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Abiola, Moshood Kashimawo Olawale

Encyclopedia of Africa

Okey Ndibe

Abiola, Moshood Kashimawo Olawale 1937–1998 Nigerian businessman, presidential candidate, and political prisoner. 

On June 12 1993, the popular businessman Moshood Kashimawo Olawale Abiola won a long-awaited presidential election in Nigeria, only to have the country's military leader, Ibrahim Babangida, annul the election results. When Abiola declared himself the country's legitimate leader a year later, Babangida's successor, General Sani Abacha, jailed him for treason. As a political prisoner, Abiola became the rallying symbol for Nigerians’ democratic aspirations.

Abiola was born into a poor, polygamous household of Yoruba-speaking Muslims in the ancient town of Abeokuta. None of his parents’ first twenty-two children had survived past infancy, so Abiola, the twenty-third, was given the middle name Kashimawo, meaning “Let's see if he will survive.” He began his education at the Islamic Nawar Ud-Deen School and then transferred to the Christian-run African Central School. As an indigent student at the Baptist Boys’ High School, Abiola sold firewood to pay for his books. He was so poor that he could not afford an egg until he was nineteen years old. He organized a traveling orchestra that performed at public events, often for food. Abiola spoke with a slight stammer, and although he had questionable musical talent, he had tremendous determination.

After leaving high school, Abiola worked briefly as a bank clerk and a civil servant and then received a scholarship to Glasgow University to study accounting. A bright student, he graduated with several awards in 1965. Returning to Nigeria, he worked as an accountant for the Lagos University Teaching Hospital. He soon became divisional controller for Pfizer Products, a pharmaceutical company. In 1968 he joined International Telephone and Telegraph (ITT), a corporation that was owed a considerable debt by the Nigerian army. After securing the repayment of the debt, Abiola was named the company's chairman in Nigeria and its vice president for Africa and the Middle East.

In 1974 Abiola launched his own company, Radio Communications of Nigeria. He rapidly became a wealthy man. At his death, Abiola's business interests spanned 60 countries and included firms engaged in banking, shipping, oil prospecting, agriculture, publishing, air transportation, and entertainment. His Nigerian companies alone employed close to 20,000 workers.

Abiola's philanthropy was famous throughout Nigeria. He supported education, sports, and numerous social and political causes. He called for reparations from the West to compensate African peoples for the transatlantic slave trade. He married at least five wives and, by some accounts, fathered more than fifty children.

Abiola's public life contained many paradoxes. As a businessman, he received large contracts from his military friends, yet he became an outspoken opponent of the military dictatorship. Abiola's political career was cut short by two such friends: Babangida, who annulled Abiola's presidential victory, and Abacha, who had him imprisoned.

Abiola was the first presidential candidate from the southern part of the country who won a majority of votes even in the predominantly Hausa north. Hopes for his release from prison soared after Sani Abacha died suddenly in June 1998 and his successor, General Abdulsalam Abubakar, announced the release of many other political prisoners. However, Abiola, who had suffered from heart problems for several years, fell ill on July 7 1998, while meeting with United States diplomats to discuss the terms of his release. He died several hours later, apparently of a heart attack. Abiola's death in detention sparked anger and violence in parts of Nigeria.

Okey Ndibe