by Femi Adesina
He’s built like a boxer, a wrestler or a weightlifter. And why wouldn’t he be? He works out in a gymnasium daily, and has hiking and mountain climbing as enduring passions. He has subdued Mount Kilimanjaro, and now has his sights set on Mount Everest as soon as the weather permits. Welcome to the world of Kola, first son of the late hero of democracy, Basorun M.K.O Abiola.
Suddenly, the young has grown. On Sunday, July 1, Kola turns 50. Yes, this ‘Abiola Babe’ has grown, and come unto his own. How wouldn’t he? When you are thrust into the leadership of such a large and complex family just in your mid 30s, you become a man by force, you become even a patriarch.
When a platoon of wives, battalion of children, and many other dependants are baying at your heels, asking that you give them their share of their late benefactor’s estate, you become a man by what the Yorubas call tulaasi. Willy-nilly. But Kola Abiola didn’t need all that to come into manhood.
He did long ago. “I became a man rather too early,” he told a select group of journalists who had gathered at his Ikoyi, Lagos, home on Tuesday to conduct a commemorative interview with him at 50. The session was at the behest of a friend of the Abiola clan, and one of our own in journalism, Basorun Dele Momodu, publisher of OVATION.
A member of the team, Segun Adeniyi of Thisday called the ‘birthday boy’ a “one-man mafia.” And the description fitted snugly, like a second skin. You can’t be a Kola Abiola and not be a “one-man mafia.” You can’t be the first son of possibly Nigeria’s greatest philanthropist so far, a trillionaire, a presidential election winner, man with a larger than life stature, and be an ordinary person.
You can’t. Of course, there were no ‘no go’ areas in the interview. Kola took all the questions, evaded none, parried none. Even when we pried into his own libido, vis-à-vis his father’s legendary appetite for women, he simply said he was not a mean man in that area too, but added: “I’m still within the limit allowed by my religion.”
Being a serial polygamist was something M.K.O Abiola himself knew would constitute a big headache to his senior children later in life. According to Kola, “he used to tell us: ‘mo da gbogbo wahala yi sin yin lorun.’ (I’m hanging all these problems on your neck). And what heavy trouble they were. A good number of the platoon of wives, the battalion of children, looked up to Kola to do justice to them after Abiola had passed away in military detention on July 7, 1998.
“Dad’s death was a blessing for all the women,” Kola tells you deadpan. “If he had come back alive, after four years in detention, they would have seen a different man. They would have been shocked that the man that came back was a different person. So, the death was a blessing for all the wives in a way.” But is the family together now? Has the will been executed? Have all the wives complied with the demand for a DNA test on their children before they can benefit?
“The will has been executed at two levels,” the Abiola heir disclosed. “We have done it at the level of the wives, and of the other members of the family. We are on the last bit, which is that of the children. Majority have done the DNA, it’s a long time process. But we have been disciplined enough not to wash our dirty linen in the public.” Abiola would have been about 75, if he hadn’t taken what became a fatal plunge – contesting for presidency under a military regime that was not committed to handing over power. Any regrets?
“Not at all,” says Kola. The experience one had, both before, during and after the elections, couldn’t have been gotten any other way. My role in the election was to mobilise people to protect their votes, and they did. But we did not protect the mandate, and it was lost. From the lessons learnt, I wish to set up a non-governmental organisation called Tribe Nigeria, before the next general elections. The intention is to give power back to the Nigerian voter, and preserve the gains of June 12, 1993.”
But will he join the fray? Is partisan politics an option? Consider Kola’s response, and make up your mind: “June 12 gave Nigerians a voice, their votes counted. The election is recognised as the best in the country till today. Every election after it has turned out worse than the previous one. I owe it to the people to preserve the gains of June 12. I may not necessarily do it in elective capacity, but I intend to set up a platform that is ethnic and religion blind. That was what June 12 was about. Nigerians shunned ethnic and religious sentiments. I will set up a platform to bring back all those. After that, we see how things go.”
Then to the most controversial issue of the day. Two civilian presidents, Olusegun Obasanjo and Umaru Musa Yar’Adua, had not deemed it fit to honour Abiola by naming a national monument after him. Last May 29, President Goodluck Jonathan changed University of Lagos to Moshood Abiola University, Lagos (MAULAG). But since then, all hell have been let loose, with the students, the Senate, and other stakeholders in the university on warpath. How does Kola react?
“M.K.O was a national figure. After his death, Habib Bank, of which I was a director, wanted to name the office in Lagos after him. I told them, don’t belittle the man. He was a national figure, not a Southwest person alone. In Ogun State alone, the stadium, the polytechnic had been named after him. Eventually, the bank named the Abuja headquarters after him, instead of the one in Lagos. “Irrespective of the statement that had been issued by the family, I believe the renaming of University of Lagos after Abiola was done just to keep people quiet and happy by an administration that was searching for things to point to as achievements after one year in office.
The president should first have sent a bill to the National Assembly before changing the name, he didn’t do so. I don’t want a honour for my dad, if it wouldn’t be done right. It was a slap on the face of my father for the objective intended. “South-west governors have named June 12 Democracy Day. But we should not mix apples with oranges. Abiola was not a regional leader. Let the Federal Government not wake up and look for things to pacify people with, after one year in office. No consultation with the family, the National Assembly, or the university itself. If we want to do anything, let’s do it right.”
His father was his idol. In fact, Kola says, “next to God, it was him.” And he vows never to ruin Abiola’s good name. But then, the man’s business empire is in ruins. Concord Press. Dead. Concord Airlines. Grounded. Abiola Bookshop. Comatose. Abiola Farms. Famished. And many others. Is Kola not worried? “We’ll bring some of the jewels back,” he vows. “The last half of the execution of the will is what is stopping Concord. Once that is done, Concord will be back. It may take a while, but it will come. I need to redeem that name.”
He confesses that he came of age rather early, “by sheer responsibility.” But surely, nothing prepared him for the quantum of sorrow he has experienced at 50. Twenty years ago, he buried his mum, Simbiat. Fourteen years ago, he buried his dad. In recent years, he has buried a daughter, Labake, aged 16, and buried a wife, Yinka (nee Onileere). How much can a single man take? What have all these tragedies done to him?
A pause. Some reflection. And he says: “It’s unfortunate that my mum did not live to reap the fruits of her labour. I can say I am what I am today to a large extent because of her. I’ve been humbled by all the deaths. Some things can’t be explained, except you go through them. But God has been kind to me also. I had tutelage in understanding life, family, friends, while dad was away for four years. Life should have been a mess if I didn’t have that tutelage.”
*This piece was first published in The Sun