Some said he gave himself away to the conspirators by opening his flanks in an unnecessary show of patriotism. Others are of the opinion that his style of governance was a practical demonstration of how leaders should be close to the people. GABRIEL AKINADEWO writes on the events of February 13, 1976 when General Murtala Ramat Muhammed, Nigeria’s fourth Commander-in-Chief, became history
It was the fourth coup in the country. And it was executed on a Friday.
Forty eight years ago, at Obalende, Ikoyi, Lagos, Nigeria’s fourth Commander-in-Chief, General Murtala Ramat Muhammed, was assassinated. It was a black Friday.
Born in 1938, he was 38 when his life was cut short by bullets. And today is the 48th anniversary of that bloody coup.
Colonel Bukar Sukar Dimka of the Nigerian Army Physical Training Corps was the leader of the conspirators. And his major grouse was the way he was left in the cold when some of his colleagues were promoted.
He found a soul mate in the then Minister of Defence, Major General Illiya D. Bisalla.
Bisalla was Muhammed’s course mate and the then Chief of Army Staff, Lt-General Theophilus Danjuma, was his (Bisalla) junior officer when he was a General Officer Commanding (GOC).
In the promotion which was previously done in the Army High Command after General Yakubu Gowon was overthrown on July 29, 1975, Muhammed was promoted a full General, Danjuma, a Lieutenant-General and Bisalla, a Major-General.
Bisalla was livid.
Even if Bisalla was going to accept the leadership of Muhammed, he was not ready to answer ‘sir’ to Danjuma who was hitherto his junior in rank.
So, the machinery was set in motion and Dimka was chosen as the arrowhead. In fact, his house was used as the meeting point by the coupists. Obviously, their first target was Muhammed and they knew they were going to succeed in killing the Kano-born General, given his low-profile status.
Everyday, since July 29, 1975 when he became the Head of State, Muhammed would leave his residence for the office in his official black Mercedes Benz saloon car, accompanied by his Aide-de-Camp (ADC), Lt. Akintunde Akinsehinwa, his orderly and driver.
The only sign of protection was the pistol with the orderly. No convoy, no outrider, no military police personnel, no siren, no security. Obviously, the coupists had three main targets: Muhammed, his deputy (Chief of Staff, Supreme Headquarters) General Olusegun Obasanjo and Danjuma.
Major I.B. Rabo was detailed to take care of target one. Lt. Usman Dauda was mandated to remove Obasanjo from the surface of the earth and 2nd Lt. Lawrence Garba was to lead the death squad that would exterminate Danjuma and some of his loyalists.
Before 7 a.m on February 13, 1976, the coupists had already been dispatched to their various locations.
The next thing Dimka did that morning was to go to the Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation (NBC) compound in Ikoyi from where he would announce the overthrow of Muhammed. The station was just a stone throw to the spot Muhammed was to be assassinated.
His visit was to make sure he had enough men on the ground before making his broadcast. Satisfied, he left for George Street beside the filling station with his two soldier-bodyguards to monitor the arrival of Muhammed’s car. He stood beside his Sports Utility Vehicle (SUV) with Major Rabo.
Captain Malaki had already been detailed to give the warning order on sighting Muhammed’s vehicle. Malaki was to be on the watch to signal Rabo and Lt. William Seri on the approach of the vehicle of the Commander-in-Chief.
At this period, the construction of the Federal Secretariat Complex was going on. Malaki must have taken his mind off his assigned duty to briefly watch the gigantic edifice and in that fraction of a second, Muhammed’s car passed.
It was when Malaki took his eyes off the complex that he saw the car already moving. He was momentarily afraid because he knew the punishment for such an omission was summary execution.
But he quickly composed himself and alerted his superiors. Dimka, Rabo, Seri and others moved fast. While Dimka and a few others used the SUV, the remaining ran after Muhammed’s Benz.
At the end of the road, a policeman was controlling traffic. Due to Muhammed’s low profile, the cop did not know that Nigeria’s most-powerful man was approaching.
There were about five cars between Dimka’s SUV and Muhammed’s car and there was the possibility that Muhammed’s car would slip into the traffic going towards the NBC and Ikoyi Cemetery. Once that happened, it would be difficult for Dimka and his men to accomplish their mission.
But unfortunately, an army truck came roaring from the direction of Bank Road and on sighting it, the policeman stopped the line of traffic in which Muhammed’s car was moving.
And Muhammed’s driver stopped.
Dimka and his fellow plotters did not allow the opportunity to slip away. In five seconds, they were beside Muhammed’s car. Rabo, Seri and others had already unlocked the safety catches in their guns and they fired away, emptying the contents of their magazines into the car.
Muhammed, his ADC, Lt. Akinsehinwa and his driver were killed instantly.
Apart from the assassins, others within the vicinity could not comprehend what was going on. On instinct, the policeman knew a killing had just happened and when he realised who was killed on recognising Muhammed’s car, he simply took to his heels.
Then, there was pandemonium as drivers left their vehicles to escape from the scene. Vehicles were all over with no drivers. In a few minutes, the whole area was deserted.
Dimka’s plan was to go to the NBC in his SUV to make the broadcast but there was no way for his vehicle to move. Since the radio station was only 300 yards away, he simply ran the distance with his two bodyguards.
Waiting for him was Abdulkarim Zakari, a graduate of the University of Ibadan and elder brother of Mrs. Victoria Gowon, General Gowon’s wife who led him to the studio room.
Zakari had signed for martial music records from the station library the previous night.
While it was easy for the coupists to assassinate Muhammed, it was a different game for the second and third main targets.
That the attempt of Dimka and his men on Obasanjo’s life failed could be attributed to fate which manifested in the early morning visit of Major General Joseph Oluyemi Bajowa, then a Colonel, to Obasanjo.
This eventually led to a case of mistaken identity in which Colonel Raymond Dumuje of the Army Ordnance Corps got a dose of the hot lead specifically reserved for ‘Uncle Sege’.
The soldiers, who laid ambush for Obasanjo, mistakenly pounced on Dumuje, shot and wounded him.
Bajowa himself was one of the officers on the list of the plotters. According to a statement by the Federal Military Government on February 18, 1976, other officers on the list included Lt. Col Shehu Musa Yar’Adua, Colonel Joe Garba, Colonel Olu Bajowa, Colonel Ibrahim Babangida and Colonel Ibrahim Taiwo.
According to Onukaba Adinoyi-Ojo in his book ‘Olusegun Obasanjo: In the Eyes of Time’, it was the request of Bajowa, the Quarter Master-General at the time, which he wanted Obasanjo to grant (he wanted to name his son after Obasanjo) that delayed Obasanjo in the house on that black Friday.
In fact, before he got to Obasanjo’s house at 36, Lugard Avenue, Ikoyi, he met Dumuje on the road “who seemed to be signaling him to stop but Bajowa waved and gestured that he was in a hurry”.
With this, he saved his life and that of Obasanjo because if he had waited, Obasanjo, due to pressing official matters, could have left the house and run straight into the net of Usman and, possibly, the same fate could have befallen Bajowa.
After granting his request, Obasanjo quickly dismissed him “because he was rushing to the office to keep a previous appointment”, but it was as if God wanted to give Obasanjo 100 per cent immunity from the coupists’ bullets.
Usman and his men, who by then had realised that Dumuje was not their target, were still waiting for Obasanjo and he would have run into them had he left his secured official residence that moment.
He was saved by his ADC. Lt. Omowa, whom he had ordered the previous day to go to the office ahead of him and tell his visitors that he would be slightly late due to the appointment he had with Bajowa.
Omowa rushed in after five minutes to inform his boss that he could not get to the office as instructed.
He narrated how he saw Muhammed’s body in his car, saying there was pandemonium all over Lagos. Initially, Obasanjo did not believe him but when it eventually dawned on him that the worst had happened, survival instincts prevailed.
He knew his life was in danger and it would be useless and foolhardy to wait for the murderers at home or run into them by going to the office.
“Armed with his telephone book, a pen and a pistol, he jumped into Amodu’s small car” and eventually ended up in the house of Chief Saliudeen Bolaji Bakare.
Danjuma, the number three target, got to his office without any knowledge of the coup, the assassination of Muhammed and the attempt on Obasanjo’s life.
Feared by many of the officers under and around him, from his house, he went to his office in Marina. Unknowingly, he met Garba and his men on the way.
He was a clear target but the coupists had a major problem. At that time, the army high command organised a conference for senior officers, GOCs, Brigade Commanders and others, in Lagos.
Danjuma was with about four senior officers on the way to the office, chatting with them. If an attempt had been made on Danjuma’s life, some of the officers would have been killed. Garba decided to play it safe because he believed it would not be in their interest to widen their enemies’ list.
That decision saved Danjuma.
It was while going though one of the dailies that one of his aides rushed in to tell him about the coup.
For a few minutes, he could not say a word. Tactically, the army was under his command. Now, a section of that army planned a coup under his nose against a government in which he was number three and embarrassingly, killed his Commander-in-Chief.
Danjuma was livid.
Danjuma himself is an experienced coupist. He played a major role when the first military Head of State, Major-General Johnson Thomas Umunakwe (JTU) Aguiyi-Ironsi, was kidnapped from the Government House in Ibadan and killed on July 29, 1966.
Danjuma did not allow his rage to becloud his sense of alertness. He moved quickly. It was at this time that Obasanjo got in touch with him on the telephone. He also got in touch with the then Inspector-General of Police (IGP), Alhaji Mohammed Dikko Yusufu.
The first thing Danjuma did was to secure Bonny Camp, Victoria Island and Ikeja Cantonment. The control of these two military installations was important if any coup was to succeed. He also made sure that the Ikeja Airport was under the command of loyal troops.
He told the senior officers in Lagos to call their divisions and ensure the loyalty of their men to the Federal Military Government (FMG).
He also ordered that the chaotic traffic situation be normalised. Then came the big task. How to dislodge Dimka from the NBC.
Danjuma gave the task to Ibrahim Babangida after getting some tanks and men from the Ikeja Cantonment.
The Taraba-born retired three-star General, was surprised when Babangida later came back to inform him that Dimka didn’t want to leave the station. Babangida was very close to the Danjuma family.
In fact, he used to go to their house personally to give birthday presents to Danjuma’s kids.
This affinity could be said to have saved Babangida that black Friday because he could have been shot instantly on Danjuma’s order “for disobeying a direct order”.
Danjuma was shaking with anger when he told Babangida that he did not send him to the station to persuade Dimka to leave the premises.
Danjuma ordered Babangida to go back, dislodge Dimka “and level the whole place, if necessary”.
When Babangida got back to the station, Dimka had disappeared.
But the riddle of the day was the role Muhammed’s predecessor, Gowon, was alleged to have played in the assassination. When Muhammed was killed, not a few Nigerians pointed accusing fingers at Gowon. In fact, the Federal Military Government had to dismiss Gowon, who was then on exile in London, and declared him wanted.
One of the circumstantial reasons for the suspicion was the fact of an ideological and natural difference between them, which manifested even in the army.
Right from the day Gowon became the Head of State on August 1, 1966, he was handicapped. Although he knew about the coup that toppled Aguiyi-Ironsi, he did not take any active part in it. His choice as Head of State was not as reward for his leadership role in the coup but because he was the most senior army officer from the North.
It was easy, therefore, for all those officers who risked their lives to hold him to ransom, but the reverse was the case with Muhammed as the hardy, robust and tempestuous moralist was popular for his stubbornness and assertiveness, qualities which are very essential for leadership role in the army.
Although Gowon was the Commander-in-Chief between 1966 and 1975, Muhammed had a large following in the army which was a cause of concern for Gowon.
Muhammed had the rank and file of the army behind him, which was why an officer such as the late General Joe Garba, a relative of Gowon, would go and beg Muhammed to be Head of State after Gowon to give the new regime credibility.
Gowon’s personalisation of Nigeria’s foreign policy was another reason for the enmity between the two. For example, Gowon almost dispatched Nigerian troops to Niger in 1972 to forestall a coup against his friend, President Hamani Diori.
Also, Gowon’s incessant Christmas gifts to many countries infuriated Muhammed. To worsen matters between the duo, Gowon dismissed as unrealistic the 1976 deadline for a return to civilian rule. Muhammed would have none of these. That was why after three months in office, Muhammed announced a five-stage programme leading to the military handover of power in 1979.
Obviously, the real final confrontation between the two came on July 4, 1975 at the Federal Executive Council (FEC) meeting in Lagos. On that day, the appointment of the General Manager of the Nigerian National Oil Corporation (NNOC), as the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation Limited (NNPCL) was then called, was to be considered.
Gowon had wanted Mr. I.G.T. Ordor, then head of the country’s only refinery in Port Harcourt, for the post but majority of the members of FEC rejected him.
Gowon was infuriated but in summing up the conclusion of the council decisions, he announced that the body had decided to appoint Ordor as the General Manager of NNOC.
Muhammed, who was then the Federal Communications Commissioner, (as ministers were then called) interrupted Gowon and asked why he announced that the council had appointed Ordor when it had spent hours rejecting him.
He said it would be more honourable for Gowon to say that he had appointed Ordor by executive order, instead of attributing the appointment to the council. Eventually, the meeting stormed to a close.
On July 14, the appointment was announced and 25 days after the stormy meeting, Gowon was overthrown to give the nation “a new lease of life”.
Eight days later, Ordor was removed by Muhammed.
With this background, not a few believed in the complicity of Gowon, Bisalla, Dimka and the British government, in the assassination of Muhammed.
To buttress this, Obasanjo who succeeded Muhammed, never visited Britain during his term of office and discouraged his officials from doing so unless absolutely necessary.
In fact, in 1977, he almost pulled Nigeria out of The Commonwealth.
Dimka was said to have visited Gowon in London and when Muhammed was killed, he went to the British High Commission in Lagos, ostensibly to make contact with Gowon in London.
Colonel Ibrahim Taiwo, the Military Governor of Kwara State, was the only officer killed outside Lagos by the coupists and to tighten the complicity theory, Mr. S.K. Dimka, the then Kwara State Commissioner of Police, who was arrested in connection with the coup, was a relation of Dimka and the husband of Gowon’s elder sister.
According to the Federal Military Government: “For all practical purposes, the intent of Lt. Col. Dimka was to restore General Gowon and his associates to power. As a matter of fact, the Federal Military Government had ample evidence to say that General Yakubu Gowon knew and, by implication, approved the coup plot. The Federal Government called on the ousted Head of State, General Yakubu Gowon to come and defend himself on the various allegations of his involvement in the Dimka-Bisalla plan of shame”.
But Gowon, who was already a student at Warwick University, Britain, denied any prior knowledge of the coup.
“Can you leave me out of this? This is not my show. The problem is in Nigeria. I deny it emphatically. I know absolutely nothing about it. If it was their plan to carry out the coup and then to ask me to go back, well, that is their own look out.
“What I would have done if that situation had arisen is a hypothetical question. I swear as another officer and a gentleman and by the God who made me that I had nothing whatsoever to do with it” he said.