1994 Harvard Student: Nigeria’s Democratic President Was Overthrown. He Was My Dad. Here’s Why the U.S. Did Nothing.

A new documentary explores why a democratically elected president in Nigeria didn’t receive enough assistance from America when he was ousted by the military in 1993. The possible reason? Oil. 

Moshood Abiola
Moshood Abiola STR/Getty Images

Hafsat Abiola was walking on campus one day in 1994 as a student at Harvard University when she was summoned by a group of students who were collecting signatures for a petition.  

“There’s an elected president in jail in Nigeria and we’re gathering signatures to demand his release,” one of them said to her.

It brought Hafsat Abiola to tears.

The man they were advocating for was her father, Moshood Abiola, a Nigerian businessman and politician. Moshood Abiola was the presumed winner of the 1993 presidential elections in Nigeria, a historic election that was supposed to put an end to the country’s 23-year on-again, off-again, bout with military dictatorships. U.S. President Bill Clinton reportedly called Abiola’s win the “biggest demonstration of democracy since the ending of apartheid.”

The celebrations, however, were short-lived. Nigeria’s military challenged the election results, overthrew Moshood Abiola’s pending administration and threatened anyone who opposed the new military regime.

But it was too late. Nigerians had already gotten a taste of democracy. That their new democracy was being yanked from them so recklessly ignited a firestorm. People took to the streets to protest the military coup. Moshood Abiola traveled the world to bring attention to the political crisis. He made it all the way to the White House to encourage the international community to put pressure on the Nigerian military so that it would step down and allow his civilian administration to take hold.

He returned to Nigeria and was soon captured by military soldiers and jailed. Civil rights activists in Nigeria and abroad—much like those students at Harvard—demanded that he be released and reinstated as president.  

This watershed moment in Nigeria’s history is fleshed out in a new documentary called The Supreme Price. It’s a fascinating history lesson about the country and gives a compelling account of how Moshood Abiola’s senior wife, Kudirat Abiola, and their daughter, Hafsat Abiola, risked their lives to reinstate Abiola and fight for the pro-democracy movement in modern-day Nigeria.