A sacred tenet among many human rights activists is that nations across the world would do well to emulate the American values of democracy and human rights. To this proposition Hafsat Abiola, a Washington-based campaigner for political freedoms in her native Nigeria, more or less agrees - up to a point. She also believes that Americans themselves would do well to acquire a better understanding of the cultures they hope to inspire to a better way of life.
"I've learned a lot from living in America," Ms Abiola said this week, during a visit to San Francisco to participate in the 1998 State of the World Forum. "When I return to Nigeria - whenever that might be - I hope to take many new ideas back with me from this country. At the same time I think there's a lot that Americans need to learn from Nigerians. A country the size of America cannot afford to be isolated; it cannot afford to sit on the world stage like some kind of elephant. And this is something that increasingly concerns me. America is a country that isolates itself from knowing about the world, and, worse, it sometimes seems to feel that it's okay to be that way.
"Actually," she continued, "I don't think that this is something that only America can learn from Africa. All of the world could learn things from Africa."
Since June 4, 1996, when her pro-democracy advocate mother, Kudirat Abiola, was assassinated in the streets of the former Nigerian capital Lagos, Hafsat has extensively traveled the United States publicizing the social and economic plight of a land which for the past 30 years has been ruled by various military dictatorships. The mission gained a particular urgency this year following the death of another family member, her father Moshood Abiola, who was elected President of Nigeria in 1993 but found himself barred from entering office by the country's autocratic regime of Gen. Sani Abacha. Mr. Abiola suffered a heart attack in July shortly after being released from jail, where he had been held for three years on unspecified charges of "treason."
Over the past three years, too, Nigeria's economy has all but disintegrated - motorists queue endlessly for gasoline, even though Nigeria is among the world's largest producers of petroleum, while the country's currency, once valued higher than the U.S. dollar currency, is now worth little more than a cent. Corruption is endemic, starting at the top.
This, then, is what Hafsat Abiola is committed to sharing with those Americans who are open to hearing what she has to say. Increasingly, however, she has reached the conclusion that a little more cultural information about Africa is needed if her political message is to bear fruit here. It continues to irk her, for instance, to see that the only media information originating from her home continent seems largely to be concerned with wars, famines and the politics of South Africa.
"Africa is so much more than that," she said, referring approvingly to President Clinton's recent official visit to the heartland of her continent. "It was good that Mr. Clinton went there. I believe that this impressed on many people that Africa is not one country but a continent with over 50 countries. So it was good, as is any attention enjoyed by Africa."
What could Westerners learn from paying such attention? "Well, they could learn, in the case of Nigeria, that these are countries where the communal ethic really lives, even if that ethic has recently been under fire because of the political, economic, and social situation there. And it's that ethic that will help Nigeria free itself from the situation it currently finds itself in."