Hafsat Abiola, Nigerian Democracy Leader
This text has been professionally transcribed. However, for timely distribution, it has not been edited or proofread against the tape.
HAFSAT ABIOLA: If we don’t build our civil society in Nigeria the military will always look for reasons to come back in and we will not be able to stop them. Which means that we will not be able to make plans for our future. We will not be able to define our future and be actively engaged in defining what our country will be in the future.
KEITH PORTER: This week on Common Ground, we talk with Nigerian democracy leader Hafsat Abiola.
ABIOLA: Our life is a journey and it’s about manifesting aspects of our spirit. And the way will choose you when it wants you to manifest a certain aspect. You may chose not to go with the way, right? For whatever reason. But I think you do yourself an injury when you do that.
PORTER: Common Ground is a program on world affairs and the people who shape events. It is produced by the Stanley Foundation. I’m Keith Porter.
PORTER: Her father died in prison for trying to bring democracy to Nigeria. Her mother was shot and killed in the middle of a city street for trying to bring democracy to Nigeria. And now 24-year-old Hafsat Abiola is fighting the same battle.
We pick up the story in 1993. Back then the military rulers of Nigeria held a nationwide presidential election. International monitors said that the vote was free and fair. Hafsat’s father, Mushad Abiola, appears by all indicators to have won the Presidency.
ABIOLA: Historically we found that if you have an election and you are a presidential aspirant from Western Nigeria you will not get votes from East or North. And a Northern presidential candidate will get votes from the North but will not get votes from any part of the South, East or West. So, when my father was running he went around the country and noted that what united all Nigerians was the poverty. Because by 1993 we were ranking 14th poorest country in the world with a GNP per capita of about $300. So he developed this platform about which, at it’s center this need to eradicate poverty. To make the eradication of poverty at the center of all policy-making economically, politically, in Nigeria. And he went around speaking on this. So that on the day of the election, on the 12th of June in 1993, he swept Western Nigeria which is where he’s from, getting over 90% of the votes. In Eastern Nigeria he had a marginal defeat; he got about 40% of the votes and lost his opponent. His opponent was from Northern Nigeria. In Northern Nigeria he swept the North. Even though his opponent was from the North. And he beat his opponent in his own home state of Kano??, and this really was a revolution in Nigeria.
And I keep saying that it’s like thinking that Dole could beat Clinton in Arkansas. Because even though America is so far advanced in democracy it’s still even really hard to conceive of that happening. And when that happened in Nigeria it was really a statement of the people of Nigeria. To acknowledge that, “Yes, we are different, we have different ethnic identities, but that in national issues we will set aside ethnic differences and just look at platform and record and accept each person as a Nigerian.” So it was quite revolutionary.
But unfortunately two weeks following the election the military canceled the votes. Now the man that was heading the military at the time, General Babangida has said in a New York Times interview that he had to cancel votes because the soldiers that were in the leadership of the military, the majority of whom are from Northern Nigeria, held a gun to his head and threatened him, and threatened to kill him, saying that there was no way that he could transfer power from the Northern part of the country to the Western part of the country. Even though my father had been chosen by people in all parts of the country.
So, the military, which has about, a little bit over two dozen men—one dozen men, actually—in their leadership council, annulled the votes of 50 million people in Nigeria, in the 1993 election. Because they didn’t want to trans—they didn’t want to lose power. There was the fear of transferring power to another ethnic nation. There was also the fear that they would lose access to the money and the power that they have long had in Nigeria. Because controlling the military means that they control $12 billion a year. It means that they control weapons, they control political power. They have all the prestige. It would have meant a loss to a lot of those things.
And then there was also the fear that with a new democratic government the military would be tried. Some members of the military would be tried for some of their human rights violations. And they didn’t want to risk that.
PORTER: So, once they had taken the election in 1993, then what did they do to your father?
ABIOLA: Well, a year following the cancellation of the elections in—the year between 1993 and 1994 my father was trying to negotiate with the military. And he’d even came to your country—he came, he went to France, Germany, to all sorts of countries in the Western world to plead for support for the democratic struggle in Nigeria. Because he understood that these governments and Western democracies, and not only the governments but the peoples of Western democracies, because of the oil markets, the oil that we have in Nigeria is sold to these countries. Supply the money that the military spends and relies on every year. The $12 billion that I mentioned comes from oil revenues in Nigeria and oil in Nigeria is sold to your country; US alone buys about 45% of Nigerian oil. It’s sold to—and then the other 45% is sold to countries, France, Germany and Britain. Then 10% to countries in Africa and other countries around the world. So the Western democracies have the majority share in the money that the military makes every year. So he was asking them to use the influence that they have because of this money, this huge resource that the military depends on, to force the military to concede power to the people.
Unfortunately, he met with Gore. He came at the time around the Oklahoma City bombing so he could not meet with Clinton. And he met with Prime Minister in England and all the high level people in all the other countries, their prime ministers and vice-chancellors. But unfortunately, the didn’t do anything really. So when he went back into Nigeria he had a rally where he defied the military’s ruling of the canceled elections and declared his continued commitment to democracy. And the military charged him with treason and put him in prison and after some time—when they first had the first set of trials and the judges in those trials would say that the Court has no, the military has no case against my father, my father ought to be released and paid compensation—the military stopped bringing him to court, stopped allowing his lawyers to see him, stopped allowing his doctors to see him. And then finally when they saw that my mother was still organizing—members of my family were still organizing around this issue, they stopped allowing my family to see him as well. So he was kept in solitary confinement for four years, tortured psychologically and physically, up until his death in July.
PORTER: Well, you mentioned your mother and her efforts. Tell us what happened to your mother following the elections.
ABIOLA: Well, you see, with my Mom, she was born and bred in Northern Nigeria, by Western Nigerian migrant traders. So her family was from Beobat?? but she was born and bred in Northern Nigeria, because they were trading in Northern Nigeria at the time of her birth. And she didn’t come back to Western Nigeria until she was maybe 15. Which meant that a lot of her culture was from the North. When my father was coming up with his campaign my Mom went to Northern Nigeria to campaign for him because she spoke the language, she understood the culture, she could really talk to the people. And she shared with the men my father’s vision. And in Northern Nigeria they are over 90% Muslim. Which means that there is a strong segregation of men and women. And so she would talk to the men separately about my father’s platform, the need to eradicate poverty, speak to the issues.
But to the women she would say that there’s a need for women to become more involved in public space in Northern Nigeria and not cede that to men. That all this talk that women should be just involved in private life makes no sense when you consider the fact that women are the ones bringing up—we are expected to bring up the children of the country and bring them up in such a way that they can be productive members of the country. Well, how would you really know what is going—what are the skills that are needed to be productive in Nigeria, if you’re not involved in the discussion around what Nigeria is going to become? So you wouldn’t even know how to train your children, first of all.
Then, even if you were to you were training your children to be consistent with the African culture, or Nigerian culture, and to be productive in Nigeria, if you’re not involved in the kind of world your children go out into, then you’re doing your children a disservice. So she was saying very revolutionary things but not in a revolutionary way. Not in a way that was alienating to the women.
Then she spoke to the women’s experiences of constraints. And constraints on their freedom, that is endorsed by the interpretation of Islam, the highly conservative interpretation of Islam in Northern Nigeria. How many women are forced to marry by the time they are 14 years old and start having children way to early, before they’ve even had a chance to develop themselves. How they are stopped from going to school. How they are stopped from trading once they are married and must be chaperoned whenever they go out. So she spoke to all of those things and promised that if her husband was allowed to be President that she would make sure that women’s issues would be at the center of policies.
So that when that election time came and my father won historically—I mean it was a complete revolution in Northern Nigeria—it was a lot about the women coming out to vote and bringing their children and grandchildren. You have to understand that if you’ve been forced to marry by 14 and start giving birth, by the time you are in your late fifties your children are eligible, or even your grandchildren are eligible to vote. So it was a clear revolution from that section of the country.
And when that happened and the military responded by incarcerating my father, my mother continued to have this sense of responsibility because she had campaigned on his behalf. And she was seen as a leader on a level by the people, especially by the women in the country. So she continued to organize women—market women, students, and labor unions around the country, for, on behalf of democracy and justice in Nigeria. Demanding the release of my Dad. Demanding the release of other political prisoners and things like that. When all of a sudden the military responded with all sorts of increasing harassment, from the bugging of my family’s phone in our home, to tailing of my mother’s car wherever she went, to harassment when they incarcerated her in May 1996 for 24 hours. And finally in June, on the 4th of June, as she was driving to the Canadian Embassy they ambushed her car and assassinated her.
So, but the message they were hoping to send, which was really clear at the time, was that in Nigeria no one is above attack from the military. You cannot be too wealthy, you cannot be too powerful; any attempt to change or force changes to the status quo you would, you are risking your life. And that’s the message that they sent out. And I, for the last few years I’ve been very concerned that the military has been able to stifle or to intimidate any movement for justice in Nigeria. Because as soon as my mother was killed people in the pro-democracy movement became a lot less vocal.
PORTER: In a moment, we’ll hear that despite all these tragedies, Hafsat Abiola has decided to return to Nigeria and continue the fight for democracy.
ABIOLA: I want to go back home. I want to be with my extended family for a while. I haven’t even been to either of my parent’s graves.
PORTER: We’re talking in this edition of Common Ground with Nigerian democracy activist Hafsat Abiola. Printed transcripts and audio cassettes of this program are available. Listen at the end of the broadcast for details. Common Ground is a service of the Stanley Foundation, a non-profit, non-partisan organization that conducts a wide a range of programs meant to provoke thought and encourage dialogue on world affairs.
PORTER: To better organize her work Hafsat Abiola has started an organization named after her mother. It’s called the Kudirat Initiative for Democracy.
ABIOLA: The idea is that we have to create a certain kind of space to encourage activism. Without that space it’s only—you’re always going to have matters. You will not have a movement. And what we really need is a movement to, for social justice and democracy. So one of the things that we do, our focus is on women and young people. We focus on women because of my mother’s experience that she had been married, she was a housewife, she was really a housewife and a mother for most of her life. And then it was in the later part of her life that she became very active. And she clearly had a lot to contribute to the development of Nigeria—politically, publicly. So my thought is that many women in Nigeria have a role to play. And cannot be silenced and kept in the private spaces when public decisions impact their lives adversely or advantageously. They must be allowed to be engaged with the country in thinking through what way forward and how. And those kind of issues. They have to be allowed to play their parts.
So one of our programs, the Women in Parliament and Advocacy Program is about supporting young women and older women who are emerging leaders in the country. What kind of training do they need? What kind of connections and networks? What kind of services do they need? So that their voices can best be amplified. And to that end we organize training programs where we help them get Internet skills and computer skills and things like that. But we also want to organize programs where leaders from other African countries, women leaders from other African countries, can sit with Nigerian women. And share with us best practices. What has worked for them in Nairobi in Kenya, or in South Africa or in Zimbabwe or in Senegal. In all those countries. What has worked in bringing women out and helping women be effective participators in our public world.
And to share with us also their own wisdom, their knowledge. And let’s hear from Nigerian women. What are their concerns and what are their needs? And just simple networking. So that we feel less isolated and we feel that there is more that we can do. We are not alone. That’s one of the ideas.
And then the other idea is the Youth Coalition program. Which looks at two areas of youth in Nigeria. One of our efforts, initiatives, is to build a connection between the Diaspora, the Nigerians in the Diaspora, and the people in the country. And help them, like the people in the Diaspora that have the resources, send resources back home. Leverage, their contacts in the international community, to provide books and libraries in Nigeria, scholarships to students, computers, healthcare resources; any level of assistance.
One of the things we did the Friday of Thanksgiving was to convene a group of about 60 Nigerians in the Diaspora that are working all over the US, from Microsoft and all sorts of companies in the US—investment banks and places like that—and to raise money for the community that in October on the 17th of October, one of the oil pipes in the villages burst, went on fire, and 3,000 of the villagers died overnight in the burning. Because they were, they didn’t know that there was a fire. So there was no way to warn them. They were already asleep. So 3,000 people died. And the Red Cross is there now helping treat the injured and look after them. So we raised over $2,000 that we’re sending to them. And it doesn’t look like much but in the culture that we have now of such a disconnect between the complex problems in Nigeria and us here that are kind of sheltered from those problems, it’s a beginning. And it’s something we have to build on.
And then we’ve also committed to a young woman who is from Eastern Nigeria who wants to set up a school in Eastern Nigeria where there will be computers to train young people. It’s actually more an elementary and middle school. But there will be computers to train young people. We are going to be helping supply her the computers, fund the effort. And why I’m happy that it’s an indigenously generated program is because this young woman—her name is Abinyera??—what she’s, the idea is very much consistent. She understands Nigerian culture. She understands the culture of Eastern people. So she builds on the best of the culture. For example, in our culture in pre-colonial times before the British came we had a way of training our young children so that they, we could, they would be productive in our society. And we had a center in every village or every town where we would talk to our young children and it was under a tree. It was usually under a tree somewhere. We call it “Tales by Moonlight.” We’d share stories; elders would share stories with children. So she’s hoping to have this school be this focus. That very idea of a tree. That school would be like a tree to the towns where she sets them up. Where people in that community, the children who first of all go there for education, where elders in the community can come back for literacy training. It will be a place where people can get information on what’s going on. Can have discussions. So that people can again start to rebuild their sense of community. So that’s one of the reasons why we want to really be supporting those people in, our own people that are wanting to make a difference in Nigeria.
PORTER: The work that you do at KIND, the Kudirat Institute for Nigerian Democracy, is fascinating. And it leads me to sort of a, I guess a more personal question for you, Hafsat. You’re a beautiful, 24-year-old person….
ABIOLA: Thank you.
PORTER: …. who’s lived in this country for 8 years, I believe now?
PORTER: You have a Harvard education. You could do anything you want to do. I mean, if you wanted to be an architect or a novelist or a surgeon, you could do that. Do you feel some personal pressure to carry on this kind of community work and democracy work?
ABIOLA: No. Well, I mean, I feel a sense of obligation in a way. But not pressure. I’m, because the reason, I mean even if there is pressure for me to do this work I must be willing to accept the pressure. Because in the end if something goes wrong as something went wrong with both of my parents where they were both killed, you have to bear that cost alone. You know, it’s not the external pressure that is going to bear the cost of your death. No. And with my, I mean with the death of both of my parents my siblings and I were left very much, you know, we were not prepared for it. Financially and on every level. And we’ve had to, on very much on our own, make decisions and figure out what are we going to do? How are we going to do it? And make sure that the integrity of the family remains the same. But there is no institutional way or culturally institutional way that that issue is addressed in Nigeria. So that even if there’s pressure from Nigerians for you to sacrifice yourself, there’s no institutional way for them to immediately sort of safeguard. They’re not even in a place where they can safeguard, you know, your, the people you live behind, your children, your wife, things like that. You’re very much left on your own. That’s why on a level you have to be aware of what you’re committing yourself to. It’s not romantic.
But at the same time, what I feel very much is that it’s an obligation that, if we don’t do this then we’re always going to have this problem in Nigeria. If we don’t build our civil society in Nigeria the military will always look for reasons to come back in and we will not be able to stop them. Which means that we will not be able to make plans for our future. We will not be able to define our future and be actively engaged in defining what our country will be in the future. We will always be subjects. We used to be subjects of the British but now we will be subjects of the military. And they can be as bad if not worse than the British.
So in the, so for me it’s like, it’s either we die slowly or maybe we’ll get killed, but in the course of trying to change the system, that is killing us slowly. Because even if you’re not actively involved in the politics in Nigeria, where you have a situation where the government is always taking the $12 billion and siphoning it off into their own private bank accounts and not investing in health care or education and have caused an economic devastation in Nigeria, environmental devastation, are always killing people because they don’t pay the soldiers and the police, who extort money from civilians and sometimes are really rough and just shoot. All those levels of crime and violence will meet you, even in your own private life. Even if you say, “Let me not be involved. Let me stay in my own private world with my family.” It will affect your family on some level.
You know, it’s either that your child will not be as well educated as he or she could have been—all sorts of things could happen that would undermine your ability to function efficiently, effectively as a family. So we have to be aware that we don’t really have a choice. And I think many Nigerians put their—some—put their heads in the sand and they try to say, “Oh, well, it will resolve itself. It won’t. You know, civil rights, the racism in the US, institutional racism, would not have resolved itself if not for the civil rights movement. You know, oppression doesn’t just go away. It’s not wished away. It has to be fought out and replaced with something new. So that’s sort of my understanding of it.
PORTER: You’re returning. You’re going back to Nigeria. Tell us about your plans and what it feels like to be going back.
ABIOLA: I’m very happy. I want to go back home. I want to be with my extended family for a while. I haven’t even been to either of my parent’s graves, because when they were killed I couldn’t, I didn’t feel it was really safe for me to go. The military says they’ll be out by May. And there’s a lot of work going on in the ground in Nigeria that we are supporting to ensure that they can keep their promise. But, so in June I’m going to go back home. And my Mom was killed on the 4th of June. I hope to be back home before the 4th so that I can start doing prayers for her. My father was killed on the 7th of July. I want to do prayers for him. And I want to go and see families that were working with my parents and who’ve paid a price, or even have not paid, or you know have not paid a price that you can see, you know, that you can really measure, but who’ve been involved and committed to the struggle for democracy and make sure that they’re doing okay. I can’t visit all the millions of people but at least I can visit the key families and do, and spend time in villages and some communities. I think it will be very appropriate to say thank you to the communities who have tried to help make e a difference and helped my parents get out, helped my Dad get out alive and support my Mom in our work. I think its’ important to say thank you.
And then we’re going to be listening, I’m going with a KIND team, which is about ten of us with two interns. We’re going to be listening to what women and young people are doing in the country and see some of the groups and kind of get a sense of what their needs are so that we can better tailor our programs to suit their needs. So we’re going to be there for 2½ months. And it’s going to be probably very hectic. But I think it’s more than, it’s about time.
PORTER: When Hafsat Abiola speaks to groups in the US and around the world, she often closes her remarks with poems that seem to capture the spirit of her work. Anasuya Sengupta wrote this poem, titled “Silence.”
ABIOLA:Too many woman in too many countries speak the same language of silence.
My grandmother spoke this language.
She was always silent, always aggrieved.
Her husband, only her husband had the cosmic right,
Or so it was said,
To speak and be heard.
They say things have changed now.
After all, I’m always vocal and my grandmother thinks I talk too much.
But sometimes I wonder.
When a woman gives her love, as most women do—
It is accepted
When a women shares her thoughts—as some women do—
It is allowed.
When a woman fights for power—as all women would like to do—
quietly or loudly—
It is questioned.
And yet there must be freedom
If we are to speak.
And yes, there must be power
If we are to be heard.
And when we have both freedom and power
Let us not be misunderstood.
We seek only to give voices to those that have been too long silenced.
Too many women in too many countries.
I seek only to leave behind the sorrows of my grandmother’s silence.
PORTER: Former UN Secretary General Dag Hammarskjold wrote this untitled poem:
ABIOLA:Tired and lonely
So tired the heart aches.
Melt water trickles down the rocks
The fingers are numb, the knees tremble.
It is now.
Now that you must not give in.
On the path of others are resting places,
Places in the sun where they can meet.
But this is your path.
And it is now,
Now that you must not fail.
Weep if you can.
Weep, but do not complain.
The way chose you
And you must be thankful.
PORTER: At the end of that poem it says that “the way chose you.” Do you feel like the way chose you?
ABIOLA: Yeah, I think that the way chooses everybody. You know, there is a journey that we have to, we—our life is a journey and it’s about manifesting aspects of our spirit. And the way will choose you when it wants you to manifest a certain aspect. You may chose not to go with the way, right? For whatever reason. But I think you do yourself an injury when you do that. Especially when you are concerned about your mortality, because we are going to all die. And it’s our spirit that is eternal. And if the whole point of being here is to see how much our spirit can grow, and if we limit it ins some way then we’ve not done something right. I think it’s Romie??, this poet, who said that if God sends you—or I don’t know if he said the word “God,” but maybe the Supreme Being, the Creator, sends you on a journey, with one thing to do, and you do all sorts of other things while you are here, but not that one thing, then you’ve still done nothing. So, you know, whatever, the way brings your way, to bring, to kind of help you get a better understanding of your inner being or of your commitment to world or what the world means or the beauty of the world, if you try to close your eyes to what it’s trying to teach you, then that will be very unfortunate.
PORTER: That is Hafsat Abiola. She’s Executive Director of the Kudirat Initiative for Democracy. For Common Ground, I’m Keith Porter.
Our theme music was created by B.J. Leiderman. Common Ground was produced and funded by the Stanley Foundation.
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