Twenty-six years after the annulment of the June 12, 1993, presidential election, which was won by Chief Moshood Kashimawo Olawale (MKO) Abiola, his first son and present head of the extended Abiola family, Kola Abiola, has opened up on his father’s struggle to win the election and reclaim his mandate after the results were cancelled.
In this exclusive interview in his Lagos residence, he revealed what transpired behind the scenes before, during and after the annulled election and the role played by different persons and interest groups.
He said, contrary to widely held beliefs, Abiola never nominated anybody into the regime of the late General Sani Abacha, and explained that some of his father’s former allies who chose to serve the late dictator had already decided to be part of his regime and his father could not stop them.
Kola Abiola also denied accusations by some family members who alleged that they were living in penury because he cut off funds meant for them, saying he would soon address those allegations with facts.
June 12 has been recognised as Democracy Day in honour of the election your father won. How does it make you feel when you look back?
For me, it is the end of a long journey. We started this journey in 1991 at the Hilton Hotel after I sat down with my father’s personal assistant back then, Olu Akerele, who was trying to convince me to participate in the election. At the very beginning, I was not involved; I knew what my father was planning, but I just carried on like I didn’t know what was going on because he didn’t tell me directly. As a family, we had an understanding that he would let the Ibrahim Babangida transition programme go before we participate in any election. It was not the case of whether we should go into the contest or not; we wanted the transition to go through before we participated. I guess after a lot of pressure, he then went to Abeokuta to get the form to contest for the election.
Where were you on the night Abiola was arrested? Did you anticipate his arrest?
Yes I did. There was a particular day that we got supposedly credible information that they were going to raid the house and arrest him and the idea was for him to go to the American embassy to take refuge. When I was told about the plan to arrest him, I said, well, he is in his house; let us see what will happen, but my family members felt I wasn’t taking the issue very seriously. They said they wanted him to go to the American embassy and I asked why. I couldn’t convince anybody that it was a set up. So, we got ready for him to go to the embassy and when I saw lots of people around him, I then asked that if we are going to the embassy, why the convoy? I told them to leave him to me that I would personally drive him there.
On our way, I told him that the whole set-up didn’t seem right because if I shot him there, people wouldn’t blame me, they would blame IBB. So, in order not to trivialise the issue, he should come and stay in my house. He agreed and we headed back to Anthony, where I lived, and he spent the night in my house. The following morning, all the papers carried reports that he was at the American embassy and my father told me that I was right that the entire American embassy thing was a set-up.
When the issue of declaring himself president came up, I told him it was not a good idea but that if he insisted, he should make sure that every single person who suggested it to him would all be physically present when the declaration was made. I told him to announce his cabinet and let all of those cabinet members be there with him while he made his declaration. I told him that if they were not willing to do this, it tells us that something is wrong. He said okay, so I went home. The next thing I heard was that he was on his way there; then I knew that there was a problem.
#Was he hurt when Kingibe joined Abacha’s government? Did he feel betrayed?
It didn’t surprise him because I had already told him. Knowing what I had known, I met my father in his room and told him to handle the situation right because if he didn’t, we would be the biggest losers. He then asked me what I meant. I pointed out people around him who were already gone; so he wasn’t surprised when it happened.
When my father was arrested after the declaration, I went to see Abacha and I must say that he received me well. He asked me why my father declared himself President; I told him it was not a matter of why, but that the deed had been done already. I asked him what the way forward was and he said if I was able to correct it, that he was willing to let everything go. By correcting things, he meant that I should come out publicly and tell the country that my father made a mistake by declaring himself President, but there was no way I would do that. I had to stand by my dad and that was the beginning of his four-year incarceration.
Your father once said Abacha kept him in an open grave and what was left was to bury him. During that period, what condition was he in?
We never saw him where he was incarcerated in those four years. When we went to visit him, we usually waited at the police headquarters sometimes for two weeks. They usually brought him to the station at old CBN and allowed him to stay with us for an hour or more.
How did you hear the news of his death?
They called us from Abuja collectively but, conveniently, I could not be found. So, other family members went. I indirectly heard that he had died and then I got a call from the Villa confirming it.
Did you see his body?
Yes, I saw it.
It must have been really terrible…
For me as the first son and the head of the family, I needed to be strong. They didn’t beat us and to do otherwise would make it look like we had been defeated. I went in there and saw the body and I asked if we could take him for burial. They told me that we had to go and meet with General Abdulsalami who pleaded that they should be allowed to carry out an autopsy. I initially said no because, as a Muslim, he should be buried immediately. But he pleaded and I later agreed and that was arranged. I had come to terms with it and, emotionally, I was strong because, before then, I had seen the death of my mum who died at 54.
Do you believe he was murdered or do you think he died a natural death?
I think that is very irrelevant, to be honest. If you know my father well enough, he walked with a first aid kit. He knew his body so well and when anything was out of order, he hopped into a plane and demanded to be taken to his doctor. If he walked past a clinic, he would stop and tell you to take his blood pressure. Now, if you lock up such a man for four years without getting him medical attention, you have already killed him. You don’t need to put a gun to his head or poison his tea, which was what he meant when he said Abacha had locked him in a coffin. We all knew he had high blood pressure, so it’s a given that such a person should have had frequent medical attention.
I think, at a point, we were successful in getting him to go for treatment but then his lawyer came and decided to challenge the conditional release that was brokered. I did not see the sense in that. Would you also blame his lawyer for being part of the conspiracy or not? Abacha even said on live TV that he didn’t know what my father’s lawyer was doing but that he certainly wasn’t working for the government. You can go and check the clip.
At a point in time, we heard that you were married to IBB’s daughter. Was it true?
I think they put the cart before the horse; we never got married. I had known her way before politics and, if I wanted to, I would have married her long before the election, but it would not have made any sense because it would have looked like an arranged thing. One day, I was at a function and Baba Ayo Adebanjo accused me of not participating in what they were doing because I was collecting contracts from the government to print election materials. I told him that I was not involved in any contracts but that, even if I was, were the contracts not Nigerian contracts and am I not a Nigerian? His allegations were false. I grew up with his kids in Surulere, so for him to tell me that in front of people was embarrassing.
How many children do you think he had?
You can’t count the number of children one has. There was a lot of uniqueness in MKO; to him, nothing is a mistake. It may look like an excessive thing but, over the years, it turned out well. I have a sister married to a Deltan. I am married to a Deltan. I have a sister married to the Ijebu. I have a brother married to an American. I have a brother married to the Kanuri. I have a brother married to someone from Zimbabwe and, before you know it, we would be presidents all over the world. We don’t joke around.
Has the acrimony in your family been resolved? One of your siblings accused you in the media recently that you are not letting them have the opportunity to run the businesses and that the businesses are in ruins.
I’m glad you brought it up. All these businesses did not start in one day but the government shut everything down in one day. A lot of these businesses were created by the eldest of Abiola’s children; Deji, me and others. My sentiment is totally different from any other kid who was just there spending money. If I was like them, I would have sold everything and nobody would query me but I need to leave a legacy beyond the fact that our father was a philanthropist and a creator of value added wealth. I kept quiet because it is a family issue and my responsibility is not to put the family out there. But it has gotten to a point that something has to be said, not so much because of them but because I now have kids and they are grown up and would also have their own kids and people would ask them questions about what they have been told about their father. I don’t play sentiments at all; so I am going to come forward with facts to show all that they are doing.
Has the debt owed your father been paid?
No it hasn’t.
How much is it now?
If you consider the interest accrued, it should be approximately $400 million and that is from one business alone. We are still in the process of recovering the money. I have cleared the June 12 issue, but I will now face the debt recovery issue squarely in the next four years.
It’s been said that while he was alive, MKO was one of the richest black men in the world, but then you read statements from his family members complaining that they cannot even afford to feed. Is it not a contradiction? Are his assets outside the country still intact?
Let them all go and get busy. Like I said, I would have to address this issue. There were so many things I had to do outside the businesses just to make sure things go on smoothly.
Did he have a will?
Yes, he had a will, which ought to have been executed by the bank, but the bank rejected executing it; so I had to take it on. We are still in the process but in the mean time, we had so many people suing over which will is fake and which is real. They said it was my idea but the truth of the matter is that when the man was alive, those kids were made to take DNA tests. Was I also the one that asked for it? The kids that took the blood test know and their mothers know that their kids took blood tests. Even in his will, he named a particular child from a particular woman, saying the child was not his. How would he have known if he didn’t do a blood test when he was alive? Is that also my making? All the payments to the wives and brothers have been made but when they were collecting the money, they didn’t tell me that it was a fake will. What is left to my mum, I couldn’t even collect because she died before my dad.
Let me ask you an unfair question. Who was your favourite between your parents?
My mum moulded me, but my dad was my favourite. I could tell him anything. He began taking me for board meetings at a very tender age. He will tell me to sit at a corner while the meeting was going on. Whenever he looked at me, he knew exactly what I was thinking and vice versa. It didn’t start with my dad; it started with my grandfather. I was the first grandson on both sides. He was the Balogun of Ojo and a very tough man. He also allowed me to sit at meetings and that was how I learned many things.
What role did Bola Tinubu play in all of these?
At the very beginning, he was part of the Yar’Adua PF group from Jos. He was a senator then, and as far as the group went, we related. The crisis started post-election. When Abacha came, one of the things he wanted to do was to be the administrator for Lagos.
That is Tinubu?
Yes. I am sure you have seen pictures of him and my dad. He was hoping that there would be civilian administrators like we had under IBB but Abacha said no, that he was going to have military administrators. So he (Tinubu) said okay, in that case, can I be a deputy administrator? But Abacha said that there wouldn’t be deputies. Then he wanted the post of a commissioner.
He wanted to be a commissioner?
Yes. Then it was a choice between him and someone very close to Jakande who has passed on now. I can’t remember his name, but because Babagana was already in the government, that guy was picked as commissioner. But really, Senator Tinubu had lost out already.
Was Tinubu very close to MKO?
Yes, he was close enough. He and Adeniyi Adele, a very good guy, were close to my father. In fact, Adeniyi was closer to my father and more dedicated to the process than anyone of them. When my documentary comes out, you will see Tinubu’s take on issues. So once he lost out, automatically, he became a NADECO member and Adeniyi was incarcerated.
Do you think NADECO was actually working for Abiola?
Some were working for him. It is sort of like a pyramid. The bottom is used to feed the top; like a ponzi scheme. The bottom generates all the funds and comes all the way up and then they enjoy the loot. It is exactly the same process. In the process of taking the public sentiments of ‘oh, we want June 12’, they all appeared as if they were supporting MKO.
We heard some of the people the media celebrates today fed fat on the June 12 struggle. Don’t you feel sorry for the media when you read about such people because we really didn’t know what happened behind the scenes?
If you take the Yar’Adua group as an instance, which was the first lesson I learned, you never see their guys in the news. But you see all the PSP people all over the news, yet they could not win in their local governments. The Yar’Adua guys never spoke in the news but they were all very formidable in their own enclaves; they delivered on everything. If they tell you that they have 10 numbers, they will deliver on eight of that 10 for sure. See what happened in Lagos with Sarumi; those were the guys that were holding the horns of the bull. All the other guys were making noise in the media.
Between June 12 and July 7 when he died, which date is more important?
Because it is a national date. That date signifies a lot of things that does not exist today. First, he had a Muslim-Muslim ticket, which meant that religious bigotry is out of the window. We had a South West person
country and people voted for him across ethnic groups. That date will always be relevant in this country as long as Nigeria remains one because it is the day the country came together as one tribe, irrespective of religion or ethnicity. My plea is that under the leadership of President Buhari, that irrespective of where we are coming from, we must come together and stop all the killings and the ethnic division. On June 12, people voted for a man that represented a true detribalised Nigerian. That is the significance of why he got the GCFR, anyway. When I started this process and the Jonathan government felt they could name University of Lagos (UNILAG) after him, I told the government that MKO was not a South Western man. Jonathan missed it because we already had Moshood Abiola Polytechnic in Ogun State and we have a stadium there named after him.
Did you deal with Arthur Nzeribe at all?
I did. I mentioned him earlier as part of the governors’ group.
But he wasn’t a governor.
He wasn’t, but he and the late Olusola Saraki were part of the core of the governors’ group. When they went to court and got that adjournment to stop the election, I found a way to get the information across through the system that we were going to lose the election and that was how I truncated their move to stop the election.
From what you have said, we understand that Babangida didn’t want to go
That is my take, or rather, he didn’t know how he would go.
The second point we deduced from what you said is that Abacha played the double game. He promised to help MKO and he believed him.
Absolutely. He also put pressure on Babangida to go.
What role did Diya play as the most senior person from the South West in Abacha’s government? Did you have any interface with him?
I also interviewed him for the documentary to give him the chance to state his own side. When Abacha passed on and he was released from prison, I went and welcomed him and I told him that it was good he went through that process, because if he had stayed with Abacha till he died, he may not have been alive today. Or he may not be able to come back to the South West without being lynched. And he looked at me and said he thought he could come in quietly to Lagos but that he was shocked at the reception he received. It was the imprisonment process that cleansed Diya but God has a way of showing his power. I said what I said from what I know.
Would you consider serving under Buhari?
Honestly, I don’t know. I have a few years to round off the family issues. I am 57 years old now and I don’t want to get to 60 without resolving these issues. I have made a commitment to resolve the issues, including the legitimate outstanding debts owed the family and I only have three years to achieve that.