Chief Moshood Kashimawo Olawale Abiola, CFR (24 August 1937 – 7 July 1998) was a Nigerian Yoruba businessman, publisher, politician and aristocrat of the Yoruba Egba clan. MKO Abiola ran for the presidency in 1993, for which the election results were annulled by the preceding military president Ibrahim Babangida because of allegations that they were corrupt and unfair.
M. K. O. Abiola was born in Abeokuta, Ogun State. His name, Kashimawo, means “Let us wait and see“. Moshood Abiola was his father’s 23rd child but the first of his father’s children to survive infancy, hence the name ‘Kashimawo’. It was not until he was 15 years old that he was properly named Moshood, by his parents.
At the age of nine he started his first business selling firewood gathered in the forest at dawn before school, to support his father and siblings. He founded a band at the age of fifteen and would perform at various ceremonies in exchange for food. He was eventually able to require payment for his performances, and used the money to support his family and his secondary education at the Baptist Boys High School Abeokuta. 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 ostensibly because of its stronger pan-Nigerian origin compared with the Obafemi Awolowo-led Action Group.
In 1956 Moshood Abiola started his professional life as a bank clerk with Barclays Bank 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. From Glasgow University he received a first class degree in accountancy, and he also gained a distinction from the Institute of Chartered Accountants of Scotland. On his return to Nigeria, Abiola worked as a senior accountant at the University of Lagos Teaching Hospital, then went on to US firm Pfizer, before joining the ITT Corporation, where he later rose to the position of Vice-President, Africa and Middle-East. Abiola spent a lot of his time, and made most of his money, in the United States, while retaining the post of chairman of the corporation’s Nigerian subsidiary. In addition to his duties throughout the Middle-East and Africa, Abiola invested heavily in Nigeria and West Africa. He 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. He was also Chairman of the G15 business council, President of the Nigerian Stock Exchange, Patron of the Kwame Nkrumah Foundation, Patron of the WEB Du Bois foundation, trustee of the Martin Luther King Foundation, and director of the International Press Institute.
Moshood Abiola married many wives; notable among them are Simibiat Atinuke Shoaga in 1960, Kudirat Olayinka Adeyemi in 1973, Adebisi Olawunmi Oshin in 1974, Doyinsola (Doyin) Abiola Aboaba in 1981, Modupe Onitiri-Abiola and Remi Abiola. He fathered many children.
Moshood Abiola sprang to national and international prominence as a result of his philanthropic activities. 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 his having provided financial assistance in the construction of 63 secondary schools, 121 mosques and churches, 41 libraries, 21 water projects in 24 states of Nigeria, and he was grand patron to 149 societies or associations in Nigeria. In addition to his work in Nigeria, Moshood Abiola supported the Southern African Liberation movements from the 1970s, and he sponsored the campaign to win reparations for slavery and colonialism in Africa and the diaspora. He personally communicated with every African head of state, and every head of state in the black diaspora to ensure that Africans would speak with one voice on the issues.
Chief MKO Abiola’s memory is celebrated in Nigeria and internationally. 12 June remains a public holiday in Lagos and Ogun states. Remembrance events are arranged across Nigeria. MKO Abiola Stadium and Moshood Abiola Polytechnic were named in his honour,and there were calls for posthumous presidential recognition. A statue, MKO Abiola Statue was erected in his honour.
MKO Abiola was criticised by political activists and detractors. Controversy was caused by a song by Nigerian musician, Fela Kuti, a charismatic multi-instrumentalist musician, composer and human rights activist, famed for being the pioneer of Afrobeat music and a controversial figure due to his unusual lifestyle and apparent drug use. It is believed that Kuti had entered into an acrimonious dispute relating to a contract with MKO Abiola’s record label. He used the abbreviation of International Telephone & Telegraph (IT&T) in a song criticising big multinational corporations. The song, ITT, accuses such companies of draining Africa’s resources and says “they start to steal money Like Obasanjo and Abiola”.
Awards and honours
Moshood Abiola was twice voted international businessman of the year, and received numerous honorary doctorates from universities all over the world. In 1987 he was bestowed with the golden key to the city of Washington, D.C., and he was bestowed with awards from the NAACP and the King center in the USA, as well as the International Committee on Education for Teaching in Paris, among many others.
In Nigeria, the Oloye Abiola was made the Aare Ona Kakanfo of Yorubaland, the highest chieftaincy title available to commoners amongst the Yoruba. At the point when he was elevated, the title had only been conferred by the tribe 13 times in its long history. This in effect rendered Abiola the ceremonial War Viceroy of all 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 defence of his nation to prove himself in the eyes of both the divine and the mortal as having been worthy of his title.
He was awarded the third highest national honour, the Commander of the Federal Republic posthumously in 1998.
Involvement in politics
Abiola’s involvement in politics started early on in life when he joined the National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroons (NCNC) at age 19. In 1979, the military government kept its word and handed over power to the civilian. As Abiola was already involved in politics, he joined the ruling National Party of Nigeria (NPN) in 1980 and was elected the state chairman of his party. Re-election was done in 1983 and everything looked promising since the re-elected president was from Abiola’s party and based on the true transition to power in 1979; Abiola was eligible to go for the post of presidential candidate after the tenure of the re-elected president. However, his hope to become the president was shortly dashed away for the first time in 1983 when a military coup d’état swept away the re-elected president of his party and ended civilian rule in the country.
After a decade of military rule, General Ibrahim Babangida came under pressure to return democratic rule to Nigeria. After an aborted initial primary, Abiola stood for the presidential nomination of the Social Democratic Party (SDP) and beat Ambassador Baba Gana Kingibe and Alhaji Atiku Abubakar to secure the presidential nomination of the SDP ahead of the 12 June 1993 presidential elections. Abiola had managed to work his way out of poverty through hard work. He established Abiola bookshops to provide affordable, locally produced textbooks in the 1980s when imported textbooks became out of the reach of ordinary Nigerians as the naira was devalued. He also made available daily necessities such as rice and soap at affordable prices in the market.
For the 12 June 1993 presidential elections, Abiola’s running mate was Baba Gana Kingibe. He overwhelmingly defeated his rival, Bashir Tofa of the National Republican Convention. The election was declared Nigeria’s freest and fairest presidential election by national and international observers, with Abiola even winning in his Northern opponent’s home state. Abiola won at the national capital, Abuja, the military polling stations, and over two-thirds of Nigerian states. Men of Northern descent had largely dominated Nigeria’s political landscape since independence; Moshood Abiola, a Southern Muslim, was able to secure a national mandate freely and fairly, unprecedented in Nigeria’s history. However, the election was annulled by Ibrahim Babangida, causing a political crisis which led to General Sani Abacha seizing power later that year. During preparations for the 2011 Nigerian Presidential elections there were calls from several quarters to remember MKO Abiola.
In 1994 Moshood Abiola declared himself the lawful president of Nigeria in the Epetedo area of Lagos island, an area mainly populated by (Yoruba) Lagos Indigenes. He had recently returned from a trip to win the support of the international community for his mandate. After declaring himself president he was declared wanted and was accused of treason and arrested on the orders of military President General Sani Abacha, who sent 200 police vehicles to bring him into custody. MKO Abiola has been referred to as Nigeria’s greatest statesman. His second wife Alhaja Kudirat Abiola was assassinated in Lagos in 1996 after declaring public support for her husband.
Moshood Abiola was detained for four years, largely in solitary confinement with a Bible, Qur’an, and fourteen guards as companions. During that time, Pope John Paul II, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and human rights activists from all over the world lobbied the Nigerian government for his release. The sole condition attached to the release of Chief Abiola was that he renounce his mandate, something that he refused to do, although the military government offered to compensate him and refund his extensive election expenses. For this reason Chief Abiola became extremely troubled when Kofi Annan and Emeka Anyaoku reported to the world that he had agreed to renounce his mandate after they met with him to tell him that the world would not recognise a five-year-old election.
Abiola died in suspicious circumstances shortly after the death of General Abacha, on the day that he was due to be released, 7 July 1998. While the official autopsy stated that Abiola died of natural causes, Abacha’s Chief Security Officer, al-Mustapha has alleged that Moshood Abiola was in fact beaten to death. Al-Mustapha, who was detained by the Nigerian government, but later released, claims to have video and audiotapes showing how Abiola was beaten to death. The final autopsy report, which was produced by a group of international coroners has never been publicly released. Regardless of the exact circumstances of his death, it is clear that Chief Abiola received insufficient medical attention for his existing health conditions.
As recounted at the time in a BBC interview with special envoy Thomas R. Pickering, an American delegation which included Susan Rice visited Abiola; during their meeting with him, Abiola fell ill, with what was presumed to be a heart attack which caused his death.
A clause in Abiola’s will required that his heirs prove that he was their father. Over seventy people were able to show that Abiola was their father using DNA tests. Seven children were descended from his second wife, Alhaja Kudirat Abiola.
On 29 February 2016 former South African president Thabo Mbeki gave his views on what happened.
“President Mandela resisted all this until news came through that on the very first day of the 1995 Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) held i. New Zealand CHOGM, the Nigerian Government had executed Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight of his Ogoni colleagues. He then immediately joined others strongly to condemn the Abacha Government and approved the suspension of Nigeria from the Commonwealth.
“Thereafter, despite strong presentations about human rights, South Africa’s strenuous efforts to get SADC and the OAU to impose sanctions against Nigeria produced a negative response throughout the Continent, leaving South Africa isolated on this matter.
“President Mandela had visited Nigeria in 1994 and engaged General Abacha on the matter of the release of Mr Abiola.
“In July 1995 I led a small delegation of our Government to Nigeria to meet General Abacha. This time our focus was on the two matters of persuading General Abacha and his Government to release the Ogoni leader, Ken Saro-Wiwa, and his co-accused, as well as to release Generals Olusegun Obasanjo and Shehu Yar’ Adua, who were detained for allegedly having been involved in a planned coup d’état.
“We met General Abacha at 02.00 hrs (2 a.m.) at his offices. Having heard us out, he told us that he would reflect on what we had said and would respond to us before we left Nigeria.
“A day or so later, then Chief of Defence Staff and effective Deputy to Abacha, Lt Gen Oladipo Diya, invited us to lunch. During this lunch he gave us General Abacha’s response to the issues we had raised.
“This response was that with regard to the matter of Ken Saro-Wiwa and his co-accused, Gen Abacha could not intervene to stop a legal judicial process which involved murder charges. However, if the accused were to be found guilty and sentenced to death, he would use his prerogative as Head of State to reprieve the accused so that they would not be executed.
“Gen Diya also reported that Gen Abacha had said that there was a military tribunal which was considering the matter relating to Generals Obasanjo and Yar’Adua. It was necessary that he should allow the tribunal to complete its work. His view was that the tribunal would recommend the release of the two Generals, failing which he would again intervene to release them.
“After asking Gen Diya to convey our thanks to Gen Abacha for the commitments he had made, we suggested to him that it would be best that the Nigerian Government makes the necessary announcements when the time came, rather than that we should do this. Diya agreed to this and said that Gen Abacha would issue the necessary orders at the appropriate moments.
“Our delegation still had a small challenge to address. We had travelled from South Africa with a journalist. Treated by our Nigerian hosts as a member of our delegation, she was present at the lunch where Gen. Diya gave us Gen. Abacha’s response.
“She therefore had a real “scoop”! Together with her we agreed that if she were to publish what we had been told by Gen Diya, the likelihood was that not only would the Nigerians deny the story, but this would also inevitably condemn Ken Saro-Wiwa and others and Generals Obasanjo and Yar’Adua to death.
“A principled person, she kept her word not to publish her “scoop”, convinced as all us were that Gen Abacha had made a commitment to President Mandela and South Africa which he would honour.
“It was with this knowledge that President Mandela left South Africa to attend the New Zealand CHOGM meeting. When Ken Saro-Wiwa and others were executed, President Mandela was truly surprised and genuinely outraged that Gen Abacha could evidently so easily betray his solemn undertaking in this regard.”