Executive Director, Women Advocates, Research and Documentation Centre (WARDC), Abiola Afolabi-Akiyode, is a law graduate from the Obafemi Awolowo University (OAU), Ife. She also has a Master?s degree in law and only recently concluded her PhD in the same subject, with specialty in gender and armed conflict in Africa: Sierra Leone and Liberia. During her university days, she became the students? advocate, a situation that made her spend longer time in school and even made her parents disown her. That hasn?t deterred her in any way, as she continues to fight the cause of women. In this interview with Asst. Life Editor, Temitope David-Adegboye, Afolabi-Akiyode speaks on her activism and what has kept her going despite the challenges.
Tell us how you got into activism
I grew up in a family that respects other people?s rights. My grandmother was a high chief in Ogun State, and the title was related to fighting for other people?s rights. So, I grew up in a family where there is consciousness to resist violation of human rights. I grew up in Oshogbo. My father was working in NEPA and he was always transferred frequently. When I was in Form 3 at Oshogbo Grammar School, I noticed some things happening in the school that were not right. As a 13-year-old child I decided to mobilise other students to respond to them. It was a case of a youth corps member who was abusing one of the girls. We noticed that whenever it was time for us to have his class, he would ask the rest of the class to go and cut grass while he went out with the girl. I remember I stood on a table in the class and called the attention of my mates to it. While I was doing that, the school principal came in and saw me. He asked why there was so much noise and I was standing on the table. I narrated our ordeal and eventually that youth corps member got punished. That gave me the understanding that you can fight to make a change. Thereafter, I became the Gani Fawehinmi on campus; when people had issues, they would bring them to my notice for intervention. I was doing that for quite some time. In my fourth year, we engaged in school debate and because of my advocacy on human rights, I was picked as the one to represent the school. That was around 1983/84. So I started debating on human right issues, and that, to a large extent, broadened my knowledge on issues of human rights.
I attended Obafemi Awolowo University where I heard that people like Femi Falana passed through. In my first year, they were having their election and a group came and carted away the ballot box. I found that very strange in a school I had so much hope in. So, I went to my room and wrote a full page on the topic, ?The great Ife I used to know.? In that one page article, I created a scene of my impression of what Great Ife should be and what I met after I came into the campus. And I pasted it on my own, round the campus. That generated a lot of discussion and it attracted attention to me.
In Ife, they had always been having two major positions in the student union ? the presidency and PRO. During my third year, they nominated me to run for the position of the PRO. That was the first time a female would run for that position. That was in 1989/90. I contested that election and won. But it was an event that got me to understand more about the obstacles women face when they run for political office. It became a discussion about the capacity of the women to run for that kind of sensitive position. It is a position where you have to confront the state, you have to issue statements, mobilise people and talk to a large crowd. I won that election and it was a period in my life when I had to play so many roles because you are expected to play the role of a man from the perspective of those who are looking at what you are doing. It was at that point that I realised that I did not want to manage that position as a man but as a woman. Instead, I would do it the way wisdom directs me, as a woman. Of course, I had a lot of ups and downs trying to fight with the leaders at that time. But in a way, it became a lesson for me. And that was how I started advocating for the rights of women and the need for women to have a voice and participate. It gave me an opportunity to prove that women can do it all, and they can even do better if you put them in the position of office.
I went to the Nigerian Law School and before I finished, I had in mind that I was going to work in the area of human rights because then was when human rights law was developing. So, I was shopping for where to go and I had discussions with the late Chief Gani Fawehinmi but unfortunately, when I graduated, he was in prison. Rotimi Jacobs, who was then in charge of the chambers, said he couldn?t give me the go-ahead until Gani returned. So, I went for my youth service and when I finished, I started working with Human Rights Africa in Dr. Tunji Abayomi?s law office. There, I started giving reason we had to fight for students who had been expelled. So, I was going to court to represent such students. That was also the time when cases of pro-democracy activists were rampart, so I joined Dr. Abayomi to appear for pro-democracy activists who were detained and those who risked some form of detention. At a point, my boss was arrested and I had to stand in for him to raise awareness. And so I had to take a lot of risk even during the military regime.
In 1999, I was nominated to go for a Master?s degree with a scholarship at the University of North Reading. Because of our background in the university, we had very limited courses that you could do and we didn?t do human rights courses, so that gave me the opportunity to spe...e in international human rights law and since then that is what I have been doing. I worked with many organisations before I came back and started working with the Women Advocates, Research and Documentation Centre (WARDC).
Were you ever detained?
Well, I had some experiences. Though not full detention, but I?ve been put behind the counter and other experiences when I was a student where I had to go on exile for a few months. I?ve had situations where men of the State Security Service (SSS) went to meet my parents at home during the Abacha era to talk to them. So, I?ve had some experiences that I had to go under, and at a point, my parents had to disown me because I was bringing a lot of problems to them.
Were your parents and siblings not afraid for your life?
They were. At a point, they felt I was not listening to them and I had to be disowned because they felt I was not the kind of child that they prayed for.
How did you cope then and what?s the situation now?
It became a big family issue then because they felt I was too young for all I was putting myself through. I had a lot of delay in school because of activism; I had problems with lecturers, students and almost everybody. My parents were looking at me more like a rascal and they felt that was not good enough. I managed to survive one way or the other, but later, as I said earlier, it became more like a family issue. But years later, they came back to apologise because they now understood what I stood for.
What?s your husband?s position on your career or is he an activist too?
He is not into activism per se, but he shares the same ideals of working towards a better Nigeria. I think he understands my passion because we have known each other for quite some time and I think he has come to realise that this is what makes me happy. I?ve turned down juicy offers just to be focused. For example, during my youth service, I was posted to an oil company and I wrote in to be rejected because I felt I would not function well there. For me, human rights work is not something that brings a lot of money, but it?s a field where I can contribute to the society. I still run a law firm by the side, but human rights is what I do almost as a full time work and I am happy doing it. Sometimes, when I handle some cases and he gets comments on how I handled them, he asks if I do not feel I am better off as a lawyer. People even ask what do I plan to do now that I have finished my PhD. For me, I feel it?s about seeking and having more knowledge so that I can understand issues more, especially in a country where we have a lot of peace and security problems. There is a possibility that I would return to the academics; I would lecture some other students about why we need to contribute to make Nigeria better.
Does any of your children show trait of activism?
Not really, but sometimes I see a little bit of rebellion in them. They ask me some questions like ?is it all about women?? Fortunately, I have three boys, so I am living among boys. They ask me why I am protecting only women?s rights and not their own too. I have to start explaining things to them and at times, I get scared and pray they don?t turn out being rebellious. You know there are cases where you find pastors? children turning out rebellious, so I have that fear. But I try as much as possible to let them know what I stand for and what I believe in. The second one, whose name is Mandela, is probably the one that asks a lot of questions; he?s asked why I named him Mandela; he has started reading more about him. But, by and large, I can?t decide the course of life for them. I decided mine, so they are free to choose theirs. What I also do is to engage them in discussions so that they grow to respect other people?s rights.
Let me join them in asking you why you concentrate on fighting the cause of women and not that of men? Are you a feminist?
I always answer by saying that the reason is that we realised that women have suffered injustices for ages. Even if you go into the Bible, I keep asking people why Mary is not a chapter in there. So, it is a historical injustice that I cannot place on the table of any man. But we must understand it. Yes, I get confronted with that question often and I think more that importantly, women?s right is human right. The essence of women?s right is to bring into focus the neglect that women have suffered over decades and to say that we can?t have a society that will concentrate on development if we don?t resolve some of these issues. In Nigeria, we have cultural, religious and other social vices that continue to impede your right to access, voice and participate and exercise your right as a human being. If we have that kind of situation, we must ask ourselves what to do to help this class of people get their issues on board.
That is why I think there is a lot of concentration on women?s rights. And it is not only in Nigeria; it?s a global phenomenon.
Many people are of the opinion that the human rights community has compromised standards and is no longer what it used to be in the days of Gani Fawehinmi and Beko Ransome Kuti. What?s your own opinion?
I think there is a lot of fatigue around, which shouldn?t be. I think one of our challenges is speaking with one voice. I think the system has been so corrupt that you wonder who a human rights activist in Nigeria is. It?s a very difficult one because you sometimes wonder, when you speak with your colleague, where we really stand as a community. I think the problem even started before the demise of the people you mentioned. However, there are on-going discussions on the need to get ourselves together and think the way we were thinking in the military era. We don?t want to assume that because the military era has gone, then we have lesser problem in our hand. From what we have seen between 1999 and now, it?s becoming clearer though they may not be in khaki, there are people who are not friends of the masses. This means that the methodology that we used that time may also be useful to hold these people accountable. I think we have to go back to the grassroots because with the way it is going, we cannot guarantee what would happen in 2015. And that is why the human rights community must see this as a big challenge and something we need to respond to as a matter of urgency.
How do you balance motherhood with activism?
It?s not been easy, but I have a lot of support system around me. My mother is widowed so often times, she stays around to take care of the children. Not all women are that lucky. But I think even at that, it?s been very difficult. That is one thing that we are canvassing for as the right of women, the need to create support system like cr?che for women. If you have a baby, you can take a specific time off to care for your child and then return to work. Women are multi-task specie and so there is a need for a support system for them.
How do you relax?
Interestingly, I have a social husband who drags me along to attend some of his club meetings and other social functions. Also, in the human rights community, we find a way to relax by sitting around the bar, drinking together and so on. I do a lot of exercise and I travel a lot with my children even to official functions and I enjoy being with them.