Murtala Ramat Muhammed GCFR was a Nigerian general who led the 1966 Nigerian counter-coup in overthrowing the Johnson Aguiyi-Ironsi military regime and featured prominently during the Nigerian Civil War and thereafter ruled over Nigeria from 29 July 1975 until his assassination on 13 February 1976. This period in Nigerian history, from the Northern counter-coup victory to Murtala’s death, is commonly associated with the institutionalization of the military in politics.
Born in Kano, into a ruling-class religious family, Murtala served in the Nigerian Army as a cadet in the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst. He later served in Congo; eventually rose through the ranks to become brigadier general in 1971, aged 33, becoming one of the youngest generals in Nigeria. Three years later Murtala became the Federal Commissioner for Communications in Lagos. As a conservative and federalist, Murtala regretted the overthrow of the First Republic and the promulgation of Aguiyi Ironsi’s unification decree of 1966. He was devastated by the assassination of Sir Ahmadu Bello, and for a time seriously considered the secession of Northern Nigeria. His career redoubled after Chukwuma Kaduna Nzeogwu and the young majors orchestrated the first military coup in Nigeria of 1966 coup empowering him to lead the mutiny of the night of 29 July 1966 in Abeokuta. Murtala was briefly considered as Supreme Commander before the appointment of Yakubu Gowon. He also masterminded the July 1966 counter coup, which evidently, sparked the Nigerian Civil War.
During the war, he commandeered Nigeria’s second infantry division which was responsible for the death of civilians and much of the rebels. His command’s use of veteran soldiers, no quarter, and scorched earth strategies led to between 10,000 and 30,000 deaths.
Combined with the total wartime death toll of three million making the civil war one of the deadliest in modern history.
Three years later the Federal military government declared victory which bolstered Murtala’s image over Nigeria and in particular the north as a military leader through the post-war era of “reconciliation, reconstruction, and rehabilitation”. In post-civil-war Nigeria, Murtala ruled with more power than any Nigerian leader before or since, and developed a charismatic authority and cult of personality. During the Cold War he maintained Nigerian neutrality through participation in the non-aligned movement but supported the Soviet Union — during the latter’s effort in the Angolan Civil War
Nigeria under Murtala presided over a period of rampant economic prosperity.
At the same time, his regime transitioned from being authoritarian into consensus decision-making with Murtala the leader of a military triumvirate, alongside Generals Olusegun Obasanjo and Theophilus Danjuma. The dictatorship softened and Murtala unveiled plans for the demilitarization of politics. In 1976 barely seven months into his nascent rule Murtala without having time to see his plans implemented was assassinated in a failed coup d’ètat attempt, being succeeded by Olusegun Obasanjo as Head of State, who, in turn, led the Nigerian transition to democracy with the Second Nigerian Republic.
The legacy of Murtala in Nigerian history remains controversial as the nature of his rule changed over time. His reign was marked by both brutal repression, and economic prosperity, which greatly improved the quality of life in Nigeria. His dictatorial style proved highly adaptable, which enabled wide-sweeping social and economic reform, while consistent pursuits during his reign centered on highly centralised government, authoritarianism, federalism, national Federalism, and pan-Africanism.