On the 13th of February 1976, Nigeria suffered a grievous blow with the assassination of Murtala Muhammad in a failed coup d’état. The country mourned, and rightly so, because Murtala had been on his way to putting Nigeria back to the path of order and discipline, after years of drift, corruption and near despair. It would not be over-stating the case to say that Nigeria lost its newly-found momentum with Murtala’s demise.
2. General Murtala’s story has been told over and over again in the last forty years. So I will not repeat what has been related many times before. Suffice to say that his mother brought him up, and, through her efforts, paid expenses for his education and general welfare. In turn, Murtala repaid her by his exemplary performance in school, in military training, in war, in peace and in government.
3. What was Murtala like as a man? Although he was much more senior to me in the Army, I developed a great liking and respect for him on account of his professional excellence, competence, straightforwardness and genuine interest and concern for up-and-coming officers like myself. Of course, no one is without flaws. He was a man in a hurry, and sometimes this could make him appear abrupt or even moody. But what he could not tolerate was incompetence and idleness.
4. By the time Murtala was given Command during the Civil War, the Federal side was on the defensive. The rebels had over-ran the then Mid-West, and reached as far as Ore, just 100 miles from Lagos. By dint of sheer bravery, improvisation and resourcefulness, he mustered a rag-tag group of soldiers, integrated them into an entirely new division, knocked them into fighting shape, recovered Mid-West and ventured across the Niger. Alas, there were terrible casualties on both sides.
5. But Murtala’s motto was to get the job done as quickly as possible; sacrifice and loss were part of the risks of war. Relations between Murtala and some other senior officers were not always easy. But no one could doubt his inspirational qualities or call into question his love and dedication in the service of Nigeria.
6. On assuming the role of Head of State in 1975, Murtala set out with a single-minded determination seldom seen in Nigerian leadership. Decisions were on fast-track. Two major developments are prominent among his legacies: the move of the capital to Abuja from Lagos; and the creations of seven new States to make 19. The shadow of his death still somewhat hangs over Nigeria.
7. We are here to honour a national hero and patriot, not to mourn him, and to take a few lessons from his achievements:
His love for Nigeria and Nigerians, from wherever they came;
His intense professionalism;
His impatience with incompetence and lack of patriotism
His loyalty to friends and colleagues.
8. His life, short though it proved to be, was marked by an extraordinary passion, energy and determination to do better, and to make Nigeria better. These are values that young and old alike should all remember – and celebrate.