Two days before Hafsat Abiola ’92 graduated from Harvard College, her mother, an advocate for human rights, was assassinated in her home country of Nigeria. Abiola’s father, Moshood Abiola, the president-elect of Nigeria, died two years later while imprisoned by the military regime he was challenging. Inspired by her parents’ efforts to promote democracy, Abiola has since taken up the fight for civil rights in Nigeria.
Abiola, this year’s Finis Origine Pendet Speaker, spoke at All School Meeting (ASM) on Wednesday about her journey from studying at Andover to advocating for democracy in Nigeria.
Eight years before her mother’s assassination, Abiola left Nigeria to attend Andover, completely unsure of what her future held.
“My mother brought me [to Andover] on the first day of school to start classes. Right away I felt like I made a mistake when I had decided to come. I had never been amongst so many white people in my entire life, coming from Nigeria where [we] all kind of look like me,” said Abiola, laughing in her speech.
It was not until later that Abiola started to find her place and passions in her new school and country.
“I fell in love with learning here because I felt like there was more interest in me as a student coming here; [people were interested] in my ideas. I had teachers who were interested in what I had to say and in me as a person, and that, for me, was such a beautiful thing,” said Abiola.
“At Andover, I fell in love with history because I fell in love with the people I met in history. I fell in love with Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, and I decided that those people were as alive to me as the people I was seeing in everyday life,” said Abiola in her speech.
At Andover, Abiola gained confidence to express her views. “I felt safe to be who I could [at Andover] and to tune in to my own inner values, which helped me a lot since I graduated,” said Abiola.
Abiola credited Rebecca Sykes, former Associate Head of School and then-Dean of Abbot Cluster, for taking her under her wing, helping her adjust to and nurturing her at Andover.
“My mom took me [to a meeting in my cluster] and we saw Mrs. Sykes, who was a black woman. My mother took my hand and took me to Mrs. Sykes and said ‘I am going to hand over my daughter to you.’ She received what my mother did without panic, which still surprises me until today. Mrs. Sykes took my hand and she always was faithful to that promise.”
Abiola said that 25 years later, Sykes is still her mentor and has cared for her and upheld her promise, even after her mother’s assassination.
After Andover, Abiola attended Harvard College and was a freshman there during her father’s presidential election in 1993. After Moshood Abiola won the election, however, the previous president refused to acknowledge his victory.
The Nigerian military tried to negotiate with him, offering him money in exchange for his abdication. Instead, Moshood Abiola declared himself the rightful democratic leader of the country. The military arrested him within 30 days and charged him for treason; he passed away in prison after four years in solitary confinement, said Abiola.
“[After my father’s imprisonment] I knew you had to fight for what you want. You have to keep your eyes on the prize, and the prize for us in Nigeria at the time was that we should have a democratic system. We had to do whatever we needed to do to fight for the end of military rule,” said Abiola in her speech.
During her time at Harvard, Abiola spoke at the city council in Cambridge and then all over the United States, advocating for Nigerian democracy. “[I was] pushing for the American government help us pressure the Nigerian government to give up power and transfer to democratic rule,” said Abiola.
Just two days before Abiola’s graduation, her mother was assassinated en route to a demonstration. In honor of her mother’s memory, Abiola founded the Kudirat Initiative for Democracy (KIND). The group aims to end violence against women in Nigeria and help Nigerian women participate in public life, according to the organization’s website.
“If you want to solve a problem, you have to go into the midst of the problem,” she said.
“Finis Origine Pendet,” one of Andover’s mottos, translates from Latin as “the end depends on the beginning.” The Finis Origine Pendet program invites Andover alumni back to the school to speak at ASM. Speakers reflect on their beginnings at Andover and on their careers.
“[Finis Origine Pendet] means that the way we start really makes a big difference in our lives. When I was in China doing my masters, there was something they used to talk about called path of dependency, that you could become path-dependent. Because my parents became involved in trying to bring political change about in Nigeria, it could create a situation where I think of politics naturally as a way in which I want to make my contribution,” said Abiola in an interview with The Phillipian.