(Vanguard of Sunday, February 19, 2006)
We were last week marking 30 years of the slaughter in cold blood of Murtala Muhammed. We will come back to that last week event at the Ecowas Secretariat at Abuja on February 13, 2006 and what people have been making of it.
But where was I on February 13, 1976 when the light that was shining on and in Nigeria was put out brutally? I was the training manager of the Times Newspaper Training Centre at Iganmu, Lagos, now Times Journalism Institute.
We had hardly settled down for the day’s work when news came that there had been a coup d’etat. We wondered what coups took place in broad daylight. But martial music had started to play and one Dimka was speaking, declaring curfew from dawn to dusk. Did you see that? He was declaring a curfew to start in the morning and end at night!
We had no access road to the office. There was this footbridge that took us from the Lagos Badagry Road to our office. It accommodated movement in one direction at a time. With the news of the coup, people poured out of Lagos and just moved on.
The mass movement into the swamps of Ejigbo in reaction to the explosions at Ikeja Cantonment last Sunday of January, 2002 gives a true picture of how we react to what we are not ready for. I asked my colleagues in the office to be calm, to let us stay and think of what to do. Everyone ignored me.
That day taught me one lesson – that in a crisis each man is for himself. Before I knew what was happening, the office was empty of both teachers and students. The administrative secretary was to tell me later that he had joined the trek to Badagry! When I discovered that I was left alone in the office, I walked across the wooden bridge to the main road, entered my car which was packed along the road and drove in the direction of the National Theatre.
The double carriage way was a later development. I drove through Eric Moore Road to James Robertson to Akerele to Randle Avenue where I lived. I did not know what advised the rush, but people seemed to be just moving on, unguarded, without a guide, to nowhere.
At home, I took a 90-minute tape and inserted it into the recording compartment of my radio/cassette player, tuned on the radio and started to record the proceedings. I used three 90-minute tapes before an announcement came that the coup makers had been overpowered and that people should remain calm.
I thought of the man Murtala Ramat Muhammed. I first met him at the residence of Col FAZ Shielu who was then paymaster-general of the Nigerian Army. That was during the civil war. After the war, when the ovation was loudest for General Yakubu Gowon to leave as a hero, he was persuaded to remain, to say that there was so much to do that if he left, the programme of reconstruction of war damages, reconciliation of all Nigerians and rehabilitation of displaced persons would be messed up!
So his failure to keep his promise to hand over power to civilians, in line with his political transition programme, led to his ouster in 1975. Murtala Muhammed’s legacy was that he made a promise which his colleagues led by General Olusegun Obasanjo kept. And so, on October 1, 1979, Obasanjo entered the history books as the first military leader in Nigeria to hand over power to an elected civilian government.
But February 13, 1976 was earlier in time than October 1, 1979 when the military disengaged from politics. As the martial music pierced the silence of my room at 77 Randle Avenue, I looked back to what this man had done that made me claim that Nigeria’s light had been snuffed out of his body by Dimka.
He gave us Abuja. He gave us 19 states as federating units. He removed military governors that had sat tight, with sycophants increasing the call that they remain the god-ordained rulers that they had been for nine years.
He gave us the Presidential system in the hope that we would have a unifying force that would be the unbiased guide as we walk the democracy highway. He restructured the civil service. He did something else that was not visible. The Nigerian was once again proud to be seen, known and described as a Nigerian.
By the time Dimka was captured, I had left the training centre and was editing the Daily Times. We had gotten the story packaged before Chief Aleshinloye walked into my Kakawa Street Office to inform me that the Dimka capture story should not be published.
He was then press secretary to General Obasanjo who had replaced Murtala Muhammed. “Who says?” I asked him. “Danjuma says”, he answered. Danjuma was then chief of army staff. “Why?” I asked Alex. “He didn’t tell me why” he said. “Then I will use it”, I told Alex.
I was editor of Daily Times. I was about the same age group as the chief of army staff. I regarded myself as responsible enough to be taken into confidence about what was going on. You just don’t walk into the room of the editor of the Daily Times, I mean the Daily Times that was the most powerful paper in sub-Saharan African, and tell him not to public news of the arrest of someone who killed our head of state.
Alex came back later to inform me that the reason I would being asked not to publish was that Dimka had mentioned some names of persons involved in the plan of change of government. They had to be arrested and it would be more difficult to do so if they knew that Dimka had been arrested and may have been singing like a bird.
I decided to pull the story out of the paper but warned that if any other newspaper published it, I would find it difficult to cooperate with the military in future. I was in my house when a message was sent to me that we could publish because all the people Dimka mentioned had been rounded up.
I rushed to the office, at 2.30 a.m. and met Kunle Elegbede and Lade Bonuola, my production men, putting finishing touches to the story. They had remained behind just in case! And so we went to town on Dimka who may well have still been missing today but for his love of women.
In my hotel room at Le Meridien, Abuja on February 13, 2006, I watched our President as he relived the memories of 30 years. Years had wiped tears from our eyes and he could put in one little joke and another as he told how he felt bad that the list of those to be eliminated showed Murtala Muhammed as number one, Danjuma as number 2 and he himself who was the Chief of Staff Supreme Headquarters, as number three! He spoke nostalgically of how close their team was then – Obasanjo, Yar’Adua, Danjuma and others.
He hammered on the sensitive issue of total loyalty and he looked in one direction. I was not there to know whether that gaze was in the direction of Atiku Abubakar! As I watched our President tell the story of their era, my mind hovered around the period before February 13, 1976, a period of just six months when the Muhammed team made the difference between success and failure, between service and enslavement, between the volition to give and the preoccupation with taking, taking, and taking what belongs to all.
In 30 years between Murtala Muhammed and Olusegun Obasanjo, we have seen the good, the bad and the ugly. But from what I watched on television when the period was being focused, it would seem that the good belonged to the Murtala Muhammed and Obasanjo era, between 1975 and 1979 when Obasanjo handed over to an elected civilian government.
The bad and the ugly took over from 1979 to 1999 when Obasanjo came again. Which means that Shagari did nothing; Buhari did nothing; Babangida did nothing; Abacha did nothing; and Abdulsalami Abubakar did nothing! Or if they did anything at all, it was negative.
We continue next week.
(Published in Vol. 2 of Democracy Watch, A Monitor’s Diary by Tony Momoh, pages 98 -101; Lagos, 2008).