It’s been 26 years since the loss of her parents, Chief MKO Abiola, the acclaimed winner of the June 12, 1993 presidential election, and Kudirat. But her commitment to their legacy remains resolute. With poise and resilience, Hafsat Abiola-Costello has established herself as a civil rights leader within Nigeria and beyond. For Hafsat, her tribute to her father is making sure his dream of seeing Nigerians say farewell to poverty is achieved in her lifetime. This, she has quietly pursued over the years through policy-influencing activities. Lately, she has stood as a strong voice for people living with disabilities in the country. These and many more the two-time member of Ogun State cabinet and current President of Women in Africa, a global organization, does on the platform of Kudirat Initiative for Democracy, KIND, an organisation she founded many years ago in honour of her mother.
What do you miss most about your father?
I miss his story-telling greatly; my father used to tell the nicest stories. I also miss his large heart. When somebody upsets me, I always think back to my days with my father; he never stayed upset. So, I always tell myself I am not behaving like my father’s daughter if I stay upset with anyone. I’m happy and feel lucky that I was able to have a clear example. I daily try to live up to his legacy.
Who was your biggest role model between your father and mother?
I would say my mum, because she was more involved even though she had her own business and was engaged in pro-democracy activism. Her life was very motivational for us because we felt that if our mum could do it, we also can. Whereas if my father had been the only one involved in politics, it would have been like watching superman fly—we never would have taught we could do the same. There was something about my father that would make you feel you were looking at a superman
Nigeria celebrated her Democracy Day on June 12 this year for the first time as a mark of honour for your late father; how did that make you feel?
I felt incredibly happy. I’m so happy that President Muhammadu Buhari did that. You know he doesn’t talk a lot even though a lot of Nigerians would like to hear him talk more. But I think he means well and is a very sincere person. My own prayer is that this democracy helps to address and attack poverty, impunity from government officials and corruption. I pray it sets Nigeria on the path of the 21st century. That is why I am hoping now that Mr. President will not only honour June 12, but also honour the promise my father made to Nigerians: that Nigerians will say farewell to poverty beginning from the 1993 election. I want us to say goodbye to poverty and our leaders have a key role to play in this. I sincerely want Mr. President to focus on that.
This democracy gives the impression that it holds your father in high esteem. But isn’t the cry of hardship among Nigerians currently contrary to your his idea of governance?
First of all, what I want to say is that we are going in the right direction. I know we’re very far from our destination as a country, but the truth is that we are now in a country where people understand we need to produce what we use instead of just importing. When we import, we are paying for jobs outside. Meanwhile, people need jobs in Nigeria and millions need us to buy their made-in-Nigeria products.
The key thing that I need the Nigerian government to address is to enable and empower the Nigerian people to unleash the creativity I know that they have, by addressing the power conundrum. If we do not produce enough power, we cannot produce competitively. Nigerians may want to buy things made in Nigeria but because they will be more expensive, they would rather import. Without power, the Nigerian people cannot take advantage of the many opportunities being given right now.
The Chinese example
I used to live in China and I did my Master’s in International Development there. While there, I studied their transition because China is now the 2nd wealthiest country in the world if you use an economic term called Purchasing Power Priority, which is the ability to buy within China compared with the ability to buy anywhere else. My father went to China in the 80s and at that time, everybody in China was riding in bicycles. Today, China is one of the major car producers in the world and is also the major producer of pretty much everything. They are in fact called the world’s factory. One of the things I was there to study was how they made that transition. The transition was not an easy one. It took time and there was a lot of suffering.
As an expert in international development, what development strategy would you, therefore, recommend for this democracy to be able to translate into economic growth for Nigeria?
The primary thing I want to say is that when you study Chinese and what they were able to accomplish for China, you will realise that both men and women were involved. The Chinese leader in 1949 that led the new China, said the women of China hold up half the sky. So, he understood that the men hold up half while the women hold up the other half. But in Nigeria, it’s almost as if men think they can hold up the sky by themselves. Whereas China, by its culture and tradition, had longer history of privileges for men than even what we had in Nigeria.
They used to break the feet of women; they broke their toes because the men wanted the women to have small feet. They would break their toes and wrap them so that the women even couldn’t walk a lot. Their men wanted to be able to appreciate them with their small feet. So, when a new leader took over China in 1949, he banned the binding of feet, started education of Chinese women and freed them from taking care of children. He actually created communal systems for taking care of children as well as household chores, just to free up the women. Today, China has the world’s largest number of women millionaires. You cannot talk about the rise of China without talking about the rise of Chinese women. Whereas in Nigeria today, we have four percent of women in the legislature.
It’s as if in our country, we think we can go without the women; we won’t go anywhere without the Nigerian woman. The President should signal this message to people who may not have got the memo that the whole world is moving ahead and they’re moving toe to toe, men and women. We are only going to be as great as we allow our women to be.