20th Anniversary of June 12th: United States and Abdulsalami Abubakar responsible for Abiola's death

Abiola with Mandela shortly after his release from Robben Island
By Allwell Okpi

Dr. Ore Falomo, who was personal physician and confidant of winner of the June 12, 1993 presidential election, late Chief Moshood Abiola, in this interview with ALLWELL OKPI speaks on events surrounding Abiola's controversial death and his relationship with late former Head of State, Gen. Sani Abacha.

Can you recall your last meeting with M.K.O Abiola. When was it, and what was the state of his health?

It was about two weeks before he died. But the visit before the last was more remarkable. It was arranged by the military government to dispel the rumor that Abiola had died in detention. They quickly arranged a meeting for me to go and see him. They sent one captain from Aso Rock to me to tell me that I was needed urgently in Aso Rock. This was the penultimate meeting to the last meeting with him. I found the message strange because my previous meetings were arranged by the commissioner of police in Abuja, under whom Abiola was supposed to be. Whenever I visited him, I usually returned to Lagos by 6 pm  but that day, it was not possible because immediately I got into the car, they started driving round Abuja to waste time so that it would be dark and I won't recognize where they were taking me to. When we got to the place, Abiola was there. It was a new place; I had not seen him there before. It was a bungalow. As soon as they opened the door and Abiola saw me, he came towards me and we hugged. We sat and unlike before, none of the guards waited to listen to our discussion. We spoke Yoruba all the time. They objected to it at first, later on they agreed. That day he was behaving like he was in the spirit. I told him there was a rumor that he had been killed. He said, 'I know that I'm dead. They have dug the grave. They have put me in the grave except that they have not closed me up.' I asked, 'What happened? Have they injured you or injected you?' He said no, but that he just knew.

That means he had the premonition that he was going to die in detention.

Yes. As he was talking, his mood changed. He told me he had forgiven those who caused his incarceration; that it was left for them to ask for forgiveness from God. He said he forgave them because he wants God to forgive him his sins. All these were strange, because in my previous visits, he was always asking about the things that were happening in the country. Then he started singing, 'Nearer my God to thee, nearer to thee.' He used to sing Christian songs. After signing the song in English, he started singing it in Yoruba. Then he got up; hugged me and we began to cry. It was very emotional. I tried to calm him down, because I didn't know what he had seen. All through this period, the guards did not come to say time was up. I told him I will tell the story to the people, which was normal after every visit.

But did you observe any sign or symptoms of illness in him?

No. He was neither sick nor injured. You could say his spirit was low, but his body was good. There were no signs and symptoms of any illness. He spoke from a very conscious mind. That was the most poignant visit. The last visit was routine; to change his toiletries and so on.

The then Commonwealth Secretary-General, Chief Emeka Anyaoku, recently told us that when he visited Abiola few days to his death, he was in high spirits, because he was happily awaiting his release. How did he overcome the depression?

About two weeks to Abiola's death, Abdulsalami Abubakar had started to send out word that Abiola might be released. So, the whole town started to rejoice. I don't know how that one was done. They even got to me and said my trips to Abuja would soon end. I knew the government was not going to try him. Chief Rotimi Williams had already told us that they did not have any evidence against him. There was no point going to court. As far as I knew, Abiola knew that they would not allow him to come out just like that since they would not take him to court. Every time, they were asking him to denounce his mandate and prepare himself for another election, but he refused. During my last visit, I told him I had the rumor that Abubakar will release him but I did not want him to believe the rumor until there was concrete evidence.

How did you receive the news of his death?

That day, I was in the sitting room here. A call came from the personal physician of Abubakar. He said, 'Doctor, get yourself ready and start coming to Abuja. The Head of State has sent his personal jet through Governor Buba Marwa, it would be at the VIP section of the airport.' Of course, I was not going to enter that aircraft. But I asked him, 'Why are you sending for me? I was given about two weeks appointment to come and see Abiola, so tell me what has happened that warrants me to come urgently.' He didn't want to tell me that Abiola had died, so that my reaction would not be, 'Alright if you have killed him; eat him. I'm not the doctor for the dead, but for the living.' That could have been my reaction, which was exactly my reaction when I finally learnt that he had died. After that, I called Kola Abiola and told him that something bad had happened but that I didn't know the extent. The doctor also told me not to come alone; that I should bring any of my colleagues. I then thought, maybe he had not died. I told Kola and he said, 'Doctor let's go to the airport and take the plane to Abuja.' I didn't know Kola had heard. We boarded Kola's car and he tuned to BBC news. At that time, it was about 15 minutes to 6 pm  Then they announced that Abiola had died. I asked Kola, 'Is that true?' He wasn't crying, I knew he had heard. I told him to turn back. And just before we got to Maryland, people had started rioting. We were lucky to escape without the car being damaged.

Did you eventually go to Abuja that day?

I refused to go. When we got back to the house, Kola asked me: 'What is going to happen next?' I said, 'Nothing; I'm not going to Abuja.' Then he said he must go. I said 'Yes; go so that you take care of the body. One thing I want you to tell them is that they must not bury him because he is a Muslim. There must be a post-mortem.' They were already talking to Abiola's two wives about burying him immediately. They arranged for them to come and see Abiola the day before he died. That was of course for them to say goodbye. They did all of these without my knowledge. Up till that time, I was the only one in five years, who was allowed to see Abiola. Then I received another call. This time, the governor of Lagos, Marwa, said I should come, that the pilot and others were waiting, that he would send a car to pick me. I declined the offer and asked them to wait. I called Prof. Oye Adeniran to represent me. I told him to tell Abubakar's physician that I want a post-mortem. When the doctor heard my request, he then called me back and said he would advise Abubakar that there must be a post-mortem. Then he said, 'These are two deaths too many.' He was referring to the death of Sani Abacha and that of Abiola. You remember in Abacha's case, there was no post-mortem. How can a Head of State die so suddenly and he was hurriedly buried without a post-mortem. I told him that I would assemble a team of international pathologists to conduct the post-mortem. So, the body was embalmed and kept in the morgue waiting for the pathologists to arrive.

Some said Abiola was beaten to death, others said he was poisoned. As his doctor and member of the team that conducted the post-mortem, what were your findings?

Abiola was not beaten. He died shortly after the American delegation got to Aguda House by 3 pm  According to the written press conference given by Ambassador Thomas Pickering, who led the American delegation, Abiola died between 3:20 and 3:40 pm that day. Nobody told Abiola that he was going to have visitors that day. So, they woke him up and he just brushed his teeth and came out to meet with them. He had not had his lunch. These were facts borne out of the autopsy. His intestine was clear. They exchanged banters, he told Susan Rice, who was part of the delegation, what she wore the first day he met her. Pickering said Abiola's brain must be sharp to remember all that. According to them, their mission was to convince Abiola to denounce his mandate and go for another election. By then Abacha had gone, one of their problems had been solved. Abiola was left. They had brought that suggestion before and Abiola rejected it. So, their mission was unnecessary because they were not going to get him to say yes. It must have been for another purpose. When they came in, the chief guard that usually stayed with Abiola was not there because they didn't tell him some people would be visiting. Abiola came unaccompanied to that meeting. Of course, they had been told he was a tea drinker. They brought a special flask, which Hamza Al-Mustapha described as multi-dimensional. They poured themselves tea and poured tea for Abiola. There was no precedence of a visitor bringing tea for the host. It is unconventional. It is not done anywhere in the world. Not only did they bring it, they offered someone in detention tea, with no guard around. And Ambassador Pickering said in his press conference that shortly after he had taken the tea, he complained of pain in the chest and grabbed his chest. And later, he felt uncomfortable and then, he went to the convenience to ease himself, but he did not come back as expected. They called on him and he told them he was coming. By then, he had started feeling weak. They asked him if they should call the doctor but he said they should ask the guard to get his pain tablet. But he died before the pain tablet arrived. By the time the doctor came, Abiola had already died. They took him to Aso Rock clinic, where they tried to jerk his heart back to life, but he was gone. That was how he died.

Are you saying that the US had a hand in Abiola's death?

Yes. It is necessary to note that death followed Pickering's missions. A notable personality usually dies after his mission to any country. You can go and read about him. The question was: Why did he come? We know him as Central Intelligence Agency man and he was not the serving ambassador in the country then. Abubakar was the one who gave them the appointment. During a cocktail to celebrate the US National Day, I asked the US Ambassador why they brought Pickering and others. I told him that Abacha, who was occupying Abiola's position had died and why did they bring another military? We should also note that after Abiola died, Abubakar went to White House to visit the sitting American President and he went in military uniform. Can you recollect anybody who entered White House in military uniform? It is not done. He was given that exception. Up till now, nobody has repeated the precedence. What did he do? How long had he been on the throne here that he was received by the American President? Abacha was gone, Abiola was gone and they thought Nigeria's problem was solved. But here we are. The current American President has not found it important enough to come to the same country in which the previous governments took very big roles in taking those two actors out. I think it high time US apologized to Nigeria for the roles it played in the death of Abiola. The US also insisted on sending at least two pathologists just to protect its image, because there were rumors that it was the US that killed Abiola. Tony Blair sent a message to me through the British High Commissioner here that he was nominating Dr. John Shepherd, one of the top pathologists in England, and we made him the team captain. Human rights groups from Chicago sent in a pathologist. America insisted that they wanted to be well represented. So, they sent one Muslim doctor and one Christian doctor to me. I was there; Abubakar's doctor was there; Dr. Adeniyi Coker, the owner of that hospital on Victoria Island was there and the team.

You believe Abiola was poisoned, but how come this team of highly qualified doctors, including yourself conducted the post-mortem and concluded that Abiola died from natural causes?

No, what they said was that there was not enough supply of blood to his heart because there was a collection of fatty materials in the blood vessels that supply blood to the heart. His heart did not get blood supply; that was why he died eventually. The question is, why did that happen? How could that happen to somebody who just woke up, had not done anything and was not doing any exercise. There are people who have worse conditions than that and they are still alive. Something must have engineered the heart to behave the way it did that Abiola could not survive more than 10 minutes. We took specimen from his intestine, took his blood and sent it to toxicologists in Canada and in London. Another question to ask was where did Pickering type his press statement? Abiola died around 3:40 pm and by 4 pm, Pickering read his typed-written press statement and said he must have died of heart attack. The doctor that took Abiola's body to Aso Rock clinic had not come when Pickering addressed the press. Could something have triggered the heart attack? The answer is yes. We also know that there are drugs that can affect the rhythm of the heart. Such drugs can disturb the rhythm of the heart to an extent that the heart can stop pumping blood. If you give it to anyone to drink in tablet or liquid form, it can make the heart to stop within minutes. Does this leave traces in the blood? Yes, because medical science has perfected all that now. They just conducted the post-mortem of Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian man that died about five years ago. When he died, nobody suspected, but now they believe he was poisoned and they are trying to find out what type of poison it was.

So, you believe medical science can detect the poison now?

Yes, and that is why we are calling for a more detailed investigation into the cause of Abiola's death. Why are the human rights activists here not pushing for further investigation into Abiola's death? Our government did not even want to say that the man won the election, until President Goodluck Jonathan came.

But did Abiola have any health condition that could have resulted to sudden death?

Tell me who had a better health than Abiola. Before he was detained, Abiola was a globetrotter. If not because he was very healthy, he wouldn't have lasted five years in detention. He was not exercising, not seeing people and so on. They even tried to injure him once in the office of the Commissioner of Police in Abuja. A police officer that came from Aso Rock threw Abiola against a pillar and he hit his back and his spinal cord protruded. We gave Abiola a newspaper, and the policeman wanted collect it from him, but he refused. Then we looked for CT scan and there was none in Nigeria but Abacha was ready to let him go abroad for treatment. But many people feared that if he left, they would not have allowed him back into the country. This was because he had gone once and the then Interim President Ernest Shonekan, did not allow him back into the country. It was the same Abacha that ensured that Abiola returned. Abacha had to change the guards at the airport, replaced them with his own guards and asked them to fly Abiola in from Cotonou. I was close to Abacha to know all these. Abiola landed and trouble started. Then there was the afternoon coup, Abacha took over from Shonekan. As far as Abacha was concerned, his reign was not to be permanent, he had to remove Shonekan to foil Ibrahim Babangida's plan to come back. Babangida's intention was to transform into a civilian president.

If Abacha was not interested in ruling for long, why didn't he install Abiola when he got to Aso Rock?

When Abacha got to Aso Rock, he called Oladipo Diya and some other people to go around and feel the pulse of the people. Diya was here in my hospital, he went to Gani Fawehinmi; he went to the Oba of Lagos, Oba of Benin and the Ooni of Ife. All these people told him to tell Abacha to install Abiola. Diya went back and told Abacha to discard those views; that no military man takes power and hands it over to civilians. Remember Abacha did not get out of Aso Rock till he died. He was a soldier to the core. He didn't know how to play politics. One of the reasons that military did not want to leave Nigeria's political life was that Abiola told them that he will probe all of them, when he became president.

Don't you think Abacha would have killed Abiola to pave the way for himself becoming a civilian president?

Abacha would not have killed Abiola. He never wanted Abiola dead. Abacha never wanted any of these people's death. The death of Shehu Yar'adua, was carried out by Abacha's chronic cohorts. They were going to do the same thing to Obasanjo. When we heard, we sent a message down to the doctor and person in-charge of the prison in Plateau, that they were coming to inject Obasanjo. At that time, they were removing people who would constitute a hindrance to the five parties that were to endorse Abacha. What would it cost Abacha to kill Diya, Olanrewaju, Adisa and others who plotted the coup? It would not take five minutes. Is it not strange the deaths recorded under Abacha were civilians and not soldiers?

Being Abiola's confidant, how did you come to be that close to Abacha?

I met Abacha in 1982. He was a brigadier in the Nigerian Army. He was coming back from Lebanon as the head of a peace-keeping mission. I had a friend called U.S. Yaro. He was a general in the Nigerian Army. He brought his third wife to me, I treated her, she became pregnant and she delivered a male baby which was what he was looking for. So, you can imagine the joy. He thought I was the best gynecologist in the whole world. We became very close. This Gen. U. S. Yaro belonged to the right group in the Army. He was then made defense adviser in London and he went with his wife and baby. He told me, 'Anytime you are in London call, you must see this baby grow.' I went to London on holiday, I called him and he said, 'There is somebody I want you to meet. He has just arrived from Lebanon.' He knew that man was going to become somebody in Nigeria. I had never been a friend of the Army. I've been fighting them from the time I came back from England in 1970 as a doctor. We fought all of them except Murtala Mohammed, because he had settled problems between doctors and Gen. Yakubu Gowon. So, when he (Mohammed) became Head of State, he knew what doctors wanted. We were not asking for increase in salary, we wanted them to build a good health system, especially after the civil war ravaged parts of the country. Yaro sent a car to take me to where he was hosting the Nigerian contingent led by Abacha. When I met Abacha, he promised to visit me in Nigeria the day after he arrived. Coincidentally, we flew the same plane from London to Lagos and he spoke to me about himself all thorough that journey and the next day, he showed up at my door as he promised. I was very happy to have known Abacha. He was a truthful and straightforward person. If he did something, he would never deny it. He would not tell a lie. He had a list of friends. I was his number two Christian friend. We were not up to 12 on that list. To underscore how crude but genuine he was, he was taking money directly from the treasury to Aso Rock. He didn't how to make money through contracts and things like that. And he kept the records. I had a lot of personal experiences with him. His wife delivered their last child here; a girl. I was the first to tell him his wife was pregnant, they were not expecting it. Abiola knew I was close to Abacha; there was no hiding.

But for the role you said Diya played, do you think Abacha would have installed Abiola as President?

I believe that. Let me tell you this. The first coup against Shonekan was planned for the Saturday preceding the Wednesday that he was toppled. It was supposed to be bloodless. Why would Abacha do a coup, when he was the most senior officer in a military regime that had not handed over power? He was the defacto leader. Abacha planned that coup and the plot was leaked to Shonekan. Shonekan was to be in Abeokuta for that weekend until Monday and was to be arrested there. Some of us, including Abiola, knew about that coup. And the idea was for Abacha to take over and eventually install Abiola.
When that coup was foiled, we were sad. Abacha then planned it his own way and made it happen on Wednesday when they usually had their weekly Supreme Military Council meeting. At the meeting, Abacha just walked in with Gwadabe and Gen. Mohammed. He knew Gen. Mohammed was the one who leaked it, but he didn't want to cause an uproar in the country. He told Shonekan to write his resignation. Shonekan asked 'Why should I resign?' Abacha then asked him, 'Who are you waiting for to obey my instruction? Here is the Chief of Army Staff, Gen. Mohammed; here is Col. Gwadabe, here is Col. Aminu.' Abacha pulled out his pistol and then Shonekan's personal assistant, Isaac, who told me the story, said he quickly wrote the resignation letter for Shonekan to sign. He wrote it; it was typed and Shonekan signed. Abacha told Shonekan that a car was waiting for him outside, he should board it to the airport and fly to Lagos. Abacha then went into the plane with Gen. Mohammed and told him that if not for their friendship, he would have blown up his head for what he did. Because of that, he removed him as the Chief of Army Staff, and put Gen. Chris Ali, who was pro-Abiola. These are the things that would tell you that he would have restored Abiola's mandate.

But it seemed he was carried away by the proposal for him to transform to a civilian president?

Well, I don't think so. Another thing happened. When Abacha became Head of State, Rev. Chris Okotie, in a bid to solve the problem and get Abiola installed as president, wrote a proposal to Abacha, suggesting an arrangement that was common in South America, in which Abiola would be the president, then Abacha would be like a prime minister. He wrote that proposal and came to my house to discuss it with me. We agreed to travel together to Abuja; that I will go and see Abiola and he will go and see Abacha. When Abacha read the proposal, he told some people to come and pick me up from where Abiola was at that time to Aso Rock. When I got there he said, 'Doctor I have seen the proposal from your friend.' I didn't know Chris (Okotie) had been there, so I said 'My friend?' He said 'Yes, the reverend gentleman you came in with from Lagos.' He just said to me, 'Look I didn't contest to be president or prime minister or anything like that; I don't want all those things.' He said the proposal was good but he was reluctant. He was not ready for it, he said, 'How can I just make myself prime minister, it will complicate things more.' He said his role should be to settle matters amicably.

Is it true that some Yoruba leaders betrayed Abiola?

They did so initially because they believed that Abiola would not get acceptance from the Awolowo camp. Abiola was NPN before, he then changed camp to UPN. Abiola belonged to the NPN, he gave more money to the NPN and donated a little to UPN. People advised Awolowo to return the money to Abiola querying why he gave so much to NPN. However, some Awoists thought it was wrong to have returned that money. Because we all knew how UPN was getting money then, it was from states controlled by them. It is the same thing that Action Congress of Nigeria is doing. They learnt it from the Awolowo group. I was not only Abiola's doctor; I was his friend, confidant and in-law. When the election was near, we told Abiola to go and see Mama Awolowo and also Arthur Nzeribe, because was one politician in Igboland that had won his constituency repeatedly. He visited Nzeribe first, and Nzeribe was very happy and pledged to work very hard for him. When he landed in Lagos, we drove straight to Mama, and we arrived there just before dinner. He prostrated and said he would not get up until Mama said she forgiven him from the bottom of her heart. Mama forgave him. If you remember, Abiola won Ogun State 97 per cent. Nobody has ever done that, not even Awolowo. He confounded those Yoruba Obas. Those people went to Babangida, who likes to divide and rule, to put obstacles in Abiola's way. When I was arguing with one of those people, he said Babangida told him how much the Federal Government owed Abiola, and said what else did Abiola want?

How did the Federal Government owe Abiola?

It's simple. Abiola was the one who paid for the kit, clothing, food of the Nigerian soldiers sent to Liberia. Babangida was telling him, buy this, buy that for us, we will pay you back. Babangida was trying to make Abiola so weak that when the election came he would have no money left. But Abiola was doing it for a friend because he knew Babangida would claim glory for a successful outing in Liberia. Abdulsalami Abubakar went to Abiola's house and promised them that he would ensure that the Federal Government paid what it owed Abiola. Go and find out if he or successive administrations fulfilled that promise till today. Abacha, of all people, paid part of the debt, before Abiola declared himself President. Some of those people that betrayed Abiola are still alive. Let me just tell that Oba of Lagos, who has since died; Awujale of Ijebuland, who is still alive; Alake of Egbaland, who has since died; Oba of Benin, who is still there; and Soun of Ogbomoso, were pro-Abiola. Most of the other people that were against him simply took sides with Babangida, so that they could get government contracts.

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