Chief Moshood Kashimawo Olawale Abiola’s march to prison was as dramatic as the man himself. When a detachment of about 600 policemen led by a Commissioner of Police, A. Enudi, and assisted by Yakubu Mohammed, stormed his Abiola Crescent, Ikeja, Lagos residence on Wednesday, June 23, 1994, to effect his arrest, Abiola was in his best elements. Introducing humour into a very serious matter, he told the security operatives: “I am your commander-in-chief. I have no grudge against the police because you are doing your work. As a commander-in-chief, I expect you to perform, but Allah forbids that I should send you on this type of assignment.”
Despite the drama, Abiola was arrested and detained until he died on July 7, 1998, a month after his jailor, Gen. Sani Abacha. Until the end, Abiola dared Abacha, displaying uncommon courage and insisting that death was more honourable than disgrace. Abiola’s stance was a shock to many. Not so many believed that a man given to so much comfort could sacrifice all on the platter of honour.
Abiola’s journey to jail could be said to have started in June 1994 when he declared himself president of Nigeria at a public rally in Lagos. The Head of State, Abacha, responded by declaring him wanted, while offering N50, 000, for any information that could aid his arrest. Initially, many did not believe that Abiola could be arrested but it came to pass. Abacha had pursued a policy of blood and iron.
By declaring himself president, Abiola was only trying to reclaim what he called “sacred mandate.” On June 12, 1993, Nigeria held a presidential election adjudged by both local and foreign observers as the freest, fairest and most peaceful in the chequered history of the country.
The contest was between Abiola of the Social Democratic Party (SDP) and Alhaji Bashir Tofa of the National Republican Convention (NRC). Abiola was coasting to victory when, as, Afrobeat maestro, Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, would say, ‘government magic’ manifested. In a bizarre twist of events, the controversial Association for Better Nigeria (ABN) led by Chief Francis Arthur Nzeriba, a maverick politician and businessman, who had openly campaigned for the elongation of Gen. Ibrahim Babangida’s presidency by at least four years, went to court to stop the announcement of the results of the election. By the time the court granted the injunction on June 16, 1993, about three-quarters of the results had been released by the National Electoral Commission (NEC) and Abiola was leading comfortably, even in Kano, Tofa’s home state. Babangida completed the demolition of his voodoo democracy project on June 23 when he cancelled the whole process to avoid “judicial anarchy.”
The annulment drew fire and brimstone from Nigerians. There were demonstrations and riots across the country. Indeed, it was a period of political madness, which caused social unrest and endless multi-sectoral strikes.
Abiola’s showing during the election was unprecedented. Even though he had a fellow Muslim, Alhaji Babagana Kingibe, as running mate, the largely Christian South did not bother. From the fringe of the Sahara to the Atlantic coastline, the people sang that MKO was their man. He brought his Midas touch and charm into his campaign, making it the most colourful and effective campaign ever witnessed in Nigeria. Of course, Abiola drew on his vast goodwill among Nigerians, many of whom he had touched one way or another.
Take this from Babangida: “He (Abiola) had the map of Nigeria and knew how many votes could be garnered where and he was able to link with his people in the field.”
Babangida, who was superintending a transition to nowhere, had apparently underestimated Abiola’s capability and popularity when he gave the billionaire businessman the green light to participate. “It is true that I offered my support as a friend, but I really did not think that he (Abiola) would go beyond the state level. I thought he would be defeated before he got to the state congress,” Babangida admitted.
Explaining the reason for the annulment of the results of the election that would have Abiola president, Babangida said: “There was pressure from a section of the military that the primaries be cancelled to forestall an Abiola victory. People were violently opposed to him. They said Abiola would be president over their dead bodies. But we were in serious problem because we could not cancel the primaries. When we did that the first time (disqualification of 23 presidential aspirants), you people in the media clapped for us but I knew to cancel that one would be a big problem. So we carried on until the election and the subsequent annulment.”
As the impasse lingered, Abiola went to Babangida and said: “look, you are my friend. I know you, you can find way through a mountain.” But Babangida replied: “No, Bashorun, I cannot find a way through a mountain, but I can find a way around mountains.” Babangida never did until he was forced to “step aside” on August 26, 1993.
Who killed Abiola?
Many believe that Abiola was killed. On July 7, 1998, American Under Secretary of State of African Affairs, Thomas Pickering and Ms Susan Rice called to speak with Abiola. As Abiola emerged from his room to keep the date with his visitors, he reportedly called out to his fellow detainee, Foday Sankoh, a time Sierra Leonean warlord, saying: “Your Excellency, I will be back.” While meeting with the American delegation, he reportedly took some tea, on request, then went to the toilet. When he returned, he began to cough and sweat. As his condition worsened, he was rushed to the clinic where he died moments later.
As with all truly great men, Abiola’s death was not the end of the matter. His death shook the country to its foundation and sprang a renaissance.
Although a team of pathologists headed by Dr. Jim Young, a Canadian, investigated the possible cause of Abiola’s death and returned a verdict of death by natural causes, some people expressed serious doubt over it.
One of those who punctured the verdict of death by natural causes was late fiery lawyer, Chief Gani Fawehinmi. “My personal findings from medical experts have shown that once poison is taken and it metabolised into the system, it would not be possible to detect. How can they now rule out poison when they did not work on that theory but on the samples got from their findings?” he asked.
The fire of doubt was further stroked by the former Chief Security Officer (CSO) to Abacha, Major Hamza Al-Mustapha. when he told the Justice Oputa Commission: “The powers-that-be killed Chief Abiola.”
Al Mustapha said: “When General Abacha died on June 8, 1998, I was the person that knew about it. I kept his death secret because I knew I had a crises in my hands. As small as I am, a junior officer in the rank of Major, it did not occur to me that I should take over government since I was in position to do so.”
Al-Mustapha disclosed that he broke the news to the generals and senior officers after summoning them to Aso Rock. “After that, the generals met at the Villa where they took the decision that if Abacha was dead, then Abiola should not live because, may be, they thought if the two people in the political impasse the country found itself in are out, the problem would be solved. It was not surprising that soon after that decision was taken, Abiola died within one month of the death of Abacha.”
He further said: “I did my best to safeguard him, but at last, he died. I pray that the commission will give me time to say everything. As I am speaking here, many big men are having sleepless nights. They are wondering whether Al-Mustapha will mention their names.”
As it were, Al-Mustapha was just blowing hot air. Or so it seemed. Over two decades after Abiola’s death, the question remains unanswered.
Are Ona Kakanfo
While in his prime, Abiola was bestowed with the prestigious title of Are Ona Kakanfo. There are many who thought that Abiola’s travail could be linked to his title of Are Ona Kakanfo (the Field Marshall) of Yorubaland, which was believed to be jinxed.
Perhaps, it was a mere coincidence that he experienced a sudden burst of troubles after his installation as the 14th Kakanfo by the Alaafin of Oyo, Oba Lamidi Adeyemi. But the inescapable fact is that after the elaborate ceremony on January 23, 1988, he fought one battle after another. There was even a legal battle over the title before he was eventually crowned. Indeed, Abiola began to fight only a few weeks after he was crowned the top warrior.
From an explosive encounter with some Air Force personnel to his dramatised square-off with State Security Service (SSS) operatives who seized his international passport number AO 93731 for allegedly making anti-government utterances, he soon became an embattled man. It ultimately climaxed with his “war” on the political front, which, unknown to him, was covered with mines laid by military hegemonies.