General Murtala Ramat Mohammed (Nigeria’s Head of State 1966)

murtala muhammed

On the Nigerian twenty naira note is the picture of a man dressed in military attire. This man’s name was General Murtala Ramat Mohammed, and he was the third Head of State in Nigeria. This article will be discussing the personal, military, and political life of this man.

Early Life, Childhood, and Education of Murtala Mohammed

Murtala Mohammed was born on November 8, 1938, in Kano, Northern Nigeria. His parents, Mohammed Riskuwa and Uwani Rahamatu, were of Fulani descent. 

As a boy, Mohammed had his primary education at Cikin Gida Elementary School, located inside the emir’s palace. He later attended the Gidan Makama Primary School in Kano, situated outside the emir’s palace. 

In 1949, he attended the Kano Middle School, and in 1957, he graduated from the Government College in Zaria. Shortly after he graduated from college, Mohammed enlisted in the Nigerian army.

Early Career: Military Career of Murtala Mohammed

In 1957, Mohammed joined the Nigerian army, where he had short training. He also went to Ghana and the Sandhurst Royal Military Academy in Great Britain for further training. He became the second lieutenant in 1961, and he was also assigned to the Nigerian Army Signals. 

In 1962, Mohammed received an appointment as the aide-de-camp to the administrator of the Western Region, M. A. Majekodunmi. In 1963, Mohammed was put as officer-in-charge of the First Brigade Signal Troop in Kaduna, Nigeria.

Also, in 1963, Murtala took up a training course on advanced telecommunications techniques at the Royal Corps of Signals in England. When he returned to Nigeria in 1964, he received the promotion to major and officer-commanding 1st Signal Squadron in Lagos. 

In 1965, he received the appointment of acting Chief of Signals of the Army.

Murtala Mohammed: the 1966 Military Coups 

On January 15, 1966, predominantly Igbo military soldiers carried out the first-ever army coup in Nigeria. Like most Northern military officers, Mohammed was oblivious of the coup. Although a failed one, the coup resulted in the death of most Northern civil leaders, military, and police officers.

In a bid to appease the North for its loss, the new leader, Major General Johnson Thomas Aguiyi-Ironsi, appointed Northerners in top positions in the country. He also released some Northern politicians who had been locked up in prison. Aguiyi-Ironsi appointed Mohammed to the post of a member of the Post and Telecommunications Management Committee.

However, Aguiyi-Ironsi failed to bring the coup plotters to judgment as was demanded by the military laws. Even though he arrested most of the coup plotters, he ensured they were given favourable treatment in prison and continued to receive their salaries. He even made sure to promote some of them to top ranks while they were still in prison. 

Furthermore, the people of the Eastern Region vocally supported the killings, and their media even made cartoons to mock them. These actions grieved an already-aggrieved North. Murtala Mohammed, in particular, opposed this government. He saw Aguiyi-Ironsi’s actions as open support of the killings of the Northerners and began to plan revenge.

Aguiyi-Ironsi further made a decree, Decree 34, that changed Nigeria’s constitution from a federal one to a unitary one. The Northerners interpreted this as an Igbo takeover and thus, were not willing to settle for it.

On July 29, 1966, the revenge coup took place, and Murtala Mohammed spearheaded it. Northern military officers went on a killing spree, killing the Head of State, Major General Aguiyi-Ironsi, and Lieutenant Colonel Adekunle Fajuyi. 

They used the code word Hausa “Araba,” meaning secession, to carry out the coup. Although, Murtala Mohammed and his fellow coup plotters wanted the North to break away from Nigeria.

Musa Daggash, Permanent Secretary, Chief Justice Adetokunbo Ademola, and Head of the Federal Public service, Sule Katagum, convinced them that a unified Nigeria was a better option.

With Aguiyi-Ironsi killed and his government dispersed, the question of who would become the new leader arose. To show that despite their grievance, they could be fair, Lieutenant Colonel Yakubu Gowon was chosen. 

Yakubu Gowon was considered a man of integrity, a Northerner who did not come from the Fulani or Hausa tribe (the two major tribes in the North), a senior officer, and a Christian. 

Even though Murtala Mohammed wanted to be the Head of State himself, he did not receive as much support as Gowon. So, Gowon ruled and promoted Murtala to the post of Lieutenant Colonel and appointed him as the Inspector of Signals.

As expected, the killings of the Igbo leaders did not sit well with fellow Igbo leaders.

Murtala Mohammed: The Nigerian Civil War/the Nigerian-Biafran War (July 6, 1967 – January 15, 1970)

The killings of the Igbo continued, but this time among the ordinary people. As a result of the 1914 amalgamation of the Northern, Eastern, and Western regions, the people cross-migrated to live in each other’s lands. 

In 1966, reports had it that Northerners killed over 30 thousand Igbo civilians. The Igbos began to flee the North in millions, and their leaders decided that it was time for them to break away. 

On May 27, 1967, Lieutenant Colonel Odumegwu Ojukwu announced that the Eastern region was now the Republic of Biafra. During the war, which claimed three million Igbo lives.

Murtala Mohammed was reported to have carried out some unethical practices. He gave orders to execute the Biafran prisoners of war even though they had surrendered. He had ordered the Asaba massacre of October 1967, which claimed the lives of at least one thousand people in Asaba, Delta State of Nigeria. 

Murtala Mohammed: Nigeria’s Head of State (1975 – 1976)

General murtala muhammed

On July 29, 1975, the army announced the overthrow of General Yakubu Gowon while he was away at the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) summit in Uganda. Murtala Mohammed assumed the position as the new Head of State with Brigadier Olusegun Obasanjo as his second-in-command.

As the new Head of State, Murtala Mohammed ensured that Nigerians felt the force of his control. He created seven new states on February 3, 1976: Ogun, Benue, Niger, Borno, Bauchi, and Imo.

He also changed the federal capital from Lagos to Abuja on that same date. And sacked most of those in the Nigerian civil service under the allegations of corruption and had them replaced.

Murtala Mohammed’s Assassination

On February 13, 1976, General Murtala Mohammed and his aide-de-camp, Lieutenant Akintunde Akinsehinwa, were ambushed in his Mercedes Benz by a team of soldiers led by Lieutenant Colonel Buka Suka Dimka. The soldiers’ gunshots killed General Murtala Mohammed and his aide-de-camp.

Murtala Mohammed’s Personal Life

Murtala Mohammed was married to Ajoke Mohammed, a trained dental therapist. Together, they had five children. 

Murtala Mohammed’s Honours, Awards, and Recognition

● Forces Service Star (FSS) Forces Service Star (Nigeria)

● General Service Medal (GSM) General Service Medal (Nigeria)

● Meritorious Service Star (MSS)

● National Service Medal (NSM) National Service Medal (Nigeria)

● Republic Medal (RM)

● The Murtala Mohammed International Airport in Lagos was named after him

● His picture graces the Nigerian twenty naira note

Popular Phrases by Murtala Mohammed

In his public address to Nigerians, Mohammed frequently used the two phrases, “Fellow Nigerians” and “With immediate effect,” which became popular among the Nigerian people.

Quotes by Murtala Mohammed

“As long as the neo-colonialists who pretend to be our friends succeed to set one section against another, they will ensure our continued dependence on them.”

“We cannot pretend that we are unaware of the machinations and conspiracies against our Continent by not just the racists of South Africa but even with those who pretend to be the friends of this Continent but whose sole interest is in what they can get out of us.”

“When I contemplate the evils of apartheid, my heart bleeds and I am sure the heart of every true-blooded African bleeds.”

“Africa has Come of age. It is no longer under the orbit of any extra continental power. It should no longer take orders from any country, however powerful.”

“The new weapon is no longer the Bible and the flag, but destabilization and armaments. Africa should show its awareness of this new danger and see the Angolan situation not as an isolated affair but as part of the greater danger.”

“Angola is merely the excuse being used by those who cannot reconcile themselves to the momentous victories of the forces of African nationalism to assert their neo-colonialist ambitions on the Continent. Angola merely provides the occasion to recreate the nineteenth-century partition of Africa into spheres of influence where the predominant consideration will be the interests of the big powers without any consideration for the inalienable rights of the Africans.”


Britannica (2021)

Ogbemudia, V. (2019)

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