Adjacent to the old Federal Secretariat at Obalende, Lagos, stands a conspicuous memorial erected in honour of the late Gen. Murtala Mohammed, Nigeria’s former Head of State, who was assassinated on Feb. 13, 1976.
The memorial’s location is the exact spot where the late general was brutally felled by assassins’ bullets, in a failed coup led by Lt.-Col. Buka Suka Dimka.
The memorial, observers say, literally denotes a dark side of the nation’s political history, just as it evokes fond memories of a man, who swept through the nation’s political landscape like a hurricane.
While in power, Murtala effected some fundamental changes in the country’s socio-political life which still reverberate till date, political analysts say.
Mr. Bode Ayinde, 67, routinely walks past the memorial each day he goes to work. He laments that the memorial is in a bad shape as it is not well maintained.
“The memorial tells the story of the nation’s violent past. It brings back the memory of a leader, who many Nigerians regarded as a patriot,” says Ayinde.
Observers say that since its construction in 1992, the memorial has served as an attraction to many tourists, who seek a connection with the nation’s past.
The memorial is an impressive vertical marble structure, which bears a plaque with the inscription of a popular quote of the late general; an insignia of his military rank, upturned assault rifles and the Crescent perched at its apex.
Elsewhere in Lagos, precisely at the National Museum, Onikan, is another relic, which also tells the story of Murtala and Nigeria.
At a gallery, the black three -seater Mercedes Benz 230.6 limousine, in which Murtala was shot and killed on that fateful day, is grandly displayed.
Feb. 13, 2011 marked the 35th anniversary of Murtala’s assassination and many citizens have been commenting on Murtala’s contributions to the nation-building process.
Mr. Aremu Adeagbo, an ex-police officer, recalled that Murtala’s coming in 1975 was timely, as the citizens were apparently fed up with the regime of Gen. Yakubu Gowon, who had ruled for nine years.
“Gowon started well and Nigeria owes him gratitude for ending the civil war. However, he became reluctant to return the country to democratic government and that was his albatross,” he said.
Mrs. Nwafor Chinwe, a teacher, said that after Murtala overthrew Gowon through a bloodless coup, there were some remarkable changes in the socio-economic and political spheres of the nation’s life.
“He tackled the problems of corruption, indiscipline, wastefulness and other vices head-on. Murtala led a people-oriented, disciplined and God-fearing government. The masses, indeed, loved him,” she said.
Many political analysts readily point to the creation of 19 states, the purge of the public service and the military hierarchy, the crackdown on corruption and the establishment of a new federal capital as legacies of his regime.
They also applaud the dynamic and purposeful shift in the nation’s foreign policy, especially its policy on Angola and apartheid in southern Africa, while laying the groundwork for the nation’s return to democracy.
For all these and many others, many citizens say that the late general deserves to be immortalized in a more pragmatic way.
This desire, perhaps, explains why many concerned citizens are not happy with the current state of the Obalende memorial for the late general.
Constructed by the Eti-Osa Local Government Council of Lagos State, the memorial was inaugurated by former military President Ibrahim Babangida on Feb. 13, 1992.
A visit to the memorial reveals that a female lunatic has converted the premises to her home, while a motor mechanic has encroached into the square.
Most of the flowers used to adorn the premises have withered, while all kinds of rubbish now litter the area.
The dilapidated state of the square has been a source of concern to many citizens, who see it as a sort of dishonour to the memory of the late head of state.
“It is sad commentary that such a physical edifice in memory of a great leader is not well preserved. By all standards, Murtala’s era stands out as the best in the history of leadership in Nigeria.
“The preservation of the memorial needs urgent attention”, says Mr. Tunji Iyanda, a cleric.
Mr. Bassey Esin, a businessman, suggests that a statute of the late leader should be erected in the square also, while efforts are made to sanitise the memorial.
“This will underscore the historical importance of Murtala, while directing the people’s attention to the spot where he was killed in service of the nation.
“Many people who pass through this place do not know what the square represents. If Murtala’s statue is erected there, it will communicate in a better way the message of exemplary leadership to all Nigerians, especially to the younger generation,” he says.
Notwithstanding, the memorial’s apparent neglect by the government, the African Petroleum (AP), which operates an adjacent filling station, carries out modest maintenance works at the square.
The station’s Manager, Mr. Ogunsakin Femi, says that his company carries out little maintenance works at the square as its token of appreciation of the late general.
“For years, the AP management has been responsible for the memorial’s maintenance. We cut the grass regularly. Many people visit the square, especially at festive periods.
“Schools and organisations bring students here on excursions. It will be appreciated if government as well as corporate organisations can beautify and maintain the premises better.
“Lightings, concrete barricades and other facilities befitting a national structure like this should be provided,” he says.
Mr. Wale Alabi, a financial expert, says: “The naming of an international airport after Murtala and embossing his photograph on the N20 note are good.
“But Murtala deserves much more from us. A federal university and a library of international standards can also be named after him,’’ he adds.
Mr. Jide Obafemi, a media practitioner, stresses the need to encourage the younger generation of Nigerians to learn about the legacies of the nation’s past leaders as Murtala, Sir Ahmadu Bello, Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, Maj.-Gen J.T.U Aguiyi-Ironsi, Chief Obafemi Awolowo, Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe, among others.
“Many citizens, particularly the younger ones, are not aware of the selfless services of these great leaders of the past.
“Let the schools teach history of our past leaders; let the present generation see the monuments of the past leaders, as this will enable them to appreciate the fact that Nigeria is worth dying for if the need arises,” he says.
Investigations reveal that unlike the Obalende memorial, which is in a derelict state, the Mercedes Benz limousine in which Murtala was killed continues to attract more tourists at the Onikan museum.
The Curator of the museum, Mrs. Ronke Ashaye, says that the bullet-riddled car attracts the highest number of tourists to the museum.
“The car was taken into the museum shortly after Murtala’s assassination.
“It is a national monument which tells the story of an era in the nation’s history. We have been doing our best to preserve it,” she says.
She adds that during peak periods as festivities, about 3,000 tourists visit the car’s stand, which is christened “Nigerian Government: Yesterday and Today”.
Ashaye further discloses that Michelin Nig. Ltd had always provided assistance by donating new tyres for the car whenever the need arose, while museum officials ensured the car’s preservation for posterity.
She says that the Ford Foundation is also assisting to create a better gallery for the limousine within the museum’s complex.
Two foreign tourists to the gallery, Selafsonstein Claudo, a Brazilian; and Ulil Amri, an Indonesian, commend the museum authorities for the good preservation of the car.
Apart from the government’s efforts to preserve Murtala’s legacies, members of the late leader’s family are also not relenting in efforts to keep his memory alive.
For instance, the Murtala Muhammed Foundation (MMF), a non-profit organisation, is being managed by the late leader’s daughter, Mrs. Aisha Muhammed-Oyebode.
Officials say that MMF was founded on the ideals of the late general. It was created in 2001 and inaugurated on Feb. 13, 2002 — the 26th anniversary of Murtala’s assassination.
Prior to MMF’s establishment, only the Murtala Muhammed Memorial Lectures, started by the Daily Times Newspapers in 1991, existed as an event to keep the memory of the slain leader alive.
The MMF dedicates itself to improving the quality of life of Africans, while engendering self-reliance and fulfillment and impacting on ethics, equity, good governance and economic empowerment.
It also encourages business development and provides medium-term relief to victims of disasters.
Elder statesmen such as former President Olusegun Obasanjo, Gen. Ibrahim Babangida and Lt.-Gen. Theophilus Danjuma, are members of MMF’s Board of Trustees.
Aisha’s Personal Assistant, Mrs. Juliana Chukwuma, says that the Foundation “is doing everything possible to preserve Gen. Murtala Mohammed’s legacies.
“We are going to organise a conference in March in Abuja to commemorate this year’s anniversary,” she says.
Murtala’s widow, Ajoke, who is an environmentalist, has also founded the Murtala Muhammed Memorial Botanical Gardens (3MBG), located on the Lekki-Epe Expressway in Lagos State, as part of measures to immortalise her husband.
Nothing best sums up the ideals and patriotic instincts of the late Nigerian leader than a quote from his statements:
“God Almighty has endowed Nigeria with the human and natural resources to make it a wealthy nation. It is we, the people, who have to make this country great by the way we conduct our private and public affairs”