Hafsat Abiola-Costello

Nigeria

“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…we will be enough to set our whole planet aglow.”

Hafsat Abiola-Costello believes that our world needs more than a few exemplary women leaders, it needs a groundswell. Since age 19, she’s been stirring up activism in fellow Nigerians, fueling movements for democracy, gender equality and women’s leadership in her country and throughout Africa.

Born into a prominent political family, Hafsat embraced her own call to leadership in a time of crisis. After nearly 30 years of military rule in Nigeria, democratic elections were held in 1993, when Hafsat was an undergraduate studying in the United States. Her father Moshood won in a landslide victory, setting in motion a pro-democracy movement that the military had never anticipated. The election was quickly annulled and Moshood was imprisoned. Hafsat’s mother Kudirat began a bold campaign for her husband’s release, and Hafsat rallied support across the United States.

Three years later, Kudirat was assassinated for her efforts. The loss was devastating. Hafsat remembers standing in a circle with her siblings, all holding hands after hearing the news: “I said to my siblings that we won’t let her down, and really since that time we’ve been trying to make sure that we do not let her down.”

Her life’s work is Hafsat’s tribute to her mother. She founded the Kudirat Initiative for Democracy (KIND) with the vision of an Africa where women are full participants in the continent’s development. Based in Lagos, KIND advances women’s leadership by removing barriers to women’s political participation and working to eliminate violence against women.

Just two years after her mother’s death, tragedy struck again. Moshood Abiola was found dead the night before his release. Nearly 20 years since the loss of her parents, Hafsat’s commitment to their legacy remains unshakable. With grace and resilience, she has established herself as a civil rights leader within Nigeria and beyond.

Hafsat has consistently been on the frontlines of change in her country, often one of the first leaders to respond to crisis. Long before Boko Haram and the Bring Back Our Girls initiative made international headlines, Hafsat made dangerous trips to targeted areas, meeting with survivors of terrorist attacks and organizing coalitions of women to demand action against the extremist group and its ruthless campaign of gender-based violence.

Now serving as a cabinet member and special adviser of the Ogun State government, she works to keep communities safe and advance women’s equal rights. Hafsat says that women are too often seen as the victims of crisis, “but in the midst of problems, women see solutions.” She is motivated by women’s strength and believes that the challenges facing her country offer an opportunity for women’s leadership to emerge.

“No one questions when women and girls accept the lot that we’ve been given. Yet, we are questioned when we seek to change the way things are. I was 19 when my mother was killed for fighting for change in Nigeria. So it was at 19 that I decided to do more than what my society expected.”

 

Hafsat was chosen as a Global Leadership Award Honoree in 2016.

She is also one of the inspirations behind the SEVEN play.