In July 1975, thirty-seven year old General Murtala Mohammed, took over as Head of State while President Gowon was away in Kampala, Uganda attending the Organization of African Unity (OAU) Heads of State Summit.
Addressing the nation, the new leader said, ‘the leadership either by design or default had become too insensitive to the true feelings and yearnings of the people…’ General Mohammed went on to say that the new government would give Nigeria a new lease on life.
Murtala Mohammed also seemed to believe in this principle of the rising tide. He always began his speeches with the words, ‘fellow Nigerians.’ The implicit message in these two words was that, ‘although we have different ethnics groups and different classes, we are one people – Nigerians.’
On October 1st 1975, as the Independence Day trudged on, I was relaxing with my family at home listening to the president’s speech over the radio. ‘My fellow Nigerians,’ he began, his voice powerful, arresting. ‘Today we…’ my mind drifted away from the speech into the sixteen years that we had been independent.
But at a national level, the sixteen years had brought much grief to the country. While Nigeria the country was politically independent, Nigeria the people had almost been torn asunder in three years of a needless yet bloody war. Poverty was still rampant as was illiteracy. In addition… my mind wandered back to the president’s speech.
He was talking about a five-stage political problem that would culminate in democratic rule by October 1979. That would be great! I thought. ‘Don’t all they say that?’ A cousin of mine who was staying with us shook his head, ‘just like Gowon, this guy will probably still be president long after the 1978 football world cup.’
‘Have you ever seen any other president in the world who doesn’t have an entourage?’ I asked my cousin. He munched the sweet, cold papaya, ‘that entourage issue is just a show! Murtala wants to show the world that he is different.’ I disagreed, ‘how about staying in his personal house instead of the official presidential palace? Is that also a show?’ Before any answer could come, I continued, ‘how about using his personal car to attend to personal business, is that also a mere PR exercise?’
This truth sank home even deeper a few months later when Murtala Mohammed gave one of the most powerful speeches ever given at an OAU summit. The venue was Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.
‘Africa has come of age. It is no longer under the orbit of any extra continental power. It should no longer take orders from any country, however powerful. The fortunes of Africa are in our hands to make or to mar.’
For too long have we been kicked around; for too long have we been treated like adolescents who cannot discern their interests and act accordingly. For too long has it been presumed that Africa needs outside experts to tell him who are his friends and who are his enemies.
The time has come when we should make it clear that we should decide for ourselves; that we know our own interests and how to protect those interests; that we are capable of protecting Africa’s problems without presumptuous lessons in ideological dangers, which more often than not, have no relevance to us nor for the problem at hand.
Wow! I thought triumphantly then became instantly pensive when the gravity of Murtala Mohammed’s words hit home. He was saying that Africa was now an adult; that Africa must now learn to make the right choices on her own; that Africa must make up her own mind; take her own stand and chart her own path. That Africa must carry her own beautiful burden of success.
February 13 1976. This has to be one of the darkest days in Nigeria’s history. For on this day, Murtala Mohammed was assassinated in his car. At the tender age of 37, his visionary leadership was cut short by an assassin’s bullet. Like a star, he had lit up the Nigerian sky with humility and strength. Like a shooting star, he had disappeared just when Nigeria, Africa and the world was beginning to take notice. Like a constellation of stars, he had left behind a pattern of stars that others could follow.