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My father was a democrat, says Aisha


Aisha Muhammed-Oyebode

Aisha Muhammed-Oyebode

Ask any Nigerian today which head of state they consider a folk hero, and the answer pretty often would be: “Murtala”. It does not matter if the responder was alive in February 13 1976 when General Murtala Ramat Muhammed was killed. After all, majority of those who now pay tribute to the slain General were then kids including his first daughter, Aisha, who turned twelve that year.

What did she remember of that “Black Friday”?

She does not respond, at least for a couple of seconds, obviously, she is doing a fast speed back in time to that Friday when martial song was all over the radio. Then she begins, hesitantly:

“I was in school. I was a student at Queens’ College, Yaba Lagos. I think I was in form 2 then. Actually, nobody told us what had happened. All I can remember was that the principal asked that teachers should bring me to her office, so I went there, and waiting for me was Mrs. Nasir, a Lebanese. She was the headmistress of the primary school my younger siblings were attending at that time, and she was also a family friend. She lived on the outskirt, maybe Ikeja. She took us to her house. So we didn’t’t have a lot of contact with the people. That was why they were able to keep the news away from us for 48 hours. The only thing I remembered was…” And she pauses, trying to recall the memory of that Friday. Then she continues: “There was a lot of martial music on the radio. That time it was easier to associate martial music with a coup. But otherwise, I didn’t hear any announcement. Later they took us to our Uncle’s house in Yaba, that is my My father’s friend, Alhaji Ahmadu Yaro who is one of the trustees of the MMF (Murtala Muhammed Foundation).

At that point, I started having an inkling that something was not quite right. But there was still no one to tell us anything. My mother had travelled, if she had been around it would have been difficult to keep the news from us. My mother had just left Nigeria either a day or two before my father was killed. Though she was already on her way back, but we couldn’t’t have any contact with her. But I remember as soon as I entered into my uncle’s house, my aunt was there and she started crying when she saw us. ‘Why is everybody crying,’ I asked. And my uncle said my aunt was not feeling well or something like that. ‘She was not feeling well, that is quite strange,’ I said to myself. Well, I think I wanted to believe that nothing had happened. I am sure I sensed it, but I just wanted to remain in denial for as long as possible. In the evening, I went to see our next-door neighbour and one of them had a newspaper and I thought I saw the headline that Murtala Muhammed had been killed. And I remember I said to the person, ‘let me see that paper, let me see that paper’, and she said there was nothing, and hid the paper away from me.

I went back home without seeing the paper, the next morning we travelled to Kano, and it was there my grandmother confirmed to us that my father was killed. So from Friday afternoon, we didn’t get any information until Sunday morning.”
Literally, her father was almost 48 hours dead, before she and her siblings became aware of their loss. As at that time, the entire nation has long settled in deep mourning. Yet nothing could compare with the grief of Murtala’s six children and their mother, Ajoke.

“It was a very sad period for my mother and her children. We were very sad for a very long time,” she reminisces.
That is expected, especially for Aisha who was old enough then to know how caring her father was.

“I was very close to my father as first child and daughter. My father was a hands-on parent. So it took me many years to put the pieces of my life together. My dad was very warm, and a very kind man. He was fun. One of the things I remember much about him is that, he was into gadgets – new cameras, videos, and etcetera. He would always try to get us what you would call the latest technologies of that time. He was also into horticulture. That was why my mother also developed interest in it. He actually planted an apple tree at the back of our house then which grew but never bore any fruits. We had an aquarium; we had all sorts of animals in our house such as parrots, fish, and all that. During the weekend, he would take us for swimming or grocery shopping. I remember when he took us to Federal Palace hotel where we had burger, and burger had never tasted so nice after that time.”

As she retrieves the memory of the childhood she shared with her father, a certain transformation happens to her face – Aisha is a child again. Her face is lit up, her mouth widens into bright smile and her well-aligned white set of teeth gives her a striking resemblance with her father whom she also describes as being “stubborn”. She is too, she says, in a positive way.
So how often did she get spanked by the General? Not so often. Perhaps, not at all.

“I don’t remember. Maybe my immediate brother got spanked once. But I don’t recall him ever spank me.”

Now, doesn’t that sound like an unbelievable irony? Here is a no-nonsense General who was dreaded like a demon especially by a corrupt tribe of public officials who had fleeced Nigeria for years. The man who sent tremor of fear even to the Western power, reminding them that Africa has come of age, and would no longer remain a lackey.

“Yes, I remember that stern, severe public image of my father that people talk about. But he wasn’t like that at home. I don’t ever recall him spank me. When he was upset, you could hear his voice, he could raise his voice, and that was all.”

And as a soldier, he lived a regimented life. Aisha saw him follow certain routine for several years. “He had a regular routine. When he came back from work, he would have his lunch, have his siesta, go for prayer and have his dinner. By that time his friends would have been here. They would either sit in the garden or inside the house, chatting together. If he needed to go out, he would do so or go to bed. But his routine was pretty much the same.”

In spite of his busy schedule, the daughter says they were often together because the General was a committed family man. “I don’t remember much about his Sandhurst years, but I think we must have gone with him to some of his military trainings. There is a few that we didn’t go with him, maybe for the longer one. I don’t remember him travelling that long. I don’t even recall him travelling much.”

In many of those difficult times in the country then, she says her mother and her friends who are also wives of military officers would cluster and cry together.

“I remember we had to be relocated to Kano at the beginning of the Civil War. That is why my younger sister was born in Kano. We had such a carefree childhood. And we were so much protected that we didn’t pay attention to some of those events. We knew something was amiss; but it was much later on we felt the severity of it.”

Speaking of her father’s dedication to family, she adds, “My mother half-sisters are from the Eastern part of the country, and there was a time they were trapped in the Biafra side, it was my father that made sure they were found and brought back to Kano.”

There soft side General Murtala which many did not see while alive runs deeper than imagined

When one of his friends, Muthari Tahir died, the General broke down and wept.
And because of his love for his mother, he changed a part of his name Risqua (father’s first name) to Ramat (mother’s name)
Aisha says her father never had Rufai’ as his name as the rumours used to suggest.

“‘Rufai’ was not part of his name. His father’s name was Risqua. I think the ‘Rufai’ was a mistake. Ramat was his mother’s name.”
She also settles the confusion about her father’s state of origin. General Murtal was neither from Auchi nor Plateau.

“He was from Kano. There was no doubt about that. But it is a good thing that different parts of Nigeria want to claim him because at the end of the day, he is foremost a Nigerian. And in my family now, every part of Nigeria is represented. I think we should feel honoured.”

She is however unequivocal about the hardship that the family went through after the demise of their father.
“Life was very tough. Emotionally, it was difficult. Also, financially it was difficult as we grew older. Don’t forget that my father left six children at the time of his death. And at a time, my father’s people were upset with my mother because she did not leave us with them. They were not estranged, but the relationship is not as close as it should have been. So at that time she had a total responsibility of looking after us. And we were under a Federal Government scholarship but school fees were never paid on time.”

In spite of the challenges, Aisha and her siblings were able to have good education.

“My mother worked hard. She is a very enterprising woman. So it was not a new thing for her that she had to fend for her family.

And she did a good job of it. I remember when I had to pay for my master’s degree at King’s College, it was very difficult for her, but she paid. After a while, she got a refund from the government. And my younger ones, it was very difficult to keep them in school, so it was tough.”

Much later, she got her MBA from Imperial College but she didn’t need anybody to pay for that because she had already started working and earning a living.

Today, she is a legal practitioner and business consultant. She is the CEO of MMF, and serves as a member of various boards including Murtala Muhammed Memorial Botanical Gardens (3MBG).

With a name like her father’s, who needs a key to open doors of influence? So, how often does Aisha have to use her father’s name to get her way through?

“No I don’t. One of the good things about my life is, as difficult as things were; my mother insisted that we had good education.

That whatever it is worth, we had to go to school. Part of the promise was that she believed in education, and part of it was that she had made a promise to my father. She said when we were much younger, my father used to tell her that if for any reason he was not around, the only legacy she could give to the children was education, most especially for the girls. So I did not need my father’s name to get ahead, even now. What opens door for me is because I am accomplished, I am hard working. I am not saying the name doesn’t help. Sometimes it is more of surprise. And when people realise, then they said why you didn’t tell us. And they would remember the things my father had done for them or said which can be quite overwhelming in a positive way. I do realise that he left a good and a strong legacy, but I don’t sometimes remember.”

At her very saddest moment, she wishes her father were not a soldier, but when she remembers the life of service that he lived; she appreciates the career he chose.

She quickly dispels the claim that her father was responsible for the massacre at Asaba during the Civil War.

But aaccording to Elizabeth Bird, a Professor and Chair of Anthropology at the University of South Florida and Fraser Ottanelli, a Professor and Chair of History at the University of South Florida, the Federal Second Division, commanded by Murtala on the
Asaba side in the attempt to push the Biafrans back across the Niger killed several women and children.

“There was no evidence of that. It is not true. Sometimes we perpetrate myth and it starts sounding like truth,” says Mrs. Oyebode
She also counters the view that depicts her father as non –democrat. According to her, her father was determined to return Nigeria to civil rule, a promise which former President eventually delivered in October 1979. His effort to make Africa retain her independence, and sever her tie to the apron string of the West is also another way by which the General demonstrated his democratic leaning, says the daughter.

She insists her father was passionate about the development of Africa.
And those are the ideals that shape the mission MMF which she heads.

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