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 Story by: Adesoji OMOSEBI

The news of the death of Chief MKO Abiola came on a day I was on a celebration mood, as  July 7, 1998 was my birthday.

It was a day never to be forgotten. Every year of July 7,  as I mark my birthday I always remember this ICON and Hero of democracy in Nigeria, Chief MKO Abiola.

The story below is all you need to know about the man, Chief MKO Abiola and the debacles of the June 12, 1993 presidential elections and the tragedies that followed.

The political turmoil endured by the citizens of Nigeria during the final decades of the twentieth century was led by a varied group of individuals. One of the most influential was Moshood Abiola (1937-1998), a Nigerian businessman educated in Scotland. He climbed to the top of several corporate ladders, building a political and financial empire.

Moshood Kashimawa Olawale Abiola was born into a poor family in Abeokuta, Ogun State, Nigeria on August 24, 1937. Abiola received his primary education at Baptist Boys’ High School and earned a scholarship to attend the University of Glasgow, Scotland, where he received a degree in economics. Abiola was raised in the Yoruba Muslim faith; the southern part of Nigeria where he was brought up is divided primarily between Christian and Muslim believers. Known for his out-spoken political stances, Abiola lobbied the United States and several European nations in 1992, demanding reparations for their enslavement of African people and recompense for the fortunes made in harvesting Africa’s raw materials.

Muslim Marital Traditions

Following common tradition, Abiola took four wives; Simibiat Atinuke Shoaga in 1960, Kudirat Olayinki Adeyemi in 1973, Adebisi Olawunmi Oshin in 1974, and Doyinsola (Doyin) Abiola Aboaba in 1981. He is said to have fathered over 40 children from these four marriages. Abiola’s second wife, Kudirat, was murdered in the capital city of Lagos in 1996. There was speculation that her death was caused by the military, but no proof was ever found. His third wife, Doyin, ran a newspaper chain he owned until it was closed by the government. In 1992, Abiola was ordered to pay $20,000 a month in child support to a woman who claimed to be his wife. His lawyers argued in a New Jersey court that Abiola had only four wives; this woman was just one of his 19 concubines.

A Businessman and Entrepreneur

Abiola was considered to be a genial businessman who amassed a fortune through his association with various enterprises, including publishing, communications, and oil. With his educational background in accounting, he easily assumed the position of deputy chief accountant at Lagos University Teaching Hospital from 1965 to 1967, and comptroller of Pfizer Products, Ltd. between 1967 and 1969. In 1969, he became the comptroller of International Telephone and Telegraph (ITT), Nigeria, Ltd., and rapidly rose to become vice president for ITT’s Africa and Middle East branch. He was also chairman and chief executive officer of ITT Nigeria, Ltd. from 1972 through 1988. During this period Abiola founded and sat as chairman of Concord Press of Nigeria Ltd. and served as chief executive at Radio Communications Nigeria. While employed with ITT, he was frequently admonished by the general public due to the dreadful condition of the Nigerian telephone system. Abiola’s detractors claim he profited financially at the expense of the citizens by using inferior materials and keeping extra profits for himself; charges he adamantly denied.

Much of Abiola’s fortune, which was estimated at close to $2 billion, he freely distributed to others. He is said to have sent over 2,500 students through the university system as well as donating money to charities and championing sporting events. His generosity earned Abiola the nickname “Father Christmas” among the citizens of Nigeria. In addition to his generosity, Abiola was considered an astute businessman. For over 20 years he carefully cultivated friends throughout the country. He considered himself well liked by the Nigerian military establishment, a miscalculation that would cost him dearly.

Political Struggles

Nigeria, the most populous country on the African continent, obtained its freedom from Britain in 1960. During the four decades that followed, it endured several major political crises, including the collapse of civilian rule in the 1960s and the collapse of the civilian-headed “Second Republic” in the 1980s. Both of these crises were accelerated by civil violence in Yoruba, the southwestern district of the country. Historically, north-south conflicts have peppered Nigeria, as political power has been held by the north, the headquarters for the country’s military. Abiola, who hailed from the southern district of Yoruba, brought a different perspective to the country’s political makeup. His cultivation of people on both sides of the north-south divide ultimately proved to be beneficial.

A Bid for Democracy

In 1993, the Nigerian government was undergoing another in a series of attempts at stabilization. Major General Ibrahim Babangida, together with Nigerian political leaders, inaugurated the Transitional Council and the National Defense and Security Council (NDSC). These governing bodies were designed to exist until democratic elections could be held to choose a president. On January 5, 1993, the process of screening over 250 presidential candidates was begun by the National Electoral Commission (NEC.) The NEC banned previous candidates and parties from campaigning, and so the long process began.

By the end of March, Abiola was chosen by the Social Democratic Party (SDP) as their candidate. The National Republican Convention (NRC) chose Bashir Othma Tofa and the elections were scheduled for June 12, 1993. The results clearly showed Abiola to be the winner. Babangida, wishing to continue military rule, petitioned the High Court to delay the elections, and on June 16 the announcement of the results was postponed. In defiance of the court order, a group called Campaign for Democracy released the election results, declaring Abiola to be the winner, with 19 of 30 states supporting him. Less than a week later the NDSC voided the election, supposedly to protect the legal system and the judiciary from being ridiculed both nationally and internationally. Both the U.S. and Great Britain reacted to this violation of democratic principles by restricting aid to Nigeria. Abiola, believing himself to have been given a mandate from the voters, joined the Campaign for Democracy in calling for voters to perform acts of civil disobedience in an attempt to force the election results to stand. In response, Major Babangida used the authority he still retained to ban both Abiola and Tofa from participating in any new elections.

On July 6, 1993, Nigerian leaders demanded that both parties agree to participate in an interim national government. They reluctantly agreed and, on July 16, plans were announced for a new election, but immediately abandoned. On July 31, Babangida, president of the NDSC, announced an interim government would take effect on August 27. He stepped down on the day before the new government took effect, handing power over to a preferred loyalist, Chief Shonekan.

Nigerians supporting Abiola demanded that power be turned over to him as the rightful winner of the original election. That election was considered by many to have been the cleanest in Nigeria’s history and was praised as a concerted effort to overcome ethnic and religious divisions throughout the country. A. O. Olukoshi, a professor at the Nigerian Institute of International Affairs in Lagos, commented on the election and the majority win by Abiola, saying “Abiola allowed us to rise above ethnic and religious differences … this was the first time a Yoruba has been able to win votes both in the east and the north.” By this point, Abiola had traveled to London where he denounced the entire process. Throughout August 1993, Nigeria was paralyzed by strikes and unrest, and came almost to a standstill. Abiola remained abroad for several months, finally returning to Nigeria at the end of the year. In November 1993, Chief Shoneken was overthrown by General Sani Abacha, as the military once again seized power in Nigeria.

Continued Unrest

Resentment against the military grew during the first part of 1994. During the constitutional conference of May 23, the Campaign for Democracy called for a boycott of elections, demanding that the military return power to Abiola, the presumed winner of the prior year elections. On June 11, 1994, after declaring himself to be president before a group of 3,000, Abiola went into hiding. He called for an uprising to force the military to recognize the 1993 vote. The military, conducting a nationwide hunt, arrested him on June 23. The following day, 1,000 demonstrators marched on Lagos to demand Abiola’s release. By July, a war of attrition by Nobel Prize winner, Wole Soyinka, was launched against the government. In response, the military charged Abiola with treason. Soyinka, one of the driving forces behind Abiola, was forced to flee the country after being charged with treason.

The oil workers went on a ten-day strike, crippling the nation’s leading industry and bringing the country to an economic halt. Riots flared in Lagos and by the strike’s third week, 20 people had been killed. By mid-August the strike had brought unrest to the northern and eastern part of the country as support for Abiola continued to increase. Abacha responded by firing any high ranking military he thought were not loyal, then fired the heads of the state companies and their boards. Abacha eventually crushed the strike after nine weeks. He arrested any pro-democracy leaders that could be found.

Heart Attack or Poison?

Abiola remained under arrest for four years, and was not allowed visits by either his family or personal physician. He was denied proper medical care, even after being examined by state-authorized doctors. Abiola’s daughter, Hofsad, said the family was allowed no contact during her father’s four years in prison.

On July 7, 1998, only days before his scheduled release from prison, Abiola collapsed during a visit with a U.S. delegation and died in Abuja, Nigeria, of an alleged heart attack. His long-time friend and supporter, Wole Soyinka, expressed doubts that the death was the result of natural causes. “I’m convinced that some kind of slow poison was administered to Abiola,” he told an interviewer after learning of his friend’s death. Soyinka claimed that other Nigerian political prisoners had been injected with poison and indicated that he had received a note prior to Abiola’s death stating that his friend would be killed within the next few days.

An autopsy found that Abiola’s heart was seriously diseased and confirmed it as the cause of his death. The U.S. delegation visiting Abiola at the time of his attack saw no reason to presume foul play, indicating that the presiding doctors felt that the symptoms were consistent with a heart attack.

Abiola’s death shocked and saddened a country that had come close to experiencing true democracy through valid elections for the first time in its history. The Roman Catholic Archbishop of Lagos, Anthony Okogie, commented on Abiola’s passing by saying, “His death is the end of a chapter.” Instead of celebrating his release and the possible resurgence of democracy, Nigeria stepped back to re-gather itself, and start the process again.

Moshood Abiola


Business executive, political leader

Moshood Abiola’s name is near the top of Nigeria’s long list of tragic, politically related deaths that have blighted the history of this West African nation since it achieved independence in 1960. A telecommunications tycoon who made a bid for the presidency in 1993 in the first democratic elections held in Nigeria in nearly three decades, Abiola appeared to have won by a landslide but was prevented from taking office. Defying the military rulers—one of several juntas that had ruled the country with a firm hand for nearly thirty years—Abiola rallied his supporters to oust the regime, but he was arrested on charges of treason in 1994. Four years later he died in custody from an apparent heart attack.

Abiola was born in 1937 in Abeokuta, a medium-sized city in the southwestern part of Nigeria. He was the first child born to his parents that survived infancy. The Abiolas were of the Yoruba ethnicity, but were Muslim—this combination was unusual for the area, because southern Nigeria was predominantly Christian and animist. The northern part of the country, by contrast, was dominated by those of Hausa ethnicity who practiced Islam. As a teenager, Abiola attended a high school set up by Baptist missionaries, where his excellent grades earned him a scholarship to the University of Glasgow in Scotland. He left to began his studies in 1960, the same year that Nigeria earned its independence from Britain.

Grew Wealthy from Investments

Returning a few years later with an economics degree and certification as an accountant, Abiola settled in the then-capital, Lagos, where he was hired as the deputy chief accountant at the Lagos University Teaching Hospital in 1965. He went on to a job with the multinational pharmaceutical giant Pfizer two years later, and by 1969 was serving as the comptroller of International Telephone and Telegraph (ITT) of Nigeria. This division of the much larger telecommunications powerhouse ran the country’s wire-based communications systems, and the position gave Abiola access to top military officials, with whom he cultivated friendships that would later aid him in his political career. In 1972 he was promoted to the posts of chair and chief executive officer of ITT Nigeria, which he held for the next sixteen years.

Abiola’s first foray into politics came during Nigeria’s so-called Second Republic between 1979 and 1983, when he chaired the Ogun State branch of the National Party of Nigeria. He also founded a small media empire, Concord Press, which effectively functioned as the public-relations arm of his emerging political brand name. Noted Richard Synge in the Guardian, “It was in that brief phase of democratic government between 1979 and 1983 that Abiola became a truly public figure, known for his extraordinary generosity in building schools, as much as for his penchant for marrying more than the usual numbers of wives allowed by Islamic custom.” Abiola fathered an estimated sixty children in all, including many by women who were not his wives.

Nigeria’s troubled, corrupt Second Republic lasted just four years and ended with a military coup on the last day of 1983. Two years later a major general in Nigeria’s armed forces came to power—Ibrahim Babangida, whom Abiola had known for some years. Babangida eventually announced a timeline for the restoration of the democratic political process, and after long delays elections were scheduled for June 12, 1993. In March of 1993 Abiola had been chosen as the presidential candidate of the Social Democratic Party (SDP), a newly created center-left party. His main opponent in the June election was the candidate of the National Republican Convention (NRC) party, Bashir Othma Tofa. On election day Abiola bested Tofa with majority wins in nineteen out of Nigeria’s thirty states. Babangida, however, delayed the announcement of the official results. As unrest mounted, news of Abiola’s win leaked out anyway via a grassroots political group called Campaign for Democracy. Babangida’s transitional government voided the election results, prompting widespread international outcry. Campaign for Democracy urged Nigerians to mount an opposition campaign of civil disobedience, and Abiola took part in the protests.

Jailed for Treason

Babangida stepped down in July of 1993, after having resisted calls to hand over power to Abiola, who was widely perceived to be the legitimate victor. An interim head of government was himself ousted by another military effort led by General Sani Abacha. Unrest continued, and at last on June 11, 1994—the anniversary of the eve of the thwarted election—Abiola asserted he was the rightful president. He then went into hiding, but was located twelve days later, arrested, and charged with sedition. Major rallies were organized in defiance of Abacha’s regime and brutal treatment of the lawful winner of the election. Among Abiola’s most prominent supporters was Nigerian novelist Wole Soyinka, the first African to win the Nobel Prize in literature, who was forced to leave the country for a time to avoid Abacha’s secret police.

Following Abiola’s arrest, the civil strife spread to Nigeria’s main source of income, its rich oil fields in the north, where a workers’ strike that lasted two months was met with a brutal crackdown on all political dissidence. “Within a year it was reported that Abiola was in solitary confinement, and had lost more than six stone [approximately eighty-five pounds],” reported Synge in the Guardian. “His physician reported that he had been cut off from the news, that he was no longer aware of the time, or whether it was day or night.” His sole contact with family members came in early 1995. As his daughter Hafsat Abiola wrote in Newsweek, “My siblings and I were allowed only ten minutes with him. Usually a fit man, he was limping, suffering from a pinched nerve that resulted from being beaten by a soldier. He was disheveled and had lost a great deal of weight. I spent my ten minutes trying to assure him that he had not been forgotten.”

At a Glance …

Born Moshood Kashimawo Olawale Abiola on August 24, 1937, in Abeokuta, Ogun State, Nigeria; died on July 7, 1998, in Abuja, Nigeria; first wife, Simibiat Atinuke Shoaga, 1960; married second wife, Kudirat Olayinki Adeyemi, 1973 (assassinated, 1996); married third wife, Adebisi Olawunmi Oshin, 1974; married Doyinsola (Doyin) Abiola Aboaba, 1981; children: estimated at sixty, including daughter Hafsat Abiola. Politics: Social Democratic Party of Nigeria. Religion: Muslim. Education: Attended University of Glasgow, Scotland.

Career: Lagos University Teaching Hospital, deputy chief accountant, 1965-67; Pfizer Products Ltd., comptroller, 1967-68; International Telephone and Telegraph (ITT) of Nigeria Ltd., began as comptroller, 1969, became vice president for Africa and Middle East; ITT Nigeria Ltd., chair and chief executive officer, 1972-88; Concord Press of Nigeria Ltd., founder, 1980, and chair; Radio Communications Nigeria, chief executive officer; National Party of Nigeria, chair of Ogun State branch of the party, 1979(?)-83; elected president of Nigeria in June of 1993 as the candidate of the Social Democratic Party (SDP), but never sworn in.

Abiola remained jailed, and the situation was at an apparent stalemate, until early June of 1998, when General Abacha died suddenly from a heart attack. His successor was another general, Abdulsalam Abubakar, who reportedly favored a return to democratic rule. Almost immediately scores of political prisoners were released. A few weeks later United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan visited Abiola, and reported from Nigeria on July 3 that Abubakar’s government had agreed to release Abiola in exchange for him giving up his claim to the presidency. Family members believed he would be freed in a matter of days, but on July 7 he collapsed in front of a delegation of high-ranking U.S. diplomats who had come to visit him. Abubakar permitted an independent autopsy by foreign physicians, and the cause of death was ruled to be a heart attack. His family members, supporters, and even Soyinka voiced their doubts nevertheless. “They either poisoned him or killed him from neglect,” Hafsat Abiola told journalists Obi Nwakanma and Marcus Mabry in Newsweek. “Either way, they killed him.”

Abiola’s death was a terrible setback for Nigerians, the majority of whom had anticipated a long-awaited return to democracy with the successful business mogul at the helm of the nation. News of the loss prompted widespread rioting, and crowds in Lagos, shouting “Won fiku sere! O won fiku sere!” (“They play with death! Oh, they play with death!”), were fired upon by government forces, according to Nwakanma and Mabry’s report. Elections were held once again in 1999, but they were viewed as fraudulent by international observers, as were elections in 2003 and 2007. © July 7, 2017.


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