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 Newspaper team at 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.