Nigeria’s quest for democracy is the fuel that fires Hafsat Abiola, one of the country’s most prominent civil rights activists, and it is a subject she knows in a deeply personal way, having lost both her parents to political violence.
In 1993, when Abiola was a teenager studying abroad at Harvard University, her father won Nigeria’s first democratic election for president in a decade. But the military regime that had previously ruled the country objected to his election, staged a coup, and jailed Moshood Kashimawo Olawale (known as MKO) Abiola as a political prisoner.
That election, and her father’s attempt to bring about democracy in Nigeria, set in motion the tragic events that would lead Hafsat Abiola to commit her life to changing Nigerian society.
Abiola spoke about that heritage, her human rights and development work, and how she manages to stay resilient in the face of such personal heartache and horror, in conversation with Alyse Nelson, president and CEO of Vital Voices Global Partnership, at the Women in the World Salon in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday.
“I was raised by people who have faith in humanity,” she said.
“I want to be upset about my parents and how their lives were taken from them, but at the same time I’m also so proud of them for standing up for Nigerian people in the way they did.
“I can only stay in that space.”
When her father was jailed, Abiola’s mother, Kudirat Abiola, began protesting and demonstrating for his release. During her marriage to MKO, Kudirat had become a champion of social causes in Nigeria including educational programs and built a successful pharmaceutical company, but after the imprisonment, devoted her time to calling for democracy in Nigeria and her husband’s release.
Kudirat helped organize a 12-week strike of oil workers against the military regime and helped lead a march for freedom in the capital city of Lagos, however the unrest caused blowback from the authorities. In 1996, Abiola’s mother, Kudirat Abiola, was assassinated. She was shot in the head while she was driving on a highway.
Just two years later, Hafsat’s father was found dead in jail the night before he was due to be released, leaving her to return to an empty house with her parents gone.
“But if I wanted to be upset about the material losses that my family has suffered I don’t know how I would then cope,” she explained in her moving testimony to the Women in the World salon.
“Life takes and it also gives and if you are spending so much time looking at the things that have been taken away you don’t even see what has been given and that’s a mistake.”
Abiola’s world changed the moment her mother was killed in a political act. She and her siblings vowed to make changes in her honor, and she went on to found the Kudirat Initiative for Democracy (KIND). The aim was to encourage women to run for office in Nigeria and to fight the country’s culture of violence against women.
At first Abiola thought she would name the organization The Initiative for Nigerian Democracy but finally she realized it must be global, not only national. “How dare I limit my mother’s legacy,” she said last night, to applause.
“Nigeria’s women, who have gained least and paid most under military rule, offer a strong possibility for change,” KIND’s website says of its mission in Nigeria. “Women have the most to gain from living in a viable, democratic state. Now, as the nation’s leaders at all levels position to exploit the system, several women are presenting inspiring examples of service leadership.”
After graduating Harvard and creating KIND, Abiola began working with the Nigerian government running projects to help poor women get access to healthcare and pregnancy services by paying them to visit doctors for prenatal checkups and give birth at hospitals.
The historically corrupt political, judicial and economic system of Nigeria is still an enormous hurdle.”Nigeria is the kind of place you get when people face no penalty for doing the wrong thing,” she said.
Now Abiola and her nation faces a new challenge: the threat of the Muslim extremist group Boko Haram, which has terrorized the country in recent years, kidnapping and killing women and girls who seek education and those who identify as Christians.
In 2015, Abiola condemned the country’s handling of Boko Haram in an open letter to then-President Goodluck Jonathan, blasting him for remaining silent after the abduction of the Chibok school girls, a series of suicide bombings, and the massacre at Baga, in which anywhere from hundreds to 2,000 Nigerians are believed to have been killed.
“If these deaths do not generate the attention, outcry and action that they ought to, we can only prepare the ground for more bodies because Boko Haram shows no sign of relenting,” she wrote. “The insurgents can be defeated but first you must decide if the lives of Nigerians are worth it or not.”
She also endorsed now-President Muhammadu Buhari when he ran against Jonathan in 2015, saying the country needed urgent leadership to handle the challenges it now faces.
Poor governance and leadership, poverty, abysmal maternal health and illiteracy were at the roots of many of Nigeria’s ongoing problems, she explained as she paid tribute to her parents’ sacrifices for their nation.
“The absence of government creates a void in communities that religious fundamentalist groups can fill,” she said. “Unless we govern correctly, and adequately… in another 30 years, we’ll see another uprising.”
Follow Emma-Kate Symons on Twitter @eksymons