Canary Icon of the Month, June 2020: Chief Moshood Kashimawo Olawale Abiola

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Chief Moshood Kashimawo Olawale Abiola, popularly called M. K. O. Abiola was born on 24 August 1937 in Abeokuta, Ogun State to the family of Salawu and Suliat Wuraola Abiola. His father was a produce trader who primarily traded cocoa, and his mother traded in kola nuts. His name, Kashimawo, means “Let us wait and see”. Moshood Abiola was his father’s twenty-third child, but the first of them to survive infancy, hence the name ‘Kashimawo’. It was not until he was fifteen that he was properly named Moshood by his parents.

Abiola attended African Central School, Abeokuta for his primary education. As a young boy, he assisted his father in the cocoa trade, but by the end of 1946, his father’s business venture was failing precipitated by the destruction of a cocoa consignment declared by a produce inspector to be of poor quality grade and unworthy for export and to be destroyed immediately.

At the age of nine he started his first business selling firewood gathered in the forest at dawn before school, to support his father and siblings. Abiola founded a band at the age of fifteen and would perform at various ceremonies in exchange for food. Abiola was eventually able to require payment for his performances, and used the money to support his family and his secondary education at the Baptist Boys High School Abeokuta. Abiola was the editor of the school magazine The Trumpeter, Olusegun Obasanjo was deputy editor. At the age of 19 he joined the National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroons ostensibly because of its stronger Pan-Nigerian origin compared with the Obafemi Awolowo-led Action Group.

In 1960, he obtained a government scholarship to study at the University of Glasgow, where he later earned a degree in Accountancy and qualified as a Chartered Accountant. He later became a Fellow of the Institute of Chartered Accountants of Nigeria (ICAN).

In 1956 Moshood Abiola started his professional life as a bank clerk with Barclays Bank in Ibadan, South-West Nigeria. After two years he joined the Western Region Finance Corporation as an Executive Accounts Officer, before leaving for Glasgow, Scotland, to pursue his higher education. From Glasgow University he received a first class degree in accountancy, and he also gained a distinction from the Institute of Chartered Accountants of Scotland. On his return to Nigeria, Abiola worked as a senior accountant at the University of Lagos Teaching Hospital, then went on to US firm Pfizer, before joining the ITT Corporation, where he later rose to the position of Vice-President, Africa and Middle-East. Abiola spent a lot of his time, and made most of his money, in the United States, while retaining the post of Chairman of the corporation’s Nigerian subsidiary.

While Abiola worked at the Nigerian subsidiary of Pfizer pharmaceuticals, his desire was to own some equity in the firm but the options available to him was not appealing. He then applied to a job listing seeking a trained accountant, it was during the interview that he found out the firm was ITT Corporation. Abiola was employed by the firm and one of his immediate responsibilities was to clear the backlog of debt owned the firm by the military. An office meeting with the army’s Inspector of Signals, Murtala Mohammed to seek a resolution of the debts resulted in verbal argument heard by the Chief of Army Staff Hassan Usman Katsina. The intervention of Katsina ended up being favourable to Abiola as he was given a check to cover the debt. Abiola used his determination to clear the debts as a bargaining tool for more role in the company, initially he was able to remove the expatriate manager but was unable to get a requested 50% equity in the Nigerian arm of ITT. Abiola subsequently established Radio Communications (RCN) as a side business, new employees were trained in marketing of telecoms equipment and Abiola targeted the military who were replacing civil war era equipment as business clients. His marketing strategy proposed training of military personnel in the use of equipment so as to reduce reliance on outside vendors for maintenance, this strategy gained favour in a security conscious armed forces. Abiola soon received a contract to supply hardware to the military that got the attention of ITT and he was offered 49% equity ownership of its Nigerian arm.

RCN went on to develop a static communications network for the Armed Forces signal unit and Nigeria’s domestic satellite communications. In 1975, ITT and partners secured a major contract to supply automatic telephone exchanges in a number of locations within the country.

In addition to his duties throughout the Middle-East and Africa, Abiola invested heavily in Nigeria and West Africa. He set up Abiola Farms, Abiola Bookshops, Radio Communications Nigeria, Wonder Bakeries, Concord Press, Concord Airlines, Summit Oil International Ltd, Africa Ocean Lines, Habib Bank, Decca W.A. Ltd, and Abiola Football Club. He was also Chairman of the G15 Business Council, President of the Nigerian Stock Exchange, Patron of the Kwame Nkrumah Foundation, Patron of the WEB Du Bois Foundation, Trustee of the Martin Luther King Foundation, and Director of the International Press Institute. In 1983, he teamed up with Shehu Musa Yar’Adua, Bamanga Tukur and Raymond Dokpesi to establish Africa Ocean Lines. The firm began operations in 1984 using chartered vessels before acquiring two cargo ships in 1986 with a capacity for 958 TEUs. The shipping firm’s route linked the major shipping ports along the West African coast with United Kingdom and Northern Europe.

Abiola’s involvement in politics started early on in life when he joined the National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroons (NCNC) at age 19. In 1979, the military government kept its word and handed over power to the civilian. As Abiola was already involved in politics, he joined the ruling National Party of Nigeria (NPN) in 1980 and was elected the state chairman of his party. Re-election was done in 1983 and everything looked promising since the re-elected president was from Abiola’s party and based on the true transition to power in 1979; Abiola was eligible to go for the post of presidential candidate after the tenure of the re-elected president. However, his hope to become the president was shortly dashed away for the first time in 1983 when a military coup d’état swept away the re-elected president of his party and ended civilian rule in the country.

After a decade of military rule, General Ibrahim Babangida came under pressure to return democratic rule to Nigeria. After an aborted initial primary, Abiola stood for the presidential nomination of the Social Democratic Party (SDP) and beat Ambassador Baba Gana Kingibe and Alhaji Atiku Abubakar to secure the presidential nomination of the SDP ahead of the 12 June 1993 presidential elections.

Abiola announced his candidacy for president in February 1993, this was after a previous round of presidential primaries had been cancelled by military President Babangida. His party of choice was SDP, though he was an outsider who was new to the partisan politics within the party which at the time was dominated by two major factions, People’s Front (PF) and PSP. Both SDP and its opposition, NRC held presidential primaries in March 1993. SDP’s primaries was held in Jos and was largely a three way contest between Abiola, Kingibe and Atiku even though there were more aspirants. Abiola was heavily supported by the People’s Solidarity faction (PSP) within SDP while Atiku was supported by PF faction led by Yar’Adua and Kingibe was supported by a loose coalition of party members. During the first ballot, Abiola was able to score a slim majority vote of 3,617 to Kingibe’s 3,225. A second round was contested two days later and Abiola again emerged victorious with a slim margin and he became the party’s presidential candidate for the June 12 election.

Abiola’s political message was an optimistic future for Nigeria with slogans such as “Farewell to poverty”, ” At last! Our rays of Hope” and the “Burden of Schooling”. His economic policy included negotiations with foreign creditors and better management of the country’s international debts, in addition, increased cooperation with the foreign community while presenting himself as someone the international community can trust.

For the 12 June 1993 presidential elections, Abiola’s running mate was his primary opponent Baba Gana Kingibe. He defeated his rival, Bashir Tofa of the National Republican Convention. The election was declared Nigeria’s freest and fairest presidential election by national and international observers, with Abiola even winning in his Northern opponent’s home state of Kano. Abiola won at the national capital, Abuja, the military polling stations, and over two-thirds of Nigerian states. Men of Northern descent had largely dominated Nigeria’s political landscape since independence; Moshood Abiola, a Western Muslim, was able to secure a national mandate freely and fairly, unprecedented in Nigeria’s history. However, the election was annulled by Ibrahim Babangida, causing a political crisis which led to General Sani Abacha seizing power later that year.

In 1994 Moshood Abiola declared himself the lawful president of Nigeria in the Epetedo area of Lagos Island, an area mainly populated by (Yoruba) Lagos Indigenes. He had recently returned from a trip to win the support of the international community for his mandate. After declaring himself President he was declared wanted and was accused of treason and arrested on the orders of military President General Sani Abacha, who sent 200 police vehicles to bring him into custody.

Moshood Abiola was detained for four years, largely in solitary confinement with a Bible, Qur’an, and fourteen guards as companions. During that time, Pope John Paul II, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and human rights activists from all over the world lobbied the Nigerian government for his release. The sole condition attached to the release of Chief Abiola was that he renounce his mandate, something that he refused to do, although the military government offered to compensate him and refund his extensive election expenses. For this reason Chief Abiola became extremely troubled when Kofi Annan and Emeka Anyaoku reported to the world that he had agreed to renounce his mandate after they met with him to tell him that the world would not recognise a five-year-old election.

Abiola died in suspicious circumstances shortly after the death of General Abacha, on the day that he was due to be released, 7 July 1998. While the official autopsy stated that Abiola died of natural causes, Abacha’s Chief Security Officer, Al-Mustapha has alleged that Moshood Abiola was in fact beaten to death. Al-Mustapha, who was detained by the Nigerian government, but later released, claims to have video and audiotapes showing how Abiola was beaten to death. The final autopsy report, which was produced by a group of international coroners has never been publicly released. Regardless of the exact circumstances of his death, it is clear that Chief Abiola received insufficient medical attention for his existing health conditions.

As recounted at the time in a BBC interview with special envoy Thomas R. Pickering, an American delegation which included Susan Rice visited Abiola; during their meeting with him, Abiola fell ill, with what was presumed to be a heart attack which caused his death.

Chief MKO Abiola’s memory is celebrated in Nigeria and internationally. Since his death, the Lagos State Government declares June 12 as a public holiday. In 2018, other states including Ogun, Oyo and Osun, announced June 12 as a public holiday to celebrate the 25th year anniversary of the annulled 1993 presidential election. MKO Abiola Stadium and Moshood Abiola Polytechnic were named in his honour,and there were calls for posthumous presidential recognition. A statue, MKO Abiola Statue was erected in his honour.

On May 29, 2012, former President Goodluck Jonathan, announced that the famous University of Lagos will be renamed in memory of Abiola as Moshood Abiola University of Lagos (MAULAG). This received a negative reaction by both students, Alumni and members of public resulting in an abrupt reversal. In his honor, June 12th that was formerly “Abiola Day” has been made the new Democracy Day in Nigeria by President Muhammadu Buhari.

Moshood Abiola was twice voted international businessman of the year, and received numerous honorary doctorates from universities all over the world. In 1987 he was bestowed with the golden key to the city of Washington, D.C., and he was bestowed with awards from the NAACP and the King center in the USA, as well as the International Committee on Education for Teaching in Paris, among many others.

In Nigeria, the Oloye Abiola was made the Aare Ona Kakanfo of Yorubaland, the highest chieftaincy title available to commoners amongst the Yoruba. At the point when he was elevated, the title had only been conferred by the tribe thirteen times in its long history. This in effect rendered Abiola the ceremonial War Viceroy of all of his tribes people. According to the folklore of the tribe as recounted by the Yoruba elders, the Aare Ona Kakanfo is expected to die a warrior in the defence of his nation to prove himself in the eyes of both the divine and the mortal as having been worthy of his title.

He was posthumously awarded the third highest national honour, the Commander of the Federal Republic, in 1998.

He was also awarded the highest national honour, the Grand Commander of the Federal Republic – or GCFR – in 2018. The date of the annulled election, June 12, was also made Nigeria’s Democracy Day.

Moshood Abiola married many wives, notable among them are Simibiat Atinuke Shoaga in 1960, Kudirat Olayinka Adeyemi in 1973, Adebisi Olawunmi Oshin in 1974, Doyinsola (Doyin) Abiola Aboaba in 1981, Modupe Onitiri-Abiola and Remi Abiola. He fathered many children.

Congratulations to our Icon of the month of June 2020!

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