He was so rich he could afford to provide tea for all Nigerians. But, it was a cup of tea he took that led to his demise. As a businessman, he had investments in 102 countries. As a philanthropist, he donated, in 1991, N120 million to all higher institutions in the country, among others. As a chief, he bagged more traditional titles than any other Nigerian. After his arrest in 1994, he was not released until his death in 1998. GABRIEL AKINADEWO writes on the 20th anniversary of the death of the winner of the June 12, 1993 presidential election, Chief Moshood Kashimawo Olawale (M.K.O.) Abiola.
HE died without fulfilling his promises to give Nigerians the desired future. He died, looking at the conspirators in the face. At that last moment, when his soul was going, he must have told himself: “Finally, I have been outsmarted”.
Even 20 years after, Nigeria is still in a confused state as it was when Basorun Moshood Kashimawo Olawale (M.K.O.) Abiola was killed.
The tragedy happened on July 7, 1998 and today is the 20th anniversary of the death of the philanthropist, publisher, businessman, accountant, sports financier and politician, fondly called Money, Kudi, Owo, a coinage from his M.K.O. initials.
Before his death, Nigerians waited endlessly to see the end of the tragic drama which started in 1993. Abiola’s journey of no return started on June 23, 1993 when the then military president, General Ibrahim Babangida (rtd), annulled the June 12, 1993 presidential election he won.
A year later during the regime of the late General Sani Abacha, he was arrested at his Ikeja, Lagos residence by more than 200 policemen and taken to the Force Criminal Investigations Department (FCID), Alagbon, for declaring himself President on June 11, 1994 at Epetedo, Lagos.
The following day, he was taken to Abuja and he never returned to Lagos alive.
Not a few Nigerians were surprised at the turn of event. Abiola himself could be said to be a product of the military due to his closeness to top military officers since the early 70s. But when the election was annulled, he knew he had the people on his side and he decided to give his friends a big fight.
He declared in an interview: “By the grace of God, I will be President. The situation demands patience. With time, the government will respect the people’s verdict. I have got the people’s mandate. If they lock me up, they should be prepared to lock up millions of Nigerians”.
He was right because he was locked up indefinitely and the aspirations of Nigerians were also locked up. To give a legal cover to the detention, he was arraigned before Justice Mustapha. During one of the appearances, he declared: “I was brought here in a Black Maria in which I sat on the platform, from which I fell following ceaseless bangs from outside. I know the purpose is to humiliate me. I have never been humiliated in my life. I am a respected man in the society. They want me to die. I won’t die”.
He was wrong.
On Tuesday, July 7, 1998, the struggle ended. He was killed in a high-level conspiracy by the Military High Command and some foreigners. He had sought to govern the most populous black country from Aso Rock. Ironically, he died in one of the committee rooms of the Presidential Villa. He was taken there to attend a meeting but was not allowed to leave alive.
His electoral victory was annulled by Babangida, he was detained by Abacha and killed during the regime of General Abdulsalami Abubakar (rtd).
He was taken away from his residence hale and hearty but returned in a body bag in the early hours of July 9, 1998, silent, cold, dead in what is now known as the ‘Conspiracy of the Generals and Americans’.
Ironically, it was the day the one-month mourning period for Abacha ended that Abiola joined the Khalifa.
Abacha had died earlier on June 8.
Immediately it became public knowledge that Abiola was dead, many towns in South-West went up in flames. Rivers of blood flowed. The orgy of violence was uncontrollable.
This was so because Abiola was a leading light of the Yoruba, inhabiting the most politically-conscious zone in the country.
After Abacha’s death, the Yoruba believed that Abiola would soon be released.
But one of Abiola’s wives, Dupe Onitiri, had her fears.
She told anyone who cared to listen that due to the fact that the Abdulsalami regime did not release Abiola with General Olusegun Obasanjo, the late Chief Bola Ige, Chief Olu Falae, the late Dr. Beko Ransome-Kuti, Senator Olabiyi Durojaiye and a few other detainees, then it was waiting for the right time to silence Abiola forever.
“Contrary to the belief in some quarters that General Abubakar has good intention for the country, his main objective is to negotiate away June 12 and if possible, eliminate the symbol of June 12, Chief M.K.O. Abiola, so as to pave the way for his own transition programme,” she declared.
Some witnesses during the Justice Chukwudifu Oputa-led Human Rights Violations and Investigations Commission (HRVIC), set up by the Obasanjo administration, corroborated her by declaring openly that Abiola was killed. What angered Nigerians most was the way Abiola, who bagged more traditional titles than any other Nigerian, was treated.
For 36 months, he was not allowed to see his doctor, Ore Falomo. For six months, he had diarrhoea and was not allowed to get medical attention. Physically, literally and mentally, he was in solitary confinement.
The second modern Yoruba leader, Chief Adekunle Ajasin, died in October 1997 but Abiola didn’t know until June, 1998 after Abacha’s death. It was also then he learnt of the death of Major General Shehu Musa Yar’Adua who also died months earlier.
Years after the Ghanaian, Kofi Annan, succeeded the Egyptian, Boutrous Boutrous Ghali, as Secretary-General of the United Nations, Abiola didn’t know. It was an embarrassing situation when he asked Annan, who was trying to persuade him to renounce his mandate on June 30, 1998: “Who are you?”
Annan told him that Ghali was no longer the boss of the world body when Abiola asked again: “What of the Egyptian?”
Despite the pressure from the Abdulsalami regime and others engaged to persuade him, Abiola refused to renounce his mandate.
Some, who were sympathetic to the military regime, said that five years after the election, nobody would recognise him in the comity of nations. They also said that even if he was made president in 1993, his first tenure would have lapsed in 1997. They even told him that legally, his mandate had expired but Abiola told them off. He believed that the military apologists were being theoretical in their analysis. As long as Nigerians still wanted him as their president, there was nothing anybody could do about it.
He reportedly told those trying to persuade him: “In the court of public opinion, legal advice is useless. Which country has ever solved its political problems by seeking legal advice?”
The late billionaire knew there was no way he would leave detention and become the president the next day. But he told the junta that he would not renounce his mandate or negotiate in detention. “Release me first, then we will talk,”
But his enemy knew there was no way Abiola would be released and the agitation for the revalidation of the June 12 election and participatory democracy would cease.
Also, the moment he was released, it would be difficult to re-arrest him.
There were two other reasons. Abiola was well connected in the international circle. He was on first-name basis with many presidents. The moment he was released, it would be difficult to stop his zeal for vengeance. Also, if eventually power was given to him, a Southerner, it would affect the future plan of some die-hard conservative Northerners.
Feelers that Abdulsalami was only playing a chess game came on June 27, 1998 when the late Senator Abraham Adesanya led a four-man delegation to see Abdulsalami in Abuja. Their demand: Abiola must be released immediately.
Abubakar promised to do something but Abiola, who one day in 1991, doled out N120 million to Nigerian higher institutions, was still kept in detention.
Abdulsalami was merely following the footstep of his predecessor, Abacha.
The late Pope John Paul II, former South African President, the late Nelson Mandela and Bishop Desmond Tutu, had persuaded Abacha to release Abiola to no avail.
The international conspiracy dimension came when Tony Lloyd, the British Minister of State for African Affairs, who was also the special envoy of the European Union, visited the country.
Lloyd refused to see Abiola but met several members of the junta. He declared that it was wrong for Abiola to insist on his mandate, saying the stance of his government was the conduct of a fresh election.
With the balance of terror between Abiola and the junta, it was obvious that one must give way. Then, a plot was hatched and the belief is that the presence of United States (U.S.) Under Secretary of State, Thomas Pickering, who was the Special Envoy of the then President Bill Clinton, the Assistant Secretary of State, Susan Rice and Ambassador Twaddell, was a deliberate act to give the Abdulsalami regime a soft landing in the conspiracy.
On July 6, 1998, a day to Abiola’s death, Bisi and Doyin, his two senior wives and his eldest daughter, Lola Abiola-Edewor, were allowed to see him.
Although gaunt, Abiola was in high spirit. They discussed at length and the visitors believed that it was just a matter of days before he would be released.
A few days before, the then Chief of General Staff, the late Admiral Mike Akhigbe and former Secretary-General of The Commonwealth, Chief Emeka Anyaoku, were with Abiola and before they left the detainee, a group photograph was taken which was published in the media. It was also shown on television.
On July 7, Abiola was in his room, alone, meditating on the way forward.
Then, some security agents, mostly operatives of the State Security Service (SSS), told him to dress up because he had a meeting to attend at The Villa.
The 14th Aare Ona Kakanfo of Yorubaland was familiar with this routine.
As usual, after delivering the message, the guards left immediately. He was also used to this.
When he got outside, he entered one of the cars and the journey-of-no-return started. The car which conveyed him was in the middle. The agents were armed with sophisticated weapons such as Israeli-made Uzi and Mac 10.
When the convoy got to Aso Rock, Abiola was taken to one of the committee rooms. He waited for a few minutes. Of course, he knew the discussion would, again, be centred on the pressure to renounce his mandate. He was determined not to give in.
He was still thinking when the door opened and Pickering, Rice and Twaddell entered.
They were accompanied by Buhari Bwala, then Minister of State for Foreign Affairs.
Security agents had already placed themselves strategically in the room, their presence understood, their minds unknown.
It is, however, not known if all of them knew the plan to silence Abiola that day.
Abiola knew Pickering well.
When he was U.S. Ambassador in Nigeria, that was the time Abiola started his reparation crusade. So, they met on several occasions.
Naturally, Abiola was happy that a friend was in the house. He greeted the others but Abiola and Pickering dominated the discussion thereafter.
Gradually, the discussion veered toward the impasse and Abiola, who was ready for that, bluntly said that he would only negotiate “when I become a free man”.
When they realised that his mind was made up, Pickering tactically changed the topic. The atmosphere was now relaxed.
Then, somebody called for tea and biscuit. This was done immediately and the securitymen took charge thereafter. They served tea round.
Abiola was used to this because since he was detained, he was not allowed to take food from outside. And he had no reason to believe that his tea would be poisoned since everybody was served. What he did not know was that one of the agents was mandated to serve him alone, a man so rich that he could afford to provide tea for all Nigerians. He once said he had investments in 102 countries. Abiola never knew that was his last liquid intake.
He drank a little, returned the cup to the tray, took it again and sipped gently.
The ‘deadly’ liquid had hardly settled when he felt a movement in his stomach. Then, he coughed, dropped the cup and coughed again. With his left hand, he touched his stomach, just to reassure himself that everything was okay. By then, some of the agents had removed the trays and cups. Abiola started feeling uncomfortable. He then excused himself hurriedly to the toilet.
It was while inside the toilet that he realised that he had been fatally outsmarted.
When he returned, the cough had turned violent. He glanced at Pickering and the rest for the last time and collapsed on the couch.
A doctor was hurriedly called after some precious minutes had been wasted in a fit of indecision. Abiola was dead on arrival at Aso Rock Clinic.
Even when his death had not become public knowledge, the first thing the junta did was to put all military formations on the alert with special emphasis on the South-West.
Within a spate of two years, it was the second time tragedy would befall the Abiola family.
Kudirat, his second wife, who was a thorn in the flesh of the Abacha regime, was assassinated in broad-day light near 7UP Junction, Ikeja, Lagos by agents of the junta on June 4, 1996.
To show that it had no hand in Abiola’s death, the military government dispatched a presidential jet to Lagos to fetch Falomo to be part of the team that would perform the autopsy.
Falomo was not told why he was needed in Abuja or why a presidential jet was dispatched to fetch him. He was even told to come with Kola, Abiola’s eldest son.
Given the fact that he was not allowed to see Abiola for months, he suspected foul play. His fear was confirmed at the Murtala Muhammed Airport, Ikeja when he heard the news on the radio. He told Kola that they must return to their houses immediately ‘before fireworks (riot) start’.
Meanwhile, in Abuja, Bisi, Doyin and Lola were at the Nnamdi Azikiwe Airport on their way to Lagos to prepare for the return of their bread winner. An agent rushed to them with the information that they were needed at The Villa.
Their initial thinking was that Abiola would be released that evening. They met Akhigbe, Pickering, Chief Physician Aminu Wali and other officials.
It was weeping galore when the news was broken to them.
Worldwide, people received the news with shock.
In South-West Nigeria, it was with anger.
The riot turned ethnic as people of Northern extraction were attacked in Agege, Idi-Araba, Obalende, Mushin, Oyingbo, Ijora areas of Lagos and other parts of Yorubaland.
The military complicated the crisis by shooting at random. More than 100 people were killed in Lagos alone.
On July 9, 1998, Abiola was buried beside his wives, Simbiat and Kudirat, at his expensive Ikeja residence.