June 12 will forever be an iconic date for democracy in the history of the Nigerian nation.
On June 12, 1993, Nigeria conducted one of the fairest elections in its history which saw Moshood Kashimawo Olawale Abiola emerge as President.
His victory was however short-lived as the then Head of State, Ibrahim Babaginda annulled the elections in a bid to hold on to power.
The annulment of the elections led to a leadership crisis which eventually saw Sani Abacha leading a coup later in the year.
Following the take-over by Sani Abacha, Abiola was arrested, imprisoned until his death on June 7, 1998.
The Publisher of Ovation Magazine and a former presidential candidate, Dele Momodu was a close associate of Abiola before his tragic death which was mourned by the whole nation.
Speaking to Punch Newspaper in an interview, Dele Momodu chronicles the oppression Abiola suffered from the military government which eventually led to his death.
On how Abiola was arrested by Sani Abacha, Momodu said, “That was under Abacha. When Abacha came and Abiola declared himself the winner, he disappeared and reappeared. The night he reappeared, I was one of the operatives (aides) who brought him out from Surulere where he was hiding – in Senator Wahab Dosumu’s house. In fact, it was in Prince Ademola Adeniji’s vehicle that Abiola rode in from Surulere to Toyin Street (Abiola’s house) at Ikeja.”
“Abiola had his other personal assistants with him who did the operation. We had a number of media (men). So, we drove to Toyin Street where about 600 policemen were already waiting for him. We got to Abiola Crescent; a lot of people were there. Abiola went inside and told me that I could go home because I had been working for about 48 hours non-stop. He said I should freshen up and see my wife. My marriage was under two years old at that time. So, I went home and came back to Abiola’s house at about 9pm.”
“By the time I got to the gate, the police had surrounded the place and they said I couldn’t enter. I asked why and they said the instruction was to lock down the house and not allow anybody in or out. I didn’t have a phone to call Abiola, so I went to a business centre on Allen Avenue, where I then put a call through to him. When he came on the line, he said, ‘Dele, I think you should go home. I have heard that they are coming to arrest me at 1am. But I don’t think Sani can try it o.’ That was his last statement to me on earth.”
“The following morning, news came out that Abiola had been arrested in the night, as he had told me, and they took him away to an unknown destination. We tried to find out where he was but we didn’t know until Dr. Doyin Abiola asked us to come to the house and in the first set of letters Chief wrote out of detention, he mentioned my name that I should be asked to come to Gashua, where he was. He said I should come disguised with a tape recorder and a camera.”
“So, I prepared for the journey. I even dressed like a Ghanaian native so I would look different. I was supposed to fly from Lagos to Maiduguri, from there to Damaturu and then again to someplace in Gashua. That was how the journey was planned. But, unfortunately on my way, I stopped by the house to see Dr. (Doyin) Abiola and she told me that Chief had been moved and I never saw him again. This was in 1994 after the ‘Epetedo Declaration.”
Detailing how he got to know about the iconic Abiola’s death, Momodu said,
“Obaigbena was in London; Tokunbo Afikuyomi and I had gone to see him somewhere very close to Park Lane. From his house, we walked to Marble Arch and got a black cab to our respective homes. But before we did, we bought the first edition of Sunday Times of London and in it, there was a report by a Sunday Times correspondent who had accompanied the United Nations’ Secretary General at the time, Dr. Kofi Annan, to Nigeria to see Abiola. The man was writing about his experience when he met Abiola; Abiola was watching television but had turned off the volume. They had taken away the remote control, so he was watching football but he could not hear the commentary.”
“He was in total darkness and didn’t know what was happening outside. He didn’t know anything. I asked why they would be treating the man so poorly — a man who won (presidential) election. In the morning, one of his daughters, Wuraola, called me and said she was on her way to Cambridge and asked what I had picked up from Nigeria. I told her what I read in the Sunday paper and she started crying that ‘Oh! Does this mean we cannot rescue our dad?’ She broke down emotionally and we decided that we would have to do something.”
“At that time, the human rights community was saying Abiola should not accept any condition and he should remain there. But we were saying we should appeal to the human rights community to allow this man to go before they kill him. That was my first premonition that something untoward might happen to Abiola. As a matter of fact, I called a friend of mine who was working at Lagos Television 8, Mrs. Funke Moore, and told her, ‘I am very troubled about Abiola because I believe they will kill him.”
“She said, ‘Oh Bobby, you have come with your exaggerations. Who will kill Abiola? Nobody can kill Abiola?’ That was July 5, 1998, two days before Abiola’s death. You won’t believe that on July 7, a blind man called Yinka Ibidunni woke me up and started sobbing, ‘Mr. Momodu! They want to kill your father and you are sleeping.’ He could hear my voice; I sounded very sleepy. I said, ‘Who wants to kill my daddy?’
“He said, ‘The Americans are in town.’ (Ambassador) Thomas Pickering had come with Susan Rice to visit Abiola. He asked, ‘Didn’t you listen to BBC World Newsjust now? Pickering and Rice were asked what they were doing in Nigeria and they said they had come to persuade Abiola to forget about his mandate.’ The interviewer had asked them, ‘What are you going to tell Abiola that Annan or Emeka Anyaoku, who was Secretary General of the Commonwealth at the time, has not told him.’
“They both said they were going to repeat the same thing to him to forget about his mandate. The man asked them, ‘What if he says no to you too.’ They said he would have become a danger to the country. The man’s interpretation therefore was that becoming a danger to the country meant that they would have to eliminate him.”
“But nobody knew what happened. I was in touch with Wuraola after that and she said we should release a statement appealing to the human rights community to allow Abiola to accept any condition and just go, so as to stay alive. You would not believe it; we drafted Wura’s statement. She faxed it to me and it came out of my machine at about 4.03(pm) and I had called THISDAY, Nigerian Tribune and the rest of them that they should expect the release.”
“As I was about to fax those things to the media, I got a call from Wuraola screaming on the phone. ‘Dele Momodu! Dele Momodu! Have you heard?!’ I thought she was going to say they had released MKO. I said, ‘What is it?’ She said, ‘Daddy is dead!’ I was saying, ‘What is this woman talking about?’ She said, ‘Please, call our friend at Skye News to check! Please! Please!’ She was going on and on and then dropped the phone. My wife was just sitting down there watching all of the drama.”
“So, I said to myself, ‘Before calling anybody, why don’t I just tune in to Skye News?’ If something of that nature had happened, Skye News would definitely have picked it up. As soon as I switched on my television, I saw, ‘Breaking news: Nigeria’s Moshood Abiola is dead.’ The world went dead for me instantly. I was confused; I was going gaga and then my phone started ringing — CNN, everybody was calling me. I dressed up quickly and rushed over to Abiola’s house at Chester Terrace in Regent’s Park, London. His children were there, except Kola, the eldest. There were all kinds of sympathisers around. They started making plans on how to get to Nigeria immediately.”