Hafsat Abiola, Lagos Nigeria
As a photographer, I have a particular interest in creating portraits of complex multifaceted women who defy expectations and create their own destinies rather than surrendering to circumstances. I first heard Hafsat Abiola talk about her life experiences over fifteen years ago at an event organized to raise awareness of her endeavor to build Kudirat Initiative for Democracy (KIND). Hafsat created this organization intending to honor her dead mother’s legacy by educating and empowering women in Nigeria with the goal of increasing their participation in politics and inspiring them to pursue leadership roles. When Hafsat stood up and told her family’s tragic story I was impressed by the way she channeled her rage and mourning into determination, tenacity and activism, calling upon knowledge, integrity, courage and persistence to oppose corruption and senseless violence.
Hafsat Abiola was born and raised in Lagos. At the age of fifteen, she moved to the United States to attend Phillips Andover Academy and Harvard University. During Hafsat’s sophomore year at Harvard, her father, MKO Abiola, was elected President of Nigeria. Within weeks there was a military coup. He was arrested and jailed. At this juncture, Hafsat’s mother Kudirat Abiola took over leadership of Nigeria's prodemocracy movement and staged many protests against the military dictatorship. Towards the end of Hafsat's senior year at Harvard, her mother was assassinated by agents of the military dictator. Democracy was restored in 1999, but not in time to save Hafsat’s father who died in prison under mysterious circumstances. Many people, including Hafsat, believe he was poisoned. Looking back now, Hafsat refers to the transition from dictatorship to civilian rule as a “Nigerian Spring”. She has taken her up her parents’ legacy, fighting for true democracy in a country entrenched in a corrupt culture of governance where political elites monopolize oil revenue while the masses remain impoverished. Twenty years after her father’s thwarted bid for Nigeria’s Presidency, Hafsat continues to speak out about the problems that prevent her country from reaching its full potential. She believes that until leadership changes, things in Nigeria won’t change. She is convinced that the key to this transformation is women’s political empowerment.
Fifteen years ago Hafsat founded KIND, Kudirat Initiative for Democracy in memory of her mother. The NGO has trained thousands of women giving them the skills to secure their economic independence while emphasizing the importance of voter education and their full engagement in civil society. Hafsat has also worked in an appointed political post in Nigeria as Special Advisor to the Governor of Ogun State on the UN Millenium Development Goals, which include gender equality. Her focus on empowering women reflects the influence of several key factors including her mother’s activism and martyrdom; her own education at Phillips Academy Andover and Harvard; and her experience as a child growing up in a polygamous family, witnessing competition amongst her father’s four official wives for status, resources and recognition.
In her personal life, Hafsat has dramatically departed from the structure of her family of origin, choosing monogamy and marrying outside her race, religion and culture. Her openness to making difficult, controversial choices when it comes to balancing her roles as a Muslim woman, a wife and a mother with her career as a politician, social entrepreneur and human rights activist, make her a revolutionary role model for young women who feel pressured to conform to gendered stereotypes.
In 2010, inspired by Hafsat’s story, I decided to make The Supreme Price, a feature length documentary film about women and the pro-democracy movement in Nigeria with a focus on the Abiola family’s experiences during a key era in Nigeria’s history (1993 - 2012). This film won the Gucci Tribeca Spotlighting Women Documentary Award and was named Best Documentary at the Africa International Film Festival. In 2015, it was nominated for a Grierson Award – Best Historical Documentary and for an African Movie Academy Award. The film aired on television in 49 African countries and has screened in cinemas and films festivals on six continents. To view the trailer, read reviews and get more information about the film, please visit: www.thesupremeprice.com
I took the photographs in this series in Lagos, Nigeria at the Abiola Family Compound in Ikeja, between 2010 and 2012, while my film was in production. From the outset, they were conceived of as a series that would be part of my larger ongoing Women @ Work in Africa Photography Project. The setting of the family compound where M.K.O Abiola lived with his four wives and their nineteen children was an essential influence on my approach to these portraits of Hafsat and her family members. The possibility of transforming divisive competition between women in a polygamous household into solidarity is a key theme that my photographs explore. When Hafsat returned from exile to Nigeria, she moved into her mother’s pink bedroom. She began dressing in Nigerian clothing, wearing Yoruba geles, the way her mother did. My portraits of Hafsat aim to capture the degree to which she internalized her mother’s identity, values, and dreams for Nigeria during the mourning process and long afterwards, as she allowed these factors to shape her life’s work and personal mission to make sure her mother’s death was not in vain. My photographs seek to portray the weight, the risk, the hope and the enormous responsibility Hafsat carries with her on a daily basis as she works to preserve and transmit her mother’s and her father’s legacy to a new generation of Nigerians. My portraits also aim to explore the transformation of the usage of space in the family compound from one generation to the next. Hafsat has established the headquarters for her NGO in her father's living quarters. The conference room where President-elect M.K.O once led meetings with powerful men and planned his campaign for Nigeria's presidency, is now used mostly by women who are leaders and by women who aspire to be leaders in the next era of Nigeria's future.