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Remember Murtala Muhammed. The Cowardly Butcher of Asaba

Comrade Lawrence Chinedu Nwobu

Murtala Muhammed represents one of the greatest tragedies that has befallen Nigeria. An unintelligent, ill disciplined, uncharismatic, unprincipled and nondescript failed soldier, it is indeed a measure of the extent to which the nation has been unlucky to have been saddled with such despicable characters that ultimately shaped Nigeria’s destruction. As fate would have it, the Jan. 1966 coup unleashed a chain of circumstances that threw up characters like Murtala Muhammed who ordinarily would have remained an isolated and unknown officer for the duration of his career.

In the aftermath of the Major Kaduna Nzeogwu led coup, Murtala Muhammed and other Northern officers organised a secessionist coup (Araba) and pogrom that targeted and consumed the lives of over 50,000 innocent Eastern civilians in the first barbarity of such a scale to be seen in Africa. Artisans, traders, civil servants, children were all hacked to death. Women were raped and killed, pregnant women were first raped, then had their stomach cut open, the unborn children plucked out and stabbed to death. It was an orgy of bloodbath that rivalled Hitler’s death camps in Nazi Germany. Murtala Muhammed personally participated in this bloodletting preparatory to seceding from Nigeria. The flag of the Northern republic was already flying and Yakubu Gowon had also preparatory to Northern secession given his now famous “no basis for Nigerian unity” speech.

However, before the smouldering flames and dust could settle, the face of crass opportunism by Murtala Muhammed, Yakubu Gowon and other Northern officers emerged. On persuasion by the British, desirous of a willing stooge to aid their exploitation of Nigeria’s resources, the officers who had premised their coup and pogrom on secession did a volte-face and changed from secession to “one Nigeria.” It is ironical that after displaying such barbarity and blood lust targeted at ordinary civilians who had no hand in a coup organised by the military-political class, the same officers that orchestrated and participated in such pogrom of genocidal proportions changed course and proved their lack of principles and opportunism by insisting on Nigeria.

But the damage had already been done. The mass killing of civilians had established a fault line and a sense of insecurity that made co-habitation in the same nation impossible. Yakubu Gowon had failed as head of state to protect the lives and property of citizens in repeated attacks, paving the way for the civil-war, but this was only to give the blood hungry likes of Murtala Muhammed a further opportunity to satisfy their lust for blood.

As the civil-war commenced, Murtala Muhammed entered the war in the Midwest campaign where he robbed the Central Bank in Benin, and began his litany of war crimes. Federal forces under his command unleashed a massacre of Ibos in Benin city and environs, however Asaba became the legendary centre were Murtala Muhammed set a record of war crimes. In a rain of blood, tens of thousands of innocent youths, some of them just 6 years old were lined up on the streets of Asaba and executed in cold blood on the direct orders of Murtala Muhammed. The Asaba massacre was the first of its kind in Africa and remains one of the bloodiest to date in the history of the African continent. As a further testimony to the bloodlust and depravity demonstrated by Murtala Muhammed and his forces, few kilometres away in Onitsha, another barbaric massacre was unleashed in the Apostolic Church where over 300 civilians, devout Christians including women and children who had stayed back and continued in their prayers after the fall of Onitsha were brutally murdered in cold blood.

No doubt, one of the greatest murderers, war criminals, and opportunists in Nigeria‘s chequered history, his entire war career is littered with war crimes committed in different theatres of war. But beyond his crude barbarity which he repeatedly manifested in the rape of women and cold blooded massacre of defenceless civilians, he was an ill disciplined, failed soldier who In spite of the immense amounts of men and ammunition at his disposal suffered crushing defeats in most of his military campaigns against barely armed Biafran soldiers. His military campaign to take Onitsha, where he acted against orders from military headquarters ended in a humiliating defeat, and his 96 vehicle column of heavily armed troops who were ambushed and totally wiped out at Abagana are some of the worst defeats suffered by the Nigerian army in the civil war. His string of tactical failures led to his exit from the war theatre.

In July 1975, he seized power in a coup but was shot dead in a military putsch in February 1976, at last a victim of the bullets he had used to kill so many. In the end he left behind a legacy of barbarities, war crimes, bank robbery, destruction of the federal civil service and failure as a soldier. An avowed secessionist who became an opportunist apostle of one Nigeria, not because he genuinely believed in Nigeria, but for reasons of opportunism. The emergence of his likes as leaders, remains the greatest reason why Nigeria has failed.

Murtala Muhammed’s hands are soiled with so much blood, and even though by his death he escaped justice in the physical, he is sure getting his punishment in the spiritual realm. His entire generation of descendants shall also continue to pay one way or the other for the sins of their father.

By Comrade Lawrence Chinedu Nwobu



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