For me ‘The Supreme Price’ reflects a conflict many working with questions of gender and politics in history will recognise. How to measure the significance of women who attain power through men (husbands, fathers, sons)? How important is it to distinguish between women as figureheads and those who move out of the shadow of their endorser?
Some context: the documentary The Supreme Price outlines a familiar narrative arc, even if the context (Nigeria) the dictator (Abacha) and the underdog (Abiola) are unfamiliar. Underdog stands up to dictator, underdog is imprisoned, underdog’s wife Kudirat Abiola, bravely steps into his shoes… Of course, describing Abiola as an ‘underdog’ is context-specific: his affluence would surely exclude him from most definitions of the term. Similarly, the suspiciously speedy means by which he got his wealth (skated over rather quickly here for fear we might start to question the narrative arc?), and his willingness to stand in an election that was never perfect, given that only two political parties were approved by the military state, mar his credentials as campaigner for open and democratic reform. Notwithstanding these caveats, he did go to prison for trying to force the military state to hold to a democratic election result. And the common view is that he was poisoned and/ or died as a result of an assault by that same military junta, apparently fearful of his actions if freed. And his wife, purportedly the focus of this film, was shot by assailants whilst driving in Lagos. It is widely believed she was assassinated by agents of the military state (although as the film discusses, no one has been successfully convicted for this crime).
On one hand, this film is a beautifully shot narrative about female empowerment in the face of an oppressive state. We are shown (albeit briefly) how it was politically expedient for Abiola to nominate his (Senior) wife as his representative in Northern states. Unlike her husband, we are told she spoke the language of the people (I assume Hausa but please do correct me here). Her daughters describe her as having listened so well to her husband for so many years, that she knew the campaign speeches inside out. Given the numbers of voters without access to further education, perhaps she *was* a better popular speaker: the impression given by the talking heads is that Kudirat had a powerful sense of what audiences wanted to hear. The short clips the documentary include of her show a compelling woman, passionate in her politics. When Abiola was imprisoned, Kudirat stepped in to lead the campaign for his release.
From another perspective, the film acknowledges that Kudirat’s life was not a story of opportunity. She married at 18, the second wife of a powerful man, when she ‘caught his eye’ at a trade fair. She used her new found access to wealth to pay for her sisters to attend university, despite her own desire for further education. Her husband went on to take additional wives, as legal for a muslim man. But outside his faith, he also continued to have relationships with women as ‘concubines’, ultimately responsible for over 50 children. Her daughters suggest she only remained in the marriage for their security. As one of the women in an ’empowerment’ meeting makes clear later in the film, divorce was and remains a difficult choice for a Nigerian woman invoking questions of status and stigma as well as economic implications.
For me the film doesn’t say enough about this. We are shown one woman who was also a political campaigner alongside Kudirat, but beyond her daughters, other women’s contributions are limited. Where are Kudirat’s friends? Where are the political colleagues who we’re told, worked with her after Abiola’s imprisonment? This appears to endorse the picture of a male-dominated sphere of influence, of an exceptional woman unusually permitted to enter the political fray.
The film also misses an opportunity to place Kudirat’s role alongside Nigerian women’s strong history of involvement in political protest, particularly given Abiola’s base in Abeokuta, to Ransome Kuti and her involvement with market women’s protests. Rather than stressing Kudirat’s unique position, it would be possible to construct a narrative where her work was part of a heritage of female protest against rulers abusing their power. Instead we are shown Kudirat’s daughter Hafsat, the founder of a women’s organisation ‘KIND’. Her progress from campaigning for her US university to divest from Nigeria to political advisor at State Governor level is documented in depth. Her message (at least as it is presented here) is at one level an important one: ensure that women have economic freedom, and participate in politics. Yet at the same time, it is simplistic and caricatured. She advocates that Nigerian men have had their turn, that the state is corrupt as a result, and therefore women should be given the chance to take over. Ironically the key women this ignores are the wives of dictators in Nigeria, who held responsibilities for large budgets and government departments (it is surely not uniquely male to be corrupt). She is shown inspecting schools, counselling women on economic roles in marriage, and speaking to whoops of applause from women only audiences. She acknowledges criticism for leaving her children in Brussels with her husband. This point does connect her work to those of other Nigerian women: as she says, it is common to be apart from family for work, given appalling travelling conditions that make long distance commuting dangerous and uncomfortable. Here again appears a missed opportunity to ask what those in the audience think of her choices, though. Her brother, shown worshipping at the mosque next to the family compound, laughs in derision at the possibility she might stand for a significant political role. I would argue that there is no depth to his laughter – we do not know what the other men in the mosque think, let along the attendees at the political rallies she leads.
Perhaps this is the ultimate weakness of the film. We are given a very narrow view of Nigerian politics via Lipper’s access to the articulate Abiola. Who, like her mother, ultimately has access to political influence through her father. This is not to negate her evident commitment to political change, or to working for women’s empowerment. But it is to question what Abiola’s experiences have in common with women who can’t obtain political asylum in the US when they are a target of the Nigerian state, or access to world-class healthcare for their children in Brussels. So to return to my original dilemma: to what extent do narratives of elite women have a place in our historical narratives about West Africa?
Telegraph photo series from the film: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/11093689/In-Pictures-The-Supreme-Price-by-Joanna-Lipper.html
The documentary is available to buy from Women Make Movies, who provided the screener for this review. http://www.wmm.com/filmcatalog/pages/c881.shtml