Forty years ago on a fateful Friday morning in Lagos, dissident soldiers ran up to a black limousine in rush hour traffic and opened fire on it and with that singular act violently closed a thrilling chapter of Nigeria’s history. For a figure that has gone down as Nigeria’s most celebrated military ruler, the manner of Murtala Ramat Muhammed’s insurgence into history was incongruous. He burst into national reckoning during the dark turbulent mid-1960s, a fiery advocate of Northern secession following the fall of the First Republic. A combustible 28 year old, he was the inspiration of the July 1966 Northern counter-coup and sought the disintegration of the federation – an option foreclosed by the vigorous opposition of some senior bureaucrats, foreign governments and the emergence of the even-tempered Lieutenant Colonel Yakubu Gowon as head of state.
Murtala’s record in the ensuing civil war was controversial. In October 1967, the 2nd Division, which he commanded, carried out the infamous massacres of civilians in Asaba. (In 1997, while on a visit to Asaba, Gowon apologised to the people of the town for the massacres). Defying orders from army headquarters, he led three ill-advised and catastrophically failed amphibious assaults on Onitsha that resulted in the loss of many of his troops. Subsequently, the 2nd Division was ambushed at Abagana and nearly one hundred vehicles carrying munitions and logistical supplies were destroyed by Biafran forces. Murtala was recalled from the front leaving behind a demoralised, chaotic and undisciplined division. The consensus among peers and superiors was that Murtala’s remarkable fearlessness and courage were matched by his impetuousness, indiscipline and recklessness. Any one of these three debacles should have ended his career. Instead, he was redeployed to his pre-War post of Inspector of Signals.
When next Murtala returned to national limelight it was at the age of 37, as the new head of state, after the deposition of Gowon, in what the coupists described as an attempt to halt a national drift. Gowon’s regime had reneged on his pledge to restore democratic rule and was buffeted by corruption allegations against its favoured satraps. As head of state, Murtala immediately telegraphed decisiveness, clarity of purpose, and outrage at the rampant graft of the post-civil war years. He set up an assets investigation panel and ordered a wide-ranging investigation of corruption in the public service. The probe’s findings enabled the ignominious dismissal of ten of the twelve state governors of the Gowon era and the confiscation of over N10 million in illicitly acquired assets. There followed more purges in the public service. Murtala enacted an anti-bribery and corruption decree and set up a Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau.
But it was in the realm of foreign policy that Murtala came into his own. Dispensing with Gowonian non-alignment, he pursued an activist foreign policy. It was the Cold War era and Africa was the battleground of the super powers. Southern Africa was the focus of this conflict. The West cast the liberation of black majority states in the light of its struggle against communist expansionism. The South African apartheid regime saw the rest of Southern Africa as its sphere of influence and with Anglo-American support sought to sustain white supremacist rule in neigbouring enclaves supposedly as a bulwark against communist intrigues. Murtala was having none of that. He rallied African nations to see the conflict not as a super power showdown but as white supremacist imperialism ranged against black African freedom.Using forceful diplomacy, Murtala got African countries to recognise Agostinho Neto’s MPLA as the sole legitimate representative of Angolan popular will and to reject America’s preferred provocateurs such as Jonas Savimbi. He rebuked US President Gerry Ford and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger for presuming to dictate to Africans how to choose their friends. In his famous speech in Addis Ababa, Murtala denounced Western meddling on the continent and declared that “Africa has come of age” and could do “without presumptuous lessons in ideological dangers which, more often than not, have no relevance for us, or for the problem at hand.”
For the first time since Kwame Nkrumah, an African leader was forcefully championing African unity and articulating a pan-African worldview on the international stage, and not just with words. Murtala used Nigeria’s oil wealth as a geostrategic weapon and channeled millions of dollar in armaments, food and clothing to Angola. He saw Southern Africa as the front line of the conflict between pan-Africanism and white supremacy. Murtala led boldly, defining an unabashedly and unapologetically afrocentric foreign policy. The late 1970s are popularly seen as Nigerian foreign policy’s golden age.
What drove Murtala? The radical left claimed him as one of their own and saw his regime as the prelude to a socialist order. To the leftist historian, Bala Usman, Murtala was a “hero and martyr” killed by “the forces of imperialism and Nigerian reactionaries” because “he had constructed a model of contemporary Nigeria and had the commitment and courage to attempt to change it.” Murtala’s opponents claimed that he wanted to drag Nigeria into the communist orbit but he was no doctrinaire leftist and once when pressed on the issue, he said his ideology was “Nigerianism”. After his death, the term “Ramatism” was coined from his middle name to designate positive, dynamic and resolute leadership.
Fundamentally, Murtala was a restless, rebellious, martial spirit in search of a cause to champion. This quest informed his trajectory from Northern secessionist to nationalist and pan-Africanist. He simply hated being told what to do as evinced by his disregard for his superiors’ orders which should have ended his military career early. Consequently, he hated Americans telling Africans what to do and the posture of anti-imperialist underdog was one he took to with aplomb. Ironically, like all authoritarians, Murtala was not himself terribly appreciative of dissenting opinion. According to historian Max Siollun, “Murtala was Nigeria’s first strongman” ruling by sheer force of will where Gowon and Aguiyi-Ironsi had been consensus-seekers.Murtala is remembered as the best of Nigeria’s military rulers. Although he was the first leader to prioritise fighting corruption and he decreed Abuja into being, he has the rare distinction of being remembered more for his activist foreign policy. His assassination triggered an unprecedented national outpouring of grief. “Never in the history of Nigeria was one individual mourned by so many for so long,” the journalist Olatunji Dare observed. Typically, Nigerian leaders enter office lionised and leave it demonised. Murtala, however, largely retains his heroic aura. Perhaps, because his rule was short-lived or because in his time, Nigeria acted with self-confidence, assertiveness and an awareness of her place in the international arena and her higher responsibilities to the black world. We saw the glimmer of a nation starting to fulfill her promise.
Murtala practically fulfilled Nnamdi Azikiwe’s vision of Nigeria as a nation that would “revive the stature of man in Africa by associating Nigeria actively with all progressive movements” combating “racial bigotry”, colonialism and promoting racial equality. He manifested the Zikist archetype of “the renascent African” and in an epoch enamoured by themes of black pride and black power, he dramatised the self-affirming hymns of negritude. The age of Murtala is to Nigeria what John F. Kennedy and Camelot represent in the American national memory – effervescent promise triumphantly abloom only to be tragically cut short. In his tribute to Murtala, Obafemi Awolowo, no fan of military rule, nonetheless lamented that “Just as we were beginning to feel confident that at last we had a Moses who would lead us out of this dark tunnel, Satan struck.”
Murtala resonated with the Nigerian public because of a deeply ingrained hunger in the national psyche for a messianic soldier to impose order on a riotous polity. This hunger encouraged the army to seize power believing itself to be uniquely enabled to correct the republic’s moral and political defects. In The Trouble with Nigeria , Chinua Achebe recalled that news of Murtala’s seizure of power on July 29, 1975 inspired perennially tardy civil servants to show up at work early and even caused the legendary Lagosian traffic gridlock to vanish all because “the new ruler’s reputation for ruthlessness was sufficient to transform in the course of one night the style and habit of Nigeria’s unruly capital.”
President Muhammadu Buhari is Murtala’s spiritual heir. Austere, inflexible, dogmatic about what he deems right and fiercely opposed to corruption, Buhari shares Murtala’s conception of the state as a moral and disciplinarian force. When he seized power in 1983, Buhari declared his government an offshoot of the Murtala-Obasanjo regime appropriating the legitimacy of the still widely well-regarded junta. A Murtala-esque nationalistic posture was evident in the Buhari government’s anti-graft campaign and its standoff with the International Monetary Fund.Achebe remarked that the transformation wrought by Murtala’s advent was short-lived and had begun to dissipate even before his assassination. Perhaps, Murtala’s light was destined to burn brightly and quickly and flame out. We cannot say with certainty that Murtala was immortalised by an early death or saved by martyrdom from eventual odium. If Ramatism dissipated, it may be because we demand of individual men, the sort of transformation that can only be sustained by movements. If Buharism is not to flame out prematurely, it must evolve beyond a personality cult into a movement for change based on core principles and focused on strengthening institutions rather than on the exaggerated mystique of an individual.
Murtala is fondly remembered also because he favoured simplicity and his time was before the fashion of interminably long motorcades, phalanxes of dark-suited bodyguards and a presidential air fleet with more planes than some nations. He would have been incensed by the conflation of public office with upward mobility.
Even so, Murtala’s regime was not devoid of errors. An ill-conceived and haphazard promotion exercise in January 1976 that made nonsense of hierarchical order caused great consternation and discontent in the army. The anti-corruption campaign led to the unfair firing of some civil servants which degraded the civil service’s morale. Significantly, Murtala fortified the unitary leviathan of central government at the expense of a truly federal order – a fundamental defect that still plagues the republic. The vengeful purges that followed his assassination polarised the army between the far North and the Middle Belt. The sweeping assignment of guilt (sometimes by filial or ethnic association) ensured that there were miscarriages of justice that left a deep legacy of bitterness. The flurry of executions underscored the extreme toll in wasted lives and talents that society would continue to pay right up to the 1990s for the military’s incursion into politics.
Murtala offers other lessons. History and humanity though full of good, bad and great figures, very rarely throw up pure heroes and villains or absolute saints and sinners. Murtala was a complex mercurial figure. He was a scion of the conservative Northern establishment that brought a radical fervour to national leadership. Even while his men committed atrocities in Asaba, he personally ensured the protection of the mother of Kaduna Nzeogwu. As head of state, he restored the benefits of Ironsi (whom he had rebelled against a decade earlier) to his family. Though rarely patient with dissent, when his integrity was questioned by an activist, he went to court to clear his name. Actors of historic consequence typically have both noble and ignoble columns in their biographical ledgers. Successive generations will always debate which outweighs the other. For Murtala, Asaba and Addis Ababa are indelible aspects of his legacy.

In another age, Murtala would have been court-martialed and possibly charged with war crimes. In his age, he went on to reinvent himself as a nationalist and pan-Africanist, ensuring that he is remembered very differently than might have been the case. Self-reinvention is one of our great political traditions. Former sceptics about the Nigerian union like Tafawa Balewa and Awolowo became converted believers in our collective potential. Former military dictators like Buhari and Obasanjo are born-again democrats. The former secessionist warlord, Emeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu, became an influence in mainstream politics and upon death was given a state burial. A crony capitalist like Moshood Abiola became a progressive social democrat and died a martyr for democracy.
The nationalist philosopher Mokwugo Okoye described Murtala as “a brave and dedicated soldier who, by the time he came to power, had outgrown the vengeful, parochial temper of his civil war years…wanted to make Nigeria great and respected, and did his best to instill discipline in his colleagues and countrymen.”
Murtala’s significance is now blurred by the mists of time. The relative silence surrounding the fortieth anniversary of his passage is telling. Our disconnection from history is acute. Most of the contemporary policy elite and the millennials that will succeed them have no memory of a Nigeria that conducted herself with more self-respect than has recently been the case and they have scant perception of the iterations of imperialism against which they must do battle. In our epoch, the supposed marks of sophistication are a slavish dependency on foreign investors and foreign aid – trends that would surely have outraged the man who once proclaimed that “Africa has come of age.”
Significantly, Murtala achieved his makeover within six months. At a time when politicians claim that their terms are too short to make an impact, we should note that Murtala is remembered mostly for what he did within two hundred days. Leaders with conviction and who are prepared can do much in a short time. As it is with life, so it is with leadership. It is not how long but how well.

Chris Ngwodo is a writer, analyst and consultant.