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Chief Moshood Abiola Memorial Service

Remarks by Hon. David Kilgour,
Secretary of State (Latin America and Africa)
Burton Auditorium, York University
Toronto, July 18, 1998

It is a privilege for me to participate in this gathering on behalf of the Government of Canada. Among friends, very simply, we honour the achievements of a great Nigerian. With the eloquence of his last letter still ringing in our ears, anything any one of us says is inadequate.

Chief Moshood Abiola, the president elect -- widely known by his initials MKO -- was a successful businessman who "had it all". He enjoyed fame, fortune and family life, was on good terms with the Babangida regime and respected for his generous philanthropy. In 1993 he accepted the call of many and stood for the Presidency under the banner of the Social Democratic Party.

The election on June 12, 1993 was confirmed by international observers as free and fair, probably the freest and fairest in Nigeria's history. Chief Abiola not only won a convincing majority of 58 percent, but did what no previous presidential candidate had done: virtually unite the country. He won the national capital, the military polling stations and over two-thirds of the states nation-wide, even his rival's home base. Canadian observers present fully supported the outcome. To everyone's consternation, General Babangida simply annulled the election.

Chief Abiola undertook an international tour to seek support for his mandate. He was received in Ottawa in September 1993 by then Foreign Minister Perrin Beatty and MPs of all major parties. Soon after his return to Nigeria, General Abacha seized power and went on to annul the previously elected National Assembly as well as state and local governments -- a clean sweep of democracy. MKO, undaunted, held a large public rally in June, 1994 on the anniversary of his election to claim his mandate. Predictably, he was jailed and charged with "treason" -- as if Abacha had any legitimacy to do that.

This may have seemed like the end, but even worse was to follow: seemingly endless solitary confinement, with only the Koran and the Bible for support; denied court orders for bail; denied any semblance of trial; denied adequate or even necessary medical treatment; the brutal assassination of his senior wife Kudirat in 1996. There was also the periodic humiliation of being told he could go free if he renounced his mandate. Through it all, for the four years he should have been President, MKO held steadfast to his democratic principles, undiminished and uncompromised.

Nigeria matters to Canada and to Canadians. Our countries had for many years a broad and friendly relationship based on Commonwealth ties and values, extensive collaboration in the UN, human contacts in both directions and a shared commitment to federalism. For years Nigeria was our biggest export market between South Africa and the Maghreb, and our largest source of imports in all of Africa. Its population of over 100 million, well-educated élites and abundant resources should make it a natural leader in the continent: a pole of economic attraction, a source of constructive influence in the region. In short, a great nation with a bright future.

Under Abacha, Nigeria became a synonym for wasted opportunity. Human rights were replaced by repression of labour, media and civil society, with hundreds of political prisoners. Democracy was mocked by a tightly controlled "transition program" whose end result was less than 5 percent turnout for parliamentary elections and a single candidate for president in elections scheduled for August of this year. Rule of law yielded to entrenched military rule that governed by decree and routinely ignored court orders.

The economy was no better. For the last two years, Nigeria was rated the world's most corrupt country by Transparency International, and the least attractive to foreign investment in a European survey. Roads, airports and refineries as well as schools and hospitals are literally falling apart. The World Bank and International Monetary Fund discontinued support. Fraud, violence, drug-running and money-laundering became common.

This is the bleak legacy of military rule for 28 of the last 32 years. Now -- perhaps -- Nigeria is at a crossroads. The death of General Abacha could represent the death of dictatorship in Nigeria. Nigerians deserve better than what they have had to live through for most of the time since independence. General Abubakar has a real opportunity to move forward with a genuine democratic transition: he has begun by releasing some prominent political prisoners and consulting a wide range of opinion. Should he fail to seize this opportunity, he will be subject to renewed pressure -- internal and external. I have no crystal ball, but we can be sure of two things: lack of political reform makes trouble likely, and any collapse or explosion will affect not only Nigeria, but its neighbours and the international community -- at immense cost.

While Chief Abiola languished in jail, Canada consistently upheld the legitimacy of the 1993 election and sought to exercise pressure for positive change. Although we have had some success with dialogue elsewhere, Nigeria was virtually the only country impervious to this approach. Since 1993 we have gradually increased pressure with non-economic measures which now include:

  • denial of visas and educational facilities for regime members & families

  • an arms embargo, withdrawal of military attachés and end to military training

  • downgrading of diplomatic missions and cultural links

  • a visa-based ban on all sporting contacts

We have also ended bilateral aid and taken modest economic steps such as ending export credits, declining to host a joint economic commission and suspending a double-taxation agreement and negotiations on an investment-protection agreement. Canada led the way for the United States and European Union on most of these measures, which were intended to bring Nigeria's military regime to its senses, not to its knees. Whether this has now been achieved remains to be seen.

In the Commonwealth, Canada has been a strong supporter of democracy, the rule of law, good governance and human rights. Faced with mounting abuses in Nigeria, culminating in the execution of Ken Saro-Wiwa and others during the 1995 summit, Commonwealth leaders suspended Nigeria and created a Ministerial Action Group to deal with violations in Nigeria and elsewhere. Prime Minister Chrétien played a key role in both decisions, and Canada has been in the Action Group, known as CMAG, from the start.

Foreign Minister Axworthy and I attach a lot of importance to CMAG, which has a rotating membership of eight from all over the Commonwealth and has met ten times in two and half years. It has held high-level dialogue with Nigerian democrats as well as the military regime. It spelled out the implications of Nigeria's suspension and commissioned a study of political and economic sanctions in case dialogue failed. It recommended the non-economic measures implemented by Canada. The Commonwealth summit last October empowered CMAG to invoke these measures, and tasked it to assess the Nigerian transition next October, and make recommendations on further economic measures if warranted and on Nigeria’s continued membership in the Commonwealth.

In the United Nations, Canada actively worked for the three General Assembly resolutions on Nigeria since 1995, which passed with strong support. We also pushed for a UN fact-finding mission which recommended international monitoring of the transition. At the Commission on Human Rights, after an initial defeat, Canada was key in negotiating successively stronger resolutions, leading to appointment of a full Special Rapporteur who delivered a comprehensive indictment of the situation this spring.

In recent weeks Chief Abiola's deliverance seemed near. Signals multiplied that he was about to be released. There were calls and high hopes for him to lead an interim government presiding over the transition to democracy. And suddenly, when everything was looking up, he was taken from us. That is what makes his death so hard to bear for all of us.

Chief Abiola now enjoys God's rest, having given his life for a democratic Nigeria. The man who should have been President and never will be, lives on in our hearts, as The Economist put it, "a martyr for democracy." He calls on Nigerians never to forget their democratic birthright, and to unite their country in peace and freedom as his election once did. He calls on Nigeria's friends abroad to unfailingly support the people until their just struggle is won. Insh'Allah, we shall all hear and heed his call, and Nigeria will step forward to reclaim its rightful place among the great nations of the world. This is the best way to honour his memory.

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