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The Nigerian Women Who Fight for Democracy

The Supreme Price traces the legacy of the Abiola family, who battled for gender equality and political freedom in a nation where both have been brutally repressed for decades.

10.01.14 9:45 AM ET

Just a block from United Nations Headquarters, on the corner of Second Avenue and 44th Street in Manhattan, a street sign marks “Kudirat Abiola Corner.”

The positioning is discreet, but significant—it’s on the same street as the Nigerian embassy. And it serves as a reminder of the powerful democracy activist who was assassinated in 1996, most likely at the hands of the government. At the time, the renamed corner caused a slight international squabble and demands for its removal. It’s just two blocks from another tribute to a political activist, the Mandela corner.

Kudirat had been the most high-profile of four wives of MKO Abiola, Nigeria’s president-elect who was thrown into jail shortly after being barred from taking office. While her husband languished in jail, Kudirat rose to immense popularity and came to embody two dangerous crusades in Nigeria: the fight for democracy and the empowerment of women. She became a beacon of hope, both internationally and domestically, that Nigeria could someday usher in gender equality and political freedom in a country where both had been brutally repressed for decades.

Today in Nigeria, these issues remain. In the spring, the wider world got a firsthand look at the ineptitude of the Nigerian government and the dangers of life as a woman in Africa’s most populous country after militants kidnapped nearly 300 girls and officials fumbled a response.

The struggle to build a more open Nigeria is told in The Supreme Price, a documentary set to hit theaters in New York and Los Angeles on October 3. The film traces the legacy of the Abiola family, particularly Hafsat Abiola, the eldest daughter of Kudirat and MKO.

Kudirat was assassinated just days before she was set to fly out to see Hafsat graduate from Harvard University. Three years after her mother’s death, Hafsat returned to Nigeria from exile to continue her mother’s crusade.

“If what they were hoping to do was silence the voices of Nigeria’s women who were demanding change, I would make sure my mother’s voice was not made silent by even one day,” she says in the film. It was shortly after the military transferred to civilian rule and she took up residence in her mother’s old bedroom.

It was a risky move, as the last offer of democracy had gone terribly wrong for Hafsat’s family. In 1993, the military eased its grip and offered a transition to civilian governance. Hafsat’s father, MKO, decided to run for president.

With a boisterous personality and promise of long-awaited freedoms, he managed to win popular support in a country composed of more than 300 ethnic groups and 500 languages. (Some of his methods were a bit unorthodox. As author and activist Wole Soyinka recalls, he began taking wives from a patchwork of groups and was soon “an in-law of every section of the community.”) MKO received the popular vote, but a military coup blocked him from taking power. After he continued publically fighting for his seat, he was locked up, and later died in detention.

Both parents were gone, but—and as her father said in a piece of archival footage, “Nigeria has the most enterprising women in the world”—Hafsat stepped into their roles, striking out with activism of her own soon after her mother’s death.

She has a transcendental moment while learning of the killing: “I heard her thinking, ‘I don’t need to stop, I don’t need to turn around, Hafsat knows what to do.’”

So she took up the cause. Hafsat established KIND (Kudirat Initiative for Democracy), which strategically positioned its headquarters outside a mosque so men on their way to prayers would get a daily eyeful of activism.

“My mother made the ultimate sacrifice and I don’t doubt that many other women will have to pay a price [too], but I do not think we have any other option because any society that is silencing its women has no future,” she says in the film.

By 2011, Hafsat had been working on these issues while raising a family in Belgium with her husband, British diplomat Nicholas Costello, but was drawn back by a cabinet position in a provincial government to bring the U.N.’s Millennium Development Goals to a state of 4.5 million. Rebutting criticism from her friends, she returned to her home country. “If I want to play role of public servant I cannot have this traditional mindset,” she says.

The Supreme Price traces Hafsat’s personal evolution from a soft-spoken student, inspired into action by a campus group who unwittingly asked her to sign a petition requesting her father’s freedom at Harvard, to a strong-spoken advocate.

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“Nigeria’s changed a lot but it has not changed enough. Poverty is fueling new terrorists: we have Boko Haram, which is linked to al Qaeda, so we are running against time,” she says, forebodingly, in the film.

This past spring, Hafsat’s global profile rose as the world tuned in to follow the story of hundreds of girls taken into the jungle by militants. It turned into a bizarre spectacle: a three-way standoff between activists begging for the girls’ return, the government ignoring or impeding any hope of swift rescue, and the extremists continuing to attack unhindered. It was the boiling point of tensions that Nigeria had seen bubble over for years.

In May, as the #BringBackOurGirls campaign hit a fever pitch, Hafsat partook in a Google Hangout with The Daily Beast. “Because of the way the world has responded to the abduction of 200-plus girls in Chibok, the Nigerian government understands [women and girls] are not invisible, we’re not to be just set aside, but that they actually have a responsibility to protect us and ensure our security,” she said.

Though the response was far from satisfactory, there’s hope that the government took note not to ignore such a calamity of international embarrassment next time.

It has now been 15 years since the military handed power to a civilian government. But a culture of fear continues to pervade the political environment. John Campbell, former U.S. Ambassador to Nigeria, has counted 106 political assassinations since the transition.

And in the four years of Goodluck Jonathan’s rule, Nigeria hasn’t embraced democracy as voters once hoped it would under the helm of MKO.

“What passes for democracy has been recognized as pure fraudulence,” Soyinka, the activist, says.

At a meeting with women activists in the film, she takes the podium and issues a powerful challenge: “When we look at what our country has achieved, how little, it’s been 50 years of failure, so what do Nigeria’s women have to say to their men?” she says. “When we come, the men will stand down. Take that to the bank.”

When she began to make the film in 2010, there was no way for director Joanna Lipper to foresee the unexpected timeliness of its release. The social media campaign for Nigeria’s kidnapped girls threw the country under a global spotlight.

“Women’s issues perhaps hadn’t been in the forefront of international consciousness in Nigeria in the same way before in the media,” says Lipper, who is a Harvard lecturer on using movies for social change. The film reels she had been coming across in her research of the democracy and women’s rights movements during Hafsat’s parents’ time showed similar intent by filmmakers, but the power of the Internet brought attention to degrees never before imagined.

“The footage was smuggled out to document human rights as they were occurring, and the whole idea was to create an international watchdog so people could see [what was happening], and also shorten reaction time with the international community,” says Lipper.

Later this month, the film will air at Lights, Camera, Africa!, a film festival in Nigeria. Lipper expects a diverse reaction, but she hopes to inspire not just women, but men as well to get onboard with gender equality. “It’s really inspired me seeing those men working side by side [with activists],” Lipper says. “That’s really, I think, the way forward, is engaging men as advocates and educators.”

And they’re listening.

“We are looking forward to a day where a woman will stand up and rule this country,” a young man at a protest in the film says. Might that be Hafsat herself, a dynastic political power and dedicated public servant already? As Hafsat brings development goals to fruition in her state, there are shades of a presidential candidate.

Lipper’s intent in making her film, she says, was to plant Hafsat in that seat and raise the question: “What would this look like, what would this feel like, what kind of changes could [there be] if women are in political seats of power?”

She doesn’t think Hafsat will run for office in the upcoming 2015 elections, but knows she does have political aspirations. Hafsat has realized, Lipper says, “she can’t rely on other people to make changes she thinks needs to be made and she can’t blame other people for not making those changes. The weight of her legacy and objectives made it really important to take the opportunity to be an agent of change in Nigeria when the opportunity was presented.”