The history of Nigeria’s 1990s democracy movement

What has been the personal legacy and costs to the Abiola women in Nigeria's struggle for democracy.

Hafsat Abiola. (Still from the film)

For much of the 1990s the Abiola family, along with the country’s generals, dominated Nigeria’s politics. The father, MKO Abiola, made his money in telecoms and won Nigeria’s first democratic elections on June 12, 1993 after ten years of military rule. Those elections are acknowledged as the freest and fairest in the country’s history. However, 11 days later the military dictator, Ibrahim Babangida, annulled the elections. Political chaos and protests followed. An interim government was installed in August 1993 only to be overthrown by another military coup led by General Sani Abacha three months later. Abiola continued to claim the Presidency, but was imprisoned in 1994. While in prison, his wife, Kudirat, who campaigned for him, was assassinated in 1996. When Abacha died in 1998 and military rule was finally reaching an end, Abiola suddenly (or conveniently) died in prison, assumed poisoned.

The Aboila family’s story doesn’t end there. Their daughter Hafsat campaigned both for her father and mother, when they were still alive and she was a college student at Harvard University (they’re rich). By the time the film picks up the story, Hafsat–who had been living in Belgium after her parents deaths–is back in Nigeria, as a special adviser to the Ogun state government–one of Nigeria’s 36 states–and as a campaigner for women’s rights. Hafsat Abiola is also the star of the documentary film “The Supreme Price” by Joanna Lipper. The film sets out to “trace the evolution of the pro-democracy movement in Nigeria and efforts to increase the participation of women in leadership roles.” It claims to do so through the stories of the Abiola family. Hafsat’s main platform is that men have overstayed their welcome as Nigeria’s leaders and it is women’s time. We are meant to think it is her time.

Here’s the trailer:

The film has another bold objective: to “provide a unprecedented look inside of Africa’s most populous nation, exposing the tumultuous, violent history of a deeply entrenched corrupt culture of governance where a tiny circle of political elites monopolize billions of dollars worth of oil revenue while the masses remain impoverished.”

The choice of the Abiolas as poster figures for Nigeria’s democracy movement is an interesting one; but the contradictions of that move are not sufficiently explored by Lipper and ultimately undermined the films claims.

MKO Abiola was a controversial figure. While MKO was alive he presented himself as a self-made man and the film dutifully repeats this script. The effect is that the film glosses over the fact that he made his immense fortune via contracts with a range of Nigerian dictators, not least through leading ITT (International Telephone and Telegraph) company. It’s that company and its corrupt dealings which inspired Fela Kuti to write the song “International Thief Thief (ITT),” about how international companies in consort with local elites exploited African resources: Fela sang of Abiola and General Olesegun Obasanjo, 1970s military ruler (and later an elected president), as “thieves” and “men of low mentality.”

Secondly, while MKO Abiola was famous for his philanthropy, he could not have run as president without the blessing of the sitting dictator, Ibrahim Babangida. Though a sense of this complex politics is hinted at, it is far from explicit and definitely not discussed. These connections are not secrets, and surely Hafsat Abiola has talked about them before. But the film does not explore them.

The film’s PR refers to Kudirat Abiola as someone “[who] took over the leadership of the pro-democracy movement, organizing strikes and marches and winning international attention for the Nigerian struggle”. This is a very controversial statement in Nigeria. Yes, she was a leader. For example, she did take initiatives, towards working with unions, civil society and the international community. However, she was not “the” leader of “the” movement. She did approach the oil workers union when her husband was arrested in 1994 to plead for them to go on strike for his release. She probably did this because NUPENG, the oil workers union for blue-collar workers had , had already staged a strike after the elections in 1993 to protests of the non-implementation of the results: NUPENG was a union deeply entrenched in the democracy movement, with a charismatic leader, Frank Kokori, and a committed membership. The strike in 1994 was led by the national federation, the NLC, but dominated by the two oil workers’ unions, NUPENG and PENGASSAN. The decision to go on strike was made by a joint leadership after due consultation with regions and members. Nigerian trade unions pride themselves on their political independence. The wife of a president-elect could and did not lead the workers’ strike.

The historian Bolanle Awe sums up Kudirat Abiola’s political role in the 1990s in this way: “She could not be called the leader of women, per se, like her earlier counterparts; she did not appear to have been part of their efforts to ensure gender equity and fair play, yet she added tremendous momentum to the women’s movement and encouraged women to speak up for their rights.”

It is not just in specific instances that the film overestimates the role of the Abiolas. Missing from the film is the actual pro-democracy movement. To talk of a movement, it implies a variety of actors. I wish the film would have shown us more of these other actors, and discussed how they related to the Abiolas, both as President elect and the wife. I would have liked Lipper to talk to Hafsat about how Hafsat saw her mother: whether as a democracy or women’s activist or as both (Hafsat does talk candidly about her father’s personal failings).

In the same way the film misrepresents Kudirat and MKO Abiola’s political legacy, it hypes that of Hafsat. While Hafsat herself leads a women’s group, it doesn’t look like “a woman’s movement” per se but more like a small group of women meeting.

The idea to make a film about Nigeria’s pro-democracy movement as well as women’s political roles are both important and exciting topics, and could potentially fill gaps in our knowledge of Nigerian politics. Nigeria is conservative and patriarchal, and, with few exceptions, women and women’s stories are rarely part of public life, except as wives and mothers. (The two leading, and realistic, presidential candidates right now are both men.) Yet, despite this women have and continue to play important roles in Nigerian politics, if at times they court the same notoriety of their male counterparts (think Ngozi Okonjo Iweala, finance minister and the bane of subsidy protesters in 2012 or Stella Oduah-Ogiemwonyi, former minister of aviation implicated in corruption). So, the stories of the Abiola women seem to offer an antidote to this male-dominated political histories.

At another level the film, the film is an important historical document, especially in a country where history is not discussed openly; According to political scientist Jibrin Ibrahim Nigeria is “the only country in the world where the teaching of history has disappeared from the school system. Our children go through the whole school system without learning our origins and struggles as a nation-state.”

One of the probable reasons that history in Nigerian schools has disappeared, is the unsettled national question and conflicts between regions, ethnicities and religions. Nigerians hardly agree on how their history has unfolded, who the relevant actors are and what really happened. (Just take Biafra or current debates over why Boko Haram alludes security forces.) Further, the political and economic elites are so intertwined in history of corruption, political repression and dictatorship that telling any story about Nigeria encounter public disputes.

Though Hafsat Abiola is an intriguing, inspiring and strong character, she is also part of this history. And she would probably be willing to discuss it. But she doesn’t or doesn’t get to or we don’t get to see it because of Lipper’s choices. What we end up with is a story about a family represented as the story of Nigeria’s democracy movement. (Apart from Hafsat, one of M.K.O and Kudirat Abiola’s 6 other children also features; he represents an interesting contrast to Kudirat, which the director could have explored further; instead we only get his backward views on gender.)

In the end, the film amounts to a homage to the Abiolas. That is fair enough, and it is mainly a well-told story (with gaps) with vast historical footage. But it is not the story of the democracy movement, or of the women’s movement. It is a story. And it would be good if the filmmaker helped the viewer to understand what kind of story. Hafsat Abiola is a good choice of entry point, but the filmmaker seems to have been so infatuated, that she comes up with a story line ending in suggestions about her as a presidential candidate. The problem is Hafsat Abiola is not a prominent figure in Nigerian politics. There are suggestions that this is because she is a woman. This may be so, but I would have liked a discussion of the role and potential of women in Nigerian politics.

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