Twenty-six years after the annulment of the June 12, 1993, presidential election, which was won by Chief Moshood Kashimawo Olawale (MKO) Abiola, his first son and present head of the extended Abiola family, Kola Abiola, has opened up on his father’s struggle to win the election and reclaim his mandate after the results were cancelled.
In this exclusive interview with The Sun team in his Lagos residence, he revealed what transpired behind the scenes before, during and after the annulled election and the role played by different persons and interest groups.
He said, contrary to widely held beliefs, Abiola never nominated anybody into the regime of the late General Sani Abacha, and explained that some of his father’s former allies who chose to serve the late dictator had already decided to be part of his regime and his father could not stop them.
Kola Abiola also denied accusations by some family members who alleged that they were living in penury because he cut off funds meant for them, saying he would soon address those allegations with facts.
June 12 has been recognised as Democracy Day in honour of the election your father won. How does it make you feel when you look back?
For me, it is the end of a long journey. We started this journey in 1991 at the Hilton Hotel after I sat down with my father’s personal assistant back then, Olu Akerele, who was trying to convince me to participate in the election. At the very beginning, I was not involved; I knew what my father was planning, but I just carried on like I didn’t know what was going on because he didn’t tell me directly. As a family, we had an understanding that he would let the Ibrahim Babangida transition programme go before we participate in any election. It was not the case of whether we should go into the contest or not; we wanted the transition to go through before we participated. I guess after a lot of pressure, he then went to Abeokuta to get the form to contest for the election.
Did he tell you what was going on?
He didn’t tell me, but I knew what was going on. I knew he had gone to Abeokuta to pick the Option A4 form, but I just played dumb since he didn’t talk to me about it. He went into the race quite alright but I stayed out of it and just watched. All along, I knew it was inevitable that it would come back to me. He then started sending people indirectly to talk to me because he wanted me to get involved. While we were in Abuja, he called me and said he wanted to see me. He asked if I would just stand aside and watch him without getting involved and I responded by telling him that he still hadn’t told me about the race. So, we sat down and I told him that I had a plan, which I would write out and discuss with him. I was in the lobby with Olu Akerele and I wrote out what I felt would be the best programme, what the options were, the problems we were going to face, whom his running mate should be, etc. After writing out the plans, I approached my father and presented them to him. Before then, he planned to use the state representatives of Concord as polling agents and I told him that would be a waste of time.
After I presented the blueprint to him, he was very happy and said everything was beginning to make sense and everything happened exactly the way I said it would be. The only issues that I didn’t anticipate were the post-election problems. I was focused more on delivering the ticket and all the pre-election issues.
What was the blueprint about?
I felt that we needed to work with the late Shehu Yar’Adua group, which I was very much involved in. I also felt that I needed to stay out of the campaign and do the legwork, while I coordinated with the Yar’Adua group. I predicted that we didn’t have a choice than to pick a Muslim-Muslim ticket at that time. So, I had to broker an arrangement with Yar’Adua about Atiku Abubakar and my father; the deal was that Atiku would be the running mate.
How then did Babagana Kingibe enter the race?
We ended up with Kingibe because there was a lot of pressure on my dad to have a balanced ticket, where he would pick a northern Christian running mate. But events at the time didn’t make it possible for us to have that option and I will explain. We came in at the second leg of the election; the first leg was when the election of the 23 candidates was annulled, and then we stepped in. At that point, Kingibe was chairman of the Social Democratic Party (SDP) and he was helped by the Peoples Front (PF), which was the Yar’Adua group. All along, he had zoned every key office to all the other zones except the presidency. So, the Hausa-Fulani North didn’t have a stake in the entire political process. We coming in from the South-West was basically a coup on the process because they had assumed that they would have a northern presidential candidate.
NRC (National Republican Convention) had a northern candidate (Bashir Tofa), so SDP assumed that their candidate would also come from the North. If we made the mistake of picking a Christian northerner, the NRC would have had block votes from the Muslim North; so, politically, we had no choice than to choose a northern Muslim. If we had not done that, we would have given away a large percentage of the votes that would have come from the Muslim North. My father was being pressured by the Falae-Ajasin-Adesanya group to pick a running mate from the minority Christian North. Initially, they considered Dan Suleiman from Adamawa as running mate, but I kicked against it because I knew how politically strong they all were.
In Jos, I also wanted to avoid a three-way race where you had two northerners against one southerner, so I had to broker a deal for Atiku to step down for my father and it became a two-way race, which gave us a better option. Part of the deal was to have Atiku as the Vice President.
What then happened?
After we scaled that hurdle, pressure started coming from other parts of the party and even Aso Rock, that we must have a balanced ticket. I kept on saying no because I knew that if we had a balanced ticket, we were going to lose the election. There was also pressure from the governors’ forum led by the late Olusola Saraki (Baba Oloye) and also Arthur Nzeribe was part of that powerful block. They had lost out at the time and they were pushing for a possible petition on the election process itself. So, I had to run to Alhaji M.S. Buhari, who was the number two of the PF. He later left the PF to move with Kingibe because they were both Kanuri. I rushed to him to appeal to Kingibe to cease the planned petition, so they met and they told me not to worry that they would cede. But the governors’ group kept on putting pressure, so you can understand where it was coming from.
As party chairman, Kingibe had influence in putting all those governors in place, so they were loyal to him. But I always knew all along that if we had a free and fair election, there was no way that any of those governors would return. We had to pick a Muslim running mate and I had brokered a deal with Atiku, but then there was Kingibe on one side who was being supported by the governors. At the end of the day, rather than lose entirely, I now had to cede my commitment to Atiku, which was very unfortunate. Once we agreed on a running mate, I left Jos and met with Yar’Adua over the issue.
Didn’t that turn out to be a grave miscalculation because, after the annulment, there were reports that Yar’Adua was lukewarm towards your father’s cause?
I don’t think it’s fair to say that. When we sealed the deal to pick Kingibe as running mate, I was meant to go to Kaduna first thing in the morning and explain the situation to him. It was my duty to also speak with Atiku, but, unfortunately, immediately the plane took off from Abuja to Lagos, it was already in the media that Kingibe had been picked; so it was a fait accompli. I then had the responsibility to try to keep it together and explain to the PF group as a whole why we took the decision.
Were they disappointed?
Obviously, but I think we amended all that prior to the election to the point that the PF, led by the General himself, led the campaign committee. We had meetings at the presidential suite of the Federal Palace Hotel on how to strategise and implement the whole plan, so they were totally involved. The General would always say that the best thing was always to have a strong party because that was the only legal entity that could challenge the government. Remember I was very young then, so I had to learn pretty fast. As far as delivering the ticket, my blueprint worked, but what we didn’t anticipate was that the government would not want to go.
Was there a time that your father had an agreement with IBB that he would actually leave, and did IBB ask your father to run for the election?
You can’t tell anybody not to run. IBB and my father were very close and we thought the man was set to go. On several occasions, I sat with IBB one-on-one and asked him some questions and he said he was going to go, and I believed him. Whether he went by choice is a different thing entirely, but the events made it difficult to do otherwise.
When you reflect on that election, what do you think gave Abiola victory?
He was the most detribalised person I know and we were all brought up that way. He was a pioneer in every business he set up because he always believed in indigenous talent. The bank we had used to be run by Pakistanis but it was my father who insisted that we would start having Nigerian MDs to run the bank. He believed that Nigerians could do anything Pakistanis could do and that was how we stopped having Pakistani MDs. By virtue of my father’s detribalised nature, he had been to every part of this country. If any of his workers had an event in their village, he made sure he attended, even if it was for two minutes, so that people would know that you are an important person by virtue of him being there. He did it for many years and he was welcomed wherever he went. He employed purely based on merit and not because you were from Abeokuta; so we had members of staff from every part of Nigeria.
Part of that strategy I spoke about earlier was how to convert his popularity to votes because his name was out there but it would only count if it is converted to votes and we achieved that. Even in the military and the police, he trained many officers.
But they said the military didn’t want him…
Go to any barracks, they voted for him 100 per cent.
There have been reports that your mother, Simbiat, told Abiola not to venture into politics because of how difficult it could be. Is this a fact?
I spoke about it earlier on and she didn’t say so. She only told him to wait till the transition period was over. She was on her dying bed anyway and she must know why she said so. It was not a no from her; it was only a matter of when.
There have been several reasons adduced for the annulment of the election. In your mind, what can you pick out to be the real reason MKO’s election was annulled?
I am doing a documentary called ‘Hope Derailed’ in which I interviewed every post-election player and it would have been ready but for some delays. I interviewed everyone from IBB to Tinubu, Walter Carrington, Nzeribe, Susan Rice and every one of them who played a part post-election.
What were you able to deduce from your interviews?
At the end of the day, I didn’t feel that the government of the day wanted to go. One part of the government didn’t want to go; one part acted like they wanted to go and was playing pranks on the other part but, eventually, it was like they had a coup and outfoxed themselves. If you remember, there was a time my father called on General Abacha to correct the wrongs and I told him that that was a mistake because no military man will correct the wrong.
What were the mistakes Abiola made in the June 12 struggle? Was he too trusting because of his simplicity or was it that he was not destined to be president?
I am a big believer in destiny, but I know that we ran the perfect election. The participation was totally across board; Nigerians of all tribes and religions voted for us and we broke all the rules. But after it didn’t happen, it means it is destiny. It is because he trusted people that made him very successful in life. If he didn’t trust people, many of those who worked under him would never have had the opportunity they had; he would never have given them the chance, so it is neither here nor there. You are who you are, period.
Did he make mistakes?
We all made mistakes. One mistake was calling on Abacha to come. You could call it a mistake even though my father’s reasons were genuine. Another mistake he made then was to fly out to America the time he did. We had the initiative totally in our hands and he didn’t need to leave because leaving meant he was handing the initiative back to the military. I tried to stop him but by the time I got to the airport, he had left. That same night, I took a flight to London to convince him that he needed to come back. He said if he came back, we would be arrested and I said I hoped we were arrested so that it would make amends for having left in the first place. He said he was going to the US and that I should come along, but I said no, that we both should not be away from the country. I came back and I walked through the airport and nothing happened.
It is not everyday you find a stupendously wealthy man, championing a cause that alters Nigeria’s history and later became a civil rights activist. He used to say that you do not stand in front of a moving train because you want to show bravery. But all of a sudden, here was a man standing in front of a moving train. Would you describe your father as a reluctant hero?
For all that he did for individuals and for the country as a whole, Nigerians said thank you to him through that election. He didn’t get one single honour while he was alive and Nigeria used that opportunity to say thank you. The second point is that, through that election, he united the country, and he proved that, irrespective of where you come from, you can see yourself as one.
After my father died, I continued the struggle for June 12 to be officially recognised; I started with Baba (Obasanjo) but I knew that I would not get anything done. When former President Goodluck Jonathan came, I started again with him. Even after he had lost the election, I felt that it was one last thing he could do to engrave his name in the history books of Nigeria but, for his own reasons, we fell short at the very last minute.
When I met with Buhari in Kaduna as President-elect, I told him what I would like and, as God would have it, he had the strength of character to do it. It is a discretionary and not a political thing. Such an action is taken at the discretion of the President. I wanted three things: for my father to be honoured with the GCFR, so that Nigeria would accept that he won the election because that title goes to Presidents only. The second issue was that I wanted June 12 to be declared Democracy Day and I got that. May 29 Democracy Day was a fake date; that was just Obasanjo trying to re-write history. One thing I didn’t ask for but got and I’m very grateful to the President and Vice President was the apology made to my family; that was the icing on the cake. Some say it was political but anything about Abiola is political and that is why it took so long for him to be recognised by giving him his due place in the history of Nigeria. We didn’t expect the apology and I am very grateful to the President.
For me, that journey ended that day even though it crystalised this year. It is for that reason that I have not been politically involved. I have received offers for ministerial appointments but I totally refused to take them because it is incomplete, but now I feel fulfilled.
Where were you on the night Abiola was arrested? Did you anticipate his arrest?
Yes I did. There was a particular day that we got supposedly credible information that they were going to raid the house and arrest him and the idea was for him to go to the American embassy to take refuge. When I was told about the plan to arrest him, I said, well, he is in his house; let us see what will happen, but my family members felt I wasn’t taking the issue very seriously. They said they wanted him to go to the American embassy and I asked why. I couldn’t convince anybody that it was a set up. So, we got ready for him to go to the embassy and when I saw lots of people around him, I then asked that if we are going to the embassy, why the convoy? I told them to leave him to me that I would personally drive him there.
On our way, I told him that the whole set-up didn’t seem right because if I shot him there, people wouldn’t blame me, they would blame IBB. So, in order not to trivialise the issue, he should come and stay in my house. He agreed and we headed back to Anthony, where I lived, and he spent the night in my house. The following morning, all the papers carried reports that he was at the American embassy and my father told me that I was right that the entire American embassy thing was a set-up.
When the issue of declaring himself president came up, I told him it was not a good idea but that if he insisted, he should make sure that every single person who suggested it to him would all be physically present when the declaration was made. I told him to announce his cabinet and let all of those cabinet members be there with him while he made his declaration. I told him that if they were not willing to do this, it tells us that something is wrong. He said okay, so I went home. The next thing I heard was that he was on his way there; then I knew that there was a problem.
So, you were not in support of his declaration at Epetedo?
There were so many other things we planned to do, like attending the constitutional conference. We had a meeting in Kaduna and we agreed that there was no way we could challenge this guy. Since he said the conference would determine his tenure in office, let us go to the conference and give it to him. I came back and told my father and advised that, as the leader of the democratic process, he should attend the conference, let us see how they will shave his head in his absence.
But in the South-West, they decided to boycott the conference; I told my father that we were in a military regime, so whether we boycotted or we didn’t boycott, the military would do what it wanted to do. That was how people like Bucknor Akerele became members of the Assembly; she just walked into the place and they counted her among the members.
When Abacha took over, my father met with him and asked when he would leave, but Abacha said he didn’t know. He then told him that if he wasn’t going to tell them when he was leaving, they would not participate in his administration and that was why there was no one from the PF group in that administration. We participated in the transition to make sure the man left because there could never be a vacuum in government and that was why they participated in that.
But there were reports that MKO nominated the likes of Babatope and Onagoruwa into Abacha’s government?
No, that is totally wrong. The guys that joined Abacha had committed themselves to being part of the government already. I told my father that these people were not committed to him and that they were going to join Abacha. I knew from the PF that these people had made up their minds already to go and because they just wanted my father to endorse the choice they had made, they called a meeting to make it look as if they wanted him to bless them so they could go. My father decided that maybe it was time for him to cut his losses and if the guys wanted to go and join Abacha, they were free to go. So he just left them to do what they wanted because they had already gone anyway.
Was he hurt when Kingibe joined Abacha’s government? Did he feel betrayed?
It didn’t surprise him because I had already told him. Knowing what I had known, I met my father in his room and told him to handle the situation right because if he didn’t, we would be the biggest losers. He then asked me what I meant. I pointed out people around him who were already gone; so he wasn’t surprised when it happened.
When my father was arrested after the declaration, I went to see Abacha and I must say that he received me well. He asked me why my father declared himself President; I told him it was not a matter of why, but that the deed had been done already. I asked him what the way forward was and he said if I was able to correct it, that he was willing to let everything go. By correcting things, he meant that I should come out publicly and tell the country that my father made a mistake by declaring himself President, but there was no way I would do that. I had to stand by my dad and that was the beginning of his four-year incarceration.
Your father once said Abacha kept him in an open grave and what was left was to bury him. During that period, what condition was he in?
We never saw him where he was incarcerated in those four years. When we went to visit him, we usually waited at the police headquarters sometimes for two weeks. They usually brought him to the station at old CBN and allowed him to stay with us for an hour or more.
How was his spirit? Was he moody?
We carried on with courage as if nothing happened just to give him the strength to hang in there.
Was he hopeful that he would still become President?
At some point, he believed without a doubt that he would reclaim his mandate and that it was only a matter of time.
Did you ever have any premonition that things were going to go wrong?
Why would I want to? Life always comes to an end; it does not matter when or how, it always comes to an end.
How many times did you see him in four years?
Before he died, I didn’t see him for like a year and half because I was trying to change his counsel and we needed him to sign. We were going to change GOK and FR Williams and we needed to see him to sign it, but because of that they didn’t make it possible for us to see him.
How did you hear the news of his death?
They called us from Abuja collectively but, conveniently, I could not be found. So, other family members went. I indirectly heard that he had died and then I got a call from the Villa confirming it.
Did you see his body?
Yes, I saw it.
It must have been really terrible…
For me as the first son and the head of the family, I needed to be strong. They didn’t beat us and to do otherwise would make it look like we had been defeated. I went in there and saw the body and I asked if we could take him for burial. They told me that we had to go and meet with General Abdulsalami who pleaded that they should be allowed to carry out an autopsy. I initially said no because, as a Muslim, he should be buried immediately. But he pleaded and I later agreed and that was arranged. I had come to terms with it and, emotionally, I was strong because, before then, I had seen the death of my mum who died at 54.
Do you believe he was murdered or do you think he died a natural death?
I think that is very irrelevant, to be honest. If you know my father well enough, he walked with a first aid kit. He knew his body so well and when anything was out of order, he hopped into a plane and demanded to be taken to his doctor. If he walked past a clinic, he would stop and tell you to take his blood pressure. Now, if you lock up such a man for four years without getting him medical attention, you have already killed him. You don’t need to put a gun to his head or poison his tea, which was what he meant when he said Abacha had locked him in a coffin. We all knew he had high blood pressure, so it’s a given that such a person should have had frequent medical attention.
I think, at a point, we were successful in getting him to go for treatment but then his lawyer came and decided to challenge the conditional release that was brokered. I did not see the sense in that. Would you also blame his lawyer for being part of the conspiracy or not? Abacha even said on live TV that he didn’t know what my father’s lawyer was doing but that he certainly wasn’t working for the government. You can go and check the clip.
Abacha died and Abdulsalam took over. There was an interlude of one month before your father died. Why was your father not released during that one-month interval?
From what I understand, it was a process and they wanted to bring the big fish last because they had released the likes of Diya and Obasanjo, so they wanted to release him last. Also, I think they knew that he had a health problem and they didn’t want him to be released spontaneously. They wanted to slowly re-integrate him back to the society. They moved him to Aguda House, where he got access to the likes of Kofi Annan and Emeka Anyaoku. They planned to finally release him thereafter, but the timing was wrong.
Were you allowed to see him during Abdulsami’s regime?
That was when they called the family to come and meet him, but they went without me for reasons best known to them.
At a point in time, we heard that you were married to IBB’s daughter. Was it true?
I think they put the cart before the horse; we never got married. I had known her way before politics and, if I wanted to, I would have married her long before the election, but it would not have made any sense because it would have looked like an arranged thing. One day, I was at a function and Baba Ayo Adebanjo accused me of not participating in what they were doing because I was collecting contracts from the government to print election materials. I told him that I was not involved in any contracts but that, even if I was, were the contracts not Nigerian contracts and am I not a Nigerian? His allegations were false. I grew up with his kids in Surulere, so for him to tell me that in front of people was embarrassing.
Are there moments that you have been faced with challenges and you wished that your dad was still alive?
My parents prepared us for when they would not be around. While our friends were playing around, we were working. They forced a level of maturity in us that was way more than our age at the time. We talked to our father as colleagues and friends. We all had our master’s degree by the time my mother died. We were not born with riches and even when the riches came, my mum made sure that we didn’t know we had it. We didn’t have a nanny in the house and my mum always sent me on errands to buy diapers for my younger ones when we were in Surulere.
Who was the MKO that the world didn’t know about?
My dad has always been an open book; what you see is what you get. He was extremely brilliant. He had a photographic memory and he never forgot anything, no matter how many years had passed. That was what endeared people to him and he had lots of friends.
He and Olusegun Obasanjo came from Abeokuta and even attended the same school.
What do you think was the problem between the former President and your father?
I do not want to get into what the problems were. At my age, I have my own difficulties with my contemporaries. What I know is that my father was his senior in school and they both came from Abeokuta. He has been head of state three times and the he would not have been head of state the last two times without my father. It was my father who paid the price. So, whatever the differences, he owes it to himself and everyone to come clean on what the issues are. I am not going to speculate.
Abiola was a very rounded character. He was generous, very friendly and a man of many women too. You must have many siblings, some of whom you may not even know. How was he able to manage such a large family?
I think I know all of us by now. That was why I said that if I had seen him in the morning and at night they called me to say he was dead, I would have been in serious crisis. My father’s four-year incarceration allowed me to know everybody for whom they are and what they are. It made me know whom you could count on and whom you could not count on, be it wife, child or friend. It was a tutelage period for me, for something that you think would never come.
How many children do you think he had?
You can’t count the number of children one has. There was a lot of uniqueness in MKO; to him, nothing is a mistake. It may look like an excessive thing but, over the years, it turned out well. I have a sister married to a Deltan. I am married to a Deltan. I have a sister married to the Ijebu. I have a brother married to an American. I have a brother married to the Kanuri. I have a brother married to someone from Zimbabwe and, before you know it, we would be presidents all over the world. We don’t joke around.
Has the acrimony in your family been resolved? One of your siblings accused you in the media recently that you are not letting them have the opportunity to run the businesses and that the businesses are in ruins.
I’m glad you brought it up. All these businesses did not start in one day but the government shut everything down in one day. A lot of these businesses were created by the eldest of Abiola’s children; Deji, me and others. My sentiment is totally different from any other kid who was just there spending money. If I was like them, I would have sold everything and nobody would query me but I need to leave a legacy beyond the fact that our father was a philanthropist and a creator of value added wealth. I kept quiet because it is a family issue and my responsibility is not to put the family out there. But it has gotten to a point that something has to be said, not so much because of them but because I now have kids and they are grown up and would also have their own kids and people would ask them questions about what they have been told about their father. I don’t play sentiments at all; so I am going to come forward with facts to show all that they are doing.
I am not a lazy man that would hold on to what does not belong to me. I am going to address that issue and I will do it with facts for the sake of my children. Our father was a fantastic man and if you are serious enough to take advantage of his goodwill and the good education he gave everyone, you don’t need to start waiting for what he had or didn’t have. He gave me a good education and it is left to me to take advantage of that education, but if you don’t take advantage of yours, who is to blame for that? If you don’t know what to do with your life, then you have issues. No amount of what you take over can solve your problem. This is a topic I will soon sit down and address in its entirety and I have facts to go with it.
Has the debt owed your father been paid?
No it hasn’t.
How much is it now?
If you consider the interest accrued, it should be approximately $400 million and that is from one business alone. We are still in the process of recovering the money. I have cleared the June 12 issue, but I will now face the debt recovery issue squarely in the next four years.
It’s been said that while he was alive, MKO was one of the richest black men in the world, but then you read statements from his family members complaining that they cannot even afford to feed. Is it not a contradiction? Are his assets outside the country still intact?
Let them all go and get busy. Like I said, I would have to address this issue. There were so many things I had to do outside the businesses just to make sure things go on smoothly.
Did he have a will?
Yes, he had a will, which ought to have been executed by the bank, but the bank rejected executing it; so I had to take it on. We are still in the process but in the mean time, we had so many people suing over which will is fake and which is real. They said it was my idea but the truth of the matter is that when the man was alive, those kids were made to take DNA tests. Was I also the one that asked for it? The kids that took the blood test know and their mothers know that their kids took blood tests. Even in his will, he named a particular child from a particular woman, saying the child was not his. How would he have known if he didn’t do a blood test when he was alive? Is that also my making? All the payments to the wives and brothers have been made but when they were collecting the money, they didn’t tell me that it was a fake will. What is left to my mum, I couldn’t even collect because she died before my dad.
We cannot talk about MKO without talking about Alhaja Simbiat Abiola. We have read interviews where your father said your mother was the one that made him whom he was.
She made all of us but she left too soon. She was extremely religious and very enterprising in her own right. Whatever the five of us inherited today at all were gotten from my mother, not from our father. She was very industrious and she grew her business based on the level which my father was at any point in time. She started with importing trailer loads of shoes from Spain, and then she veered off into textile design business. When Obasanjo banned that one, she went into another business. For every business she sets up, MKO was always the chairman. Immediately she left, all of us knew that there was a difference. She loved my dad very much. If we are having any difficulty and we couldn’t get through to him, as long as you convince her, she will take up the matter with him and it would be resolved. If she is having any arguments with him and you interfere, she will leave him and ask what your business is.
After God, the only hero we had was our father and we could not look at his face. If you take food to my father, whatever is left of the food, you would have to dish it into another plate because if my mother caught you eating from my father’s plate or using his cutlery, you would be in trouble. As far as she was concerned, we were not allowed to see his faults; she dealt with that herself. So in our eyes, our father was faultless. My mother had enough resources to leave and be on her own, but she insisted that she will remain with my father and that no one would take our place. She always said that as long as there is an MKO Abiola name, it is the names of the first five of his children that would always be mentioned.
Let me ask you an unfair question. Who was your favourite between your parents?
My mum moulded me, but my dad was my favourite. I could tell him anything. He began taking me for board meetings at a very tender age. He will tell me to sit at a corner while the meeting was going on. Whenever he looked at me, he knew exactly what I was thinking and vice versa. It didn’t start with my dad; it started with my grandfather. I was the first grandson on both sides. He was the Balogun of Ojo and a very tough man. He also allowed me to sit at meetings and that was how I learned many things.
During the four years of his incarceration, did you see members of his family and friends that betrayed him?
I would not put it that way. I said earlier that I had a four-year tutelage and I got to know everyone. I saw everybody for what they were. There were players who played pre-election and there were players who played post-election. There were some who played the pre and the post and there were others who joined post-election. Some people stayed with us till the end, while some came after the election.
What role did Bola Tinubu play in all of these?
At the very beginning, he was part of the Yar’Adua PF group from Jos. He was a senator then, and as far as the group went, we related. The crisis started post-election. When Abacha came, one of the things he wanted to do was to be the administrator for Lagos.
That is Tinubu?
Yes. I am sure you have seen pictures of him and my dad. He was hoping that there would be civilian administrators like we had under IBB but Abacha said no, that he was going to have military administrators. So he (Tinubu) said okay, in that case, can I be a deputy administrator? But Abacha said that there wouldn’t be deputies. Then he wanted the post of a commissioner.
He wanted to be a commissioner?
Yes. Then it was a choice between him and someone very close to Jakande who has passed on now. I can’t remember his name, but because Babagana was already in the government, that guy was picked as commissioner. But really, Senator Tinubu had lost out already.
Was Tinubu very close to MKO?
Yes, he was close enough. He and Adeniyi Adele, a very good guy, were close to my father. In fact, Adeniyi was closer to my father and more dedicated to the process than anyone of them. When my documentary comes out, you will see Tinubu’s take on issues. So once he lost out, automatically, he became a NADECO member and Adeniyi was incarcerated.
Was NADECO actually working for Abiola or for a different reason to just get the military out? We heard that, at a point, they just wanted to get the military out and were actually not fighting for MKO. We remember that there were reports that some of them didn’t actually want him out of prison, because what they would tell Abacha would be different from what they would tell the public. Did you have that kind of experience?
That is why I said that it was a collective conspiracy.
Do you think NADECO was actually working for Abiola?
Some were working for him. It is sort of like a pyramid. The bottom is used to feed the top; like a ponzi scheme. The bottom generates all the funds and comes all the way up and then they enjoy the loot. It is exactly the same process. In the process of taking the public sentiments of ‘oh, we want June 12’, they all appeared as if they were supporting MKO.
We heard some of the people the media celebrates today fed fat on the June 12 struggle. Don’t you feel sorry for the media when you read about such people because we really didn’t know what happened behind the scenes?
If you take the Yar’Adua group as an instance, which was the first lesson I learned, you never see their guys in the news. But you see all the PSP people all over the news, yet they could not win in their local governments. The Yar’Adua guys never spoke in the news but they were all very formidable in their own enclaves; they delivered on everything. If they tell you that they have 10 numbers, they will deliver on eight of that 10 for sure. See what happened in Lagos with Sarumi; those were the guys that were holding the horns of the bull. All the other guys were making noise in the media.
What kind of president would MKO have been if he were sworn in? Some said he would not have been a good president because he was too generous.
When it was clear that we had won the election, Kingibe came to me because I had a quiet place on Hilton where I used as my control room. When he came in, he said ‘congratulations Kola. Your room is very quiet.’ And I told him, ‘Sir, I am at work.’ The joke was that there were no ‘sleepovers,’ and we both laughed. He then asked me what exactly I would want from my father’s administration and I told him I didn’t want anything. My responsibility was to deliver on the election and I had done that. I told him he would not see me at the villa. I told him that what I wanted was good governance and I advised that they should use technocrats and not make the mistake of appointing politicians for ministerial positions; because my father’s biggest critics would come from the South-West first.
Would your father have withstood the pressure of not appointing politicians?
I’m sure he would have. When you come in with a momentum, whatever you do at that point, you would be given the benefit of the doubt. It is when you start messing up that you will be criticised. Because then, for the mere fact that MKO won the election, prices of goods were dropping; the dollar was crashing and things were looking up. It was not because he did anything, it was just the psyche of Nigerians who believed that they had participated in electing a government that they truly wanted and that was it.
Between June 12 and July 7 when he died, which date is more important?
Because it is a national date. That date signifies a lot of things that does not exist today. First, he had a Muslim-Muslim ticket, which meant that religious bigotry is out of the window. We had a South West person
country and people voted for him across ethnic groups. That date will always be relevant in this country as long as Nigeria remains one because it is the day the country came together as one tribe, irrespective of religion or ethnicity. My plea is that under the leadership of President Buhari, that irrespective of where we are coming from, we must come together and stop all the killings and the ethnic division. On June 12, people voted for a man that represented a true detribalised Nigerian. That is the significance of why he got the GCFR, anyway. When I started this process and the Jonathan government felt they could name University of Lagos (UNILAG) after him, I told the government that MKO was not a South Western man. Jonathan missed it because we already had Moshood Abiola Polytechnic in Ogun State and we have a stadium there named after him.
Did you deal with Arthur Nzeribe at all?
I did. I mentioned him earlier as part of the governors’ group.
But he wasn’t a governor.
He wasn’t, but he and the late Olusola Saraki were part of the core of the governors’ group. When they went to court and got that adjournment to stop the election, I found a way to get the information across through the system that we were going to lose the election and that was how I truncated their move to stop the election.
Was that why people believed that it was Bashir Tofa that was winning?
That was because of the information I sent through the system. I basically set them up using that information and that was why they allowed the election to go on. After the annulment, there was talk about us meeting with them and I asked, for what? At that moment, we were already at the rock bottom and they couldn’t make a difference. If during the court adjournment, we met with them and work out some sort of arrangement, I was willing and open to that. But since it was already annulled, what were we going to be discussing? I didn’t go to the meeting and I refused that my father also attended. It didn’t make any sense for him to attend.
From what you have said, we understand that Babangida didn’t want to go
That is my take, or rather, he didn’t know how he would go.
The second point we deduced from what you said is that Abacha played the double game. He promised to help MKO and he believed him.
Absolutely. He also put pressure on Babangida to go.
What role did Diya play as the most senior person from the South West in Abacha’s government? Did you have any interface with him?
I also interviewed him for the documentary to give him the chance to state his own side. When Abacha passed on and he was released from prison, I went and welcomed him and I told him that it was good he went through that process, because if he had stayed with Abacha till he died, he may not have been alive today. Or he may not be able to come back to the South West without being lynched. And he looked at me and said he thought he could come in quietly to Lagos but that he was shocked at the reception he received. It was the imprisonment process that cleansed Diya but God has a way of showing his power. I said what I said from what I know.
Do you think we can have another MKO?
I don’t think we can. Such a man comes once in a generation
You have a lot of political experience, especially in running your father’s campaign. Will you ever consider running for president?
My mother contested for Senate and my father started with NCNC; so politics is in the system. My sister was in the House of Representatives at some point but she didn’t make it this time. There are enough of us out there and I have no doubt in my mind that one day, one of us will be the president of this country and other countries.
Would you consider serving under Buhari?
Honestly, I don’t know. I have a few years to round off the family issues. I am 57 years old now and I don’t want to get to 60 without resolving these issues. I have made a commitment to resolve the issues, including the legitimate outstanding debts owed the family and I only have three years to achieve that.
What would you like to be written on MKO’s epitaph?
There is nothing else to write. There is no more May 29. June 12 will be remembered as the day my father won his election. What else can I write? My father became more powerful in death. Just watch it; things will begin to change for the better in Nigeria because the right thing has been done.
What are your final thoughts?
I want Nigerians to always remember my father and the significance of June 12 in the history of Nigeria. It is unfortunate that we do not teach History anymore in our schools and I am hoping that the documentary will teach us a lot of lessons. June 12 shows us what we are capable of doing with good leadership in this country. If we get our economics right, things would be better.