Today marks the twentieth anniversary of the death of my mother, Kudirat Abiola.
A young woman, not quite 44 years old, Kudirat was different things to different people. She was a loving mother to her seven children, the youngest of whom was seven at the time of her death. She was also a dutiful wife and a principled Nigerian who believed that an electoral mandate given to her husband during the June 12, 1993 democratic election could not simply be set aside on the whims of a small band of men, whether they were armed or not.
I continue to draw strength and inspiration from her clear example in a country where, for most people, everything is negotiable. From her, I learned that it is better to stand with the truth even if it is to stand alone.
It has taken so long for the tree of democracy that she and other women sacrificed so much to plant to show the promise that motivated them to take a stand. Yet, even now, it is still glaring in its failure to include women in elective positions. In this one thing, we reveal a flaw in how we understand and practice democracy. For if power were understood as primarily a tool to be used to serve all people, women would be encouraged to play their part.
The absence of women reveals the fact that the current wind of change has not altered the fundamental perception of power as an instrument, not of service but of domination. Unfortunately, when used in this way, everyone loses as the cycle of divide and misrule that Nigeria has witnessed time and again will simply continue producing poverty, conflict and misery.
As we reflect on the fact that the National Assembly has only six per cent women (6%), we need to be aware that Africa’s largest economy lags behind all but one other African country on this and gives us a ranking of 177 out of 193 countries.
Today, let us remember that when Chief Abiola was in detention, when many pro-democracy leaders had fled the country to continue the battle against military dictatorship, Kudirat Abiola and others kept the flag flying at home. She led the marches. She sold her properties to support her husband’s household and to finance the movement. She gave interviews on national and international media channels. She was incarcerated and frequently threatened but remained undaunted. And ultimately she was gunned down on the streets of Lagos, Nigeria.
I remember her today as I do every day and pray for the continued peaceful repose of her soul. But on this day, 20 years on, I want to ask our leaders to be fair to the Nigerian women. No bird, no matter how strong, can fly with one wing. No country, no matter its potential, can thrive while keeping its women back.
Most local government councils will hold elections this year and next, nation-wide. This time, parties should put in place mechanisms to ensure 30% women representation at local government level. The local government is a good level to begin fostering gender equity since it has purview over primary health care as well as primary education, issues of particular concern to women.
This democracy came at a price, which women and men paid, and should be made to work for everyone. It will work better when women are allowed to play their part.
* Hafsat Abiola-Costello is the founder of Kudirat Initiative for Democracy.