Nigerian activist keeps family legacy alive

Story highlights

  • Hafsat Abiola is the daughter of Nigerian politician MKO Abiola
  • She founded a group that trains female leaders and raises awareness of domestic violence
  • Hafsat also runs a program aimed at reducing maternal mortality rates

(CNN)Her mother was assassinated, her father died in prison after being jailed by the military. Today, Hafsat Abiola is one of the most prominent civil rights activists in Nigeria, fueled by a desire to ensure her parents' deaths were not in vain.

The daughter of Nigerian politician and philanthropist Moshood Kashimawo Olawale (MKO) Abiola, Hafsat was at her second year studying at Harvard, United States, when her father was sent to prison by Nigeria's junta after claiming the country's 1993 presidential election.

Although MKO Abiola garnered almost 60% of the vote, the West African country's military rulers annulled the results and eventually charged the former businessman with treason. His imprisonment prompted a wave of demonstrations, led partly by Hafsat's mother and Abiola's second wife, Kudirat.

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In 1996, Kudirat Abiola was shot in the head when the car she was traveling in was attacked on a Lagos expressway. Hafsat was still in the United States with her siblings when news came of her mother's assassination.

"All five of us were in the U.S. when we heard, and we stood in a circle, and we held hands," remembers Hafsat. "We just stood there, and then I said to my siblings that we won't let her down, and really since that time we've been trying to make sure that we do not let her down."

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Two years later, in July 1998, MKO Abiola died while still in custody. Everything Hafsat has done ever since is done through the prism of her loss and her desire to continue the legacy left by her parents.

    After Kudirat's assassination, Hafsat founded an NGO in her mother's memory, the Kudirat Initiative for Democracy (KIND), a group working to strengthen Nigeria's civil society.

    Along with promoting female leadership by offering training and support to women who want to run for office and be active in public life, KIND is also tackling issues such as violence against women.

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    "We wanted to also work with protecting women from domestic violence, raising awareness about the issue of domestic violence," says Hafsat. "Also, we're drawing tacit public acceptance of it. If the public challenges people who abuse their wives, their daughters, their sisters, their girlfriends, it will stop, it will be not so easy to continue."

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    Last year, Hafsat was appointed as a special adviser to the governor of Ogun State, Ibikunle Amonson. Hafsat runs a conditional cash transfer project for the state, where poor pregnant women are encouraged to use available healthcare facilities for safer pregnancies in a bid to reduce maternal mortality rates.

    According to the World Health Organization, maternal mortality in Nigeria is 630 per 100,000, more than 20 times as high as in Europe or the United States.

    "We need to drive the women into our primary health centers," says Hafsat, explaining that many pregnant women choose to not visit a doctor due to high costs.

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    "But for us the cost of their loss of life is too high for us and society to bear, so we have to incentivize them to overlook the cost," she says.

    "So what we're doing is that we pay them to go to the doctor six times before delivery, which is a lot of times but we want to have enough time to be checking if there's any complications arising that we have to prepare for.

    "We pay them to deliver in the hospital, so each time they go to give birth we give them a small amount of money. It's not a lot, but it will cover transportation and a little bit extra."

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    Hafsat says that through her efforts and those of others in the country, the work of her parents can reach a new generation of Nigerians.

    "I think that if they were to do it all over again, they would do it exactly the same way," says Hafsat of her parents. "Or if not, they would even make more sacrifices because I think we only live once, and we must do what we can."