Opening to Peace: Stories from Africa
I am so deeply honored to be with you in Japan and to receive this award. I accept it in memory of both my parents, my father Moshood Abiola and my mother Kudirat Abiola. I’d like to share with you their story, and what they taught me about the spirit and about making our way in the world.
The Story of My Parents
If you think of Sumo wrestlers, that gives you a sense of what my father was like. He was about six feet tall, and he was a big man—very big—and his heart was even bigger than his body. He was also a very successful businessman. But he didn’t start out successful. He was born into a family where his father—my grandfather—had six wives, and the first 17 children born into the family died before their fifth birthday.
In my culture, they give beautiful names to children. My name, Hafsat, means ‘treasured one.’ My other name, Olaronke, means ‘we are caring for that which gives us honor.’ My grandfather, however, was so disillusioned by the children being born and then dying, that when my father was born, he named him Kashimawo, which means ‘Let us watch him.’ That is not a very beautiful name—‘Let us watch him.’ And maybe for that reason, my father hung around beyond his fifth birthday, and beyond his sixth birthday. So, his father renamed him Ola Wale, which means ‘honor has entered my home.’ That, I think, was a more befitting name, a more typical name. After that, my grandfather paid so much attention to this child, rearing him in our culture and our ways, and teaching him to respect and love our people.
Through scholarships my father was able to become a chartered accountant, and from there he became an executive at ITT, an American company in Nigeria. He was Vice President for Africa and the Middle East. Despite his success, he never forgot to care for poor people, and he was one of the biggest philanthropists in Nigeria. He gave money to build schools, to build hospitals, to build mosques because my family was Muslim, and also to build churches because he had been educated by Christians. And later on, he decided that he would run for office.
But before that, he married my mom, Kudirat. Now, I don’t know how the men in Japan court women, but in Nigeria, they go over the top. They make big promises. My mother had gone to high school, and even though she was at the top of her high school class, her parents had not sent her to university, because they didn’t have enough money. So, she said to my father, I want to be able to work and someday own a pharmaceutical company. And my father said, “Yes, once we marry, you can do whatever you want.”
My mom was very impressed, and she married him. In the first ten years of marriage, my mother was pregnant seven times, and five of her children lived. Over the next five years two more children were born, so she ended up with seven children altogether. I think my father saw this as a way to put off the time when my mother would want to work. And it worked for the first ten years. Then, after ten years, when the children were getting older, my mother came back and said she wanted to work. And my father would say, “Am I not taking care of you?” He had forgotten his promises, and he wanted his wife at home, looking after his family. So, my mother called us, her children, and she said, “Please, if you could, talk to your dad.”
Now, my father loved his children. He called us, his daughters, his ‘super girls’—we could never do anything wrong. In Africa, when a child is born, sometimes people look at the child and say, “Ah, is this not grandmother come back again?” You might think that it’s ridiculous, but it happens. And when I was born, my father looked at me and said, “This is my mother. She has returned.” Even as I grew up, he went on believing that. So, I knew I had a lot of power with my dad. One night, when he came home from work, he was going from to room to room checking on his children, and he came to my room and he said, “You know, Hafsat.” He was quiet for a while. I said, “Daddy, what is it?” He said, “Can you believe your mother wants to work?” He said it as if my mother wanted to carry cocaine to Japan—like it was so bad. So, I looked at him and I said, “Daddy, actually a lot of my friends’ mothers work.” And he looked at me with disappointment. If there was ever a moment when my father questioned whether I was his mother come back, this was the moment.
But somehow, our relationship survived this moment of doubt. And when he left my room, he went to my mother and said, “Ok, you can work, but here are the conditions. Your workplace must be near the house, no more than five minutes away. And whenever I’m driving home, I should be able to drive past where you are working, and I should be able to see your car and see that you are there.” So, my mother found a place to work within five minutes from the house, and the gate was such that when my father would drive by, he would see her car, and there was peace in our house. And my mother was working. She was very successful, and she acquired properties in Nigeria. And we were all proud of her.
Now, because my father called me his ‘super girl,’ I always thought I could do anything. I went to high school in the U.S., and I wanted to be a diplomat. I wanted to travel the world and speak and do things, negotiate for my country. So, I applied to Georgetown School of Foreign Service. I got in, and I called my father. I was so excited and I said, “Daddy, can you believe I’ve gotten into Georgetown School of Foreign Service? I can be a diplomat!” Then it was quiet, and then he said, “What kind of husband will you marry gallivanting around the world?” It was just one question. But it was enough to tell me that it was a very stupid idea, and I had to come up with another one.
So, I ended up going to Harvard and studying economics. While I was in my second year at Harvard, my father ran for office and won the presidential election in Nigeria. You would think that we celebrated, but the military government decided that they didn’t want a democracy. They tried negotiating with him, and he refused to betray the democratic mandate given to him by the people of Nigeria, so they put him in jail. And when they put him in jail, the response was silence. So now my mother stood up. She started selling all the properties she had acquired when she was working. She sold everything. She went to the market and organized the market women. She organized the labor unions, and they started fighting the military—just common people, journalists, all of them fighting the military. They demanded that the military transfer power to a democratic leader. And when the military saw this, they decided that the danger my mother was causing was too much, and they decided to gun her down.
This was two days before my university graduation, when they killed her in Lagos. As you may know, Americans are incredibly nice, but also incredibly oblivious about the rest of the world. So, when I was in the U.S. at Harvard, nobody knew about Nigeria. If you asked my classmates where Nigeria is on a map, I doubt that most of them could have told you. So, I felt really alone there; I felt like nobody cared. But one day, before my mother was killed, I was walking to my dorm room, and I saw a long table with students petitioning, gathering signatures. I figured they were petitioning about something stupid—these people don’t have any real problems, what are they going to be talking about now? I wanted to avoid them. But the students stopped me as I was trying to walk around them. They said, “Please, we need signatures, there is an elected president in jail in Nigeria, and we are gathering signatures to demand his release.” I started crying and I said, “You know you are speaking about my father. They didn’t know, but they had gotten some information from Amnesty International, and they wanted to take action. So, they said to me, “Could you come and tell us what is happening in Nigeria, because we only have information from Amnesty? We don’t really understand what is happening.”
I ran home. I phoned my mother and said, “Mommy, some people want to help us. Can you send me information?” She sent me a fax, because this was before email. And I went to collect the fax and on the cover page of the fax, she said, “I’ve been waiting for you to ask to help, Hafsat. Thank you.” Because of those students, there was so much I could do. We started a campaign across America. I traveled to pretty much every state, I went to Canada, and I went all over Europe. When my mother was killed in 1996, I was in New York City, asking people there to help us. When they heard that my mother had been killed, the city council of New York decided to name a street corner after my mother. They chose the street where the Nigerian consulate office was. And if you go there, on 42nd Street and 2nd Avenue, you’ll see my mother’s name: Kudirat Abiola Corner. This was because of those students in the United States. I can’t imagine what I would have done if not for their help.
Women Lighting New Paths
Today, as I receive this award, I want to tell you that when any child is born, if you look at that child, it is immediately obvious that there is a spark within that child. Every child is born with it. We all carry a spark within us. But whether we can express that spark depends on whether or not we find support in the world. You might think of my father’s story and my mother’s story as a tragedy. I think of it as a triumph, because their spirit said, “We want to serve people.” And because of the dangers they faced, people all around the world stood up.
They found the courage to stand, and to remain standing. It is true that they died. But all of us will die one day. Yet, how many of us stand up and truly express our spirit? Because they expressed their spirit, I always celebrate them. I never feel sad for them, because I know that the final victory was theirs. They did not allow themselves to be daunted by anything.
My mother went to high school, but the majority of women in Nigeria still do not go to high school. In northeast Nigeria, only four percent of girls go on to high school. The majority of them end up married and having children at very young ages. And many of them die in the course of giving birth. For every 100,000 babies that women in northeast Nigeria give birth to, we lose about 2,000 women. For every 100,000 babies that the women of Japan give birth to, you lose less than 10 women. That is just to show you that there is a crisis.
I stand before you today because I had a mother who nurtured my dreams, and who raised me to believe in myself. But who is doing that for those children born in the northeast, whose mothers are dying? And even when the mothers are alive, how much can they give their children when they themselves have received so little? Is it an accident that this is the same region of Nigeria—the northeast—where Boko Haram, the terrorist group, is now so active?
So, one of the things I’ve been working on is trying to see how we, the women of Nigeria, can rise up and support the people in the northeast. In the government position that I hold now, I am working to make sure that women have access to medical care. I have also, through my NGO, been working to build schools in Nigeria, but there is so much more we can do. I noted earlier that somebody is here from the Angolan embassy. In Angola, when they ended the civil war, there were landmines all over the country, and they had to take out the landmines, but even after that, they found that women and children were still getting their limbs blown off. Why was this happening? When they reconvened the commission, they found that it was only men in the commission. There were no women to say that these are the places where women walk—the wells and rivers where they fetch water or gather firewood.
When we have a world in which men and women are not working in partnership, we have a world that is out of balance. That story from Angola showed this very clearly, and until they asked women to join the commission, Angola was not safe. Angola is a great example for the whole of Africa, and for our whole world. We need to empower women. We need to educate our women. I’ve been very fortunate to be honored with this award tonight. But I would love for you, the women of Japan, to come and stand with us, the women of Africa. We will gather next year in Ethiopia—women from all across Africa will send delegations to Ethiopia—to discuss the ways we can repair a wounded continent.
The world says, “African people are poor.” “African people are without education.” “Africa is violent.” “African people have diseases.” All these are problems that have solutions. Come and walk with us, so that we can find solutions together to repair Africa.
I do not want to speak for too long, but I do want to say that whether the spark within us finds full expression depends on whether we have support. Those young people in that American school supported me, when my family and my country needed us to stand. I would hope that the people in Japan can support the continent of Africa now. Africa was the birthplace of all of humanity. It has been depressed for so long and exploited for so long, and now it has the opportunity to rise. But to rise, the women of Africa must be empowered to rise. Work with us, so that we can do this together. In closing, I want to leave you with a poem. It says:
The human heart can go to the lengths of God.
Dark and cold we may be, but this
Is no winter now. The frozen misery
Of centuries breaks, cracks, begins to move;
The thunder is the thunder of the floes,
The thaw, the flood, the upstart Spring.
Thank God our time is now when wrong
Comes up to face us everywhere,
Never to leave us till we take
The longest stride of soul we humans ever took.
Affairs are now soul size.
Is exploration into God.
Where are you making for? It takes
So many thousand years to wake,
But will you wake for pity’s sake?
I may be from Africa, and you may be from Asia. We may be from completely different parts of the world, but the spark within each of us does not know race, does not know culture. It is the spark of spirit that outlasts time. The world has the possibility to tell a story that it has never told—a story of neutral empowerment, true love, true development, and true democracy.
Some Americans are saying that they want to be great again. But we know that a lot of their greatness was built on the backs of slaves. We want America great again in a world of freedom—not just freedom for America, but for Africa, for Asia, for Europe, and for all the world’s people. Let the women rise together with the men. Let men support the women, because in the end, when you support women, you end up supporting yourself. My father learned this. I gallivanted around the world to save him. My mother became powerful and wealthy, and used all of her power and wealth to help him. That is the way of women. We give everything, the way we give life. Support us, and we can make this new world a true world that really celebrates humanity and creates a good home for the spirit. The world that we live in now does harm to many spirits. Let us heal that world together. Thank you.