TRIBUTE: Moshood Kashimawo Olawale Abiola (August 24, 1937 – July 7, 1998)

Moshood Kashimawo Olawale Abiola (August 24, 1937 – July 7, 1998), often referred to as M. K. O. Abiola, was a popular Nigerian Yoruba businessman, publisher, politician and aristocrat of the Egba clan born in Abeokuta, Ogun State, Moshood was his father’s twenty-third child but the first of his father’s children to survive infancy. 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.

MKO showed entrepreneurial talents at a very young age, at the tender age of nine he started his first business selling firewood. He would wake up at dawn to go to the forest and gather firewood, which he would then cart back to town and sell before going to school, in order to support his old father and his siblings.

He later established a band at age fifteen where he performed at different functions in return of food. He in the end came to be acclaimed enough to begin requesting money for his exhibitions and utilized the cash to uphold his family and his optional instruction at the Baptist Boys High School Abeokuta, where he outperformed. He was the editor of the school magazine The Trumpeter, Olusegun Obasanjo was deputy editor. At the age of 19 he joined the National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroons apparently as a result of its container Africanist office, inclining toward it to the Obafemi Awolowo-led Action Group’s keep focus on investment and educational advancement for the Western Region of Nigeria, where the Yoruba were in the majority.

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.

A Businessman and Entrepreneur

In 1956 Moshood Abiola started his professional life as bank clerk with Barclays Bank plc in Ibadan, South-West Nigeria. After two years he joined the Western Region Finance Corporation as an executive accounts officer before leaving for Glasgow, Scotland to pursue his higher education. In Glasgow he received 1st class in political economy, commercial law and management accountancy. He also received a distinction from the Institute of Chartered Accountants of Scotland.

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.

Abiola invested heavily in Nigeria and West AfricaHe set up Abiola Farms, Abiola bookshops, Radio Communications Nigeria, Wonder bakeries, Concord Press, Concord Airlines, Summit oil international ltd, Africa Ocean lines, Habib Bank, Decca W.A. ltd, and Abiola football club. In addition to these, he also managed to perform his duties as Chairman of the G15 business council, President of the Nigerian Stock Exchange, Patron of the Kwame Nkrumah Foundation.

Moshood Abiola sprang to national and global prominence as a consequence of his humanitarian exercises. The Congressional Black Caucus of the United States of America issued the following tribute to Moshood Abiola

“Because of this man, there is both cause for hope and certainty that the agony and protests of those who suffer injustice shall give way to peace and human dignity. The children of the world shall know the great work of this extraordinary leader and his fervent mission to right wrong, to do justice, and to serve mankind. The enemies which imperil the future of generations to come: poverty, ignorance, disease, hunger, and racism have each seen effects of the valiant work of Chief Abiola. Through him and others like him, never again will freedom rest in the domain of the few. We, the members of the Congressional Black Caucus salute him this day as a hero in the global pursuit to preserve the history and the legacy of the African diaspora”

From 1972 until his death Moshood Abiola had been conferred with 197 traditional titles by 68 different communities in Nigeria, in response to the fact that his financial assistance resulted in the construction of 63 secondary schools, 121 mosques and churches, 41 libraries, 21 water projects in 24 states of Nigeria, and was grand patron to 149 societies or associations in Nigeria.

Moshood Abiola was twice voted worldwide businessman of the year, and gained various honorary doctorates from universities all over the world. In 1987 he was given the golden key to the city of Washington D.c., and he was bestowed with an award from the NAACP and  the King center in the USA, and also the International Committee on Education for Teaching in Paris, around numerous others. In Nigeria, the Oloye Abiola was made the Aare Ona Kakanfo of Yorubaland. It is the most noteworthy chieftancy title accessible to everyday citizens around the Yoruba, and has just been given by the tribe 14 times in its history. This basically rendered Abiola the ceremonial Viceroy of the greater part of his tribespeople. According to the folklore of the tribe as recounted by the Yoruba elders, the Aare Ona Kakanfo is expected to die a warrior in the defense of his nation inorder to prove himself in the eyes of both the divine and the mortal as having been worthy of his title.

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.

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 Othman 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 travelled 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.

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