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Susan Rice’s book: Why her narrative of Abiola’s death is faulty

susan rice

Clockwise from top left, MKO Abiola, Femi Falana, Susan Rice and her book, Tough Love...

Ademola Adegbamigbe

As Nigeria celebrated its Democracy Day on June 12, 2024, excerpts from a book by Susan Rice, former UN Ambassador and National Security Adviser to President Barack Obama, surfaced (as if it was programmed for the occasion by an algorithm from the pit of hell), and went viral on social media in the country.

In the book, entitled, Tough Love: My Story of the Things Worth Fighting For, Susan Rice, dispells a widespread conspiracy theory that alleged that she gave Abiola the tea laced with arsenic that killed him in the presence of Rice, then US Ambassador to Nigeria, Bill Twaddell; and Under Secretary of state for Political Affairs, Thomas Pickering. According to her, the tea was offered to Abiola from a tea service on the table in the room, five minutes into the conversation when he started coughing rackingly and consistently.

However, some facts have emerged in Nigeria which may disabuse the minds of members of the international community. That is, Rice in her book, tries to rationalise her murderous action and deodorise it as the gesture of a harmless diplomat, ready to make peace between Abiola, a political detainee, and his persecutors. In other words, Rice could tell what she puts in her book on Abiola’s death to the (US) Marines!

Mr Femi Falana, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria, and human rights activist, asked some pertinent questions. As an international best practice, no foreign visitor has ever been allowed to take tea, water, or food to a detainee in Nigeria. No visitor is allowed to give tea or food to a detainee without first tasting it. “Did Susan or any member of the US delegation taste the food?” Falana asked.

She claimed that Abiola was coughing and when she served him tea, the cough did not stop. But Assistant Superintendent of Police (ASP) Theodore Bethnel Zadok, who for the two years preceding the chief’s death was in charge of his security and welfare in government custody, said when they took Abiola to the hospital, he was confirmed dead. He was answering questions posed to him by Falana at the Human Rights Violations Investigation Commission (HRVIV) otherwise known as the Oputa Panel. It was published by Vanguard on 20 July 2001

“On the day in question, the 7th Day of July 1998 at about 11.30hrs, the Chief Security Officer to General Abdulsalami Abubakar, Major A. S. Aliyu called me on the radio set, asking me to see him in his office. I then proceeded to his office and he instructed me to bring Chief MKO Abiola to Aguda House for an interview to be held by 1300 hrs.

“I then went back to the base and informed Chief MKO Abiola of the interview and he asked me whether Major Hamza Al- Al-Mustapha was aware of the said interview. I told him didn’t know because Major Hamza Al-Mustapha was busy handling and taking over but I would see if I could locate him to inform him.

“He asked me to bring his dresses which he would wear and also asked me to give him 30 minutes to enable him to get dressed. At about 1230hrs the Chief Security Officer to General Abdulsalami Abubakar Major A. S. Aliyu came to the base. To the best of my knowledge, that was the first time he knew that place, wanted to know if we were ready and I replied to him almost ready. As we opened the door the Chief was already waiting for us. Together we went out and headed to Aguda House, the venue of the Interview”.

“Before we all left the base, Chief MKO Abiola was in sound and healthy condition. He did not complain to me of any illness. About 100 metres from the door stand of the Aguda House, the controller from the control room called me on the radio set and said, I quote, “30 BRAVO your LOG I answered ALFA GOLF UNIFORM DELTA ALFA, HOTEL. And he said MAIG SYRIA GOLF from the OSCAR FOXTROT FOXTROT OF CHARLIE OSCAR GOLF SYRIA you should ROMEO PAPA TANGO to see the subject INDIA MIKE MIKE I answered RECEIVED.”

This means 2i/c Prescort at your present location. I answered Aguda House and he gave the message from the office of the Chief of General Staff that you should see the Chief of General Staff Admiral Mike Akhigbhe immediately please and I answered noted, please.

“As we arrived at the Aguda House doorstep, I led Chief MKO Abiola inside the house and I took permission from the Chief Security Officer to General Abdulsalami Abubakar, Major A. S. Aliyu in whose custody I left Chief MKO Abiola.

“He asked me to use his vehicle, leaving my vehicle at the doorstep where it was parked. I then took his vehicle as entrusted and left to see the Chief of General Staff Admiral Mike Akhigbe at about 1310hrs and I came back from seeing Admiral Mike Akhigbe at about 1350hrs, only to discover that my vehicle was not there at the parking spot. On arrival, I saw one of my Body Guards Sunday Pada standing by the side of the door. I asked him where they had gone. He replied me they were inside and that the Chief Security Officer only sent my vehicle to Aso-Clinic as I was about to enter the room, I met with the Chief Security Officer, Major A. S. Aliyu who told me that Chief MKO Abiola was not feeling fine and after taking a cup of tea he coughed and feel down.

“I quickly went inside and I saw Chief MKO Abiola lying on the floor facing down. I called him. For the first time he answered, and I lifted him and turned him upside down and called him again for the second time he did not answer. At that time doctor Sadiq Sani Wali from Aso Clinic arrived and examined the chief. I told him we should rush the Chief to the clinic for proper treatment. Myself, the Chief Security Officer, Major A. S. Aliyu, Doctor Sadiq Sani Wali and the two white men standing lifted Chief MKO Abiola into my vehicle outside for onward movement to Aso-clinic.

Before getting to Aso-Clinic I saw Dr. Sadiq Sani Wali pressing his (Abiola’s) stomach up and down a kind of resuscitating him. As we arrived at the clinic, Chief M.K.O. Abiola was rushed to the Emergency Room where I stood by with the doctors including the two white men and the Chief Security Officer Major Aliyu until when Dr. Sadiq Sani Wali later confirmed to us that Chief M.K.O Abiola was dead.”

Also, MAJOR Abdulrasheed Aliyu, former Chief Security Officer (CSO) to the immediate past Head of State, Gen. Abdulsalami Abubakar told the Human Rights Violations Investigation Commission (HRVIV) in Abuja that the controversial tea taken by Chief M.K.O. Abiola shortly before his death in 1998 was personally served him by the then US Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, Ms Susan Rice. His interview was carried also out by the media, including Vanguard on 19 November 2004.

“Members of the American delegation at the meeting were Thomas Pickering, Susan Rice and Ambassador Williams Twadell and at the meeting, Chief Abiola cracked some jokes with them. When they asked him if he was in good health condition, Abiola said I am well except for my swollen legs.

“At this juncture, the steward came in with some refreshments, tea and coffee. Pickering and Twadell took coffee, Susan Rice opted for tea while Abiola declined to take anything. After a few minutes, Abiola started coughing continuously. Susan Rice urged him to take tea. I got up from the point I was watching to go and serve Abiola the tea, but Susan Rice, being the only woman present decided to serve him the tea and when she did I went back and sat down.

“Even after the tea, his coughing continued. He then went into the toilet and as I was about to go in to meet him, he was coming out. He looked very tired and was sweating. He asked me if he could get his cough syrup and I asked the bodyguards to go and fetch Abiola’s syrup. He then went back to the delegation and said he was feeling cold. We turned off the air conditioner, he then said he was feeling hot and we, in turn, opened the windows.

“Susan Rice suggested that he be taken to the hospital and I called Dr. Wali on my mobile phone and told him there was an emergency that the chief was very sick and he should come immediately. It took him (Dr. Wali) exactly seven minutes and 40 seconds to get to us.

“When Dr. Wali arrived, Abiola was still lying on the floor coughing. We fanned him, put him in a vehicle and drove straight to the emergency ward in the Aso Clinic. All of us were in the room, and we forgot about the protocol that this was an emergency room restricted to only doctors and nurses. We were all in there.

“I informed the C-In-C of Abiola’s sickness and he was very worried. While we were there (hospital), I saw the CGS arrive without his cap and a driver; he was asking what is it. Not this hour. Seeing the condition he was in, I did not want him to give a wrong impression to our visitors, and delegation, so I asked him to go back.

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“I informed the C-In-C that the medical team was at work and he directed that we should contact Babagana Kingibe to bring the family to see what was happening to him (Abiola).

“At exactly 1 hour 20 minutes, Chief Abiola gave up and Susan Rice asked us to accept our (their) condolence. We have seen what happened and all the efforts you have made to treat him (Abiola). We knew they were going to leave the country and we wanted the news to first be broken to his (Abiola’s) family before the press and so we requested the American delegation to allow us. She told us that there were pressmen scheduled to interview them at the airport when they arrived. She agreed to our request.

“When I informed Gen. Abubakar of the death of Abiola, he shouted: “Oh! my God!’ What can I tell his family? Susan Rice, being the only woman, offered to break the news to the family and she told them of the efforts we made to save them and as such said there was no foul play in his death.

Clockwise from top left, MKO Abiola, Femi Falana, Susan Rice and her book, Tough Love…

Below are facts from Susan Rice’s book

She said the meeting intended to meet with Abiola whom she said was wrongfully imprisoned, to negotiate his freedom so he could participate in the elections scheduled then.

*Susan Rice, a former UN Ambassador and National Security Adviser, NSA, to Barack Obama, has detailed in her new book, the last moments of the presumed winner of the June 12 presidential election, the late MKO Abiola.*

* Abiola died July 7, 1998, in the custody of the Nigeria military junta after 4 years in detention.

* The book is titled *‘Tough Love: My Story of the Things Worth Fighting For’,* and is a 531-page autobiography.

* She dispelled a widespread conspiracy theory that alleged that she gave Abiola the tea laced with arsenic that killed him in the presence of Rice, then US Ambassador to Nigeria, Bill Twaddell; and Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs, Thomas Pickering.

* According to her, the tea was offered to Abiola from a tea service on the table in the room, five minutes into the conversation when he started coughing rackingly and consistently.

* She said the meeting intended to meet with Abiola whom she said was wrongfully imprisoned, to negotiate his freedom so he could participate in the elections scheduled then.

* According to Rice, Abiola came into the meeting *‘robust, and happy to see us, sat on the couch and began to tell us how poorly he had been treated during his four years in prison. He was wearing sandals and a multilayered traditional Nigerian dress. I noted that his ankles were swollen”*

* She continued *“About five minutes into the conversation, Abiola started to cough, at first mildly and intermittently, and then racking with consistency. He said he was hot, so I asked his dutiful minder, “Please turn up the air-conditioning.” Noticing a tea service on the table between us, I offered Abiola, “Would you like some tea to help calm your cough?” “Yes,” he said, with appreciation, and I poured him a cup. He sipped it but continued coughing. Increasingly uncomfortable, Abiola removed his outer layer, leaving one layer on top. I shot Pickering a worried glance”.*

* Ms Rice disclosed further *“The coughing became dramatic. I told the assembled men, “I think we better call for a doctor.” No one argued. The minder immediately placed the call. Abiola asked to be excused and went into the bathroom of our meeting room. When he emerged, he was bare-chested and sweating profusely, barely able to talk. He lay down on the couch writhing and then rolled facedown onto the floor. The doctor arrived promptly, took a quick look at him, and declared that Abiola was having a heart attack and must be transported to the hospital immediately. The men laboured to lift the heavy Abiola into a small car, and we rushed to the nearby, rudimentary presidential hospital. I grabbed his eyeglasses off of a side table where he left them, his only belongings, thinking of his daughter Hafsat in the U.S. whom I’d met before we left. The doctors worked on him, furiously, but within an hour they pronounced him dead”*

*”We braced for violence. Abiola’s sudden and mysterious death would hit like a bombshell in Nigeria’s political tinderbox. Conspiracy theories would spread like metastatic cancer. Serious unrest throughout Nigeria was possible. Washington would hyperventilate since it’s not every day a major figure drops dead with senior U.S. officials. His family would need to be told. And, urgently, Nigeria’s acting president would have to hear directly from us, even though his minister was present at the hospital and knew how it went down.”*

*“Ambassador Twaddell panicked and urged me and Pickering to rush to the airport and leave the country immediately. “Hell no,” we said. This delicate situation required deft management, not a hurried exit in a cloud of suspicion. Right away, I called National Security Advisor Sandy Berger, my former boss, briefed him, and dictated a White House press release. Then we went to the Nigerian presidential palace to relay the entire drama to the acting president. We urged him to issue a careful statement to announce the establishment of an autopsy by international experts, to quell rife speculation and limit the potential violence. The acting president did both.*

*“Next, Pickering, Twaddell, and I went with former Nigerian Foreign Minister Babagana Kingibe to see Abiola’s wives and daughters. All of us walked in together, but soon I realized that I was effectively alone in the room with these distraught women. The men had hung far back and left the job to me—just like the pouring of the tea. I proceeded to explain that their husband/father was dead. He had died of an apparent heart attack that began in our meeting. The doctors did all they could to save him but could not. The ladies’ wailing was so intense; it haunts me to this day.”*

*“We briefed the press, and I returned to the US embassy to write the official cable to report what had happened. As a senior official, I rarely wrote up cables summarizing meetings but in this case, there was no more efficient way to ensure we got this very important history straight. As I was typing, I heard in the distance on CNN a familiar voice of indignation. It was none other than the Reverend Jesse Jackson, then serving as President Clinton’s special envoy for the promotion of democracy in Africa. Reverend Jackson served capably in this role, and with good intentions, but on this occasion, I could have throttled him. He was riffling about how Abiola died under suspicious circumstances in a meeting with US officials. I could not believe my ears – our guy implying we were killers! Immediately, I placed a call to his longtime aide Yuri and asked them to shut the Reverend down. “Please, just get him off the set.” That happened, even as I was still watching the segment.”*

*”We stayed overnight in Nigeria to try to calm things, offer any needed assistance to the government, and make an orderly departure. Fortunately, despite deep public upset, no significant violence occurred. The autopsy eventually confirmed the cause of death as a heart attack. Nonetheless, it was Nigeria where conspiracy theories abound. The most popular, which still has currency over twenty years later, is that I killed Abiola by pouring him poisoned tea. From that experience, I found that being a woman policymaker comes with unique hazards. The men would not have offered, much less thought, to pour the tea. They may have swiftly called for a doctor. They may not have been able to break the bad news to the wives. Not for the first time, it was I, not they, who took the public fall for a crime nobody committed.”*

[Extracted from: *“Tough Love: My Story of the Things Worth Fighting For”* by Susan Rice]

By Susan Rice, Former UN Ambassador and National Security Adviser to President Barack Obama.

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