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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.

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

Morocco celebrates Wole Soyinka

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Morocco Royal Academy Celebrates Renowned Nigerian Author Wole Soyinka

The Royal Academy of Morocco has honored Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka in a special ceremony, marking the 90th birthday of the acclaimed Nigerian writer.

The event, held in collaboration with the Pan African Writers Association (PAWA), served as a tribute to Soyinka’s immense contributions to African and global literature.

Titled “Africa Celebrates Wole Soyinka in Morocco,” the round-table discussion brought together cultural figures, academics, and diplomats.

It explored Soyinka’s prolific career, highlighting his unwavering commitment to social justice and his unique voice that champions African cultures.

Born in 1934, Soyinka’s literary journey began in Nigeria before flourishing internationally. His works, including “ A Dance of the Forests” (1966) and “ Death and the King’s Horseman” (1975), grapple with tradition, modernity, and the human condition.

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His latest novel, “Chronicles from the Land of the Happiest People on Earth” (2021), employs satire to critique societal ills.

Permanent Secretary of  the Royal Academy Royal Academy Abdeljalil Lahjomri, lauded Soyinka’s unwavering dedication to portraying African realities in an interview with the local press. He described Soyinka as a “defender of African cultures” and a keen observer of the continent’s complexities.

Lahjomri specifically mentioned Soyinka’s rejection of the Negritude movement, emphasizing his constant fight against all forms of domination.

Wale Okediran, Secretary-General of PAWA, commended Soyinka’s multifaceted talent – poet, playwright, novelist, essayist, and satirist.

He hailed Soyinka as a source of inspiration for aspiring African writers, praising his ability to raise critical questions and elevate African voices on the world stage.

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Soyinka, in his address, expressed his gratitude for the celebration, emphasizing its role in strengthening cultural ties between Morocco and West Africa.

The author drew historical parallels, citing the strong relationship between Morocco and Senegal, exemplified by his friendship with the late Senegalese president, Léopold Senghor.

Professor Raphael Liogier, a scholar at Mohammed VI Polytechnic University, viewed the event as a powerful symbol of Africa’s potential.

“Africa is capable of taking charge, opening up to the world, and opening the world to itself,” Liogier remarked, highlighting the significance of recognizing African talent like Soyinka.

-Morocco World News

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SPECIAL REPORT

Morocco Embassy denies granting visa to fugitive Kogi former governor, Yahaya Bello

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H.E. Ou Ali Tagma, Ambassador, Kingdom of Morocco

BY KUNLE SOLAJA.

The embassy of the Kingdom of Morocco in Abuja has denied ever granting visa to former governor of Kogi State, Yahaya Bello  who is now on the run.

The immediate past governor is facing an N80.2 billion naira fraud charge but has not appeared in the court since the case began. 

An online publication, Intelregion, had published a report that the Economic and Financial Crime Commission, EFCC, has uncovered Bello’s plan to leave Nigeria for Morocco via Cameroon.  

 The Moroccan Embassy has denied the report. The ambassador, Ou Ali Tagma informed that “the embassy of Morocco in Nigeria has never granted an entry visa to Mr. Yahaya Bello”  and so, denies the allegations in the said publication.

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The former governor, now at large, is facing a 19-count charge including allegations of money laundering, breach of trust, and misappropriation of public funds amounting to about N80.2 billion.

In statements credited to the former governor, he denied the allegations but paradoxically, refused  to appear before Justice Emeka Nwite on scheduled dates.

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SPECIAL REPORT

Several dead as Police open fire on demonstrators in Kenya

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People attend a demonstration against Kenya's proposed finance bill 2024/2025 in Nairobi, Kenya, June 25, 2024. REUTERS/Monicah Mwangi 
  • Summary
  • Protesters, police clash outside parliament
  • At least five people shot dead – witness
  • Strike called against proposed tax increases
  • Protests take place in other cities

Police opened fire on demonstrators trying to storm Kenya’s legislature on Tuesday, with at least five protesters killed, dozens wounded and sections of the parliament building set ablaze as lawmakers inside passed legislation to raise taxes.

In chaotic scenes, protesters overwhelmed police and chased them away in an attempt to storm the parliament compound. Flames could be seen coming from inside.

Police opened fire after tear gas and water cannon failed to disperse the crowds.

A Reuters journalist counted the bodies of at least five protesters outside parliament. A paramedic, Vivian Achista, said at least 10 had been shot dead.

Another paramedic, Richard Ngumo, said more than 50 people had been wounded by gunfire. He was lifting two injured protesters into an ambulance outside parliament.

“We want to shut down parliament and every MP should go down and resign,” protestor Davis Tafari, who was trying to enter parliament, told Reuters. “We will have a new government.”

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Protests and clashes also took place in several other cities and towns across the country.

Parliament approved the finance bill, moving it through to a third reading by lawmakers. The next step is for the legislation to be sent to the president for signing. He can send it back to parliament if he has any objections.

The protesters oppose tax rises in a country already reeling from a cost-of-living crisis, and many are also calling for President William Ruto to step down.

Ruto won an election almost two years ago on a platform of championing Kenya’s working poor, but has been caught between the competing demands of lenders such as the International Monetary Fund, which is urging the government to cut deficits to access more funding, and a hard-pressed population.

Kenyans have been struggling to cope with several economic shocks caused by the lingering impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, the war in Ukraine, two consecutive years of droughts and depreciation of the currency.

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The finance bill aims to raise an additional $2.7 billion in taxes as part of an effort to lighten the heavy debt load, with interest payments alone consuming 37% of annual revenue.

The government has already made some concessions, promising to scrap proposed new taxes on bread, cooking oil, car ownership and financial transactions. But that has not been enough to satisfy protesters.

Tuesday’s protests began in a festival-like atmosphere but as crowds swelled, police fired tear gas in Nairobi’s Central Business District and the poor neighbourhood of Kibera. Protesters ducked for cover and threw stones at police lines.

Police also fired tear gas in Eldoret, Ruto’s hometown in western Kenya, where crowds of protesters filled the streets and many businesses were closed for fear of violence.

Clashes also broke out in the coastal city of Mombasa and demonstrations took place in Kisumu, on Lake Victoria, and Garissa in eastern Kenya, where police blocked the main road to Somalia’s port of Kismayu.

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In Nairobi, people chanted “Ruto must go” and crowds sang in Swahili: “All can be possible without Ruto”. Music played from loudspeakers and protesters waved Kenyan flags and blew whistles in the few hours before the violence escalated.

Police did not respond to Reuters requests for comment.

ORGANIC MOVEMENT

Thousands had taken to the streets of Nairobi and several other cities during two days of protests last week as an online, youth-led movement gathered momentum.

On Sunday, Ruto praised the protesters, saying they had been peaceful and that the government would engage with them on the way forward. But while protesters initially focused on the finance bill, their demands have broadened to demand Ruto’s resignation.

The opposition declined to participate in the vote in parliament, shouting “reject, reject” when the house went through the items one by one. The bill will then be subjected to a third and final vote by acclamation on the floor of the house.

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The finance ministry says amendments would blow a 200 billion Kenyan shilling ($1.56 billion) hole in the 2024/25 budget, and compel the government to make spending cuts or raise taxes elsewhere.

“They are budgeting for corruption,” said protester Hussein Ali, 18. “We won’t relent. It’s the government that is going to back off. Not us.”

-Reuters

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