Wednesday February 13th was yet another "Murtala Day", being the 37th anniversary of the gruesome killing of the foremost Nigerian leader, General Murtala Ramat Mohammed. In stark contrast to established tradition, the day passed with barely a whimper. The family, which runs a foundation in his name, kept mute. Not a single event held in his memory. No messages or newspaper pull-outs, no speeches, no essays, no editorials, no lectures, no symposia to remind the younger generations of the greatness of this leader who, in the view of many, is only next to the legendary Nelson Mandela on the continent.On that day, all I saw was a tail piece in the back page of The Nation, a full page in the new, vibrant Hausa Newspaper, Rariya, published by Dr. Aliyu Modibbo Umar and a short commemorative statement from the State House, Abuja.
Was this an indication that the relevance of Murtala Mohammed has completely ebbed?
If you reflect on this, you will notice that in the last couple of years, Murtala Day was no longer marked with seminars held across the country, books published on the occasion; scholars revising his insights, thoughts and actions to determine what had flawed and what endured. Also missing are those personal or intimate accounts of associates, family and relatives, rendering compelling narratives of Murtala from his native Kano; testimonials from mates in school, college, the Army and at the pinnacle of his career where he held sway as Head of State and Commander-in-Chief.
What went wrong?
In contrast with Murtala, Nigerian leaders of more, equal or even far lesser pedigree are celebrated year-in-year-out. You don't have to look far to see and feel what veteran journalists in Western Nigeria make of Adekunle Fajuyi or of ObafemiAwolowo by the Awolowo foundation. Surely, the reader must be familiar with the Anyiam-Osigwe annual lecture series and the Nnamdi Azikiwe lecture and awards. In the North, we celebrate the Sardauna, Sir Ahmadu Bello, General Yakubu Gowon, Shehu Musa Yar'Adua and many others.
Murtala rises above many or all of these celebrities especially in the light of his epic struggle for the decolonization of Angola, Namibia, Zimbabwe, South Africa and the Saharawi Arab Republic. Murtala's leadership of Africa's biggest and richest country in his time was marked by genuine advocacy for the dignity and honour of the African. That was why it was supported by all freedom-loving people all over the world. At home in Nigeria, Murtala taught citizens to place national integrity and national interest above self.
The fact that Africans still don't have equal rights in the global economic and political systems suggests that Murtala's thoughts and struggle are as relevant today as they were in the 70s.
As students of tertiary education at that time, Murtala inspired our generation to go out for freedom and social justice and to seek a society that did not discriminate on any basis including religion, region, ethnicity or gender. He not only mouthed the rhetoric against corruption but his was the first serious attempt to curb its menace.
This writer is not equipped to pass judgment on why Murtala Mohammed's memory has died in Nigeria and the larger continent. I myself feel a sense of guilt, along with my generation for not doing enough to sustain the high aspirations Murtala left behind. By way of explanation, there are many who believe that the rot in Nigeria, where corruption is the largest industry is in sharp disagreement with Murtala's rigid anti-corruption stance. I believe strongly, however, that the core villain is the family of the late General that has reduced this pan-African giant to a family possession locked up in their closet.
These problems started early when the family snubbed the enormous gesture of the Government and people of Kano State, the general's home state. Kano used to harbour the most committed people who idolised Murtala in Nigeria. A fine bungalow, stately if you might call it, was built for them to resettle in at a prime location in the northern city but there was no one to hand the keys to. The family chose Lagos as their home and we must all respect their right in making that decision.
No one can however deny that this was the first thing to create a chasm between the family and his passionate supporters in Kano.
The house became home to rodents and reptiles before it was targeted by vandals who removed every removable item. It now lies a sorry, despoiled and desolated premises.
The surface calm of Kano people over this snub did not find expression until Abba, Murtala's likeable young son sought to represent a portion of the city at the Federal House of Representatives in an election. He failed woefully.
The family did not help matters by holding onto the Murtala Mohammed Foundation, MMF, set up to perpetuate his legacy but which has, unfortunately, been run with shut minds that hardly find anything right in anything done by others. They have not made it all-inclusive.
I recall a major outing at the Bayero University, B.U.K Kano, which until then had celebrated Murtala Day with speeches, marches and pomp every year. A few years ago, the Executive Secretary of the foundation, who is family member published an embarrassing disclaimer of an event at the B.U.K. at which Mr. Sam Nujoma, the former Namibian President had been called to speak. The MMF said the Kano event was unauthorized and that the only recognized event was the one organized by the family-led foundation. The Kano event still went very well but it was the last of such to be called there.
To arrest and roll back the diminishing status and stature of Murtala Mohammed in Nigeria and the continent, it is incumbent on the MMF and his lovers in Nigeria to take a number of dramatic steps. One of these is of course that they should start a rebuilding process. They need to open up the foundation to other stakeholders and embark on a serious process of reconciliation with the people of Kano, Nigeria and the entire continent. Murtala's idealism had in the past served as the rallying cry of student union activism, university staff unions and the labour movement. How can they be reengaged? The MMF must also reach out to this country's political leaders as well as others on the continent because they can't achieve much without political support.
President Obasanjo who was Murtala's deputy in their time and has done a lot to keep Murtala alive in the memory of the world is no longer in power and I can't see him making any impact. Right now, there is nobody with that kind of relationship with Murtala to serve as a driving force except perhaps General T.Y.Danjuma, who is their Vice Chairman or industry leaders like Aliko Dangote. There is need for all-round engagement.
The MMF may thereafter need to hand the foundation to credible others while the family shed their overarching role.