Dele Momodu: The day Abiola died

On Monday June 14, I got through to Nduka Obaigbena in Lagos who had some high-level information that Abiola was going to win the election but that it would be cancelled.

Fellow Nigerians, exactly 14 years ago Nigeria lost a rare and priceless gem, Chief Moshood Abiola, a proud son of Africa. What you are about to read may appear, momentarily, as being stranger than fiction but trust me, it is absolutely factual. Nigeria has indeed come a long way since that dark season when a handful of influential Nigerians chose to play God by collaborating to annul a process that would definitely have brought our nation closer to its glorious destination. Fourteen years after the symbol of that struggle Chief Moshood Abiola died in mysterious circumstances, it is only pertinent to remind ourselves of the salient stages that we’ve crossed since then. It is a tale full of twists and turns and one that would keep you spellbound by its superlative revelations.

In the early hours of July 5, 1998, Tokunbo Afikuyomi and I left Nduka Obaigbena’s apartment on Park Street, by Park Lane, and trekked all the way to Marble Arch, where we boarded a black cab. We had spent the whole night virtually discussing the intractable problems of Nigeria. The three of us were united by one thing, exile. We had served our various stints as refugees on the run from the draconian military regime in Nigeria. Nduka was the first to regain freedom after the sudden death of the maximum ruler, General Sani Abacha, and the take-over of power by the gentleman General, Abdulsalami Abubakar. Nduka had always succeeded as a journalist because of the impeccable sources at his beck and call. His position that night was to warn us about the dangers of not getting Abiola out as soon as possible. Even when you disagree with him on issues, Nduka’s one whose opinion must always be considered. He was not a member of NADECO but he was an Abiola sympathiser. Nduka would readily acknowledge his long-standing friendship with the man Nigerians freely handed their mandate despite occasional disagreements. 

There were dozens of freedom fighters scattered around Europe, United States of America and Canada. Most of us operated under the aegis of National Democratic Coalition (NADECO) while others hid under different formations and organisations. The principal operatives of the war against the military adventurers included Pa Anthony Enahoro, Commodore Dan Suleman, Lt General Alani Ipoola Akinrinade, Chief John Odigie-Oyegun, Professor Bolaji Akinyemi, Chief Amos Akingba, Chief Tunde Obadan, Senator Bola Ahmed Tinubu, Hon. Wale Osun, Chief Cornelius Adebayo, Chief Ralph Obioha, and so many others forced to flee the land of their birth. Some of those who chose to stay back at home to slug it out with the military were languishing in various improvised gulags and archipelagos all over Nigeria. Chief among the detainees was Basorun Moshood Abiola who had undoubtedly won the Presidential election held on June 12, 1993, and adjudged the best and fairest ever witnessed in our country.
Many other political gladiators who chose to stay back suffered various degrees of punishment including threats, harassments, mass arrests, detention without trial, torture, and outright murder. Such personalities include Pa Alfred Rewane, Prof Wole Soyinka, Pa Adekunle Ajasin, Chief Bola Ige, Alhaja Kudirat Abiola, Commodore Ebitu Ukiwe, Rear-Admiral Ndubuisi Kanu, Chief Abdul-Ganiyu Oyesola Fawehinmi, Pa Abraham Adesanya, Chief Olabiyi Durojaiye, Aremo Olusegun Osoba, Chief Ayo Adebanjo, Chief Olanihun Ajayi, Mr Femi Falana, Mr Beekololari Ransome-Kuti, Mr Olisa Agbakoba, Pa Solanke Onasanya, Chief Ayo Opadokun, Comrade Frank Kokori Dr Kayode Fayemi, Mr Richie Dayo Johnson, Mr George Noah, Senator Babafemi Ojudu, Mr Kunle Ajibade, and many of those opposed to military dictatorship in Nigeria.

What started as a poor joke on June 16, 1993, when we got hints that the election might be annulled would, sooner than later, snowball into a major conflagration and haunt Nigeria till this day. For those who reasoned like me, we had assumed that Abiola was coasting home to victory from all accounts available immediately after the elections closed on June 12, 1993. I was in Vienna, Austria, to represent Chief Abiola at the Bruno Kreisky Award presented to Chief Gani Fawehinmi on June 11, 1993 and could not make it back in time for the election. I left Austria on Sunday, June 13 to London where I started monitoring the results that appeared in Abiola’s favour. Unknown to most Nigerians what’s after six is always more than seven.

On Monday June 14, I got through to Nduka Obaigbena in Lagos who had some high-level information that Abiola was going to win the election but that it would be cancelled. In a powerful voice, Nduka told me to get Chief Abiola urgently and persuade him to reach out to General Ibrahim Babangida who was, apparently, under intense pressure, possibly, from some malevolent forces, to truncate the elections and declare them null and void. I argued with Nduka (in utter naiveté, retrospectively) that it was impossible for anyone to attempt such a dastardly act. I later confirmed that Nduka actually passed the same information to Dr Doyinsola Hamidat Abiola who, like me, found such contemplation too cruel and contemptible to be attempted by anyone. Little did we appreciate the sheer determination of those who could not be bothered if Nigeria burnt down to ashes as a result of their most reckless action. They had convinced themselves, like all Nigerian leaders, past and present that Nigerians were too docile and divided to unite and fight for any worthy cause.

They were right and wrong. They were right that they could abort a pregnancy in its ninth month but they were wrong in not calculating the risks involved. The world would later feel the vibrations of such a kamikaze plunge that threw Nigeria from the pinnacle of the temple all the way down the abyss of hell.

The plots and intrigues occurred at different locations and settings at the velocity of wildfire in harmattan. Chief Abiola was kept in solitary confinement, and incommunicado from the society at large. All efforts to liberate him from his kidnappers failed. A fierce but controversial legal battle raged in the courts. Offers of bail with conditions, and were offered to Chief Abiola but studiously rebuffed, willy-nilly, by those who did not realise how far the enemies of June 12 were ready to go. We’ll later realise that Chief Abiola was totally oblivious to the deadly chess game going on outside from the condition in which he found himself. At the height of our frustration and desperation in exile, Asiwaju Bola Tinubu and I had surreptitiously met with some Germans who boasted they could enter Nigeria, locate Abiola and set him free but the risks involved were just too gargantuan to undertake, personally or collectively. We soon perished such thoughts.

Abiola’s whereabouts and state of mind remained unknown even to members of his family. What was certain was that the military authorities were working hard on breaking his hard resolve.  This much was later confirmed in a Sunday Times of London publication of July 5, 1998. Tokunbo Afikuyomi and I had picked up the first edition of the famous newspaper at Marble Arch just before we boarded the cab that drove us to our homes in Hampstead Heath and Southgate respectively. A story inside the paper caught our instant attention. A Sunday Times reporter had followed the United Nations Secretary-General, Mr Kofi Annan on his peace-mission to Nigeria. According to the news report, Abiola was met in high spirits in detention but he was not aware of many things going on outside. The reporter claimed Abiola was allowed to watch a television but the volume had been disabled. This was contrary to the rosy picture painted by Nigerian media about Abiola’s newfound comfort and cosiness with the Abdulsalami regime. The spin doctors had regaled us with how Abiola was already negotiating his imminent release from detention when he should be at his desk in Aso Rock sorting out the many problems of Nigeria.

Anyway, both Kofi Annan and Chief Emeka Anyaoku (who was the Commonwealth Secretary-General at that time) had met separately with Abiola and neither of them could extract a commitment from him that he would honour agreements worked out for his bail conditions. The detained man had confessed to being in the clouds and did not know what went on outside. His case was actually more miserable than we had imagined. I was deeply troubled by this news report.

A few hours later, I got a call from Wura Abiola to review and exchange latest development. I immediately told her about the report in Sunday Times. She became emotional and started asking, rhetorically, if there was nothing that could be done to get their dad freed. She said she was on her way to Cambridge and would come back to discuss further with me. I became very apprehensive myself and was engulfed by a premonition that Abiola was going to die in detention.

The feeling was so palpable that I decided to call a friend of mine at LTV8 to share my fears on Abiola’s precarious condition. I remember my friend saying it was impossible for Abiola to die in prison. I wished I was that confident.

On Tuesday morning of July 7, 1998, I received a strident call from Mr Yinka Ibidunni, a famous blind broadcaster at Spectrum Radio in London. I had reluctantly picked the call as I barely went to bed a few hours earlier. As soon as he heard my croaky voice, he queried why I was asleep when my adopted father, Abiola, was about to be killed. He was unequivocal and brusquely emphatic. “Who wants to kill my father?” I asked in a manner that suggested incredulity. It was difficult to imagine anyone would want to harm a man as genuinely caring as Abiola.

This encounter happened just after 7a.m that fateful morning. Mr Ibidunnu pursued his argument to its logical conclusion. He asked if I had not listened to the BBC interviews of America’s emissaries, Thomas Pickering and Susan Rice, who were in Abuja ostensibly to persuade Abiola to forget his mandate and give room for political stability in Nigeria. According to Mr Ibidunni, the Americans were asked about their mission after both Annan and Anyaoku (though Chief Anyaoku told me many years later that he never asked Abiola to forget his mandate) who knew the African terrain better could not persuade Abiola to drop his mandate, and their response startled him, when they said if Abiola fails to agree to a deal, he would have become a danger to Nigeria.  This was what started and nurtured the conspiracy theory that the Americans had a hand in his death. But my question was this: why would America send senior officials to kill Abiola in Nigeria? I will never buy such preposterous theory.

At any rate, I pulled myself out of bed after Mr Ibidunni had managed to annul my sleep. I called Wuraola to tell her of Mr Ibidunni’s doomsday prophecy. We became frantic and decided to issue a press release pleading with the pro-democracy activists to understand the dangers Abiola was being exposed to by refusing to agree to bail conditions. Wuraola composed the release, and we faxed back and forth to fine-tune it. The final copy came through to me at 4.03pm and I was going to forward it to a few media houses when I got the most shocking news of my life. Wuraola was screaming some inaudible things at the other end… Something like “they said they have killed Daddy o” but to me it sounded like “they have released Daddy o” because that’s what we were expecting. Abiola was said to have died at about 4pm that day. Unknown to us our press release was a waste of efforts as the man we want released was already on a journey back to his Creator.

Within a twinkle of an eye, my phone was inundated with calls from all over the world with international journalists asking all manner of questions I could not answer. I was so devastated that I didn’t know when I started querying God. Why would Chief Abiola die in such a manner, after languishing in various cells for four years? Why should Abiola die on the second birthday of my second son, Enitanyole? The coincidence was too painful to bear. One of his last prayers before his arrest was for my wife to conceive and bear children as activism and advocacy had combined to make it impossible for me to spend enough time at home with my young wife. His prayers were answered but we had all our children in his absence.

First published in ThisDay Newspaper.

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Comments (2)

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