She was no media princess, no sibling
Of hagiomanic earls. All too soon it was:
Business as usual. Dark sludge
And lubricant of conscience, oil
Must flow, though hearts atrophy, and tears
Are staunched at source.
“I’ve been in jail 19 times,” says Joe Okei-Odumakin, “Nigeria is worth dying for.” The civil rights activist couldn’t appear to be more earnest, as she sits for an interview in The Supreme Price, as she speaks into a microphone on stage at a pro-democracy rally, and also as she walks arm in arm with other protestors during a march. Founder of the Women Arise for Change Initiative, Odumakin was also a primary inspiration and advocate for Kudirat Abiola, the charismatic leader of a pro-democracy movement who was assassinated in 1996.
As Odumkin suggests, Kudirat’s death hardly diminished the movement, but only sent it in other directions. The work to reshape Nigeria, ruled by a series of military regimes from 1966-1996, goes on to this day, as Boko Haram wreaks havoc, the Nigerian military yet faces a “legacy of distrust”, and President Goodluck Jonathan continues to struggle.
This work, as The Supreme Price makes clear, features ongoing efforts to include women in political processes, carried on today by Odumakin and also Kudirat’s daughter, Hafsat Abiola, the film’s central figure and narrator. “After my mother was killed,” she says, “I thought that it would be important to ensure that the military would not win.”
The background for her assessment is well known in Nigeria, namely, that her father, the Muslim entrepreneur and philanthropist Moshood Abiola, was elected president on 12 June 1993, then accused of treason and imprisoned by General Sani Abacha. When her mother took over leadership of the Social Democratic Party (SDP) and undertook a campaign not only to free her husband but also to fight Abacha’s corrupt regime, she was attacked by six gunmen while riding in her car.
Hafsat’s memories of her mother and father, who died in detention in 1998, provide a framework for Joanna Lipper’s documentary, which screened at the Human Rights Watch Film Festival in New York as well as AFI Docs in Silver Spring Maryland. In turn, Hafsat, founder of the Kudirat Initiative for Democracy (KIND), uses the film to build on her mother’s vision for a democratic Nigeria. That collaboration is laid out metaphorically in the first image of The Supreme Price, a view from inside an airport that cuts back to Hafsat’s face, as she returns to Nigeria.
The film follows Hafsat home, as she makes her way to her parents’ house and then, her mother’s bedroom (“Nobody had lived there since she had been killed,” Hafsat says as the camera pans slowly over half-open drawers and dimly lit walls). From here, she and other interviewees — Hafsat’s siblings (including her sister Kafila and her brother Olalekan), as well as Wole Soyinka and two US ambassadors to Nigeria, Walter Cunningham (1993-1997) and John Campbell (2004-2007) — reflect on Nigeria’s recent history, recalling harrowing episodes for the family while making the case for democratic reform.
At the same time, the film shapes their memories and hopes for the future by way of archival footage and talking heads, as well as several remarkable images. The more conventional representations include Campbell’s observation of a “series of ethnic and religious conflicts,” and Soyinka’s look back at the military eras (using “unrest” as “an excuse to cleanse,” he says, “One dictator just kept replacing another”) over a timeline showing their portraits and dates. When protests were organized around the country, Odumakin adds, women’s visible participation was vital: “Unlike many professional politicians, these women were authentic,” she says, “Their outrage gave them courage and that courage led to the pro-democracy movement.”
That movement upset the professional politicians and their military cohorts, to the point that Abacha denied the fact of Abiola’s 1993 election. Here the film’s storytelling turns vividly strange, reenacting the military’s raid on Abiola’s home as his children recall it. “Armored tanks came for war,” says one, as the camera takes the perspective of police who were “searching the rooms”.
The careening camera pauses on a framed portrait of Abiola, hand open in greeting, under the archival audio of a BBC Radio broadcast: “Hello Chief Abiola,” the announcer says,” Can you tell me what is happening at your house? Are you being arrested?” Yes, comes the answer as the film cuts to footage of officers in military uniforms swatting at the camera. ” I am being arrested,” he says, “I’m just going out now with the police.”
The drama persists in the next segment, when Abacha appears in grainy footage on TV, insisting that Abiola’s “most recent action of declaring himself the president and commander in chief of the Armed Forces led to his arrest.” At the same time, Kudirat enters an ornately appointed sitting room for a TV interview, the set showing Abacha in the background so that their comments create a kind of debate.
As he denounces the president-elect’s “act of treason”, she observes that Abacha “speaks lies and deceit to his fellow Nigerians.” Abacha goes on about Abiola’s “acts against the laws of the land,” as she says the lies “now go out into the air for empty propaganda that will lead this country nowhere but for ruin.”
It’s a terrific set piece, exposing the processes by which history, however fictional, might be constructed, the ways that media represent and misrepresent. The film is another instance of such process, creating another set of images that might advance Hafsat and KIND”s efforts to alleviate poverty and conditions for women in Nigeria. The fight might seem endless, as the film reveals that the long-awaited 2012 conviction of two of Kudirat’s killers has since been overturned by an appeals court, following the recanting of testimony by witnesses.
“Some women enter into the system and say, ‘We will play the game the way it has always been played,'” says Hafsat. “Some of them will say the game has caused so much wrong, if I can make one little difference, I must do it.” The film ends as she makes her way through a gauntlet of reporters, now playing the role her mother once played, embodying the nation’s forward motion, walking toward as her image cuts to black. In making visible the difficult history of Nigeria, The Supreme Price displays as well the means by which it is made.