Tomorrow, it will be exactly 30 years since the June 12, 1993, presidential election generally believed to have been won by the late Bashorun MKO Abiola but annulled by the then-military government..
Abiola died in the ensuing attempt to reclaim his mandate in 1998, about four weeks after the military ruler who had detained him for declaring himself President, General Sani Abacha, mysteriously passed on in June of that year.
Abiola’s death sparked agitation across the country for his posthumous recognition as a former Nigerian leader immediately after the nation returned to civilian rule in 1999 but this was not achieved until 2018 when former President Muhammadu Buhari moved Democracy Day from May 29, the day Nigeria had returned to civil rule after the June 12, 1993 episode, to June 12.
Buhari did not stop there. He conferred posthumously the highest honour in the land and one usually conferred on Presidents or former Presidents, Grand Commander of the Federal Republic (GCFR), on the presumed winner of the June 12, 1993 presidential election. Earlier, former President Goodluck Jonathan had tried to immortalise Abiola by renaming the University of Lagos (UNILAG) after him but the move was resisted by the UNILAG alumni, forcing Jonathan to beat a retreat.
Abiola’s then-running mate, Alhaji Babagana Kingibe, on his part, got the Grand Commander of the Order of the Niger (GCON) honour usually reserved for Vice Presidents or their equivalents from the Buhari administration. The gesture was interpreted in many quarters to mean that Abiola and Kingibe had been recognised as former President and former VP respectively. Whereas it is five years since June 12 was officially recognised, it is 30 years since the historic election.
President Bola Tinubu was a participant in the June 12 episode as he was involved in the then-transition to civil rule as a senator representing Lagos West before teaming up with pro-democracy elements to demand the restoration of the Abiola mandate from the Abacha regime under the aegis of the National Democratic Coalition (NADECO).
And this is the first Democracy Day on June 12 under the Tinubu administration. In this interview, one of the children of the late Abiola, Jamiu, speaks on how the family has fared since the detention of their patriarch, the death, the murder of his mother, Kudirat, during the struggle and other issues around June 12.
It has been 30 years since the June 12 election and nearly 25 years since your father’s demise. How has it been with the family?
It has not been easy at all. It was from the heights of joy as a result of the presidential victory to the depths of sorrow because of the annulment. Such an event can only be devastating to any family. This is not to mention other countless negative consequences of the tragedy. The family has accepted the fact that life must go on.
This is the only attitude we can adopt as a family, particularly because in most countries similar to Nigeria, in terms of population and ethnic diversity, there has always been a family that has paid the supreme price for democracy and stability.
The Ghandis in India, the Bhuttos in Pakistan and even the Kennedys in the United States of America have all lost at least family members to unnatural causes that were politically motivated. This is a fact that can now be sadly said about Nigeria too.
At a time, stories about disputes resulting from sharing of inheritance were peddled. It was also said that paternity and Deoxyribonucleic Acid, DNA, tests were conducted…
Most of what you have heard is true. When it rains it pours and this is what further exacerbated the tragedy. DNA tests were conducted but this issue was deliberately mishandled to divert attention from my father’s assets. The fact that some had failed the DNA test should never have been published in newspapers. So, there were court cases later used as excuses for stalling the sharing of my father’s assets or diverting their proceeds to fictitious legal charges. The fact that all of this was happening just a few years after my father died was a great disservice to his memory and legacy. But this is in line with something God Himself had mentioned in the Koran when he stated that among our family members, some might be our enemies. It is a lesson from which many people, old and young, should learn. To make matters worse, those who took over his assets have even refused to maintain the house in which he was buried, even though it will not cost more than a tiny fraction of their loot.
Your father had so many flourishing businesses at the time. What happened to them?
My father had flourishing businesses, but some of them were grounded by government when he became its enemy even before he had a mandate to reclaim them. The government refused to pay him the monies owed. There was a day I went to his room even before the June 12 election and found him upset. He then told me that he had gone to Abuja several times to get various payments that had been long overdue but were denied. When I asked why, his response was, “They are worried that the more I have, the more powerful I will become.” However, his assets were still there. Neither did he sell them nor use them to borrow money before he died. This does not mean that he is also not partly to blame for the failure of his businesses. As you probably know, he was a generous man and, contrary to what many people believe, he was not in any way materialistic at all. With time, money became nothing to him, so his businesses gradually became channels for charity and not-for-profit. This is not how an entrepreneur should think, and certainly. That was not how he used to think before becoming a billionaire. His business empire crumbled partly because that was the aim of the military government and also partly because his own priorities had changed when he made up his mind to give all he had to people in need all over the world. He rarely had time to run his businesses.
Chief Abiola had friends in high places, Obasanjo, Yar’Adua, former governors, ex-ministers, top politicians. How have they helped the family?
As a father and breadwinner, he never raised a family that would look forward to handouts from anyone. He believed so much in destiny and felt that God would see his family through any potential travails. Before his presidential declaration, he had come to the USA and I stayed with him in his hotel room. There, he divulged his plans to me and added that in the event of any disastrous consequence, God would see us through. Back then, I was not even 19, so I guess I was not wise enough to ask him certain things that should have crossed my mind. Based on his own miraculous story, it was easy for him to be so optimistic. From a relatively humble background, he had at one point arguably become the wealthiest man in Africa. Such a turn of events would no doubt make anyone optimistic enough to take such a risk without better preparation for his family, particularly because he had so many children. Notwithstanding, his children would still have fared well based on his dying instruction that all his assets should be shared equally among them. This is even if only his assets known in Nigeria alone valued at over N40 billion were shared among the approximately 50 children that had passed the DNA test.
Can you tell us some positive things that you remember about your dad?
There are many positive recollections of him. He was a humble, generous, kind and hardworking father. I have captured detailed memories of his traits in two books I wrote in both his memory and that of my mother’s (Alhaja Kudirat Abiola). The books are titled ‘The President Who Never Ruled’ and ‘The Stolen Presidency.’ But one thing I am not happy about is that I missed out on so many other traits. Even though I grew up with him in the same house, his busy schedule largely limited what I knew about him. There are many aspects, particularly the fact that he was so blind to religion and ethnicity. I should have comprehensively described them in those books. This aspect of his personality is something that, as a nation, we can all benefit from. It is a quality that I have also long detected in President Bola Tinubu. Therefore, I am optimistic that we are on our way to a genuine national reconciliation that is badly needed.
What are those things you miss about him?
Some of the things I miss about him are the attributes I just listed. It is natural to miss warm people like him in a world as cold as this one. Besides, the mere presence of one’s parents goes a long way in terms of boosting confidence when taking major decisions in life. When friends of mine criticize their parents I am always quick to remind them of the dangers of not appreciating what you have until it’s gone. Some have been wise enough to retrace their steps and make amends. For that, I thank God.
There are stories about President Tinubu substantially being of help to the family. How true?
It is true. He was a genuine friend of my father. This can be proven as far back as when he threw his weight behind my father after the annulment when he dared to accompany my father to see General Abacha in Aso Rock just after he had ousted the interim government as evident in the viral picture you have probably seen on the internet. Among many of my father’s friends, he stood out before and after my father died. Chief Olusegun Osoba is also another person. He has been the first port of call for many of our family members when advice or any form of assistance is needed.
Does the family regret that Abiola went into politics and ultimately ran for the presidency which resulted in his death?
It is a big family. Most of its members feel differently about this issue. On a personal level, I have decided to only focus on the positive spiritual aspects of the tragedy. My father became closer to God and stood a better chance of going to heaven after being subjected to so much pain and injustice. This also applies to my dear mother. In addition, he has now become a democratic hero and not just a generous wealthy businessman as far as most Nigerians are concerned. Another thing I am personally happy about is that, through this tragedy, many people were able to see a different side of him, a brave and noble side that they might never have known existed. Some had seen him as a corrupt individual but they have now become wise enough to realise that they had been wrong when an Abacha government badly in need of legitimacy failed to find and publish evidence of any corrupt dealings involving him. By any standards, this is a personal triumph for my father who, regardless of whether or not his election had been annulled, would still have died on that fateful morning of July 7, 1998.
Former President Jonathan tried to immortalise your dad by renaming the University of Lagos, UNILAG, after him. How do you feel that the gesture was resisted by some members of the university community, leading to the abandonment?
The outcome of the former President’s effort was discouraging. However, I remain grateful to him for at least trying to immortalize my father. It is the intention that counts and on a federal level, it was the first of its kind to be initiated by a sitting Nigerian President. It is noteworthy to mention that the Senate, under President Obasanjo, had named a street after my father in Abuja but President Goodluck was the first President who sought to immortalise him on his own. Though some people were not surprised by the resistance from the outset, they knew that many people are attached to the original name of the university. I was surprised by what was happening because back then, I did not know that such an attachment existed. I didn’t even know that a similar resistance had occurred when the government named a university after the great Chief Obafemi Awolowo decades ago.
Many people believe that the icing on the cake of the bid to immortalise your dad was the recognition of June 12 by the Buhari administration and the posthumous honour usually reserved for Presidents (GCFR) conferred on him just as Ambassador Kingibe, his then-running mate, got the honour of GCON usually conferred on VPs or former VPs. How do you and the family feel about that gesture?
Once again, it is a big family. I doubt that there is a standard opinion. I was thrilled that the Buhari administration took that step. I am even sure that previous Presidents now regret not doing the same since it is the right thing to do. That was why I joined President Buhari’s ‘Next Level’ second-term campaign effort. After our inauguration, I did all I could to ensure his victory. The recognition of both my father and mother was something for which I really struggled. I had written books about their struggles, spending millions of naira and giving away copies for free. I had given all members of the Lagos State Assembly copies for free as far back as 2016. I even sent free copies to all exco members of the Ambode administration and countless copies to former President Buhari and former Vice President Yemi Osinbajo, monarchs, ministers, members of the Senate and the House of Representatives. It was, therefore, a moment of immeasurable joy when the Federal Government honoured my father in June 2018. The only thing I did not like was that there was no mention of my mother, Alhaja Kudirat Abiola, who had led the struggle after my father’s incarceration and had also been killed. But 10 months later, the government inserted her name in the Women’s Hall of Fame as a martyr of Nigeria’s democracy, which came as a relief to me and my siblings.
It was interpreted in some quarters that some entitlements and privileges should have gone with that declaration. What is the situation?
The family was not given any presidential entitlements by the administration of President Muhammadu Buhari. Even my dad’s house was not maintained by the Buhari administration as is done for previous Presidents. But the most painful aspect is the lack of police security as extended to other former or late leaders. This was why our dear matriarch, Alhaja Adebisi Abiola, who has been taking care of my father’s large family as much as she can, following the death of my mother, was exposed to an armed robbery attack in my father’s house. This is something that should never have happened in the house of a former President to his senior wife or any member of his family.
How do you think former President Buhari, who just concluded his tenure fared?
In terms of infrastructure, he had a lot of outstanding achievements, particularly about roads and bridges, thanks to Mr. Babatunde Fashola. He also did very well in the agricultural sector. I believe that he would have achieved much more in the absence of lingering massive oil theft along with its dismal financial consequences. COVID-19 and the war in Ukraine also had a monumentally devastating impact on the performance of the Buhari administration concerning fuel importation. By the time a comprehensive review is conducted, I am sure that there will be more areas for which the administration should be commended than reprimanded.
Can you set an agenda for President Tinubu, who just commenced his tenure?
He has already set a wonderful agenda for himself in his manifesto. I have read it twice and know he will live up to it. He will do well as he did in Lagos State when he was a governor. Here is a man ready for the job from day one as accurately stated by Chief Bisi Akande whom I have always considered to be a man wise and bold enough to always say the truth. Nigeria is a country with vast potential but at the same time, rare are those capable of seeing through the maze of its complexities, not to mention navigating the country from chaos to stability. On the list of such rare people are President Tinubu and Vice President Kashim Shettima. The Vice President did wonders in Borno against all odds. He is such a great partner and will no doubt play a very positive role in this administration.
Are you glad to see that one of those who fought for June 12 is now President?
Yes, I am thrilled. He fought for democracy, knows its value and will, therefore, be capable of doing very well. His wife, Oluremi Tinubu, was also very active during the struggle. She is a courageous woman who gave her husband all the needed support and will do the same throughout his tenure. Besides, do you think that it is a mere coincidence that power did not only shift to the South but was given to the most active participant in the struggle to reclaim the historic mandate given to my father, a Southerner, exactly 30 years ago? Many things have been said about the 2023 elections most of which are unsubstantiated speculations. However, those comments turn pale in my eyes when compared to the fact that the struggle for democracy came at a huge price and when the bargain was ongoing in those dark years under the military, none of the rivals of President Tinubu was anywhere to be found on the right side of history.
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