It will be uncivil to underplay Tuesday’s posthumous declaration of the late Chief Moshood Kashimawo Olawale Abiola as a former President.
True, President Muhammadu Buhari who performed the investiture of Abiola and the late fiery Lagos lawyer, Gani Fawehinmi, did not explicitly make that pronouncement, the conferment of the Grand Commander of the Federal Republic, an award customarily conferred on former Presidents on the late enigma, told the whole story. And the dramatis personae in the all-time significant event: Abiola and Buhari deserve all the accolades.
Buhari, irrespective of speculations about what his motivation might be, for finally recognising the sacredness of June 12, 1993, in spite of what might be the opposition of any powerful group of people and the failure of leaders before him to show such respect, did noble.
And Abiola, an unlikely sacrificial lamb for the cause of the people, deserved much more than Nigeria can ever offer him. After all, he lost his life in yet unexplained circumstances and what honour, repatriation or words of men can replace such an exemplary and rare gift to humanity?
So, you see, Nigeria cannot repay its debt to Abiola and his family. But then, Tuesday’s gathering of his family and associates at the seat of government is a worthy gesture. That is regardless of the fact that Ambassador Baba Gana Kingibe, (Abiola’s running mate in that legendary election), whose fidelity to the cause only equalled the self-centred, fleeting lusts of a randy man to the interest at hand, also stood to grandstand at the event. They say the same rain that gives the hero vegetation and food, does the same for the anti-hero. Abiola, who left it all, paid the supreme price for those who had their cake and ate it, such is the unfairness that life, especially in societies like ours brings on men, but that is a matter for another day.
The point must be said and reiterated as often as possible though that the June 12 idea supersedes that often peddled “freest, fairest and peaceful election” narrative that a lot of Nigerians hinge it on. And that is not to impugn on the credibility of the election. It is only to inspire a national interrogation of the reasons why that particular election turned out the way it did.
The truth is that the MKO Abiola candidature bore hope, naked and plain hope in ways that Nigerians had possibly not seen it until he presented himself and his manifesto.
That election also revealed that contrary to popular assumptions, the Nigerian electorate are neither stupid nor unable to identify competences that point to good leadership. It revealed that the country is just infested with kill-joy leaders who subvert the will of the people, if not through the barrels of the gun, with massive rigging of elections.
Abiola came across as someone able and willing to deliver Nigeria from the ills of poverty, ethnicity and injustice that had held her back for over three decades and the people went all the way to support him.
Talking about poverty, although he would become a stupendously wealthy man with interests in virtually all possible business areas, Abiola slept in the same space with poverty as a child.
At age nine, he would wake up and head for the forests to gather firewood which he sold to support his family before the break of dawn. He would only prepare for school after that. He was also said to have founded an “agidigbo” musical band with which he performed at ceremonies in exchange for food in his teenage years. The story of Abiola’s deprivations and contention with poverty as a child and his rise to recognition was in the public space nationally and it was not difficult to hope that a man who had seen it all would fight the nation’s widespread poverty with all his might.
Of course, the foregoing is no assurance that power would not make an elected leader forget his own humble beginnings. After all, two national leaders after June 12 flaunted their poor backgrounds at us. While one, who was Abiola’s classmate, sold firewood and sand, amongst other things to pay his fees at school, the other said he was shoeless as a child. Yet, their governance of Nigeria did not significantly change the country in any area.
But Abiola was different. Aside from a profound and unmistakable intellectual capacity to lead a nation of Nigeria’s complexity successfully, one other important requirement of the high office is compassion. Abiola had both and then some!
It is impossible to count the number of families whose fortunes were turned around by Abiola’s generosity. Knowing the importance of education as a leveler of people and a panacea for poverty, Abiola did not only fund schools, he threw scholarships at the indigent across the country like his life depended on it. It was in the same way that he rose to the health needs of people. He was a practising Muslim but he was known to have built and funded projects for as many churches as he did for mosques. In sports, he did so much for the country that the continent took notice, which was how he got honoured with the sobriquet “Pillar of Sports in Africa”
Abiola had business interests scattered across the country and staff welfare was believed to be a major consideration in all the businesses that he owned, whether it was newspapering, farming, aviation, bookselling or telecommunications.
By the time, he was going to contest in 1993 therefore, he had touched the lives of Christian and Muslims. He alleviated the burdens of Yoruba people, of Hausa people, of Igbo people and of innumerable compatriots from minority ethnic groups. The personality behind Abiola’s candidacy, not to speak of the “Farewell to Poverty” manifesto it offered, was therefore enough endearment for peoples across Nigeria. The man showed that Nigerians had more in common than what divides them and brought hope for the possibility of a united country.
True, Abiola might have spread his good fortunes in such a democratic manner with the end game in mind, who knows? But even if he did, he was smart, honest and empathetic in such a way that he sold himself to Nigeria ahead of time and the people saw his re-incursion into politics as a genuine desire to salvage the country.
That is why the true honour to this uncommon specimen of a human being would be to actualise his dream for Nigeria. From results from his election and all that he said, Abiola represented a Nigeria where everyone had a sense of belonging, where no ethnic group would lord itself over the other and where life retained the sanctity intended by the Creator. Abiola wanted a free country where the liberty of people was sacrosanct and justice was a given. He wanted to put an end to poverty.
A part of the Epetedo Declaration where he pronounced himself President after he had enough of the deception of the Gen Sani Abacha regime reads: “All we can see are the consequences of this permanent game of military ‘about turns’; high inflation, a huge budget deficit and an enormous foreign debt repayment burden, dying industries, high unemployment and a demoralised populace. Our youths, in particular, can see no hope on the horizon, and many can only dream of escaping from our shores to join the brain drain. Is this the Nigeria we want? We are plagued also by periodic balance of payments crises, which have led to a perennial shortage of essential drugs that has turned our hospitals and clinics into mortuaries. A scarcity of books and equipment has turned our schools into desolate deserts of ignorance. Our factories are crying for machinery, spare parts and raw materials. But each day that passes, instead of these economic diseases being cured, they are rather strengthened as an irrational allocation of foreign exchange, based on favouritism and corruption, becomes the order of the day. Enough is enough of economic mismanagement! People of Nigeria, during the election campaign last year, I presented you with a programme entitled, “HOPE ’93″. This programme was aimed precisely at solving these economic (problems) that have demoralised us all…”
Abiola promised an end to all these problems and more, which did not just still plague the country but have become more entrenched and are creating a sense of helplessness and despair all over the nation.
The Buhari administration sure takes the medal for the magnanimous acknowledgment of the June 12 election and the people who stood for it. But June 12 was not just an ordinary election, it was a movement set to deliver Nigerians from bondage and move them to the Promised Land. The ultimate honour to Abiola would therefore be to give Nigeria back to its people, introduce urgent and genuine reform measures to drastically reduce poverty, battle the insecurity of lives and property with the enormous machinery of state, hand the people’s sense of humanity back to them and make elections, not war but a mark of the liberty of the people to decide their future, right or wrong. Without doing this, this investiture, which is commendable though, would only remain what it is: a mere token!