By Dele Momodu
Fellow Nigerians, please grant me this indulgence as I respectfully ask you to join me in a special toast to my friend and Brother, Alhaji Abdul-Lateef Kolawole Abiola, as he turns 50 tomorrow. It is not every day I can seek such favours but this perfect gentleman means so much to me and my family, and Nigerians at large. By the time you read through this peace, I’m reasonably convinced that you will appreciate why I have chosen to celebrate this quiet man who loves to operate incognito. As popular as his name rings, Kola never throws his weight around. Yet he’s one of the most recognised faces all over Nigeria and beyond.
Kola has had to shoulder heavy responsibilities most of his adult life. He’s one of those who have packed over 80 years into a space of 50 crowded years. It was as if his parents were clairvoyant to see well into the future that awaits the family. His mother, Ayinba Simbiat Atinuke Abiola, died on November 10, 1992 while his dad followed, under mysterious circumstances, six years later on July 7, 1998, a few months to his 61st birthday. But both parents had groomed Kola well for the daunting challenges to come. Before most of our famous personalities knew how to prepare their children for a future of responsibility, the Abiolas were already ahead of their peers. Kola, Deji and Agboola followed their dad to many places at home and abroad. Their Sisters, Bolaji and Wura experienced the same grilling procedure. Kola was so visible that I used to refer to him in my reports on the family as The Ultimate Crown Prince. Truth is I was being prophetic without knowing it. Today, Kola probably has the biggest name of all the Crown Princes in Nigeria. As he confirmed to a select group of journalists, who interviewed him for another exclusive verbatim report in Ovation International, last Tuesday, his name and face recognition had saved him several times at danger spots.
The story of Kola is that of a prodigiously talented man but who’s always underrated by those who can never see beyond his understated exterior. A meeting with Kola is all it takes to disarm most critics. Like his late dad, he’s able to reel out facts and figures like the fabulous Alajo Shomolu, the itinerant cooperative collector who calculates all his transactions off-hand. Kola’s knowledge of the dynamics of politics and social contract in Nigeria is simply awesome. He has operated in the system longer than most of the actors on stage today. I will illustrate this with cogent examples.
My first encounter with Kola was seeing him at a distance anytime he visited his dad’s Wonder Bakery which was inside the premises of Concord Newspapers in those good old days. I was always fascinated with the ease he drove himself around sometimes in his Mercedes Benz convertible without security aides or escort. A motley crowd of admirers often gathered around to see the son of a man who was easily one of the wealthiest men of his time. It was rumoured that Kola, in fact, controlled more resources than most of the outlandish noise-makers that paraded themselves as money-bags. There were also myths of how many of those seeking one help or the other from Chief Moshood Abiola but could not access him ended up at Kola’s gate in Anthony village. From the time he was in his twenties, Kola was already a benefactor to so many people. He gave jobs to many of his childhood friends and old schoolmates. Till this day, he feels more comfortable in their company. You would hardly find Kola without one friend or the other at his dining table. One of his passions is the love of good food, and he’s a culinary expert. I take delight in partaking in his occasional rituals of delicacies, especially the partridge.
Kola’s generosity is legendary. What I find amazing about him is how he tolerates everyone around his dad. It is uncommon to find children of the rich who would establish a separate relationship with friends and many adopted children of their dad. His dad taught him never to discriminate against anyone on account of status, race or religion.
On a personal note, I have been a great beneficiary of Kola’s incredible kindness. I had resigned from my job as the highest paid Nigerian Editor in 1991 at Classique magazine which was owned by the late Mrs May Ellen Ezekiel Mofe-Damijo, of blessed memory, and lost my official car and driver to the bargain. The first unsolicited help I got came from Dr Mike Adenuga Jnr who’s definitely God-sent, and the second was from Kola Abiola.
I had decided to keep myself busy while seeking my next move by distributing Wonder Loaf, which was being managed then by Ms Chichi, the daughter of the famous journalist and politician, Chief M.C.K Ajuluchukwu. I was at the bakery one day when I saw a Jetta Executive that had a For Sale sticker on it. Chichi told me the car belonged to one of Kola’s friends and the guy was flinging it at N25,000. Please, don’t laugh because it was a lot of money in 1995. I asked if I could beat it down to N20,000 and Chichi suggested I should ask Kola to speak to his friend but I knew I would never be able to tell him such a thing.
I saw Chichi a few days later and she said she had actually mentioned it to Kola who requested I should see him at home the following morning. At the appointed time I saw Kola in his office at home and he asked if indeed I like the Jetta to which I confirmed in the affirmative. He immediately put a call through to his friend and I thought he was merely going to plead with him to reduce the price. But to my utter amazement, and wonderment, Kola simply told the guy to release the car to me and that he would send a cheque to cover the full payment. I will never forget that gesture from a man who was barely 29 at the time. It is rare to find such thoughtful human beings these days. His dad would later give me money to pick up a Mercedes Benz 280CE a year after. Please, how can I ever forget such a stupendous benevolence? If the whole world deserts the Abiola family, I will be the last man standing, and I owe no apologies about it.
Other things happened between Kola and I. In 1992, I was on a British Airways flight to London. For some curious reasons, the flight was being delayed for too long. The crew kept apologising for the unusual delay. Unknown to the passengers, some very important passengers were being awaited. We later discovered that the Abiola Babes were the reason for that delay as Kola, Deji and Agboola rushed in. The troika had apparently received urgent calls from London that their mum who was battling with cancer was in her last hours on earth. Chief Abiola had given the doctors a blank cheque to do everything possible to disgrace cancer but the shameless ailment could not be easily attacked or pacified with all the gold in South Africa.
We landed at Gatwick Airport and boarded the same train to Victoria with Kola and his brothers. As we alighted at Victoria Station, Kola asked if I had an account at National Westminster Bank and I said yes. Chief Abiola had instructed a certain Mr Collin Haywood to open two accounts for me at his King’s Cross Branch in August 1991. Kola told me to expect something. I could never have expected someone whose mother was on the threshold of death to have time and space for such niceties. A few days later, I confirmed that Kola had sent £2,000 pounds into my account. I could not reach Kola immediately to say a big thank you.
We met after his mum had lost the battle to cancer. Despite the agony he must have suffered, Kola was still his usual affable self. He even apologised that we didn’t have time to bond in London. His mum was flown in from London and received in Nigeria with many Nigerians wailing profusely.
One of his jokes I will never forget was about how Abiola and Ayinba Simbiat had been picked up to the Airforce base during the mad dog saga when it was said that Deji, Kola’s immediate younger brother assaulted an officer. While being held at the Airforce Base, Kola’s mum noticed a lady was admiring Chief Abiola, as it was common everywhere he went. So Ayinba Atinuke turned to her husband and said “Daddy, these women are still eyeing you in our present predicament” to which Chief also humorously told his wife “You still have time to see them too in this our situation.” We were all rolling on the floor.
Kola is so humorous that you can never have any dull moment with him. I remember another powerful joke he delivered as work progressed. He said “Mummy will go and rest peacefully because wherever there is too much money the devil must enter.” Many people took advantage of Chief Abiola’s kind-heartedness. The dream of many women was to carry Abiola’s baby. Not only would good life follow, his children were usually brilliant and gifted. Any time any of the lucky wives had a new baby Abiola would not know how to break the news to his most Senior wife. He would usually be in an upbeat mood because he was passionate about all his children. His own father Salawudeen Abiola had lost a total of 22 children before Kashimawo, the 23rd child, mysteriously survived. It was as if Chief Abiola was trying so hard to make up for his dad’s loss. Abiola welcomed every new child into the family with songs and dance. Ayinba Atinuke would come into her husband’s wing of their sprawling palace to meet him singing and dancing. She would ask if Daddy has won a new contract or bagged a new Chieftaincy title to which he would say no. “Has one of your wives just delivered a baby” to which he won’t say yes but ask his wife “How did you know?”
Let’s rewind a bit. Kola is an extremely intelligent man. It was impossible for him not to have been very close to his dad. He treated and worshipped his father like a deity. I had gone to him one day to invite him to invest in Ovation magazine which was going to look more like Fame at the time. Kola loved my proposal but told me pointedly that he could not invest in it for only one reason: “I don’t and I can’t compete with my dad. He’s already into publishing and I must not be seen to be competing with him.” I almost suffered a stroke because he was my last hope.
Kola must have noticed my demeanour because he immediately asked if I had other ideas apart from publishing and I said I only wanted a magazine of my own. There and then, he sold the idea of going into public relations to me and even gave me my first contract. I handled all the media work for Summit Oil International and went all out to justify his confidence in me because bigger companies had pitched for the account. Not only did Kola pay my bill in full, he brought out his personal cheque to pay me a bonus for a job well done.
I must not forget to add that Kola is a true Nigerian to the core. Most of his children were born in Ebute-Meta for a man who could afford the best medical facilities anywhere in the world. When his wife Victoria Arafat, Nee Ossom, had their first child, Rabiat, I was surprised to see her in Lagos. According to Vicky, Kola did not see why we can’t patronise Nigerian hospitals. He’s a doting father who visits his children’s schools for parents’ meetings and other obligations. Any time my wife wanted me to attend a school function Kola was always her role model and the name to drop.
There’s so much to say and write about this great son of Nigeria who has gone to great lengths to heal the injuries sustained by their family and endure the pains that came with it. It would be an understatement to say I love him. Lest I’m accused of untoward tendencies, I will leave it just at that and simply wish him a happy birthday.
Please, let’s all rise to give the toast.