Hafsat Abiola – Rising up to her responsibility

Men have dropped the ball in her country, Nigerian civil rights activist Hafsat Abiola says. Corruption and insecurity in Nigeria are worse than ever. That is why the organisation she founded stimulates women’s leadership. ‘If women are not allowed to play their role, society cannot progress.’

Hafsat Abiola is the eighth child of Moshood Abiola, the Nigerian politician who was elected president in 1993. The election was annulled and her father thrown in prison, where he would die in 1998 under suspicious circumstances. Her mother, Kudirat Abiola, who kept campaigning for her husband’s release and the implementation of the 1993 election results, was assassinated in 1996. It was the death of her mother, as Nigerian writer Wole Soyinka says in the documentary The Supreme Price, shown at the Movies that Matter festival, that got Abiola politically motivated.

What she learned from her mother, she says, is that ordinary people can make a difference. ‘My mother was a simple housewife who rose up to the responsibility.’ Her mother’s involvement in the pro-democracy movement proved you don’t have to be a big man to play your role, she adds.

Politics in Nigeria remain a men’s affair. Only 7 per cent of the representatives in the Nigerian parliament are women. That is why the Kudirat Initiative for Democracy (KIND), the NGO Abiola founded in honour of her late mother, is concentrating on strengthening women to take up political positions. The fight to end violence against women is another focus of the NGO.

Abiola’s role as president of KIND is a supporting one. In 2011, the civil rights activist took up a position as Special Advisor for the Millennium Development Goals in the cabinet of the Governor of Ogun State. She admits it takes an effort to keep your hands clean in the Nigerian system, so deeply ingrained with corruption. ‘I refuse to get implicated. It takes a lot of diplomacy and the support of my boss, the Governor. I get away with it, because people know what I am about.’

She found it important not to stay on the sidelines, she explains: ‘Nigerians have become so used to things not being possible that they don’t even try. But at the end of the day, when you show them that something can work, they might start believing it again.’

By Femke van Zeijl