Had she relied solely on archival footage of Nigeria, a country riven by tribal, religious and political conflicts, Joanna Lipper’s “The Supreme Price” would count as a solid if familiar primer on the struggle for democracy in Africa’s most populous nation. The difference is that women — many of them reared to be submissive, if not downright invisible — now lead the drive for political and social reform in oil-rich, poverty-ridden Nigeria, and Lipper teases out that story through the eyes of a charismatic woman whose mother was killed for her outspoken activism. With beauty, brains and dignity to burn, Hafsat Abiola inherits her mother’s mantle and offers riveting insight into the contradictions of a dynasty of reformist aristocracy, as well as a country that has yet to recover its 250 schoolgirls abducted last April by the Muslim terrorist group Boko Haram.
As pro-democracy movements go, the Nigerian struggle to free itself from dictatorship is Sisyphean. Ruled by successive military juntas since the country’s independence from Britain in 1960, Nigeria is an oil-rich nation with a tiny billionaire elite and the rest (173 million and rising) mired in desperate poverty. Corruption, along with tribal conflict is endemic, political assassinations routine.
Patriarchy rules, and yet, according to Lipper’s lively documentary, the robust movement for political and social reform is driven by women — which is both remarkable and to be expected in a society where women are schooled in submission and excluded from public life. Along with archival footage, the film opens a window into that struggle through the women of one family, whose famous patriarch was the reformist millionaire M.K.O. Abiola. He was fairly elected president in 1993, ousted by yet another military coup, and died mysteriously in prison a couple of years later.
As told by his smart, stunning, Harvard-educated daughter Hafsat, this is less his story than that of his wife, Kudirat, an uneducated woman who honed her natural charisma and political smarts on the campaign trail for her husband, then took over the fight for democracy after he was thrown into prison. She, too, paid a heavy price on many fronts. Through Hafsat and others of his seven children, we learn of Kudirat’s unhappiness as one of her husband’s four wives who also had to put up with his serial womanizing. (His son boasts proudly that Abiola fathered “about” 55 children.)
Like her mother, Hafsat became an activist. Like her, too, she has had to make tough personal decisions that may look strange to reformers who live in more open societies — not the least of which was to leave her husband (a British secular Jew) and small children at home in Brussels and return to Nigeria to take a position in a new civilian government and continue to organize and train women for public life.
To get the measure of their resolve, drop in on a training meeting of Hafshat’s NGO, and see why, along with the world’s most fabulous millinery, these women carry symbolic brooms to demonstrations. To get a sense of what they are up against, even under nominally more enlightened civilian rule, listen to a man who was raised to know better (Hafshat’s brother, who runs a mosque in the family’s compound) explain cheerfully why women have no business running for office. If his sister turns out to be one of the women who do, one can only say, “Good Luck, Jonathan.”