We have often said that President Muhammadu Buhari was an unlikely figure to bestow the GCFR on M.K.O. Abiola as well as restore the integrity of the June 12 story. What is often forgotten in this mushy conversation is that Abiola was an unlikely person to earn it.
It is the quirk of history that change springs from persons who seem remote from heroic virtue. They overthrow its classic straitjacket of special birth, superhuman physical and mental endowment and supernatural prodding. The turmoil of capitalism, rickety sway of the feudal idea and middle-class subversions have challenged such opinions. Some people thought America’s Washington had such qualities.
So, no one thought the little general called Napoleon would stand like a statuesque figure after the crucible of the French Revolution. Churchill drink too much, railed too much and was sure to flail as leader of Britain even in peace time. He became the best British citizen of the 20th century. Ghandhi just wanted to be a South African lawyer in starchy suits. For many, Abiola was too rich, too chummy with the army, too earthy, too enmeshed with women, or even epicurean to fight a war for justice.
Before the presidential election of 1993, not many predicted that Abiola would be a transformational president. They merely saw him as the better of two candidates. He was a rich man with international reaches. His opponent, Tofa the obscure, could not twirl a touch to the man with benevolent owl eyes, a grand stutter and a capacity for bonhomie.
When IBB annulled the polls, few knew Abiola would stand up for his rights. They thought he would fold and fall. Many in the civil rights community and even in the political class were waiting for the day that Abiola would renounce his mandate in the interest of peace. In fact, a few months after the annulment, an eerie silence threw up many a conjecture. The civil rights group began to slay him, and they thought he was already accommodating the brute at Aso Villa. After all, they were friends. Femi Falana was miffed at his proverbs, and said they were words of a coward. “You cannot clap with one hand,” “you cannot shave one’s head in his absence,” etc. When the ING was formed with Shonekan at the head, he said it was “an elephant giving birth to a mouse.”
This was particularly irksome when Abacha flung Shonekan out the window and men like Olu Onagoruwa, Lateef Jakande, Babagana Kingibe, Ebenezer Babatope, et al, joined the cabinet of the bespectacled despot. It was seen as the genuflection of MKO, and it was no longer “on June 12 we stand.” It turned out it was a naïve strategy based on a trust of General Oladipo Diya, who had played a fox and conned them. His bait? Once Abacha settled down, they would restore the mandate. The shenanigan became clear and Abiola understood he trusted too much. He resumed his cry for his mandate.
When he was locked up, some thought he would also falter. He didn’t and that is the remarkable story of MKO Abiola. Many misjudged him and sentenced him to a moral jail for a sin he did not commit. Once Abiola was no longer seen to fold and falter but stuck to his mandate, the conversation even among his critics changed. They were still afraid he might recant. The rhetoric changed recalibrating the struggle by saying the mandate was more than Abiola. Even if he turned coat, the battle would go on in spite of him. But Abiola was never going to renounce his mandate.
He was a hero but he himself did not know it. He just wanted what he thought was right. He did not want to surrender. He had too much pride for that. Not after he was taken to a dingy cell in a police station on the outskirts of Abuja with pit latrine, as Olu Akerele, his confidante, witnessed in those heady days. Not even when he battled with heart problem and blood pressure and a back pain from the awful bed he slept night after night.
Working with him and observing him, I often saw him as a sort of class suicide in the making. In spite of his lofty estate, he had too much of the common touch. He wore his patrician coat with cold comfort. Was he not the one who regaled anyone who cared to listen about his humble beginning? He used to dance to earn balls of eba for his family as a child. He drew on those reflexes of survival during the giddy June 12 crisis. The same Abiola, who stopped by roadsides to buy roast plantain or bole. He manoeuvred his way through Lagos traffic by hopping on an okada to attend an event because he was late. I recall writing a story once about a Lebanese family in Apapa who had suffered displacement unjustly. Not long after, one of the family members called to thank me for telling Abiola about it. I never spoke with Abiola about it. He responded after reading the piece in the African Concord magazine. He had rehabilitated the family. He never wanted people to suffer because he knew what it was to be destitute. As a publisher, he never was faraway from his journalists or staff, many of whom he knew by first names. One of the staff, Goke Odeyinka, the ebullient reporter, often disarmed Abiola once he showed up in the newsroom and they exchanged hi-fives. He never saw tribe. At one time, the major editors in Concord press were Igbo and he ignored some of the Yoruba staff who wanted him removed them, charging them with clannishness. He did not reshuffle the deck until it was time, and when he did, his main editor was Nsikak Essien from Akwa Ibom. His close aides were still Igbo like Chike Akabogu and Nnamdi Obasi. When he began his reparation campaign he rewarded Frank Igwebueze with the position of his special assistant. Abiola also attended the end-of-year party of the newspaper. It was on one of such parties in which I was emcee that he interrupted me to announce that he was interested in getting a television licence.
At that time, he was already planning to build an estate for concord workers. When one of the competing newspapers ran into financial crisis, he asked Concord to print for them free of charge. Welfare of his workers were paramount, and he was the first to introduce competitive salaries to journalists. Dele Giwa, Yakubu Mohammed and Ray Ekpu had Mercedes Benz. Dan Agbese was to call them benzy journalists.
I recall visiting him for an interview with Dele Momodu and Bayo Onanuga, and he told the story of his role in the tempest in Sokoto when Dasuki was dethroned by the military. He said he visited the various homes of the aggrieved actors at night and pleaded with them. “I would go to a family, and say, I know your father, he was a peaceful man. Don’t fight please.” And he would drop substantial sums of money. He did so from house to house to prevent any further firestorms on the streets.
At an earlier meeting as a Newswatch staff, I had visited with Dare Babarinsa, and he showcased his mathematical acumen. He brandished with pride a letter he received from a professor of Mathematics from Glasgow acknowledging an error in his book that Abiola had pointed out. It was in that meeting that his late wife Simbi walked in. Abiola spontaneously abandoned us temporarily and broke into a soulful Yoruba song serenading Simbi. He danced for her and trailed her robust backside.
It is this same Abiola, who flew only on private jets, chummed with presidents, had more money than he knew how to spend, swam in top taste and luxury. The same man endured pit latrines and isolation. Why did he not chafe? It is because the Abiola, who danced for balls of eba never left him. He never soared away from who he was. One of his favorite phrases was “make a friend a day.”
He turned out to be a traitor to his class because he really never belonged. We know of Lafayette, the wealthy French man who helped finance the American Revolution, or John Hancock, Engels, who propped up Marx. No revolution is pure. To be pure is to negate revolutionary spirits. Hence Brecht wrote on Galileo: “no one’s virtue is complete/the great Galileo loved to eat.” He was not perfect man, but his heroics is without blemish.