In Memoriam - Eight Hours with the late Stella Obasanjo


Mobolaji E. Aluko,
Burtonsville, MD, USA

October 31, 2005


I value loyalty particularly in the face of deep crisis and grace under pressure, and in a sense this essay is ultimately about loyalty and grace, although several other issues will be touched upon.

During the June 12 pro-democracy movement arising from the cancellation of MKO Abiola's presidential election of 1993, there were two women that I came to know in connection with it and in relation to significant men in their lives. The first was Ms. Morenike Ransome-Kuti [now Mrs. Nike Nedum] on behalf of her activist father Dr. Beko Ransome-Kuti, and the other was late Mrs. Stella Omotola Obasanjo, on behalf of her husband Olusegun Aremu Obasanjo, now president of Nigeria. Both men had both been jailed in mid-1995 on trumped-up coup charges by the Abacha regime, Obasanjo (arrested March 13 and jailed July 14, 1995) allegedly for taking part in the attempted coup and Beko (arrested July 27 and jailed on August 2, 1995) for being an accessory after the fact. They were not to be released until mid-June1998 shortly after Abacha had unlamentably transpired on June 8 1998.

During a three-year period, the two women had reason to come to the United States repeatedly to plead for international pressure to get their relatives released from prison. The Nigerian Democratic Movement (of which I was president) had, along with the other human rights and pro-democracy movements in the Diaspora, adopted both men (together with several others like Saro Wiwa before he was executed in November 1995) as "Prisoners of Conscience". I, as president of NDM (along with other members of the organization's Executive), was on hand if needed to chaperone both women around Washington DC's corridors of congressional and other powers. That chaperoning occurred: for me with Nike several times, but with Stella, just once, over an eight-hour period during one fine day in 1997.

Nike is a remarkable woman and, like Gani Fawehinmi once stated, is "like father, like daughter." Very soft-spoken and probably no more than 25-27 years old at the time, you had to lean over to hear her words, but her steeliness in rapping the oppressive regime of Abacha and pleading her father's cause all over the world was a wonder to behold. She was the only one permitted to see her father during his incarceration in far-away Katsina, particularly after defiantly filing a petition with the Human Rights Commission of Nigeria. She was always ready to take advice and bear some discomfort as she pounded the corridors. There were times when I looked at her and prayed that my daughters would be like her if I ever got into trouble. She stayed in our home on some occasion, and my three young daughters got to know her. When her father was released and I told him how proud he should be of his daughter, he said, "I know, I know. I hear how she pleaded my case."

Eight Hours with Stella

As I stated before, my activist interaction with Stella Obasanjo, then 51 years old, was only once, sometime in October or November 1997 when I got a call from an alarmed friend of mine, Charles Oluokun, who had been going around Washington DC's corridors of power with her for about two days prior to his call. Charlie and I had been in National Service together in Imo State - he at Owerri and I at Aba - in the 1976/77 NYSC set. As one of only a handful of Youth Corpers then with a car (he had a VW Beatle) and a three-bed-room apartment in Owerri (he was serving with the Housing Authority or so), his house was a den for many Youth Corpers and other hangers-on, male, female and in-between. We were re-acquainted at Howard University in 1984 where I started to teach and where he was then doing some part-time teaching.

His concern then with Stella Obasanjo was that in her naivete, she was somewhat "spoiling" Obasanjo's case by not sufficiently "exaggerating" Obasanjo's bad condition in prison when visiting these Washington dignitaries. While all the news that we were hearing was that Obasanjo famous paunch and cheek were withering in prison under severe physical abuse (with slaps and kicks and malnutrition and imminent poisoning, etc.), when she was asked to confirm such bad news by the Congressmen, she would naively state that she saw Obasanjo only the week before or two, and that he was in good health and spirits.

Lord have mercy !

Although she was born to Ishan parents, Stella was culturally Yoruba, and her naïvete here was typically "Yoruba" (or shall we say African ?) in that she did not wish to worsen any matter by "naming" what was already a bad condition. "How are you ?" "Ko bad !" ("Not bad !") is a general Yoruba response when things could not be worse !

Charlie did not know how to stop her from giving such unhelpfully "cheery" news, and asked me to come along with her and appropriately "intervene", since he felt that I was more politically deft than himself to handle that.

So I stepped in, not really telling her at first why I had been called upon. Petite, beautiful, her voice permanently hoarse from maybe too much late night-outs and wine (for which we had some reputation), Stella traversed Washington DC on that day from about 10 am to 4 pm, with myself, Charlie and her only son Olumuyiwa (very silently; I never heard a word from him, except in the original greetings that we exchanged) in tow, going from congressman to congresswoman - Donald Payne, Nancy Kassebaum, etc. - narrating her story with regard to Obasanjo's plight, and me tackling her whenever she strayed into her naivete ! She soon got my message, and modified entreaties accordingly as the day went along.

The day ended at Howard University. I had first planned to have a very large public event for her to speak to Nigerians in the Washington Metropolitan area. But she quickly begged off that exposure, saying perspicaciously in Yoruba "Se o mo pe awon Nigerians pupo o feran oko mi. Mio fe wahala questions won !" ("You know that not too many Nigerians love my husband. I don't want the trouble that their many questions will entail."). So we had to confine it to a few "friendlier" Nigerian professors at Howard University and pro-democracy activists meeting her my Chemical Engineering conference room for about two hours from 6 pm to 8 pm.

She was grateful.

I watched her closely during those eight hours - from 10 am to 8 pm - and I saw a fiercely loyal, graceful and gracious woman who had stepped out of her comfort zone to save her husband's life with all that she had. Like Esther in the Bible, she must have told herself that she was made for a time like that, and that if she died doing it, she died. What was remarkable was that this was all after Alhaja Kudirat Abiola had herself been assassinated by Abacha regime goons (Sergeant Rogers and co.) in Lagos on June 4, 1996, for reasons that could not have been unconnected with her also pleading her husband MKO's plight in Abacha's gulag. So Stella could not have been unaware of the similar risks that she faced, but it was unlikely that Abacha would have wanted the death of another wife on his bloodied hands, and so she was allowed to travel in and out of the country on behalf of Obasanjo.

Kudirat, in effect, created safe passage for Stella with her blood.

After our Washington meeting, I was to hear from Stella Obasanjo about one month later, in a panicked voice from London, England. Olumuyiwa her son had accompanied her to London to receive the Prize for Freedom Award given by Liberal International, London England on behalf of her husband, and had forgotten to re-endorse his I-20 student immigration form to let him get back into to the United States to continue his studies at Morehouse College, Atlanta - and his exams were the following week. She had tried to no avail to reach her husband's close friend Mayor Andrew Young (and Olumuyiwa's mentor) in Atlanta and various American friends to assist with her son's plight, and so she was frantically seeking Prof. Wole Soyinka's phone number, which I obliged. Her son missed those exams, but I never heard from her again. Olumuyiwa did finally graduate from Morehouse in 2000 or 2001 - so he must have been let back into the US !

Stella Soon After Obasanjo's Release

Soon after Obasanjo's release in June 1998 by the Abdusalami Abubakar regime, a number of us met him at a Washington hotel room in September . Prof. Wole Soyinka, General Akinrinade, Prof. Ladipo Adamolekun, Mr. Dapo Olorunyomi, and Mr. Charles Oluokun were present; Chief Enahoro (who then was still in exile in nearby Alexandria, VA,) had declined to be in attendance. We had no idea then that Obasanjo had presidential ambitions - in fact he vigorously denied any such ambitions in a church service in Silver Spring, Maryland, earlier on that day - or had been pencilled down by the then-current Abdusalami regime as the only Yoruba person that could be handed over to, willy-nilly, in the wake of Abiola's June 12 debacle. Nevertheless, we all knew that he had a strong role to play in the future of the nation somehow, so much of our discussions centered on campaigning for his support for a Reconciliation and Truth Commission; a Sovereign National Conference, as well as a Government of National Unity. Obasanjo was generally agreeable to both the first two, but was non-committal about the third..

Stella was a sociable hostess on the occasion, serving us some finger food and drinks and chit-chatting as she flitted in and out of the room.

I remember Prof. Wole Soyinka remarking to Chief Obasanjo how hard Stella had worked for him while he was in prison, to which Obasanjo responded "Ah, Wole, mo gbo be, mo gbo be ! Iyawo gidi ni!" ("Wole, I hear so ! She is a remarkable wife !") - to which Soyinka retorted, "Ehn, Segun, that is the first time that I have EVER heard you praise ANYONE !" - to general laughter.

When we were leaving the room, I found short Stella on tip-toes draped around tall Soyinka's neck in a corner of the room, whispering something to him. All I heard him say was 'Maa se, maa se se !" ("I will do it, I promise !"). Obasanjo also came around, and asked "Kini wa se o?" ("What are you promising to do o?") to which Soyinka responded "Kilo kan e?" ("What is your business ?") . Obasanjo jovially replied "Ehn, ore e kuku ni !" ("Ehn, I know that she is your friend !")

One could clearly see the camaraderie between the three of them - I understand that Soyinka and Obasanjo are tight friends and hunting partners of beautiful "gazelles" of the animal and human kind - and so I was not surprised to read of some of what Prof. Soyinka had to say at Stella's recent funeral.

I also believe that once Obasanjo became president, Stella rightly felt that she had earned the right to be First Lady with all its trappings of pomp and power, despite the other myriad women in Obasanjo's life. Obasanjo, having been told by a crowd of witnesses of her efforts while in prison, had no option but to oblige despite his initial threats that no woman would live a first-lady life while he was in office.

Obasanjo and the Death of Stella

I was moved to read about:

- Obasanjo's many tears over Stella's death on October 23, 2005. No man is made of steel, and despite his often-times steely disposition, he finally cracked - and should stay cracked as he deals with human beings in a more humane and Christianly manner.

- The recent secret Catholic solemnization at Aso Rock of his marriage to Stella (by Father Mathew Kukah) after thirty years of living in sin together, with Stella reportedly remarking that Baptist Obasanjo's surprising acceptance to take part in the ceremony had allowed her to take Catholic communion and thus had "saved her soul." This premonition of her death is remarkable. May God truly have mercy on her.

- Stella's only child Olumuyiwa's plea that her life be celebrated just as she had observed that her late grandmother's life had been celebrated. I join him in that celebration.

When one knows that her death in a Spanish hospital (on October 23) and those of the 117 plane crash victims the day before (in Lisa Igbore village, Ogun State) were virtually simultaneous, one understands that Obasanjo was faced with both a personal and a national tragedy from which he must seek many spiritual lessons. The embarrassing circumstances allegedly surrounding her death (complications arising from a Spanish tummy-tuck operation); preparations for her impending 60th birthday on November 14 (that promised to be outlandishly lavish and out of touch with Nigeria's economic realities); and lax national aviation rules/management (that may have led to the plane crash/inadequate rescue arrangements) call for deep reflection. I mention only two lessons here: Charity must begin at home anew, and the immediate welfare of the Nigerian citizens must be paramount in all respects.

Enough said, as I urge that you all join in mourning a remarkable woman, wife and mother called Stella Omotola Obasanjo (nee Abebe.) Yes, she was born into privilege (not her fault), lived a privileged life (partly her fault) and died under unfortunate yet privileged circumstances. Yes, she was not perfect - but who is ?

Rest in peace, Stella.


Statement by Chief (Mrs.) Stella I. Obasanjo on occasion of a Freidrich Ebert Foundation "Human Rights Prize" award (1996)
Liberal International Prize for Freedom (1997)
Updated Manifest (with brief commentaries) of Bellview Plane Crash in Nigeria of October 22, 2005