“Ye Gods, what Cypris, or what love divine took part in this? Sophocles, c495B.C-c406B.C
When he finally died in military detention in 1998, the curtains fell on one of the characters on the Nigerian stage whose life story will remain part of the national legend for as long as there is a nation called Nigeria. M.K.O.
Abiola’s life story went beyond the rags-to-riches which have become repetitive in Nigeria and the world. Born into relative poverty, never mind the gloss that Juju musicians later attempted to put on his humble beginning.
Yet, those who knew him remember the young Kashimawo as very likeable. What he lacked in physical charm, for he was far from handsome, he made up for by having the warmest personality anybody can possess.
Despite not having a lot of money, he was still generous with the little he had. His best attribute was his brain; because he was reputed to be a brilliant student.
Later, he studied Accountancy and might have remained an obscure accountant until fortune beckoned on him to apply for a job with the International Telephone and Telegraph, ITT, then headed by a fellow called Hal Genene who ran the company by the numbers and who treasured “bean counters”, as Accountants were called and number crunchers, as Financial Analysts were dubbed.
Very quickly, ITT climbed the corporate league ladder to become a Fortune 500 company. Thousand of MBA students in the USA, at the time wanted to be like the ITT President. One of my classmates in Boston had his room pasted all around with pictures of the ITT President.
Soon after landing the job, M.K.O, was promoted to the position of Financial Director. This position was to bring him enormous good fortune. As it turned out, the Federal Government was owing ITT a lot of money which nobody had been able to collect and which ITT in the US wanted collected.
So MK went to the office of the Federal Commissioner for Communications, late General Murtala Mohammed, then a Colonel, to collect the debt owed. The Commissioner was not in the office when MK arrived; so he decided to wait – with over a hundred others.
When Murtala finally arrived, everybody stood up but MK. Murtala was curious; so stopping in front of the only man sitting, he asked: “Don’t you know I am here?” MK replied, still sitting, “Yes, I know but you are my debtor and I have come to collect.”
On that demonstration of hutzpah or unmitigated gall, friendship started between MKO Abiola and the top ranks of the military. When Murtala became military Head of State, the nation’s treasury was virtually opened to M.K.O. Abiola to take as much as he wanted.
One big, and questionable contract followed another; such that by 1980 Abiola was perhaps the richest man in Nigeria. ITT continued to obtain contracts; indeed, ITT got whatever it wanted and at its own price. Later M.K started to diversify his business to include a newspaper, a bakery, bookshop, radio station etc. but, the Federal government was still the cash cow.
Simultaneously, the man was squandering the money almost as fast as it came in. He was generous to a fault and well-liked even by people who never received a kobo from him.
It was his legendary philanthropy which eventually got him elected by a wide margin in 1993. If his opponent, Alhaji Tofa, a Kano indigene, wants to know why MK won even in Kano, he need not look beyond the launching of the Kano State Investment Fund, which occurred a few years earlier. While other were donating five hundred thousand or one million, Abiola stood up and announced N10 million donation; and while a deafening standing ovation was still ringing in everybody’s ears, he grabbed the microphone and said, “And that is a first installment.”
While he was busy accumulating great wealth and building his financial empire, it was not clear then that Abiola had failed to groom a successor who would keep the “Flag flying” after his death – which came in the least expected manner.