NIGERIA: Running rich
Billionaire led Nigerian presidential race
© Fort Worth Star-Telegram
May 23, 1993
By Barry Shlachter
ZARIA, Nigeria - M.K.O. Abiola leapt from a Mercedes and, half swallowed by
swirling dust, received an embrace from a loosely turbanned horseman swooping
low as 6-foot trumpets emitted shrill fanfares and an excited throng chanted:
Over his 56 years, the thickset accountant has amassed a fortune that places him
among the richest in Africa. He has given away millions in philanthropy;
collected 140 honorary titles, including "field marshal" of Ibadanland; taken a
Muslim's maximum four wives -- one with a doctorate earned at the State
University of New York -- and, according to a Nigerian Who's Who, has fathered
Now the self-made billionaire wants to lead the continent's most populous
The colorful tycoon, who sings Elvis oldies and Baptist hymns as he flits about
Nigeria in a jetliner built for Queen Elizabeth II, had looked like a
front-runner even when the field of presidential contenders was crowded with
more than 200.
In recent months, some Nigerian analysts have given Abiola an edge in the
two-man race if - and it's a big if - the authoritarian military regime runs a
The West African nation, a former British colony whose immense petroleum
resources have proved to be a mixed blessing, has spent 23 of its 33 years since
independence under military rule.
Corruption, mismanagement and an over-dependence on oil have created a
debt-ravaged economy. Gasoline is 17 cents a gallon, but many cars are off the
road because their owners can't afford new parts. An entry-level job for a
college graduate in 1980 would earn about $500 a month; the same work, due to
inflation, now pays the equivalent of $50.
Although Gen. Ibrahim Babangida has promised to hand power over to elected
civilians, his regime has disbanded Nigeria's old political parties, arbitrarily
created two new ones - slightly left of center and slightly right of center,
respectively - disqualified all the original 13 presidential aspirants, and then
postponed the poll three times.
As a series of primaries reduced the field of more than 230 hopefuls to Abiola
and businessman Bashir Tofa, curious advertisements began appearing in Nigerian
newspapers beseeching Babangida to remain in charge for the nation's sake.
The ads, the postponements and the disqualifications have made for a rather
cynical electorate. The only hope expressed by some is that the election, if
held, might somehow lead to another round of balloting - free of military
It's no surprise that both Abiola, of the Social Democratic Party, and Tofa, of
the National Republican Convention, enjoy cordial ties to the military.
Abiola made his first fortune selling communications gear to the army. In 1992,
he made a bended-knee apology to the ruling general after the regime closed
Abiola's news weekly, African Concord, for saying that the military was badly
managing the economy. A crew of editors protested the apology by quitting and
started a competing magazine.
His rival, Tofa, comes across as at least as cozy with the generals who run
Nigeria. In 1990, he wrote a sycophantic article urging the military to remain
in power till "the year 2000."
On the face of it, Abiola should be a shoo-in because Tofa, an entrepreneur who
has dabbled in state politics, has little name recognition nationally.
But unlike his well-known rival, Tofa was born a northerner and, with one
exception, only northerners have ruled Nigeria, either as coup-leading dictators
or freely elected presidents. Officially, although not necessarily in fact, the
north is more populous than the south. Census data have been less than reliable,
and for years the world was told that 116 million Nigerians existed, when in
fact the figure is fewer than 90 million.
What Abiola is banking on is decades of philanthropic work, funding scholarships
and schools both north and south, and his stable of newspapers and magazines.
Although he is not a gifted speaker, he exudes a populist charisma. And though
not a northerner, he is a Muslim, and the north is heavily Muslim.
In Zaria, a northern city where an emir still wields influence, Abiola paid his
respects to the traditional Muslim elite and to the turbanned horseman who
succeeded to an old hereditary title.
He pointedly reminded northerners that he owns thousands of acres of farmland in
the region and, therefore, shares their interests and concerns. On a continent
rife with religious, linguistic and tribal antagonisms, Abiola sought to
persuade them to see him for what he is.
"I bought 10,000 hectares here. I have given scholarships all over the north,"
the presidential hopeful, up since 6 a.m., said at a stop shortly before
midnight. "I have helped bury your dead, sang when you were happy. I expect to
be welcomed in every village in Nigeria. I am one of you, isn't that right?"
Earlier, Abiola met with members of his Yoruba tribe, resettled in the north.
After exhorting them to become active in their adopted communities, Abiola led
them in the Fatiyah, a Muslim prayer, though many were Christian. Then, without
missing a beat, he led all in the Lord's Prayer.
His ecumenism comes easy. Abiola attended the Baptist Boys High School of
Abeokuta, where he composed a Christian hymn to graduate, penning others for
classmates for a few shillings, he said. A survivor from the start
Moshood Kashimawo Olawale Abiola was the 23rd child born to a produce buyer who
had lost most of his offspring in infancy. This led his father to name him
"Kashimawo," Yoruba for "Let us see if this one survives."
The baby did but his father's business went bust, and Abiola worked his way
through school by selling firewood and leading a dance band, in which he played
banjo and talking drums.
An academic standout, he went on to Scotland to study. "I wanted accounting -
the science of moneymaking," Abiola joked. "If you are a poor man's son, you
want to identify the jingling sound of money. From the age of 9, I've been
Qualifying as a chartered accountant, equivalent to a certified public
accountant in the United States, he worked for a hospital and a drug firm. In
1967 he joined ITT, working his way up the corporate ladder to vice president,
responsible for Africa and the Middle East.
The story behind his meteoric rise is that after collecting a long-standing debt
from the Nigerian army's signal corps, he telephoned his foreign bosses with the
good news. Back at the office, he was shocked to find them partying to the point
of being hog-whimpering drunk.
"I took a picture of everyone drunk and sent it to ITT headquarters," he said in
an interview. The snapshot went off with a memo: As a devout Muslim, how could
he work with such men?
Abiola then set up his own electronics business, signing big contracts with the
military, until ITT accepted his terms - putting him in charge in Nigeria and
selling him a hefty stake in the local subsidiary, he said.
"And that's how I became the first African managing director of a multinational
From ITT Nigeria, he went on to become a major shareholder in Volkswagen
Nigeria; an oil-production firm; a large baking concern; a mammoth corn and
sorghum farm; a publishing house; and an airline.
Some question the sources of his wealth. Apart from his military links, Abiola's
various other dealings have raised concerns, diplomats in West Africa said.
But compared with many in Nigeria's civilian and military governments, Abiola is
seen as a "clean" politician by ordinary Nigerians randomly interviewed around
the country. He campaigns on an anti-corruption theme, saying that because he's
already rich, he needs no favors, bribes or even the "gift" of a jetliner. "I
don't owe any man."
He promises public works projects to jump-start the economy and rails against
Nigeria's $27 billion foreign debt, saying he would renegotiate lower payments.
The debt, along with drugs, is a major irritant in U.S.-Nigerian ties.
Before seeking office, Abiola won notoriety on the continent for demanding that
Africa and overseas blacks be paid reparations for 400 years of the slave trade.
The demands, which include an open apology to Africans, have not been taken
seriously by former slave-owning and slave-trading nations. But they strike a
chord over the continent. The Organization of African Unity has named Abiola
head of its slavery-reparations commission.
And although African-Americans cannot vote in next month's election, if elected
Abiola has promised dual Nigerian citizenship for any black who wants it.
[Abiola was arrested in 1994 by the military, which annulled the results of his
claimed election victory, and kept him imprisoned until 1998, when he died on
what was reported to be his release date.]