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SPECIAL REPORT

How torture, deception and inaction underpin UAE’s thriving sex trafficking industry

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African women trafficked into the UAE are forced into debt and subjected to threats and violence, as they are kept in sexual slavery. The case of Christy Gold, who has been charged with sex trafficking in Nigeria, highlights the torment endured by these women in the UAE

In a pleasure boat cruising Gulf waters near Dubai’s glittering skyline, a Nigerian woman in a white dress and gold jewelry nodded and swayed as a gathering sang “Happy Birthday” to her.

Videos of Christy Gold’s 45th birthday party were posted in May last year on an Instagram account that showcases her glamorous lifestyle, months after Gold fled Nigeria, where she was facing sex trafficking charges.

Gold – whose name appears in court records as Christiana Jacob Uadiale – was a ringleader in a criminal network that lured African women to Dubai and forced them into prostitution in brothels, backstreets, bars, hotels and dance clubs, according to six Nigerian government anti-trafficking officials, a British human rights activist who has tracked her operation and five women who say they were trafficked and exploited by her.

Three of the women said in interviews that Gold told them that if they didn’t do as they were told, they’d be killed and dumped in the desert.

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Those who didn’t make enough money for her were taken to a room in an apartment in Dubai, where Gold’s brother starved them, flogged them and shoved hot chili paste into their vaginas, according to three anti-trafficking officials and five women who provided detailed accounts in interviews and court statements.

“They beat the hell out of me,” one of the women said. “The suffering was too much.”

In a statement to the court after she was charged, Gold denied that she and her brother were sex traffickers. “I am not involved in human trafficking and I do not have any girls in Dubai working for me as a prostitute,” she said.

Gold remains a fugitive from justice – part of what anti-trafficking activists and officials say is a thriving underground of suspected Nigerian sex traffickers who have taken refuge in the United Arab Emirates, a Gulf nation known for its wealth, futuristic skyscrapers and what rights groups say is a poor record on protecting foreign workers and basic freedoms.

Women who said they were trafficked by Christy Gold said she threatened to kill them and dump their bodies in the desert. Here Gold is seen in pictures posted on her Instagram account. Source: Via Instagram/Screenshot

The UAE is a major destination for sex trafficking, where African women are forced into prostitution by illicit networks operating within the country, an investigation by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists and Reuters has found.

Emirati authorities do little to protect these women, according to anti-trafficking activists, Nigerian authorities and interviews with trafficked women.

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This story is based on interviews with 25 African women, mostly from Nigeria, who described being lured to the UAE by Gold or other alleged traffickers, as well as dozens of interviews with humanitarian workers, investigators, Nigerian government officials and others with knowledge of sex trafficking in the Emirates. Their accounts are corroborated by court records and case files from Nigeria’s anti-human trafficking agency.

Human traffickers keep African women in sexual slavery by playing on their financial desperation and creating webs of manipulation and coercion, the reporting shows. They subject them to threats and violence.

 They ensnare them in crushing debts, often totaling $10,000 to $15,000 – huge sums for women from poor families. And, in many cases, they exploit traditional African spiritual beliefs to make victims believe that they have no choice but to do what the traffickers tell them.

This article is part of a reporting collaboration led by ICIJ, Trafficking Inc., which is examining sex trafficking and labor trafficking in many parts of the globe. ICIJ’s media partners on the project include Reuters, NBC News, Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalism and other news outlets in multiple countries.

“Every time we don’t bring money, they would beat us, put pepper in our vagina, pepper in our eyes… Many of us had wounds, but we weren’t taken to hospitals because they don’t want people to know what they were doing to us.”

A Nigerian woman who said she was trafficked by Christy Gold.

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Gold did not respond to questions for this story. In her statement to the court in Nigeria, Gold said she had helped Nigerian women and men move to the UAE by subletting space to them in an apartment she owned in Dubai.

“I even go as far as advising them like a mother so they too can make it in Dubai,” she said. But she told the court, “I cannot tell what these people did for a living in Dubai.”

In a written reply supplied by the Dubai government’s media affairs office, the emirate’s police agency said claims that Gold had engaged in the sex trafficking of African women in Dubai are “false and have absolutely no basis in fact.”

The statement said Gold had “entered and exited Dubai legally and was not implicated in any illegal activities.”

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The UAE Ministry of Foreign Affairs said any suggestion the UAE “tolerates human trafficking or that it has little regard to the victims of this heinous crime is utterly false.” Such allegations, the ministry said in response to questions, were “baseless and without foundation.”

The ministry said the UAE’s laws on sex trafficking carry heavy fines and prison sentences. A report the ministry shared said the UAE had referred 20 “human trafficking cases” to the courts in 2021, most for “sexual exploitation.”

The UAE has been involved in international police operations against trafficking networks, the ministry said.

Human rights activists and Nigerian authorities say the UAE doesn’t live up to its anti-trafficking commitments.

Fatima Waziri-Azi, director general of Nigeria’s National Agency for the Prohibition of Trafficking in Persons, said there has been “no cooperation” when NAPTIP has reached out to Emirati authorities for help hunting down traffickers working out of the UAE.

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Angus Thomas, a British activist who founded an anti-trafficking education organization based in Ghana, said UAE authorities, including the police, were uncooperative when he urged them to help African women get away from Gold and her associates.

“I wrote, I phoned, I emailed, asking them to help me get the girls, sending addresses of apartments,” he said. “And I heard nothing.”

In plain sight

Sex trafficking is one form of human trafficking, which is generally defined as using force, fraud or coercion to induce someone to provide a service.

Most of the 25 women interviewed for this story said they were promised other types of work but were driven into prostitution. Others said they chose to do sex work but were trapped in situations in which they were abused, their earnings were stolen and they were unable to get away.

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The UAE made sex trafficking a crime in 2006 and has established an interagency anti-trafficking panel and opened shelters for survivors. The U.S. State Department said in 2022 that the UAE has made “significant efforts” to combat human trafficking but still falls short in key areas – including failing to “consistently screen vulnerable populations for trafficking indicators, which may have penalized some victims for unlawful acts traffickers compelled them to commit, such as immigration or ‘prostitution’ violations.”

The UAE follows Islamic law, yet prostitution and sex trafficking are open secrets. Business cards with photos and WhatsApp numbers for brothels disguised as massage parlors litter many areas of Dubai. Spas, dance clubs and bars are filled with sex workers.

“I have never at any time instructed him to beat any of the girls as I have never had cause to beat any of them.”

Christy Gold, in a statement to a Nigerian court about her brother Solomon.

A hierarchy based on skin tone plays an important role in the UAE’s sex industry, according to interviews with trafficked women and visits to spots where prostitutes congregate in the UAE.

 Lighter-skinned women from Europe are generally trafficked into higher-end venues serving wealthier customers. Darker-skinned women are often steered to alleys and street corners, providing sex to low-income migrant workers from South Asia and Africa.

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One Nigerian woman described being taken by a trafficker to an open-air brothel in the desert between Dubai and another emirate, Abu Dhabi. She said she and other women would take off their clothes and spread them on the ground, and men would come to have sex with them from 5 p.m. to 11 p.m.

A Nigerian mother in her 20s said a trafficker led her and two other women to a parking lot in Ajman, one of the emirates that make up the UAE, and forced them to have sex with male clients amid vehicles that were being painted and repaired. At the end of the night, she said, the traffickers took all the money, leaving them with nothing to buy food.

After she broke free of the trafficker, the woman said, she slept in the streets and begged for food. She nearly lost her mind, she said, before a nurse from Nigeria rescued her and helped her get home.

Gold showcases jewelry she sells through a trading business on her Instagram account. Source: Via Instagram/

The UAE’s sex industry is shaped by the country’s distinctive demography and economy.

Nearly 90% of its population comes from somewhere else – mostly foreign workers employed in construction, hospitality and other industries. Most of them are men and they arrive alone.

 As a result, 69% of the UAE’s population is male. The government deals with these demographic realities by deploying extensive surveillance in the UAE – and by allowing a bustling sex trade as a way of pacifying male workers, according to two former diplomats who were based in the UAE and monitored sex trafficking.

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Gold and Mercy

On New Year’s Eve 2019, Thomas, a photographer and anti-trafficking activist, had a one-day layover in the UAE before heading home to London. He was going into a supermarket in Dubai when a 19-year-old Nigerian woman approached him and offered him sex.

He declined, but asked her if she wanted to return to her home country.

She told him, Thomas said, that she and 22 other women were under the control of a trafficker named Christy Gold.

Back in London, he sent her money to rent a safe place to stay and then arranged a flight home to Nigeria.

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Thomas said he began trying to rescue other women trapped in Dubai. He started a campaign called Send Them Home, raising money to cover victims’ escape and travel costs.

Over several months, Thomas said, he helped rescue eight other women who said they’d been held against their will by Gold or other traffickers operating in the UAE.

Thomas’ account was confirmed by Nigerian anti-trafficking officials and women who Thomas helped escape from traffickers.

He also shared information that he had gathered about Gold with Nigeria’s anti-trafficking agency NAPTIP, which can arrest and prosecute alleged traffickers.

His efforts included tracking Gold’s Instagram account, where she displays hundreds of online posts featuring lion-shaped gold pendants and other jewelry she sells through a gold trading business she runs from Dubai.

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In a May 2022 email to Waziri-Azi, the Nigerian anti-trafficking agency’s director, Thomas wrote that Gold was “flaunting her wealth built on the backs” of young women “she trafficks to Dubai.”

Little is known about Gold’s background. In her written statement to the Nigerian court, Gold said that she traveled to Dubai in 2009 and after that began shuttling back and forth, buying gold, shoes and handbags in the UAE and selling them in Nigeria.

According to victim statements to the court and interviews, Gold and her associates targeted Nigerian women who were desperate for work and new lives, promising them jobs in hair salons, restaurants and other retail businesses in Dubai.

 Gold’s associates helped them obtain Nigerian passports and tourist visas to travel to the UAE.

Descriptions of her operations come from five women who said they’d been trafficked by Gold.

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Three gave detailed interviews. Two of the three women interviewed for this story, along with two other women, have submitted witness statements in Gold’s criminal case.

Each of the three women interviewed for this article said she was trafficked after being approached by a recruiter, Mercy Ewere Owuzo, who worked with Gold.

One said she was working in a shop in Nigeria’s largest city, Lagos, in July 2019 when Owuzo told her that she could make much more money as a salesperson in a store in Dubai.

“I didn’t ask any questions because she told me she is trying to help young women and I thought, ‘She is a kind person,’” the woman, 25, recalled.

She said Owuzo paid for her passport, plane ticket and UAE tourist visa.

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After arriving in Dubai, she said, she talked by phone to Owuzo, who told her there was no job for her in a store. Instead, she would be going to clubs, restaurants and hotels to sell her body. It was the only way, she said she was told, to pay down the $12,000 debt that she owed Gold for bringing her to the UAE.

The three women said Gold also controlled them by confiscating their passports. Then, they said, she created fake passports that appeared authentic enough to get them through routine police stops or past front desks at hotels – but not enough to get them out of the country.

It’s not clear from witness accounts and court documents whether Gold was the topmost leader of the alleged trafficking network.

The three women interviewed for this story said she exercised a substantial level of authority and was deeply engaged in the network’s operations – personally threatening, for example, to leave their corpses in the Arabian Desert if they didn’t comply with her demands.

“Every time we don’t bring money, they would beat us, put pepper in our vagina, pepper in our eyes,” said one of the three women, who said she was working as a hairstylist in Nigeria before Owuzo promised her a better-paying job in Dubai.

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“Many of us had wounds, but we weren’t taken to hospitals because they don’t want people to know what they were doing to us.”

A night time view of Al Baraha district in Deira, Dubai, United Arab Emirates, May 26, 2023. African women are forced to sell their bodies to pay thousands of dollars to their traffickers who confiscate their passports after luring them to Dubai using job offers. Women in colorful wigs and clothes show up late at night in the streets of Deira and elsewhere where they look for customers to be able to pay back their debts and break free. To match Special Report UAE-TRAFFICKING/SEX  REUTERS

All three of these women spent time in a two-bedroom apartment in Dubai controlled by Gold. At one point, they said, Gold occupied one bedroom, while as many as 18 women were crammed into the other, with most sleeping on blankets on the floor.

It was here, according to interviews and court statements, that women marked for punishment were sent and where Gold’s enforcer – her brother Solomon – sexually assaulted them and beat their malnourished bodies with a hookah hose, broomstick or other implements.

NAPTIP officials said Solomon has not been charged with a crime. Gold said in her court statement that she never ordered Solomon to hurt anyone who stayed in her apartment in Dubai.

“I have never at any time instructed him to beat any of the girls as I have never had cause to beat any of them,” she said.

ICIJ and Reuters were unable to contact Solomon. Victoria Oburoh, one of NAPTIP’s top prosecutors, confirmed that Gold and Owuzo worked together. In May last year, NAPTIP was able to win a conviction of Owuzo on sex trafficking charges in federal court in the Nigerian state of Delta. Oburoh said that case and the one pending against Gold are “sister cases.”

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A lawyer who represented Owuzo during her trial declined to comment.

NAPTIP began an investigation of Gold after one of her alleged victims reported her to the police in Nigeria. Authorities charged Gold with six counts of violating Nigeria’s sex trafficking law.

After a judge released her on bail, she failed to show up for a scheduled court appearance on Nov. 3, 2021. Her lawyer told the judge that Gold had been “found half dead on the bed” and taken to a hospital.

The judge ordered that Gold be taken back into custody. But authorities had no luck tracking her down, NAPTIP officials say.

Christy Gold had disappeared.

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‘Put me in prison’

Loudspeakers announced evening prayers at a mosque in Al Baraha, a working-class neighborhood in Dubai’s populous Deira district, when a reporter visited last August.

Steps away, young women in colorful wigs and low-cut evening dresses lined up in front of shabby buildings for their day’s work: providing sex to men. On the fourth and fifth floors of one building, South Asian men sat in the stairway, scrolling on their phones, sipping beer and waiting for their turns with the sex workers.

All the while police vehicles slowly navigated the district’s narrow alleys – part of the policing and surveillance apparatus that keeps UAE authorities deeply informed about what’s going on in Dubai and other emirates.

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One of the sex workers was a young woman who arrived from Ghana in June 2022. She said she was promised a job as a housemaid but found herself doing an entirely different kind of work.

She rolled up her dress to show the bruises that came with the job.

“A few days ago, my eyes were swollen after being hit in the face and slapped when I failed to meet the target,” she said. “It’s my boss who did this to me.”

He told her, she said, that if she wanted to gain her freedom, she had to pay a debt of nearly $10,000.

“Where do I go? What do I do?” she asked, breaking into tears. She said her trafficker, whom she didn’t name, had taken away her phone and passport.

Another way traffickers and their subordinates control African women is by using the power of juju, a traditional African spiritual belief system.

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Women targeted for sex trafficking are required to take “juju oaths,” solemn vows to do the bidding of the recruiters who have promised to help them find work abroad.

As part of the oath-taking ceremonies, they are told to strip naked, kneel for hours and swallow noxious drinks that can make them dizzy. They’re warned that breaking their vows of obedience could put a curse on them that could cause injury, death, even generational misfortune for their families.

Most of the women interviewed for this story said they had been required to take a juju oath, with some of the ceremonies conducted in Nigeria and others after they arrived in the UAE.

JUJU pix

Sex traffickers in the UAE trap African women in crushing debts and use traditional African spiritual beliefs to exercise control over them. Many women said they were forced to take a “juju oath” – a vow to do their recruiter’s bidding

Three women said in witness statements in Gold’s criminal case that Gold’s associates required them to do oath-taking ceremonies in Nigeria before they traveled to Dubai.

“She makes us believe she has juju,” one woman who claims she’d been trafficked by Gold said in an interview. “That is, if we run away, we can become mad or die.”

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In her statement to the court, Gold denied organizing such ceremonies.

When women brave the threats of real violence and otherworldly consequences to try to escape their traffickers, they say they often get little help from Emirati authorities.

A 25-year-old Ugandan said that after she fled a brothel in the Deira district of Dubai where she was forced to work, she headed to the nearest police station. She said a police officer took her back to the brothel and negotiated with the trafficker to return the passport to her. The officer left without doing anything else, and the trafficker took the passport back again, she said.

She got away for good only after she reached out to Nyondo Rozet, a Ugandan YouTube broadcaster based in the UAE. Rozet posted a video about her plight, which raised the money for a plane ticket home.

“A few days ago, my eyes were swollen after being hit in the face and slapped when I failed to meet the target. It’s my boss who did this to me.”

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A young woman from Ghana who said she was promised a job as a housemaid in Dubai but was forced into prostitution.

Rozet, whose videos primarily appeal to the Ugandan community in the UAE, said in an interview that a woman who called her, saying she was the trafficker, offered her money to take the video down.

When she refused, Rozet said, other people contacted her to threaten harm if she didn’t delete the video, telling her: “You are not going to survive.”

The Dubai police did not respond to questions about the incident.

A 23-year-old woman from Nigeria’s northeastern farm belt said she thought UAE police would help her after she fled a brothel in Abu Dhabi where she and six other women had been locked in a room filled with steel beds separated by curtains. Every night, she had to have sex with half a dozen men.

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She had slipped away when her boss got drunk and left the key in the door. But when she walked into a police station in the Khalidiya area of Abu Dhabi, she said, an officer told her, “Go to where you came from.”

She said she pleaded: “Put me in prison!” But “they turned their back to me. I was crying, but they paid no attention. They said: ‘To Hell with Africa.’”

The police station in Khalidiya did not respond to a request for comment.

Extradition request

For years, large numbers of migrants from Nigeria and other African countries have sought jobs and new lives in Europe.

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Migration routes have changed as European Union members have pushed migrants back to Libya, the main transit point across the Mediterranean Sea. With the way to Europe increasingly blocked, African migrants have turned, in growing numbers, to the UAE and other rich Arab nations.

Oburoh, the NAPTIP prosecutor, said that when trafficking cases have links to Europe, governments there provide information and cooperation that help the agency apprehend and prosecute traffickers.

But when it comes to the UAE, official cooperation is nonexistent, Nigerian anti-trafficking investigators said.

At home, NAPTIP operates in an environment where some government officials also have been accused of engaging in human trafficking – and where, NAPTIP officials say, convicted traffickers often avoid jail terms.

The Nigerian government did not respond to a request for comment.

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-Reuters

Kunle Solaja is the author of landmark books on sports and journalism as well as being a multiple award-winning journalist and editor of long standing. He is easily Nigeria’s foremost soccer diarist and Africa's most capped FIFA World Cup journalist, having attended all FIFA World Cup finals from Italia ’90 to Qatar 2022. He was honoured at the Qatar 2022 World Cup by FIFA and AIPS.

SPECIAL REPORT

Moroccan Sahara: Slovenia joins growing global acclaim for Morocco’s autonomy plan

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During the Slovenian official’s talks with her Moroccan counterpart in Rabat, she also commended Morocco’s reforms at all levels.

Slovenia has commended the Moroccan Autonomy Plan as “a good basis for reaching a final and consensual solution” to the regional dispute over the Moroccan Sahara, under the auspices of the UN Secretary-General and his Personal Envoy.

This position was expressed in a joint communiqué issued following talks held on Tuesday in Rabat between Minister of Foreign Affairs, African Cooperation and Moroccan Expatriates, Nasser Bourita, and the Slovenian Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign and European Affairs, Tanja Fajon.

Slovenia reiterated its country’s constant support for the UN-led process and hailed Morocco’s serious and credible efforts to achieve a realistic, pragmatic, lasting, mutually acceptable and compromise-based political solution to the Moroccan Sahara issue, the joint communiqué said.

The two ministers, added the same source, expressed their common position on the exclusive role of the United Nations in the political process, reaffirming their support for UN Security Council resolutions, including resolution 2703 of October 30, 2023.

They reiterated their respective countries’ support for the efforts of the UN Secretary-General’s Personal Envoy to move the political process forward on the basis of the relevant UN Security Council resolutions, as well as their support for MINURSO.

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This constructive stance by Slovenia, the 16th European Union country to support the Moroccan Autonomy Plan, is part of an international dynamic that has seen over a hundred UN member countries lend their support to this initiative.

The Slovenian Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign and European Affairs is paying an official visit to Morocco, at the invitation of Bourita, to mark the 32nd anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between the Kingdom of Morocco and the Republic of Slovenia.

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SPECIAL REPORT

Thirty one years after June 12 saga, there is no one like MKO Abiola, Africa’s First & Only Pillar of Sports’

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At the Hotel Calderon in Barcelona where we held the African Footballer of the Year 1991.

BY KUNLE SOLAJA

It is 31 years today since Nigeria election of 12 June 1993 of which Bashorun MKO Abiola has been the living symbol.

It is widely acknowledged as the most credible election ever in Africa’s largest democracy – Nigeria. Despite all pre-election gimmicks at instigating violence through general black-out, fuel shortages and all sorts of provocations, Nigerians largely turned out to vote disregarding ethnic, religious and social divides.

Most largely focussed on “Hope ‘93”, the election slogan of Abiola whose stature, and achievements as well as influence cut across all divides and was seen as a unifier, especially when the topic shifts to love for the masses, philanthropy and the opium of the masses – sports.   

Only one man was ever bestowed with the title, Africa’s Pillar of Sports.

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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 31 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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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 fuelled speculations that Babangida was not ready to relinquish power.

I worked closely with Bashorun MKO Abiola

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.”

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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.

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SPECIAL REPORT

Japan hails Morocco’s initiatives on Moroccan Sahara

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Moroccan Foreign Affairs Minister Nasser Bourita and his Japanese counterpart, Yoko Kamikawa.

 Japan on Friday welcomed, “serious and credible Moroccan efforts” within the framework of the autonomy initiative to settle the Moroccan Sahara issue.

This position was expressed by Japan’s Foreign Minister, Yoko Kamikawa, during talks in Tokyo with the Minister of Foreign Affairs, African Cooperation and Moroccan Expatriates, Nasser Bourita, the Japanese Foreign Ministry said in a statement.

Based on Japan’s “consistent” position, Kamikawa referred to the Moroccan autonomy initiative presented on 11 April 2007 to the UN Secretary-General, underlining the “serious and credible Moroccan efforts to move the process forward toward a resolution” of the Moroccan Sahara issue.

Bourita, who is visiting Japan, welcomed Japan’s position on the Moroccan Sahara.

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