Hafsat Abiola ’92 will not shake hands—she will hug. She will not answer her phone or check an email during conversation—with eager ears, she will listen. Hafsat Abiola will not mourn; she will share, she will inspire.
Abiola’s visit to campus last Wednesday was twofold—she was this year’s Finis Origine Pendet speaker and also a recipient of the Alumni Award of Distinction for her work as a world-recognized civil rights activist
Abiola founded the Kudirat Initiative for Democracy (KIND) to continue the fight for democracy in Nigeria. Very quickly, however, KIND narrowed its focus to empower women in politics and society. Today, KIND has provided 4,000 young women with the courage and skill set to become active members of society, according to Abiola.
Politics run in Abiola’s blood. Her father, Chief Moshood Abiola, was the first democratically elected president of Nigeria. Shortly after his election in 1993, however, a military coup overpowered and imprisoned the president-elect. Just two days before Hafsat’s Harvard University graduation, her mother, Kudirat Abiola, was assassinated for protesting against the military regime that had imprisoned her husband.
“I do not think they lost,” said Abiola of her parents. “I think of their journey as a spiritual journey. They did not betray themselves. That means their spirits stayed pure… We should be celebrating them, so I’m happy. I’m actually very happy. And I’m proud of them. I think the challenge is to stay true to whatever we believe and I think they did a very good job of that.”
Abiola’s eyes widened and her smile broadened upon learning of Andover’s near 50:50 ratio of male to female students. When she heard, however, that underlying this ratio is the fact that only four female students have been elected school president since the Abbot-Andover merger 40 years ago, she slouched back in her chair as the harsh reality set in.
“This is a clear sign that the discrimination against women, or the sense of what women’s natural roles are, is so deeply ingrained,” said Abiola. “They’re so deeply ingrained that, if in a place as privileged as Andover we can still be replicating the same kinds of results that very fundamentalist nations are generating, it already tells you something.”
“I’m going to tell you a story.”
The Angolan Civil War, which began in 1975, left the countryside rife with landmines, said Abiola. When the war ended, a team was dispatched to disable the landmines. Although the operation was officially deemed successful, further investigation found that women and children still suffered disproportionately from undiscovered mines. Later, the government found that the team that removed the mines consisted exclusively of men, thus only the mines where men worked, travelled and lived had been mapped and removed.
“It’s a symbolic example that illustrates what happens when the voices of one group of people, who may have unique experiences, are completely shut out of a system,” said Abiola. “If our system affects both men and women, then we have to make sure that women’s voices, their concerns, their needs, are integrated into the decision-making process.”
“It’s not possible for Andover to talk about empowering women around the world if they are not empowering women at Andover. You see, sometimes you model the behavior you want… it causes other people to replicate your example.”
Abiola loved Andover. Andover shaped her personality, built her character. Although she did not know it at the time, Andover would set her on a path that would determine her life today.
“I think the Andover Bubble is okay if you use that time to prepare yourself for other things, to use that time to take care of yourself and to learn and know yourself… Life is a maturing process. Once you learn that, and you go out into the world, no one can stop you. Nothing can go wrong for you, because no matter what goes wrong you do not betray yourself,” said Abiola.