MKO Abiola and The Last Flight To Johannesburg By Nduka Obaigbena

imageI am sure thousands of Nigerians have various testimonies and reminiscences on their encounters with the late Bashorun M.K.O. Abiola, the acclaimed winner of the presidential election of June 12, 1993. Here is the story of my last encounters with the man of history.

It was a few minutes to flight time on May 9, 1994. As I ran towards the boarding gate to catch the last South African Airways flight to Johannesburg, I was told to take it easy as other passengers were still awaited and behind me. After handing over my boarding papers, I turned around and to my surprise, Moshood Kashimawo Olawale Abiola was standing behind me waiting to board the same aircraft to Johannesburg for the inauguration of Nelson Mandela as President of a free South Africa.

Abiola was with his wife of blessed memory, Kudirat, my senior friend and Publisher of AFRICA TODAY Books and Magazines, Chief Ralph Uwechue, and my brother journalist, Cameron Daoudu, who writes for the London Observer. I hugged the Bashorun as I had not seen him for almost a year since the June 12, 1993 presidential election. We soon settled into the flight on which Bashorun, Kudirat and I were seated on the same row. Kudirat sat by the window.

First he upbraided and scolded me for not supporting his 1993 presidential bid despite our relationship. I also accused him of backing and funding my opponent, the late Chris Okolie in my senatorial bid in 1991. We made peace when he told the story of how he had to drive several hours by road from Ilorin to Lagos to attend my marriage to my ex-wife in Lagos City Hall, in August 1987. We discussed Nigeria and the unresolved political crises. We discussed Nelson Mandela and his impending presidency and what it meant for Africa. I then invited him (and he accepted) to attend and speak at our global conference on Change & Challenge in South Africa in Lagos, on June 8, 1994.
Soon after we landed at the Johannesburg International Airport, we were ushered into the VIP welcome area for foreign visitors to the Mandela inauguration. I was the first to go through the immigration. MKO and his delegation went through another immigration desk but I could hear him clearly tell the immigration officials that he was the President of Nigeria. As soon as he said that the immigration officials apologised for the oversight and asked for a few minutes to get their protocols right; the officials were visibly confused as Heads of State delegations were treated differently. As I tried to make my way out, the head of the team came to me and asked, “I can see you are also a Nigerian; is he the President of Nigeria?” Silence…

MKO and his delegation who were only about five steps away from me were listening to my every word… and I had only just reconciled with the man on the aircraft… How was I to respond to this? I quickly collected my thoughts and said to the SA official: “Yes, he was elected President of Nigeria… eh… but you may wish to also contact the Nigerian Embassy.” I made my way out into the bus to the Carlton Hotel in central Johannesburg, where invited guests were booked. MKO and the delegation were given official cars to the Carlton Hotel – I later heard these were the official cars reserved for the then Head of State, General Sani Abacha, and his delegation. After checking into the Carlton Hotel, a quick bath and change of clothing, I made my way with a friend in a protocol bus (no cars for private guests were allowed to the venue) to Pretoria.

Entering the Union Buildings venue of the Mandela inauguration was mind-blowing. It was one moment in history that will remain etched in my memory forever. The first Nigerian I saw as I climbed those majestic stairs was Dele Olojede in his reporter tunic. He was there reporting for the New York’s Newsday. The dias was even more intimidating. It was a roll call of global leaders and celebrities: from Fidel Castro to Colin Powell; from the late Yassar Arafat to Hilary Clinton. You name the celebrity and world leaders, they were present: kings, queens, actors, writers, icons et al.. Abiola and his team sat quietly among them… I could also see former President Olusegun Obasanjo and Emeka Anyaoku at different points in the audience.

Moments later, I saw the Nigerian delegation arrive. Babagana Kingibe, Abiola’s preside-ntial running mate and then Minister of Foreign Affairs, quickly spotted and walked towards me. After a handshake and a bear hug, he took me to greet General Sani Abacha who was with former Head of State, General Yakubu Gowon, former President Shehu Shagari and Admiral Alison Madueke (then in the Armed Forces Ruling Council). After which Kingibe asked where Abiola was seated. As I pointed towards the direction of Abiola, he hit my hand and said, “Haba! Please do not point towards him…!” The official Nigerian delegation was obviously shaken by the ‘unofficial’ Nigerian delegation!

We all watched South Africa’s powerful entry onto the world stage. I was struck that all VVIP dignitaries were seated together in the audience and the stage was reserved only for Nelson Mandela, F W de-Klerk and heroes of the anti-apartheid struggle like Oliver Thambo and Govan Mbeki. Many in that audience were moved to tears as Mandela took power and spoke eloquently. At the end it seemed Abiola was transformed and determined to reclaim his mandate from Abacha and his fellow travelers. Cameron Daodu told me at the end of the ceremony that Abiola was now a changed man and would not be attending the Inauguration Banquet but instead would be heading back to London that night to re-energise his struggle. I was not surprised when a few days later, NADECO was formed.

I did not see Abiola after the inauguration and went ahead with plans for our international conference on ‘Change & Challenge in South Africa’ held at the Nigerian Institute of International Affairs, Victoria Island, Lagos on June 8, 1994. On the eve of the event, I got Dele Momodu, my founding Editor at Leaders & Company Ltd to confirm if Abiola would still be keeping his promise to attend the event given the tense political climate at that time. Abiola confirmed that he would attend. On that fateful June day, Abiola showed up with Momodu and several others. He took the Abacha regime to the cleaners, demanded his mandate to a standing ovation and challenged the military as never before… That was to be his last public appearance as a free man. After his speech he went underground only to re-appear on June 12 at Epetedo, Lagos on the anniversary of his election to declare himself President. The rest, as they say, is history.
For me, hosting Abiola began my collision with the Abacha regime. And only worsened when we began publishing THISDAY on January 22, 1995. The results were my harassment, detention and exile.

I returned from exile weeks after Abacha’s death. On July 7, 1998 when I learnt then UN Secretary General, Kofi Annan, US official Susan Rice and others were in Abuja to secure Abiola’s release, I headed to Abuja. As I alighted from the aircraft, I got a call from Peter Igbinedion, former Managing Director of FAAN who immediately said, “Hold on for Baba.” Kingibe got on the phone and asked where I was. I said I had just landed at Abuja airport. He asked that I proceed urgently to Aso Rock clinic, near the Presidential Villa. Not sensing anything I made my way to Aso Rock Clinic where I saw Kingibe and Igbinedion standing with long faces in the company of Bisi Abiola, Doyin Abiola and Lola Abiola-Edewor. I did not need to be told much.
I went into the clinic and found the covered body of Abiola on the clinic bed and his slippers on the floor.

Kingibe took me away and told me the new Head of State wanted to see me immediately. General Abdulsalami Abubakar sat in his living room with his military and security brass – a few of whom were my tormentors a few weeks earlier – and asked: ‘Nduka, how do we handle the media?’ I told the General, ‘There is nothing to handle! Just get on live television and tell the world everything…’. The meeting lasted a few minutes and we made our way out of the Abuja barracks where Abdulsalami was still residing. But the impact of that day may have changed our nation for good and given us the democracy we know of today.

Clearly, several of Abdulsalami’s colleagues were in no mood to hand over power to Abiola or a democratically elected government in a short time. Abiola’s death in custody changed all that. For one it gave Abdulsalami Abubakar the impetus to hand over power when he did on May 29, 1999, against the wishes of many of his colleagues. I tell this story as witness to history to demonstrate what I consider the nexus between Abiola’s untimely death and our Fourth Republic Democracy. And President Goodluck Jonathan was right in the circumstance to honour Abiola for his martyrdom. Many have expressed the view that whilst Abiola was deserving of honour, the name of the University of Lagos should not have been changed to Moshood Abiola University.

Now let us deal with the form and substance. Most agree with the substance of President Jonathan’s action that Abiola be honoured, but many do not agree with the form that the honour has taken; many more would have wished more consultations. Some – especially in the Unilag community – do not just wish to give up a part of the Unilag brand for MKO Abiola. As a collective, we have forgotten so soon the man who lost his life for Nigeria to have freedom (of choice) and keep the military in the barracks. Some even say you do not name iconic global universities like UNILAG and Harvard after individuals. Indeed Harvard University was named after John Harvard when he became that university’s earliest benefactor in 1636.

Abiola was a great benefactor to major universities in Nigeria, especially the University of Lagos to which he gave N100 million in the eighties (about N15 billion in today’s Naira). James Buchanan Duke renamed Duke University after his father Washington Duke in 1904 while Cornell University was named after historian Ezra Cornell! Harvard, Duke and Cornell are amongst the world’s top ranking universities as is John Hopkins University whose name was changed from the University of Baltimore to John Hopkins University in 1876.

Or is it the first University in New York City whose name was changed from Kings College to Columbia College (and later university) after 30 years of scholarship? What about Princeton University which started out as College of New Jersey? And Yale University which also started out as The Collegiate School in 1701 and renamed 17 years later after a Welsh businessman in India, Elihu Yale?

We can go on and on… Universities are not made by names, they become global centers of research and excellence through hard work and scholarship! What we need now is to promote research and scholarship not just in the renamed Moshood Abiola University of Lagos, but in all Nigerian universities so they truly can be centres of excellence and learning. What we need now is not to betray Abiola or blight his ultimate sacrifice, but ensure that we keep his legacies alive. What we need now is not to name stadia and buildings after Abiola, because stadia do not last forever as do great centres of ideas and learning like universities. For sooner or later structures are demolished in the face of architectural advances, sporting developments, and/ or growing demands of expanding cities.

What if Onikan Stadium, Lagos was named after the late Obafemi Awolowo: will it still be fit for purpose? I also agree with the many who say Abiola is not the only icon of our democratic struggle and so should not be the only one so honoured. To them I say there are many more anniversaries ahead for fallen heroes such as Shehu Yar’Adua to be honoured. But today is Abiola’s moment. Let us give him all his due. Imperfect as he was, he was truly the symbol of our Fourth Republic Democracy.

• Nduka Obaigbena can be reached at
[email protected]

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