Monday, June 16, 2014
Human Rights Watch Film Festival 2014: The Supreme Price
The recent kidnapping of hundreds of schoolgirls by the terrorist group Boko Haram highlighted many of the problems that are corroding civil society in Nigeria, including a brutal and growing disregard for women's rights and a government that is as ineffective at protecting its citizens as it is adept at punishing them. Those are the problems that Hafsat Abiola, the heroine of The Supreme Price, is devoting her life to addressing.
The film starts with a quick, dense recap of the last half-century or so of Nigeria's political history, combining narration by Hafsat with archival footage, photos, and interviews with former U.S. diplomats and other experts. After a brief review of the military coup of 1966 and the brutal civil war and increased corruption that followed, it slows down to cover the 1993 election of Hafsat's father, M.K.O. Abiola, as president of Nigeria and his arrest by the military, which reinstalled itself as the nation's leader immediately after his win.
Hafsat’s father’s story is soon subsumed by that of her mother, Kudirat Abiola. She was much closer to her mother than her father, presumably because her father had 55 or 56 children by four wives and about 30 concubines. A loyal wife, Kudirat blossomed after the arrest of her husband, taking on a much more public role as leader of Nigeria’s pro-democracy movement. In open defiance of the military government, she gave speeches and interviews calling for M.K.O.’s freedom and reinstatement as president until she was killed with a shot to the head, presumably in a government-ordered hit. Several years later, Hafsat’s father died in prison under similarly suspicious circumstances.
The trauma seems to have left Hafsat a little shell-shocked, wary to the point of rigidity, but it also stiffened her spine. She’s so determined to carry on her mother’s legacy that she left her beloved husband and two young children in Belgium (her husband is a diplomat stationed there) when she was offered a cabinet position by the new governor of a Nigerian state.
Hafsat’s official job is to try to improve conditions for people living in poverty, but her main focus is the two crusades she’s fighting. The first is continuing Kudirat’s efforts to oust the military dictatorship and reinstall democracy in Nigeria. The other, which she learned about not so much by watching what her mother did as by seeing what others did to her, is urging Nigerian women to shuck the yoke of patriarchy and stand up for themselves. As Hafsat observes of polygamous households like the one she grew up in: “The mothers were set up to compete with each other. It’s often in the man’s interest to do that, because it’s easier to control a household with four women that are in competition than with four women who are united.”
The Supreme Price is at its best when it addresses that sexism, like when one of Hafsat’s own brothers smugly tells the camera that he wouldn’t vote for her if she ran and he doubts that anyone else would, because women shouldn’t be in politics. It’s less convincing when it implies that empowering women to protest and run for office will solve all of Nigeria’s political problems. Unlike Pray the Devil Back to Hell, which detailed the role Liberian women played in ending that country’s long civil war and the tactics they used, The Supreme Price offers no detail about the strategies or goals shared by Hafsat and the handful of other female activists we see her with. And after all, as she herself says: “Some women enter into the system and say, ’We will play the game the way it has always been played.’”
Hafsat is not one of those women. The Supreme Price leaves you in awe of her grit and grateful for her tenacity—but doubtful that she can stop the tsunami of corruption, violence and greedy self-interest that is bringing her long-suffering country to its knees.
The Human Rights Watch Film Festival runs from June 12—22.
Written for The House Next Door