On the 24th of March, 1999, a retired major-general of the Nigerian Army and a former de facto vice president of Nigeria, Babatunde ‘Tunde’ Abdulbaki Idiagbon died under mysterious circumstances at the University of Ilorin Teaching Hospital (UITH), Ilorin, Kwara State. He was just 56 and there were so many questions about his demise. When he died, the position of his family was that the cause of his death was not going to be made public.
FRIENDS FOREVER: Idiagbon and Buhari
Idiagbon’s death was dramatic, sudden and utterly shocking. Many of his hometown folks still shiver today any time they remember the late general. The brief illness that later took his life started on Sunday, the 21st of March but he braved it and travelled to Abuja on Monday, 22nd March. By the time he returned to Ilorin on Tuesday, the stomach upset was still there. On the evening of Tuesday 23rd of March, 1999, the stomach upset became so severe that he could not hold it anymore even after taking some medications. He was prostrate and could not breath properly, covered with sweat, the agony was visible.
Alarmed family members rushed him to the University of Ilorin Teaching Hospital (then located at the University Mini Campus site) and doctors flew into action, battling to save the general’s life (an emergency surgery was said to have been carried out at first). But all efforts to save him were in vain.
Kwara MILAD: Rasheed Alade Shekoni.
By 4.35 pm the next day, Wednesday, he was gone after bouts of convulsion. He had been admitted at the hospital for just 18 hours and as at the time he died, the doctors were making plans to operate him. The surgical operation had been approved by Lt. Colonel Rasheed Shekoni, the Military Administrator of Kwara State but before any scalpel could be used, Idiagbon was dead. Ilorin was thrown into mourning like no other with wailings echoing from Adangba to Abayawo. According to the Chief Medical Director of the teaching hospital, Rotimi Fakeye, a professor of obstetrics and gynaecology, Idiagbon’s condition was very serious as at the time he was brought to the hospital. Another son of the soil, the late Major-General Abdulkarim Adisa, the Kwara State Government and the Christian Association of Nigeria mourned him. Tears flowed freely at his Idiagbon family compound and his kinsmen were inconsolable. His 90-year-old mother, Alhaja Ayisat said:
“What is life to me now without Tunde? Who have I offended that could not have taken me away instead of my son? God, this is a great burden and sorrow for me at my old age to bear.”
To them, their pillar of support and source of pride was gone, all too soon. Adisa, who had just been released from Abacha’s Guantanamo Bay less than a month earlier was totally devastated. He said: His death is a big loss to Ilorin people especially those of us close to him and as a former number two he had achieved a lot. He wanted Nigeria to be a better place to live in” Idiagbon’s last public outing was a special prayer session on 14th March that was held to mark Adisa’s release from Nigeria’s Gitmo.
On the 24th of March, 1999, death came calling. But what killed him? On the 30th of March, 1999, Professor Olurotimi Fakeye, chief medical director of UITH had a meeting with the Idiagbon family andNewswatch that information about the general’s death was strictly a medical issue. He said:
‘Medical diagnosis cannot be revealed without the permission of members of the deceased family.’
When the members of Idiagbon’s family were approached to speak on what killed the late strongman, none of them was willing to talk to the reporters. One of Idiagbon’s sons told Newswatch after the prayer that their late father already told them not to grant interviews to the press, he said:
‘Our father told us that reporters always have on their minds what they wanted other people to tell them, and that reporters have all mastered ways of working their own personal thoughts into whatever people tell them. At the end of the day, reporters always say what people did not say. That is why I cannot talk to you.’
But the refusal on the part of the family to talk only helped to spark even more controversies about the death of their patriarch. Some sources however said that he might have died from complications of gastroenteritis caused by cholera (from contaminated food or water). He showed the symptoms such as stooling and vomiting. The sources said Idiagbon had consumed sea food when he went to Abuja and that was probably where he got infected. A week before his death, Idiagbon was in Abuja. He was at the Federal Capital Territory to attend a meeting of senior army officers, retired and serving, summoned by head of state General Abdulsalami Abubakar on how best to return the troops to the barracks and hand over power to the civilians. On the 19th of March, he returned to Ilorin where he played squash with his friends the next day (Saturday). He was fine until Tuesday, 23rdMarch when he complained of a slight stomach ache.
For the belly upset, he took some agbo (herbal preparations) but the pain only worsened. Around 10:30 pm, he was rushed UITH for proper medical attention. Professor Fakeye then led five other medical consultants into an unsuccessful battle to save his life. But Fakeye said later on that it is not true that he died of cholera. He said:
‘I know the clinical presentations of Idiagbon’s cause of death but I am not authorized to tell you. All I can say is that he did not die of cholera.’
For close family members, they also believed that he did not die of cholera, one revealed:
‘Idiagbon was a very careful person. Apart from adhering meticulously to a strict dietary regimen, he was not used to eating out; he always carried with him food and water when travelling outside Ilorin.’
But some people remained unconvinced and said the late general was poisoned during his last brief visit to Abuja. They asked why Fakeye had to seek the attention of Kwara State military administrator Rasheed Shekoni before Idiagbon was admitted to the same UITH that he was already using before. They asked why involve the MILAD into Idiagbon’s private medical issue. Also, they queried why Idiagbon’s medical file was reportedly removed from the hospital’s records department by Fakeye ‘apparently to avoid any leakage of the cause of his death.’
In several quarters, the belief was that an order came from the presidency directing Fakeye to make the file vanish. But the professor denied all these allegations, he said he never sought for permission from Shekoni before treating Idiagbon but that all he did was that when Idiagbon was brought to the hospital he quickly alerted the MILAD and the health minister considering the status of Idiagbon in Nigeria. He said:
‘I do not need anybody to permit me to treat a conscious person, who is above 18 years. That is the position of the law. Idiagbon was still conscious when he was brought to us. His wife and children stood by us. Their permission was more desirable.’
For the medical files, he said it was kept in the UITH’s referral record bank for safe custody saying:
‘That is where we keep closed files for specific references.’
But some people were still not convinced and prominent Nigerians demanded an autopsy. These included Sunday Mbang, prelate of the Methodist Church of Nigeria and Ayo Maria Atoyebi, Catholic bishop of Kwara State. Mbang on his own said:
‘We want to know the reason behind the demise of General Idiagbon through the family. Then we will comment further on it. For instance, we want to know whether he was poisoned or he died due to poor treatment given him in the hospital. Let the family come out first for us to know the next line of action, I mean if they observed any foul play, they should not hesitate to verify.’
For Atoyebi, he said in civilized country, every death was usually followed by an autopsy to help remove suspicion or bring to book the culprits. He said the family should probe the death if they suspected any ‘foul political game.’
Unsubstantiated claims of poisoning have trailed his death (like that of Tafawa Balewa too, circumstances around the death of Nigeria’s first and only Prime Minister remain unsolved) but you know, Nigeria is a very peculiar place, forensic medicine is next to nothing, that’s one and we do not bother to investigate the deaths or killings of our leaders. Two, the Muslim burial rites leave little or no time for any useful autopsy or any relevant forensic examination, even if toxicologists were to be present. We need to work on stuffs like these, so many unresolved murders, deaths and assassinations in our nation. In the case of Idiagbon, a retired group captain in the air force and former Kwara State military governor said:
‘You know we are Muslims who believe in destiny. We believe that when death comes there is nothing anybody can do about it. We believe that he died a natural death.’
The burial prayers for the late General Idiagbon were held at the Main Bowl of the Kwara State Stadium and those in attendance were former military rulers Muhammadu Buhari and Ibrahim Babangida, Vice Admiral Mike Okhai Akhigbe (now late), the Chief of General Staff of the Abubakar regime, Alhaji Sulu Gambari, the Emir of Ilorin, Lt. Col. Rasheed Shekoni, the Military Governor of Kwara State, Major-General Mohammadu Magoro, Major-General Abdullahi Mohammed and Chief Olusegun Osoba, former Ogun State Governor who could not control his tears. His body, still wrapped in a white UITH fabric and strapped onto a stretcher was conveyed to the venue in a white Peugeot 504 Estate (Station Wagon). The body was removed from the vehicle and a team of security officials and Islamic clerics unclasped the belt clamped over his corpse.
Placed on the ground, the body was then turned on its right side to the face the East. After the prayers, his body was transported to his residence. At 11.10am, the chief cleric started the funeral prayers (called janazah in Islam) which took just 10 minutes. The body was then lifted and placed into the vehicle which drove off. The prayers had ended when General Babangida walked into the stadium and he took turn to shake hands with the seated guests. Vice Admiral Akhigbe (led the Federal Government delegation as the CGS) stood up to salute him. Buhari stayed glued to his seat and reluctantly shook IBB’s hand. By 11.45, Idiagbon’s body had reached his GRA residence for the very final burial rites with the prayers led by Imam Isale Imale, Alhaji Abdulhameed Abdulahi.
Six smartly-dressed soldiers standing at attention mounted a short parade of honour for the late general. As the body was driven out of the stadium, two shots were fired by the soldiers and at his GRA residence. Men and officers from the 4th Mechanized Brigade, Sobi, Ilorin had a march past for him. Another short prayer was offered as the body was taken out of the car.
General Idiagbon was buried on Thursday, 25th March, 1999 at his No. 5, Aderemi Adeleye residence, GRA, Ilorin. Burial was swift. He was interred at about 12.00 noon. His wife was clad in black and she wept profusely. General Buhari could not hold back his tears. When a journalist asked the devastated Buhari to comment, he said:
‘I can’t say anything. What can I say?’
On his demise, former Nigerian aviation minister, Femi Fani-Kayode had some interesting things to say:
General Tunde Idiagbon was to be appointed Chief of Staff in the Presidency in President Obasanjo’s government. He was invited to Abuja by the President, offered the job and he accepted it. He went back to his hotel on the night he was made that offer after seeing the President, had some food and some ”Abuja tea” and he immediately fell gravely ill. He never recovered from that illness and he in fact died from it. He was not suffering from any known illness prior to taking the tea. Up until that time he had enjoyed excellent health and I was reliably informed that he was in very high spirits after leaving the Presidential villa that night. As a matter of fact Obasanjo was looking forward to working closely with him. The fact that the man died in such a mysterious way is yet another inexplicable tragedy in our history. General Abacha also drank some Abuja tea and he died in the same mysterious way (though he did suffer from ill health prior to that).
The same thing happened to Chief Moshood Abiola and in his case the tead was prepared for him during a meeting with Susan Rice (who was then the American Undersecretary of State for Africa) and a few other American officials including Carrington the then American Ambassador. The irony is that there are some poisons and toxins that the CIA, MOSSAD and other intelligence agencies have always used that cannot be detected by even the most sophisticated autopsies. So I guess that even an autopsy could not have really told us much (as was shown after the autopsy that was done on Abiola after he perished). I pray that one day we will get to know the truth about what really happened to this great man called General Tunde Idiagbon, who killed him (assuming that he was in fact killed), why they did so and just how it was done. –April 23, 2011.
So will Buhari ever probe the death of his former second-in-command? Time will tell.