M.K.O. Abiola, meeting him came early in my career as a reporter with the Newswatch magazine. I had come early to the office, and assistant editor Dare Babarinsa asked me to accompany him to the chief’s house for an interview. I was a society reporter covering the popular celebrity column Newsliners, and my social diary had no urgency. I was free to be hunted.
I jumped into Dare’s eternal beetle. Excitement ran in my blood like a swallow cruising under an eave, though I suppressed it beside Dare. I had not seen MKO up close. The last time he was within my ken was at Ife when red-blooded radicals booed him out of the majestic Oduduwa Hall. He was regarded as the icon of parasitic capitalism, a robust bug of rapine and glamour.
We did not have to wait long at his reception, but not before I had a sense of the man’s aura among the fair sex when a vainglorious young lady’s lips unfurled fantasies about her intimacy with the great man. She probably thought she alone knew she was spinning fables. She conned herself in bliss.
Moments later, Dare and I were in his presence. He looked larger than life, bold eyes, bonhomie, playful chatter, all belying the grit of the entrepreneur and the man of controversy and politics. He spoke about everything, tribe, politics, unity. But the interview was not the day star. It was the sudden eruption of a figure, the woman Simbiat. His first wife materialised just to say hello, but she struck a halo of romance. The interview was only halfway but Abiola rose like a man in love. The tape recorder whirred with its appetite. He, a stammerer, burst into a mellifluous song. His fluency defeated the stutter. I wish I could remember the song. More spectacular, in a repressed eroticized manoeuvre, he followed an aghast but smiling Simbi about the sprawling sitting room, focusing his gaze on her munificent backside. His throaty sonority and voice level rose with every step and Simbi’s serpentine adventures of escape among the furniture.
It was about the time that speculation fueled about his cuckolding a familiar king, and whisking her into motherhood with the authority of his famed libido and impudent pocket, a version of modern-day retelling of Paris and Helen of Troy of the Roman world that Homer poeticised in his epic tale The Iliad about the Trojan War.
I did not see MKO again until I was his employee in the Concord Press. But what struck me was how he ran the Concord newspapers, the diversity, his conscious Nigerianness. At that time, my editor was Lewis Obi, at the African Concord. The top editor was Ben Onyeachonam, and Tom Borha led the editorial board as deputy editor-in-chief under the well-known Dr. Doyin Abiola. The Sunday editor was Sina Adedipe, the only Yoruba among the brass of editors.
When President Buhari, in his Arise interview, was saying that, in the army and the MDAs, only those who earned it got plum jobs, he should have looked back at how MKO interpreted merit. He did not see it in ethnocentric terms, although I remember Okonjo-Iweala belching the same tone under Jonathan about the Igbo. June 12 reminds us of a time and place that merit did not work through obtuse lenses.
When it was time to change guards, MKO retained Obi at the Concord. He replaced Onyeachinam as an editor with the mercurial Nsikak Essien, who was Business Concord editor. Nsikak, from Akwa Ibom, became the flagship editor. Abiola’s closest members of staff were on the editorial board, and one of the closest to him was one Chike Akabogu, although Dele Alake, Segun Babatope and Nnamdi Obasi were in his close circle. Tunji Bello was to become a mainstay in that trust as well.
But a drama occurred during the June 12 debacle when he learned that Chike was working for the enemy. Abiola would none of it until he heard the fellow’s treacherous voice on tape. Abiola did not take Chike for an Igbo traitor because he often thought individuals were individuals. He worked with many Igbo, including Ndubuisi Kanu, in the fight for June 12.
He was a man who knew how to put ice in the fire. I recall during the royal intrigue for the Sokoto throne, he told of how he used his wealth to quell a possible inferno in the historic city. I had another interview with him with Bayo Onanuga and Dele Momodu and Femi Ojudu. I don’t recall if it was during that interview, or the one with Dare, that he recalled the role he played till nightfall to engage the stakeholders to sheathe their swords, using his money and verbal suasion. By one man’s action, bloodshed fought shy of Sokoto streets. It was a tale lost to history since he wanted the names of the tempestuous fellows away from the public eye and ear. That was a leader without excuse, and with solution. By the way, it was during the interview with Bayo and co. that he revealed his mathematical mettle. With a scientist’s pride, he showed us a book of mathematics he read and saw the error in the British professor’s work, wrote a letter pointing it out and the professor wrote back to acknowledge.
My last encounter with MKO was when I was serving as the managing editor in charge of the Abuja Bureau. I was going to visit a friend at the then Nicon Noga Hilton, now known as the Transcorp Hilton. The lift door parted and, as I attempted to walk in, MKO’s eyes bored into mine. In front of him was a security man unmistakable for his cap that the Yoruba call abeti aja. I stepped back in deference. He roared with his characteristic philter, “Sam, Sam,” and motioned me inside. I followed him for the rest of the evening. In the frantic hour of June 12 and its annulment, he still remembered little details.
“I heard you are now the landlord of Abuja,” he said with a smile. He was referring to my new appointment to run the newspaper’s capital bureau. I followed him to his suite, and it was full of the who’s who in Nigerian politics from the north, east, and west, including Abubakar Rimi and Professor Wande Abimbola, et al. He introduced me to them all one after the other, and he reiterated his characterization of me as the landlord of Abuja. He also knew I was still looking for accommodation, and he said, “do-o-don’t worry, everything will be fine.” I had dinner in the suite while he was in a little meeting. I left while he was in one of those meetings by quietly waving goodbye. I never met MKO again.
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This was the man that Nigerians voted for, but a few flinty men of tribe and intrigue wanted something else. They are the progenitors of the politics of hate and schism today. His story should let us understand that when we have an opportunity to bring ourselves together we should not fluff it. It can unwind a generation of narrow-minded apostles who blaze on with the legacy of fear and loathing. Abiola looked forward, embraced the future and could not have served as a president who invokes a Neanderthal document like a grazing routes gazette from the sewer of memory, or espouse cows to replace 21st century highways, whose consequence is unlearned herders transporting themselves with AK47 into highways of lust in rapes and rapines of maidens and mothers.
Abiola called himself a member of the Labour Party in England. I mocked it then before I understood his philosophy as a rich man who wanted to deploy his wealth as a counterforce to the poverty of his childhood. He evolved from an NPN man to a military apologist to a hero of the people. He personified the apotheosis of a man of moral destiny. A few years before June 12, many Nigerians saw him as the parasite of the people. He died their hero as a traitor to his class. That was the labour of his life.
The Nation newspaper