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Hafsat Abiola: A daughter’s mission

A new documentary reveals how one woman is attempting carry on the legacy of her parents who died trying to democratise  Nigeria 

While studying at Harvard University in 1994 Hafsat Abiola was approached by a group of fellow students asking her to sigh a petition demanding the release of Nigeria’s recently elected president from detention. Hafsat broke down in tears, telling them they were talking about her father.

Hafsat Abiola in a scene from the film

Hafsat Abiola in a scene from the film

Until then she had kept a low profile hoping that the military authorities would eventually buckle under the weight of growing protests in Nigeria and set her father, Moshood Abiola, free.

The protests were led by her mother Kudirat, an apparently uneducated housewife who had stepped in to take charge of the country’s pro-democracy movement following her husband’s detention.

In 1996 Kudirat was assassinated by gunmen and two years later Moshood mysteriously died a day before he was due to be released from prison.

The supreme price they paid is movingly  told in a feature documentary of the same name by the woman who took up the mantle of democratic reform in Nigeria, Hafsat herself.

Directed by US filmmaker Joanna Lipper, The Supreme Price is both the story of one family’s tragedy and of Nigeria’s still tortuous road to democracy. But it also reveals the battle for gender equality in the country, expressed by women like Hafsat, who now heads a woman’s rights organisation in Nigeria and looks to be nursing wider political ambitions.

Although only on limited distribution in Europe and the US and even less so in Nigeria itself, the film has attracted plenty of favourable attention, winning the Gucci Tribeca Spotlighting Women Documentary Award.

Moshood Abiola

Moshood Abiola

Although from a modest family, Moshood Abiola rose to become one of Nigeria’s wealthiest men in the oil-boom days of the 1970s. His extensive business interests included an airline, a shipping company and the Concord newspaper group.

In 1993,  he stood for the presidency following the army’s decision to hand over power to an elected civilian government. Flamboyant and popular, he went on to easily win the poll, which was then promptly annulled by his opponent, the incumbent military ruler Ibrahim Babangida. Grainy archive footage shows the furious demonstrations and strikes that followed and how Abiola, supported by the likes of Wole Soyinka, decided to stand his ground and fight for his mandate, despite the reign of terror being unleashed by  Sani Abacha, the army general who had just seized power.  A year later Abiola was charged with treason and thrown into jail.

As the country erupted into a vicious cycle of protest and military crackdown, Kudirat took up the cause saying, “We don’t want the peace of the graveyard. We want peace with decency, integrity, probity and democracy, not the gun.”

Hafsat describes the dark days that became ever darker as Nigeria became a pariah state.

In 1999 she returned home. The country had been restored to civilian rule but her parents’ accomplishments had been diminished. “We’d lost a lot in the struggle for democracy,” she says pointing out that almost 98 per cent of the parliament was male.  “People were not only forgetting my mother who was killed in the course of the struggle, they were forgetting all the women who had played a key role in demanding freedom and an end to military rule.”

Since then Nigeria has changed for the better but it hasn’t changed enough, she adds, revealing that in 2013 the two men jailed for Kudirat’s murder – one of them Abacha’s chief security officer – were both freed on appeal.

After such a sombre tale in which the main protagonist, Nigeria, emerges with less than flying colours, the film thankfully ends on an optimistic note as we follow the ever dignified Hafsat in her work at Kind (Kudirat Initiative for Democracy), which she set up to remove barriers to female participation in public life and to end violence against women.

Her normally solemn  features break out into a radiant smile as a group of women discuss how many friends they have with PHDs – in this case an abbreviation for Pull Her Down Syndrome.

Although brought up in wealth and privilege, Hafsat knows at first hand the need for sisterhood after growing up in a polygamous household where Abiola’s four wives competed with one another for their husband’s attention, which in any case was distracted by his up to 30 concubines.

As if to bring home the point of women’s continued arrested development  in Nigeria,  Hafsat’s brother Olalekan Yusau, who boasts that his father had “about 55 children”,  cheerfully argues that there is only so far a woman should be allowed to go politically.

Last year, Hafsat was  appointed as a special adviser to the governor of Ogun State, where her father hails from, a role that she uses to help improve the lives of women.

To do all this she has made her own sacrifice, leaving her husband and two children in Belgium. “In Brussels, there is excellent medical care and education. Back home, people are struggling. Yes, my children love their mother but my country needs me,” she says.

Although she is coy about her own political ambitions, Hafsat Abiola looks as if she has the courage and the determination to carry on her parents’ legacy.

This article first appeared in the July 2015 edition of NewsAfrica

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