Was Murtala Muhammed a hero or villain? – The Question Marker
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Was Murtala Muhammed a hero or villain?

In a style reminiscent of fast-paced military thrillers and suspense fiction, Taiwo Ogundipe brings to life the sad story of General Murtala Muhammed and the Dimka-led 1976 coup, in his classic narrative, The Hurricane.

Murtala Muhammed was the military ruler of Nigeria from 1975 until his assassination in 1976
Murtala Muhammed was the military ruler of Nigeria from 1975 until his assassination in 1976

If history were taught in the form of stories, it would never be forgotten,” English journalist, Rudyard Kipling, once said. This is true of Taiwo Ogundipe’s The Hurricane, a memorable narrative of one of the most pivotal moments in Nigerian history.

The Hurricane takes us back to 1975, five years after the civil war. In Ogundipe’s version of history, Nigeria, under the military administration of General Yakubu Gowon, is rollicking in the muddy waters of corruption and in desperate need of a messiah. Expectedly, the stench of a coup starts to rise, and the planners go in search of Murtala Muhammed, who was then a Brigadier in the Nigerian army, to become Head of State, in place of Gowon. Murtala, they reasoned, was the best man for the job.

Murtala, who joined the Nigerian Army as a cadet officer in 1958, had played a key role in the bloody civil war and the instalment of Yakubu Gowon as Head of State. And he felt betrayed by Gowon’s actions in government. But when he was approached by the Commander of the Brigade of Guards, Lieutenant-Colonel Joe Garba and Lieutenant-Colonel Shehu Musa-Yar’Adua at his Ikoyi home in Lagos, in lieu of the planned coup and their choice of making him Head of State, he rebuffed the idea and sent them away.

But they were persistent, and Murtala would later give in, much to the disappointment of his wife, Ajoke, who felt he was too naive to get involved in the bloody politics of his day. She would be proved right, as Murtala was gruesomely murdered in a failed coup engineered by Lieutenant-Colonel Buka Suka Dimka, barely six months after assuming office.

Although Dimka was behind the operational planning and execution of the coup, the evil mastermind behind the coup was Major-General IIya Bisalla, the nation’s Defence Commissioner and a member of the Supreme Military Council, who felt cheated by the promotions and reorganisations Murtala had made within the Army. It was a perfect example of hubris, which would send the disgraced General to the firing squad, after the coup he engineered failed.

However, within the six months he spent as Head of State, Murtala managed to become a ‘national hero’, for the way he went about the affairs of state. “His strong personality had imbued the nation’s governance with a new sense of urgency, a new spirit of dynamism,” Ogundipe writes. The book creates a feeling that, had the Dimka coup failed in extinguishing Murtala’s life, the story of Nigeria could have been rewritten in a different way.

In this book, we fail to see a Murtala that had a master-plan to make Nigeria great. Ogundipe shows us a Murtala who was imperfect, but who was a striving saint that harboured noble intentions. We are taken into Murtala’s inner thought processes; we are shown his exploits in the civil war and the apparent mistakes he made. For example, one of the dark spots that taint Murtala’s record is the Asaba massacre during the civil war, where over 1,000 innocent elderly Igbo men, some of them six years old, were slaughtered like chickens by a division of the Nigerian army. Although many believe Murtala was the Commander of that army, Ogundipe notes that Murtala was not involved in the killings. “While the pogrom was taking place,” he writes, “he (Murtala) was at the Divisional Headquarters of his Command in Umunede; he was nowhere Asaba.”

Ogundipe’s command of his subject is breathtaking. He paints a vivid picture of the history he writes about, with snatches of punchy dialogue and colourful prose. However, the veracity of his accounts appears to be more fictitious than factual as he goes deeper into the narrative. The reader is apt to wonder where he got the material for his detailed dialogues and expansive internal monologues. There is no information in the book to explain the depth of the research that went into creating these scenes, leaving us with the assumption that they are fruits from the fertile soil of the writer’s imagination. Here, Ogundipe’s version of history stutters.

The language employed in telling the story, also, could have been better. And it was glaring that a competent editor was not assigned to vet the project before publication.

But these failings do not rubbish the great importance of this book in the halls of Nigerian history. In fact, it stands tall nevertheless. It is a book that should be recommended reading in secondary schools and universities, as it brings history to the doorstep of the youthful generation. It breaks away from the boring monotone of most history texts, and lights up the past with its delightful characterisation, suspense and enchanting delivery. It focuses a burning spotlight on the genesis of Nigeria’s core problems – ethnicity and corruption – and through its treatment of Murtala, sets out to create a model of the ideal Nigerian leader.

“Given the present moral condition in Nigeria, where corruption is so pervasive,” former President and one of the key actors in the book, Olusegun Obasanjo, writes in the book’s foreword, “this book is a refreshing opportunity for reflections on the past three decades, and the man who has since come to symbolise the crusade for the good of our country.” ✚

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