As the country celebrates Democracy Day in honour of the winner of the June 12 presidential election, Moshood Abiola, ‘TANA AIYEJINA’ writes about the lasting sports legacy left behind by the late politician

During an interview in 1992, after he was inducted into the African Football Hall of Fame and honoured by the Confederation of African Football with an Order of Merit in Gold award, the continental football body’s highest honour, the late Chief Moshood Abiola sounded prophetic towards the end of his interactive session with the journalists.

“Only Nigeria refused to honour me, but I’m sure they will do that one day,” Abiola stated.

“The whole of Africa has done so, what else do I want?”

He would go on to win the June 12, 1993 presidential election, widely acclaimed as the fairest election ever held in the country.

However, Abiola never became President of Nigeria after the military junta, led by General Ibrahim Babangida, denied him the honour by annulling the poll.

He was then imprisoned by the Gen Sani Abacha regime after he declared himself president in 1994. He eventually died in custody July 7, 1998 aged 60, while fighting for his mandate.

After his demise, remembrance events have been arranged across Nigeria in his name, with June 12 declared Democracy Day and a national holiday in the country.

Several public facilities have also been renamed after him — the MKO Abiola Stadium, Abeokuta in his home state of Ogun and the Moshood Abiola National Stadium, Abuja the most prominent.

To the Nigerian sports enthusiast and those who knew the man Abiola, he was a sports lover, who gave everything for the development of the sector in the country.

A successful businessman, publisher, politician and philanthropist per excellence, Abiola’s love for sports and his contributions to the sector during his lifetime is unquantifiable.

And 25 years after his demise, it has been unmatched by any individual.

The sportsman

Unknown to many, Abiola, who came from a humble background, was an athlete and won the All Nigeria School Athletics Championship and the middleweight amateur boxing title during his teenage years.

This, perhaps, spurred his interest in almost all areas of sports after he became a successful businessman.

As an amateur boxer himself, he was a staunch supporter of the sport, with the International Amateur Boxing Association making him a member of its World Business Commission.

His hand of benevolence also stretched to swimming and athletics, as he singlehandedly sponsored the Asekun National Swimming Competition and the then AAA Junior Athletics Championships, among others.

He was the chairman of the committee that raised funds for Team Nigeria for the Los Angeles Olympics in 1994.

The funds raised were more than enough, with the remaining money used to build the gymnasium at the National Stadium, Lagos.

He was also Chairman, Presidential Monitoring Committee for the Nigeria 1999 FIFA U-20 World Cup.

Football lover

Late Abiola bankrolled three football clubs — ITT FC of Lagos, Abiola Babes of Abeokuta and Concord FC of Lagos — during his lifetime.

Indeed, Abiola Babes became the country’s most glamorous football clubs of the 1980s, rising from the third division to the Nigerian topflight league, and winning the FA Cup twice in 1985 and 1987.

The team had in their ranks at that time an assemblage of some of Nigeria’s finest footballers ever, including Muda Lawal, Rashidi Yekini, Best Ogedengbe and Yisa Sofoluwe, all four now late, and the likes of Friday Ekpo, Toyin Ayinla, Dominic Iorfa, to name a few.

They became a model for club football administration in the country.

All for Babes

Abiola staked everything, including his life, for the success of his club.

His unpleasant experience, when he encountered a drunk bus driver and escaped gun shots from armed robbers, while on a trip with the club for a Cup Winners Cup quarter-final engagement against Zambia’s Nchanga Rangers in 1987, readily comes to mind.

“We were told by the NFA (Nigeria Football Association) that the match would be played in Lusaka. We struggled there on the eve of the match to be told we would be playing in Nchanga. I had to beg for a flight to fly us to Ndola at 10:30 at night,” Abiola stated in an interview in 1992.

“I hired a bus from Ndola to take us through Kitwe to Nchanga, only to find that the bus driver was drunk.

“So, I drove the bus myself for three-and-a-half hours. We were stopped by armed robbers three times on the road. They opened fire on us near Kitwe. What if I had been killed? I had to bribe our way through to Kitwe. We got to Kitwe 2:30 in the morning, on the day of the match, to find that the officials had left.

“So, I dropped the boys, made sure they rested quickly and drove the bus back to Kitwe to bring them (officials) back at 7:00 in the morning to officiate. They played the match at 2pm because they didn’t want our boys to rest.”

The game ended 1-1 with Babes advancing to the semis 3-2 on aggregate after beating the Zambians 2-1 in Nigeria.

That was how committed Abiola was to his darling club.

Africa

His contributions to sports development on the continent is also unrivalled.

He was the first recipient of the ‘Pillar of Sports in Africa’, an honour bestowed on him in 1980 by the African Sports Journalists Union.

On January 11, 1992 in Dakar, Senegal, after he bagged CAF’s Order of Merit in Gold award, Abiola donated the CAF Cup trophy plus $100,000 to kickstart the continent’s third-tier club football competition at the time — after the CAF Champions Cup and the Cup Winners’ Cup.

A total of 31 clubs across Africa competed in the first edition, with Ibadan giants Shooting Stars the first club ever to emerge champions after defeating Uganda’s Villa SC in the final.

Another Nigerian side Bendel Insurance of Benin City won it in 1994.

The continental showpiece ceased to exist in 2004 after it was merged with the African Cup Winners’ Cup and renamed the CAF Confederation Cup.

Again, he was the sole sponsor of the African Footballer of the Year award until his death in 1998.

Abiola also bankrolled other sports events in 14 African countries, including Senegal, Ivory Coast, Zambia and Tunisia.

Philanthropy

Abiola’s hand of goodwill spread across sportsmen and women.

Olympic gold medallist, Chioma Ajunwa, told The PUNCH she built a three-room apartment with the late  business mogul’s cash gift after she won two gold medals at the 1991 African Games.

The police officer stated, “The first three rooms I built in my father’s compound was from the money he gave us. He gave me N370,000 and a 24-karat gold wristwatch, though somebody stole that wristwatch.

“I cannot forget him in a hurry. He knew those of us in sports were from less-privileged homes and he took care of us.”

Toyin Ayinla, former captain of Abiola Babes, added, “playing for Chief Abiola’s team was one of my greatest moments as a footballer.”

Ayinla was with Babes for three years, helping them to three FA Cup finals, winning two.

“It was Abiola Babes that introduced car loans to footballers at that time and a lot of us benefitted from it. At that time there were players who sustained injuries playing for the club. Abiola flew them to Germany for special treatment and didn’t collect a dime from them. When he disbanded the team in December 1987, most of us had just taken loans worth N12,000 at that time and the debt was written off by him.”

Athletes scholarships

Abiola wasn’t just interested in the sporting careers of the country’s athletes, he was also interested in their lives after sports. To ensure they didn’t become idle and bankrupt on retirement, he doled out scholarships to several of them.

Tajudeen Disu, an ex-junior international and former player of Abiola Babes, told The PUNCH he is a beneficiary of Abiola’s scholarships.

“While I played for the team, he (Abiola) sent me to the US to further my studies and he also played a huge role during my wedding ceremony back then. Just as he cared for me, my other teammates who faced challenges also received meaningful help from him.”

Unrivalled

Has anyone been able to replicate Abiola’s contributions to sports since he died.

“Nobody,” veteran sports journalist Kunle Solaja said.

“He was installed by ASJU in 1980 as the first Pillar of Sports and nobody else ever stepped into that shoes in Africa or in Nigeria. We’ve never seen someone who supports sports, not just football, more than Abiola. And the sports he sponsored were not done in his name. For instance, he sponsored the Asekun swimming competition in honour of Dr Asekun. Even the Abacha hockey tournament was sponsored by Abiola. He supported boxing because he was an amateur boxer as a young boy.”

Solaja, a former Sports Editor of the defunct Concord Newspapers — owned by Abiola — recalled an incident that shocked him after Abiola’s brazen show of football passion.

“His support wasn’t about being flashy,” Solaja added. “I remember there was a day we were going to the stadium and we ran into traffic very close to kick-off time. Abiola became uneasy inside the car, looking forward and backwards. All of a sudden, he asked the driver to stop, hopped out of the car, folded his agbada and jumped on an okada (motorbike). This was because he didn’t want to miss any moment of the match.

“ It’s not a match he was a guest of honour or had any role to play, but he didn’t want to miss any moment of the match. Tell me, which big man in Nigeria now will jump out of a luxurious car to jump on an okada just to watch a match? It can only be Abiola.”

In today’s Nigeria, where sports lie comatose and begging for urgent attention, the June 12 celebrations today relive, once again, the sporting strides of Abiola, which remained unrivalled 25 years after his last breathe.

Truly, it can only be Abiola.

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