Nigeria 2023: Kola Abiola steps out from father’s shadow

By Ben Ezeamalu

Posted on Monday, 20 February 2023 10:46
Kola Abiola (photo rights reserved)
Kola Abiola (photo rights reserved)

MKO Abiola, the 'almost' president who unofficially won Nigeria's 1993 elections, died in jail in 1998, but his story is still inspirational. Can his son Kola Abiola tap his legacy to emerge, as his father did 30 years ago, Nigeria's president?

Kola Abiola sits in a cramped room inside Concord Hangar’s building near the local airport in Lagos. The aroma of coffee is strong in the air,  but he munches a piece of chicken pie.

His campaign team had just returned from a rally in Ibadan and were having a quick snack before they boarded a plane to Abuja.

The atmosphere in the room is jovial. It’s Falalu Bello’s birthday, but the national chairman of the Peoples Redemption Party (PRP) looks visibly exhausted from the rally and the nearly two hour-drive from the Adamasingba Stadium in Ibadan. He says – jocularly – that “Kola kept me in the sun” on his 69th birthday. There is a lot of laughter in the room, but Abiola’s rises above the others.

During the PRP rally in Ibadan on Thursday afternoon, 2 February, the spirit of MKO Abiola appeared to hover over the stadium. Speaker after speaker eulogised his legacy and contribution to Nigeria’s current democracy.

MKO Abiola is the winner of the 12 June 1993 presidential election, widely acclaimed as the freest and fairest election in Nigeria’s history. Every 12 June, Nigeria marks Democracy Day to commemorate Abiola’s victory as well as other Nigerians who played a role in the journey to democracy.

When I sat down with the younger Abiola for an interview on Thursday night, I asked him if it had been hard stepping out of his father’s shadows.

“No! It’s a shadow you don’t want to step out of, to be honest with you,” he says, beaming.

“People have fathers that have been heads of state and they associate with them. I’m lucky to have one who most people associate with. I’m grateful for that.”

Journey into politics

Born Abdulateef Kolawole in July 1962, Abiola attended a slew of schools in Abeokuta, Ibadan, and Lagos, in Nigeria’s south-west, before leaving for the US for his higher degrees.

He cut his teeth in politics as a teenager, regularly joining his father, who was a leader in the National Party of Nigeria (NPN), on his political trips across Nigeria.

However, his defining moment came a decade and half later when his father was running for president: he was at the heart of MKO Abiola’s ‘Hope 93’ campaign and strategy for the Social Democratic Party (SDP).

“They say if you don’t jump into water you can’t get wet, so I’ve been getting wet from a very tender age,” he says.

“[My experience with] NPN was immediately out of secondary school. […] I was about 28-29 [when] I ran [the SDP] campaign. I did all the strategy work and implemented it.”

His father won the election, the military government annulled the results, and subsequent events culminated in the arrest and detention of MKO Abiola. He died four years later in detention.

I was detained. I got my passport seized. I was locked up for four and a half months. During that period, while they were running away, I couldn’t go anywhere because my father was here in detention.

Abiola had largely stayed away from partisan politics until last year when he suddenly threw his hat into the ring, announcing his intention to run for president.

This time, he pitched his tent with the PRP, the oldest of the 18 political parties. He says Nigeria is at a crossroads and badly in need of good leadership.

“I always say Nigeria is one good leader away… no matter how lofty my ideas are and what I’d like to see done. Yes, we have poverty issues, we have economic issues, unemployment issues. We have quite a number of issues. All those issues stem from a lack of security and confidence in government. For all those things to be able to work if I don’t solve the security, I can’t solve those things.”

Party and father’s goodwill

The PRP was founded in 1978 under the leadership of Aminu Kano. The party was a dominant force during Nigeria’s Second Republic, winning elections into state and federal parliaments as well as governorships. It was proscribed by the military dictatorship of Muhammadu Buhari.

Abiola believes that unlike his opponents who spend millions to attract goodwill, his party’s antecedents have been quite helpful.

“The party is well known, it has a very rich, dedicated, loyal membership base and added to the goodwill we have it’s been quite overwhelming.”

The goodwill attached to the MKO Abiola moniker in Nigeria is unquestionable. At a time, he was the country’s largest individual employer of labour. Despite running on a Muslim-Muslim ticket in a country where the electorate mostly votes along ethnic and religious lines, the older Abiola won overwhelmingly outside his ethnic group and in Christian-dominated states.

I’ve come to tell them that enough is enough. You’ve had your fill on it. This has to stop, let’s change the narrative now

Abiola says he is “undoubtedly” enjoying that goodwill. “A lot has to do with that. A lot has to do with his foresight. I’ve been travelling around this country with him since 1979, the NPN days and, also, my own adult self, I ran the 1992/93 election. I campaigned nationwide. I met people all over this country, from different levels, spheres of life, to the point that I think I’m home in any local government in this country,” he says.

“Added to that, I have worked in virtually every state in this country. I’ve left my marks in different states, be it farming, be it oil and gas. Even back in Taraba I have a local government named after me, from what I did with my farm back there. Ardo Kola local government in Taraba State.”

Abiola says he earned a dose of goodwill having worked with his father for several years.

“The two contenders in the race with me today, from APC and PDP, we all worked together in my father’s campaign back then,” he says.

“Like I said at the rally today, the only difference is that they are still running again 30 years after, without MKO, but MKO would never be running at their age. I guess they are still running against MKO in me so that explains a lot.”

Tinubu’s pro-democracy credentials

Nigerians will go to the poll on 25 February to elect a new president. Two of the frontrunners, who are the candidates of the two largest parties, contested elections with Abiola’s father. While the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) candidate, Atiku Abubakar, vied on the SDP presidential ticket with MKO Abiola; the ruling All Progressives Party’s candidate, Bola Tinubu, ran for Senate.

Abiola says Tinubu and others had rode on his father’s name over the past three decades. “I’m the custodian of the name,” he says.

“If they have exploited it to be what they are over the last 30 years, does that stop me from taking what is mine back? They just didn’t ride on the name, they rechristened the campaign slogan [Tinubu’s slogan is ‘Renewed Hope 2023’] just to continue to ride on it, but I’ve come to tell them that enough is enough. You’ve had your fill on it. This has to stop, let’s change the narrative now.”

He dismissed claims of Tinubu as the heir to MKO Abiola’s national coalition of supporters that won him the 1993 election. “He’s not entitled to it,” Abiola says.

“Look, the heir to it is all Nigerians because that whole exercise gave us democracy today. Nobody can lay claim to that. They didn’t put their lives on the line. Bola Tinubu ran away. He escaped under NADECO. Why didn’t he stay to face the music?

“I was detained. I got my passport seized. I was locked up for four and a half months. During that period, while they were running away, I couldn’t go anywhere because my father was here in detention.”

Abiola equally dismissed claims that Tinubu played a serious role in the campaign to free his father and liberate the country from the Abacha dictatorship.

“Like every other person, I think, if you ask me, it was really a means to an end; and I say that deliberately.

“His [Tinubu’s] aim was to be the Lagos State administrator under Abacha. Abacha had [declined use of] civilian administrators, [instead opting for] the military.

“He tried to be deputy governor, Abacha decided there was not going to be deputy governors in that regime. He tried to be commissioner, but he lost out to [Femi] Agbalajobi because Alhaji Jakande was a federal minister and Agbalajobi was more of his assistant, so he got the job over him.”

Some 18 candidates will be on the ballot on election day. In addition to Atiku and Tinubu, the Labour Party’s Peter Obi and the New Nigerian Peoples Party’s Rabiu Kwankwaso are the other front runners.

However, Abiola believes he is in a pole position to win the polls. He says Kwankwaso and Obi, being former PDP members, are from the same “poisoned tree.”

“The APC and the PDP candidates are spent. They’ve run this country for 24 years. If they can’t fix it by now, they are out of ideas to fix it,” he says.

“You need a fresh set of people to do that now and a fresh party which is PRP.”

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