A picture of Murtala Muhammad

General Murtala Ramat Muhammed was a Nigerian soldier who served as the 3rd Nigerian military head state from 1975 to 1976. Murtala Muhammad became the head of state after a group of some army officers removed Yakubu Gowon from power in a coup.

Murtala Muhammed was always regarded as a national hero in Nigeria due to his commitment towards the development of Nigeria. Due to that, his picture and name have remained a national symbol. For example, Murtala Muhammed International Airport Lagos, was named after him.

Early Life of Murtala Muhammed

Murtala Muhammed was born on 8 November, 1938, in the Kurawa Quarters of the ancient city of Kano. His father was Muhammad Riskuwa who came from the Fulani aristocratic and scholarly family of the Genawa clan. Murtala Muhammed attended a Qur’anic school where he earned a basic Islamic education. He began his formal education at the Gidan Sarki Primary School and Gidan Makama Primary School for his primary education. In 1949, Murtala Muhammed enrolled into the Kano Middle School, and later finished the high school education at the Barewa College, Zaria, in 1957.

Military Career of Murtala Muhammed

Murtala Muhammed was admitted into the Nigerian Army and received an early training at Regular Officers Special Training School, Teshie, Ghana. Later, he attended Royal Military School Sandhurst in England and finished in 1961. After leaving Sandhurst, Murtala was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Nigerian Army. He was posted to the Nigerian Army Signals where he stayed until 1962. In 1963, he was posted to the First Brigade in Kaduna as an officer in-charge of the signal, and later reposted to the 1st Signal Squadron in Lagos with new rank of major in 1964.

In 1965, Murtala Muhammed was appointed the acting Chief of Signals of the Nigerian Army. While Murtala was serving in the new position, some young army officers from Igbo ethnics staged a military coup on 15 January, 1966, that cost the life many Northern Nigerian top political leaders. Murtala Muhammad was very unhappy over the coup and therefore determined in his mind to conspired a counter coup.


After the 15 January Coup, Murtala Muhammad who was promoted to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel, started organizing and persuading the Northern Nigerian army officers for a counter coup against the then military head of state General Aguyi-Ironsi and other Igbo armies. At last, Murtala Muhammad and some top Northern army officers staged a counter coup on 29 July, 1966, in which they killed General Aguyi-Ironsi while he was on an official visit in Ibadan. After the counter coup, many believed that Murtala Muhammad was going to be the next head of state, but, after some consideration Lieutenant Colonel Yakubu Gowon was chosen.


After the Northern counter coup, Nigeria continued to be in ethnic tensions. Most of the challenges came from the Igbo people of the Eastern Nigerian Region who complained that their people were persecuted in the North. Therefore, on 30 May, 1967, the Eastern Region led by Lieutenant Colonel Odumegwu Ojukwu declared their secession from Nigeria and named their new country a ‘Republic of Biafra. The declaration marked the beginning of the Nigerian Civil War.

At the initial stage of the Nigerian Civil War, the Biafran soldiers captured the capital city of the Nigerian Mid-West Region. Therefore, Murtala Muhammad was appointed the commander of the 2nd Infantry Division with the task of pushing the secessionist troops from the Region. Murtala Muhammad led the soldiers of the division and drove the Biafran soldiers out of the Mid-West Region. During the operation, the Nigerian soldiers led by Murtala was said to have brutally dealt with the secessionists including civilians in Asaba. After successfully completing his mission, in 1968, Murtala Muhammad was taken from the Civil War scene and appointed as the Inspector of Signals in the Nigerian Army headquarter in Lagos.


The Nigerian Civil War ended on 12 January, 1970. The next year in 1971, Murtala Muhammad received a promotion to the rank of Brigadier from the Nigerian Army. During the post Civil War years, Murtala Muhammad was said to have rose to prominence among the top Nigerian Army officers due to his bravery and determination character. In 1974, General Yakubu Gowon appointed Murtala Muhammad the Federal Commissioner of Communications.

Head of State

On 30 July, 1975, a group of some Nigerian Army officers staged a military coup that ousted General Gowon from power. The coup plotters chose Murtala Muhammad as the new Nigerian Head of State.

Upon assuming power, Murtala Muhammad on 30 July, 1975, in his maiden speech to the nation, stated that his government was free of corruption and would decisively dealt with any corruption acts. Also, Murtala Muhammad clearly declared that his government was meant to serve the people and therefore would not tolerate nonsense. Many Nigerians became hopeful with Murtala as the Nigerian leader.

Domestic Reforms

Initially, Murtala Muhammad began a plan of moving Nigerian capital from Lagos to a new area which was geographically in the middle of Nigeria. After some research, Abuja was recommended to be the new capital and Murtala agreed with the suggestion. Also, on 3 February, 1976, Murtala Muhammad approved the creation of 7 more states making them 19 from 12. The new states created were Bauchi, Bendel, Benue, Gongola, Imo, Niger, and Ogun.

The most important part of Murtala Muhammad’s policies was the preparation to hand over power to the civilians in 1979. Under the process, Murtala Muhammad set up a constitutional drafting committee of 50 men headed by Justice Rotimi Williams.


Murtala Muhammad came to power with the zeal and determination of making Nigeria a self-reliant against the dependency on the foreign powers. Also, Murtala Muhammad showed an interest in having a friendly relation with the Soviet Union and other socialist countries.

Apart of making Nigeria a self-reliant in the international scene, Murtala Muhammad showed much interest in the unity of Africa and fighting the remnants of colonialism in the continent. As part of the determination, Murtala Muhammad supported the M. P. L. A nationalists who were fighting for independence against the Portuguese colonial rule in Angola. Also, on 11 January, 1976, Murtala Muhammad made a famous statement in a speech he delivered in Addis Ababa during the OAU annual summit as follows :

” Africa has come of age. It’s no longer under the orbit of any extra continental power. It should no longer take orders from any country, however powerful. The fortunes of Africa are in our hands to make or to mar.”

Thus, many historians, believed that the Nigerian foreign policy was more assertive during the Murtala Muhammad regime.


Due to the daring and bravery character of Murtala Muhammad towards the western powers more especially the United States, many believed that his life was in danger. Sadly, on 13 February, 1976, an abortive coup led by Colonel Buka Suka Dimka was staged and Murtala Muhammad was assassinated during coup. Many Nigerians swept over the killing of Murtala Muhammad whom they considered as real leader who was willing to take Nigeria to a higher stage of development.

Ahmad Abdullahi, BA History

My name is Ahmad Abdullahi, I was born on 10th March, 1994 in Garun-Danga Town, Gabasawa L.G., Kano State. I attended FCE Demonstration Primary School from 2002 to 2007, FCE Staff Secondary School from 2007 to 2013, and Northwest University, Kano from 2013 to 2017, where I obtained bachelor degree in History.

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