The Untold Story of How MKO Abiola Defeated Atiku Abubakar In The SDP Presidential Primaries In 1993 And Why Atiku’s Angry Godfather General Shehu Musa Yar’adua Eventually Messed Everything Up For MKO
In the early 1990s, Nigeria’s military president Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida aka the Evil Genius banned ‘old breed’ politicians from engaging in any political activity. The country’s two major political parties, the National Republic Convention (NRC) and the Social Democratic Party (SDP) had all their activities ground to a screeching halt. Politicians in the country were prohibited from engaging in any race for power – and that included the flamboyant billionaire friend of the head of the military government, in the person of Chief Moshood Kashimawo Olawale (MKO) Abiola.
All of a sudden, one day, just like he was in a trance, General Babangida announced that he had lifted the freeze on political activity. He did not stop there; he called his friend MKO and personally encouraged him to join the race for the presidency. Despite the doubts and reservations from some quarters, MKO fully trusted the words of the dictator and he threw all he had into the electoral battle. Unknown to MKO, IBB was only using him as a chip in his dangerous struggle for power with a murderous general named Sani Abacha.
Although MKO was wildly popular, there were various formidable obstacles that were before him and if his life-long dream of becoming the president of Nigeria was going to become a reality, he had to conquer these mountains of difficulties. The very first and immediate of these was winning the presidential primaries of his party, the SDP. The ban that was put in place and later lifted by Babangida had allowed a new breed of politicians to flourish and they had become so powerful that they clearly threatened because some of the members of this fresh bloc formed a solid alliance within the party. MKO Abiola was terrified this immensely powerful bloc was going to be so influential that it was going to choose the ultimate winner of the presidential primaries.
A self-made billionaire, money was not an issue for Abiola. He was awake to the reality of inducing delegates financially so as to get their votes. That was not an issue for him. Not even the military government plan to give the sum of twenty million naira (which was a hefty $20 million at that time) to each of the presidential aspirants meant anything to Abiola – he even thought that amount would not cover the primaries not to talk of the main elections. That was not all of his headaches.
Another thing that gave Abiola a real nagging problem was that his sly old friend, General Babangida, had empowered himself, using a combination of decrees, with the ability to cancel the entire electoral process for any reason he deemed fit. For MKO Abiola, that presented a real threat as Babangida had done so before leading many politicians into financial ruin in the process. The decrees were so suffocating that even after the primaries had been conducted, the state security service had all the powers to still carry out repeated screening of the candidates and call for their disqualification. All these made Abiola really jittery but he remained determined to forge ahead. He hopped into one of his private jets and was soon in the United Kingdom where he told his bankers to get the sum of $50 million ready. His intention was to use this sum for the elections and that was going to be his maximum limit for the spending – he was dead wrong.
All set, the D-Day for the SDP presidential convention arrived. It was on the 27th of March, 1993, a bright Saturday morning, and with Kudirat, his ever-supportive wife by his side, Abiola was set to storm the convention. A man full of anxiety, he tried his best to hide the emotional frenzy when he asked his spouse in a relaxed tone:
‘Finally the day has come. The moment that I have waited patiently for…So how do I look?’
As he asked, he was unsure of victory deep down in his heart – one fraction of his soul was signaling a loss but the radiant voice of his wife soon lifted his spirit:
‘You look powerful, very powerful – and maybe even too powerful. It is not just the outfit, it is you.’
He needed to hear those words desperately at that moment. Kudirat had remained his biggest pillar of support – through thick and thin. But in such turbulent times, not even the soothing words of the mother of his children could contain his fears sometimes. Abiola was treading slippery grounds and he knew it but he remained determined and hopeful. Babangida’s actions also allayed Abiola’s fears – the devious general continued funding the activities of the National Electoral Commission constantly. This Babangida did in addition to the approval and enforcement of the implementation of the Option A4 Voting System.
Under this system, the political parties were to compulsorily conduct their conventions with only the presidential aspirants who had won earlier primaries at their wards, local governments and states. All these actions from the military junta encouraged Abiola and he believed that Babangida and his fellow uniformed thugs were finally going to give up power – willingly. The military president even went ahead to empower a transitional council to supervise the flawless transfer of power to the civilians and he had also approved the Modified Open Ballot System (MOBS). With all these reassuring signs from the military president, MKO Abiola was set to give nothing but his very best at the convention.
The venue for the massive convention was at the stadium in Jos, the capital of the northern state of Plateau (NRC did theirs at the Civic Centre, Port Harcourt, Rivers State). As expected of a billionaire of his status, Abiola stormed the convention centre with a very huge and intimidating crowd. He could perceive the sweet aroma of victory already.
On ground, there was utter chaos as everywhere was rowdy as accredited and uninvited people struggled desperately to gain entrance. As the craze was going on, all of a sudden, there was panic in the air. Rumours swiftly went round that the security agents stationed in the area had caught some men who tried to forcefully enter the centre with various weapons. The security personnel took care of the case and the tension ebbed. Abiola was able to once again focus fully on the primaries.
However, it was going to be a very difficult task for him. It was going to be a very hot contest as the Option A4 system which had produced MKO Abiola also threw up two very strong and charismatic contenders that MKO was going to find difficult to shove aside. They were Ambassador Baba Gana Kingibe, a smart and highly-intelligent but cunny diplomat turned politician and the other was a wealthy businessman and former customs official named Alhaji Atiku Abubakar.
To make the task even more difficult for MKO Abiola, Atiku had the very strong backing of the godfather of Nigerian politics at that time in the person of a retired army general named Alhaji Shehu Musa Yar’adua. All of a sudden, Abiola’s confidence seemed threatened as the hot seat became embers of coal. It was hotter than he had expected but he was not going to give up.
Accreditation of the delegates had some issues and that meant a long delay before the official commencement of the contests. A man used to punctuality in the high-flying world of business executives and billionaire tycoons, Abiola was shocked at the shoddy preparations – it was his first major shock of that day but a bigger shock would soon hit his fragile heart.
Abiola shortly discovered, of course to his utter consternation that before the primaries began, the key politicians who were supposed to make the crucial contacts and connections with party delegates on his behalf had deliberately failed to do so. Abiola had received his first major stab of betrayal in the deceit-filled game of politics. They had tricked him and were instead giving their support to Abiola’s rivals – even after collecting massive sums from the generous moneybag called MKO. Right before his eyes, his presidential ambition was melting away – it was a terrifying moment.
At that very instance, he decided to take his own destiny in his hands, he signalled Kudirat, his darling wife and his most loyal supporter and a number of his most devoted collaborators and they swung into action immediately. Time was slipping away swiftly, they risked losing it all but they tried their best as they desperately kept lobbying the candidates and made last-minute concessions. It was a heart-stopping moment when the announcer declared that the primaries had commenced and everyone had to return to their respective seats.
Even after all the huge efforts of MKO, Kudirat and a handful of their loyalists, disgrace was about to land on them that fateful day in Jos. Why? The primaries finally began but Abiola was defeated in the first round – he did not win. He lost to Kingibe, who had the solid support of 14 governors (Nigeria had just 30 states then). Kingibe had turned out to be a tough rival for MKO. There was trouble for the billionaire. Why did Kingibe get so much support from the governors and became so influential he trounced Abiola in the first round? When Kingibe was the chairman of the party, he was very instrumental to their emergence as gubernatorial candidates so they felt deeply indebted to him and they were busy rallying the delegates from their states to vote for Kingibe and he emerged the winner of the first round. Abiola managed a disastrous second position while Atiku trailed behind in a distant third position.
General Yar’adua, who was Atiku’s godfather was furious and sad at this outcome. All along, he had thrown his weight behind Atiku but when he saw how badly his anointed godson had performed, Yar’adua persuaded Atiku to step down from the race and allow Abiola to grab victory in the second round. General Yar’adua’s hope and understanding was that once Abiola emerged as the presidential flagbearer, he would appoint Atiku as his vice-presidential candidate and running mate.
It was this knife-edge arrangement that allowed Moshood Kashimawo Olawale Abiola win in the second round (Yar’adua had earlier deployed his formidable machinery to ensure success for Atiku in Adamawa against the stubborn and resilient Bala Takaya). Although MKO got the support of the Atiku-Yar’adua bloc, it was still not easy – he defeated Kingibe with just a slight margin, see the photo of the results below. Abiola won but that was the beginning of the long strings of problems.
To the shock and dismay of General Yar’adua and against the gentlemanly agreement that they just had, Abiola decided not to pick Atiku as his vice-presidential candidate. He went for Kingibe instead. It was not really Abiola’s fault at that moment because the party governors blackmailed him as they threatened to withdraw their support for him in the general elections if Kingibe their benefactor was not his vice president. MKO did not give in to their demands easily as there was another round of time-consuming negotiations before he finally agreed to settle for Kingibe.
This did not go down well at all with the Yar’adua-Atiku camp. The general from Katsina was petulant and remain simply implacable. At that convention, his relationship with Abiola suffered a terrible damage. With the total humiliation of Atiku, Yar’adua saw MKO as a betrayal and someone not to be trusted with anything. In Yar’adua’s view, there was no way MKO would have emerged as the winner without the sacrifice Atiku made and he felt the best way to appease or compensate his political son was to hand him the vice presidency.
Unknown to Abiola, his political migraine was just starting. As he was trying his best to plead with the Yar’adua-Atiku camp and negotiate some sort of soft landing, he got an even more disturbing piece of news, news that rattled him so much that he might have regretted entering the race at all. The military president Babangida had been updated on the outcome of the SDP presidential primaries and he was interested in getting a piece of the cake.
IBB wanted neither Atiku nor Kingibe to run as Abiola’s vice president as he had his own disastrous candidate – Pascal Bafyau. This handpicked candidate of the tyrant was the president of the Nigeria Labour Congress and he was one of the most unpopular figures in the country. Abiola knew that choosing Bafyau would mean attracting the relentless rage of millions of workers and civil servants who suffered tremendously under Babangida’s reign of terror. Abiola did not even give the consideration a second thought because that would have even made his problems with his party and the governors even worse. So while in that fix, MKO decided to stick to Kingibe but his temerity to turn down Babangida’s offer marked the official beginning of his problems with the military government but that will be story for another day.
Fast forward to the annulment of the elections at the end of the day by Babangida. All hell was let loose. Abiola could not believe what his former friend (they were now sworn enemies) had done. With his wife, Kudirat, MKO was at the Aso Rock Presidential Villa to confront Babangida over the annulment but in his usual deceitful manner, IBB claimed it was not his fault but that of the military as an institution that was not comfortable with an Abiola presidency and that was why he came up with the idea of annulling it. With anger, Abiola and his wife stormed out of the villa. Their friendship had broken down irreparably. A devoted Muslim, Abiola did not really understand why a fellow Muslim would treat him in such a shabby manner. However, what was on Abiola’s unstable mind at that moment was how to reclaim his stolen mandate. He was not going to settle for anything less.
It was in this highly-emotional state that MKO Abiola went ahead to make more damaging strategic mistakes. Desperate for allies, Abiola had allowed Yar’adua select the chairman of the party in the person of Chief Tony Anenih – who later worked so thoroughly against MKO that he not only lost his mandate but also his life. (Anenih would later become one of the bigwigs of the Peoples Democratic Party, PDP and by the way, Sule Lamido was the Secretary of the SDP). Analysts believed that that single mistake of not choosing a party chairman loyal to him cost MKO not only the greatest dream of his life but accelerated his exit from this world.
At the initial stage when the news started leaking out, Abiola’s party, the SDP, stood solidly behind him at first but with the speed of light and with mouth-watering financial inducements from the military government and promises of appointments in the interim government, they started deserting him and queued up behind Babangida and his phony transition programme. Abiola’s party people accepted the idea of an interim government and Abiola received his greatest shock when his own running mate, Babagana Kingibe wrote publicly that Abiola should forget about the mandate and move on and join Sani Abacha when he finally overthrew Ernest Shonekan-led interim government. After the results of the primaries were announced, the same Kingibe had accepted the outcome and said he was willing to work with MKO to ensure their party’s victory in the spirit of sportsmanship. It was a double treachery for MKO.
TO BE CONTINUED…
THANKS FOR YOUR TIME,
- Anthony Anenih
- The President Who Never Ruled: A True Life Story of An African Self-Made Billionaire by Jamiu Abiola.
- Palm Oil of Modern Politics: A Compendium of MKO’s Proverbs by Ben Okezie, BRANE Communications Limited, 1998.
- Nigerian Women of Distinction, Honour and Exemplary Presidential Qualities by Jubril Olabode Aka
- Shehu Musa Yar’adua: A Life of Service by Jacqueline W Farris, Mohammed Bomoi, Shehu Musa Yar’adua Foundation, 2004.
- Laying the Foundation for Nigeria’s Democracy: My Account of the June 12, 1993 Presidential Election and its Annulment by Professor Humphrey N Nwosu.
- Regime Change and Succession Politics in Africa: Five Decades of Misrule by Maurice Nyamanga Amutabi and Shadrack Wanjala Nasong’o.
- Muslim Civic Cultures and Conflict Resolution: The Challenge of Democratic Federalism in Nigeria by John N. Paden
- The Struggle for June 12 by Frank Kokori
- The Route to Power in Nigeria: A Dynamic Engagement Option for Current and Aspiring Leaders by M. Balogun