Till date, the June 12, 1993, Presidential election is regarded as one of the best elections Nigeria has ever had. Sadly, it was annulled by the military government under the supervision of General Ibrahim Babangida. Subsequently, the winner of the election, Chief Moshood Abiola died while trying to secure his mandate. In this interview, Dele Momodu, who is referred to as an adopted son of the late Chief MKO Abiola and also his media campaigner during the election shares some of his experiences with Ademola Olonilua
After your date of birth, another significant date in your life is probably June 12. As the date draws near, how do you feel?
I feel a sense of deep frustration. Nigeria has gone through so much because we had one of the bloodiest civil wars in Africa but we survived it and Nigerians decided to come back together. The healing process took a while and some people worked very hard on it. Apart from the soldiers and combatants who fought to ensure the unity of Nigeria, there were private individuals who went round to heal the wounds and one of them was Chief Moshood Abiola. If you worked in any of his companies at the time, you would know that he was not biased when it comes to matters of tribe. At Concord newspaper, we had Yoruba, Igbo and Hausa working for him; he even had newspapers for the three major ethnic groups. That was part of the healing process. He reached out to every nook and cranny of Nigeria; so it was only natural that June 12 would be a payback time for him because of his great effort. On that day, you could see that Nigerians were ready to be one but after that day, everything scattered. So, the demons of democracy took over and Nigeria was thrown into total confusion and disarray and since then, we have known no peace. On June 12, there was no Boko Haram and there would have been no Boko Haram. On June 12, there was no north, east or south, Nigeria was one. On that date, there was nothing like political thugs and no life was lost during election, there was nothing like snatching of ballot boxes and even rain refused to fall though it was a rainy season. We had everything that we needed and Abiola defeated Tofa in Kano State. Two Muslims contested and nobody protested, this is virtually impossible today.
If Abiola had forgone his mandate for his freedom, what do you think would have happened to his dream of ruling Nigeria?
I am a fatalist and we can always try our best but God is the only one that can do the rest. To borrow Wole Soyinka’s translation of Fagunwa’s book, Ògbójú ode nínú Igbó Irúnmalè, we live in a forest of a thousand demons because it takes demons to behave the way we do. Nigeria was on the march again, we were supposed to be the Dubai or Singapore of Africa because God has given us everything that we need to be the number one. He gave us the largest population of black concentration in the whole world. That is why when I hear people talking about Biafra, Arewa, Afenifere and co, it is because we lost a golden opportunity on June 12, 1993 and I am not sure it would be easy for anyone to forgive us for wasting such a glorious opportunity.
Abacha’s Chief Security Officer, Major Hamzat Al Mustapha, has been making claims that those who told Abiola to insist on his mandate or nothing were the same people who went to Abacha to say different things, do you agree with him?
That is normal in politics and I am not ready to take issues because Abiola has been killed and buried. June 12 has been killed but I believe it has not been buried. The ghost of June 12 is what is haunting Nigeria today. Whatever happened then would be a subject for historians, I have decided that I must write the little account of what I witnessed. In politics, there are always treacherous people and they know themselves. There is nothing Abiola needed to do that he did not do. I think it was destiny that had a hand in it. Some may say that if he had not insisted on his mandate, he would be alive but I ask, alive to be what? What else would he have been? God already made him to be a man bigger than many presidents in the world, so the next level to go is martyrdom but we are all afraid to be martyrs. God chose to make Abiola a martyr and that means victory over your enemies. People conspired against him. He was not a perfect human being because no one is but he was very close to perfection in the sense that he loved humanity. One of the greatest laws that I read in the bible is for us to love our neighbours as ourselves. It is very important for humanity and he tried his best for mankind and that is why today, no matter how they refuse to honour him, he has got his glory in heaven.
People clamoured for Abiola’s immortalisation which the former President Goodluck Jonathan did by renaming University of Lagos after him but the move was resisted by Nigerians. What is your take on this?
As a human being, I was a bit disturbed and disappointed but you also have to understand that those who killed Nigeria first killed our education system. Once you kill education and you combine it with ignorance and poverty, the outcome is deadly and almost incurable. This is the affliction of Nigeria today. Some of the people who kicked against it were either too young or they were not born to know who Abiola was or the importance and relevance of June 12 to the development of Nigeria. I did not blame the kids that were saying that they could not change Unilag to MAULAG. There was nothing wrong in it because all over the world, institutions’ names are changed. But that is not the issue to me because there were other things that they could have named after Abiola. There was a time the National Assembly wanted to name the National Stadium in Abuja after him but some people still kicked against it. Even in death, those who killed June 12 still wanted to kill Abiola again. There is a Yoruba proverb that says that a man who is not dead does not know what would kill him. Whatever we do in life, we shall all return to our creator one day. Abiola has done his own and he has gone to rest and I am sure he is resting in peace, so we leave those who are restless in death to God. I don’t see what he has done other than to give his life to his country. I know that a day would come very soon when the contributions of Abiola would be well recognised and compensated. They killed everything he had, his businesses, his family was thrown into untold hardship but I know that God would compensate that family because they suffered so much. A lot of people do not know what that family went through and I still read about some people who attack and abuse him but that is the ignorance they sold to them and a lot of people are not capable of doing independent research to know who he was. I know very soon, Abiola would be recognised.
How would you describe MKO Abiola?
He was a man I called the pillar of joy. He was an uncommon humanist and philanthropist. He was a man of incredible brilliance and intelligence and he was a classic example of grass to grace and he was an inspirational figure and one of the greatest pan-African of the last century. His greatness did not come from the amount of wealth he had but the number of people he touched and inspired.
Where were you when you heard of his death?
I was in exile in London on July 7, 1998. I was sitting in front of my wife, Mobolaji and interestingly I was in touch with his daughter, Wuraola. We were working closely together. A lot of things happened two days before his death and I had a premonition that he was going to die; that was on July 5, 1998. Tokunbo Afikuyomi and I had gone to visit Nduka Obaigbena somewhere close to Park Lane in London and we were with him till the early hours of Sunday. While we were leaving, we saw the first edition of Sunday Times of London and I bought a copy because we saw something on Abiola in it. I told Tokunbo that what I was reading about Abiola in the newspaper was scary because there was a reporter of Sunday Times that accompanied the former Secretary-General of the United Nations, Koffi Annan to Nigeria when he visited Abiola. The reporter described the state he met Abiola in solitary confinement because a meeting was arranged for Koffi Annan, to see Abiola the same way the former Secretary-General of the Commonwealth, Chief Emeka Anyaoku, was allowed to see him.
The reporter said that they put a television in front of him in solitary confinement but there was no voice, they killed the audio. He was only allowed to see pictures on the screen but no audio. You can imagine a man of Abiola status watching television without audio. I told Tokunbo that I was worried because if they could treat him in such a manner after Abacha had died, I was not sure he would come back alive. That was where my premonition came from and it was just a deduction. I called a friend of mine that worked at LTV and told him that something told me that Abiola would die because those who had given him that kind of treatment and punishment would not want him to come out of it alive so that he would not retaliate against them. That was my theory. That Sunday morning, Wuraola Abiola called me that she was on her way to Cambridge and asked me the latest news and I told her that what I read in the paper was alarming. We later met and when she asked what we could do, I told her that I did not know because all the human rights activists and social crusaders were saying Abiola should not compromise and accept the conditions given to him. We decided that we should appeal to them so that he could come out alive, we agreed to write a press release on Tuesday and we began to make a draft. We sent several drafted messages to each other and the last fax message came to me by 4:03pm and I was supposed to send it to newspapers in Nigeria. Immediately I got it, a few minutes later, Wuraola called me and I heard a noise. I could not make sense of what she was saying but I thought she said they had released daddy because that was what we were waiting for but when I heard her clearly, she said that they had killed daddy. Immediately she said that we should contact Sky News because we knew people there. When we tuned on to Sky News, we saw breaking news: Nigeria’s Moshood Abiola is dead. My world came to a standstill. You can imagine how I had waited for his release. I had suffered and had been put in detention at Alagbon, I had escaped from Nigeria under Abacha and I was waiting for the day when Abiola would come back and congratulate me for remaining steadfast, that was all I wanted. I just wanted to see him alive because he was a father figure to me and my family; so it was an anti-climax. Immediately I told myself I had to go to his house in London situated at Chester Terrace. I met his other children; Kola was the only one in Nigeria. I also saw the late Ooni’s son there because they were neighbours. Immediately, they began to make plans for his burial because their father was a Muslim. I met the house in total chaos and as I speak, I feel like bursting into tears because I cannot believe the wickedness of man.
While some say that he died of heart attack, others argue that there was foul play in his death. What is your opinion about his death?
I had no idea of what could have killed him but what I know is that a man who had survived four years in incarceration and he suddenly died about a month after Abacha, there was more than met the eyes but I will not speculate. As they say, Allah giveth, Allah taketh. What I know is that it is very tempting to subscribe to the conspiracy theories. For instance, on July 7, that Abiola died, a blind man, Yinka Ibidunni, a Nigerian who resided in London woke me up some minutes after 7am. He worked for Spectrum Radio in London, he was very vocal and at a point, he came back to Nigeria with the intention of vying for a senatorial seat.
When he woke me up, he said that they wanted to kill my father and I was still sleeping. Abiola was not yet dead at the time, so I asked him who wanted to kill Abiola. He asked if I listened to the interview on BBC; then he explained that Thomas Pickering and Susan Rice were in Nigeria and they were interviewed. He said that they were asked what they wanted to tell Abiola that was different from what Koffi Anan or Emeka Anyaoku had already said. The Americans said that they were going to persuade him to forget his mandate. According to Ibidunni’s account, the person interviewing them asked that what if Abiola said no again and their response was that it meant Abiola had become a danger to Nigeria. His own interpretation was that if Abiola refused to forget his mandate, they would get rid of him. That was what Yinka Ibidunni told me but I was not there and I did not listen to the interview. He told me that in the morning and Abiola died at 4pm that evening and he died in the presence of his august visitors. Till tomorrow, nobody has told us what happened but the Americans said that he died of apparent heart attack. That was what they told newsmen immediately it happened. I don’t know why it happened when they were present. Another theory is that the Americans could not have killed him and remained with him. Only God knows what happened, but I know that Abiola has moved on to higher glory.
You say that MKO Abiola was a father to you but you went into exile while he was in prison. Some people would say that was a cowardly act…
I have nothing to say about that other than if your life is in danger, the first thing you do is to protect your life. MKO Abiola was already in prison, what would I have done, free him? I was not the only one who left Nigeria. I was incarcerated and I did not run away from detention when they picked me up. I was one of the first people arrested under Babangida between July and August, 1993. I did not run away even when they told me that the only way they would release me was if I left Abiola alone. From detention, I went straight to Abiola’s house and I never stopped campaigning. There is a popular saying which says he who fights and runs away lives to fight another day. There is nothing cowardly about that. Even Abiola used to say that you cannot stand in front of a moving train unless you want to commit suicide. Those who made such statements were those who sat in the comfort of their homes. They did not know that those of us who ran away were the ones who kept June 12 alive because some people wanted to bury it but it became impossible. Why was I a target? It was because they felt that I was one of the brains behind Radio Freedom which later became Radio Kudirat. I went into exile but I was very active because I was running all the Yoruba programmes. I played my role very well. So they expected all of us to wait so that they would kill us all or put us in jail and nobody would talk about June 12 which was what they wanted? We went into exile and lost everything we ever worked for. Till date, my family has not fully recovered, so it is very convenient for people to make such statement but God saw my heart and that is why despite everything, Ovation came into being while I was in exile. That is an exceptional case because a lot of people perished. Some people even said that I stole Abiola’s money to start Oviation magazine, I have heard all kinds of rumours but I ask, where did Abiola keep the money; in prison? Was I his accountant? People say a lot of irrational and illogical things. They say all kinds of nonsense to cover their own cowardice because while we were busy in the street risking our lives, people were criticising us. When former President Goodluck Jonathan was being harassed by the cabal, I was on the streets of Abuja. I have never been a coward. Till today, I was one of the people that supported Buhari but I am also one of those advising the government today. When they do good things, I would praise them and when things are not going well, I would advise them and that is how things should be. You cannot be a radical that would just fight without any reason. I am not a professional radical but one with a purpose. The greatest radical in this world is a man who is able to risk everything for his country. I could have sat back like every other person because I was not a politician or a member of SDP, I was only interested in the advancement of my country.
Were you involved with Radio Kudirat?
Yes I was when I was in exile. I used a pseudonym, Saliu Elenugboro Eniolohunopa. I was handling all the Yoruba programmes. If you read Dr. Kayode Fayemi’s book on June 12 on Radio Kudirat, you would see that he mentioned me in it. I was not involved in the daily running of the radio station, I was just in charge of Yoruba programmes because I have a degree in Yoruba.
How did you meet MKO Abiola?
The first time I met Abiola was in 1981, around the time he was resigning from NPN when he stormed out of the party in anger. When he resigned, he said that he was no longer interested in politics. I was still a student in University of Ife and I was just fascinated about what I read about him, so I wanted to meet him. In 1988, I got a job with the African Concord Magazine as a writer. Within a few months, I was able to make my mark because despite the fact that I was employed by African Concord, I was also writing for National Concord and Sunday Concord. I was later transferred to Weekend Concord as a pioneer staff. That was where I became a style writer and everybody knew me. One day, Abiola wanted to host the Super Eagles, so he called my Managing Director, Dr. Doyin Abiola, that he needed Sir Shina Peters who was the rave of the moment at the time to perform. The MD told the chairman that I was an authority on Sir Shina Peters, so she called me and told me to get him for the occasion which I did. After Sir Shina Peters had agreed, I went to chairman’s house to report back because there were no telephones back then. He was very excited that I got Shina Peters for him and we got talking. He just liked me instantly and it was like love at first sight. He said he had been seeing my byline everywhere and had been wondering who this Dele Momodu was.
I later became the editor of Weekend Concord before I resigned. I joined Concord in 1988 and by 1990, I resigned to join Classique magazine and I was advertised everywhere as the highest paid editor in Nigeria. When I resigned, I did not tell Chairman; it was only the MD and she gave me her blessing. The next time Abiola would see me was at Sheraton Hotel when he was hosting Mallam Sani Zorro when he became the president of NUJ. When he saw me, he pointed at me and said that I ran away. We laughed and I went to greet him. When he was making his speech, he made mention of those who ran away from Concord and he made reference to me again. When the event was over, I went to greet him and he asked why I did not tell him before I left and after exchanging pleasantries, he said I should ensure to always visit him at home. He asked for my card but since I did not have one, he took a card from Bimbo Ashiru who is now a commissioner in Ogun State and wrote behind the card, ‘security house, please let bearer see me anytime.’ He signed it and said that I should laminate it and call it my multiple visa. We all laughed and that was how we became close. I visited him often but by December 1991, I wrote him a letter which startled him. Babangida had lifted the ban on politicians including Abiola, Yar’Adua, Olu Falae, among others.
In my letter, I told him that I knew he would be tempted to go into politics but I begged him to join the party of his people and he should remember what happened to him in NPN. Immediately he read the letter, he sent for me. When I got to his house, he was hosting the Eagles again but as soon as I entered the house, he paused his speech and said he wanted to acknowledge the presence of his adopted son. I almost collapsed. That was when the thing about being his son started from. He took me upstairs and asked me why I wrote the letter. I told him that I did not want him to suffer again and gave him a few tips which he really appreciated. The relationship developed from there and whenever I visited him, we would exchange ideas.
On my wedding, my wife was handed over to him by my father-in-law, the late Chief Akin Adaramaja who was the first attorney general of Ogun State. A father would not do more than that for a child. He was one of those who funded the wedding and his son, Kola, also attended my wedding. Kola Abiola bought my first car for me and his father gave me my second car. That is something that you can never forget in life. That is why till date, every member of Abiola family regards me as one of them and I am very close to them. I am always in touch with as many of them as I can reach and they reach out to me.
What was your role in Abiola’s campaign organisation?
I was just a media campaigner. I am more of a lifestyle journalist, so I handled his private life and the media. He was a Muslim and he was polygamous, so we tried to protect his privacy as much as possible and ensure that people did not go to any member of his family to embarrass him. There were different layers of campaigners and mine was just one of them. We had Dele Alake, Segun Babatope, Tunji Bello who is now the Secretary to the Lagos State government.
Did the campaign organisation see the annulment coming?
No, we did not. I was not in Nigeria on June 12. Chief Abiola sent me to represent him in Vienna, Austria, where the late Chief Gani Fawehinmi was getting the Bruno Kreisky award for human rights. I left Nigeria on June 9 and left Austria for London on June 12. On June 13, I called Concord Newspaper where they told me that chairman was celebrating the impending victory. On June 14, I called Nduka Obaigbena who told me to reach Abiola because it was obvious that he was going to win the election but they would not give him his mandate. I thought it was a joke but that was the first sign and he said the same thing to Dr. Doyin Abiola as I would later discover. Chief Gani Fawehinmi joined me in London on June 14 and I told him what I had heard but he said it was impossible and we were going to fight it. We both left London on June 16 and by the time we landed, Femi Falana, Beko Ransom-Kuti and some other people were already waiting for Chief Gani Fawehinmi and that was how the whole thing started. In fact, while we were on our way to Nigeria, we heard that the military government had said they should stop counting the votes because the election had been annulled.
Looking back at what you faced, did you ever imagine that you would live this long on earth?
I can tell you that everything about me is mysterious and that is why I always say only God knows best. With everything that has happened to me, I don’t know how I got myself into trouble not to talk of how I got to the middle of the whole crisis. General Alani Akinrinade calls me Ilu, and some other prominent Nigerians call me that name. Ilu means town or village. I have the ability to make and keep friends; that is one of my biggest strengths. So my network is something that worries people sometimes. I came to Lagos when I was 28 years old; so I was practically a village boy and in two years, I was the highest paid editor in Nigeria. It is a bit of a mystery which I cannot explain myself but it is only God that could have made it possible. I got to Ghana for the first time on July 25, 1995 but today, I am a household name there. There is no part of that country that I have not been to. It is only God that can direct your steps and all glory belongs to God.
Another major loss the Abiola family suffered was the death of Kudirat Abiola. Were you close to her?
I was in exile when Alhaja Kudirat Abiola was killed on the streets of Lagos, so we did a special programme for her on Radio Freedom and that was why the station’s name was changed to Radio Kudirat after her death. I felt so bad because she had many kids for Abiola. You can imagine a scenario where your father is incarcerated and your mother is killed. I still don’t know how those children survived till date. They paid dearly for Nigeria, yet some people say rubbish about the family. Only God can forgive us in Nigeria and this is such a thankless society. Abiola was one of the wealthiest people of his time but they killed all his businesses and yet Nigerians just moved on as if nothing happened. It is such a monumental tragedy.
There are some speculations that Major Al Mustapha had a hand in her death, what is your opinion on such school of thought?
I am not the type that would blame anyone for what I do not know. I don’t know anything about what Al Mustapha did or did not do but God sees us all. Of course there would be people who would say such because he was very close to his boss but don’t forget that anything he did he must have been taking orders from someone or somewhere. For me, I would rather not talk about what I don’t know. Whatever I have said are things that I witnessed and that is what you would find in my book, I am going to write an eyewitness account and my role in June 12 for posterity and history sake.
Do you have any grudge against General Babangida for locking you up?
No I do not have any grudge against him. I am a good Christian and my bible teaches me to forgive my enemies 70 times seven times. I practise that foolishly and I have nothing against anybody. I leave everyone to God. Vengeance is not mine. I remember when we covered the wedding of Abacha’s daughter and everyone was amazed but that is my job. Out of a bad situation, God gave me a triumphant return to Nigeria. I came back with Ovation and if I was not chased out of Nigeria, I am sure there would be no Ovation today. When I was at my lowest point, God chose to crown me with something greater. So who am I to fight against that? If I see Babangida today, I greet him and we talk. We have met several times and we talk. We were the first to break the news when his wife had cancer. I had known them since when they were in Dodan Barracks and when the late Maryam Babangida had her last child who just got married, I was the one who broke the news in Weekend Concord. They were very close to Abiola and even with the annulment of the election, Abiola did not hold it against anybody. That is one thing I learnt from him. He did not keep malice neither was he petty. You cannot be a believer and not learn how to forgive even if you do not forget because I can never forget that some people put me in prison. I cannot forget that some people put Abiola where he was but it is not up to me to judge anybody. There may be things they know that I do not know and I give them that benefit of doubt but I have tried to search for an answer and I still cannot understand why that election was annulled. It is something I cannot comprehend, how anybody would build such a beautiful election and kill it with his own hands. I always say it to those who are close to Babangida that if I were him, one thing I would do is to apologise to Nigerians. It is not too much. I believe that he should apologise and Nigerians would move on because that is the best election we ever held. I don’t believe he did it alone, I am sure it was a grand conspiracy because Nigeria is a mafia nation and there are less than ten people who control that cabal.