The first time I met Hafsat Abiola-Costello – a Nigerian human rights, civil rights and democracy activist and founder of the Kudirat Initiative for Democracy (KIND), which aims to empower democracy and development in Africa – she told me she was happy to meet me because my father was her brother. It was in December 2018, after her emotional and brilliant TEDxEuston speech “Tapping into our Superpowers”, during which she spoke about her devotion for democracy and a call to action to save Africa.
I knew the story of her father, Moshood (MKO) Abiola, who won the June 12 Nigerian presidential election in 1993, the first election after the 1983 military coup. The results of the free and fair elections were annulled by then-military president, General Ibrahim Babangida on the allegations of corruption. MKO Abiola was later detained for four years, forced to spend most of his time in solitary confinement before his death on July 7 1998, the same day he was supposed to be released from prison. A nationwide protest was held in support of MKO’s plight – a protest in which my father, a Nigerian northerner, actively participated. It was because of his vehement support for democracy – a shared principle – that Hafsat Abiola-Costello considered him her brother.
Moshood and his wife, Kudirat, are considered among the martyrs of Nigerian democracy. They paid the ultimate price during a military regime where people were killed for speaking against their government. Nigeria has since become a democratic nation, but it is arguable that we have achieved full democracy. In June 2021, days after the 25th anniversary of Kudirat’s assassination, I met with their son, Jamiu Abiola, the multi-linguist, author and Shettima of Borno, to interview him about what democracy meant for his family. I was surprised by his optimism about democracy working out in Nigeria because it is not shared by many people. For many, Buhari’s administration is more authoritative than democratic.
I believe that any government complicit in killing civilians has failed. As a citizen, I can forgive Buhari for not revolutionizing education, along with all the other empty promises he made before his election and subsequent re-election, but the blatant disregard for civilian lives cannot be ignored. Hundreds of peaceful protestants were killed by the military during the #ENDSARS movement, the night of October 20th 2020. This couldn’t have been possible without his knowledge or explicit endorsement as the Commander-in-Chief. As a result of this attack on civilians fighting against police brutality across the country, the president was referred to as “the biggest threat to Nigeria’s democracy” by Innanoshe R.A, a Nigerian writer, editor, lawyer and activist in an article for the Washington Post. Much recently, in June 2021, in an unpopular, political move, Buhari banned Twitter indefinitely in Nigeria after the site deleted his tweet for breaching company rules. This ban silenced the voices of millions of Nigerians who use the platform to share their aggravation over the state of the country. The social media ban has been described as a risk to Nigeria’s democracy, a threat to the economy and democracy and in an official response to the federal government, the United States government said the move has “no place in democracy.” But we cannot do without hope because without thinking of the light at the end of the tunnel, the deaths of the people who lost their lives fighting for democracy would be in vain – starting from Kudirat Abiola, who was assassinated 25 years ago to the many innocent protesters murdered on the night of October 20th, 2020 by the Nigerian military.
In my conversation with the Shettima, I asked him about secession in Nigeria. There is the Oduduwa Republic, a political group seeking independence from predominantly ethnic-Yoruba states in Nigeria’s southwest and a much popular public figure, Nnamdi Kanu, the Nigerian Biafra political activist who believes in the separation of the Igbos from Nigeria. The first time I’d thought of secession was as a secondary school student in Lagos. I have told the story of a Yoruba teacher who told me – in reference to Boko Haram, a terrorist group in northern Nigeria – to “talk to my brothers.” Since I am a northerner, the teacher assumed I had access to the terrorists and implied that if I wanted them to kill fewer people, I would do something about it. Speechless, I remember thinking that perhaps, we would be better off if we were separated from the rest of Nigeria; perhaps we northerners would experience less discrimination in the South. I didn’t tell the Shettima my story but when I asked him about the secessionists and their mission to divide the country, he replied that “Most Nigerians want the country to stay together.” He believes that secessionists are a “loud minority” who do not represent what most people believe.
He also explained that from his own mother’s lived experience, and the reality of the area today, Sabon Gari town is inhabited by both indigenes and non-indigenes. He believes this is “a clear reflection of the strong desire of Nigerians to live together.” He emphasized on how crucial the Sabon Gari concept is; for him, the fact that it exists in every state in Nigeria – be it Kano, Lagos, Oyo or Kaduna – not only means that Nigerians love each other, but that they love co-existing as well, despite coming from different backgrounds. He told me Sabon Gari towns have existed since the 30s and 40s, even before the arrival of the British, and that after studying the history and conducting a strong, methodical analysis, he has come to the conclusion that “the forces that bring us together are much powerful than the forces that try to tear us apart.”
While it is true that Sabon Gari towns were created for non-indigenes to encourage a sense of community, the area is often threatened during political and religious uprisings. There have been a few non-peaceful times. The author, Ukamaka Olisakwe, in an article for The New York Times, wrote about her first-hand experience of one of these riots which occurred in 1991 when she was a child. She recalled:
“We children would later learn that hundreds of Muslim demonstrators had taken to the streets that day, protesting Mr. Bonnke’s [proselytizing German Christian Evangelist] visit, and rioting ensued in which Christians were attacked and killed – an estimated 200 in the city and nearby. Then Christians counterattacked, killing Muslims. For hours, I tried to wish away the screams I was hearing. For days, the air stank of burned flesh and decaying bodies on the streets. Mosques lay in ruins, charred.”
Notwithstanding Olisakwe’s experience and despite the tensions that threaten our unity as a country, Nigerians still return to rebuild, to continue this sense of community in these areas across the country.
The Shettima believes that everything in life starts with a concept and the problem with Nigerians is that many don’t have the right concept. He believes a country is something you give to, not something you take from, and that if people keep taking, there will be nothing left. The more people think this way, the better chances there are that as a country, we’ll get to the “promised land.” But if the majority of the people are misguided (i.e guided by materialism), the country won’t progress as a nation. “People should think more about people like my mum and why they did what they did,” he said. “You have to stand for something; if not, you’ll live a life that is meaningless.”
I agree that the problem with Nigeria is that people don’t have the right concept. We have a history of civil wars, coups, kleptocracies, genocide, child soldiers, and tribalism. We have a history of a people being governed by money-grubbing politicians, people whose administrations are more authoritative than egalitarian. People need a will to live. It was Nelson Mandela who said: “I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.” This leaves us puzzled with many questions: How many lives must be taken in the name of democracy in Nigeria? How many people must be murdered before justice is finally served? How can we make sure Kudirat Abiola’s death was not in vain? How can we honour the lives lost in October 2020? The answer is quite simple: we must all be prepared to die for democracy.
About the Author:
Khadija Yusra Sanusi has an undergraduate degree in Journalism and Creative Writing from the American University of Paris, and a Masters in African Studies from SOAS, University of London.