BISI FAYEMI: The Activist Footprints Of A First Lady

October 28, 2012

Erelu Bisi Fayemi

Bisi, wife of Ekiti State governor, Kayode Fayemi, is one of the most outspoken women leaders in the country. She speaks with BISI ALABI WILLIAMS on women and girls as change agents.

THE office of First Lady is not recognised by the constitution, yet, it plays vital role in the state; how do you get supports for your programmes? The argument I was making in an article I wrote in February this year titled, The First Lady Debate, Speaking for Myself, is that people commenting on the office of First Lady sometimes lump issues together. The first is the issue of existence of office and the other is the individual that occupies the position. These are two different things. If we compare the two and look at the experiences of people who have abused the office for personal aggrandizement, looted public funds or inflated contracts, then the argument will be perfectly valid, but we need to look at the two issues. When we do this, then we will know if the office is desirable or not.

Since our people always make comparisons between Nigeria and the US, we can readily consider this example. In the American society, the leaders recognise the office of the First Lady because they believe that they cannot have a President and not have a host or somebody to look after him or attend to his needs, which includes giving him the necessary care needed when he comes back home at night. President Jimmy Carter passed the law to support this office and made some provisions for it to have a budget to take care of its programmes.

The American democracy has matured to the extent that it understands the different roles that President’s spouse plays. So, the role of Hillary Clinton is certainly not the role of Michelle Obama.  Hillary Clinton was a policy buff. She understood her role well and performed it to the letters. This was the flavour she brought to the White House at that time. So, the kind of White House Hillary Clinton ran is certainly not the type that Michelle is presently running. Clinton had ideas on policy re–engineering. She was interested in social justice, women, minorities and children issues. Michelle has a different agenda and she is pursuing it. The system has accommodated these differences. Why can’t Nigeria do the same? Why is it that every time we talk about first ladies, we demonise them because of their predecessors who misbehaved or did not do what is expected of them.

Women are always discriminated against on these platforms. Women’s worst enemy is the system of cohesion and deprivation, and not women themselves. But if all of us, women, work together in love and unity, we will be able to address the root cause of our problem, which is male domination and marginalisation.

My position is that if we understand what the roles and responsibilities of that office are, then, people will appreciate them and maintain the expected standards. The office must be held accountable for its actions or inactions. We cannot say it is the husband we voted for; the first lady is part of the total package and the Americans are smart enough to recognise this. In America today, if the presidential candidate’s wife is not acceptable and respected, it will affect her husband’s chances at the polls. And that is why it’s the spouses of the two candidates that have to speak for their husbands during the American Party Conventions.

We must understand that the wives of public office holders have different talents, capacities and competences, which will always count in their administration. Certain things are expected of them. So, why don’t we have rules for engaging them in that office? Why don’t we spell it out now? People may argue that Nigeria is not yet there, but we are gradually getting there. If we don’t have the necessary rules in place, people will continue to do what they like and nobody will hold them accountable. So, now is the time to act.

 What are your roles in Ekiti State government?

My role has been that of providing support for my husband, to be able to realise his eight-point agenda for the state. I have been involved in a number of initiatives, one of which is the multiple birth fund that was launched in June 2011. Since then, we’ve been able to support up to 300 families of multiple births in the state.

I also initiated the Forum of Spouses of Ekiti State Officials (FOSESO). This network was launched in June 2011. It serves as a platform for training and equipping the wives of government officials such as the executive members, legislatures, local government chairmen, permanent secretaries and others.

Recently, women in leadership positions came to me as a result of the work I was doing in the area of women development and requested for Ekiti State to have a forum for Women-In-Leadership. So, with the support of the deputy governor, we launched the forum for Women in Leadership in July.

In August, we took them to Nairobi, Kenya, for a leadership-training programme to empower them to properly manage their various portfolios.

 With funding being a major issue, how have you been coping and where does the funds come from?

Yes, funding will always be a major issue. But I have always operated on the premise that the money will always come based on my experience working in the non-formal sector, where I have always mobilised funds for various causes. One of the things that have helped me over time is, knowing how to mobilise the right people for the right cause. Some of the works I have done in the state include ensuring that the right women get into leadership, preventing women from violence, ensuring that things are done properly.

When people believe in a cause, they will be committed to it. One of the eight-point agenda of Dr. Kayode Fayemi is women empowerment and gender equality. From my own experience working with women I don’t just want this point to be just about accessing funds or providing money for sewing machines or micro credits, but to provide a holistic framework that would enable women to have a whole range of services and issues that will be addressed by the state. And this is what we have done with the National Gender Policy. Ekiti State is the first state in the country to domesticate the policy.

 How does the National Gender Policy affect women?

The policy was approved at the federal level in 2006 for states to sign on to it, domesticate and use it as a framework and tool to empower the women in their state. Because Ekiti has done this, it has provided for us a clear roadmap as to how to empower women in the state. So the government can then invest in the necessary financial, human and physical resources in all these areas.

If you look at the Ministry for Women Affairs, Social Development and Youths, you will know that we now have more resources at our disposal than before, which is as a result of the efforts that has gone into ensuring that women remain at the front burner of whatever the state does.


 Women are exposed to all forms of violence, how is the Government tackling this?

Government has been able to tackle this problem by passing the gender-based violence orientation bill, which I sponsored, into law. I did this in collaboration with the Ministry of Women’s Affairs, the Federation of Women Lawyers and the special adviser to the Governor on MDGs. The Governor signed the bill into law on November 26. All these policies are geared towards addressing the problems on a sustainable basis. We have been able to provide support for the rights of women be it in decision – making, access to reproductive health, maternal health services or protecting them against all forms of violence.

What has been your experience working with women; are they really their own enemies?

A lot of people say this, but I see the statement as a very myopic and backward comment about women. It might sound like that when women serve as obstacles to the progress of other women, which sometimes happen and we know it. But that is not the whole picture, rather the big picture is the system whereby male dominate the system thereby giving women few rights that limit them in all spheres be it economic, politics, culture or religion. Women are always discriminated against on these platforms. Women’s worst enemy is the system of cohesion and deprivation, and not women themselves. But if all of us, women, work together in love and unity, we will be able to address the root cause of our problem, which is male domination and marginalization. Women can go to all the international conferences in the US, Bejin and Cairo, and nothing will happen if they do not walk the talk and tackle the problems by themselves.  Tackling this problem means we can have a level playing ground for everyone, irrespective of sex, age or gender.

 How has this level playing ground impacted on the female population?

I have been working with women in Ekiti State since 2005 when my husband started his campaign. My desire was to work with women regardless of their political involvement, which is what I have done for other women in other places. We discovered that women were very active during mobilization and campaigns, but very few of them are in decision making positions in Ekiti State. So we made a commitment to address the problem with the support of my husband, his colleagues and the party leaders.

The result was that the state moved from having zero women in the House of Assembly to having four. We now have five women in the cabinet, women permanent secretaries, women on board of the parastatals even as chair of these boards as in the case of the Ekiti State Broadcasting Corporation, the Ekiti SUBEB, the Provost of the College of Education, Ikare and others.

 But are these women really working the talk or simply just filling their quotas?

Yes, they are working the talk. Dr. Fayemi is a man who deals with people based on merit. The women have taken giant strides within the short time they came in. As far as ACN is concerned, governance is about putting round pegs in round holes. It is about quality and merit; the facts are there for all to see. The women appointed are core professionals, intellectuals in their own rights. They are not given to the ‘business as usual syndrome’; they play by the rules to achieve desired results. The result is that things are working, the state is making progress and life is becoming beautiful in the state. What we have done is to show what we can achieve when you have the right political will. You may not have all the money, but if you have the political will, things will fall in place. With the political will you can give the people their heart desire, meet their needs and ensure a process where dreams are actualised, where people have roles and mentored women become excellent role models for our young girls.

HOW has it been balancing the act?

Balancing the act is what many of us do as wives and as professionals who want to succeed on all fronts. It’s a constant struggle. I don’t mind surprises, but as much as possible I love to plan my time. I try as much as possible to have a plan, but if your plan is not working, then have Plan B. I always have a backup! People who know me know that I always have a Plan B, so that, I don’t fail. I love to plan. It keeps you on track. I also love to surround myself with competent people who will help me realise my role and bring out the best in me.

 What is that singular thing you miss doing as the governor’s wife?

That is a very good question! But I don’t know if I should answer this question off or on record. I try as much as possible to still be myself, but there are things I cannot do for security reasons.

I love going to Tejuoso market to buy my stuffs. I enjoy making my choice from a wide range of materials or accessories, but these days, I have to send people. On the whole, I try to be fair because the truth is one will not be here forever! The truth is one day we will leave office and join other citizens outside government house.

LOOKING back, who would you say are your heroes?

My dad readily comes to mind. He had three of us — two boys and a girl. He would tell anyone who cared to listen that ‘there is nothing that a boy can do that a girl cannot do.’ He used to say ‘look at my girl (which is me), she is wonderful and very brilliant; that gave me a lot of confidence. It taught me how to speak up for myself, defend others and air my thoughts without being intimidated by anything or anybody.’

If you stand before my dad and you mumble your words. He will tell you to go and put yourself together and, then, come back. He believed in being articulate. All his newspapers were always marked with red ink. He would mark out certain words in the newspapers and ask you what was wrong with the sentence. And woe betides you if you missed it. He gave me a lot of confidence and taught the value of service to others.

I have met so many people in my young life, but I can tell you that the average market woman in Nigeria is my role model! This woman sits under the sun and rain to be able to send her children to school and put food on her family’s table. It doesn’t matter whether she has a husband or not. She does this, day and night, for her children to have a bright future. These women are in many ways my role models.

Would you attribute your successes to your background?

Yes, it has, especially, given my background in social justice, women rights and philanthropy. It helps me to know what is required, and the kinds of intervention to take. Before I came here, I was the Executive Director of African Women Development Fund based in Accra, Ghana. Acting in that capacity, I interacted with very influential people all over the world, discussing and doing advocacy on issues that affect Africa, particularly African women. Doing things with thinkers in Africa, opinion leaders, civil society organisations, Presidents, women organisations and academics, have given me some experience, exposure, comportment and expertise to handle different issues.

 What legacy would you want your husband to leave behind?

I would like to see that all the promises we made to the people are fulfilled. Two years on, a lot of these promises have already been fulfilled, some even exceeded. Our dream is to restore the enviable position of where Ekitis are seen as very knowledgeable people, a people of honour and integrity. It is still a place known as fountain of knowledge, but we have re-branded it to a land of honour.

Today, people have a vision of the Ekiti they want. So, it‘s not just the Governor saying this is what he wants to do, but everyone being equal partners in the Governor’s vision. The people understand this vision and are partnering with us to achieve it. We hope to leave a lasting legacy, restore values such as service, integrity, truth, diligence and a voice for the women.

 The Soft Side Of Her Excellency

Her best travel places

They are Cape Town, South Africa and Zanzibar in Tanzania. They are coastal cities and I love the seafood and the beautiful scenery. I also love New York for its vibrancy and because it looks great at night. However, none of them compare with the amazing rolling hills and breathtaking views in Ekiti.

Second honeymoon destination

It would be at the Ikogosi Spring Resort in Ekiti, when it is fully ready. It is such a lovely place. However, since I know we would not have privacy for obvious reasons, I would opt for Hawaii. I have been there and would love to go again because it is very beautiful.

Her dressence and young look

I dress to suit the occasion, so I wear mostly Ankara skirts and blouses for day-to-day activities. I also love Iro and Buba because it is very comfortable. I wear them a lot to formal events.

The secret of my young look is that I love to have plenty of rest (when I can), eating and drinking in moderation and regular exercise. I read and watch TV. I also exercise daily. I love purple. My favourite dish is pounded yam and egusi soup. My favourite perfumes are Balenciaga and Tom Ford Violet Blonde. I believe that we are complete human beings only when we acknowledge the humanity in others.

Happiest Moments

It is hard to single out one moment. I can name moments though such as when I got married and when I had my child. Also, when my husband signed the Gender based Violence Prohibition Bill into law last year was one of the happiest moments of my life.


This article was first published in The Guardian on 28 October 2012.


Last modified: October 28, 2012

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