Murtala Mohammed and the speech in Addis Ababa
By Femi Olugbile
‘Africa has come of age,’ said the Nigerian General, in his clipped, Kano-accented voice. ‘It is no longer under the orbit of any extra-continental power…’
There was a sharp intake of breath among the audience of African leaders in the expansive auditorium, and among the watching press. Those were the days before the CNN revolution of 24-hour television. Within hours the speech would travel all over the world.
Despite the travails Nigerians faced in those frantic days of the Murtala blitzkrieg, all the angst among those who considered themselves pan-Africanists was about apartheid South Africa, and the wounds it left on the souls of Africans everywhere. Nigeria, geographically far away from the scene of the daily struggle to push the insult of white supremacy on the soil of Africa into the sea, had claimed for itself the status of a ‘frontline state’, and for the first time it was stepping up to the plate.
The reason for the sharp intake of breath in the auditorium was that everyone there knew who Murtala was confronting, with his pugnacious words and the defiant tone of his voice. One of the major reasons for the extraordinary meeting of the Organisation of African Unity in Addis Ababa on the 11th of July, 1976 was to discuss the situation in Angola, where the Portuguese had been driven off from their erstwhile colonial possession, and MPLA, a radical liberation movement derided as ‘communists’ by the Europe and America, had gained the upper hand in a bitter civil war against UNITA – another rebel movement led by a swashbuckling charismatic figure, Jonas Savimbi, who was favoured by the West, but derided as a Western stooge by most of Africa. In Addis, African leaders were going to decide where they would throw their weight.
History, because it exists in retrospect, when all the facts are already in, often gives an air of intentional logic to actions that arose by happenstance. Murtala had his hands full with local issues and had no intention of going to Addis. He had already assigned his deputy, Olusegun Obasanjo, to make the trip.
On the 3rd of July, just a few days before the scheduled departure of the Nigerian delegation, the American Ambassador to Nigeria brought a letter to Dodan Barracks. It was addressed to the Head of State, from President Gerald Ford. Similar letters, it was clear, had been sent to most of the African leaders who would be gathering in Addis. The message in the missive was that America wanted Nigeria to support the ‘pro-West’ UNITA against the ‘communist’ MPLA of Augustinho Neto, who were puppets of the Soviet Union. It was not so much a request as a command.
Murtala hit the roof. A hard-drinking man of irascible temperament, he ordered the contents of the letter to be released to the press. The Military Government described the Ford letter as a ‘gross insult’.
At that point, Murtala decided he would go to Addis, afterall. And he ordered himself a speech.
The authorship of that speech has become a matter of some controversy. Patrick Willmott, one of the intellectuals from the African diaspora in the Caribbeans who emigrated to Nigeria in the heady seventies to enrich the faculties of some of the nation’s Universities, was in Addis Ababa, and it is on record that he made several copies of the speech and happily distributed them to delegates and journalists. He is not on record as claiming to have authored the speech, a claim that was made for him in later years by his students and admirers from Ahmadu Bello University.
The author of the historic speech was, according to unimpeachable sources, the late Ambassador Olu Jolaoso, a man who embodied the very best traditions of the Foreign Service of Nigeria in its original incarnation.
This was how Murtala Mohammed, a man with a lot of baggage and personal demons to exorcise, stood on the podium, on a Sunday in July 1976, and spoke his way into history. Miriam Makeba would write a song about the speech. And whenever the story of the liberation of Southern Africa is told, Murtala’s speech would be acknowledged as a turning point in shaping the psychology of the struggle.
‘…Mr Chairman, when I contemplate the evils of apartheid, my heart bleeds, and I am sure the heart of every true-blooded African bleeds…United States policy makers…decided that it was in the best interests of their country to maintain white supremacy and minority regimes in Africa…Africa has come of age…It should no longer take orders from any country, however powerful…For too long has it been presumed that the African needs outside ‘experts’ to tell him who are his friends and who are his enemies…we can decide for ourselves…we know our own interests and how to protect those interests…’
The reaction across Europe and America was apoplectic, but the wheel of history had turned, inexorably, in the direction of African liberation. Murtala had swung Africa behind MPLA, and behind the liberation struggle that would ultimately bring an end to apartheid.
Henry Kissinger, US Secretary of State and apostle of ‘realpolitik’, had previously written that the ‘rag-tag’ liberation movements of Southern Africa were never going to be a match for apartheid South Africa with its might army and nuclear weapons. He ate his words, embarking on a fresh round of shuttle diplomacy to try to ride the storm of change.
And Murtala himself?
Acting with the best intentions, he had disembowelled and dis-spirited the Nigerian Civil Service, and his government had mishandled ‘Indigenisation’, killing off a large swathe of the nation’s nascent Industry and Retail sector. But he had made the most important foreign policy speech any Nigerian leader had ever made, and Nigerians were walking ten feet tall.
He had become a statesman and a man of history, without craving either.
He was assassinated thirty-four days after his speech in Addis Ababa.
May his great Nigerian soul be granted repose in Aljannah firdaus.