'Imagination will take you everywhere'
With the appointment of Muhammadu Buhari as Nigeria’s new president, it not only marks a significant political change for the country, but also a win for democracy.
Nigeria is Africa’s most populous nation; but the people have rarely had their say – until now. Plagued by violence and corruption since the country’s independence from the UK in 1960, it was under military control for 10 years, followed by several military coups and rigged voting. This election is the first that has been hailed as fair and democratic.
But is it representative enough? As Hafsat Abiola says in the documentary, The Supreme Price; “It is time for the women to stand up to the men. They have brought 50 years of failure.” Indeed Abiola has been well placed to witness the failure of Nigerian politics. Her life has been one of tragedy and strife, but also achievement and strength – a life which is now the subject of Joanna Lipper’s award-winning documentary.
The Supreme Price charts Abiola’s return to her home-country in 1999 after years in exile. Her voiceover immediately conjures up a courageous, eloquent woman; “I didn’t want to let the military win. I didn’t want them to silence women’s voices in Nigeria.” This seems even more pertinent following the kidnapping of Nigerian schoolgirls by Boko Haram, the terrorist group which opposes education for girls, saying they should be married instead. It is this patriarchal culture that Abiola opposes, saying that, “Any society that is silencing its women has no future.” Lipper’s documentary is a declaration to Nigeria – and the world – that women have a voice; a voice that deserves to be listened to.
The story begins with the depiction of the Abiola family; not your typical family. Hafsat’s father, M.K.O Abiola, was elected president in 1993; a much-loved figure who was the leader of the pro-democracy movement. He was not just Hafsat’s father, but the father of Nigeria; a man who embraced everyone no matter their religion – a fresh and much-needed change from the oppressive military regime. He gave hope to the Nigerian people.
But soon the vote was annulled and once again a military coup brought a dictator to power. Hafsat’s father was imprisoned, sparking protests around the country. The protestors were an assortment of people; all religions, all classes, all ethnicities, united in their quest for democracy. But it was the women protestors that had the greatest impact. Hafsat described it as “such a beautiful thing what women can do when they demand change”. It was this passion that ignited Hafsat’s mother, Kudirat, to take the mantle from her husband and carry on leading the pro-democracy movement. A move which ultimately led to her murder. But as Hafsat said; “If she had to pay the supreme price, she will do it.” And she did.
Kudirat used the outrage of her husband’s imprisonment as courage to stop military rule. She gained international attention when her persistent campaigning led to the longest oil workers’ strike in Nigeria’s history – highlighting how Nigeria’s single source of revenue is strictly controlled by the government – creating a minority of wealth within a nation of poverty. Soon enough the military began arresting Abiola’s supporters – many were hanged. One prominent women’s rights protestor, Dr Joe Okei-Odumakin, said she had been jailed 19 times for her out-spoken views. But the risk of death does not deter her, in her words; “Nigeria is worth dying for.”
On 4th June 1996, Kudirat Abiola was about to fly to America to attend Hafsat’s graduation from Harvard. She never arrived. Kudirat was assassinated in Lagos while driving to the airport. Hafsat wasn’t able to attend her mother’s funeral because of the religious rule of burying people 24 hours after they’ve died. Shortly after, M.K.O Abiola suffered a heart attack in prison – but many believe he was killed by the military. On 29th May 1999, Nigeria transferred to civilian rule. The fight for democracy had supposedly been won, but democracy’s two most eminent activists were dead.
“Nigeria has changed a lot. But it hasn’t changed enough.” The new democratic government was far from accountable; not what people had lost their lives for. Hafsat did not want her mother’s death to be in vain. From a very young age, girls in Nigeria are taught to be submissive; Kudirat empowered women, serving as inspiration for females around the country – particularly for her daughter. Hafsat stepped into her mother’s shoes, believing that silence would not end the dictatorship. Even now, despite the democratically elected government, she is still teaching women how to take control of their lives through the Kudirat Initiative for Democracy (KIND), which not only works to increase the proportion of women in government, but sets an example of what civil society in Nigeria can do.
One particular scene from the documentary brings a smile to my face; a table full of women discuss their lives. They are dressed in exotically coloured clothes, all buzzing with ideas and dreams. At the head of the table Hafsat sits poised and confident, she is telling the other women to look around the table; “You may be looking at the next Governor of Lagos state across from you.” They all laugh and smile, “Amen”, they say in unison.
Lipper’s documentary highlights how Nigeria’s burgeoning women leaders are taking to the fore. It expertly weaves together archive footage and interviews from Abiola family members, US Ambassadors to Nigeria and human rights campaigners to convey the troubled history of Nigeria through the eyes of women. A powerful, gripping and moving depiction of how Hafsat Abiola turned tragedy into light, fear into hope, and oppression into liberation.
One can’t help wondering when Nigeria will have a woman president; I can think of one woman who would be perfect for the job.
The Supreme Price by Joanna Lipper, released Thursday 5th February 2015.
Further screenings will take place in June 2015 at the Bertha DocHouse screen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London.