General Murtala Muhammed (8 November 1938 – 13 February 1976) was a Nigerian Army General who was 4th Head of State of Nigeria from 1975 until his assassination in 1976.

Early life


Murtala Mohammed was born on November 8, 1938 in Kano to a Fulani ruling class family. His father, Muhammed Riskuwa, was from the Genawa clan, who had a history of Islamic jurisprudence as both his grand father and great-grand father held the title of chief Alkali of Kano. His father was related to Aminu Kano, Inuwa Wada, and Aminu Wali. His mother, Uwani Rahamatu, was from the Jobawa clan, whose members included the Makama of Kano and Abdullahi Aliyu Sumaila.


Mohammed was educated at Cikin Gida Elementary School which was within the grounds of the emir’s palace, he then transferred to Gidan Makama primary school in Kano which was just outside the palace. He then proceeded to kano Middle School (now Rumfa College) in 1949, before attending the famous Government College (now Barewa College) in Zaria, where he obtained his school certificate in 1957. At Barewa College, Mohammed was a member of the Cadet Corps and was captain of shooting in his final year. In 1957, he obtained a school leaving certificate and applied to join the Nigerian army later in the year.

Military career

Murtala Muhammed joined the Nigerian Army in 1958. He spent short training stints in Nigeria and Ghana and then was trained as an officer cadet at Sandhurst Royal Military Academy in England. After his training, he was commissioned as a second lieutenant in 1961 and assigned to the Nigerian Army Signals that same year, later spending a short stint with the No. 3 Brigade Signals Troop in Congo.

In 1962, Muhammed was appointed aide-de-camp to M. A. Majekodunmi, the federally-appointed administrator of the Western Region. In 1963, he became the officer-in-charge of the First Brigade Signal Troop in Kaduna, Nigeria. That year he traveled to the Royal Corps of Signals at Catterick Garrison, England for a course on advanced telecommunications techniques. On his return to Nigeria in 1964, he was promoted to major and appointed officer-commanding, 1st Signal Squadron in Apapa, Lagos.

In November 1965, he was made acting Chief of Signals of the Army, while his paternal uncle, Inuwa Wada had recently been appointed Defense Minister. Unknown to Mohammed, majors planning the January 1966 coup recruited troops from the signal unit. The coup plotters later went on to assassinate leading politicians and soldiers from the Northern and Western region. After the coup plot failed, new military postings made by the new leader generated some discomfort in the North.In April 1966, Mohammed was promoted to Lieutenant Colonel and was the inspector of signals posted to Army Headquarters, Lagos in a move that was partly to pacify Northerners weary about the new military regime. Mohammed was also appointed member of a Post and Telecommunications management committee.

Rise to power

1966 Nigerian coup d’etat

Further information: 1966 Nigerian coup d’etat

Muhammed opposed the regime of Johnson Aguiyi-Ironsi, which took power after a coup d’etat on 15 January 1966. Aguiyi-Ironsi, as GOC of the Nigerian Army, brought normalcy back to the nation by imprisoning the coup makers and intimidating the federal cabinet into handing over the helms of government to him. However, many northerners saw this and the reluctance of Ironsi to prosecute the coup leaders, and the fact that the army was purportedly giving exceptional privileges to the coupist as an indication of Ironsi’s support for the killings. Consequently, northern politicians and civil servants mounted pressure upon northern officers such as Muhammed to avenge the coup. The promulgation of Decree No. 34 restructuring Nigeria from a federal constitutional structure to a unitary structure also raised suspicions among many Northern officers and Mohammed and a few others began to contemplate separation of the Northern region from the country.

1966 Nigerian counter-coup

Further information: 1966 Nigerian counter-coup

On the night of 29 July 1966, northern soldiers at Abeokuta barracks mutinied, thus precipitating a counter-coup, which may very well have been in the planning stages. A group among the officers supported secession and thus gave the code name of the coup ‘Araba’ meaning secession in Hausa. However, after the success of the counter-coup, a group of civilians including the Chief Justice Adetokunbo Ademola, Sule Katagum, head of the Federal Public service and Musa Daggash, Permanent Secretary, defense convinced the plotters including Mohammed about the advantages of a union.

The counter-coup led to the installation of Lieutenant-Colonel Yakubu Gowon as Supreme Commander of the Nigerian Armed Forces, despite the intransigence of Muhammed who wanted the role of Supreme Commander for himself. However, as Gowon was militarily his senior, and finding a lack of support from the British and American advisors, he caved in. Gowon rewarded him by confirming his ranking (he had been an acting Lt. Colonel until then) and his appointment (Inspector of Signals).

The acceptance of Gowon as the Head of State was not supported by all the key military leaders, in particular, Odumegwu Ojukwu, military governor of the Eastern Region. Mohammed soon felt a military option would ultimately be the outcome to keep all sides together. In January 1967, Mohammed still a Lieutenant-Colonel was appointed General Commanding Officer of the No. 2 Infantry Division.

Nigerian Civil War

Further information: Nigerian Civil War

Military command

Further information: 2 Division

At the start of the Nigerian Civil War, Mohammed was the commander of the newly established 2nd Infantry Division. The 2 Division was responsible for the beating back of the Biafran Army from the Mid-West region, as well as crossing the River Niger and linking up with the 1 Division, which was advancing from Nsukka and Enugu. However, this was only achieved after several failed river crossings in which thousands of troops died as a result of drowning or enemy fire.

During his time as commander, Muhammed was implicated in several violations of appropriate conduct; Lieutenant Ishola Williams, an officer who served under Muhammed alleged that he ordered the summary execution of Biafran prisoners of war. In June 1968, he relinquished his commanding position and was posted to Lagos and appointed Inspector of Signals. In April 1968, he was promoted to colonel.

Asaba massacre

Further information: Asaba massacre

The actions of the division during this period, mostly in Asaba became a subject of speculation. In a book published in 2017, S. Elizabeth Bird and Fraser Ottanelli document the 1967 mass murder of civilians by troops of the 2 Division under General Mohammed’s command. They also discuss the events leading up to the massacre, and its impact on Asaba and on the progress of the war, as well as other civilian massacres carried out by soldiers of the 2nd Division at Onitsha and Isheagu.

After the war

Between 1970 and 1971, he attended the Joint Service Staff College in England, his supervisor’s report attributed him to having ”a quick agile mind, considerable ability and common sense. He holds strong views which he puts forward in a forthright manner. He is a strong character and determined. However, he finds it difficult to moderate his opinions and finds it difficult to enter into debate with others whose views he may not share”.After the war, he was promoted to brigadier-general in October 1971. Between 1971 and 1974, Mohammed was involved in routine activities within the signals unit of the army. However, he also disagreed with some of the policies being pursued by Gowon.

On 7 August 1974, the head of state, General Yakubu Gowon appointed him as the new Federal Commissioner for Communications, which he combined with his military duties as Inspector of Signals at the Army Signals Headquarters in Apapa, Lagos.

On 7 August 1974, General Yakubu Gowon appointed Muhammed as the Federal commissioner (position now called Minister) for communications to oversee and facilitate the nation’s development of cost effective communication infrastructures during the oil boom.

1975 Nigerian coup d’etat

Further information: 1975 Nigerian coup d’état

On 29 July 1975, General Yakubu Gowon was overthrown while attending the 12th summit of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) in Kampala, Uganda. Muhammed took power as the new Military Head of State.

Head of State (1975–1976)

Consolidation of power

Brigadiers Obasanjo (later Lt. General) and Danjuma (later Lt. General) were appointed as Chief of Staff, Supreme HQ and Chief of Army Staff, respectively. Muhammed took federal control of the country’s two largest newspapers – Daily Times and New Nigerian; all media in Nigeria was now under federal control. He also took federal control of the remaining state-run universities.

Charisma and authority

In the coup d’état that brought him to power he introduced the phrases “Fellow Nigerians” and “with immediate effect” to the national lexicon. In a short time, Murtala Muhammed’s policies won him broad popular support, and his decisiveness elevated him to the status of a folk hero.


After the war and after he took power as head of state, Muhammed started the reorganization and demobilization of 100,000 troops from the armed forces. The number of troops in the armed forces decreased from 250,000 to 150,000.

Civil service

Towards the end of 1975, the administration implemented a mass purge in the Nigerian civil service. The civil service was viewed as undisciplined and lacking a sense of purpose. A retrenchment exercise was implemented as part of a strategy to refocus the service. However, because of the drastic nature of the purge, allegations that malice and revenge was used by heads of department in recommending people for retrenchment and little was done to scrutinize the details and reasons staff were disengaged.

Oil production

As head of state Murtala Muhammed inherited an immense amount of oil and petroleum resources and enormous but untapped natural gas reserves. But in 1975, Muhammed saw reduced revenue due to low levels of petroleum production; this meant that the military government lacked the projected funds to meet Nigeria’s development plan for 1975. The decline in petroleum production in 1975 was due to a global fall in demand, high costs of spare parts and high labour costs.

Federal Capital Territory

As head of state, Muhammed put in place plans to build a new Federal Capital Territory due to Lagos being overcrowded. He set up a panel headed by Justice Akinola Aguda, which chose the Abuja area as the new capital ahead of other proposed locations. On 3 February 1976, Muhammed announced that the Federal Capital would in the future move to a federal territory location of about 8,000 square kilometres in the central part of the country.

National politics

On 3 February 1976 the following seven Nigerian states were created by Murtala Muhammed: Bauchi, Benue, Borno, Imo, Niger, Ogun, and Ondo. This brought the total number of states in Nigeria to nineteen in 1976.

Foreign policy

Murtala Muhammed reappraised Nigeria’s foreign policy, stressing a “Nigeria first” orientation in line with OPEC price guidelines that was to the disadvantage of other African countries. Nigeria became “neutral” rather than “nonaligned” in international affairs. The shift in orientation became apparent with respect to Angola. Nigeria had worked with the OAU to bring about a negotiated reconciliation of the warring factions in the former Portuguese colony, but late in 1975 Murtala Muhammed announced Nigeria’s support for the Soviet-backed Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola, citing South Africa’s armed intervention on the side of the rival National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA). The realignment strained relations with the United States, which argued for the withdrawal of Cuban troops and Soviet advisers from Angola.

National development

Murtala Muhammed initiated a comprehensive review of the Third National Development Plan. Singling out inflation as the greatest danger to the economy, he was determined to reduce government spending on public sector development projects. Muhammed also announced that his government would encourage the rapid expansion of the private sector into areas dominated by public sector corporations.


On Friday 13 February 1976, Muhammed set off for work along his usual route on George Street. Shortly after 8 a.m., his Mercedes Benz car traveled slowly in the infamous Lagos traffic near the Federal Secretariat at Ikoyi in Lagos and a group of soldiers (members of an abortive coup led by Dimka) emerged from an adjacent petrol station, ambushed the vehicle and assassinated Muhammed.

Murtala Muhammed was killed, aged 37, along with his aide-de-camp, Lieutenant Akintunde Akinsehinwa, in his black Mercedes Benz saloon car on 13 February 1976. The car was ambushed en route to his office at Dodan Barracks, Lagos. The only visible sign of protection was a pistol carried by his orderly, making his assassination an easy task. The assassination was part of an attempted coup led by Lt. Col Buka Suka Dimka.

He was succeeded by the Chief of Staff, Supreme HQ Olusegun Obasanjo, who completed his plan of an orderly transfer to civilian rule by handing power to Shehu Shagari on 1 October 1979. Today, Muhammed’s portrait adorns the 20 Naira note and Murtala Muhammed International Airport in Lagos is named in his honour.

Personal life

Murtala Muhammed was married to his only wife Ajoke. They had six children together. In order of elder to youngest: Aisha, Zakari (deceased), Fatima, Abba (also known as Risqua), Zeliha and Jummai.

Abba Muhammed was a Special Adviser to President Olusegun Obasanjo on Privatisation.


Murtala Muhammed had received several awards and medals. In alphabetical order they included:

  • Forces Service Star (FSS) 
  • General Service Medal (GSM) 
  • Meritorious Service Star (MSS)
  • National Service Medal (NSM) 
  • Republic Medal (RM)


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