Hafsat Abiola's 2001 Distinguished Peace
Leadership Award Acceptance Speech
Light and Love: The Only Weapons We Need
(Acceptance speech upon receiving the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation’s 2003 Distinguished Peace Leadership Award, November 9, 2001)
Thank you very, very much for this honor. Indeed, this honor is for my parents, because without my parents I would never have started the work to bring democracy to Nigeria . Nigeria is a country in West Africa that was for many years ruled by the military system. From the time I was born in 1974 until my twenties, we had only a few years of democracy in Nigeria , so I knew very little about democracy. We had democracy when I was four years old until I was nine. I don't really remember that time at all, but in my teens, my parents sent me to the United States to finish high school here. It was in the United States that I started to see the new system. In Nigeria , we had soldiers tell us what to do, and because they had guns, we could not tell them differently. If we did tell them differently, we were harassed. If we were not harassed, we were put in prison. In a worst case scenario, you could get killed. That was all I knew when I was growing up.
When I came to the United States , I found a country where, if you spoke to your government, your government listened to you. If you challenged your government, your government explained. If you wanted, you could vote them out of off ice if you felt they had not performed well enough. We could never vote our military leaders out of off ice in Nigeria . After some time, the military leaders began abusing our people and stealing all the country's money and putting it into private bank accounts.
In 1983, my country was a middle-income country. Today, it is one of the poorest countries in the world. Our average income is $240 per capita, and that is how Nigerian people live from day to day. If they are sick, they cannot go to the hospital to get medicine. Even if they can go to the hospital to get medicine, they can not afford to buy food because they must use this money for the medicine. There are four hours of electricity in Nigeria each day. There are 100,000 telephone lines for 120 million people. I can't explain to you how deeply Nigeria is in poverty. It is not because we do not have resources- Nigeria has an abundance of wealth. It is because our government was never listening to its people, and it did not care about our welfare. In fact, this is the only way of life Nigerian people have ever known. When Nigeria was created in the 1800s, it was created to serve England , and all our wealth served the British. When we gained our independence, our wealth served the soldiers.
For some reason in 1993, the Nigerian military decided that they wanted to have a democratic election. In fact, it was the young people in Nigeria that forced them to do so. The young people on Nigerian University campuses read books and saw that all countries were not like Nigeria . They saw that there were other countries where there was democracy and where there was freedom. So the young people began challenging the government, saying, "You are not doing a good job, it's time to go." Finally, the government said Nigeria would have elections, and my father won the presidential election. However, the military decided after the election that they really were not ready for democracy. They put my father in prison, in solitary confinement.
My mom, a high school graduate and a mother of seven children, decided that, out of love for her husband, she would start to work and speak out against the military. And she did. Somehow the people in my country listened to her and moved beyond their fear and began organizing themselves to protest. They had sit-in strikes and demonstrations. The market women gathered and would close down their shops, even though they knew that they needed to sell in order to eat. They did all of this, which took so many personal sacrif ice s. Thousands were put in jail, thousands were killed, but they did all of this because they wanted a chance to govern themselves. As the Nigerian military saw that my mother would not stop organizing the people of my country, in 1996 they assassinated my mom.
I was a sophomore student at Harvard University when my father won the election. I was in my senior year when my mom was killed. During this time, I did nothing because I did not know what to do. I was frightened, I wanted my father home. I wanted the military to stop tapping the phones of my home, tailing my mom and harassing my mother. I really didn't know what to do. I knew I was in one of the greatest democracies in the world, but I thought that American people didn't care. Oil companies that were U.S. companies and British companies were giving the military money every year in Nigeria . The Shell Company was giving the military weapons, which they were using to kill people. So, as far as I knew, the Western countries did not care about my people. But American young people taught me differently.
I was walking past Widener Library at Harvard University when I saw a table of young American kids. They were just the kind of kids that I really didn't pay attention to in school. They had long, long, long, long hair, or they had spiked hair that was really spiked and short and purple, or spiked and short and green. It looked very greasy, as if it hadn't been washed in a while. I was looking forward to avoiding those students. When I saw them, I wondered what were they petitioning for, because I could tell they were petitioning. I thought to myself, "what are they petitioning for now, the right to walk barefoot on campus? How truly revolutionary!" I was looking for a way to avoid them. But somehow, I think they sensed that I was trying to avoid them, and they came up to me. They said, "We're getting signatures, there's an elected president in prison in Nigeria , and we're trying to fight for his freedom." I was so moved that day.
I said to them, "Do you know that you're talking about my father?" And they didn't know that. They said, "Well, we really don't know what's going on, but Amnesty International sent us some information. Could you come and tell us what's going on?" I went and I told them, and that was the beginning of our movement around the world to free Nigeria . Those young students at Harvard University helped me build a movement. We got our University campus to help us by engaging in talks with Shell, because Harvard has stocks in Shell.
There is an elementary school called Martin Luther King Elementary School , and the students there brought me to speak to them. The students were seven years old, and I really don't think they understood a word of what I said. But after I came to their school, their teacher told them to write down something about this young lady who came, and I took all the things that they wrote. The young students marched from their school to the City Council of Cambridge, and they said they wanted to help Nigeria . I remember I was there that day, little kids, probably no more than up to my thigh, had written down on a piece of paper that they wanted to help Nigeria . They sat down and told the City Council, "My name is Allison, and this woman is from Nigeria ." Council members started crying. I wasn't sure what they were saying, but it didn't seem to matter because the Council members started crying immediately. They were all just so open. When I finally told the Council members what was going on in Nigeria , they didn't just look at me as, "who is this, and what does Nigeria have to do with us here in America ?" They had heard from their youngest vo ice s, and these vo ice s told them that somehow this was important. So the Council members listened to me.
We did this all across the United States and got millions of people engaged in trying to fight for freedom in Nigeria . As the vo ice s had been silenced in Nigeria, the vo ice s of the American people, especially America's youth, rose up to replace them and amplified them until the whole world was listening. In America , in Canada , in Europe , in Asia , the Commonwealth, the United Nations, and everyone finally started talking about freedom in Nigeria .
I built an organization soon after my mom was killed. I named it for my mom. I called it the Kudirat Initiative for Democracy. It was meant to work with young people and women to help us build democracy across the continent of Africa . Again, young people across the United States and across the world helped me. We heard that five to ten million young girls around the world have been sold into sexual slavery in foreign countries, and we started a movement to help them. We heard that HIV/ AIDS is killing two million people in Africa every year, and we started HIV/ AIDS workshops across the continent to help them. We heard that unemployment was a big problem across the world, and especially in the developing world, with sixty percent unemployment, especially among young people, in Africa . We started a project to generate five hundred million new jobs for young people across the world.
We couldn't be stopped, and we can't be stopped. We intend to make this world the most beautiful, glorious planet that any human being can imagine and, really, beyond anything any human being can imagine.
In 1998, with the work of young people fighting for freedom in Nigeria , the military saw the writing on the wall. They started a set of elections that ended nine months later with us having our first democratically elected president in Nigeria in May1999.
Nigeria remains one of the poorest countries in the world, but if you were to come and visit me there, you wouldn't know it. There is such dignity in the people now. We feel like our troubles are our own problems, and we can solve them together. We feel like we're engaged in the world, trying to make an experiment in Nigeria that the world can be proud of, knowing that the democracy that we have in Nigeria was mid-wifed by people across the world that have never even been to Nigeria. There is such pride and such dignity in our people now. When you come, their love and joy just embraces you. I would invite you all to come and witness that. I invite you to understand another thing. When we were asking for democracy in Nigeria , the normal U.S. foreign policy pattern said it was more important to be concerned about economic interests in another country than in those issues, because those issues get too complicated anyway. The young people in America said that should not be so. We must follow our deepest ideals.
When September 11 th happened and the World Trade Center was attacked, one of the first presidents to call President Bush was my president, President Obasanjo. He said that we are really sorry about what happened. Last week, he came to meet your president. He came as an emissary following a meeting of all Africa 's leaders. They sat down to look at what they could do to offer assistance. They said, well, we can offer our army, and we can offer any other kind of support, but the United States needs to let us know. Our president came with this message to deliver to President Bush: We are really sorry about what happened; please tell us how we can help .
When President Obasanjo came, you wouldn't have known that he came from a country that has barely enough to take care of its own people. But now that we have a democracy, we have all that we need to move forward. We have all that we need to be engaged as responsible citizens of the planet. President Obasanjo came as an emissary of the 120 million people in Nigeria, and as an emissary of the people of Africa to ask you how we can help, to stand with you now in what is perhaps the greatest threat that the world has ever faced.
I want to speak now to the adult people in this room. I want to say to you that we are so deeply grateful for your honoring me as a young person, and honoring Craig. We're so deeply grateful for your work that you've carried with such integrity to make this world so much better-to make it nuclear-free, to eradicate poverty, to take care of HIV/ AIDS, to take care of all of the evils on the planet. I want to say that I completely understand that this honor is not so much because of the things I may have done, as impressive as it might seem to you, but because of what you would like us to do, because of the potential that young people have, and that I know you see in us.
It is also because you understand that you cannot do this work all by yourselves and you need us to join with you. I am so deeply honored to accept that beautiful, gracious, kind, generous invitation. I can think of no better way to live my life than to act in the serv ice of all mankind and all of life. I really look forward to you giving us challenges, and telling us to do more, and doing still more, until all of the things that we don't like on the planet have been addressed and transformed.
To the young people, I know that you've come in here thinking that you've come to recognize two young people. But you've really come in here to recognize yourselves. You made the difference for me and for all the people in my country, and you will make the difference for the world.
You might be thinking of losing ten pounds. You might be thinking of graduating with an A+. Whatever you may be thinking of accomplishing to show that you have something to make you feel like you are worthy, I want you to know that you're already worthy. You are already enough. You're already all that we've been waiting for. You have such light in you. I have been to your college campuses and your high schools, and I have to say that you are beautiful and generous, and there is such a clear glowing light in each of you. Guard your light and protect it. Move it forward into the world and be fully confident that if we connect light to light to light, and join the lights together of the one billion young people in our world today, we will be enough to set our whole planet aglow.
I want to give you a poem to hold you on that journey. It's a prayer that was given to my angel mother, Lynne, by a reverend following the World Trade Center attacks, and it says,
There are only two feelings in the world, love and fear.
There are only two languages, love and fear.
There are only two acts, love and fear.
Two motives, two procedures, two frameworks, two results,
Love and fear, love and fear.
I want share a lesson that I learned from Lynne with all of you. Hatred is not the opposite of love; it is the absence of love. Darkness is not the opposite of light; it is the absence of light. If we would only light our one candle, it would banish all of the darkness. If we would only express our one pure expression of love, we would overwhelm all of the hatred.
To young people, and to the adults in the room, you are not required to finish the work, but you're not permitted to stop. So take your light and take your love into the world as the only weapons that we need to make this world truly glorious, truly beautiful, and astonish all of life.
God be with you, and thank you.
Hafsat Abiola is a 27-year-old human rights and democracy activist from Lagos , Nigeria . Her work for the rights of women and children in Nigeria and in other African countries has elicited recognition and praise from throughout the world. For her courage and strength in overcoming tremendous odds to create meaningful change in her country and throughout Africa , the Foundation is proud to honor Hafsat with its 2001 Distinguished Peace Leadership Award.