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It was a horrendous day –Soni Irabor

Soni Irabor
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For those who had the ‘misfortune’ of witnessing the brutal assassination of former Nigerian Head of State, General Murtala Mohammed, silence has been a refuge all these years, a comforting cocoon. Talking about the events of that day is like reliving them all over, dredging up old horrors; so they pushed the memory deep into the subconscious, where it might only bubble to the surface in the occasional nightmare.


Top broadcaster, Soni Irabor, belongs in the small group of people who saw it all ‘live’ that fated day on February 13, 1976. Exactly 40 years to the day, Irabor is still very reluctant to talk about what he describes as a horrendous day.


That is understandable. But a combination of wheedling and the knowledge that the story needs to be told, prevailed ultimately. Of course, the story of the Murtala’s assassination has been told repeatedly, but like all the great writers constantly exhort: the story never ends. Irabor often went to the Radio House where he did a programme with Patrick Oke even though he was not yet a full employee.


He was actually employed by the Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation in 1977. So on February 13, 1976, the 24-year-old Irabor was on his way to work with a friend when one of the most horrific days in the history of Nigeria began to play out in a terrifying slow motion.


Irabor tells his story: ”I was working with the Nigerian Prison Service on Alagbon Close, which is directly opposite Ikoyi Road where the assassination of the Head of State took place. The incident happened exactly in front of the National Secretariat that is now badly abandoned.


There are so many things I really don’t want to talk about; it is very sad. They were putting finishing touches to the secretariat then. Traffic was so severe on the day of the coup; Murtala Muhammed used to drive alone without security patrol, no sirens. Unfortunately by trying to be a man of the people, some people had a different agenda for him.


I had not joined the NBC (later known as Radio Nigeria) when the coup took place on February 13, 1976; I joined in April 1977. But I was always going to Radio Nigeria for programmes.


I was doing a programme with Patrick Oke who was the anchor. I was the one reading the letters sent in to the programme. Radio Nigeria is very close to Alag  bon. I was coming from my house on Brown Road, Ikoyi, heading to Alagbon Close, Ikoyi and I came through Bank Road. The incident happened in front of what used to be BP Petrol Station later known as AP. The petrol station is still there, that design is still there.


The only difference is that the highway used to be two lanes, but it is now a dual carriageway, four lanes. I had refused to talk about my experience that day all these years because my heart bleeds anytime I recall the incident. Those soldiers were horrible people. My friend, Okpoh Imetu, and I were going to work that day.


I was working at the Nigeria Prisons while my friend was with Internal Affairs. We were just chatting along when we observed that the black car on the road with the national emblem on it looked like the car of the head of state because of its designs. From the position we were, we could see everything, it was like we were watching a horror movie.


The man (Gen. Muhammed) was reading a newspaper and a car came from behind. There was traffic; Lagos traffic had always been notorious. Dodan Barracks was not far from the scene. That car just came and parked on the other side, it came from the oncoming lane which was free. I think the car was a Mercedes, though I am not too sure anymore.


There were two of them in the car, one was driving while the other was on the passenger side. Both men came out. One was wearing “agbada” but we observed something strange about the man.


The boot he was wearing was soldier’s boot. How can a man wearing “agbada” be in a soldier’s boot? We both wondered. But then he removed the “agbada” and we saw that he was dressed in military uniform. We were curious but took our eyes away momentarily and the next thing we heard was the sound of gunshots.


I don’t know if you’ve ever heard the sound of a gun so close before. It was so loud and metallic. It was horrendous. I asked my friend what was going on and we started running for dear lives. We didn’t know where to run to and then the strangest thing was that the traffic that refused to move earlier disappeared in seconds. All the cars beat a mad retreat, reversing and colliding against one another. The area got cleared of all the vehicles in seconds.


There was a palm wine tapper riding bicycle on that lane too. The poor man just fell down when the thing happened and remained there.


He was petrified. I ran in one direction and my friend scampered in another. I started running towards Bank Road. I didn’t know where my friend ran to. Minutes later, all the cars were gone and the man (shooter) went back to his car with the other man and they just drove off as if nothing happened. I was too young and afraid to open my mouth, I couldn’t say that I saw anything.

I had never witnessed anything called a coup talk less of seeing one of that nature. I was so afraid, I didn’t know whether to go back to Alagbon Close. The head of state’s car was there alone with the bodies inside. The saddest part is that the car was there for like two hours or more.

There were builders around there then because they were putting finishing touches to the National Secretariat. So many of them must have seen it from their end but I am yet to see anyone come out to say ‘this is what he saw.’ I managed to cross into Alagbon. I was shivering.


Nobody wanted to move near where the sound came from, everyone ran away. Later, some people told us there was an announcement of a coup on radio.


That was when we started having an idea of what happened. Also, the coup announcement was so strange because instead of the usual restriction of movement from dusk to dawn, the announcement was for dawn to dusk, which means daytime curfew.

We found that to be a bit weird. I was 24-year-old then and I would be 64 in March.


God knows my heart; that was what I saw. What saddens me is the way Nigeria has squandered its opportunity.


An average Nigerian thinking has been badly bastardised. I am yet to know why we are not really concerned. Things are just going from bad to worse; it is very said.”

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