On October 2, 2014, I was invited to the commencement of the 2nd University of Ottawa International Human Rights Film Festival. Because we are in the same city, there is a healthy brotherly rivalry between the University of Ottawa and my own Carleton University. No matter what the Maclean’s annual rating of Canadian Universities says, the question of which of these two is the superior University depends on who is telling the story. I am a Professor at Carleton University. I am telling this story. Got my drift? But I always feel honoured to be invited to events by our downtown “rivals”.
My honour at being invited by the University of Ottawa and sense of patriotic pride had a double layer on October 2. Not only was I invited as lead discussant of the opening film of such a prestigious festival, the said film is a 100% NAFDAC-certified Nigerian film. To have Nigeria open this film festival was one heck of a good news about Fatherland that I needed sorely. Any good news about or from Nigeria is always welcome even if one always needs an intergalactic telescope to find any strange beast called Nigerian good news.
We owe the focus on that Nigerian film to the organizers of the festival. The International Human Rights Film Festival is the brainchild of the Human Rights Research and Education Centre of the University of Ottawa. The festival is organized in collaboration with the Canadian Film Institute. Ottawa University’s Human Rights Research and Education Centre is one of the oldest and most prestigious of its kind in Canada and North America and this impressive pedigree is evident in the organization of the festival, as is the contagious efficiency of the Centre’s Director, Professor John Packer, a man with an extensive UN career in human rights, refugees, and international labour issues. The centre also boasts one of Nigeria’s bright promises in her graduate student cadre, Mr. Olabisi Delebayo Akinkugbe, who is rounding up his PhD in law.
With Professor John Packer, Mr. Bisi Akinkugbe, and Professor Viviana Fernandez, the Centre’s amiable Deputy Director, I knew that I was in excellent hands as arrived in the “enemy territory” of the University of Ottawa as a Carleton Professor. The Nigerian movie I was invited to discuss and contextualize for the audience is none other than 'The Supreme Price', the newly-released documentary produced and directed by filmmaker, Joanna Lipper about Hafsat Abiola-Costello. The film offers a reappraisal of, arguably, the most tragic moment in the life of Nigeria after the civil war: the annulment of the June 12, 1993 presidential election and the subsequent murder of Chief MKO Abiola and Mrs. Kudirat Abiola by the Nigerian State– the two protagonists of that intense national saga.
There are several reasons to salute and celebrate the release of this documentary directed by Joanna Lipper. As a postcolonial project, Nigeria is a country that has declared war on history and memory since October 1, 1960. Nigeria is a non-nation divided by religion, ethnicity, and numerous fault lines. Only two things unite her: football and a national aversion for remembering. In this national space, memory is more fugacious than a puff of powder. Every today declares war on every yesterday in Nigeria, determined to exterminate it as quickly as possible. My guess is that when a people defines nationhood as a succession of endlessly repeated self-inflicted errors and tragedies, history, memory, and remembering become deadly enemies to the extent that they are a mirror to a bazaar of wrong and tragic choices.
It is in this context of a national will to the erasure of memory that I salute Joanna Lipper, Hafsat Abiola-Costello, and all their collaborators in this project for taking us back to June 12, to the stories of MKO Abiola and Kudirat Abiola, and to the evolution of the pro-democracy movement and struggle in Nigeria. What Hafsat has done in this marvelous work is to draw Nigeria’s attention to the fact that we cannot re-member that nation until we remember; we cannot re-member Nigeria until remembering becomes one of the constant practices of nationhood.
The fast-paced plot of this documentary moves in several intertwined but non-linear loops as the perspectives of multiple narrators are woven into a vivid re-imagining of the sacrifice of MKO Abiola and Kudirat Abiola. Hafsat is the primary narrator. Her perspectives on the lives and struggle of her parents are amplified by the points of view of her siblings. Professor Wole Soyinka, my good friend, Dr. Joe Okei-Odumakin, and other avatars of the pro-democracy struggle, are equally given significant air time as narrators, offering their recollection of events and helping to flesh out the major themes of the documentary: the June 12 struggle, its afterlives, and the supreme price paid for democracy and the future of Nigeria by MKO Abiola and Kudirat Abiola.
One of Hafsat’s greatest achievements in this documentary is to sustain the legends that her parents have rightfully become but also to recast them for Nigeria and the world in their everydayness and human-ness. Those Nigerians who are not victims of our allergies to memory and remembering may still be familiar with the broad strokes of the June 12 debacle and the circumstances which led to the murder of MKO Abiola and Kudirat Abiola but very few of us have familiarity with the intimate spaces of that struggle. Hafsat and her siblings take us through the Abiola house hold. To see Chief MKO Abiola’s personal living quarters – his bedroom, his living room, his mosque; to see Kudirat Abiola’s personal spaces – her bedroom, her living room, her kitchen, etc, are moments of great solemnity and contemplation because you stand in awful realization of how much of our immediate history is tied to those private spaces.
What, to us, is an intensely public political story of sacrifice and heroism has other private dimensions that we don’t always immediately remember. By giving ample narrative space to her siblings, Hafsat confronts one with the sobering realization that we are dealing with children who lost both parents to the demons of Project Nationhood and who went through trauma and unimaginable adjustments. Our public tragedy is an intensely private tragedy for the Abiola children. But Hafsat is not going to allow tragedy have the last word in this captivating recording of her parents’ struggle and sacrifice for Nigeria.
Hence, a theme of the triumph of hope and the nobility of struggle and sacrifice runs through the documentary. You are pleased by the narration of what Kudirat Abiola overcame and achieved in her life. Hers is a powerful and inspirational story of challenges and triumphs in life. I do not want to tell too much of the story here lest you find an excuse not to go to the movie theatre and watch the documentary.
But no reaction to the documentary would be complete without mentioning Hafsat’s elder brother, the humorous anti-hero who appears determined to fray the nerves of the western audiences of the documentary. His Islamic identity is paramount for him but in numerous instances of narrative excess and élan, he hovers dangerously around the borders of fundamentalism in terms of his curious rendering of Islam as antithetical to the political advancement of women. Hafsat’s love story – how she met her husband, shots of their apartment in Brussels, shots of their two lovely children – is one of the highpoints of the documentary for in it we see how she balances family with her own struggles to sustain and build on the legacy of her parents through KIND – the Kudirat Initiative for Democracy.
In introducing this interesting dimension of the intermesh between her family life and her own rise as an activist, Hafsat employs humour to great effect. We are told that Chief Abiola always warned his sons never to come back home with a white wife. Since he did not extend that warning to his daughters, Hafsat found an auspicious loophole and Mr. Costello got lucky. Of course, this part would not be complete without her elder brother telling us that the only thing that mattered to him was Mr. Costello’s conversion to Islam.
Watching the documentary and witnessing Hafsat’s narrative poise, her command of issues, her delivery, her leadership of KIND and her work as a commissioner in Ogun state, I suddenly had an aha moment! I’ve been an advocate of the idea of a female president for Nigeria for a very long time. Long before President Obasanjo recruited her on a journey that would progressively diminish her capital with the Nigerian people – not because she agreed to serve but because of her conduct on the job – I used to salivate over the prospects of an Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala presidency. Today, she is recruited to mount podiums by TAN to tell lies and manufacture employment figures for the public on behalf of President Jonathan. With Okonjo-Iweala reducing herself to a sorry instrument of cheap propaganda and lies, I have lately been salivating over the prospects of an Oby Ezekwesili presidency during my lifetime.
Hafsat Abiola-Costello joined Oby Ezekwesili in my imagination as I watched and admired her in the documentary. Wait a minute, this is also a presidential material just like Oby, I said to myself. MKO Abiola and Kudirat Abiola are a story that is still being unfolding. A president Hafsat Abiola-Costello somewhere in the future of Nigeria would be such an auspicious denouement to the Abiola saga. A Hafsat presidency is the price that Nigeria owes the Abiolas for their supreme sacrifice, I thought. It would also be a great way to make up for the added tragedy and insult of attempting restitution via Obasanjo. The Obasanjo presidency, which the usual suspects in Nigeria somehow manufactured as restitution, was nothing but a mockery of the supreme sacrifice of the Abiolas.
Not so fast! That was Hafsat’s elder brother interrupting my thoughts as I allowed my imagination to play with the idea of a President Hafsat Abiola-Costello during the screening. Hafsat can try to be anything but President, he says. In Islam, any country or nation led by a woman shall not prosper or succeed. And he quotes the Koran to support such retrogressive ideas. He concludes that he’d never support his sister if she ran for president. I looked across the dark movie room in an attempt to see if I could catch the face of my colleague, Professor Nduka Otiono, in the room. I knew that he would be wincing in discomfort as I was. What is this Canadian audience thinking now that they have been told that Islam is opposed to the idea of women leading a nation? That women have led more Muslim-majority countries than Christian-majority countries in recent memory did not seem to bother Hafsat’s brother as he boisterously makes his claim: Benazir Bhutto, Megawati Sukarnoputri, Tansu Ciller, etc.
Well, some Monday for sure, I know I will be rooting for a Hafsat Abiola-Costello presidency in Nigeria. However, there is one area in which Hafsat needs to worry about me. We hear snippets of her conversations in Yoruba in the documentary. Hafsat speaks very good Yoruba, delivered in her hybdrid Briticana (her English accent appears to me to be an admixture of Britico and Americana that I am calling Briticana). The Yoruba I hear in the documentary carries a heavy whiff of Briticana. She speaks that Yoruba through her nose. Hafsat has spent enough time back home now to lose that Briticana and speak proper daughter of the shoil Yoruba. If she does not lose the Briticana, I will use it to campaign against her when she runs for president! I do not want to hear Briticana Yoruba when I say “e kaaro ma” to President Hafsat.