The political turmoil endured by the citizens of Nigeria during the final decades of the twentieth century was led by a varied group of individuals. One of the most influential was Moshood Abiola (1937-1998), a Nigerian businessman educated in Scotland. He climbed to the top of several corporate ladders, building a political and financial empire.
Moshood Kashimawa Olawale Abiola was born into a poor family in Abeokuta, Ogun State, Nigeria on August 24, 1937. Abiola received his primary education at Baptist Boys' High School and earned a scholarship to attend the University of Glasgow, Scotland, where he received a degree in economics. Abiola was raised in the Yoruba Muslim faith; the southern part of Nigeria where he was brought up is divided primarily between Christian and Muslim believers. Known for his out-spoken political stances, Abiola lobbied the United States and several European nations in 1992, demanding reparations for their enslavement of African people and recompense for the fortunes made in harvesting Africa's raw materials.
Muslim Marital Traditions
Following common tradition, Abiola took four wives; Simibiat Atinuke Shoaga in 1960, Kudirat Olayinki Adeyemi in 1973, Adebisi Olawunmi Oshin in 1974, and Doyinsola (Doyin) Abiola Aboaba in 1981. He is said to have fathered over 40 children from these four marriages. Abiola's second wife, Kudirat, was murdered in the capital city of Lagos in 1996. There was speculation that her death was caused by the military, but no proof was ever found. His third wife, Doyin, ran a newspaper chain he owned until it was closed by the government. In 1992, Abiola was ordered to pay $20,000 a month in child support to a woman who claimed to be his wife. His lawyers argued in a New Jersey court that Abiola had only four wives; this woman was just one of his 19 concubines.
A Businessman and Entrepreneur
Abiola was considered to be a genial businessman who amassed a fortune through his association with various enterprises, including publishing, communications, and oil. With his educational background in accounting, he easily assumed the position of deputy chief accountant at Lagos University Teaching Hospital from 1965 to 1967, and comptroller of Pfizer Products, Ltd. between 1967 and 1969. In 1969, he became the comptroller of International Telephone and Telegraph (ITT), Nigeria, Ltd., and rapidly rose to become vice president for ITT's Africa and Middle East branch. He was also chairman and chief executive officer of ITT Nigeria, Ltd. from 1972 through 1988. During this period Abiola founded and sat as chairman of Concord Press of Nigeria Ltd. and served as chief executive at Radio Communications Nigeria. While employed with ITT, he was frequently admonished by the general public due to the dreadful condition of the Nigerian telephone system. Abiola's detractors claim he profited financially at the expense of the citizens by using inferior materials and keeping extra profits for himself; charges he adamantly denied.
Much of Abiola's fortune, which was estimated at close to $2 billion, he freely distributed to others. He is said to have sent over 2,500 students through the university system as well as donating money to charities and championing sporting events. His generosity earned Abiola the nickname "Father Christmas" among the citizens of Nigeria. In addition to his generosity, Abiola was considered an astute businessman. For over 20 years he carefully cultivated friends throughout the country. He considered himself well liked by the Nigerian military establishment, a miscalculation that would cost him dearly.
Nigeria, the most populous country on the African continent, obtained its freedom from Britain in 1960. During the four decades that followed, it endured several major political crises, including the collapse of civilian rule in the 1960s and the collapse of the civilian-headed "Second Republic" in the 1980s. Both of these crises were accelerated by civil violence in Yoruba, the southwestern district of the country. Historically, north-south conflicts have peppered Nigeria, as political power has been held by the north, the headquarters for the country's military. Abiola, who hailed from the southern district of Yoruba, brought a different perspective to the country's political makeup. His cultivation of people on both sides of the north-south divide ultimately proved to be beneficial.
A Bid for Democracy
In 1993, the Nigerian government was undergoing another in a series of attempts at stabilization. Major General Ibrahim Babangida, together with Nigerian political leaders, inaugurated the Transitional Council and the National Defense and Security Council (NDSC). These governing bodies were designed to exist until democratic elections could be held to choose a president. On January 5, 1993, the process of screening over 250 presidential candidates was begun by the National Electoral Commission (NEC.) The NEC banned previous candidates and parties from campaigning, and so the long process began.
By the end of March, Abiola was chosen by the Social Democratic Party (SDP) as their candidate. The National Republican Convention (NRC) chose Bashir Othma Tofa and the elections were scheduled for June 12, 1993. The results clearly showed Abiola to be the winner. Babangida, wishing to continue military rule, petitioned the High Court to delay the elections, and on June 16 the announcement of the results was postponed. In defiance of the court order, a group called Campaign for Democracy released the election results, declaring Abiola to be the winner, with 19 of 30 states supporting him. Less than a week later the NDSC voided the election, supposedly to protect the legal system and the judiciary from being ridiculed both nationally and internationally. Both the U.S. and Great Britain reacted to this violation of democratic principles by restricting aid to Nigeria. Abiola, believing himself to have been given a mandate from the voters, joined the Campaign for Democracy in calling for voters to perform acts of civil disobedience in an attempt to force the election results to stand. In response, Major Babangida used the authority he still retained to ban both Abiola and Tofa from participating in any new elections.
On July 6, 1993, Nigerian leaders demanded that both parties agree to participate in an interim national government. They reluctantly agreed and, on July 16, plans were announced for a new election, but immediately abandoned. On July 31, Babangida, president of the NDSC, announced an interim government would take effect on August 27. He stepped down on the day before the new government took effect, handing power over to a preferred loyalist, Chief Shonekan.
Nigerians supporting Abiola demanded that power be turned over to him as the rightful winner of the original election. That election was considered by many to have been the cleanest in Nigeria's history and was praised as a concerted effort to overcome ethnic and religious divisions throughout the country. A. O. Olukoshi, a professor at the Nigerian Institute of International Affairs in Lagos, commented on the election and the majority win by Abiola, saying "Abiola allowed us to rise above ethnic and religious differences … this was the first time a Yoruba has been able to win votes both in the east and the north." By this point, Abiola had traveled to London where he denounced the entire process. Throughout August 1993, Nigeria was paralyzed by strikes and unrest, and came almost to a standstill. Abiola remained abroad for several months, finally returning to Nigeria at the end of the year. In November 1993, Chief Shoneken was overthrown by General Sani Abacha, as the military once again seized power in Nigeria.
Resentment against the military grew during the first part of 1994. During the constitutional conference of May 23, the Campaign for Democracy called for a boycott of elections, demanding that the military return power to Abiola, the presumed winner of the prior year elections. On June 11, 1994, after declaring himself to be president before a group of 3,000, Abiola went into hiding. He called for an uprising to force the military to recognize the 1993 vote. The military, conducting a nationwide hunt, arrested him on June 23. The following day, 1,000 demonstrators marched on Lagos to demand Abiola's release. By July, a war of attrition by Nobel Prize winner, Wole Soyinka, was launched against the government. In response, the military charged Abiola with treason. Soyinka, one of the driving forces behind Abiola, was forced to flee the country after being charged with treason.
The oil workers went on a ten-day strike, crippling the nation's leading industry and bringing the country to an economic halt. Riots flared in Lagos and by the strike's third week, 20 people had been killed. By mid-August the strike had brought unrest to the northern and eastern part of the country as support for Abiola continued to increase. Abacha responded by firing any high ranking military he thought were not loyal, then fired the heads of the state companies and their boards. Abacha eventually crushed the strike after nine weeks. He arrested any pro-democracy leaders that could be found.
Heart Attack or Poison?
Abiola remained under arrest for four years, and was not allowed visits by either his family or personal physician. He was denied proper medical care, even after being examined by state-authorized doctors. Abiola's daughter, Hofsad, said the family was allowed no contact during her father's four years in prison.
On July 7, 1998, only days before his scheduled release from prison, Abiola collapsed during a visit with a U.S. delegation and died in Abuja, Nigeria, of an alleged heart attack. His long-time friend and supporter, Wole Soyinka, expressed doubts that the death was the result of natural causes. "I'm convinced that some kind of slow poison was administered to Abiola," he told an interviewer after learning of his friend's death. Soyinka claimed that other Nigerian political prisoners had been injected with poison and indicated that he had received a note prior to Abiola's death stating that his friend would be killed within the next few days.
An autopsy found that Abiola's heart was seriously diseased and confirmed it as the cause of his death. The U.S. delegation visiting Abiola at the time of his attack saw no reason to presume foul play, indicating that the presiding doctors felt that the symptoms were consistent with a heart attack.
Abiola's death shocked and saddened a country that had come close to experiencing true democracy through valid elections for the first time in its history. The Roman Catholic Archbishop of Lagos, Anthony Okogie, commented on Abiola's passing by saying, "His death is the end of a chapter." Instead of celebrating his release and the possible resurgence of democracy, Nigeria stepped back to re-gather itself, and start the process again.
Further Reading on Moshood Abiola
Atlanta Journal and Constitution, July 16, 1998.
Newsday, June 9, 1995.
Time, August 9, 1993.
AP Online, July 7, 1998.
Encyclopedia Britannica Online, http://members.eb.com (February 16, 1999).