When Nigeria went to the polls on June 12, 1993, the first since the military coup of 1983, Chief Moshood Kashimawo Olawale Abiola emerged victorious.
He would, however, not enjoy the victory as the preceding president and military leader Ibrahim Babangida annulled the elections, claiming that it was rigged and was completely unfair. This is despite the fact that Abiola won by 8,341,309 votes, about 3m votes against his only rival Bashir Tofa and despite international observers terming it as Nigeria’s freest and fairest election.
The move by Babangida plunged the country into a political crisis paving way for Sani Abacha to take over the country as president until 1998. In 1994, when Abiola wanted to claim his presidency, he was arrested by Abacha and sent to prison for four years, denying him the chance to show Nigerians the kind of president he would be.
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Born on August 24, 1937, Abiola was his father’s 23rd child. His name ‘Kashimawo’ means ‘let’s wait and see’ for he was his father’s first child to survive infancy. He would only be named Moshood when he turned 15 years old.
By then, he was already an established entrepreneur. He had formed a band that performed at ceremonies to make money to support his family. This was his second business; at age 9, he started a firewood business, which saw him gather firewood early in the morning before school and selling it to others.
He used the money from his band’s performances to pay for his education at Baptist Boys High School Abeokuta, where he was the chief editor of the school magazine and Olusegun Obasanjo was his deputy. He would later go to University of Glasgow and Institute of Chartered Accountants in Scotland until 1965 when he returned to Nigeria.
Once back in the country, he worked for his wealth, owning a publishing house, an airline and newspaper syndicate. He also became a philanthropist, making donations to schools, churches and mosques. He also was a staunch Pan-Africanist, calling for reparations from the West for slavery- something that saw him get an honorary degree from Tuskegee University in the U.S.
Abiola, who ventured into politics at 19 when he joined the National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroons, got back into politics in the 1970s under the National Party of Nigeria, serving as his state chairman. His ambition to become the party’s national chairman and launch his presidential bid was dimmed in 1983 when Babaginda staged a coup and took over the country.
His dream to become Nigeria’s president would resurface 10 years later when he would run and win the 1993 elections. It would be dashed again with Babangida’s annulment of the elections and eventual take over by Abacha, who threw him into prison for four years.
He was arrested for declaring himself the President and Commander-in-Chief of the Federal Republic of Nigeria and proclaimed “a new Government of National Unity,” under the orders of Abacha. He had given a heartfelt speech to Nigerians a year after the June 21 elections.
As of now, from this moment, a new Government of National Unity is in power throughout the length and breadth of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, led by me, Bashorun M.K.O. Abiola, as President and Commander-in-Chief. The National Assembly is hereby reconvened. All dismissed governors are reinstated.
“The State Assemblies are reconstituted, as are all local government councils. I urge them to adopt a bi-partisan approach to all the issues that come before them. At the national level, a bi-partisan approach will be our guiding principle. I call upon the usurper, General Sani Abacha, to announce his resignation forthwith, together with the rest of his illegal ruling council. We are prepared to enter into negotiations with them to work out the mechanics for a smooth transfer of power.
“I pledge that if they hand over quietly, they will be retired with all their entitlements, and their positions will be accorded all the respect due to them. For our objective is neither recrimination nor witch-hunting, but an enforcement of the will of the Nigerian people, as expressed in free elections conducted by the duly constituted authority of the time.
“I hereby invoke the mandate bestowed upon me by my victory in the said election, to call on all members of the Armed Forces and the Police, the Civil and Public Services throughout the Federal Republic of Nigeria, to obey only the Government of National Unity that is headed by me, your only elected President.
After the speech, Abacha sent 200 police vehicles to bring him into custody. Abiola was put in solitary confinement under the watch of 14 soldiers. He had the Bible and the Quran as his companions. His arrest caused furore the world over, with Pope John II, South Africa’s Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu calling for his release.
Abacha had however placed a single condition for Abiola’s release: that he renounces his mandate. Abiola refused even when he was visited by Kofi Annan and Emeka Anyaoku.
Abiola, who was to be released on July 7, 1998, died mysteriously on the same day. Quite a number of conspiracies have come up with regards to his death.
According to one of Abacha’s aides, Al-Mustapha, Abiola was beaten to death under the orders of Abacha. The claims have never been confirmed.
It was also said that an American delegation that met Abiola earlier that day was responsible for his death. This claim has been denied by members of the delegation including Thomas Pickering, Under Secretary for Political Affairs, 1997-2000 and Special Envoy to Nigeria.
We sat down. Tea was brought in. He drank tea, Susan drank tea and Bill drank tea, I didn’t — all from the same tea pot. (This is important because there are continuing rumors that he was poisoned, presumably by us, with the tea). He sat next to me on the couch and the others were sitting … on another couch in the living room of this big guesthouse. He suddenly became quite incoherent and distracted and didn’t seem to understand what we were saying, and after a few seconds got up and said that he wanted to use the lavatory…He walked to another couch in our direction, sat on it, slumped down and slid on the floor. He was a very big man.
Within some minutes a doctor came in and the meantime we did what we could to revive him and keep him awake, but he wasn’t coherent and was almost not awake. The doctor said ,“this is very serious and we need to get him right away to the presidential clinic”…. [Abiola] was a big man, well over 200-250 pounds. [The doctor] said, “You have to help me and the security people here get him into my car and we have to take him to the presidential clinic which is close by…”
According to official reports, Abiola died of a heart attack.
Abiola’s death caused riots across Lagos, leading to the death of at least 60 people. It also evoked reactions from international leaders like Bill Clinton, who was quick to say that his government was not involved.
Abiola was buried on July 11, 1998 but would be honoured with the country’s biggest award, the Grand Commander of the Federal Republic posthumously in 2018. June 12 was made Nigeria’s democracy day in honour of the annulled elections held in 1998.
With the annulled elections, his arrest and death, Chief Moshood Kashimawo Olawale Abiola became the president Nigeria has never had.