Opinion (27/11/2021): Kola Abiola And His Secret Pains – By Dele Momodu
Fellow Nigerians, I had a most unusual interview with a man I had always described in the last three decades as the ultimate Crown Prince, Abdul-Lateef Kolawole Abiola, the son of Chief Moshood Kashimawo Olawale Abiola. We’ve been friends ever since and I had written countless stories about him but this is our longest and most revealing interview ever. I thought I needed to share it with you on this page, though the full interview will be published in The Boss online newspaper this weekend…
Please, enjoy these excerpts…
This is a very rare interview. And for me it is a great honour and privilege to have you. And I like the fact that about two days ago when we spoke, you told me that I could feel free and ask anything. So tell us about yourself from the very beginning
Abiola: Thank you. I am Abdul-Lateef Kola Abiola. I was born into humble beginnings, to late Bashorun MKO Abiola and Alhaja Simbiat Abiola. I am one that has been further humbled by events in my life and that makes me what I am today. That more than describes me as per who I am and why I do what I do today.
Can you take it further back to when you were in school and all that?
Abiola: I came back from England, and started at the University Staff School, Akoka. At that time, my late mum was a lecturer at YabaTech and my father was an accountant. She was teaching back then Textiles Designs. I remember that me and my young ones will walk all the way from UNILAG to YabaTech to wait for my mom to finish before we could go home. From there, I went to Baptist High School where I lived with the principal then; did a bit there before going to Ibadan Grammar School. When I came back on holidays, I had severe Jaundice, and couldn’t go back. I ended up spending six months at home recuperating. Later, I did a term at Maryland Comprehensive Secondary School before my mum shipped me all the way to Aiyetoro in form three. Well, I finished secondary school in Aiyetoro, and went to San Francisco State. Then I went to Berkeley and then to Colorado State University. I have a Bachelors in Finance and MBA in Business Administration. That’s me!
What were the things that molded you knowing very well that daddy was busy, and you stayed with mum?
Abiola: I thank God for her. She always told all five of us that we are not MKO kids, and that we are Simbiat’s kid, especially when dad became polygamous, and as a result of that, the discipline was extra. She was very religious, and she made sure we were religious as well. She was a Taliban in the house. The moment you were able to convince and get her on your side, she will be you one hundred percent. I owe a preponderance of who I am today to her. It is a shame that she didn’t long enough to see us achieve. I wished that by the time she left, the youngest of us, Wura, was doing a PhD. In that respect, she saw us to a point where we could handle things for ourselves. It’s been 29 years since she left, and like I said, one has been humbled by events over my life. She died at 54. I lost my daughter; I lost my father. She is just one who has taught me to be careful, and she’s been very very deep in my thoughts. I took from her in that once that I have decided on what to do, I do it though it takes a while and lot of consideration.
My father and I were connected so well. They say when you look so much like your father, you make enemies of yourselves, certainly not in my case. I think it was by design and my mother ensured that the friendship was there to a point my father couldn’t do anything without calling Kola. In its own little way, it became a problem in the family. She made me come home early just to be around him. The relationship between me and my dad is a design created by Simbiat.
Your father started and grew so many businesses. Could you tell us some of the businesses because I know you were involved in some of them
Abiola: It all started with ITT which he was a part owner. He was an employee, but became a part owner. From that came RCN, Radio Communications Nigeria, and from there came the Bakery (Wonderloaf), and then Concord Press, and then Abiola farms, Concorde Airlines and African Concord. Basically, that is it. Yes, I was involved in a lot of them. A lot of them have been around before I got back. It took me all my service years in Zaria to go back and forth; to restructure and reorganise a lot of the entities. I had to clean them up prior to the arrival of my other brothers so they can step in and take it from me to better heights. Unfortunately, we collectively became a victim of politics – a whole June 12 and electoral history. We all know what happened back then. But more importantly, the government fought us with all their might and the businesses itself became casualties of life. I am not sure anything survived by that time. At the height of it all, we were the highest employer of labour in the country. We had offices in every state. The Concord Press, Airlines, RCN, ITT etc. Like I have said in the past, MKO was well ahead of his time, not to talk about the Abiola Babes etc. He was well ahead of his time. Unfortunately, he paid the price for that also.
Lets talk about something more international. Before my question, let me use this opportunity for giving me the opportunity to handle the public relations of that country many years ago (1991/1992) Thank you so much for believing in me. What happened to Summit Oil? I know you must have spent about N400 million or more when money was money, but suddenly…
Abiola: Well, we were one of the first indigenous companies to drill and find oil, and that is when we launched. It created a lot of excitement, not just for my family, but for the industry as a whole because it was fully indigenous. And MKO was a strong believer in indigenous challenge. So it was a wholly Nigerian affair. That also extended to the equity and funding of the operation. Now, when the election was annulled, the licence was cancelled. We had two concessions back then; they were cancelled. We started with one that was split into two, and we paid for the second one. And it is funny how things work, but I will probably get it another time. We paid for both, and when the then government of General Sani Abacha came in, he cancelled the licence; we waited till he left office when President Olusegun Obasanjo was sworn in, we got back both licences. We had to do that by reclassifying the concession. We are a Niger Delta based concession with 55 years of exploration time to convert to oil mining licence to an oil prospecting licence. Now, by the time General Abacha left, there was no way we could still run that concession under that regime, so we had to reclassify it to another basin, which took 10 years to prospect and convert the licence. There are some details I can’t tell now, but anyway, after we reclassify it, we still had another problem with the regime. President Obasanjo didn’t quite understand why we had two concessions. We tried to show him that we didn’t operate the second concession because because the licence was suspended. And we actually paid for the two concessions. Anyway, the long and short of the matter is that he actually cancelled one and left us with one. And we continued operating on the one that we had.
But fortunately when late President Musa Yar’dua came to power, I approached him; but before then, we had taken DPR to court because we paid for the concession. We also paid for the data to the original owners of the concession. So we went to court. So when President Yar’dua came, I approached him and explained my situation, which he knew about anyway. And he returned the concession back to us. So we had an out of court settlement, and that’s how we got it back. We have been trying ever since to make it work. We have gone from the first, and we are virtually on the last because it is a long tedious governmental process just to get it operational again. But I have a total commitment to sum it up because of one particular thing; when we signed the signature bonus back then, and we were going to pay for it, my father was approached by family members who didn’t quite understand why he would leave so much and give so much in my hands to go and take the risk, he said well, he believed so much in Kola, and that Kola can achieve this thing, and as Kola has said, ‘we are going from being rich to wealth’.
He honestly believed I know what I was talking about – that’s number one. Number two – I told my that I believe this is what is we are going to be vying for. He said everything was my headache. I said yes, but the only difference was that I didn’t take it as my headache sooner than he cared. He told me if you make this work, you will make my burden a lot more easier. I took up the challenge, and when we struck oil, I proved everybody right. I proved to everybody that this thing will work. Events that happened subsequently were totally out of my control, and because of that till date, I have been travelling to make it works, and that is why I am stuck at it. I have put in a lot of my resources just to make it work. Despite all the setback, I’m still at it, and isha Allah, I am almost there.
Amen! Now, your dad was almost into everything. Could you tell us the story of Concord Airlines
Abiola: Concord Airlines came by default actually. We had two aircraft; mikilo and Kilo horse power – two HS125. And while it was for personal usage, we also use it as private charter. Along the line, the whole idea came that since we are running private charter, why don’t we start an airline, and that came. It wasn’t my idea; it was sold to him, but once he said he was going to be doing it, I followed him, and made it happen. But I was not going to do differently like it was done back then close to time aircraft that only has a few months to go and too expensive to manage, I decided to use double pops instead because I thought they were efficient, and with that, I can make lot more hubs and more connections. The idea was to have as pop as the operation, and we did that until it was also shut down.
Do you think it is something you would like to resurrect?
Abiola: Good question. For me, it’s like fine China; You drop it on the floor, and its so difficult to get the pieces together again. There are somethings I don’t feel happy with, some that have a possibility, there are some that are still running, but I don’t think the airlines are one of those things in my book.
I started life in Lagos at the Concord Newspapers. What happened to Concord Newspapers because as at the time you invited me, you also wanted to resurrect it. What happened?
Abiola: Concord was proscribed by the military government then, and while they occupied the premises, they virtually stole all the bags and most of the bags left became useless – that’s one. Two – I also felt that I could resuscitate it, which I still plan to resuscitate, using a totally different model. We are in a new age now; the days of having a huge printing press and a thousand and one people all over the place are gone. I discussed that with you, and I gave you the blue print on how I intend to do it. While it came back from date, it still have the problem of feeding its own self because the management then was still trying to maintain that old order. I even recall that we went to the state government of the day for help, and their own idea of helping then was to buy up the generators. I wondered how that would help; how a press would run without generators.. That’s another story entirely. It is doable. I know it’s going to come back. It is not going to come back in the guise which it went, but it’s going to come back in a hybreed of some sort. I am working on it.
One of the saddest things that happened was the story of the Abiola Farms. At a time there were fisheries and many more. What happened to all these?
The same thing. The farms collapsed because the military government believed that I had a secret airstrip on the farm – the one at Lafiagi and Taraba, and that I was flying in arms and training commandoes there. We didn’t have Boko Haram then let alone training commandoes (laughs). As a result, they shut it down – the same thing with the equipment. I even heard that family members went in there to beat down the equipment and selling the stuffs. The farms were something very dear to me. If there is one thing I have put hands into, the farms were the biggest satisfaction I ever heard. You truly reap what you sow. I got so involved that at the height of it, I was doing about 3000 hectares of maize, another thousand of sun flour. I have my hybreed for sorghum etc. I was really passionate about it.
I really really enjoyed working on it. Of all the companies, that was number one for me – there were kinds of value added, changes to the environment, to the people in those remote areas. The government of the day ended up hurting all these people thinking they were MKO or me. In Taraba for example, and because of the contributions I made there, there is a local government named after me. It is something that was so close to my heart. I felt so bad; there was nothing I could do. There is a limit one can take on government. I hear people say, you didn’t do this, you didn’t do that, you could have done this, you could have done that – I pray to God they never have to face government; they will always find a way to chop off your knee caps. And the system wants to bring you down. For me to be standing, and have survived it, I think I have done a great job so far.
Your dad was a global citizen. He touched lives everywhere, especially in Nigeria. I remember the case when the sultan Abubakar of Sokoto passed on, and he had to get involved in Maccido/Dasuki fiasco. Are you able to recollect what happened at that time because today, Nigeria is so divided that we hardly hear of something where a Yoruba man will go to Sokoto to settle traditional problems
Abiola: My father was very close to the late Sultan Abubakar. The son is the present Sultan of Sokoto. He is very very close to me. When the issue came up and there were burnings and killings in Sokoto, my father and I got into an aircraft and moved to Sokoto. We met with the Sultan, and went to see Maccido also, and he was able to broker peace. You know in Islam, you must have faith; God gives, God takes away. We’ve seen what happened subsequently. But the truth of the matter is there was peace, Sultan Dasuki has been the Sultan of the emirate at some point in time so is his brother, Maccido. Everything is prescribed and ascribed by God. His going there doused a lot of the storm. He met with quite a lot of people in Sokoto that day, and by the time we left, there was a change, and peace returned. You see that goes to show why and what I believe about Nigeria. I have offices in every state. I am at home in every state in Nigeria because we reached out as Nigerians. I grew up in an environment that I couldn’t see anybody by ways or religion but purely by just being Nigerian. We have been to remote places for employees on functions just to support them. So that was just one of many things he did back then. When a Nigerian was given an award in Saudi Arabia, ne chartered a plane and flew everybody there. To me it is a norm. He was a good man.
You did your national service in Zaria. Today, a lot of people in your position will never do that. They will use long leg to come back to Lagos. What happened? How did you find yourself in Zaria?
Abiola: I came home on holiday. My mum wanted me to go back for Ph.D but I just was ready to stay at home and do something. I worked at chemical company back then, but I wasn’t just fulfilled. I knew I could do a lot more coming back to Nigeria. So, I went and filed for my NYSC on my own , but my mum was like when are you going back, and I had to tell her that I want to do my NYSC. She had to make me promise that I would do a PhD, and I would do; I owe her that much. Maybe when my little girl goes back to school, I will join her and do that, but I will definitely do it isha Allah. I was posted to Kaduna, and as God would have it, the camp was in Zaria. Zaria was second home to me. He has a house there and the Emir was like his brother and godfather to me. And I was at home. Not just that, I went to Taraba so was so remote, and I had no problems there. I was at home, and like I said, I have a local government named after me. I had no problems.
The day my mum came to the farm to see what I was doing, she was like, Kola, what are you doing here. Your mates are are out there in Lagos, working in banks and oil companies. I answered her that dad said I should do it, and I am loving it. She said, I’m telling you you can’t continue here, but I reminded her that she was the one that said I should do whatever dad said, so why would she now want me to do otherwise. I made her understand that I was creating things there; I was making things out of nothing, and that’s where I thrive the most. I don’t think I’m a good trader, but when it comes to creating something from zero, I think that’s my strength. When she returned to Lagos, she got my dad to come down and see what I was doing in the place (laughs), and the same scenario played out in Lafiagi, I was comfortable everywhere. Even when I went to Edo State to start drilling oil. I am afraid to invest or do business anywhere. We all see ourselves as one, and that is what it is all about.
Your dad was involved in the fight for reparations against the many decades of slavery, and a lot of people has said the West was not comfortable with some aspects of his life. What informed the decision to go for reparation
Abiola: You see…my father always fight for justice for the underdog. He felt he had the reach to make a difference. He would always put his best foot forward. Besides being a true Nigerian, he is very much a Pan Africanist, and he felt that you can’t become a strong economic unit if you don’t have the infrastructure, policies and things that could make it convenient for ease of trade and movement. As a result, drop all the barriers that hinder entry and exit of any country. You cannot create the economies if the entry cost is so high; when I have to fly to Italy to get to Gabon or fly to France to get to Cameroun when they are just next door. He felt by doing this, let them pay for that infrastructure that they deprive us because it was on our backs that those infrastructures were built – the cotton fields in America, the plantain fields in the Carribeans. He felt that if they can provide a marshal plan for the Germans, and give the Israelis something every year, why not do something that will make up for all we have lost overtime and generations. And he was very very passionate about that. He just felt that somebody has to start this, and overtime, it would be crystalise, and it is beginning to. Like you said, the man had a foresight, and everything he did was not by error. We are slowly but surely getting there.
At the end of January 1993, your dad suddenly went into politics, and I remember leaving Nduka Obaigbena’s house that night when we picked up the information, and I came to your house in Anthony Village to ask you. I’m sure you remember that night. (Long laughter)
Abiola: Of course I remember…
Exactly, could you please tell us everything that transpired
Abiola: Few months before that, we had a meeting at the hospital with my mum. My dad hinted about him running for president and politics. Her take was that ‘I wholly support you to do this, but there was a big but, allow President Ibrahim Babangida finish his programmes and do what he wants to do, and then you can step in and run’. She had reservations about the process. I think Deji, Agbo, myself, himself, I think Bolaji was also there. We agreed to let the process end; once it was done, we will take it up from there and run for the president. We wanted to see how far he would go with the process. About a week or two after, she passed away, and we were dealing with that. He couldn’t tell me what he was doing because he knew we had an understanding, but I was reading it and heard of it exactly the same way you heard of it. A lot of people were calling to know my whereabouts, I responded that I didn’t know anything about it. So, I came down. He couldn’t call me. Normally, I use to stop by on my way home before going to Anthony. He didn’t call me. I didn’t go. Some people were like daddy said he hasn’t seen you, and I answered that he should call me (laughter). But I came down, and I resigned from the company, and said it was time for me to equally move on. Then the process was going on and election format and strategies and so on and so forth. All along he kept on telling something that this thing is not bright – ‘where is Kola’. If he gets here, we will get the answers to all the questions I am having. Then one late night, around 2:30am, he came by my house. He called out me (he called me Kay). He said he was on his way home, and stopped to see his grand kids. I answered that his grand kids are upstairs. I took him upstairs, and we came back downstairs. He got into his car, came down again to hug me, and said in Yoruba, ‘are you just going to leave this to me to do, and you will not participate in it? Before that, Olu Akerele and I had talked about election, and I told him I wasn’t interested but I would give him a blue print on what he needs to do. I advised him to take it to him, and he would like it. Now, this was at the lobby downstairs. I sat him down and gave him step by step of what has to be done and how it needs to be done. I also predicted who was going to be VP. I think Olu still has a copy of the that thing. I read it line by line. I felt Olu must have gone to tell him that he needed to call Kola. He read and said it was making sense and ordered I be called. Those were the decoy he used to come and see me that night. So I was now that you are telling, I just have to look at it. That was how I got involved.
Is it true that your mum ever told daddy not to go into politics
Abiola: No. She said he can go into it but let the IBB programme come to conclusion first.
But the programme was elongated. Do you think your dad got impatient with the transition programme, and is it true that he sent people to Babangida to find out if he was ready to go finally
Abiola: Yea, but either way, it is neither here or there. The difference in us, the five of us, was there was no Simbiat, and that told on us, and is still telling on us till today. I really don’t know how best to explain that but you see I was very very close to dad, but there was a limit to how I can look up to him and say my mind with the kind of training she had given to us. There is a limit I can confront him. In the past, I could speak to him, and he could tell where I was coming from. I have a sense that he was not fully on board, I could go to mum. But I seem to be the only one in the room that seems to say things differently. Everybody around him were not saying things based on my perspective; based on the love I have for the man. I think deep about things, and rarely do I speak on things and they don’t come to pass. It is just a gift. I don’t just open up and say things. And that is the reason I don’t give too many interviews as well. This is because my views can be very extreme. I have learnt overtime to manage my tongue and be restraint. Still, there is a limit to how confrontational you can be with your dad. That will be a bit too much. I think that created a circumstance where I was alone in that room so to speak, and there was a limit to what I could achieve.
I am very interested in the SDP (Social Democratic Party) primaries in Jos. There was a lot of work to be done; horse threading, sleepless nights and sure daddy didn’t sleep for weeks. Could you recapture the essence of that marathon campaign to get the SDP ticket.
Abiola: Well, no one, what we did was not conventional. We really planned a coup against the establishment. We were never meant to get that far but because we did things in a very unconventional manner. They couldn’t tell where we were going at any given time, and that gave us a head up. Now, I got very involved with the Yar’dua group. I was about 28, 29, and I have to learn very fast. And I am thankful to that whole process till tomorrow to late General Yar’dua and even late President Yar’dua. I really had a lot to learn at a very short time. We came in a little late in the game. I need to figure out where the power play is, and how we could use that power to achieve the objective. At every given point, we were betrayed. But because of my innocent, I think there was an advantage in that. I see it and brush it up and move to the next thing. I was moving from one person to another, and because they viewed me as a small boy, wondering what I wanted, they listened. In the cause of that, it gave dad an advantage that a lot of what they won’t say to him, or find out, I could. And he trusted me a lot, even at that age. He was so sure it was in the best interest of the objective.
I wanted noting but to deliver the ticket, and I knew it. We paid for every hotel and guest houses in Jos to find out that Baba Kingibe camp has governors on their side, and they were threatening every hotelier not to allow me put any delegate in their hotel or their licences would be cancelled. But thank God, we had camped everybody in Kaduna first. We moved them on the day of the election straight to the stadium. So whatever we paid then was gone. I couldn’t even find a place to sleep myself. It was a problem in Jos then. I was determined to make sure things work. So it was an exercise I will have write about because of the kind of games that played out. Someone that comes to mind is Baba Adedibu for example. I have the highest respect for the man. As young as I was, he would sit me down and said in Yoruba, ‘Kola, what exactly do you want’. I will lay them out, and he will make sure they are achieved. At no given point did he do otherwise. Never! And even when some were playing games, he would say ‘don’t worry, you would get what you want. It may not come out exactly, but you will get what you want’. And I got what I wanted back then. Even in my voting party, it was meant to be different at the stadium. The games were played across states, even in my state, Ogun.
Now, your dad got the ticket. Let’s move on to the general election. I was not in Nigeria on the day of the election because your dad had sent me to Vienna to represent him as Gani Fawehinmi was getting a Bureaucracy award. But on Monday, June 14, I called Nduka Obaigbena in Nigeria, and he told me he has been trying to reach me, and if I could reach Chief Abiola, I should tell him to reach President Babangida urgently. I said why, and he said because he was going to win but they are not going to give it to him. And I said how can someone win an election and they won’t give it to him. Do you think in retrospect that it was an error that daddy did not reach out to Babangida early enough
Abiola: Well, I did. I did the reaching out on behalf of him. We did. It’s just that both sides allowed too many people to get in the middle of friendship. I have always felt the two of them can sort things out for themselves. It’s destiny I guess. There was even a particular case where after the annulment and everything, I actually approached General Babangida, and I said ‘sir, are you going to leave?’ And he said, ‘Kola, yes, I am going to go’. That was the day I believed he was going to go. Everybody around him didn’t believe he was going to go. Those around my dad didn’t believe he was going to go. Unlike the Yar’dua group, those around my dad didn’t have a plan in case Babangida goes. I tried to my them see otherwise.
Talking about Babangida, do you believe that some people worked on him not to hand over to your dad because I later learnt around 1998/99 from Dr. Rilwan Lukman, whom I visited when Chief Olu Falaye was running against Chief Obasanjo, and he told me that the owners of Nigeria (that was my first to hear of owners of Nigeria) have decided on Obasanjo not Falaye. Do you think the owners of Nigeria intervened at that point.
Abiola: You know what. Honestly, I’m not sure Babangida was held hostage by anybody. I think he was held hostage by a process he created himself. That process had dragged for too long that he had no choice. He started with registering multi-parties, and returned to cancel it. After that, he created two parties, and built party offices for everybody nationwide. There was no way he could walk back from it He was already hostage to a process that was so dragged out and was about to consume him. That is what leadership is all about. You have to be objective enough to take decisions even at your own expense. For a process that has dragged out for so long, I want to believe that; yea, there might be people who would not want to go for their own selfish reasons. But for the leader himself, he has to make that call irrespective. I think he was held hostage by the process he had created that was endless as opposed to individuals. That’s my summary there.
President Babangida stepped aside, and Ernest Shonekan from the same Egba House stepped in. Why do you think they invited him, and why do you think he accepted
Abiola: Well, I really don’t know. You see, governance will never be in a vacuum. Never! Like I said earlier, I had a meeting with him (Babangida), and he said to me directly and said, ‘Kola, I want to go’. I went back and conveyed this to my side, and they didn’t believe me, and made no plans whatever for plan B. We had another group – the Yar’dua group, who were saying let’s have this in place in case he goes. There will never be a vacuum – somebody will step in at some point. If the objective is for him to leave, let’s make sure he leaves first, and then we take the next step. But our own side of the fence didn’t believe he would leave, and so made no plan B, and that’s what happened. Now, as to why they picked Chief Shonekan, he was kind of in there already holding a position in IBB’s government. It was easier to move from there. It was not they went somewhere to fetch him, no, he was already in government. Maybe that was convenient, I don’t know. Like I said, we had no plan B.
It has been alleged that Chief Abiola was one of those who said Chief Shonekan should be sacked, and then Abacha took power because he promised to return power…
Abiola: That was a mistake, and I said that back then. It’s treason – whether it is a military or civilian person involved, it is treason. No military man will do that. If he fails he is dead. We won’t plan a coup to get a handover. I didn’t see that coming, and I said that was a big mistake. To call him to take over government to do the right thing? Who does that? If he fails, he dies. If he takes that risk, he did that for himself.
Two days after the Abacha coup, we were with your dad in his study. I remember Prof Agbalajobi, Alhaji Tede Olukoya, Alhaji Adetona and a few others were there with hi, and he actually wanted to issue a strong statement against Abacha, and they advised him against it, and actually advised him to reach out to Gen Abacha. That night, your dad asked me to drop some documents, and the following morning that his vice, Babagana Kingibe, Ebenezer Babatope Babatope and others have decided to join the Abacha government.
Abiola: I actually told him that myself. You see, before that, I knew. It was more like window dressing to make it look like sanction. I had already told my dad that this guy was already in the government, and when I told him, it was a very difficult thing for him to swallow. I could feel for him. He said they all going to be the biggest losers. I really felt so bad, but I had to tell him. But when the meeting was called, he just flowed with it, and didn’t say anything.
Do you think that was the night everything ended
Abiola: I don’t think it ever ended for him. It never ended for him. During one conference Abacha organised, we were having a debate, and it was said that an exit date of the Abacha regime will be revealed at the conference. On our part, we were contemplating boycotting the conference, but I was like this is a military government, and as a result boycotting the conference will be of no consequence
After Abacha, your dad went to Ipetedo to make his declaration. Were you in support of that declaration
Abiola: I was a proviso because we were then under a military regime, and anybody who says we should do this must be behind us. I think he had a press conference where he said he was going to appoint his own cabinet and all that. I was like all of us should go to the Ipetedo place. It wasn’t all about him alone. Let all of them forming the cabinet come there and declare the government with him. That was my own view. When he left – I only found out afterwards. That was my condition. I didn’t say they should not do it. I said if they are going to do it, let everyone of them go with him to do it.
He disappeared for about 13 days. He went into hiding, and I remembered he came out from Surulere to go home before he was finally arrested that night. Are you able to capture those moments
Abiola: I wasn’t there unfortunately. By the time I got there, he had been taken. I knew he was going to leave. He was coming home that day. I was meant to be at the house that day, but I had some personal things I had to take care of before heading there. But before I got there, the whole place had been sealed up and I couldn’t get to him.
For 13 days, you were not with him
Abiola: I was. I even went to see General Abacha in Abuja. The late Isa Funtua was with him. Once they announced that I was around, he told me that I should wait. Alhaji excused himself, and said the General should see me because that what I was coming for was very important. We had a discussion, and I said we shouldn’t allow this event to corrupt our passion for each other. It was a long talk. We mentioned things I felt I couldn’t do. So I left, and that was the last time I saw him. The powerplay doesn’t understand friendship. That’s it. Once you sit on that seat – even if you don’t see things differently, the guys around you will tell it’s not what it choose to be. And I saw a lot of that back then. I’m even surprised they gave me the access I had back then. Maybe my innocence then was an advantage. I had nothing to hide, and I was honest with everybody. Even at my young age, I had always interacted with them at that level. That was the kind of exposure I got being with my dad.
And so your dad was arrested. Could you tell us what you were doing in those four years since you were at home. For me, I escaped to England
Abiola: I was meant to be have been arrested in the alleged Obasanjo/Yar’dua coup. But I opted not to go. My father has been incarcerated, and if I leave, there is no one to be around. I decided to stay, and waited for them to arrest me in my house. But for some reason, it didn’t happen. Yes, it was a very difficult four years. For me, it was a learning process because I got to know his friends for what they truly are. I got to know family for what they truly are. I needed to sift fast a lot of things. I got to know a lot of truths that I didn’t know. What I thought will be a temporary thing became permanent when he passed away. There was a lot to absorb. I went to Abuja for two to three weeks trying to see him with Mustapha tossing us back and forth. But as God would have it, he ended up doing more time than anybody. As long as you stand for the truth, things will sort themselves out. The only thing we had running then was the bank, not like they didn’t try to take it over. It was a tough four years. Thank God for some investments we made back then in Dubai. It was tough, it was really tough. I had a small tutelage of my mum’s passing away before his incarceration – it was a small bit of it, but at least I had an idea of what it entails. But my dad’s situation was a full blown one; a case study.
You were arrested at some point. That was after the death of Alhaja Kudirat Abiola – God bless her soul – why were you arrested
Abiola: What happened back then was – the last time I saw dad, he said we should change counsel. It was very funny that came up because from day one, I opposed Chief JOK Ajayi as counsel because I know a bit of antecedent between the two of them – the man never liked my dad. I didn’t think he would be there to truly do his judiciary responsibility in that case. I think I was right. I know I was right. So, I really never went to court when that guy was around. So when we saw the last time, he said I was right, and should change the counsel, I started the process and along the line, Alhaja Kudirat – his friends were with Aka-Bashorun – he came in with JOK Ajayi. And he found it difficult to withdraw his services, and I was bent on doing my instructions anyway. So we had an agreement with the late Segun Adetona. Dr Ore Falomo was there. She finally agreed that we withdraw his services, Before we left the meeting we agreed that we would have her write that letter, and then go with her, I sensed conspiracy. But they went and came back without her writing that letter. They came back and said I was right. And we just moved on and started the process. We had a scenario where he (Ajayi) continued with his services while Chief Afe Babalola came in with Chief Williams and decided to write this thing. the irony of it is that this man made it impossible.
Ajayi lodged the case in every court possible, and we have to start unwinding and undoing things before we now got to Supreme Court. He also came to the Supreme Court. When he was shot unfortunately, I was invited to make statement so I went, and got locked up claiming I was part of conspiracy that killed her, which is really unfortunate. Time has shown that I had nothing to do with it. Unfortunately, even her kids accused me of being a party to killing their mum. I don’t think they remembered that I was even locked up for that case, but its another story entirely. It was one of the difficult times I had to go through back then. What I have been doing is to hold the family together, but the system decided to split the family by accusing me of being part of the conspiracy that killed my own father’s wife. But also, I learnt one thing. The same group that was in support of Chief Ajayi then were all also incarcerated – Chief Adesanya and all of them. I think Chief Bola Ige was their lawyer. They went to court, but I refused to go to court because I didn’t do anything. I didn’t want to play into the hands of the military. I was released before all of them. I did about six months while they did about a year. I found out that the bigger the head, the bigger the headache.
And then, two days to July 7, 1998. Again, I was in London with Tokunbo Afikuyomi. We just left Nduka Ogbaigbena’s house (he had fled into exile then). We left very early in the morning – walked from Park Lane to Marble Arch. We saw a story on Chief Abiola in the Sunday Times of London that someone came to Nigeria with the then UN Secretary-General, Kofi Annan and they said the condition they met your dad in prison was very bad. Then two days after we read that story, your dad passed on. Could you recollect what happened in the last 24 hours before you got the news of his death.
Abiola: It was like any other day to me. I had gone for my usual workout, came back. I got a call from a friend of mine asking me if I have heard what was going on. This was before it became public. She was crying on the phone, and broke the news to me. At that point, I didn’t even know that the government of the day – Abubakar Abdulsalami had invited us to come and see him a day or two before. Conveniently, I was left out of that trip. I didn’t realise till I got to Abuja to mop up events. I got the news, and I spoke to Dr. Falomo and he made a call for me then. Then I got call from Abuja that I should come. Then it was all over the news that it has happened.
I just sat back, and you know, I had always felt it was just a temporary thing. I put a lot of things on hold because I have had some discussions with him, businesswise. If you recall, I had said that I wouldn’t get involved in whatever the family is involved in businesswise. So I was knocking out some things, waiting for the right time to discuss them with him first, and get the clearance before moving on. My situation with family that was temporary became real. I thank God that I had a space of time to get into where I understand things a little better and the different – it hit me real hard. And before then, because of all these dispute about changing counsel, and for the last one year before then, they didn’t give me access to him because i knew him in signs and papers so they refused to give me access to him. And, I also felt empty because dad was really my friend. He was my dad, he was my friend. I didn’t talked to him – yes – we all had our flaws, but he was a generally good man. He had no hate in him at all. Some will call it naive to have a heart like his, but it is not naive – giving everybody a chance to prove themselves. On getting to Abuja, I can’t telling myself so this thing is really real.
I met with Abdulsalami Abubakar. We went to what they called the State House Clinic, and I saw the condition they put him (laments). This country ehn… Two things that Nigeria does very well is to rubbish your leadership – if a man wins an election, and in the cause of the election, taken in a Black Maria to court. The other thing we also do very well is that we have become a country that does not care about our youths. That can’t be good. Once you rubbish such people, what are the youths supposed to look up to. They rubbish you if you have principles, and then expect the younger ones to have…a man wins an election nationwide, and you take him to court in a black maria. Then I went to the state house to see where they kept his corpse; the place was nasty, half refrigerated. The state House for God’s sake! It reminded me of my days in detention when I will sit out in the evenings and look at the Police Barrack and see the nastiness and I ask myself how do you expect these guys to show empathy to victims. I have seen scenarios where if you are cooking in the kitchen and decide to go to your room to collect salt, there is a possibility that your half cooked food might disappear. A guy dies on duty, and before his wife or parents know, someone is already there packing her out. I saw these things live there. Even in death, the treatment they gave him was disgusting. Just because he won an election. It doesn’t make any sense.
On the morning your dad passed on, a certain man, Yinka Ibidunni woke me up from bed in London just after 7am. He had been calling. He said they want to kill your father, and you are sleeping, and I said my father died in 1973. Which father again do they want to kill. He said your father, Abiola. I said who wants to kill him, he said he just listened to BBC world service and there was an interview from Thomas Pickering and Susan Rice who came from America to see Chief Abiola, and they asked them why do you want to see Abiola, Kofi Annan came, and Abiola said he was not going to bargain his mandate, Emeka Anyaoku came from the Commonwealth, Abiola said no deal. So what do you hope to get from Chief Abiola, They said they were going to persuade him to forget his mandate to which they asked them, ‘if he tells you no, what will happen’, and they responded that he would have become a danger to Nigeria. And lo and behold that evening, I was on to your sister, Wura Abiola, and we were going to issue a press statement that all the human rights people who were saying that Abiola should not leave the prison unless they gave his mandate to him, that we should get them to let Abiola come home….
Abiola: You know MKO very well. If he drives down a street, he will stop by and tell them to check his battery. My dad is not that careless with his health. If he feels any inconvenience health-wise, he is on the next plane out. He will be like, Kola, I’m on BA flight tonight, I’m not feeling too well, and he is gone. Now, when you incarcerate a man like that for four years – he doesn’t have a regulate visitation of his doctor, even at the point we pleaded for him to go out for treatment, Chief GOKAjayi came out to challenge the judge for being an NRC person (can you remember?) and aborted that whole drive. It was just a matter of time. You didn’t need to put a gun to his head. We all know he had blood pressure issue, and no check-up for four years. This is a man that gets a check-up everyday. Like I said, if he drives past a clinic, he will tell the driver to stop so he could check his blood pressure – any clinic and anywhere. And once it is more than normal, he is on the next flight out. Definitely, he was killed. I mean you don’t have to put a knife or gun to his head or spike his drink or whatever it takes. If you have malaria for two weeks, and you don’t get treatment, what’s going to happen? Not to talk about the number of tabs and vitamins dad pops in every morning. Maybe that is why I’m even not a believer in vitamins today because he pops vitamins regularly. He had a tablet for everyday in his bag. And you lock up such a man for four years and think he is not going to die. Of course he is going to die. So he was killed, period. No matter the circumstances or how you want to peddle it.
After his death, you have had a lot of family issues. How are you resolving the family issues. I am aware that there has been litigations. What happened to his will, for example. There was a time you were accused of forging and rewriting the will to favour you and your siblings. So, what has been happening?
Abiola: Number one – I must say one thing – MKO not coming home was a blessing in disguise for a lot of family members because if the man I saw last and the man that had gone through what he went through had come home, a lot of things would have changed. A lot of things. Two – would I change a will that doesn’t even benefit me. That will was dated quite alright, but wasn’t up to date, but that was the last will signed. There was a will he wrote that gave me the right to do and undo everything. But thank God, it was not signed. If it was the one signed, I don’t think I would here speaking with you today. But thank God I wasn’t signed. The copy is there in the file. Wouldn’t I rather forge the signature on that one and leave this one behind – I don’t get it. Number three – I don’t get anything from this will, the way it is now because everything that I could’ve possibly get that was going to my mum were given to me because my mum passed away before him. So whatever thing they are doing now is out of sentiment. Finish. The so-called DNA issue – these kids were doing a blood test in the man’s lifetime, not after death, and they know themselves. They had done it in his lifetime…
– Momodu is a respected journalist and publisher of Ovation International magazine