MKO Abiola: The President who never ruled

Moshood Kashimawo Olawale, MKO Abiola was a wealthy man. He was richer than a country. He was influential and powerful. Abiola controlled virtually everything in his lifetime, from business, communications, and religion to politics, international affairs, and even sports. Abiola had everything he wanted; money, fame, connection, and power. He was even elected President in one of Africa’s freest and fairest election. But was robbed of his mandate under enigmatic circumstances.

Early Life and Education

Bashorun Moshood Kashimawo Olawale (MKO) Abiola, was born on August 24, 1937, to Alhaji Salawu Adelekan Akanni Abiola and Mrs. Zeliat Wuraola Ayinke Abiola (nee Kassim), in Abeokuta, Ogun State, Nigeria. He was not formally named until he was 15 years old. Prior to that, he was known only as “Kashimawo” meaning “let’s wait and see” in the Yoruba language.

There were signs in his early life that MKO had come to this world to struggle and overcome. As his aging father fell on hard times, MKO was forced to start taking financial responsibility for himself and his family as early as nine years old, which was when he started his first business selling firewood.

After completing school he left home to work as a clerk at Barclays bank in Ibadan in the Western Region of Nigeria. The very same day his mother died. Abiola was determined to make a success of himself.

Career

MKO Abiola’s journey to entrepreneurial success was invigorated by his Scottish university education. On his return to Nigeria in 1966, he was ready to put to practice all that he had learned.

It was 18 years after achieving his qualification as a chartered accountant from the University of Glasgow in Scotland that MKO Abiola established his reputation as an entrepreneurial force to be reckoned with internationally. In his role as Senior Vice-President for Africa and the Middle-East at ITT (International Telephone & Telegraph) Corporation, he had gained immense international business exposure and was named international businessman of the year in 1988.

Honours

Abiola’s international business achievements were partially responsible for the fact that he was made the head of the Nigerian Stock Exchange in 1990.

His philanthropy came into full-swing in 1970. He used his wealth to address some of the challenges he encountered in his earlier days. He fought his way out of poverty and sought to assist others to do the same.

At the inauguration of Nelson Mandela in South Africa, MKO sat at the seat reserved for Nigeria’s head of state. On his return to Nigeria, he formally declared himself President of the Federal Republic.

In 1987, he received the highest honour available to a commoner in the Yoruba tribe. He was made the Aare Ona Kakanfo of Yorubaland. In effect, he became the Field Marshall of the Yoruba people.

Political Life and the June 12, 1993 Elections

MKO Abiola took an interest in politics early on in life. In 1993, he won the presidential primaries of the Social Democratic Party and officially declared his candidacy for the President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria.

A week before the Presidential elections, MKO had to go on national television and participate in a debate with his opponent Bashir Tofa. He was grilled by members of the opposition party on a number of issues. One of these was his own interests in the oil industry and the management of Nigeria’s petroleum sector.

Even though the military sought to annul the election, the open ballot system used in the June 12, 1993 election meant that the results of the election were known very quickly after voting.

MKO Abiola won in 19 out of 30 states. He sought to focus on what the June 12 election meant for Nigeria. Abiola, managed to win in states that many would have thought inconceivable for a Southerner. His victory in Kano state, in the Northern part of Nigeria, was a measure of the extent to which he had become a bridge.

Annulment and Struggle for the Presidency

The military Head-of-State, General Ibrahim Babangida, was eventually forced to relinquish power; but rather than handing over to MKO Abiola, he handed power to another un-elected man from MKO Abiola’s home region (Chief Ernest Shonekan). MKO put out another statement in response to this bizarre development.

MKO Abiola went to many of the world’s major capitals and sought and received assurances of support for his mandate. He was ardently criticized for leaving Nigeria whilst his supporters were being killed during military crackdowns on their protests.

At the inauguration of Nelson Mandela in South Africa, MKO sat at the seat reserved for Nigeria’s head of state. On his return to Nigeria, he formally declared himself President of the Federal Republic.

General Abacha had also offered to give him back his election expenses, but MKO preferred to stay detained. There was international pressure to release MKO and other prisoners, but little from the sources that had pledged to support him.

Arrest and Incarceration

The military Head-of-State, General Sani Abacha and his advisers pondered over what course of action to take. It was decided that Abiola should be arrested for treason. Around 200 vehicles came to his Moshood Abiola Crescent home in Ikeja, Lagos to arrest him on the 23rd of June 1994.

One of the darkest eras in Nigeria’s history began. There were mass arrests and even assassinations, especially of those known to support MKO Abiola’s presidential mandate. The most alarming incident of this kind was the murder of MKO’s wife, Kudirat Abiola, in June 1996.

Abiola remained detained in solitary confinement. He had only a Bible, Qur’an, and guards to keep him company. He also lacked adequate medical care, all in an attempt to pressure MKO Abiola into renouncing his mandate.

General Abacha had also offered to give him back his election expenses, but MKO preferred to stay detained. There was international pressure to release MKO and other prisoners, but little from the sources that had pledged to support him.

Death and Legacy

During a meeting with a U.S. delegation, headed by Ambassador Thomas Pickering, MKO Abiola collapsed and died. According to mainstream reports, this happened after he drank a cup of tea at the meeting.

The sudden death of MKO Abiola on July 7, 1998, was breaking news around the world. He was 60 years old.

Moshood Abiola’s death succeeded in discrediting military rule in Nigeria, and his outstanding contribution to his country, the African continent, and the world was acknowledged six years after his death when the New African magazine listed him among the hundred greatest Africans of all time.

On June 6, 2018, President Muhammadu Buhari posthumously conferred on Chief Abiola the highest title of GCFR (Grand Commander of the Federal Republic) and made June 12 a federal holiday instead of May 29.

Buhari also named the National Stadium in Abuja after the Abeokuta-born business mogul during the maiden June 12 Democracy Day celebration at the Eagle Square on June 12, 2019.

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Further Reading

How presumed winner of June 12 election MKO Abiola died

June 12, NASS and Nigeria’s Fourth Republic

Buhari names Abuja National Stadium after MKO Abiola

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Ayomide Akinbode

Ayomide Akinbode holds a degree in Chemistry but has a passion for History and Classics. When he is not writing, he’s either sleeping or playing Scrabble.

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