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Murtala Muhammed: Why there are no heroes amongst generals


“In truth, no Nigerian civil war general deserves to be a hero. They created the problems and demons the nation is presently confronted with… Their irresponsibility, tribal bigotry, opportunism and general indiscipline pushed the nation into crisis.”

The question is often asked;  why is Nigeria so defined by injustice/impunity and why has she failed in spite of human and natural resources that would make other nations first world countries? The answer lies in the prevalent ethos and values in the society.  

If we truly desire change, then we need to be careful those we lionise and make heroes, because what ultimately happens in a nation, whether in  leadership or in everyday life  is to a large extent reflective of the  agglomerated  accepted practices, cultural norms and consequent  values inherent in it. If for example, a nation consistently makes heroes out of criminals, human rights abusers, bigots and other such dishonourable characters, the inherent values and cultural disposition of the masses will tilt towards that direction and there will consequently be no shortage of leaders and individuals who will be disposed to visit those vices on society.  

Since independence Nigeria has had parliamentary democracy, military rule, a short lived presidential democracy, military rule and then a return to democracy. But across all systems of government only bad leadership that has progressively become worse has been the outcome. Democracy is arguably the best form of government, because the people get to choose their leaders directly, but democracy in Nigeria has turned out to be just as bad as military rule. 

Whereas the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Qatar, Saudi Arabia et al which are monarchies provide their citizens with some of the best standards of governance and whereas China —also not a democracy is today the 2nd largest economy in the world with citizens that enjoy some of the best living standards—what you find in democratic Nigeria is mass poverty, social injustice, human rights violations, impunity, looting, ethno-religious conflicts and abuse of power across all levels of government. Why then is it that nation’s that lack democracy have leaders who provide good leadership for their citizens while in Nigeria it’s the reverse?  

The answer is simple. Those nations have a basic standard of justice and fairness inherent in their societies. They don’t make villains their heroes. Evil and or injustice especially against their citizens is condemned and rejected by all and their national heroes are those who all their lives made sacrifices to better the lot of their citizens. The prevalent ethos in their society is essentially predicated on justice and fairness. Their people are fundamentally predisposed to those virtues and consequently their leaders arising from a subculture of basic fairness and justice are naturally disposed to govern with those values. This is why in spite of not being a democracy they still have good leaders. 

In contrast; the heroes and role models we have in Nigeria across all regions, have overwhelmingly been people who thrived on injustice, impunity and all kinds of excesses. Overtime, with the modelling of such despicable characters as our role models, the vices in which those leaders thrived became an accepted cultural norm/status quo and the values inherent in the society. Having been so drenched in warped values, it should not be a surprise that every leader that emerges at whatever level and through whatever mechanism is only disposed to do injustice and violate human rights because those are the predominant values shaped by those who have been our role models in the society.

One such recent event was the glorification of Murtala Muhammed who in normal climes would be in the dustbin of history. As the 40th anniversary of his assassination hit the media, there was no shortage of praise singers and those who saw in him a patriot and a nationalist; yet this was a man that embodied every ill that ruined and still haunts the nation. He was not only a tribalist to the core; he was also a secessionist, a coupist, an opportunist and a serial human rights abuser who was implicated not only in the pogrom before the war but in some of the worst atrocities of the civil war. 

It was bad enough that Nigeria had the unfortunate January 1966 coup that was in the main occasioned by the post-election violence in the Western region (wetie) that had consumed thousands of lives owing to massive election rigging, corruption and other excesses of the then leaders but a second coup that further complicated the situation was hardly necessary. It should be noted that Muhammed’s counter-coup was triggered by nothing other than tribalism and a desire to secede from Nigeria. 

One of the immediate victims of the counter-coup was General Aguiyi Ironsi who had crushed the January 1966 coup and was frantically making patriotic efforts to salvage a nation in crisis. To achieve their aim, Muhammed and his cohorts claimed he introduced the unitary system and that he refused to put the January plotters to trial. Yet Ironsi was barely 6 months in power—grappling with a national trauma while the January coupists were in jail preparatory to their trial. Aguiyi’s so called unitary system which was the product of a school of thought that then suggested —that was the only way to hold the fissiparous country together was more of a patriotic effort to hold the fractious country together. 

Besides, it was largely in name only as the regional structure remained intact, the control of resources by respective regions also remained intact. The only thing that was centralised was the federal civil service. A concomitant pogrom organised by Murtala and other officers and men of the army who were supposed to protect life and property in collaboration with the civil authorities now ensued that claimed the lives of thousands of Easterners in what was Africa’s first genocide preceding what later happened in Rwanda, while Muhammed with the slogan “araba” prepared the north for secession from Nigeria. 

It took the intervention of British diplomats for them to move away from secession. Ironically, the unitary system for which general Ironsi was murdered was now consolidated by the same opportunist counter-coupists who rejected Aburi accord that would have increased regional autonomy. They went further to dismantle the regions, create states, abolish resource control by the respective regions and totally centralised the levers of governance. Any attempt to return to true federalism since then has been blocked by the same Northern leaders that  killed Ironsi on the grounds that he introduced the unitary system —paradoxically citing the same reasons of a “need to hold the  country together” that had necessitated it by Ironsi in the turbulent  period of the 60’s. 

With the commencement of the civil war, Muhammed once again proved himself a villain. Not only did his forces loot the central bank in Benin, his notoriety was finally confirmed in Asaba. There thousands of young men, all civilians were lined up and murdered, while women were defiled. Not stopping there; in Onitsha more than 300 civilians who stayed behind in the Apostolic church holding  prayers as the city fell were murdered by Muhammed’s  forces in cold blood.  He went on to commit a litany of war crimes before he was relieved of his command. 

As head of state for a brief period of 6 months, he awarded the infamous corruption ridden “ITT” contract scam with which Fela Anikulapo Kuti made a popular song to his corrupt cronies who embezzled the funds thus depriving Nigeria of a modern telecoms infrastructure. That phony contract enriched a few and made sure that Nigeria never had a functional telephone system until the mobile GSM came.  How can such a man guilty of tribalism, genocide, corruption, secession and other such excesses be canonized and made a role model in any normal clime? 

How then can we get good leaders if our heroes and role models are those who made a career out of unspeakable atrocities and other such acts of injustice and impunity against fellow citizens? At this rate, one is persuaded to believe Adolf Hitler would have been a hero were he to be a Nigerian, what a shame! 

In truth; no Nigerian civil war general deserves to be a hero. They created the problems and demons the nation is presently confronted with. Had the military as an institution managed the crisis in the 60’s better, there would have been no pogrom, no war and the nation would have been better for it. Their irresponsibility, tribal bigotry, opportunism and general indiscipline pushed the nation into a crisis that has since remained the nation’s Achilles heels. 

First, they led us into a needless counter-coup/pogrom and war that consumed millions of lives only on tribal bigotry and opportunism, then they made sure there was never any post-war reconciliation, ostensibly because they never believed in Nigerian unity in the first place beyond the possibility to control the resources as was sold to them by the British diplomats who persuaded them to drop the idea of secession, and then they went on to make injustice, marginalisation, human rights violations and looting the order of the day. 

That Nigeria is today a dysfunctional failed state racked  by ethno-religious conflicts, collapsing infrastructure and massive corruption is all thanks to the same war generals who did nothing other than ruin the nation in the 4 decades and counting that they held power.  General Abacha alone is reputed to have stolen more than $10 billion. 18 years after his death, his monumental loot is still being returned. These are the kind of thieving war generals Nigeria has had as leaders. 

They were never patriots nor did they ever believe in Nigeria. They were in the main bigots, criminals, mass murderers, rapists, vandals, opportunists, liars, cowards and villains who true to type proved their mettle by destroying the nation beyond recognition. By making such men heroes, our society has been defined by their actions and values. This is why every Nigerian leader arising from the contamination of such values has been bad. Until we stop making models out of those who debased our humanity and fostered injustice and impunity as the prevalent status quo we will continue to get bad leadership in Nigeria.

Lawrence Chinedu Nwobu, Email: lawrencenwobu@gmail.com

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