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Wednesday, 8 July, 1998, 07:20 GMT 08:20 UK
Abiola: Millionaire turned politician
Chief Abiola at a 1993 press conference in London
Chief Abiola at a 1993 press conference in London

By Elizabeth Blunt, former BBC West Africa correspondent

Moshood Abiola was that very Nigerian figure, a millionaire turned politician.

He emerged from Nigeria's oil boom of the 1970s as one of the country's wealthiest men, thanks to his involvement with a series of massive telecommunications projects.

In 1979, when an earlier military government kept its word, and handed over to civilians, Abiola went into politics.

The story had begun 60 years before, on August 24, 1937.

His birth came at the end of a long and heartbreaking series of failed pregnancies, still births and children who died in infancy.

Not wanting to tempt her fate, Moshood's mother gave him the name Kashimawo - "let us see if this one too will die".

But this late baby proved tenacious of life and a determined fighter.

Chief Moshood Abiola
Abiola and his supporters were outraged when the 1993 election was annulled
Meeting Moshood Abiola in his prime, it was hard to imagine him as a sickly baby. He grew into a large, robust man, with a strong voice, a dominating physical presence and a flamboyant taste in clothes. And as he grew, he flourished.

Although from a modest family, he rode the crest of Nigeria's oil boom of the 1970s, and through involvement in a series of massive telecommunications projects with the American multinational ITT, became very wealthy indeed.

Joins National Party

In 1979, when an earlier military government kept its word, and handed over to civilians, Moshood Abiola went into politics and joined the National Party of Nigeria.

The NPN had the backing of Nigeria's powerful northern establishment, and it won the election.

The President, Shehu Shagari, was from the north; his deputy was from the east, and they were limited to two terms in office.

After they were re-elected in 1983, Moshood Abiola, a Yoruba-speaker from the south-west, looked qualified to make a bid for the presidency the next time round.

Then the blow fell - a military coup swept away President Shagari, the NPN, and, for the time being, Moshood Abiola's political hopes.

He went back to making money, his extensive business interests now including an airline and a shipping company, as well as the Concord newspaper, and a group of sister publications.

Return to politics

And when that military government in turn started moving, painfully slowly, toward a handover of power, Moshood Abiola came back into politics.

This time there were just two parties, set up by the military, and their leadership was carefully vetted. Moshood Abiola became the presidential candidate for the Social Democratic Party, with the government's blessing.

When the then military leader, Ibrahim Babangida, at a regional summit meeting, invited Chief Abiola onto the platform to address the assembled heads of state on his pet project - the need for western countries to pay reparations for slavery - those present saw it as a discreet benediction, and imagined Abiola would be back at the next summit, as Nigeria's elected president.

That impression lasted through the 1993 campaign, the vote, and the count. Then, with Chief Abiola well in the lead, General Babangida stopped the count, and annulled the election. The chief and his supporters were outraged.

There was no question this time that he would sit down quietly and accept the decision. And when, on the first anniversary of the election, he publicly declared himself Nigeria's lawfully elected president, he was arrested, and charged with treason.

Presidential declaration led to arrest

Even then he didn't give up. He could have been released on bail, if he had been willing to accept the annulment and stop claiming to be president. He refused, and was kept in detention.

During Chief Abiola's imprisonment, his senior wife Kudirat, who had campaigned for his release, was assassinated by unknown gunmen.

Hopes for his release were raised last month after the death of General Sani Abacha, who ordered Chief Abiola's detention.

Last week, the Nigerian Foreign Minister, Chief Tom Ikimi, indicated the chief would soon be released, but repeated hints that the government wanted him to renounce his claim to a presidential mandate before being freed.

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
BBC News
Last interview: Abiola talks to the BBC during his arrest in 1994
BBC News
The BBC's Caroline Turiff: remembering Chief Abiola
See also:

08 Jun 98 | Nigeria
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