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By Yaffa Fredrick
“Any society that is silencing its women has no future.”
In the face of unspeakable tragedy, Hafsat Abiola determines to do the improbable, enter the professional space that cost her parents their lives: politics. While running Kudirat Initiative for Democracy (KIND), an NGO that empowers women and trains them for leadership positions, she becomes Special Advisor on Millennium Development Goals in Nigeria. Hafsat’s resolution to leave her husband and children in Belgium, in order to assume her new position, is a major turning point in Joanna Lipper’s award-winning documentary, “The Supreme Price.”
Lipper explains that her decision to make the film was largely motivated by Hafsat herself, who presented a compelling narrative. “As a film director, I have a particular interest in films about complex multifaceted women who defy expectations and create their own destinies rather than surrendering to circumstances,” she says.
An experienced filmmaker with several major credits to her name, Lipper opted to tell the tale of Hafsat and the pro-democracy movement set against the backdrop of Nigeria’s sordid and often violent political history. After nearly three decades of military rule, Nigerians began to clamor for democracy in the 1990s. Hafsat’s father, M.K.O. Abiola, held the promise of a more democratic future when he won the presidential election in 1993, considered by many to be the freest and fairest election in Nigeria's history. This election was annulled by the military, and during a coup, General Sani Abacha seized power. When Abiola declared himself president in 1994, he was accused of treason and arrested on the orders of military dictator, who had Abiola imprisoned.
As a result of this gross injustice, the pro-democracy movement—initially led by Kudirat Abiola, Hafsat’s mother—was born. For her efforts, Kudirat was brutally murdered by Abacha’s assassins. Despite the clear and present danger, Hafsat, taking a cue from the woman who raised her, carried the democratic torch forward. As Lipper states, “Instead of being a victim of circumstance, Hafsat becomes an agent of change.”
But change comes at a price—the supreme price. For Hafsat’s mother, that price was her life. And for Hafsat, that price is an indefinite separation from her young family in Europe. But on a more macroscopic level, Lipper says, “The title of my film refers to the price society and the world will pay if the courageous efforts of female human rights activists and politicians like Hafsat Abiola or Malala Yousafzai are thwarted, their voices silenced, their lives extinguished.”
Indeed, Hafsat does not need to look far to find opposition. Her own brother, a devout Muslim, states quite candidly on camera that, according to Islam, a woman cannot and should not hold the highest political office. While he respects her current position in government, he promises that should she run for president, she will not be able to count on his vote.
Clearly her brother is not alone in his sentiment. In the 2011 Nigerian congressional elections, women won only nine of 109 senate seats. In other words, women currently hold approximately 8 percent of senate seats—a number significantly lower than that in many other African nations, including Rwanda, Senegal, and South Africa.
While those numbers are shockingly low, Lipper helps to contextualize—both through Hafsat’s brother and the larger political struggle—how those numbers continue to prevail. In Lipper’s words, her film “illustrates vividly how the oppression and marginalization of women continues to this day with underrepresentation of women in seats of political power and the absence of policies that effectively address women’s needs and priorities.”
And this is where Lipper’s review of Nigerian history becomes critical. As John Campbell, former American Ambassador to Nigeria, explains in the film, “In Nigeria… politics becomes a matter of life and death.” In a country rich in oil, the key to attaining wealth is through politics. Winning, or more frequently usurping power, grants the political victor control of the oil reserves and the vast riches that accompany them.
In fact, Nigeria has become the wealthiest economy in Africa—a direct consequence of its oil in the Niger Delta. Despite this wealth, Lipper points out that it has one of the highest maternal mortality rates in the world. Nigerian politicians, motivated by a compulsion to make money rather than improve the state of society, have not invested in women’s issues, including reproductive health. As a director, Lipper says she “wanted to trace the trajectory of how a situation like that…is reflective of a much larger scale oppression of women on multiple levels of the society and culture.”
By illustrating this oppression cinematically, she emphasizes the importance of Hafsat’s role in creating a better Nigerian tomorrow. Though Hafsat’s parents lost their lives fighting against these brutal economic disparities, Hafsat can and will continue their mission.
“The Supreme Price” is now in limited release in New York and Los Angeles.
To learn more about the film, visit Women Make Movies.
Yaffa Fredrick is managing editor of World Policy Journal.
[Photo courtesy of Women Make Movies]