June 12 and elusive search for Abiola’s killers

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Twenty three years after, the controversy over the sudden death of the winner of the June 12, 1993 presidential election, Chief Moshood Abiola, in detention has not been resolved. Former Chief of Army Staff Lt-Gen. Ishaya Bamaiyi disclosed that the eminent politician did not die of natural causes. This has further fueled the suspicion that he was murdered by unknown assassins. Who are the killers? Deputy Editor EMMANUEL OLADESU reports.

Was the state or its agents the killers? Why has it been difficult to unravel the mysterious death? Who takes responsibility?

Little did Moshood Abiola, billionaire business mogul and presidential flagbearer of the defunct Social Democratic Party (SDP) know that his dream would be cut short after winning the most credible poll in Nigeria. The hunt for his killers has become another abandoned project of the Federal Government.

Who killed him? What killed the winner of the historic June 12, 1993 election in detention? Was an autopsy actually carried out? What was the outcome? Where is the report? Why is it hidden?

Twenty three years after the death of the eminent politician, his demise is still a riddle. Gradually, the memory of the demise is fading as many youths who never witnessed the struggle cannot appreciate its essence.

The allusion to the tragedy by former Chief of Army Staff Lt-Gen. Ishaya Bamaiyi may have momentarily aroused public consciousness to the suspected murder. But, that was four years ago.

Abiola was detained for five years for winning a democratic poll. The annulment of the historic election by former military President Ibrahim Babangida sparked outrage across the country. The winner never surrendered, despite the harassment by the military. He was focused, hoping that reason would triumph over madness.

Few weeks before his death was announced, the nation was hopeful about his release from incarceration. He was sighted in a group photograph taken when he was visited in prison by Susan Rice, former Assistant Secretary of State. Also sighted in the photograph was the late Admiral Mike Akhigbe, former Chief of General Staff. It appears that Abiola was in high spirit and full of expectation. He was hale and hearty. He had hoped to regain his freedom. But, few days after, a bewildered nation was jolted out of its illusion that the chief would return alive. It was indeed, a set back to the legitimate agitation for de-annulment.

Abiola died in the hand of his military tormentors. On the same day, the struggle for the validation of the annulled poll results ended. There were confusion, disenchantment and division. While many credible political leaders, who were heroes of the epic struggle were reluctant to participate in the post-Abiola transition programme, the Generals seized the initiative, regrouped immediately and anointed one of their own for the succession battle.

The beneficiary was Gen. Olusegun Obasanjo,  former military Head of State, who said Abiola was not the messiah Nigeria was looking for, and who, in reaction to the annulment,  said it was painful, but understandable.

Since the military and the political class were divided over the election results cancellation  and the subsequent crisis that engulfed the country, the plot to end Abiola’s life should have leaked out.

In his book, ‘the Vindication of a General,’ Bamaiyi attributed Abiola’s death to a sort of inexplicable conspiracy within the military government that succeeded the Abacha regime. Abiola did not die under Abacha’s watch. Bamaiyi emphasised that he died when Gen. Abdulsalami Abubakar was in the saddle.

The authenticity of his claim cannot be ascertained because he had become a rival or competitor for the vacant seat of the military Head of State, following Abacha’s sudden death.

“I believe only Gen. Abubakar and those he used to handle Abiola’s death can tell Nigerians how Chief M.K.O Abiola died. Abiola could not have died the way he reportedly died,” Bamaiyi said.

Also, there was division over the chain of events that landed Abiola in detention and other constraints he faced while in captivity. Since he lost his freedom,  he was not part of actions or inactions that stalled his release.

However, the former Army chief had harsh words for the pro-democracy movement, which, in his opinion, failed to give the SDP candidate an objective advice. Put succinctly, Bamaiyi attributed Abiola’s death to his rejection of the bail conditions reeled out by his captor, the late Gen. Abacha, which he rejected, following the National Democratic Coalition (NADECO)’s advice. A key player in the bail saga was the strongman of Ibadan politics, the late Alhaji Lamidi Adedibu, who approached Abiola and his family with the military gesture.

The bail conditions were very strict. They were part of military strategies for political subjugation of the symbol of the election. They were to tie Abiola’s hands and sentence him to self-liquidation. According to the terms, the symbol of the struggle, who had declared himself president, was expected to eat his words, recant and give the military regime an assurance that he will abandon the struggle.

At that point in time,  Abiola could not compromise his mandate. He had resolved to brace the odds.

Predictably, the bail was turned down by Abiola’s compatriots in NADECO, not only because Adedibu was a wrong envoy, but because a conditional bail at that stage of the struggle was considered problematic, illogical and counter-productive

Abiola knew that his life was in danger. He lacked access to the world, particularly the style of life that gave him fame as a bisinessman, sports enthusiastic, philanthropist, socialite, traveller, politician and polygamist.

During his incarceration, he wrote several notes to the pro-democracy crusaders. In one of the letters, he stated that “Abacha has dug a grave for me and all that is left is for him to cover it.”

NADECO and NALICON, which anchored the struggle in his absence, were the civilian armies that defiled the military bullets. Many human rights activists, arrowhead of student groups and leaders of Afenifere, the pan-Yoruba socio-political group, became casualties of the military onslaught. They were unjustly detained, maimed and killed. Some were framed up in the phantom coup. Among those who lost their lives during the titanic battle were Pa Alfred Rewane and Abiola’s wife, Kudirat, who had assumed a leadership responsibility within the pro-democracy movement, following his detention.

Since the mission of the military was regime protection, soldiers positioned themselves as the enemy of the people in their quest for power retention and consolidation.

At the height of the face-off between the military and NADECO, many June 12 co-travelers had to leave the country to continue the struggle abroad. They included Pa Anthony Enahoro, Prof. Wole Soyinka, Asiwaju Bola Tinubu, Olawale Oshun, Commodore Dan Suleiman, Chief John Odigie-Oyegun, Chief Ralph Obiora, Dr. Amos Akingba, Lt-Gen. Alani Akinrinade and Prof. Bolaji Akinyemi.

Many Nigerians had expressed fears for Abiola’s safety, especially when the Abacha unfolded a self-succession agenda. Gen. Musa Yar’Adua, who had opposed the elongation of the military regime through whatever means had been arrested and jailed. Although he did not support Abiola’s struggle, he had influenced the 2004 National Conference to set a terminal date for the military regime, a move that upset Abacha. Yar’Adua was later allegedly injected in the prison where he died.

There were startling revelations at the Oputa Panel on the circumstances surrounding Abiola’s death. His death was preceded by Abacha’s death. There are puzzles: Why did Abacha’s successor refuse to release Abiola? Was the great politician poisoned? Did he develop an illness that led to his sudden death? How did he die in detention?

However, some NADECO elements had a premonition that an ugly incident was about to occur. But, it was doubtful if adequate preventive action was taken. It may also due to their lack of experience, skill, strategy and capacity to avert the doom.

In his book, ‘Clapping with one hand: June 12 and the crisis of a nation state,’Oshun, Third Republic House of Representatives Chief Whip and one-time NADECO secretary, said the pro-democracy family had hints about a looming disaster.

He said: “It was on June 28, 1998 exactly that information reached some key elements within the democratic movement that the president-elect, Bashorun M.K.O. Abiola, would be murdered soon, and in any case, not later than September 1998. The information came via a document from a source we knew, respected and trusted. “

Despite the receipt of the report that Abiola’s life was in danger, certain elements in the movement did not believe it. They treated a reliable information as a figment of imagination. Although the Radio Kudirat had been previously used to disseminate information about the planned attempts on Senator Abraham Adesanya’s and Gen. Yar’Adua’s lives, the handlers of the station uncritically dismissed the planned attempt on Abiola’s life as a wild rumour.

On page 268 of Osun’s book, the sensitive document available to the pro-democracy movement reads as follows: “Abdulsalam Abubakar: He is an active member of the “die hard” Northern oligarchy. Well respected in the military circle and a bridge between the military cultic group groomed and nurtured by the late Gen. Sani Abacha and the liberals in the army.

“He was chosen to be the head of state, not because he was the next high ranking officer, but because the way had been pre-paved for him-remember “The plot against Diya?” He is still not acceptable to Buhari, Gumei and Gwarzo, who together asked the “Dare Devil Cultic Group” to obtain written pledge from him to “consolidate Northern domination of political power,” which unfortunately, he wrote and signed before he was approved.

“He asked to be surrounded by new “Yoruba” friends, which unfortunately would include some of the recently released political detainees. The new regime is working tirelessly to secure the friendship of this new group.

“The only ADENDUM the new regime and its collaborators has is to: Ensure that Chief M.K.O. Abiola does not become the president of Nigeria in whatever form and Hausa/Fulani domination of the presidency is not compromised.

“The new regime is: Totally against Chief M.K.O. Abiola’s mandate; Proposing a new transition to democracy by 2000-18 months programme to be announced on October1, 1998; Although would include some released detainees in his cabinet, it would still be intolerant of opposing political views and hence, be as repressive as ever before; The regime is thinking of compensating the families of the slain Ogoni activists and granting amnesty for the 19 Ogoni youths as a way of placating the Ogoni people; NECON would be dissolved and a new electoral commission formed; New parties to be registered; Negotiated amnesty for Diya and co likely, but not soon.

“According to the reliable source, this regime would fight the press with all its power. An impeccable source said that all proposed elections are to be postponed. New election dates would be announced by the newly formed electoral commission.

“Let me state here categorically that this is not a prediction at all. It is the pre-conceived plan of the new regime, exposed by an insider. What is absolutely necessary now is to mount relentless and forceful pressure on the regime and drum it to its ears that anything less than the immediate restoration of a democratic government would not be acceptable to Nigerians and the international community and that the opposition is battle ready to take the bull by the horn this time around and would be ready to give all it takes to drive the military out. Another very important thing is that Abiola’s mandate should not be compromised at all. NALICON and NADECO should rally round pro-democracy forces so as to reach a common goal.

“The important report sent to me today: A notorious gang in the Nigerian Army has completed their plan to assassinate Chief Moshood Abiola as a “final settlement of the Abacha/Abiola war in a “no victor, no vanquished way.” Believe it or not, if the report given to me is anything to go by, Chief Abiola’s death would be a matter of days or before the end of September. This may look ridiculous, unthinkable or like an outright fabrication. But, believe it or not, it is true. Tell other pro-democracy groups, both abroad and home, to mount very intensive pressure on Abdulsalam Abubakar to release Chief M.K.O. Abiola now.

“The new regime will fail to protect Chief Abiola from assassins because it has not ben able to persuade them to rethink the Nigerian national question. They might even seize power from Abdulsalam in order to achieve their destructive ….People are hell  bent (on) destroying the corporate existence of Nigeria than see Abiola become president

“NOTE: Please, take immediate action on this report….”

The tone of the advisory could be given different interpretations. However, the core element was that Abiola’s days were numbered. The motive expressed in the letter new reflected a pan-Nigerian agenda. Only a few military leaders, perhaps in collaboration with military confederates, imposed on themselves the duty of pushing an ethnic agenda for the purpose of sustaining and enhancing the survival of a particular ethnic group. There was also no elaborate consensus, even in the military. Abacha’s eventual successor, if he had wanted to abort an evil plan, still needed a little time to stabilise his hold. But, time was running out.

Oshun recalled that Prof. Soyinka was among the earliest recipients of the message. The Nobel Laureate was said to have risen to the occasion because he wanted to save Abiola’s life from the hands of murderers in Abuja. “Prof. Soyinka indeed, alerted the Secretary-General of the United Nations, Kofi Annan, who at the time was planning a trouble shooting trip to Nigeria, on the impending infamy,” he added.

The former Whip lamented that “fate however, dealt us a fatal blow because, unlike in the past when such pieces of in formation would have been broadcast repeatedly on Radio Kudirat, some efficient, but not so politically astute members of the production team held the information to be unreliable.” It was also a failure of the spirit of propaganda that ruled the waves at that time.

Oshun added: “In the past, when the information on the lethal poisoning of Yar’Adua and of the intent to murder Senator Abraham Adesanya were received, and passed on to the production team of Radio Kudirat, there was no necessity for anyone to check back on the team as to dissemination.

“The major objective was carried out immediately. In the case of the attack on Senator Adesanya, the broadcast was on as soon as the information was obtained. It was based on that established tradition therefore, that it was assumed that the Abiola story would be treated with the normal and possibly greater urgency.

“The assumption was to prove fatal for, unknown to many of us, the otherwise wonderfully efficient head of production at Radio Kudirat, concluded that the information on Abiola’s immediate murder could not have been genuine. Having reached that conclusion, the head of production did not nother to inform anyone. This was how it happened that not a single reference was made to the alert on the impending murder of M.K.O Abiola. It was after MKO’s death was announced that we realized what had happened.”

But, why was the alert on the impending murder of Abiola ignored, despite the fact that the alert on Yar’Adua’s and Adesanya’s lives were given due attention? Even, Obasanjo was said to have been saved in jail through a similar information that encouraged him to be more vigilant.

Oshun suggested fatigue on the part of the pro-democracy crusaders, adding that they were carried away by the emergence of Gen. Abubakar, “with his smooth, but deceptively humble style.”

“With him promising the democratic el-Dorado after the unlamented demise of Sani Abacha, views held a few days back were all suddenly made to look or sound unreasonable. It is often said that the most gentle of men are also the most lethal in some relationships.

“It was Abdulsalami Abubakar’s gentility that made many to forget on the spot and as soon as he began to make his promises, that he was a prominent and I dispensable member of the Abacha machine of cruelty, “ he stressed.

The file on the murder of Abiola would have gathered dust now. Yet, the mysterious death will continue to rupture conscience.

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