Kudirat Abiola, My Mum, My Heroine, By Hafsat Abiola-Costello

imageKudirat. From the Arabic word Qudra, means Power. That was my mother’s Muslim name. In Hausa, the language spoken in Zaria, her birthplace, Kudi means wealth. My mum’s life began on August 29, 1951, and by the time she died nearly forty-five years later she had imbued her name with new meaning. In her contribution to the June 12 pro-democracy campaign, she demonstrated that power and Nigeria’s true wealth lies in its people.
Kudi’s Story Early Years
However, this part of her life story came much later, towards the end of her life.

So let me begin at the beginning. My mother was born in the Sabon gari of Zaria to a Yoruba migrant trading family. She was the fourth of her mother’s six children, and the first girl. My mum went through her early education in Zaria, and then returned to her family’s hometown of Ijebu Ode for high school. She was an excellent student, and in her senior year, she became her school’s head girl. Her hopes of going on to the university to study pharmacy were dashed because of her family’s financial circumstances, and upon graduation, she went to Lagos to work.

Polygamy and Divisions among Women
My mother had just started work at Adebowale Electronics when she met my dad in 1970. She was 21 when they got married a year later; he was twelve years older. He already had a family with his high school sweetheart, whom he married right after high school. Their marriage had produced five children. My parents’ marriage was a love match. However, she quickly realized that her husband had a large heart and was generous in sharing in love as he was in all his resources. Shortly after he married my mother, he married two more wives.

Polygamy is difficult at the best of times, and not surprisingly, there were challenges in my father’s household. Mummy Oke, as my father’s first wife was called, had not expected my father to marry another wife, and found it difficult to accept my mother. They never developed a rapport. Between my mum and my father’s other two wives, the relationship went through highs and lows, sometimes they were close friends who went out together and made plans as a group, and at other times they didn’t get along. My father, probably believing that his wives coming together would make his life more difficult, didn’t intervene effectively to resolve problems.
A polygamous, Yoruba family has its own social system. A basic rule of thumb is ‘know your place.’ The problems in my father’s household began because there was some disagreement on what the new wife’s place was. For a new wife confronted with such a dilemma, there are three choices-to flee the situation, to accept whatever one is allotted, or to take a stand and hold it whatever the costs.

My mum was incredibly beautiful, soft spoken, and humble. These traits often hid another element of her character- she was a fighter for whatever she believed in. She believed in her husband and her marriage and felt that some of the ideas about ‘her place’ would have weakened her ability to be a good wife. So consistently over the years, she simply chose to do what she felt was right and in keeping with her responsibilities as a wife of MKO and as a mother of his children.

Often, this meant walking the difficult path, but ultimately, her integrity seemed to make any other choice impossible.

Kudi’s Haven
My mother’s haven through these early years was her relationship with her husband and her growing responsibilities as a mother. She was pregnant in nine of the first fourteen years of marriage. And was inevitably nursing and raising children all the time. Of the nine children she had, two died at birth, leaving her and leaving her and my dad with four boys and three girls. My mother loved children and was a wonderful mum. Her approach to raising children made life for us, her kids, fun and interesting. For example, one of her major goals was to raise children that were grounded and humble. However, instead of lecturing us about humility and simplicity, whenever we were visited by people who behaved in a pompous manner, my mother would call us into the sitting room to be with such guests. Then after they left, she would ask us to act like them. Moriam and Khafila, my two younger sisters, were especially good actresses and would soon have my mum laughing. We learned from these episodes that to be arrogant and pompous was also to be ridiculous.

As a husband, my dad could be challenging. One of the things we loved most about him, his openness and generosity towards others, was also the source of many of my mother’s problems with him. For example, on several occasions, my dad would go out to some event (often a soccer game), and would return home with sixty people that he had met at the stadium. The problem was that the would have promised to feed these newly acquired friends but hadn’t informed my mother to prepare any food! Of course, he expected that food hurriedly prepared for his hungry guests would be delicious. Being MKO’s wife could be trying! But my mum loved challenges in general and, for love, would rise to meet my dad many demands with a smile.

Coming Out of the Closet: Kudi Working
The true challenge of their relationship was securing space for my mother’s development. During their courtship when words are honey and easy on the tongue, my dad promised that my mum would be able to work after she had had her babies. After her first child turned fifteen, my mum wanted to begin working. Dad had forgotten the promise. Now he didn’t want her to work. He was hurt: was he not providing adequately? My mum didn’t mention her many requests that my father had refused. Nor did she point out how money from her various revenue generating projects had helped the family. She simply reminded him of his promise.

Seeing that she was determined, dad decided to recruit us, the children, to lobby for mum to stay at home. I remember vividly the night he came into my room. He walked in with his usual burst of energy and sunny smile and sat at the foot of my bed. After talking about school, his face assumed a troubled look “Ronke,” he began, “Do you know your mother wants to work?’ he asked me , much in the same tone he might use to ask if I knew my mother wanted to smuggle drugs into England. “Yes,” I replied gaily, “Isn’t that wonderful?’ Some of my friends’ mothers worked and I didn’t see the big deal. This wasn’t the response my father wanted. He left my room, disappointed, and went to visit my other siblings. Finding little support, he left our apartment, dejected.

Finally, he agreed to allow my mum to work. On the condition that she worked close to home. Her office was located on Opebi Road so that she would be close enough to the house to continue to attend to his needs.

Women’s Power, Women’s Solidarity
One of the areas of my mother’s life that I particularly enjoyed was her circle of women friends. The women that made up this circle were from all walks of life and from all parts of the country. Its members changed over time and expanded and contracted depending on what was going on in my mother’s life. If it ever suffered a major contraction, this occurred towards the end of her life when her choices were so far outside of what seemed acceptable to the political and social powers in Nigeria that many of her friends chose to stand on the sidelines until the battle between the military and pro-democracy forces was over. However, it isn’t this last period of my mother’s experience with friends that interests me here but the earlier years. In the beginning, along with her two sisters, my mum’s community of friends was a sisterhood. They gathered and celebrated milestones in each other’s lives-naming ceremonies, birthdays, chieftaincy titles, and any other festive occasion.

Saturdays were their designated days. I still remember my mum rushing through her tasks – bathing her brood of seven and all of us trooping into our station wagon car and going to one of her friend’s home.

Whenever it was my mum’s turn to host her friends, they would meet at our house. Our home always came alive on those days. My mum would cook her special jollof rice and fried chicken. She would buy drinks and, in order to save the drinks for her guests, she would ban my brothers from the kitchen. Then she would go and get ready, wearing bright iro and buba or some new style of boubou.

All the work of getting the house ready was always worth it if only for the joy of listening to the warm laughter and affectionate greeting, the embrace of friendship that each woman walked into as they entered our home. As many of her friends also had children, my siblings and I were not left out. Our own friends would also come, and our day would be spent running around, playing and watching movies.

However, from the children’s rooms or as we ran past the sitting room, on our way to hide or seek, we would catch a work or two, sometimes a whole sentence from the conversations of my mum’s circle. More often that not, they would be regaling each other with stories from their lives. In later years I came to appreciate the importance of this close circle of friends. The easy, robust laughter hid the delicate work they were doing of building each other’s confidence and helping one another build bridges from their lives to their dreams. Mummy had always wanted to be a pharmacist but, with her parents unable to pay for her to continue her education; she had come to Lagos following her high school to work. When she decided to start a business, one of her friends taught her the ropes for the pharmaceutical supply company that she started. Armed with a loan from my dad and her friends’ support, she went on to establish three successful companies.

Soon my mum was going to work as we were going to school. On our way home, we would stop by her office and catch up on our day. As her businesses grew successful, she bought herself a car and began to make investments for herself and her children. Sometimes, she got duped by partners, which cost her dearly but through such experiences, she was learning the need to temper her open, trusting nature with caution in order to protect herself.

Helping Her Children Grow Wings
Soon after my mum started her business, our family separated with a few of my siblings and me traveling to the USA to continue our education. My mum accompanied us on our first journey to our new schools. When it was my turn to go to my school, we flew from New York to Boston and then drove to the school. I had already come there in the summer when the campus was empty but nothing prepared me for the sea of white faces on the school grounds. I immediately saw that unlike Queens College, here I was black among white people. I panicked.

I turned to my mum and told her to take me home. She smiled. Then during the meeting with the house mistresses of the school’s dormitories, she noticed an African-American woman who worked as one of the school’s main administrators.

She took me to the woman and asked her to ‘look after me for her.’ This was Andover in the USA, not Lagos Nigeria, but somehow the African-American woman understood and promised to take care of me. By securing an anchor for each of my siblings and me, my mum made it easier for us to thrive in the USA.

My mum returned to Nigeria and in 1992, my father started discussing running for political office with her and others. He had been watching the political scene and felt that democratic elections were imminent. He was right, and soon he joined the Social Democratic Party (SDP), one of the two newly formed parties and began vying for the party’s Presidential ticket.

My mum was a key part of his campaign efforts from the start. When he secured the party’s ticket, she helped him campaign in the north, communicating his platform and his credibility to masses in Hausa, the lingua franca of the North.

The election, held on June 12 1993, had a turnout of about 14 million voters across the country. The votes were counted, my father won. However, General Ibrahim Babangida, the military head of state, stopped the announcement of the result and two weeks later, he annulled the elections.

The choices available to Nigerians were whether to challenge the annulment of the election or to simply accept it. If my family chose the former, it would cost us our social position as we would be ostracized by elite that had grown dependent on the established government for their well-being. It would mean a loss of friends and the exposure of our businesses to attacks by the government. My family was split on how to respond, with many deciding that Nigerians were not worth the sacrifice.

My mother felt differently. To her, the annulment was unjust and should be challenged. To leave such injustice unchallenged would be to accept all its ramifications. It was probably impossible for her to feel differently. After all, she had spend most of her life challenging unjust acts within our own family. Challenging the military leadership was simply a public extension of her private stance.

However, what the Abiola family would do in response to the annulment of the election wasn’t my mother’s decision to make. She was not the person that had been elected to lead the country – Her husband, MKO Abiola was. And what was important was his choice.

My dad was not sure. He had ideas for what he would do to make Nigeria better and wanted to serve as President. However, GENERAL Ibrahim Babangida’s annulment of the election placed its winner in uncharted territory. To make matters worse, he has an unstable group of supporters; many fellow politicians abandoned ship and took up appointment with the military government at the first sign of problems. And he was afraid of being killed: he kept saying that “standing before an army of 100,000 soldiers would be like standing in front of a freight train”.

Yet, his conscience would not release him from his obligations as elected president. His closeness to the military leadership had enabled him to see the depth of rot that undermined the political system and produced massive corruption and economic crises in Nigerians during his extensive campaign as the flag bearer of the Social Democratic Party. The poverty ha had seen during h is tour haunted him.

As all efforts to negotiate a reversal of the annulment with the military leadership failed, my father arrived logically at the last resort – confrontation. He was afraid, he said, yet he did not feel that he could betray the people’s mandate. During one of the many private conversations he had with my mother, his decision to lead the pro-democracy movement was taken.

Once my father decided to lead the movement, my mother never looked back. Politics was new to her, but she was a quick learner. The strength of the movement was the fact that an election had been held and had been seen to be free and fair (a least far more so than any ever held in Nigeria). Its weakness was the weakness of the coalition of politicians.

With the party coalition weakened by the loss of many important members my parents decided to return the campaign to the people who had spoken overwhelmingly on June 12. For this, my father was arrested and charged with treason june1994. My mum kept his demands alive and contributed to provide the Abiola voice for the movement. She quickly saw that many of the elite would not place themselves at risk and worked with those who would. This brought her unto a working relationship with organizations like NADECO, led by Afenifere, OPC, and others. And together, they worked on communicating with the masses and building a movement.

She worked to bridge the divide within the ethnic groups created by the military’s agents of disinformation, which had reduced the national demand for democracy to the more manageable western Nigeria struggle. Consequently, she spoke constantly on the Hausa language service of the Voice of Nigeria and BBC. She kept people informed about my father’s situation through national press interviews.

She also used her resources to finance the movement. She sold assets to raise money to support the mobilizing efforts of the pro- democracy groups. Later, my sibling and I works laugh and shake our heads at the irony of my mum supporting my dad’s cause with her resources, especially when we remember how much dad had opposed her working.

It wasn’t an easy time for my siblings and me. When we visited home during school holidays, we would find the house full of strangers, many of whom had come simply to eat . and we found a mother who was incredibly busy , doing things that many men would never do. I still remember one morning waking up to find our that my mum had driven herself at 4am to Ondo for an Afenifere meeting! Out of fear for my mother’s safety (and if we are to be honest, out of resentment that our normally attentive, doting mother was not available), we protested.

But my mum was unstoppable. And she was still a delight. She reciprocated the many drama skits that we had performed for her during our childhood by dramatizing some of the funnier characters she came into contact with in the movement. I doubt that any of us will ever forget her rendition of the medicine man who had promised that he could transport daddy from his cell in Abuja to our transport her from the sitting room into her bedroom!

Along with our concern and misgivings, we felt proud to see our mother growing into herself. She was no longer just a wife, or a mother, or a business woman. But has also become an activist making critical contributions to Nigeria growth. The principles she spoke about during her interviews, principles of fairness egalitarianism and justice, were old to us within our home. It was the same ones that she had constantly insisted on whenever issues that are justified with ‘that’s how it’s done’ came up within the family.

Given the stakes of the struggle, it was not surprising that my mother’s unequivocal support for the pro- democracy movement would be challenged by those that disagreed with her. Many members of my family challenged her right to lead the Abiola campaign, suggesting that even as the first wife (Mummy Oke died in 1992) , she was not the one to lead. The first son was. This group charged that my mother’s choices of my father’s legal representation and in other matters were jeopardizing his release from prison.

My mother continued with her work. Indeed, she stepped it up. She met with diplomats and spoke to the few international human rights commissions sent to Nigeria to make recommendations to international bodies on the crisis. In response dad’s incarceration and that of other political activists as well as other materials pertaining to the movement. I used these to prepare my testimony presented during the January 1996 hearing by the New York City Council, which led to the first resolution supporting the right of Nigerians to democracy and condemning continued military rule. She kept bringing the demand of Nigerians for democracy to the world’s attention.

Yet there were serious challenges. Not all allies were reliable. She often found herself surrounded by many with such needs as to render them available as double agents to the government. Her openness, humility and the ease with which people gained access to her made her effective as a pro- democracy leader, but it also made it easy for the government to plant spies in her circle.

She knew there were dangers. She also knew that any path to true democracy in Nigeria would involve walking through dangers. Perhaps her single-minded focus is best explained by the fact that for my mother to take a stand, she only has to be convinced that it is the right thing to do. Expediency arguments don’t factor with her at all.

Last Conversation with Mummy
In the last days of May, my mother was arrested for 24 hours by the police and warned to stop her activities. One of her oldest friends, Mrs. Aka Bashorun went to get her from the police station when she was released. Many of the other friends had taken to loving her from a safe distance.

My mum’s phone was ringing off the hook. A lot of the calls were from us, her kids. My graduation from university was coming up on the 6th of June and we wanted to use that to pressure mummy to leave Nigeria for some time. We felt that things were getting too hot. When I talked to her, I had news. Throughout my years in Lagos, my severe asthma meant that I rarely went into the kitchen and, consequently, cooking ws not one of my skills. However, since I started living in the United States of America, I has learned how to cook. So I told my mum that she wouldn’t have to lift a finger. I’d cook and between Khafila, Moriam, Lekan, Biodun and I, we would take care of her.

My mum laughed. She said she was coming. Soon. She had already gathered many videotapes and articles on her activism and couldn’t wait to show them to me. “Hafsat, you would be so proud of your mummy,” she said. As she said that, my mind went back to the many times my mum had taken a principled stand within our family. Even in the early years when she was so young and so vulnerable and later as she grew and became stronger. I remembered the flight we had taken together from New York to Boston so she could enroll me at my new school and how she had made a frightening beginning at a strange place manageable by finding me a surrogate mum. I remembered how wonderfully she had played every role that had come to her and gently told her “Mummy I have always been proud of you.”

My mother never made that flight to the USA. But she did make another journey. On the fourth of June 1996 she was assassinated on the orders of General Abacha, to whom General Babangida had transferred power in 1994. Some of her close allies had provided the military government with information on her movements, facilitating the assassination. She was 44 years old.

Interesting, with my mother out of the way and with the rest of my family’s unfettered ability to try other methods to secure my father’s release, daddy still remained in jail. On July 7, 1998, two years after my mum’s death, my family received his corpse from the government.

In the end, when I reflect on my mother’s life story, I feel proud and excited by her. Like every human being, my mother had her share of challenges. However, she had a way of rising to embrace whatever life sent her way. She didn’t try to transfer her responsibilities to others. Nor did she allow anyone to tell her what was within her place and what was beyond her. Beneath her gentle grace were an integrity, courage and tenacity that placed her shoulders above others.

Kudi Abiola was not at the peak of her life when she was killed. Indeed, in many ways she was just beginning to emerge into her full power. But because her life was a principle-centred one, it is possible to see where she was going. My mother’s life choices give a window into a honourable soul who understood that justice could not be a commodity sold at any marketplace. She set aside concerns for her social position and her safety to fight for a Nigeria where its people elect its leaders and where any of its sons and daughter could vie for office. Perhaps her intimate experiences with being an underdog, its indignities and injustice, enabled her to be especially sensitive to Nigeria’s masses. For her sensitivity, compassion and commitment, she is still remembered by people across Nigeria today.

In the last meeting that my father had with some members of our family, 24 hours before his mysterious death, he was asked if he would not, four years later consider giving in to the demands of the military government. One of the questions he asked in response was how would he explain such a choice to Kudi. Because both of them stayed faithful, Nigeria’s democracy was born.

For living her life with such a loving, honourable spirit, and for remaining faithful to her husband and to the people of Nigeria through many trials, Kudi will always be my heroine.

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