The Assassination of Murtala Muhammed of Nigeria

Murtala Muhammad main

Nigeria’s independence in the 1960s started an unstable period of military coups and a failed civil war. Murtala Ramat Muhammed (1938-76) was in the thick of things. He served in the military in the signal corps. He was involved in the coup that put Yakubu Gowon in power. Gowon and Muhammed remained rivals. In 1976, Muhammed replaced him after Gowon lost power in another coup. Muhammed’s energetic rule made him a folk hero but also turned some against him. He was assassinated in another failed coup when he was only thirty-seven years old. His successor ultimately helped civilian rule begin.  

Nigeria’s Bloody Beginning

Nigeria is a country in West Africa.  It is the sixth-largest country in the world and the most populous African nation. The nation today has over two million people. The country is growing so fast that finding out exactly how many people live there is complicated.  

Nigeria became an independent nation in 1960. Like many products of European colonialization, the new nation was a patchwork of ethnic and religious groups. It was not a united whole. The groups struggled to live together, often resulting in violence. 

A failed independence attempt by Biafra resulted in over one million deaths. 

Military Rule 

In the 20th Century, the military often stepped in to address government corruption and civilian unrest. The armed forces had the power to control the nation. 

They also were led by an officer corps who had the training to be leaders. In unstable times, many people (including leaders of the United States) argued the military was the only available means to govern newly freed nations. Civilian governments repeatedly proved inadequate. 

Military control often was a path to violence and authoritarian rule. Weak civilian institutions continued to lead to instability. Military leaders were not just voted out. Coups, often violent, and assassinations often served as a means to dispose of leaders. 

Military Dictatorship in Nigeria

Military dictators controlled Nigeria most of the time from 1966-1999. General Yakubu Gowon was the final leader standing after coups and counter-coups in the mid-1960s. 

Gowon’s corruption led him to be ousted by a coup in 1975. Murtala Muhammed became head of state. He soon became a victim of another coup attempt.  

A few years later, Nigeria enjoyed a short period of civilian rule. However, military rule soon returned. Olusegun Obasanjo, who oversaw civilian elections in 1979, ended the cycle by becoming an elected leader in 1999. Civilian rule continues until today.  

The largest airport in Nigeria today, and one of the busiest in Africa, is the Murtala Muhammed International Airport. What made him stand out among all the rest? 

Murtala Muhammed’s Early Years 

Murtala Ramat Muhammed was born on November 8, 1938. His father worked in the Native Authority, the tribal government structure. Muhammad’s family was prestigious.

Murtala graduated from college and joined the Nigerian army. He became an officer in the signals corps. Murtala was also part of the U.N. peacekeeping force in the Congo.  

A man on the rise, his charisma and leadership ability were evident from a young age. 

The Bloody 1960s

Murtala’s uncle became the minister of defense in 1965. Murtala also became the acting head of the signals corps. Murtala opposed the new leadership. He helped mastermind a counter-coup. 

Who was going to be the new leader? Murtala wanted the role himself and had a significant amount of support. Nonetheless,  Lt. Col. Yakubu Gowon, militarily senior, won the job. 

When Biafra rebelled, Muratala was part of the counteroffensive. His military forces struggled. Various allegations of wrongdoing, including the murder of civilians, have been made against him. 

Gowon replaced him in the middle of the war. 

Murtala continued to distrust Gowon. One leading biographical account explains how he tried to delay the end of Nigeria’s defeat of the rebels. Muhammed believed that if defeat came quickly, Gowon would be too powerful.  

The Early 1970s

Muhammed continued to have various positions in the signals department. 

After the war, he became a brigadier general. Gowon later appointed him as the new Federal Commissioner of Communications. The new oil wealth required a great deal of infrastructure.

Muhammed Becomes Leader 

Gowon promised to hand over power to civilian control, which he later reneged on. His administration also was accused of corruption. Junior officers also felt cheated out of their fair share of military patronage. Opposition to his reign resulted in talks of a coup.

Muhammed was sympathetic but did not directly take part. A bloodless coup arose when Gowon was out of the country at an Organization of African Unity summit.

The coup plotters appointed Brigadier Murtala Mohammed as head of state and Brigadier Olusegun Obasanjo as his deputy. It was now July 30, 1975.

Muhammed’s Short Reign

Muhammed started a whirlwind of changes and reforms. Murtala’s most well-known sayings became “Fellow Nigerians” and “with immediate effect.”   

His passion and decisiveness made him a folk hero. Acts such as dismissing over 10,000 civil servants also led to complaints of arbitrary and reckless behavior. Some people wondered: Was he a reformer or a dangerous autocrat?

He took control of the federal newspapers. The government announced the decommission of 100,000 soldiers in the Nigerian Army and a series of promotions that passed over some officers. He recognized the controversial new government of Angola.  

Muhammed made many more moves, including plans to move the national capital. 


On February 13, 1976, General Muhammed’s Mercedes Benz was stuck in traffic

A man assassinated him. Muhammed was only thirty-seven years old.

The man with some troops seized the Nigerian Broadcast Company. A radio broadcast charged charging Muhammed with corruption and maladministration.

Federal troops crushed the coup. Lieutenant Colonel Dimka was the ringleader. He implicated General Yakubu Gowon, but Great Britain would not extradite him. 
Olusegun Obasanjo became the leader of Nigeria. It would take over twenty years and a failed attempt. Nonetheless, his destiny was to end the cycle of military rule in his country.

Teach and Thrive

A Bronx, NY veteran high school social studies teacher who has learned most of what she has learned through trial and error and error and error.... and wants to save others that pain.