My unforgettable Abiola moment was in 1991 when I was returning from an assignment outside Lagos and as I entered Concord, people started congratulating me saying MKO had given me a Daewoo Racer
In our forthcoming MKO Abiola book, the second in the GIANTS of AFRICA series to be released in 2019, the Secretary to the Lagos State Government and former Sunday Concord and later National Concord editor Tunji Bello remembers his late publisher, the legendary MKO Abiola he knew so well. Excerpts:
Chief MKO Abiola was a great man, a legend of our time and a true son of Africa. Apart from having won the June 12, 1993 Presidential Election, he was naturally a great man even before he contested the election, given his philanthropic activities, the many good things he did and the many workplaces that he established. He was a benefactor to the many people he sponsored to schools at home and abroad. I remember I was travelling to the UK and he gave me a written note to collect money from a bank in London. At the bank, the manager said to me: “Do you know how many people come to collect four thousand pounds?” That was the money MKO was giving to almost everybody. According to the manager, sometimes you could have eight people in a day coming to collect four thousand pounds each. Later I discovered that it was just the interest on his money in that bank at that time.
READ ALSO: Ambode unveils 46-feet statue of MKO Abiola
Before he contested the election, he gave out so much money to universities as endowments. And he really employed so many Nigerians. He was making money and investing the money in Nigeria, investing in people. He allowed several people to also develop themselves. MKO was a great benefactor. He was more than a benefactor to several Nigerians—northerners, easterners, Middle-Belters and westerners. He never discriminated. He was a true Nigerian, detribalized. His editors were from different parts of Nigeria. He built bridges across Nigeria. That was why he won the election clearly. So for me, MKO was a great man who deserves more than a book. And I think he should be a model to the present and future generations of Nigerians.
I followed MKO to Uganda to see Yoweri Museveni. Do you know that he funded Museveni’s guerrilla warfare against Idi Amin and Milton Obote? And when Museveni heard that MKO was around, he rose from a cabinet meeting to meet us. I also followed him to Zimbabwe to see Mugabe. Then the most significant one was when we went to see Nelson Mandela in South Africa shortly after his release from prison. Mandela too abandoned his ANC meeting to receive us with a lot of his people who were very grateful to MKO for funding the South African liberation struggles. I remember Abiola and Mandela were given honorary degrees together at Makerere University, Uganda. I was there. I even have a photograph where I stood behind them. After that MKO went to South Africa and Mandela received him like a head of state. What we didn’t know about MKO, we got to know from Mandela who was so gracious to him, saying: “Some of the things we were able to do would not have been achieved without your generosity.” Mandela was even calling Abiola to come and establish a newspaper in South Africa. We went to five countries together in his aircraft. I felt proud to see him with Museveni, Mugabe and Mandela. This was January 1993 before the election. From there, we went to Saudi Arabia to perform the lesser Hajj. And when we came back, that was when the primaries for the SDP started.
READ ALSO: Day Lagos, Asaba stood still for Mandela
Apart from being a businessman, Abiola was a welfarist, he was a very progressive man, he was also somebody committed to the liberation movement in Africa. And one can never forget his passion and commitment to the African Reparation Movement and the liberation of the black man. That was why he supported the reparation movement where he sponsored conferences and all that. Of course, the Western countries were not happy, particularly those who were involved in slavery and colonialism—Britain, France, Portugal and to some extent the United States which ironically was a victim of colonialism but wasn’t happy because the United States also was guilty of subjugating the Indians in America. So when Abiola started the issue of reparation, they felt threatened that if this thing should start, they might not be able to contain it. And I believe that was why many of them did not even support MKO to reclaim his mandate the way one would have expected when the June 12 crisis started.
Had he been president, MKO would have been a great leader. He would have ruled from the heart. He would have looked for the best brains to do the job. I believe he would have had a very good cabinet. Nigeria would have been better today. As a leader, MKO listens to get the best advice. And he would have also used his international connections to help Nigeria a great deal.
He was such a brilliant man. Those who went to school with him at Baptist High School, Abeokuta—people like Obasanjo, Ajibola, Adeosun and several others— have remarkable testimonies about the brilliant MKO. At Glasgow University where he read Accounting, he made a First Class. You could see his brilliance when you discuss with MKO. He is a quick thinker and he assimilates quickly. Before you end your discussion with him, he has already summarized everything you are saying. You could see his business acumen when he is negotiating, when he is in the boardroom. Most of his children are brilliant. Many of them went to Harvard, went to some of the best schools, best universities in the world. They took after him.
READ ALSO: Why Obasanjo should forgive Atiku
If you look at his Farewell To Poverty document, his political agenda, you would see a visionary leader. I was one of those who packaged the book for him, along with others like Dr. Chidi Amuta, Dele Alake, Segun Babatope, Dr. Yemi Ogunbiyi and Nnamdi Obasi. We articulated all his thoughts on poverty. That document shows how far-reaching MKO’s thoughts were, how deep and how visionary a leader he was.
My unforgettable Abiola moment was in 1991 when I was returning from an assignment outside Lagos and as I entered Concord, people started congratulating me saying MKO had given me a Daewoo Racer, the reigning car of the era. I felt the car was too big for me as a political editor, so I just went and parked it in my father-in-law’s garage so that people won’t start seeing me as a big man.
My worst Abiola moment was the day he died. I was the editor of Sunday Concord. I couldn’t go home that night. I just sat down on my chair from night till daybreak. I was just looking blank, not knowing what to do. I couldn’t believe it. We managed to put the newspaper to bed but we did it with great sorrow. It was a very, very sad moment. We never imagined it could end the way it ended. His incarceration and death affected Concord newspaper which went with the owner. Abiola’s story needs to be told and passed on from generation to generation.