Would MKO #Abiola Have Been a Good President?


On the 25th anniversary of the annulment of the June 12, 1993 election approaches, I ask a question that Nigerians rarely ask, and will never know the answer to.

The facts of the annulment are well known. After the painstaking eight year conduct of a “transition programme” to return Nigeria to civilian democratic rule after 9 years of military rule, the then military government led by General Ibrahim Babangida voided the results of the June 12, 1993 election that was supposed to herald the return of democracy. That act added the word “annulment” to the standard Nigerian vocabulary. Although the full election results were never disclosed, everyone knows that Moshood Abiola won. However, given his antecedents, background and temperament, would Abiola have been a beneficial President for Nigeria?

The story of Abiola’s life is a classic rags to riches story that could be a Hollywood film. He was born into poverty in a large family. His birth came after a series of failed pregnancies, still born children and infant deaths in his family. He eventually attended the famous Baptist Boys High School in his home town of Abeokuta, in Ogun State. Former President Olusegun Obasanjo is another alumnus of that school. Afterward he studied accountancy at the University of Glasgow in Scotland. He then worked with the multi-national pharmaceutical company Pfizer. However Abiola made his name and riches when he joined the telecommunications company International Telegraph and Telephone (ITT). Abiola eventually became the chairman of ITT and via series of cordial relations with key army officers, Abiola amassed so much wealth, influence and fame that he once boasted of being the richest African on Earth.

Two of Abiola’s closest military friends were then Minister of Communications Brigadier Murtala Muhammed and Lt-Col Ibrahim Babangida. Abiola met Babangida in 1974 when Abiola was selling radio systems to the military. Babangida was sent to evaluate the quality of devices being sold by Abiola. According to Babangida “From that time the relationship developed and he was always around”.

Abiola also met Brigadier Muhammed after bravely confronting Muhammed over a series of debts owed to Abiola’s company by Muhammed’s Communications Ministry. The normally fearsome and ruthless Muhammed was impressed by Abiola’s courage and the two struck up a friendship. With Babangida and Muhammed eventually becoming Heads of State, Abiola exploited his relationship with them to secure extensive patronage via contracts with the government and became spectacularly rich in the process. His business empire grew massively as did his bank account balance, number of wives, concubines and children.

With his perpetual wealth ensured, Abiola turned to politics and joined the ruling party, the National Party of Nigeria (NPN). The NPN had an elaborate zoning system for the distribution of government portfolios – including the presidency. Since the presidency had been zoned to President Shagari (from the north), Abiola assumed that when President Shagari’s term of office expired, the NPN would zone the presidency to the south, and he would be allowed to run for President. He was wrong. His presidential ambition was rebuffed by the powerful Minister of Transport Umaru Dikko who told him that “the presidency is not for sale to the highest bidder”. Abiola “retired” from politics soon after – totally exasperated with the NPN. He would have his revenge. President Shagari reported that several frustrated politicians engaged in what he termed “coup baiting” against his government. Abiola had a massive publishing empire was used to launch frequent vitriolic attacks on President Shagari’s government with the intention of discrediting it sufficiently to psychologically prepare the public for its replacement by a military regime. In his memoirs (“Beckoned to Serve”), President Shagari later obliquely referred to the financing and support given to military conspirators by an unnamed “well known business tycoon”. Although he declined to name this tycoon, contextually it was an obvious reference to Abiola. Babangida went further in unequivocally confirming Abiola’s role in financing a coup plot against Shagari and using his influence to destabilise Shagari’s government. He later revealed that Abiola:

“was also very good in trying to mould the thinking of the media. We relied on him a lot for that. So there was both the media support and the financial support.” (Karl Maier – Midnight in Nigeria)

President Shagari was overthrown in a military coup on December 31, 1983 and replaced by a military government in which Abiola’s friend Babangida was Chief of Army Staff (number 3 in the regime). Less than two years later Abiola was at it again and financed another military coup which eventually led to his friend Babangida becoming Head of State. Abiola’s wife Simbiat was opposed to his involvement in politics. However after she died in 1992 Abiola returned to politics and ran for President in an election stage managed by his bosom friend Babangida. As a southern Muslim (the religion of the north) and who was a close friend of the Head of State, an Abiola presidency seemed a virtual certainty. As results began trickling in, it became obvious that Abiola was headed for a landslide victory. He even defeated his opponent Bashir Tofa in Tofa’s home state of Kano. For the first time Nigerians voted across ethnic and religious lines as Christians voted for a Muslim, and northerners voted for a southerner. However something went very wrong. On June 23, 1993 the election was annulled and Abiola was denied the presidency. Five years later Abiola was dead, having been incarcerated for treason for declaring himself the rightful president.

So what would have happened had the election not been annulled and had Abiola ruled? A powerful hard line faction in the military bitterly opposed his candidacy. Babangida later said that had Abiola become President, he would have been overthrown in a violent military coup within six months. The then Director-General of military intelligence Brigadier Halilu Akilu was quoted as saying that “Abiola will be President over my dead body”. Other officers in the regime such as General Sani Abacha and Brigadier David Mark (current Senate President) promised to overthrow or even kill Abiola if he became President. With such opposition to him in the army, an Abiola presidency would almost certainly have led to new round of bloody coups and counter-coups that would have given the military a pretext to retain power. Nigeria might even have still been under military rule today.

But what if the military had supported Abiola? Would an Abiola presidency have been good for Nigeria? Abiola did not win the June 12, 1993 election because he was a massively popular candidate. He won and was adopted as an unlikely symbol of democracy by a public that was desperate to rid Nigeria of increasingly corrupt and authoritarian military rule. To the public, any candidate was better than the military.

Olusegun Obasanjo warned that“Abiola is “not the Messiah that Nigerians are looking for”.

How (in)accurate was Obasanjo’s assessment of Abiola?

Having come from a poor background Abiola was extremely generous to the poor and made grandiose charitable donations. These took the form of bulk buys of rice and tinned milk, to constructing new wings in new universities. He also awarded several hundred scholarships from his own personal fortune. Abiola made such gestures country-wide and did not limit them to his own ethnic or geographic group. He had contacts and friends across all ethnicities and regions of the country. It was also hoped that Abiola’s stupendous wealth meant that he was rich enough not to be tempted to loot the state treasury. A rich multi-billionaire southern businessman from the south, who adopted the religion of the north and had extensive local and international contacts, the perception was that if Abiola could not govern, no one could.

However Abiola had many weaknesses which might have proved his undoing had he become President. His first and foremost weakness was for female flesh. His appetite for women was such that a decade after his death, not even his own family is aware of how many wives and children he had. Educated estimates put the number of his wives somewhere between 25 and 40, and children anywhere between 60 and 120. He also had a number of concubines. Such a complicated personal life could have proved embarrassing and destabilising for a President in the public eye and would probably have occupied several column inches for gleeful tabloids.

Although from humble origins, in adulthood Abiola was no firebrand political reformer and he was unlikely to rock the boat or risk physical challenge. In many ways he was part of Nigeria’s corrupt elite and a government led by him would have continued with business and corrupt dealings as usual. His emergence as a presidential candidate was predicated on his membership of that corrupt elite. In the end the same military Leviathan which Abiola sponsored and supported ended up devouring him.

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