By Douglas Anele
According to Chambers 20th Century Dictionary, a weapon is any instrument of offence or defence. Consequently, aside from the obvious fact that weapons and weaponry are associated with the military, security and law enforcement agencies, nails, teeth, hands, legs, venom, electric shock – anything – can be used as a weapon by human beings, animals and plants. Because of the issue to be discussed in this series, I want to broaden the connotation of ‘weapon’ to include anything that can be used or intended to be used by a human being, such as an idea, circumstance or event in the past for personal benefit.
It is in this wider sense that we should situate the title of this essay, which essentially analyses the various ways in which the June 12, 1993 phenomenon has been applied in the last twenty-five years by individuals, cash-and-carry politicians and civil society groups to pursue selfish and narrow interests in the pretext of “fighting for the actualisation of June 12” or “for the enthronement of genuine democracy” in Nigeria. In other words, I intend to establish that most of the vociferous champions of June 12 were not motivated by genuine conviction that late Chief M.K.O Abiola was “a champion of democracy” or by real concern for rectification of the injustice arising from the annulment of the June 12, 1993 presidential election which Abiola was poised to win. Rather, in my opinion, morally bankrupt prominent Nigerians have been using the unfortunate event as a means of self-enrichment, fame or as a catalyst for repackaging their flagging political influence especially in the south-west geopolitical zone.
But before we substantiate the claim above, it is useful to give a brief phenomenology of Chief Abiola, the arrowhead of the June 12 phenomenon, which would provide a useful background for evaluating the significance of June 12 in the annals of Nigerian history and the responses of political carpetbaggers to it. Born in August 24, 1937, Moshood Kashimawo Olawale Abiola manifested impressive entrepreneurial talents at a very young age. Abiola grew up in a financially challenged household. At some point, he sold firewood to support himself and his family. Chief Abiola was fifteen years old when he established a band in order to improve his precarious financial position. He attended Baptist Boys High School, Abeokuta, where he had a brilliant academic career. Abiola’s journey into the rough terrain of Nigerian politics began in 1956 when he joined the National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroons (NCNC) at the age of nineteen.
Eventually, he got a job as a clerk with Barclays Bank in Ibadan: two years later, he joined the staff of Western Region Finance Corporation as an executive accounts officer before travelling to the University of Glasgow, Scotland, on a scholarship. Abiola made very good use of the award. Upon returning to Nigeria with a degree in economics, he was employed as deputy chief accountant at the Lagos University Teaching Hospital (LUTH). He then transferred his services to Pfizer Products Ltd., before joining the International Telephone & Telegraph Corporation (ITT) headquartered in New York, United States of America, where he eventually rose to the position of Vice President Africa and Middle East branches of the company.
As an astute businessman, Chief Abiola invested a lot of time and financial resources in Nigeria, the United States and in other West African countries. He established Abiola Farms, Abiola Bookshops, Radio Communications Nigeria Ltd, Wonder Bakeries, Concord Press, Concord Airlines, Summit Oil International Ltd, Africa Ocean Lines, Habib Bank, Decca West Africa Ltd, and Abiola Babes Football Club of Abeokuta. In addition, Chief Abiola still performed his duties as chairman of the G15 Business Council, President of the Nigerian Stock Exchange, and Patron of the Kwame Nkrumah Foundation. He received numerous awards, foremost among which were Worldwide Businessman of the Year (twice) and many honorary doctorates from universities both in Nigeria and abroad. He was honoured with scores of traditional titles by communities across the country, and his contributions to the provision of social amenities, particularly educational and health facilities, are unquantifiable.
Chief M.K.O. Abiola was a well-known philanthropist: his generosity cuts across ethnic, political, religious, socio-economic and gender boundaries. According to one report, his rise to national and global prominence was the outcome of his impressive humanitarian engagements worldwide. He was a foremost campaigner for reparations to Africa by the West as a recompense for the obnoxious slave trade and colonisation. In a tribute to Chief Abiola, one of the beneficiaries of his generosity, the US Congressional Black Caucus, claimed that “Because of this man, there is both cause for hope and certainty that the agony and protests of those who suffer injustice shall give way to peace and human dignity.
The children of this world shall know the great work of this extraordinary leader and his fervent mission to right wrongs, to do justice, and to serve humankind. The enemies which imperil the future of generations to come: poverty, ignorance, disease, hunger and racism have each seen the effects of the valiant work of Chief Abiola. Through him and others like him, never again will freedom rest in the domain of the few. We, members of the Congressional Black Caucus, salute him this day as a hero in the global pursuit to preserve the history and the legacy of the African Diaspora.”
There is no doubt that Chief M.K.O. Abiola was a remarkable human being, and his story of rags-to-riches experience is very inspirational to thousands of his admirers all over Nigeria. However, like every tragic hero with serious character flaws, there are aspects of his personality, business dealings and closeness to wily military dictators which cannot pass the test of integrity and moral uprightness. Although Abiola’s overzealous supporters eulogise him to Olympian heights anytime the issue of June 12 rears up by creating the impression that his political ambition was solely motivated by altruism, there is enough evidence to suggest otherwise. Of course, the moral evaluation of any human being is a difficult challenge, because practical application of moral principles in complex situations is not subject to precise logical or mathematical calculation.
That said, it is safe to assert that, apart from his unsurpassed philanthropy and generosity, I have issues with Chief Abiola’s moral uprightness. His meteoric rise to financial opulence can inspire those trying to escape the gravitational pull of poverty; but if one looks more closely, the source of his wealth may raise serious concerns especially in the minds of those that value integrity above riches. During the military regime of Gen. Yakubu Gowon, Abiola’s company, ITT, was awarded multimillion dollar contracts to provide telephone services nationwide. Brig. Murtala Ramat Mohammed, his bosom friend, was the federal commissioner for communications at the time.
Under the terms of the 1975 contracts with the Nigerian government, ITT was to be paid $160 million for providing Nigeria with a modern telephone system, including telephone exchanges, central office equipment and personnel training. Eventually, the contract sum was increased to more than $260 million. For Nigerians old enough to remember, the quality of telephone services provided by ITT was not the best in all materials particular: the company allegedly brought in sub-standard equipment while those in charge at the ministry of communications failed to act because ‘something’ had allegedly happened. In November 1978, the US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) won a suit at the Supreme Court filed by ITT in its effort to stop the Commission from investigating serious allegations of financial impropriety against the company. In spite of the fact that the litigants settled the matter in August 1979, there is little doubt that Chief Abiola’s time at ITT was marred by alleged corruption. Karl Maier, in his book, This House has Fallen, remarked that “The telephone system [installed by ITT] was renowned for its grave deficiencies, and for many Abiola symbolised the civilian elite’s ruinous complicity with Western capitalism and military rule. It was with Abiola in mind that Fela Kuti composed the popular hit ‘ITT – International Thief Thief.’ “