MURTALA: This Legacy Must Be Protected
• He Loved Books, Native Food
THIS afternoon, Aisha Mohammed-Oyebode, the eldest daughter of the late General Murtala Ramat Mohammed is sitting on a high-backed chair in her office on Foreshore Towers, Osborne Road, Ikoyi, Lagos. She’s leafing through the files on her table and making the final preparation for the 40th anniversary of her father’s assassination (February 13, 1976).
She’s putting on a monochrome, though, it has been an ongoing trend for so many seasons now, classic black and white combination brings out the beauty in the lady. However, behind the veneer of her dress is that non-fussed, soft-spoken lady.
With a small voice that hardly fills the room, she says being Murtala’s daughter has left a heavy weight on her. “I think that he left very big shoe as they say and filling them can be quite challenging, because people’s expectations from you are really high.”
It turns out that being the General’s daughter has made her focused and determined. She says reflectively, “it makes you understand that this legacy is an important one and it has to be protected. Sometimes, when you live in the public glare, you have to work really hard and try as much as possible to keep your life; it’s difficult to maintain privacy. Sometimes, it’s difficult to live a nice quiet life.”
For someone, who was so close to her father, a military man, talking gently, you wonder who among the two has influenced her. “You know, it’s funny, when people talk about the military persona of my dad, that was his external persona. As a person, he was actually very, very gentle; he was strong, but very gentle. My father had a lot of fans, even now, when they talk about him, they talk about him with emotions and I think that comes from his very gentle side. I think after he passed on, I would say maybe it’s the influence of the women that brought me up; my mother, my late grandmother, both of my father’s sisters, they are incredible people. So, maybe that’s where all of that came from. But I must tell you, I’m very determined about my goals and what I need to achieve,” she says.
The lady, who is passionate about mentoring young people and developing her society, says that the positive side about it, especially, when it comes to the work of the Murtala Muhammed Foundation (MMF), “it’s like having a brand; all I have to do is show up. If myself, Ford Foundation and MacArthur go to a place in Nigeria today, they will open the door for me first because of the reputation of the General. Even in the remotest part of Nigeria, where we are doing project and people are not receptive, the minute I say I’m from Murtala Mohammed Foundation, the doors open. So, it’s also a positive thing. But it’s not that it opens doors without any hardwork, no; it’s just that it makes my work much easier. At least, it’ a recognsied brand; it’s a brand that has a strong reputation; so, you don’t have to work as hard as other people to do thing. But we had to work hard to grow the foundation.”
Whatever Shakespeare had in mind when he wrote All’s well that ends well, it probably wasn’t the story of the late General Murtala Muhammed’s family that he had in mind. Yet when you hear Aisha speak, you won’t but conclude this is their story. Nobody will agree less the travail of a single mother of six children in a patriarchal society, which does not have so much in its statutes books to defend women or protect widows. The imprint of a good denouement resonates in the family. Even the children that were just toddlers, when their father passed on, are a success story.
“Living without him was very hard; I can tell you that. You know, we live in a patriarchal society, which means it’s the man in the home that defines the family. After my father died, things were really tough. There were six of us, and my mother had to bring us up; it was very difficult for her, financially. She’s very enterprising and hardworking, but it was very difficult financially. Especially, towards the later years, when my younger siblings were in the universities and secondary schools, it was really difficult,” she recalls.
Aisha tries to recollect. “I actually don’t remember very much what happened during that time and that’s the truth. I remember the day he became Head of State, I remember the day I was told he died. But in-between, I don’t remember that much; all I can remember are feelings. And those feelings, I don’t recall that anything changed much. I still remember that we were happy; it was such a protected life and all of us were happy and we were a very closed family. So, that couldn’t have changed. But I can’t tell you any details; it’s like my mind shut down. Maybe once in a while I remember some episodes, but just that much.”
What’s her impression of the general?
“He was very passionate about Nigeria. Sometimes, when people ask me why I’m that passionate about Nigeria, I say it must have been all those years of growing up; he used to talk a lot about Nigeria.”
Aisha says reflectively, “as children, we used to drive all the way from Lagos to Kano; we would sleep in Kaduna and then continue the next day. It’s usually my younger brother and I, my dad and maybe a friend of his. Of course, all the way, you can imagine the discussions; they talk about different things about Nigeria. And I think that’s where a lot of the things that I grew up feeling and understanding about the country came from. He was very passionate about development and progress. He was the one that told my mother, ‘the only legacy you can give the children is education. You must make sure my children are educated, especially the girls.’ So, he really understood how important it was for children to be well educated.”
According to Aisha, “it’s part of the work we do in political advocacy. Probity also is about accountability; how do you make the leaders accountable to the people? So, these are some of the things that we focus on. Even in our yearly lectures and conferences, we bring in people to speak on pertinent issues and about ways with which we can improve the living conditions of our people.”
Aisha is bitter that some of the things her father fought against such as, corruption is prominent in the public space now. She says, “I think it’s very unfortunate and it affects every Nigerian. Sometimes, I wonder, had we nipped it in the bud earlier, what kind of nation would we have had today? But these things happen. In those days, we talked about corruption, but it’s not as endemic as it is now and it affects every facets of life. And actually, if you want to look at what has slowed down our development as a nation, it’s corruption. Look at how we’ve wasted resources that we could have put in health, education, infrastructure… you just wonder how much of our potentials have been lost because of corruption. You wonder how many people have suffered, how many people have died because of corruption. It’s very unfortunate.”
Murtala loved books and when Aisha is reading some of her father’s books, she remembers the man. “When I look at those books, I just remember maybe what he said at a particular time or maybe I will even remember when he bought the book. Every time he travels, he brings either his books or our books or a combination of books; I try to remember which trip that he bought them. And he actually cared about them, because he would usually go for the specially bound ones because he wanted them to endure. I don’t have any of them here, but that’s his Quran. I don’t have them here because as they get older, we keep them in the library at home; they are with my mother,” she says.
Aisha recollects, “apart from the education, because he emphasised that a lot; not just the western education, but also the Arabic education, but I think selflessness is something he always encouraged. He said in whatever you do; don’t think about yourself first; think about how it affects people around you, that was a very important lesson. And in fact, if anybody ever got into trouble with my dad, and the only thing he would do is to raise his voice, it’s all about selflessness; you cannot just do things and think about yourself. When you are doing things, you have to think about how it affects others.”
THOUGH, she tried getting over the grief of her dad’s assassination, being the oldest and closest child to her dad, it was difficult. At a point, she tried to get through life.
She quips, “At that time, the Federal Government gave us scholarship. Things are even much more efficient now, in those days, every holiday, unlike most children who would go out, nothing of such for me. By the time I come home, we are putting together papers and presenting them at the cabinet office. From there, they move it from one office to the other and the fear was that we wouldn’t be late for school; I do it for my younger siblings and myself. So, you can imagine what I was going through that time; honestly, I didn’t have time to feel any bitterness or anger.”
She adds, “it was just more important to ensure that we all got through school. I think in my older years, when I looked back, I realised that I really don’t have to feel bad. When we go to the cabinet office, there were other families of other children of other heads of states who were there and they all had to go through the same process. And I know that some of them, after a while, I’m sure they just gave up; they didn’t bother coming back. My mum was just determined and we followed the process; yes, it was tough, really tough. I’m sure if you asked every other person in that category, they will tell you how tough it was.”
For the lady, who transitioned from law to finance, you imagine whether it was her father who impressed it upon you to read law.
She says, “It wasn’t my father; it was my mother that encouraged me to read law. We were having a discussion and she said, ‘why don’t you read law.’ I started to and then I really enjoyed it. Where I would say my father’s influence came was, when I was doing my master’s; I did my master’s in public international law and that really had a lot to do with him; one of my specialisations was in armed conflict and the use of force, which is not usual for a female.”
Without the name Aisha, how much of her Kano background does she have?
“Oh, a lot of them; I still go to Kano frequently. I still relate with all my relations very well; even last week, I was in Abuja and my aunties were there. So, I’m still very much rooted in that culture, but you known I’m also unique because I crossed the divide. I think it’s more important that what makes me who I am, is my Yoruba and my Hausa aside and not one of the other. I speak Hausa fluently and I speak Yoruba fluently; I relate as well with both sides of my family and heritage,” she says.
The relationship between her immediate family and the siblings of her late father?
She confesses, “the interesting thing is that within six to 10 years after my father died, most of his brothers passed on. Now, in terms of my father’s immediate siblings, his sisters are really strong women; they actually stood in, but they were women. But after my father died, my father’s relations wanted to keep us in Kano and my mother said no; I think that caused some friction for many years. But it didn’t stop us from having good relationship with them, interacting with them, just that they didn’t step in the way one would have expected.”
The general’s favourite food?
“Definitely, he liked food. He didn’t like to come home and his meal was not ready. In terms of what he liked to eat, I would probably say he liked a lot of our native food; like efo, okro with tuwo; my father liked eba too.”
SHE believes that government has done so much to immortalise her dad. “To say that enough hasn’t been done, I think will be doing a disservice. Everywhere you go, there’s a Murtala Mohammed Road; every city in this country you go, you find them. There are a lot of educational institutions named after him, a lot of them. Then, there’s the international airport. The other day, my niece was telling me, ‘mama, you know the Lokoja Bridge is called Murtala Mohammed?’ I think we’ve done a whole lot in terms of immortalising him; if there’s anything, I think it will be nice to maintain these monuments,” she admits.
Aisha says, “if there’s anything that I think we haven’t done, it’s not only about him, is that we have not documented our history well; that’s bad. When you don’t document history, people rewrite it; that’s the mistake that we are making. Even his era, we have not documented it enough; that’s why some people publish some nonsense in terms of books or people can come up with all sorts of stories and theories. I think that’s one thing that we need to do. It’s not just about our leaders, but also about us as a people. We should actually have an official version of our history, whether or not people agree with it is a different thing. But we need to have an official version; other people can have their own versions, but there must be a reference point. And we don’t have that.”