Opinion: Banish Him – By Sam Omatseye
For me as a boy, the name Murtala Muhammed invoked the muscles of the hero. He capsized indiscipline and constructed the straight and narrow path. The martial resonance of his voice inspired the young who imagined the Nigerian ideal.
This was the man the nation wanted. “This government will not condone indiscipline…abuse of office. Long live Federal Republic of Nigeria and good night.” The syncopating rhythm of his delivery was like a prophet casting out evil spirits.
The blood cuddled with delight. My teenage eyes peered a great country. Many of my fellow students in Government College Ughelli had greed for the future. A soldier in messianic voice and a uniform starchy with resolve urged our little minds to anticipate hallelujah. Everyone should hug this man. He was not only a terror to decay inside the country. He tapped the conscience of the nationalist. “Africa has come of age,” he roared.
With his height a lofty symbol, his cap an insignia of national rebirth, his stride a metaphor of a country on the move, no one could idealise him enough.
When he died, the nation poured woe on death. We felt its sting and gasped. One of our great bards, King Sunny Ade, wafted the dreary air with a dirge. Olu igbo Otilo – the chief of the forest has gone.
Decades later, this essayist received a man in his office, a feisty fellow from Asaba named Emma Okocha. He wanted me to have a copy of his book. It is titled Blood on the Niger. He was on a mission. He did not say more than his desire for justice. It was about the civil war, and he knew I had written quite a few pieces on that sanguinary chapter. I was even contemplating a civil war novel, which I would later publish under the title, My Name Is Okoro.
I read Okocha’s book, part eyewitness, part research. It was about an episode three months into the civil war in the city of Asaba, the hub of the Royal Niger Company, and where history was first distorted for me when my teachers said Mungo Park discovered River Niger.
Three months into the war, Murtala’s division rammed through the Midwest, and many applaud him, now tongue in cheek, for liberating the Midwest. He was to move his way through to Onitsha, and Asaba was on the way. Biafran troops had failed in its naïve and uncoordinated advance to Lagos, and it would huddle within Biafra until the end of the war.
But Okocha’s book is the frontline literature today on the subject, and I wish we can have more. No one teaches history these days in our schools and we can only depend on popular historians for more work on this. Without excusing not having the study of history, good work is a product of rigour, conscience and fervour as we have seen with Doris Kearns Goodwin and David MacCullough in the United States.
When Murtala’s troops arrived Asaba, they enacted a bloody circus. Indigenes danced to welcome them and brandished the song of One Nigeria. The army, including Ibrahim Taiwo and IBM Haruna, were not impressed. Dance of joy morphed a dance of death. They lined the boys and men and executed them. No one, including Okocha, knows how many died. But the death goes around a thousand. The massacre, however, was not restricted to Asaba. It was all over Aniomaland. Towns like Ogwashi-Uku, Ibusa, Isheagu, Utagba-unor, Umudi and Agbor fell to the bloodthirsty spasm.
Some of the anecdotes cannot be forgotten. Who would not cry at the fate of Madam Onukwu whose sons were slaughtered at Ogwashi-Uku – Babatunde, Iweadizia, Ndufodu, Anisimbili, Ogbogu and Augustine. The mother became insane until her death in late 1990’s. Or the story of Afamefuna Elue who was slaughtered and dumped like a rat in the bush. When his son grew up and asked the Obi why he did nothing, he replied, “When they went to Isheagu, they buried the chief alive. I’m sorry about your father. I was not ready for that kind of death.” What of the pithy tale of the blind old woman, Martha Emeshie, who was hidden in a thatched house on the outskirt of Umudi. Soldiers poured petrol on the combustible shelter and roasted her. Shall we forget the slaying of Sydney Asiodu, one of Nigeria’s top athletes of the day, or Asaba’s wealthiest man, Sylvester Ugoh?
Up till today, we have seen no white paper, in spite of the visceral outpourings during the Oputa Panel hearings. Gowon who was head of state apologised to the Asaba people, claiming it was “an accident of war” and that it was an episode “I was made ignorant of.” Gowon lied. It was the lie of a coward.
The late Chief Anthony Enahoro had debunked that Gowon revisionism during a reconciliation meeting in the USA in 1998. Hear him: “I was the one that stopped late General Murtala Mohammed from further massacre of innocent children and mothers. At a point when Britain refused to sell further arms to Nigeria because they had ample evidence from the Red Cross of the federal forces killing innocent civilians, I confronted Gowon with the fact and that the only way I can get Britain through my contact with their High Commission to resume supply of weapons to Nigeria was that Murtala had to leave the war sector. Either Mohammed leaves or I will leave his cabinet. Gowon told me he was willing to call a meeting on the condition I will be the one to confront Murtala. If there was anybody that Gowon feared so much it was Murtala Mohammed. At the meeting of the Federal Executive Council, I confronted Mohammed with elaborate evidence complete with photographs. He was livid. He could not refute them, so he resorted to calling me all sorts of names…. I was instrumental to his withdrawal from that sector and subsequent appointment as a minister.”
Gowon could not confront his lieutenants. Even after the war, he was too callow a leader to stamp his feet. Hence, he was removed by the same man, Murtala. What overwhelmed Murtala who never apologised till his death? It is what Samuel Coleridge described as “the motive-hunting of motiveless malignity,” referring to Shakespeare’s play, Othello. It was murder without purpose, as an end in itself.
Some, including Obasanjo, have dismissed it as a hunt for spies. The other argument was that it was a revenge for the onslaughts of the Biafran troops when they entered Asaba and killed Hausa-Fulani persons in Ogbe Awusa, a settlement of up to a century.
No one could have justified the killing of the Hausa even if in retaliation for the genocidal acts on Igbos in the lead-up to the civil war.
Soldiers are trained to distinguish soldiers and civilians. That is why we have the Geneva Convention. General Alabi isama recorded it in his Tragedy of Victory. More details need to be documented on the Ogbe Awusa killings, and if we strike Murtala and his men for their barbarities, we should not spare those who shed blood in Ogbe Awusa. War, for all its primitive impulses, beckons for civilised restraint. Soldiers kill “legitimately” but wear uniforms to, in the words of Christ, “do violence to no man.”
But Murtala’s case is important. We have enshrined him as a national hero. In that shrine is the blood of innocents. An army that slaughters cannot make heroes. It is not an army but a tribe of bandits. We enter the country and it is to his airport. The vanishing 20 naira note has his face. We ply expressways with his name. That is too much for a murderer.
I should not celebrate that he died the way he killed, on the same day with his fellow murderer Ibrahim Taiwo. We leave that to God.
But while we live, we cannot celebrate the man who had blood on his hands. He has blood in his memory, and we should not perpetuate that blood ritual. So, we should wipe his name from all landmarks. We have enough genuine heroes, north or south, to take his place. Anywhere his name shines, the ghosts of his victims haunt us. Like the Onukwu boys.
Let the sublime ghosts sleep. But first, we should say to Murtala in the words of Macbeth to Banquo’s ghost. “Avaunt, and quit my sight. Let the earth hide thee. Thy bone is marrowless and thy blood is cold.”