BY KUNLE SOLAJA
Only one man was ever bestowed with the title, Africa’s Pillar of Sports.
The honour was bestowed to Bashorun MKO Abiola. His interest cut across many sports and covered many African countries.
He sponsored various sports activities in Nigeria and 14 other African countries. Among them are Senegal, Cote d’Ivoire, Zambia and Tunisia.
Such was his unparalleled support for sports that no other African has been able to fill his position as Africa’s First Pillar of Sports since 1980 when the then African Sports Journalists Union (ASJU) bestowed the honour on him.
On January 11, 1992 in Dakar, Senegal, he entered the African football Hall of Fame when the Sports philanthropist-extra extraordinaire was honoured by CAF with an award of Order of Merit in Gold. This is the confederation’s highest honour. Abiola at the occasion donates the CAF Cup trophy endowed with $100,000.
Not many deeply involved in business and political activities have the kind of devotion that Abiola had for sports. He lived in virtually everyone’s lives until a adventure into politics cut short his life.
It is 28 years today, since the historic June 12 election in Nigeria. The date has in the past two years been symbolically accepted as the Democracy Day, marking what was believed to be the fairest ever national election in the country.
But the final outcome of the election was never officially released as it was suddenly annulled by the President Ibrahim Babangida’s administration.
The major character of the political drama, Bashorun MKO Abiola, a philanthropist, businessman, and politician was later arrested and detained a little over one year later as he struggled to claim his mandate.
He died under unclear circumstances on July 7, 1998. Even nearly three decades after his death, the clamour for the recognition of that struggle remained strong.
June 12 was only officially and nationally accepted as ‘Democracy Day’ as a replacement to May 29.
Incidentally the former May 29 day, also marked the first declaration of a state of emergency in the country when at the Federal House, Prime Minister Sir Abubakar moved the ‘the resolution’ for the declaration of a state of emergency in the Western Region.
His motion was seconded by the Federal Minister of Finance, Chief Festus Okotie-Eboh.
Before June 12, there was January 11, 1993 when the foundation of the June 12 episode was laid.
I was in the delegation of MKO Abiola to Abidjan, Cote d’Ivoire for the inaugural CAF Super Cup that pitched hosts, Africa Sports against Wydad AC Casablanca of Morocco.
While in Abidjan, on the eve of the January 10 match that was attended by the CAF president, Issa Hayatou, we were discussing the presentation of a trophy on behalf of President Babangida to CAF for the continental under 17 football tournament.
The trophy was named the ‘Renaissance Cup’ and was designed by Patrick Okpomo while before then, I had submitted to Abiola, the design of the then third-tier African inter-clubs football competition trophy-the ‘Abiola CAF Cup’ which composed of a gold plated outline map of Africa atop a stylised base.
Both trophies were produced in Germany. At Sofitel Abidjan Hôtel Ivoire on the night of January 9, 1993, Okpomo and I were saddled with the responsibility of drafting a speech for President Babangida to formally present the trophy to CAF President.
At the time, I was the Group Sports Editor at the MKO Abiola owned Concord Press of Nigeria and had often travelled and drafted speeches for him at sports events.
We had issues on how much the president was to endow the trophy. A year earlier in Dakar, Senegal, Abiola endowed the CAF Cup with a $100,000.
Releasing one of his famous proverbs, Abiola remarked: “You can’t shave a man’s head in his absence”, when we enquired on how much we should put in the draft speech as endowment money for President Babangida.
We left a blank space. Abiola collected the speech and sent it by fax to the State House. We left for Abuja two days later aboard Abiola’s private jet in the company of Issa Hayatou and five other Cameroonians.
Also in the aircraft were my fellow journalists, Paul Bassey, then of Champion and Tony Nezianya (NAN). It was my first time at the Aso Rock Villa.
We were ushered into an auditorium. Barely 10 minutes later, the President entered as we rose up. It was announced that two events were slated for the day, the first being the presentation of the Renaissance Cup to CAF.
We were aware of this, as that was the reason we flew in from Abidjan with the trophy and also had Issa Hayatou on board. Before President Babangida read the speech we had drafted, Abiola had to make brief remarks and introduced Hayatou.
Just as he took his seat, he hopped up again to add to the recognitions he had earlier made after noting that some of the famous ‘IBB Boys’ were also seated with us in the auditorium.
After apologising for what he called a grave omission and had mentioned one or two of them, among whom was Col. Anthony Ukpo, the President cut in and asked the chief not to border.
That done, most of us were shocked when President Babangida announced the re composition of the Local Organising Committee (LOC) for the later cancelled hosting of the 1995 Under 20 World Cup and also that of the re composition of the Presidential Monitoring Committee (PMC) which at the time was led by Abiola.
Could the chief had fallen out of favour with the president? We were left guessing. His place was taken by Major General Yohanna Kure. And the meeting ended.
While Paul Bassey, Nezianya and I were programmed to drop off in Lagos, Abiola and Hayatou and five other Cameroonians were to continue the journey, not to Abidjan, but Dakar, Senegal where the African country was to host the French national team on January 12.
Still unsure of the unfolding events, Abiola came to us and informed of change of plans, releasing another proverb that when two logs fall on one another, you attend to the last upper one.
It meant that the earlier plans had changed. He asked Lisa Olu Akerele, a confidant and head of Concord Press’ operation to arrange flights for us to Lagos and also get the Managing Director of Concord in Lagos, Dr. Doyin Abiola, to arrange for Hayatou’s delegation to Dakar.
It was three days later that Abiola returned to Lagos and announced his intention to run for the presidency in the election slated later in the year.
The three days in Abuja apparently prepared the ground to the June 12 episode. Support for sports was a major casualty in the later June 12 fiasco.
Before then, in1990 in Calabar during the Nigeria Universities Games (NUGA), I asked him if he would return into politics after the failed attempt in the second republic in 1983 and considering the favourable disposition that President Babangida had for him.
He responded negatively saying that even he wanted to, his first wife, Simbiat, another sports-inclined personalty, would not even sanction it.
Incidentally, his venturing into politics again was after Simbiat passed on in 1992. Noting the persistent shift of the transition programme of Gen. Babangida, I also asked Abiola if the army chieftain was sincere with handing over power to civilians.
Abiola was never short of proverbial statements, he remarked that the Babangida’s situation was akin to a man who decline interest in a woman, but got edgy anytime he saw another man with the lady.
It was for me to decipher what that meant. At any given time, he was always finding an alibi for the general.
I remembered when we were at the Hotel Calderon in Barcelona during the Olympic Games in 1992, I asked him for update on the political situation in Nigeria where the 12 presidential candidates were disqualified and banned from contesting – a situation that further fueled speculations that Babangida was not ready to relinquish power.
Again, Abiola came up with defence of the general to which I responded that he was being too trusting of a man known for his double-speak methods, hence he was nicknamed Maradona for his ability to dribble people out of position.
I reminded him of an earlier shutting down of Concord Press on a night he was with the president in Abuja.
The closing of Concord was only known to him after he left the president. His attempt to return to the president for his intervention was rebuffed by security aides.
It was absurd considering that Abiola had always had an unhindered assess to the president. Abiola again explained it off, exonerating the Generals and blaming the security aides.
“If they tell the president that his wife is a security risk and must not enter the bedroom with him, so be it…sometimes you are a slave to the office you hold”, Abiola explained.
Applying another proverb to spice his statement, he remarked: “The bigger the head, the bigger the headache.”
That, he used to explain that the president had a lot of issues bordering him that the Concord ban was just one of the issues the president was attending to.
On May 1, 1993, party loyalists of the SDP stormed his Ikeja house protesting his choice of Babagana Kingibe as a running mate, arguing that he cannot pick a fellow Muslim and one that fiercely contested the presidential primaries with him at the party’s Jos convention.
The argument dragged on late in the night into the morning. I had to leave the house unable to see my boss for my intended purpose. Next morning, May 2, the delegates had departed, but Bashorun still looked worried.
He later ushered me to his bedroom along with Frank Igwebueze, my colleague and his aide on Reparation as well as Dr. Delu Ogunade, our former lecturer at the University of Lagos and editorial advisor at Concord Press.
A worried Abiola threw the question at the three of us, Christians, asking whether Christians would not vote for him as he had picked a Muslim running mate.
Dr. Ogunade responded first, using his vast experience of the American system to explain the the presidential candidate is the face of the ticket and that the running mate was less relevant.
Igwebuze responded in similar vein. When it came to my turn, not gauging the mood he was and the tension he had endured all through the night, I remarked: “Christians would vote, Muslims would vote, but I don’t think there is any vacancy in Aso Rock.”
My remark infuriated him. It was the first and only time he ever got angry with me since August 1989.
“Shut up! What do you know in politics! Is it not just sports that you know?” I seized the opportunity to let him know the purpose of my visit.
The Super Eagles would later that Sunday evening face Cote d’Ivoire in a triangular league that involved Algeria in the final qualification for the USA ‘94.
I felt that he could use the opportunity since he was known for sports, and his opponent Tofa, had no remote link with sports. I advised he attended the match and also sponsor a live telecast.
His face brightened as the suggestions offered an escape from the prevailing tension.
He instantly put a call across to his pilot at the Lagos Sheraton and told him to get all clearances to overfly the airspace across Benin, Togo and Ghana and obtain the landing right in Abidjan.
He told me to go and prepare for the trip. But by the time I returned, the pilot had called to explain difficulties in obtaining permission across one country’s airspace. The trip was aborted but he still sponsored the telecast of the match in which Austin Jay Jay Okocha debuted for the Super Eagles.
Travelling with teams was always a pleasure for him. My friend and colleague, Onochie Anibeze of Vanguard once told me of his experience flying with Abiola Babes for an African Winners Cup with Experance of Tunisia.
Aboard the flight, the team doctor took ill. He said Abiola, a good knack of easily recognising people just jokingly looked at his side and remarked that when the doctor who was expected to look after everyone took ill, perhaps the journalist here, pointing at Onochie, would take over.
Onochie said he had only attended one or two press conferences of Abiola and was shocked that with millions of faces the man saw on daily bases, he could still recognise him.
That illustrated his almost encyclopedic power of recognising people, even without having physically meet them. I remembered how I became the Group Sports Editor of Concord Press.
The sports desk was dissolved in August 1989 and the management was making frantic efforts at appointing a new sports editor. I learnt that at the management meeting, names were being thrown up.
My name did not come up for mentioning as I was working in the African Concord magazine which was obviously obscure in comparison with the flagship publication, National Concord.
All of a sudden, Abiola’s personal secretary came in with an handwritten note that read: “I hereby appoint Mr Kunle Solaja of the African Concord as the Group Sports Editor with immediate effect.”
That ended all arguments. Before then, I had never met him personally. We met for the first time at the Sofitel Hotel in Yaounde the evening of Nigeria’s elimination from the qualifying series of the Italia ‘90 World Cup.
I greeted him and introduced my self. He was shocked at my young age and youthful look, saying that from my write-ups in the African Concord and the display of power of recall, he thought I was much older.
Meeting him for the first time, I just melted and returned to my room. But my media colleagues who had better knowledge of him surrounded him and later told me they had a ‘nice outing’ with the philanthropist extraordinaire.
Having met him, he had picked my face. When he spotted me at half time at the Stade du 19 May in Annaba, Algeria when Nigeria faced Zambia in the 1990 Africa Cup of Nations, he was the one that sent for me and later asked that I see him at his hotel the next day.
He told me of his financial support for the football team. “I know you don’t clap with one hand, I will do the same to you the journalists too.”
He later gave me $2000 and $1000 for each Nigerian journalist at the tournament. It was the first of the numerous benefits I got from the philanthropist-extra extraordinaire.