Hmmm….love. That thing they call love ehn. The most powerful force in the Universe (leave nuclear bombs out of this okay? lol). Millions of Nigerians are familiar with the story of the legendary man called MKO Abiola but not as much are familiar with a most enchanting story of love and courage of his childhood love and sweetheart, the gracious Alhaja Ayinba Simbiat Atinuke Abiola nee Soaga. Their love was so strong that even when MKO could not resist the charm of other ladies, her place in the household and in his heart was never threatened. As the Yorubas would say, orisha obinrin jekin pe meji ko denu (no woman truly wants a rival), Simbiat was a woman who also exhibited her own jealousy but it was her undying love for her husband for decades, courage and maturity that stood her out. Abiyamo will take you on fast and spry ride through the life and times of Nigeria’s most popular Simbiat.
The Early Days and Love Life
The late Alhaja Chief (Mrs.) Simbiat Atinuke Abiola was born into the wealthy family of Rafiu Isola Soaga and Rabiatu Soaga of the prominent Soaga family in Gbagura, Abeokuta, Ogun State in 1938. Both Simbi and Moshood met at the Arabic Quranic school as secondary school youngsters in 1954 and fell in love. MKO Abiola on his own was from a thoroughly poor background and by the time her family got to know about the relationship, they insisted she could not marry someone of such a lowly status as MKO Abiola. However, she insisted that she had made her choice and no one would change it. She clung to MKO Abiola and MKO himself repeatedly admitted that if not for her courage and devotion, he stood no chance of marrying her.
Simbiat Abiola attended the same secondary school with foremost female political activist, Titi Ajanaku.
The two young lovers married in 1960 (some records indicate 1956 but it was after the death of his mother). The marriage was blessed with five children Kolawole Abdulateef, Ayodeji Shamsudeen, Agboola Nureyndeen, Bolaji and Wuraola (F). They were not rich when they got married but she threw all her support behind MKO and she was very instrumental to his stunning financial success.
The Jealous Simbiat
Like every other woman on the surface of the planet, the late Simbiat had her own fiery streak of jealousy. Thus, she did not find it really funny or particularly amusing when MKO made moves to marry a young lady named Miss Kudirat Olayinka Adeyemi (later Alhaja Kudirat Abiola). It was towards the end of 1972 and Abiola was already swimming in millions. While Simbiat was still by his side, he fell flatly for Kudirat’s charm. That year, Kudirat was working as a sales clerk at the Adebowale Electrical Industries Limited and one fateful day at the Lagos Trade Fair, she was coordinating the company’s exhibition stand and that was where MKO sighted the pretty lady. According to him, it was love at first sight. But MKO knew Simbiat would not find the idea funny at all.
So what did MKO do? He went straight to the late Dr. Lateef Adegbite, a lawyer and later the Secretary-General of the Nigerian Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs who was then based in Ibadan as a State Commissioner with the defunct Western State under Brigadier Oluwole Rotimi. Abiola was visibly excited as he explained his burning love for the young Kudirat. He laid his mind bare and narrated that he was so crazily in love that he could not even wait to propose marriage to her. Adegbite was amazed and amused at the same time. He urged MKO to calm down first and even let the young girl (she was in her early 20s) attend the university and bag a degree first. Adegbite also rang it to MKO’s ears the shege he would face in the hands of his first love and wife, Simbiat Atinuke.
But MKO was an incorrigibly stubborn and energetic man. Once he set his mind on any goal, he pursues it with the vigour of a Spanish bull. He told Adegbite that he was ready to face all challenges and that he was quite confident that he would get Simbiat’s support. He also stated that as for Kudi’s university degree, there was no need for that anymore. He then threw in a saying: inkan tan wa lo si Sokoto, nbe lapo sokoto (meaning why travel all the way to Sokoto when what you are looking for can be found in your sokoto (trousers)) insisting that why would someone like Kudirat need to work if she was married to him? He went on to say that Kudirat would not have to lift a hand in her life to work and he would take very good care of her, make her happy and that she would never regret the decision.
As Adegbite listened raptly to the lover boy, he knew his hands were tied and that he was in trouble. That was because Simbiat was a distant cousin of Adegbite who did not know how he would handle the whole case should Simbiat get to know of his involvement. Adegbite, a man who believed in a male’s right to polygamy according to the laws of Islam was however in a dilemma. He advised MKO to take more time to reflect deeply on the issue. Later sha, Alhaja Simbiat got to know of the sizzling relationship with Kudirat and all of MKO’s plans to even wed her. As expected, she was disappointed, heartbroken and firmly opposed the relationship. When she learnt that Adegbite was even involved in the whole matter, she was further hurt as she felt Adegbite should have at least protected her interest as his cousin by persuading MKO not to go ahead with the romantic nonsense that had taken over his head. But Abiola would not be perturbed. Like a man possessed, he went off to Ijebu-Ode, Ogun State, to the family compound of Kudirat to ask of her lovely hand in marriage. Simbiat was despondent and heartsick. Her childhood love, husband of over 10 years and the father of her five children had transformed into something else.
MKO insisted that Adegbite and other close friends follow him to Kudi’s place in a show of solidarity to ask for her hand in marriage. Adegbite was confused. Inasmuch as he wanted the best for Abiola too, he was also conscious of his relationship with Simbiat and her feelings. He then advised MKO not to go ahead with the nikkah(marriage celebration) without the express approval of Alhaja Simbiat who was clearly not excited with the way things were turning out.
When MKO and his band of giggling friends arrived Kudi’s family home in Ijebu-Ode, they were all shocked. Kudirat’s mother emphatically stated it was impossible for her daughter to become MKO’s wife unless one condition was fulfilled: get Simbiat’s approval and willingness to take her in as a junior wife. MKO was boxed into a corner and he knew that would be one of the most challenging tasks in his life. He did not tell Adegbite of this new development. However, he managed to get Simbiat’s support and approval. How he was able to do that, no one knows. MKO and Kudirat got married in 1973.
At that point, Simbiat’s courage as a woman kicked in and she eventually succumbed all in a bid to make her childhood love happy and contented. She graciously agreed to welcome Kudirat into the MKO household. And in the years to come, before her tragic death, she would remain the stabilizing factor in the MKO family. She was referred to as Mummy by everyone and no one dared disrespect her. Even MKO would even respect her more but some quirky events happened as she would later tease her husband and his new wives…lol! (MKO later married Adebisi Olawunmi Oshin in 1974 and Doyinsola (Doyin) Aboaba in 1981. Simbiat, Kudirat, Adebisi and Doyin were to be his first four wives in line with Muslim tradition. Many were to follow).
On the eve of the nikkah between MKO and Kudirat, Adebgite was off to Ijebu-Ode to receive MKO’s groom train coming from Lagos. But as he was going to Kudi’s family house, the venue of the event, he saw Alhaja Simbiat by the door, waiting to be welcomed inside. Adegbite was smitten by a combination of conscience and trepidation. Instantly, he turned and left, afraid that Simbiat would be bitter with him and even accuse him of encouraging MKO to pick another wife.
The nikkah would later proceed as planned with Simbiat accepting Kudirat and promising to take care of and cater to her welfare as a junior wife.
Interesting Things About Simbiat Abiola
-She was fondly referred to as Ayinba.
-Contrary to what many believe, she gave her full support to MKO’s political ambition. She was in total agreement with his plan to become the Chairman of the National Party of Nigeria (NPN). Simbiat generally agreed with her husband on almost all issues but differed on the topic of polygamy, which is quite understandable.
-The late Simbiat Atinuke Abiola was a businesswoman and politician. In 1979, she ran for the position of a Senator in Ogun State (Gbagura Senatorial District) on the platform of the NPN but was defeated by Chief Kunle Oyero. The MKO family would cite electoral fraud as nothing was recorded for her even in her own ward where her family voted. The final score was 54,137 votes by Oyero of the UPN to her own 20,289 votes.
-Holding many prestigious titles, she was the Otun Iyalode of Egbaland. She was also the Yeye Tayese, Iya Egbe UMC and many more. In her own right, she was one of the wealthiest businesswomen in Nigeria.
-Like her husband, she was also a great philanthropist and was particularly focused on the welfare and emancipation of women, education and training of girls, youth and the children.
-The late Alhaja Simbiat was fully involved in her husband’s businesses and played a very large role in the growth of Abiola’s business empire. She was the Vice President of Concord Group of newspapers, where she saw to the setting up and maintenance of the publications and later, other ventures like the Wonder Bakery. One of a kind in Nigeria, the Wonder Baking Company opened in 1980 in Lagos and by 1981, it had employed over 140 people. Marketing under the brand name of Mother’s Pride, they made use of the same Wonder Bread recipe used in the United States and the United Kingdom. The factory gulped a sum of N2.5 million (value as at that time). (The Advance of African Capital: The Growth of Nigerian Private Enterprise by Tom G. Forrest)
–According to Dr. Moshood Fayemiwo, the Samuel Doe of Liberia’s money that caused trouble between MKO and IBB (Doe’s friend) was paid into the Swiss account of Simbiat Abiola.
-The former wife of Chief Olusegun Obasanjo and mother of Gbenga, Busola, Enitan, Segun and Iyabo Obasanjo, Mrs. Oluremi Obasanjo wrote in her book, Bitter-Sweet: My Life with Obasanjo, that at a time in 1981, Obasanjo so maltreated her that she was penniless and broke to the extent that she could not pay the school fees of her children and to get financial help and assistance, had to approach Simbiat Atinuke Abiola who prayed that God would help. At another point when Mrs. Obasanjo was slammed in a police jail, it was Simbiat who came with her elder sister to bail her out. Mrs. Obasanjo refused to be bailed and she spent the night in a police detention, as a guest of mosquitoes.
-She was also a lover of sports and in particular, promoted women football. She established and financed the Kakanfo Queens, a female football team. There was even the Simbiat Abiola Cup in Kano in February 1986, which drew over 10,000 spectators. The 1987/88 National Under-16 Girls Soccer Championship Trophy was donated by her.
-During her lifetime, she lived with Abiola’s three other wives in the same compound at the Moshood Abiola Crescent, off Toyin Street, Ikeja, Lagos and she was described as not only being very warm and accommodating, she did not set out to bully anyone. But MKO got uneasy atimes, perhaps due to pangs of conscience at what he did to his first love. It was said that anytime MKO was very excited, she would tease him saying:Daddy wa, shey ikan ninu awon iyawo yin ti bimo tuntun ni? (Our father, has one of your new wives given birth to a new child?) A shy MKO would go silent and calm. He never even bothered her with news of delivery of kids by other wives, despite his great love for children.
-At a time, Simbiat had to resign to fate, accepting her husband’s vulnerability to women. When Deji, her son, was involved in a bloody fracas with officers of the Nigerian Air Force, both of them had to appear at the Nigerian Air Force base to sort out the issue. While they were seated, she sneered at her husband and whispered to him: Ewo bi awon obinrin yen tin ji yin wo (See how those ladies are flirtingly looking at you). MKO could not control his laughter when he said: Iya wa, ninu oro to wa nile yii, awon obinrin ton wo mi lenri wo (Our Mother, of the serious issue we have on ground, all that concerns you is that of ladies ogling at me). And they both laughed.
-Simbiat’s role as the most senior wife in the compound was never overshadowed in her lifetime. Even her own apartment in the building was elevated above others.
-Nigeria’s Bonsue fuji exponent, Adewale Ayuba is one person who will never forget her. In June 2012, he narrated his experience with Simbiat, who would become a patron of his band. It was in 1991 and Ayuba’s band boys were refused visas at the British Embassy. Being the patron of the band, Ayuba ran to her for help and explained that they could not get visas for a concert in the UK. Ayuba said she asked her:
Shey o ti so fun baba e? (Have you told your father?)
A dazed Ayuba even thought she was referring to his own father and when he realized she meant MKO, he was too shocked and surprised. He had never met MKO one-on-one before that time. There and then, Ayinba Simbiat picked up the phone and called her husband saying:
Daddy, e ma boo o. Omo yin fe ri yin (Daddy, kindly come downstairs. Your child wants to speak with you).
But MKO replied that he was too busy at the moment but told her to instruct him to come to his room. Ayuba was petrified and excited at the same time. When he got to the room, he opened the door and in was the legendary MKO who said:
Omo mi. Ki lo de? (My child, what is the matter?)
Then Ayuba explained the case to him. MKO asked if he had working documents and he replied that he had all the papers but did not know why he was being denied visas. Instantly, MKO called the British Embassy and placed an appointment for the next day. Ayuba still couldn’t believe all he was seeing and hearing. MKO told him to come back the following morning by 7.00am. Ayuba was at his gate by 6.30am…lol! But he was surprised to find MKO already dressed up and even waiting for him. They then drove to the Embassy (then located at Marina). MKO went in and after a few minutes, he returned and faced Ayuba. Ayuba in his words said MKO told him:
‘Don’t worry, they are not giving you this time around but they will give you next year.’ Ayuba continued:
…and true to his word, I was granted the visas the following year without any hassle and that was it and that was how I fell in love with this man.
On the 10th of November, 1992, tragedy struck in faraway London but the news vibrated in Nigeria. After a bitter fight with cancer, Alhaja Simbiat Atinuke Abiola passed away in a British hospital. A devastated Abiola family tried their best to remain strong in the face of the matriarch’s demise. On the 17th of November, a condolence register was opened for her at the Aare Abiola House, 26-32 Whistler Street, London N5, 1NH. The precise nature of her malignancy was shrouded in secrecy with various reports, some stating it was of the breasts and others stating it was of the stomach. While she was on the deathbed and in pains from the cancer she battled so hard, Simbiat Abiola’s generosity still shone. She was watching the television and when she came to see the devastation and havoc wreaked upon the Egyptian capital of Cairo by an earthquake, she was touched. She was so moved that from her sick bed, she pledged the sum of $100,000 in donation to rebuild a school for young children which was destroyed by the earthquake. A month after her death, the foundation stone for the school was laid, in her honour in an event attended by the most powerful in the Egyptian society. Photos below show her funeral ceremony:
Nigeria mourned the passing of the amiable and meek wife of one of Africa’s richest men and great philanthropists. The military president, Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida was one of the most prominent mourners at the Abiola home. Musicians like King Sunny Ade, Sikiru Ayinde Barrister and Salawa Abeni waxed records in her memory and it was a touching moment indeed. Abiyamo wants you to enjoy this clip of Sunny Ade’s tribute to her; it was quite popular back then:
MKO Abiola would later move on with life but would never forget his late wife or pretend that her space could be filled. In his will, dated 25th October, 1989, he ordered that all his 113 children from the 25-40 wives must undergo a DNA test with his doctors in the United Kingdom with the exception of five children: Simbiat’s children, and a sixth, Adunola from Sekinat Abiola. All other children, including those of Kudirat, were to undergo the test before they could inherit from him. 25 children failed the test at the initial stage. In the will, a staggering sum of N63 million was also set aside for her. Simbiat got the highest fraction of money according to the will, with the amount estimated to be about 450,000 pounds. Today, the Simbiat Abiola (formerly Medical Road) Way, Ikeja, in Lagos State is named for her.
When Abiola died in 1998, he was buried in a grave at the base of a coconut tree, next to his wife, companion, love, lover, supporter and sweetheart, Simbiat Atinuke.