New documentary ‘The Supreme Price’ portrays the Abiola family’s struggle for democracy and women’s rights in Nigeria.

This documentary by Joanna Lipper (US) tells the story from the viewpoint of the young Hafsat, whose father Chief Moshood Kashimawo Olawale Abiola, -often referred to as M.K.O. Abiola-, was elected president of Nigeria in 1993. He was subsequently imprisoned by the military regime which had annulled the election results. He would die in detention five years later.

Hafsat’s mother Kudirat Abiola had, after her husband’s arrest and during the first three years of his imprisonment, become a leader of the pro-democracy movement in Nigeria. She organised strikes and marches demanding to have the presidential mandate of her husband respected by the military dictatorship. But as she was winning international attention for the democracy struggle, she was assassinated -in 1996, two years before the eventual death of her husband.

Return from exile

In the first scenes of the film we see Hafsat in an airplane, telling us in voice-over how she returned to Nigeria after years in exile and days after the end of military rule in 1999. We hear that she is planning to occupy the bedroom of her mother in the big house in Lagos were her family, her father with his four wives and many children, once lived.

Hafsat was at Harvard University when she heard that her mother Kudirat had been killed

Hafsat was at Harvard University in the US when she heard that her mother Kudirat had been killed just as the latter was about to leave the country to attend her daughters’ graduation ceremony. Hafsat could not attend her mother’s funeral. The documentary tells us how the young woman became determined not to let the military win and make sure her mother’s voice wasn’t silenced. If her mother had been willing to pay the ‘supreme price’, knowing that she was in danger, why should she, Hafsat, keep silent? While still at Harvard, she had already followed in her mother’s footsteps by joining Amnesty International’s campaign for her father’s release from prison.

The film tells a variety of stories, all interwoven. They deal partly with political post-independence history, elaborating on the campaign - after 23 years of military rule in the country - of the wealthy businessman M.K.O. Abiola, who was known for his many philanthropic actions and had a programme to end poverty. Another thread is dedicated to the important role women played in the pro-democracy movement. And then there is the private story of the married life of Kudirat and Moshood Abiola and the story of the life and work of their daughter Hafsat who, in honour of her mother, founded KIND ( Kudirat Initiative for Democracy), an NGO which promotes an increase of the number of women in government and economic independence for women.

The film shows that it was difficult for Hafsat to find a husband in Nigeria. “Most men still want a wife at home with the children, and not an activist,” she explains. And so she married a white British diplomat, with whom she went to live in Brussels; until 2011, when she was invited to become special advisor of the governor of Ogun State, her father’s home base in the extreme South-West of the country. The task ahead: the development of policies to meet the Millennium Development Goals as set by the United Nations.

Hafsat Abiola made the difficult decision to leave her husband and two young children behind and return to Nigeria. Her children are better off in Belgium, she thinks.

The United States and the oil

While the story is mostly told by Hafsat, a sister and two of her brothers also give testimony of the events that led to the tragic death of their parents. Some key people outside the family, who closely witnessed what happened at the time, appear in the film, too. One of them is Nobel Prize winning author Wole Soyinka, who went to the United States with M.K.O. Abiola to seek support after his election was annulled. Even the venerable Soyinka’s efforts however, were in vain. The US remained neutral. In the film, a former US ambassador to Nigeria explains the importance of Nigerian oil for his country.

Wole Soyinka said that marrying many wives was an unconventional strategy to unite the nation

Much is said in the film about the position of women in Nigeria’s polygamic, patriarchal society. Kudirat Abiola was the second of the four wives Muslim men like Abiola can marry officially in that country. But M.K.O. Abiola had many more wives, his son says, and some fifty-five children. Wole Soyinka has said, tongue-in-cheek, that this was part of an 'unconventional strategy' to unite the nation: through his marriages Abiola, who was a Yoruba himself, had in-laws in every major ethnic group of the country.

Kudirat came from the North and could speak Hausa, the major language of that region; she was very successful when campaigning there for her husband. She had nevertheless been very unhappy competing with other wives in the marriage. But we understand she had had little choice: Kudirat came from a poor family and, through agreeing to become a second wife, the bride price Abiola paid was enough to let her two sisters go to university.

Pull-Her-Down Syndrome

Her daughter Hafsat Abiola is now working to change this situation: instead of competing with each other, women should unite to fight their joint oppression, she explains. But she recognizes how difficult this is in a society where girls are told at a very young age that it is best to be submissive and quiet. Many of us have a PhD, one woman in the documentary says: the Pull-Her-Down syndrome.

Filmmaker Joanna Lipper’s rich film mixes archival footage, interviews and scenes of contemporary Lagos with scenes that are reenacted, like the first scene showing Hafsat in a plane, or the final ride Kudirat took in the car that was ambushed before she was shot. Together with music that is full of suspense this gives the film a thriller-like tension.

Though the filmmaker at times seems to try to tell too many stories at once, most of the time she succeeds in uniting all the threads. She does so by telling the story more or less chronologically while finding a fine balance between the political and the personal. The Supreme Price is an important and occasionally very moving film.

Elvire Eijkman works as an information specialist at the Library of the African Studies Centre in Leiden. She is responsible for acquisitions and collection development policy with a special focus on French-speaking Africa and movies.

Photo: Hafsat Abiola by Joanna Lipperman.