She was a student at Harvard University when her father was elected president of Nigeria. Instead of being allowed to govern, he was thrown into jail in a military coup. Her mother took up his fight for democracy—and got shot in the head.
Hafsat Abiola-Costello recalled the plight of her parents at the Women in the World Summit in New York on Friday, telling journalist Perri Peltz how the tragedy led her to become an outspoken activist for civil rights and democracy in her homeland.
“My father was a businessman and a philanthropist. He loved people and he loved our country. He wanted to serve,” she said. His fellow citizens heard his message. “They said, ‘Let us vote for someone who can make a difference.’” In 1993, election results showed Moshood Abiola to be the winner of the first democratic election in Nigeria in a decade. But the military regime that had previously ruled the country feared “they couldn’t control him,” Abiola-Costello said.
The military denied the validity of the election. Abiola protested. But it was one man against an sea of soldiers: “To defy them is like trying to stand in front of a moving train.”
When Abiola-Costello’s father was arrested and jailed, her mother, Kudirat Abiola, carried his torch in the fight for justice, speaking to international news outlets and rallying support in Nigeria and around the world. She helped organize a strike of oil workers in Nigeria and was among the leaders of a march for freedom in the capital. “The military started monitoring her, threatening her,” Abiola-Costello said. “They jailed her and warned her, ‘If you continue, we’ll have to take more drastic measures.’”
When Kudirat Abiola was freed from jail, she continued her fight, speaking to the United Nations about the situation in Nigeria. “That was the final straw,” Abiola-Costello said. In 1996, Kudirat Abiola was assassinated: “Her car was ambushed and she was gunned down.”
In the wake of the tragedy, Abiola-Costello and her six younger siblings stood in a circle, held hands, and vowed to continue their mother’s work. They helped organize protests in America and Nigeria. Two years later, their father died in jail under mysterious circumstances. “He died for a country that is now democratic,” she said. “Their death, we’ll make sure, will never be in vain.”
Abiola-Costello is now a member of the state cabinet in Ogun State, Nigeria, and the founder of a nonprofit group named after her mother: the Kudirat Initiative for Democracy, or KIND. The group aims to encourage women to run for office in Nigeria and to fight the country’s culture of violence against women.
As a cabinet member, Abiola-Costello is up against a historically corrupt economic and judicial system. “Billions of dollars every year are stolen,” she said. “Why are they stealing this money? So they can buy a house in Florida? No one dies flying economy.” She added, “I’m very careful to make sure that money is used transparently. My boss always supports me. When you try to do things differently, people attack you.”
Turning to politics in America, she said, “Last year when you held your election, I was in shock.”
When she saw Hillary Clinton speak at the Women in the World Summit on Thursday, Abiola-Costello said, she understood that Clinton lost because of fear of women’s empowerment. “People all over the world are afraid of the power of women,” she said. “I saw my mother and I saw the power that she had, and I saw that integrity.”
When “women trust the power of women,” Abiola-Costello said, “they will elect a woman president in America.” The election of a female U.S. president would send a global message. “The whole world was waiting with bated breath in November for you to send that clear signal. OK, it didn’t get sent. We’ll do it again. We’ll try it again. We trust you.”
Additional reporting by Pieter Colpaert.