Hafsat Abiola-Costello is a young activist promoting women, youth and democracy in Nigeria and around the world. She is also Executive Director of the Kudirat Initiative for Democracy (KIND), a non-governmental organisation that seeks to empower democracy and development in Nigeria by strengthening organizations and creating initiatives that advance women. KIND’s main programme is Kudra, a programme that offers leadership training to 1,250 young women across Nigeria each year.

In this encounter, Hafsat, who was in the country to watch SEVEN, a groundbreaking documentary play premiered in Abuja, which portrays seven women’s rights activists from around the globe, including herself, speaks on her expectations for the 2011 elections, her views on the candidates for the presidential election, including former military president, Ibrahim Badamosi Babangida, who is also in the race. Excerpts…

What have you been up to lately?
My mother was killed in 1996. So this is the 14th year since her death and I have started a process of reflection within Kudirat Initiative for Democracy (KIND). The idea for KIND was born as my mother died because I wanted us to send a clear message to the military that had assassinated her that in this they will not succeed. I wanted to have an organization that would continue to express our experience. My mother was married to a man who had power and wealth. Both of them were happiest whenever they were with the poor people or serving poor people. So I wanted KIND to do more to really capture that spirit.

A lot of our work is with public universities, with young women in public universities like in Calabar, Jos, Maiduguri, Lagos and Awka. Even the girls in the universities are privileged because many girls don’t get into universities. I want to see how we could assist the women that are most vulnerable in the Nigerian society, that do not really get support like most of the women in the rural areas. So I have gone to some villages to spend time with women in rural communities, to talk with them and ask them how KIND can serve them. We are preparing for the next phase of KIND’s work where we are actually going to have direct impact on the most vulnerable women in Nigeria.

You are trying to get women into politics. What is that all about? Is it just casting votes or running for office?

We want the whole range. We want women in Nigeria to be able to express themselves fully. So we have a leadership programme where we train young women to become leaders in their communities. By this programme we are trying to change the understanding of the word leadership, so that is not about political power in the person like the president. Everybody has power, everybody can be a leader because everybody can serve. That is a saying from Martin Luther King. We want women to understand this and to understand that in a country with as many problems as Nigeria there is ample opportunity for leadership. A lot of the women we train we encourage them to vie for offices in their universities or within their department and to do more than just vie for positions like treasurer, but to vie for position of president or vice president.
So we have been doing that for eight years, I mean our leadership programme, and supported by the European Commission, Corp Aid in The Netherlands and different foundations to train about 1,250 young women across Nigeria each year.

Now we want to take another step. A few years ago we launched 30-by-11, which will probably become 30-by-15 really. And the idea is that we want women represented in 30 per cent of all public positions of government in Nigeria. On that campaign we have been meeting leaders from the different parties and training women politicians in different states in Nigeria. This year that project is funded by UNIFEM, which is funding KIND and Baobab, and together we are training women politicians.

Look at the case of Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala. When she served as Minister of Finance, her record showed clearly she was better than many of the people that came before her. And it was a clear case and sign of encouragement to all Nigerians that when we encourage women, the whole country wins. That is the argument we must make time and again. That is why we must insist that qualified women be given the opportunity. Incompetence is what is making Nigeria poor. With competent leaders we can transform Nigeria and I believe that if we can ensure that what we get are competent women, we will transform Nigeria even faster.

Don’t you think you should be targeting the men in your enlightenment if they keep putting their wives, sisters and daughters in positions rather than those that merit it?

We actually do that. We have plays that we call V-monologue, and sometimes we work with female producers. But recently we have been working with a male producer, Wale Oguntokun. After we gathered stories of Nigerian women and collated them into our V-monologue the Nigerian story, Wale kept getting men asking of their own stories told as well. So we now do the ultimate face-off where we talk about women and men stories, and in this case is a kind of conversation between men and women.

The truth is if we really want the men to work with us, we cannot just tell them what we think. We must have a conversation. It is in conversation that change can happen. So I think showing respect for the male perspective, engaging them in dialogue creates a situation where women will be better informed about what men think and then men will be better informed about what women think. Together we can start coming to a new understanding of what we could do as Nigerian people.

Another thing we have been trying to do is to set up a meeting with the leadership of the Action Congress of Nigeria to discuss this issue. We will also like that kind of opportunity with the Peoples Democratic Party leadership and the leadership of the various parties. Actually, as part of our uniform project, we have had meetings with some of the parties.

One thing I have found out is that men are not opposed to women. They are also not opposed to women leadership. I am often surprised by how much support there is for women in Nigeria and for the issue of women leadership in Nigeria even from men. But when you think of Nigeria’s history you cannot really be surprised. It is when you think about our history from the colonial state, which marginalized women, that we will be surprised. But when we think of the pre-colonial history in Nigeria, it is very clear ours is a history across all our different people. Our women were strong, played vital roles and were respected. When I lived in Asia, the Asian woman that is idealized has a tiny voice. She is so small and you can even consider breaking her. But when you see the African woman, this is not what you think. The African woman is strong, has a clear strong voice and she is not some little thing that you can just set aside. There is power in the African woman and this power is recognized, respected and valued by African men.

What do you think of the First Lady’s Women for Change Initiative?

I am very impressed with it. I love the fact that she is using the position of the First Lady, which is a highly respected position in Nigeria, to press home an issue that is the concern of half the population in Nigeria, and to make sure that the country is ready to carve out a post for women. She is taking this issue to all the states; this is very powerful. But my concern is that we have had first ladies in Nigeria in the past who did similar things like Better Life for Rural Women launched by the wife of General Ibrahim Babangida. So much effort was expended. Also that of Mrs Mariam Abacha; something on Family Support Programme.

I think the issue of women’s role in Nigeria is bigger than the office of the first lady. What we must look to do is to make sure there is something that is always done by a state in Nigeria not just by the first lady that takes it on or doesn’t take it on. Supposing we have another first lady next year and she wants to work on handicap issues? The point is that this issue of engaging the women is central to all issues. It cannot be at the mercy of who is in office and the interest of the wife of who is in office. So in some way we must achieve something so that the state is able to carry this (campaign) forward. The state has responsibility to women in Nigeria, which it is failing to meet. While I have respect for all the efforts Mrs Patience Jonathan is making, I think we have to make sure that it doesn’t end, even if her husband wins, after the years in office.

How would you rate the performance of women in the National Assembly?

I actually will rate them highly. They have worked very hard and it is so interesting that the women in the legislature in Nigeria are the same as you and I. They cannot afford to do just what the men do. If men don’t do well people will not think too much of it. But if women don’t do well, people would say, ‘look at her, she has gotten that position and she is not doing well.’ There is too much pressure on women to perform even better than their male counterparts. So we shouldn’t be surprised that the women in the House of Representatives or the Senate are really working very hard.

They research bills and try to come out with bills that are relevant. But, of course, sometimes they make mistakes. For instance, Dame Ufot Ekaette’s bill on dress code, which was a misjudgment on her part. I think in general, they are very focused, very hardworking. It is a pity because you see all the studies that have been done around the world have shown that until you have a critical mass of women in the legislature, we would not be able to see the impact of having women in the legislature.

Nigeria now has only a token, about 7.5 per cent. This is nothing. In fact, it is an insult to the Nigerian woman, and given the fact that agriculture is done by women, given the weight that Nigerian women have in the country’s economy and society, I think the percentage is an insult, especially when you think of Rwanda having over 40 per cent. That is one of the highest rates given to women in the world. So I think, we need more women in the National Assembly.

Aside training, do you assist in getting funding since Nigerian politics is all about money?

I think this is a problem we can solve. We must first disabuse our minds that the only currency that the woman politician or any politician brings to the table is money. For instance, look at General Babangida, who brings a lot of money into political campaign now and we will see how far that money will take him. There is limit to what money can do. Yes, you need some money to print posters and to get your messages across. But another currency any politician must have is goodwill, which you can build not with so much money.

You did mention IBB and how far money could take him during this election campaign…
I think IBB is an intelligent man and he is making an equation, almost a mathematical equation, which has to do with how many votes he can buy and that is the most important thing to ensure he wins the candidacy for this election. I think that what he is not counting on is that Nigerians are also fed up with people that make promises and give little results, people that make promises and give us explanations, excuses as to why they did not fulfil their promises. What we need now, and I think many Nigerians are of this mind, are people that can give us results; leadership that we can rely on and trust.

When I look at IBB I am fascinated. I don’t really watch soccer but even the little soccer I have watched few times, there is something called an own goal. It seems to me that he so enjoys dribbling that he is not opposed to scoring against his own team. But not just against himself; if it is against himself who will care? But it is against his own country, against his own country’s interest, and such a person cannot rule Nigeria. If Nigerians allow him another opportunity, it will be national tragedy.

We celebrated 50 years, of which IBB was ruler for eight years. Those 50 years we celebrated in October we all agree that the country had gone so far from the national plan that it conceived at the point of independence. I think the worst thing we can do is put somebody again in an office, who for eight years was one of the key reasons that it went off course.

But many Nigerians reading this will think you are saying this out of bitterness?

No, because I am not that kind of person. It is because I am an African and Africans believe in the ancestral place. Everybody must die. One thing that was known even at the point of our birth was that one day we will no longer be here. But the thing about Africans, which I love, is that we have a deep belief that when we die we become ancestors. So the parents that I had were such beautiful people that when they died I was happy for them that they had lived their lives in such a way that they could cross the lands of the ancestors with no regrets. They had really given their very best, so let them go and rest.

We all must do that at some point. So it is not about bitterness against IBB. If there is any concern based on my parents’ sacrifice is that they believed in Nigeria. That is so much greater than what it is and I will wish for us not to take decisions that will place us in jeopardy of realizing our full potential. I believe setting us up to have a leader that thinks we are so small that we can be bought with money, I think will set us back.

What we need is a leader that is so mad about Nigeria that when people tell him this cannot be done he just forges ahead. IBB is not such a leader. When he came into office, the Western nations were telling him that he could devalue Nigeria’s currency. But when General Buhari was in office and The Economist did a research, it was very clear that Nigeria didn’t even have an export sector. That the area of export for Nigeria, which was oil the price, was determined at the international market.

So Nigeria’s currency had no bearing on how much of this oil we sold; that there was nothing to be gained in this direction. What it causes is a shock to the system, a shock that then with a few people’s sense of insecurity they don’t have the values of what their earnings are because all of a sudden the currency had been devalued, prices had gone up because of the relative exchange of goods and that even fuelled corruption. Once people feel insecure about their future you can buy them and this is what he did. Somebody that even in spite of all the evidence from Nigerian and some other experts that we do not need to take this road, you sold us out to so-called international experts. This I think is a failing.

I lived in China for three years and there I had to learn a great deal about a country where its leadership is not selling out its people. This is a leadership that is highly disciplined. They take international experts opinions, do their own research and really consider their own situation and ask, will this work for us? Because in the end when things go haywire, these international experts will just go to the airport and get on the plane and leave. It is the Nigerians or the Chinese or whoever that is sitting down there that suffer.

I do not believe IBB has the respect he required to lead the Nigerian people. I understand the situation. He feels he will soon be going to the land of the ancestors and feels that no one will welcome him because he has made such a mess. People would be angry and say such a great nation Nigeria would have been, look at what you did. That your ineptitude, lack of character and lack of courage made a mess of this. So he is trying to quickly repair the ground, and I want him to be able to do that because I am a compassionate person. But what I am saying is that he need not do that by seeking to rule Nigeria again.

For anyone to want to rule Nigeria, you must be assured of the person’s credibility. It can’t just be something we do out of mercy or something we do out of our own rational thinking and intelligence. Based on the record, he does not qualify for this position. Somebody that keeps failing primary one does not get promoted to primary two. Let’s leave him where he is. This is a man that is consistently thinking about his own interest above the national interest. Such a person cannot be our leader please!

Who should be our next president among those you see preparing for the 2011 elections?

I am very impressed with quite a few people. First of all, I am very impressed with General Buhari. I have been told that his campaign especially in the North is so grassroots-oriented. That tells me this is a man that is not afraid of our people and he loves our people. My concern for him is that when I raise his name with people they say no, he is too stiff or that he is too much only for the north, that he is doesn’t have good relationships and doesn’t listen to other groups. It is sad that people feel this way.

I don’t feel this way but so long as many groups in Nigeria feel this way, it is not likely that he will emerge. I think that Nuhu Ribadu is also a credible aspirant, a very strong aspirant who has shown that he is ready to take on the most important issue – corruption. Corruption has always been a problem but was made worse and institutionalized under IBB. I think Ribadu can tackle this issue but some people tell me that he has his own skeletons and all that. I don’t really believe that of him from the much I have seen of him. I also do not believe we need Jesus Christ but we just need a Nigerian that is better than the others. We have to go step by step and I think he is better that most f the others. He has goodwill, good intension, the integrity and courage to meet them.

So if given a chance I feel things will really go well in Nigeria.
Goodluck Jonathan. to be honest with you, I hear he means well. His wife is very strong and grassroots-oriented. Certainly he has good academic qualifications. One thing I like about him is that within the PDP he has less skeletons in his closet than others, which is very important because he will need that credibility if he is going to deal with corruption. So for those reasons, I think he is a fairly strong candidate. It is just that I wish I could see more of what he is made of.

I think he is making the calculation that if he shows a lot of it now, a lot of the powers that be may not allow him to get into office, which may be a wise calculation on his own part. I think this is one problem my father had. People knew what they were going to get and the powers that be ensured that he wouldn’t get there. So that is very intelligent on his part, but that means that people like us that want to see some evidence, we won’t really see a lot until next year if he gets in.

Now within the PDP, there are a lot of aspirants. But to be honest with you there is no one of them I can point out that is inspiring, and for all of them I will say the best of the lot is the current President.
What is your take on campaigns not focusing on issues affecting the country but rather on zoning or no zoning?
If the PDP has a zoning agreement and they don’t uphold it, it might pose problem in the future. That is my frank opinion. I have been studying systems analysis and with systems analysis you don’t solve the problem by itself. You just try to improve the viability of the whole system. And the system that is Nigerian with its multiple ethnic groups and all of that, how do we ensure the viability of that entity? For the ruling party, I think reneging on agreement is not a true way of sustaining the viability of an entity. I don’t know what you think.

But if a party reneges on agreements, are there no better ways of seeking redress rather than singing war songs like some of the elders in the party are doing?

One of the things that wise people do is that you manage a problem until it can be neutralized. Some of these people are old men who are used to controlling power and now they are facing a very real possibility of losing power. So we have to be extremely careful with them. What they mean for Nigeria is not the same as what we mean for Nigeria. When they think of Nigeria they just think in terms of contracts and kickbacks they can get so that they can take money abroad. But when we think of Nigeria, we think of 150 million people, of the percentages that are living in poverty, of the women that are dying during childbirth.

What we have to do is to manage the situation such that these people who have so much power today and can destabilize the whole country do not have the chance because for us to achieve what we hope for, we need peace and stability. There can be no achievements in the midst of violence and conflicts. They don’t care if there is violence and conflicts because they will just go and live abroad. These are the kind of people that will go abroad and when people say Nigeria is a basket case, they too will agree with them and tell them stories about Nigeria to make those ones laugh.

It is people like us that are crying and saying no, this is not our country. We want to show the world what Nigeria can be. So it is just a question of how we can manage these people until we can neutralize them…They are nominally our leaders but not our friends. They do not respect us and do not even see the potential of Nigeria. In 20, 30 years they will all be dead. We have to really think carefully because they don’t really care how it is and so they can take a gamble.

How do you feel being honoured in the documentary drama, SEVEN, alongside other women activists 14 years after you lost your mum?

I am inspired by the women that are portrayed in the play. The six other women I know them very well because we work together in Vital Voices, an organization that Hillary Clinton founded when she was first lady. I have worked with them since I was in my early 20s and since my mother died. So it is just really the act of my journey in activism, which should encourage women.

I feel inspired that is my story that is being told. It is not the story of some first lady in Nigeria who stole a huge amount of money and has all the gold in the world. It is my story that is being told among these other six women from around the world and it has been told in the U.S., Turkey, Sweden and all over the planet.

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