MKO Abiola: The Sickle Cell Connection

Moshood Kashimawo Olawale (MKO) Abiola: The Sickle Cell Connection


MKO Abiola was the first child of Alhaji Salawu Adelekan Akanni Abiola to survive childhood. Before him, 22 children had been born and none lived to the age of 5. MKO’s mother, Zeliat Wuraola Ayinke was said to be troubled by Abiku, children born to die young, whose sole aim in life is to torture and torment their loved ones.

The concept of Abiku is essentially a West African construct although similar but not so well developed fabrications exist in other areas of the world where too many babies die not long after birth. All things being equal, children ought to survive their parents  and this is the wish of most parents anywhere in the world. But things are not equal and never will be. Children die.

Until about 30, 40 years ago, many families in West Africa were affected by the phenomenon of recurrent and endemic infant deaths. Few families escaped the grief and anguish of seeing a child succumb. By the time a family experiences a second or third infant death, suspicions are aroused as to whether the ageold visitation of mischievous, wicked children symbolized in Abiku had come to dwell.

With 22 children gone before him, the Abiola family did not suspect MKO of being an Abiku, they knew he was one. The name he was given, Kashimawoo (let’s wait and see – if he does not die) spoke volumes about his antecedents. It was not until he was 15, when the family thought perhaps he would stay, that Moshudi (a corruption of Moshood) and Olawale were added to his name. MKO  begged people older than he and bullied those younger to drop the telling Abiku name and call him Moshudi instead. That was how ‘Moshood’ came to dominate his other names.


MKO was lucky to have been given such a mild name as ‘Wait and See’. In families where the parents had not lost half as many, the children were given hopeless, shame names.

It is hard to imagine the deep sorrow, anguish and devastation wrecked on homes by the repeated deaths of children. West African parents do everything to appease, persuade or force children suspected of being discarnate spirits to stay. When eventually these children die, the parents are not so sorry as angry. To punish the child before burial, families cut off body parts to shame Abiku in the spiritual underworld and recognize it if it had the audacity to reincarnate in the same family. Sometimes the body was burnt and the ashes disposed. In Ile-Ife, the cradle of the Yoruba, the reaction of choice was to burn the upper lip of the deceased. In 1980, Susanne Wenger (1916-2009), an Austrian who had gone to Yorubaland to settle,  reported the case of a woman whose first ten children died young. Enraged by the death of the tenth, she dashed its body on the ground and broke its lower jaw. Her eleventh baby was born with a deformed lower jaw.

Repeated familiarity with the ways of spirit children has enabled West African parents to psyche out these children long before they pass away. Apart from sickliness, the most telling characteristic, superior intelligence, above average physical beauty and petulance, among others also pointed to an abnormal soul.

Not all Abiku or Ogbanje died young. Some survived to their teens or early twenties, only to die suddenly and seemingly needlessly. Girls seem to form the majority in this category of entities and seem disposed to die at the time of marriage or delivery of their first child. (Does this not square with the known high incidence of maternal mortality in West Africa?)

Abiku Agba

In some West African cultures, particularly Yoruba, there is yet a third subset of elementals relating to adults of any age.

‘You may be 30, 60 or 80 – irrespective of your age,’ says Dr. Kehinde Oladeji of the Department of Linguistics, African and Asian Studies, University of Lagos, ‘you are an Abiku Agba if you predecease your parents.’

All it would have required to qualify MKO an Abiku Agba at his death July 1998 was the existence of either of his parents. The unfortunate and unjust scuttling of his presidential ambition and his dramatic death so close to being released from confinement would have added flavour to his spirit adult-child status.

The concept of Abiku Agba (‘adult spirit child’) thus underscores the perception that in Africa, the death of anyone who has a parent alive, is the ultimate woe. In other climes, such as in the Middle East, parents are proud of their offspring (and offspring of their parents) when they die fighting a ‘noble’ cause (such as carrying out suicide attacks in Israel).

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