The Muhammad and Obasanjo Government
General Gowon was overthrown in a palace coup in July 1975 and succeeded by General Murtala Muhammad, who was in turn assassinated in an abortive coup on February 13, 1976. He was replaced by Olusegun Obasanjo, formerly his second in command. General Obasanjo basically continued the policies and plans of the Muhammad regime.
Murtala Muhammad, a Hausa from the north (Kano State), ruled for only seven months. Within that short period, he endeared himself to most Nigerians because of his strong leadership and the radical reforms he introduced in domestic and foreign policies. He "purged" the public-service ministries, universities, parastatals, and other government agencies at the federal and state levels of individuals accused of being corrupt, indolent, or inefficient. He set up a panel headed by Justice Ayo Irikefe to advise on the creation of more states. Its report led to the creation of seven additional states in 1976. Murtala Muhammad also set up a panel under Justice Akintola Aguda to consider whether a new federal capital should be created because of the congestion in Lagos. The panel recommended Abuja in the southern part of the former Northern Region as the site of a new capital. In economic matters, Murtala Muhammad introduced the "low-profile" policy, a radical departure from the ostentation of the Gowon era.
Although he retained the framework of military federalism, Murtala Muhammad removed state governors from membership in the SMC and created a new body in which they were included at the center, the National Council of States. Because this body was chaired by the head of state and subordinate to the SMC, its creation underscored the subordinate position of the state governments. This arrangement enabled the head of state to exert greater control over the state governors than had been the case under Gowon. In the area of foreign policy, Murtala Muhammad pursued a vigorous policy that placed Africa at the center and that involved active support for liberation movements in the continent.
Of all Murtala Muhammad's actions, however, the one that had the most lasting consequences was a program of transition to civilian rule that he initiated before his death. The program was carried through as planned by his successor, Obasanjo. The stages of the transition agenda included the creation of more states, the reform of the local government system, the making of a new constitution, the formation of parties and, finally, the election of a new government. The transition process was to culminate in the handing over of power to civilians on October 1, 1979.
In February 1976, Murtala Muhammad was killed in an unsuccessful coup led by Colonel Bukar Dimka and officers from the middle belt; the coup appeared to be an attempt by middle-belt officers to bring back Gowon from his self-imposed exile and reinstate him as head of state. Obasanjo, a Yoruba and southerner, became head of state. Although unfavorably compared with Murtala Muhammad initially, he succeeded in many areas of his administration where the more intransigent Murtala Muhammad might have failed. Obasanjo became an adept political ruler, determined not to exacerbate north-south and Muslim-Christian schisms in the country.
In addition to its methodical conduct of all the stages of the transition to civilian government in 1979, the Obasanjo government initiated numerous reforms in public life. Attempts were made to introduce greater probity in the activities of civil servants and other public officials. The main vehicle for this process was the establishment of public complaints commissions in all states of the federation and in the capital. Despite the publicizing of particular cases of abuse of office and corruption, little progress was made in stopping the spread of this cancer in the society and economy.
The Obasanjo administration expanded the economic indigenization program started under Gowon. It also used the Land Use Decree of 1978 to rationalize the country's haphazard tenurial systems, to reduce the crippling land speculation and curb the frequent litigation over individual and communal property rights. It was hoped that these reforms would facilitate the acquisition of land for modern agricultural purposes. In a similar vein, the Obasanjo regime launched Operation Feed the Nation to counter the rapid rise in food exports. None of these efforts was successful, but the programs indicated the kind of strategies that Nigeria would have to adopt to alter its economic imbalances.
In view of the complex process of transition to civilian rule and the many reforms introduced in the four years of the Muhammad/Obasanjo governments, those regimes seemed in retrospect to have tried to do too much too soon. In the final year he was in power, Obasanjo introduced many austerity measures and insisted on a "low profile" for all government officials. He was aware that Nigeria, despite its oil wealth, was still largely an underdeveloped country and its businesspersons mainly agents or intermediaries for foreign businesses. Such a salutary attitude was soon forgotten, however, as the successor regime rode the crest of a renewed upsurge in oil prices, spent resources faster than they could be realized and left the country deeply in debt and its economy nearly in shambles when it ended in 1983.
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