MKO Abiola: What manner of man?

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On the 20th  anniversary of MKO Abiola’s death on 7 July, Dr. Yemi Ogunbiyi, a former associate of MKO and pro-chancellor of Obafemi Awolowo University reproduces a portrait first published in 1993, of the man who was denied from claiming the presidential mandate given him by Nigerians in the election of 12 June, 1993.

MKO Abiola: remembered

By Yemi Ogunbiyi

Following the honour bestowed on MKO Abiola by President Buhari and the re-focused attention on Abiola’s legacy, my daughter Oreoluwa, who, by the way, read Politics and Philosophy at Cambridge and was only one year old when MKO was killed, called me to find out more about him.

Here is how she put it: ‘Dad, I know all about June 12 and how Chief Abiola was denied the presidency and later died in prison; but what kind of man was he?

Oreoluwa’s question set me thinking and it suddenly dawned on me that many younger Nigerians, certainly the twenty-‘somethings’ and even thirty-year olds may just have only a vague memory of MKO Abiola or none at all, let alone knowing who the ‘real’ MKO Abiola was!

Because of Oreoluwa and others of her age, I have decided to reproduce in full, the first chapter of the Book, Legend of our Time: The Thoughts of MKO Abiola, which is a published collection of Abiola’s key Speeches and Lectures, edited by Dr. Chidi Amuta and myself.

The book, which was published on the eve of his presidential campaigns, predates the June 12 saga.

Obviously, he will now for ever be remembered for his June 12 victory and as an embodiment of our democratic ideals. But he was more than June 12!

Indeed, June 12 was the culmination of a tremendously remarkable life.

In some ways, there was none like him and there probably would be none quite like him again.

He was, among other things, a man of prodigious intellectual talent, a true legend of our time. Just months before his death, I visited him in prison. Although tired and suffering from a lower back pain, he was, even in his dismal conditions, his old self. He oscillated between anger, anxiety, frustration and even optimism, but not bitterness.

Then, when a prominent, Egba Chief (now, late), came in to see him, apparently carrying with him some message from the Council of Islamic Affairs, in what seemed to be another of several previous visits, MKO flared up and his defiant self resurfaced! Then, after the Chief took leave of us, he turned to me and asked me how I thought he had done! I gave him the thumbs up!! Instantly, the young security guard who had listened in on our entire discussion told me it was time for me to leave. I never saw MKO again.

Again, there are seeming contradictions here. But what is a great man if not a bundle of opposites, contrasts and even contradictions? Isn’t it the rich admixture of warmly human virtues and failings that change our admiration into love, especially too in our assessment of great men? And in the case of Bashorun Abiola, given his sheer vitality and energy, the contrast are sometimes even more dramatic and startling.

So, in reproducing this lengthy piece, which was written in late 1992 and titled “Behind the Legend,” I have felt no need to change, embellish or delete any details. The man I wrote about then, remained the man I saw in prison, months before his death in 1998, determined, defiant, uncowed and unbowed.

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 enemies which imperil the future generations to come: poverty, ignorance, disease, hunger, and racism have each seen 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.


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