By Dele Momodu
Fellow Nigerians, I started this story last week, May 16, 2020, the very day I turned 60. The story ended at the point Chief Moshood Abiola threw his hat in the ring and picked up the nomination forms to contest the Presidential race under the ticket of the Social Democratic Party (SDP). I was naturally elated. I had always been of the firm belief that Nigeria would witness positive and systemic changes the day the movers and shakers of the country allow one of our many brightest brains and visionary leaders to take power. Without any shade of doubt, Chief Moshood Abiola would have been such a perfect choice.
It is pertinent to quickly explain and describe what made Chief Abiola a perfect choice. Most leaders in Nigeria appear to be more like sectional leaders and religious fundamentalists. Chief Abiola was an avowed Nationalist and, though a devout Muslim, he was very liberal and liberated. This was amply demonstrated in practical terms in his many businesses across the nation, and beyond. I was fortunate to have worked at the Concord newspapers from 1988 to 1990 and witnessed first-hand how the Yoruba generalissimo, Aare Ona Kakanfo Abiola, clearly reflected the spirit and content of federal character, freedom of worship and freedom of association in the employment of his numerous staff.
Chief Abiola’s sudden foray into politics thus made me to follow him, naturally, and I instantly became one of his trusted media aides. I was one of the few, including Dele Alake, Segun Babatope and Tunji Bello, who had direct access to him, but worked more on the media with his wife and Managing Director of Concord newspapers, Dr Hamidat Doyinsola Abiola. His wives, Alhaja Kudirat Abiola, Chief Mrs Adebisi Abiola and others were assigned roles, and this helped him to reach out to different parts of the country more readily. Chief Abiola liked to work in multiple layers. His strategy was to open a strictly political office on Opebi Road, while members of the inner caucuses operated from his expansive home a stone’s throw away. He decentralized everything. His first son, Abdul-Lateef Kolawole Abiola, coordinated a chunk of the highly technical and tedious operations from his own home then at Anthony Village. Fortunately, Chief Abiola had introduced Kola and a few of his siblings to high level contacts early in life. This would prove useful and beneficial for the campaign. Chief Abiola’s ownership of Concord Airlines, and in particular the purchase of a BAC 1-11 private jet, made it easier for him to crisscross the nation in a jiffy.
The first major task was how to win the primary election and secure the party ticket. This was definitely not going to be easy because the party Chairman, Alhaji Babagana Kingibe was in the race. Alhaji Atiku Abubakar and Chief Reuben Famuyibo were also in the race. We had less than two months to achieve the near-impossible at the SDP convention in Jos. Structures were set up for mobilization, funding, media, security, transport, logistics and so on. To cut a long story short, Chief Abiola became the SDP flagbearer after a lot of negotiations and supposed horse-trading with party apparatchik including retired Major General Shehu Musa Yar’Adua, at the home of Ambassador Yahaya Kwande in Jos. Kola Abiola had to fly in Yar’Adua who was able to persuade Alhaji Atiku Abubakar to suspend his own ambition in the national interest. The SDP Governors wanted Babagana Kingibe as the Presidential candidate, but their hearts were later softened by Chief Abiola.
We returned to Lagos after the primaries and went straight into action. I will not bore you with details, but it was obvious Chief was way ahead of his opponent, Alhaji Bashir Tofa. This became absolutely apparent during one of the best Presidential debates ever organized by the Nigerian Television Authority at Victoria Island, Lagos when Abiola trounced Tofa in virtually every respect. The election proper was slated for June 12, 1993. We worked so hard and I knew our candidate would win. And he did, resoundingly!
Ironically, I was not in Nigeria on June 12, 1993. Chief Abiola had sent me on a special mission to Vienna, where Chief Abdul-Ganiyu Oyesola Fawehinmi (SAN) was receiving the Bruno Kreisky Awards for Human rights. Before I departed Nigeria to London on June 9, I had attended the launch of the book, Legend of Our Time: The Thoughts of M.K.O Abiola, edited by Yemi Ogunbiyi and Chidi Amuta. I boarded my flight that night and landed Gatwick Airport on June 10 from where I connected to Vienna. Chief Fawehinmi was stunned when I suddenly appeared to him. “No, this can’t be Dele, it must be his apparition!” he said in his booming voice. We hugged and exchanged banter. Chief Fawehinmi had, uncharacteristically, attended my wedding ceremony in Ijebu Igbo, Ogun State, on December 19, 1992, as a mark of the special bond between us. This Vienna trip was thus a perfect “retaliation.” I delivered Chief Abiola’s congratulatory letter to him and he was full of gratitude.
The award ceremony took place on June 11, 1993, and I departed Vienna to London on June 12. I was anxious to know how the elections were going on back home as there was no social media then to provide instant communications. There were rumours that some uncharitable and retrograde organisation known as Association of Better Nigeria (ABN) had filed a suit at a High Court and a Judge sitting in the middle of night had awarded them an injunction stopping the election. But the election held as scheduled. It must be noted that it turned out to be the best and fairest election ever held in our dear beloved country. Not a single case of violence anywhere.
On June 13, I managed to put a call through to the Concord newsroom in Nigeria where it was confirmed that Chairman, as we called Chief Abiola was coasting home to victory. My excitement knew no bounds. On Monday, June 14, 1993, I was able to reach Nduka Obaigbena by phone. He said he’d been trying to reach me frantically because, as put it, “seems your man is winning but he needs to reach his friend Babangida urgently because he might be stopped from taking power!” I found his message strange and incomprehensible. How can a man work so hard to win an election and then be deprived of his victory and glory? It was odd, unjustifiable, and therefore inconceivable, to say the least, I kept soliloquizing!
Chief Gani Fawehinmi arrived London from Vienna that day and when we spoke, we agreed to return to Nigeria on June 16, 1993. I told Chief what Nduka had told me, but he also dismissed it as unfounded and baseless rumour and an impossible feat for anyone to attempt not to mention succeed with. That put my mind at rest. I did not make any effort to reach Chief Abiola in Lagos. Unknown to be, Nduka had delivered the same message to Dr Doyin Abiola, but I am not sure if she found the information worthy of repeating to her husband. In retrospect, I wonder if Chief Abiola’s prompt reaction and intervention may have changed the course of events. Maybe not! Those dark forces, powers and principalities gathered against him seemed determined to stop him becoming President at all cost!
Chief Fawehinmi and I boarded our flight to Lagos from Gatwick Airport. It was there we got the report of possible hanky-panky ongoing in Nigeria. By the time we landed in Lagos, human rights activists like Beeko Ransome-Kuti, Femi Falana and others were already waiting to join forces with Fawehinmi to mount pressure on the recalcitrant military government that seemed unwilling to conclude the beautiful democratic process for whatever reasons. Again, no one knows what the role of negotiations and persuasions could have played in resolving the logjam at that stage. Most of us believed we could force the military to rescind whatever nefarious intentions they planned to execute.
We chose to confront Babangida and his goons. The wonderful election was annulled. It was my first time of seeing that word, annulment, in the lexicon. I was soon caught up in the crossfire and arrested by the end of July 1993 and dumped inside a detention dungeon at Alagbon Close in Ikoyi. That’s another story for another day. I was in detention when Chief Abiola disappeared and escaped from Nigeria in his private jet. I was overly excited that he left because I didn’t want him to get hurt. From abroad, the battle raged on and neither side was ready to blink first. It went on till President Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida, uncharacteristically blinked. He announced his sudden departure, which he called “stepping aside”, while announcing an Interim Government to be headed by former Chairman of UAC Nigeria, Chief Ernest ‘Degunle Shonekan.
The emergence of Chief Shonekan, who did not contest election, as the new leader of Nigeria, was somehow strange and bizarre. This further enraged and infuriated Chief Abiola. What was worse, both Abiola and Shonekan are Egbas from Abeokuta, Ogun State, Abiola felt truly betrayed. Chief Abiola was advised to return home. I believe he was tricked by members of the Abacha group, who were already at an advanced stage of coup plotting, but desperately needed Chief Abiola’s tacit endorsement for legitimacy!… (to be continued)
A ZOOM PARTY THAT ROCKED THE WORLD
I had planned to celebrate my 60th birthday with my family and a few friends at home in London. Thereafter, the grand finale would shift to Lagos for a mother of all parties on May 31, 2020. But man can only propose while God disposes. COVID-19 sneaked in, like a thief in the night, and all my plans froze ramrod! By the middle of April, reality had dawned on me and I was already dismantling my ambitious plans.
Meanwhile, friends kept asking me about what to do. Most of them genuinely wanted to party hard. March/April, I was supposed to traverse the US, England, Portugal, Brazil, and Turkey, attending events, as usual, but everything changed at the speed of light. And I have been stranded in Lagos since I returned on March 14!
About a week to D-Day, I got a call from Ayo Animashaun, Chairman of Hip Tv and he told me he and a few of protégés had decided we must have a Zoom party. He laid bare their elaborate plans and I was wowed! Last Saturday, dreams turned to reality as we hosted what is probably the biggest virtual party yet out of Africa. In total, over 1,400 guests cumulatively attended the extraordinary celebration that trended in several continents. The event was broadcast live in over 40 African countries by Hip Tv as well as on social media platforms to a global audience.
I am eternally grateful to too many family and friends to mention here. But I must single out President Muhammadu Buhari for his powerful congratulatory message. The video message from the Vice President Professor Yemi Osinbajo trended endlessly. Former President John Dramani Mahama of Ghana spoke from the heart in his video. The Vice President of Liberia, ebullient Mrs Jewel Howard-Taylor, also sent a lovely video. A special service organized by Trinity House and led by Pastor Ituah Ighodalo heralded the Zoom party. Prayers were also offered by Pastor Sola Fola-Alade from the UK and Pastor Afolabi Ghandi Olaoye from the USA. The Governor of Lagos State, Mr Babajide Sanwo-Olu wowed the celebrant and his guests with a beautiful speech live from his office. Governor Benedict Ayade of Cross River State called in during the event. The Minister of Transport, Mr Rotimi Amaechi, spoke about his friend from way back. Reverend Mother Esther Abimbola Ajayi and her husband, Dr Ademuyiwa Ajayi, poured encomium on a man who has become more of a member of their family. Thisday Publisher, Prince Nduka Obaigbena officiated the cutting of the cake. UBA Chairman, Dr Tony Elumelu, proposed the toast. Former President Ibrahim Babangida surprised everyone when he appeared at the Zoom party and spoke so emotionally Pastor Tunde Bakare was full of appreciation for the affectionate relationship between him and his younger friend and Brother. Chief Oyekunle Alex-Duduyemi, Chief Commander Ebenezer Obey were elder statesmen at the party. Goodwill messages just poured in from different parts of the world. In all these, my effervescent wife, Bolaji, was an ever-present stalwart at my side throughout the Zoom party, as she has always been.
WELCOME, PROFESSOR IBRAHIM AGBOOLA GAMBARI
What a choice President Muhammadu Buhari made in his new Chief of Staff. Indeed, most pundits were thrown off-balance when the name of Professor Ibrahim Agboola Gambari popped up out of the blues! For me, this is an appointment I cannot fault despite what a few naysayers have said about the cerebral, amiable but stern Professor.
I have known and admired Professor Gambari for a couple of decades. I had the privilege of visiting him in New York and interviewing him at the United Nations. He has always been ever so helpful and useful. Also, he is very humble and unassuming. The last time I visited him was in Lagos about five years when my bosom friend, Prince Adedamola Aderemi, who is Prof Gambari’s distant relative from the Ebeloku arm of the Sulu Gambari ruling House in Ilorin, and I accompanied Engineer Lanre Shagaya to see Prof Gambari in his Ikoyi home.
No mortal is perfect, but I am reasonably convinced that Prof Gambari is well equipped to use his great intellect, diplomacy, and wealth of experience, to the benefit of his principal, President Buhari, and the country in general. We have already seen a spate of constructive and confident Executive Orders signed by a seemingly rejuvenated President, within 10 days of the assumption of office by the new Chief of Staff. May you succeed in this, yet another, mission, Sir.