create similar or even remedy the previous one, until 1999, when the President Olusegun Obasanjo administration introduced the Universal Basic Education (UBE). In 1975/76, many second generation universities in Nigeria sprang up during the administration, perhaps this made him to have a close rapport with many renowned academics and progressive groups in our universities and beyond.
General Murtala 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 the money supply that had been swollen by government expenditures on public works. He also announced that his government would encourage the rapid expansion of the private sector into areas dominated by public corporations.
On the continental front, he made Africa as Nigeria's centre piece of foreign policy; he was actively engaged in the liberation struggle of many African countries, particularly, the front line states like Angola, Mozambique and the then apartheid regime of South Africa. He further demonstrated his commitment in the liberation struggle in Africa with his master piece address to the defunct Organization of African Unity (OAU), now African Union (AU) in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia in 1976. He stated categorically that "Africa is no longer under the orbit of any super power that, Africa is for Africans to make or mar......" Murtala's dynamic foreign policy was largely responsible for the respect Nigeria earned as "a Big Brother" among sister African nations and many recognized liberation movements.
He reappraised our 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.
He once attended the Organization of Islamic Countries (OIC) meeting and inspected its headquarters; in fact, he was the brain behind the formation of the charity wing of the OIC, which today is known as International Islamic Relief Organization (IIRO) that carries out many scholarly and infrastructural developments in many member states.
The dynamism of Murtala's administration within his seven months laid the good foundation on which today's democratically elected governments operate and should serve as a benchmark to assess their performance in office. Today, the democracy in Nigeria for which some people purportedly parade themselves as champions of governance and democracy trying to claim the credit fundamentally earned was laid down by Muhammed's administration.
A fearless and patriotic Nigerian, a humble and committed leader with purposeful vision and mission to his fatherland, Murtala will remain in our memory. He paid the supreme sacrifice for putting Nigeria on track and dreamt big for his people and his country far beyond his short life.
He fought to keep Nigeria one, and equally died in a more challenging task to keep the same Nigeria one. In fact, his historic military feats during the war won him National acclaim and respect even from his adversaries.
It is equally on record that he took over government without any bloodshed or molestation and has not detained a single soul in the course or after the change of government. It was in that bloodless coup d'état that he introduced the phrases "Fellow Nigerians" and "with immediate effect" to the national lexicon. In a short time, Murtala's policies won him broad popular support, and his decisiveness elevated him to the status of a folk hero.
It was alleged that one Professor from the University of Lagos engaged General Murtala in character assassination when he was still the Head of State. What the General simply did was to take him to court to seek redress. The case was struck out on the death of the General. It was speculated that when the General died, he left only N72 (Seventy-two Naira) in his bank account. Be that as it may, we have not heard of his shares in any local or international companies, not to talk of the foreign accounts owned by smaller Nigerian thieves and pension robbers. One thing that remains indispensably clear is that you can never loot the public treasury or be involved in monumental breach of trust and expect your name to be in the good books of posterity.
If the General was still alive, he would have been 75 years old and could have still been involved in Nigeria's politics. But Allah (SWT) in His infinite wisdom, took him away from us.
Despite his demise, future generations of Nigerians, particularly the youth must be inspired by the worthy life of the late General Murtala Ramat Mohammed.
General, we mourn you as your family does. As you departed us 37 years ago, we do not want to bother you with our lamentations over the mess we are in today despite the abundant human and natural resources you left behind.
We pray Allah (SWT) to pay you with His endless mercies and reward you with Jannatul Firdausi. May your gentle and humble soul continue to rest in perfect peace. Ameen.
Danbaba writes from Nuhu Bamalli Polytechnic, Zaria.