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Film remembers Nigerian woman who died for change

LEGACY: Hafsat Abiola-Costello has vowed to ensure her mother’s voice remains heard

2014 WAS, in many ways, supposed to be Nigeria’s year.

It marks 100 years since the West African nation’s Northern and Southern provinces were merged to form one colossal country, affectionately referred to as the Giant of Africa.

But in the midst of the centenary, Nigeria was thrust into the world’s gaze for all the wrong reasons after 250 schoolgirls were abducted by Boko Haram, the terrorist group that a new report says has claimed 11,000 lives since 2007.

The relative inaction and arguable indifference of Nigeria’s President Goodluck Jonathan provoked anger – did the lives of girls mean anything?

It was Nigerian women who took to the streets with banners demanding that something be done and, through their activism, the rest of the world started to pay attention.

This protest is just one example of the Nigerian women across all ethnic groups who are effecting change in their communities, despite the challenges of living in a society where women are still expected to play second fiddle to their husbands, a society where feminism is seen as ‘un-African’.

These remarkable women are brought out of the shadows in The Supreme Price, the critically-acclaimed documentary from award-winning filmmaker Joanna Lipper, which premiered at London’s Raindance Film Festival 2014 on Nigeria’s Independence Day [Oct 1].

“When I first began working on my documentary, I had no way of knowing that in the months leading up to the film’s premiere at the Human Rights Watch Film Festival, Nigeria would be front and centre in news around the world,” said Lipper.

“The horrific kidnapping of over 250 schoolgirls in the northern part of the country is a tragic story that touches upon the film’s key themes: the need to protect, educate and empower women and girls; the need for increased numbers of women leaders in political positions of power to represent their best interests; the violent backlash in the face of progressive change when it comes to traditional gendered stereotypes that involve the oppression of women; and the complete absence of a Nigerian government that is accountable to the masses.”

The Supreme Price focuses on two women in particular, Kudirat Abiola - the wife of MKO Abiola and their daughter, Hafsat, through whose eyes the struggle for women’s rights and democracy is told.

Kudirat, a Hausa woman from humble beginnings, was to the eye an ordinary stay-at-home mother, the second wife of Abiola, who in 1993 was democratically elected with a historic majority promising to end decades under corrupt military dictatorships.

But the election was annulled and Abiola, a philanthropist beloved by ordinary Nigerians across boundaries of faith and ethnicity, was imprisoned for declaring himself president. The military, under General Sani Abacha, resumed power once more.

It was then that Kudirat – who had accompanied, translated for and even spoken on his behalf when he campaigned in Northern regions – stepped up to take her place in history.

She had always been remarkable. For example, using her ‘bride price’ [dowry] to pay for her younger sisters’ education as well as ensuring that her daughters also had the opportunities she was denied.

Much as Winnie Mandela fought to keep her husband Nelson Mandela’s cause alive years earlier, Kudirat became the leader of the pro-democracy movement, organising strikes including one that shut down Nigerian’s oil factories for 12 weeks – the longest industrial action in the country’s history.

‘MARTYR’: Kudirat Abiola was killed in 1996

Kudirat became such a thorn in the side of Abacha’s regime that the mother-of-seven was assassinated in 1996 ahead of a trip to the US to watch Hafsat graduate from Harvard, paying, as the film’s title suggests, ‘the supreme price’ for her beliefs.

But the title, Lipper explained, speaks to all the women in Nigeria who defy societal expectations to voice their outrage and improve their country. As Dr Joe Okei-Odumakin, president of Women Arise for Change, said in the film: “I have been in jail 19 times. Nigeria is worth dying for.”

Lipper uses archive material mixed with present-day interviews of members of the Abiola family to bring the women’s story to life, but was able to access rare footage taken from the home of a Nigerian cameraman.

She explained: “Key footage of Kudirat and MKO Abiola on the campaign trail during the 1993 election was not found in any archive and might never have reached any audience at all.

“His VHS tapes had not been copied, logged or labeled and were in rough shape but we were able to have them transferred and restored so that this historic campaign, these charismatic leaders and the Nigerian masses from that moment in time could be preserved and brought to life on film.”

Two years after Kudirat’s death, Hafsat’s father died suddenly of an alleged heart attack at a time when he was due to be released following the death of General Sani Abacha.

Rather than stay in exile, Hafsat chose to return to Nigeria in 1999 to carry on their message. In the film’s opening sequence, she remarked: “After my mother was killed I thought it was important to ensure that the military did not win. If what they were hoping to do was to silence the voices of Nigeria’s women who were demanding change, I would make sure that my mother’s voice was not made silent by even one day.”

Hafsat went on to set up the Kudirat Initiative for Democracy (KIND), educating and empowering women in Nigeria with the goal of increasing their participation in politics and inspiring them to pursue leadership roles. 

Lipper’s film offers a chance for a critical look at the governance of Africa’s most populous nation, weaving together a history of Nigerian politics with the remarkable but personal story of the Abiola family as well as paying tribute to great activists such Ken Saro Wiwa, killed for his beliefs, and Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka, a vocal supporter of Abiola. As an American filmmaker, Lipper admitted she was conscious about doing justice to a story that is so personal to many Nigerians.

She said: “What gave me the confidence to undertake this project was my access to Hafsat Abiola and her willingness to provide introductions to other family members, to the staff of her NGO, KIND, and to professionals she knew in the Nollywood community who welcomed me and facilitated filming in Lagos and Ogun State. Hafsat’s expertise and first-hand experience as an insider was my point of entry into this complex story.” 

The film will be screened as part of Film Africa at the Hackney Picturehouse, in London, on November 6.


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