In June 1993, Chief Moshood (M.K.O.) Abiola, a Muslim businessman and philanthropist, ran for the presidency of Nigeria and appeared to win the popular vote in what was considered a free and fair election. The vote was annulled by Nigeria’s military leader on the basis that the election was corrupt. When Abiola rallied support to claim the presidency, he was arrested for treason by the military regime led by General Sani Abacha and sent to prison for four years. Religious and human rights activists from across the globe called for his release.
In June 1998, General Abacha was found dead under mysterious circumstances. One month later, on the day that Abiola was to be released from prison, he met with a U.S. delegation in Nigeria which included Assistant Secretary Susan Rice and Under Secretary Thomas Pickering to discuss the country’s planned transition to democratic rule. During the July 7 meeting Abiola suddenly became ill, collapsed and later died in a hospital. Some claimed he had been poisoned by members of the U.S. delegation after drinking tea during the meeting.
Others said he had been beaten. Autopsy results showed he had died of massive heart failure. In an interview with Charles Stuart Kennedy in April 2003, Thomas Pickering offered a first-hand account of the incident and its aftermath.
“His supporters were claiming that he was the legal and rightful president of Nigeria and this made the military just a little bit nervous”
Thomas Pickering, Under Secretary for Political Affairs, 1997-2000 and Special Envoy to Nigeria
In the spring of 1998, as Under Secretary [for Political Affairs], I had planned a visit to Nigeria probably in early summer. Susan Rice, who was Assistant Secretary [for African Affairs], and I were planning to go out [to Nigeria.] (Pickering is seen at left.)
I had applied for a visa, and General Sani Abacha, the last of the military coup guys, was still in charge. Sani Abacha’s most enduring – I guess – ‘attribute’ was that he took very large amounts of money and hid it well. We were going out to see whether we could get the Nigerians to straighten up and behave or at least become more responsible.
I was in Qatar on my way back from the Middle East when I was refused a Nigerian visa on a Thursday night. I’m happy to tell you that my tremendous influence in Nigeria was at work because on Saturday night Sani Abacha died of, presumably, a heart attack ‘visiting with’ two ladies of the night in the presidential residence.
A General [Abdulsalami] Abubakar took over, a northerner, someone we had known, of good reputation. It was obvious that the military had enough of Sani Abacha and his type and at last felt that it was time to straighten out and move toward elected civil government. We took that as a good signal and again we asked to come out, and in two months we went out with a visa…
[Chief Abiola] had run against Sani Abacha. He had, according to some vote counts, actually won the election and then been incarcerated by Abacha. He was a Muslim from Lagos, a Yoruba, with a newspaper empire as well as other entrepreneurial adventures…
I came about a week after UN Secretary General Kofi Anan had been there. Sani Abacha had become president when he in effect stole the government after an election in which my friend Chief Abiola … had been elected. Chief Abiola was clamped into jail and spent four years there.
And so I’d asked General Abubakar, as Kofi Anan had, to see Chief Abiola, who was still in detention, where he had been put by Abacha after the election. We hoped we could use the meeting as a way to get him out of jail. His supporters were claiming that he was the legal and rightful president of Nigeria and this made the military just a little bit nervous and reluctant to move.
I think he was being held in somewhat gentler confinement than before. General Abubakar said, “Yes, of course,” to our request for a meeting with Abiola.
We met General Abubakar in the morning and in the afternoon at 3 o’clock he arranged for us to have Chief Abiola come to see us at a government guesthouse on the presidential compound in Abuja. I went there with the ambassador, Bill Twaddell, and Susan. Abiola came in, and I don’t know whether he had been told who he was going to see, but he certainly recognized me, talked about, even before we sat down, the occasions in which we had met some years before…
He and I had been, in a sense, co-victims of what we believed to be a Soviet- inspired disinformation plot in which the effort was to link him to me in an effort to use subversion to influence Nigerian domestic politics…[during the time that Pickering was ambassador in Nigeria, 1981-1983.]
We sat down. Tea was brought in. He drank tea, Susan drank tea and Bill drank tea, I didn’t — all from the same tea pot. (This is important because there are continuing rumors that he was poisoned, presumably by us, with the tea). He sat next to me on the couch and the others were sitting … on another couch in the living room of this big guesthouse.
“I knew right away that if this man died in our presence or was going to die in our presence, we had to know absolutely the whole story.”
He suddenly became quite incoherent and distracted and didn’t seem to understand what we were saying, and after a few seconds got up and said that he wanted to use the lavatory. There was one off the corner of the room, the door for which sort of faced right into the room, and he went over and he was there for some minutes and came out with his shirt off.
For a Muslim Nigerian in the presence of a woman, I felt, this was a very unusual, disturbing thing to do. He walked to another couch in our direction, sat on it, slumped down and slid on the floor. He was a very big man.
We ran over. Susan (seen on left) quite smartly asked the guest house staff to get a doctor. I felt his pulse and it felt a very strong, rapid pulse. I didn’t know what to make of that. I thought that was a good sign but I wasn’t sure.
Within some minutes a doctor came in and the meantime we did what we could to revive him and keep him awake, but he wasn’t coherent and was almost not awake. The doctor said ,“this is very serious and we need to get him right away to the presidential clinic”….
[Abiola] was a big man, well over 200-250 pounds. [The doctor] said, “You have to help me and the security people here get him into my car and we have to take him to the presidential clinic which is close by…”
We picked him up with the help of security guards and put him in the back of the doctor’s car and I said, “Get our car; we’re going.”
I knew right away that if this man died in our presence or was going to die in our presence, we had to know absolutely the whole story. We followed them down to the presidential clinic and waited for about an hour outside the emergency room with its little oval glass window where we could look in while they attempted to revive him…. one of those elliptical glass window panels in the door so we could see through.
We watched them work on him and saw them use some kind of an electric machine to try to start or stimulate his heart…
The doctor came out finally and we asked, “What’s the status?”
He said, “Come on outside.”
So we went outside and he said, “He was probably near dead when we got here. I can’t revive him and there is nothing more we can do.” He said, “Well, I think you better talk to General Abubakar right away.”
He said, “I was here when General Abacha died and if there is anything you must do, you must get an autopsy.”…He, of course, understood the local situation and understood what might happen not just to us if we were seen as responsible but also to him. He was a Hausa-Fulani from his dress, and while Chief Abiola was also a Muslim, which I presumed was the case with the doctor, the Chief was also a Yoruba and tensions have always existed between them and the northern Hausa-Fulani.
“The wife and daughter were very vehement, once they heard that we were involved, that we were responsible for his death”
We called General Abubakar on his cell phone; he said to come over right away. He hadn’t heard about this and so we sat with him and worked on what press statements to make, particularly because we were involved…
They did what we suggested; they didn’t seem to have a very strong feel for how to deal with this. So we gave them our best advice, most of which they followed pretty well.
Then they said we’ve called his wife and daughter who are here in town — he had multiple wives. So Susan, the trooper that she was, went and talked to the wife and daughter who were very vehement once they heard that we were involved that we were responsible for his death. They felt that we had somehow played a role in his death.
Then Bill and I went in and consoled the wife and daughter, but they were really quite irreconcilable and quite harsh and with very strong feelings. I don’t know the source of their views — they were prejudiced — but we did our best to deal with that… (Abiola’s family is seen at right.)
We had helped General Abubakar to prepare a press release, which was both factual and, we hoped, viable. He, of course, said that he would get the autopsy done.
In the meantime we had started to work with the State Department to get names of internationally recognized and reputable forensics experts. We got the name of the chief forensics officer in Ontario who had a worldwide reputation, and the U.S. Air Force chief pathologist in Germany, and a very reputable man from England, all of whom who were immediately recruited to come and do this. They understood the issue.
We went back to our small embassy office in Abuja and we started to monitor BBC and other radio reports, and they were pretty awful so I said immediately, “Call BBC. I’ll offer an interview. Susan, you get on to the U.S. NPR (National Public Radio) and other wire agencies’ radios and you give your interviews and we’ll put all of this together.”
We did a series of radio interviews that night to try to calm the situation. Sometime that evening, the president of South Africa, Thabo Mbeki, reached me by phone and I relayed to him what had happened and noted we were doing all we could to help calm the situation and that I hoped this would pass over in a day or so.
In the meantime, it was clear the next day that riots had broken out in Lagos and people had been killed over this. We were not happy, although I think we allayed some of the worst potential problems, and we told General Abubakar we would give a full press conference at the airport before we left. (Photo at left: AP/Peter Obe)
We delayed our departure and met the press at the airport and talked until they finished their questions about what we knew and what we thought was going to happen to put this into context, and then departed for home on a US military aircraft.
The final sequel to that was we flew back by way of Toronto, as we were so late when we got to London only a Canadian plane was available to cross the Atlantic. At five o’clock in the morning I got up to take the first plane to Washington. Coming out of the shower, I slipped on the floor and broke my wrist — so it was the end of a perfect trip…
The autopsies were very interesting. They found a vastly enlarged heart with every symptom of massive heart failure, and all of the chemical tests found no reason to believe, as everybody imputed from the tea story, that he had been poisoned, and neither were we. But there are still people today, years later, who refuse to accept this evidence.
I had a very good friend of mine writing and saying that General Abiola’s daughter was on his board and that she had raised very important questions as to his murder while in prison in Nigeria. I wrote back and said I happen to know because I was there. And that wasn’t the story.