By Muyiwa Adetiba
Chief Moshood Abiola has become the hero of our democracy. And so shall it be for as long as June 12 is seen as our Democracy Day. In fact, the day might as well be called M.K.O. Abiola Day. But it is by no means a unanimous choice. There are people, a large number of people, who think Chief Abiola should not represent our democracy. Some of these people point to his antecedence. They see him as a pro military businessman. A man who allegedly supported and possibly funded military coups not only in Nigeria, but elsewhere in Africa. A man who put himself forward for presidency only because his friend the President, suggested it. His supporters see things differently. They see a resolute leader who provided leadership when it mattered most. A man who was prepared to lose his considerable wealth and his freedom to reclaim a freely given mandate. Those close to him know that Abiola cherished his wealth and his freedom, and used both to further his many causes—he seemed to have many lives—popping up in places and homes at odd hours to honour people and events with his presence and money. He lost both to the struggle. He eventually lost his life.
Although June 12, really goes beyond the person of Abiola because it actually symbolises the day Nigerians stood up to the impunity and arbitrariness of the military—It is unlikely that any government would annul an election in the near future—the man who symbolises it will always be in focus with many remembering his strengths and weaknesses.I choose to remember his strengths. Easily among his strengths was his intellect, his ability to see a bigger picture. There was also his humour which he used often to douse tension.But what many remember him for was his generosity which is legendary. If you met him and your story appealed or touched him, he would give irrespective of.
gender, religion or tribe. But what is little known was the way he gave. He never gave to humiliate or in a condescending manner. Most times, he gave with uplifting words or jokes. I was around many political and business leaders of his era, and I will say he was a class apart. He took over a room with his charm and personality.
The first time I met him was also the first time I witnessed his generosity. Chief S.O Bankole, the father of the former Speaker of the Federal House of Reps, had invited me to a dinner to mark the 10th anniversary of his company. Chief Abiola was there. This was around 1976 and he was not yet the colossus he was to become later in life. Late Kehinde Adeosun who doubled as the MC introduced us. Chief Abiola’s charm and personality took over and if you joined the table 30 minutes later, you would think we had known each other much longer. I slipped away towards the end of the dinner only to rush back somewhat hysterically a few minutes later. My car, a beetle, had been burgled and would not start. To my surprise, Abiola joined those who followed me to the car. I had left a camera and a tape recorder—the tools of my trade—on the back seat and they must have attracted the robbers who then tried to take the car stereo as well. In the process, they had tampered with the wiring system. The car and the full lights eventually came on through concerted efforts and as the guests made their way back, Chief Abiola approached me and told me to send the bill to him. ‘That’s all I can do now,’ he said. I was nonplussed. This was coming from someone I barely knew. Although I didn’t go back to him, I will always remember this show of generosity in a first encounter when I think of Abiola.
People talk about his prodigious memory. I got a dose of it. A couple of years after this incident, we met at the Tafawa Balewa Square when he was a member of the Constituent Assembly. He remembered me as if it was yesterday and we had a good laugh. A year later, I was in his house. Punch was doing a series called ‘Spotlight ‘79’ on the likely participants in the ‘79 elections. He told me he was unlikely to be an active participant. After our discussion, he escorted me to my car—the humility of it! To my amazement, he recognised the car and said, ‘You are still using this car’? This was a car he saw for maybe ten minutes some three years earlier!
Another incident I like to remember him that happened after he had become a big international figure. I was in his bedroom with Innocent Adikwu, the then Editor of Punch. Someone sent a small present to him to mark his birthday. His joy was effervescent. His appreciation effusive. This was a man who could afford any personal gratification. It taught me that the rich also need acts of kindness and we should not hide under ‘he has everything’ to deny them simple gifts of love and appreciation. The final incident that came to mind on this Democracy Day happened years later when I had become a Publisher. My magazine, ‘Vintage People’ wrote an unfavourable story on him that I was not aware of. The first inkling that something was wrong was when Chief Ebenezer Obey, a man I have a lot of respect for, sent for me. I explained that the article was without my authority. Then Dr Doyin Abiola, his wife and Managing Director of Concord Newspapers sent for me. I remember her words as if it was yesterday. ‘ti a ba tori isu je epo, a tori epo je isu.’ The rough translation of which meant ‘if we don’t eat yam because of palm oil, then we’ll eat palm oil because of yam.’ In other words, I had many reasons for not antagonising Chief. I literally ran into him after I left his wife’s office. He was uncharacteristically cold. He thawed somewhat after I had explained. He knew as well that Publishers, even if they are journalists, cannot be expected to see everything. It’s instructive to say that Concord Press was printing our magazine at the time and he could easily have gotten his pound of flesh by instructing the press to refuse our job. Or he could have used his now considerable media power to lash out in a dozen ways. He did neither. Instead, two people I respected reached out to me.I remember this show of magnanimity when I think of him.
He was a good Yoruba son, an ‘omoluabi’ and a good Nigerian deserving of this special day in history.