TRIBUTE: Funmi Olayinka: My Friend, My Sister

April 25, 2013

I was already seated when she walked into the busy Chinese restaurant in Ikeja that fateful evening end of January 2007.  We had spoken on the phone twice but never met. I instinctively stood up and beckoned her to my table – ‘Mrs Olayinka’, I called out. She was that recognisable in the crowd.  ‘Good evening, you must be Dr Fayemi.’  I answered in the affirmative and we greeted warmly.  The meeting was to explore the possibility of her joining my ticket as the Deputy Governorship candidate of the Action Congress in Ekiti State.  I’d won the Action Congress’ gubernatorial primaries in December 2006 and the final deadline for submission of the candidate’s name to INEC was mid-February 2007, barely two weeks away. My friend, Femi Ojudu and our Leader, Otunba Niyi Adebayo, both of whom knew her in Lagos had broached the subject matter with her already and the feedback from them was: sceptical but not out-rightly negative.  This was crunch time.

The battle for the party ticket was a tough one, with many good people aspiring to govern the State. But once the battle was over, the focus then became who the running mate would be. The party leadership had zeroed in on Ado-Ekiti as the place to produce the running mate and there were many politicians in Ado Ekiti interested in the position. After extensive deliberation, the party leadership settled for one of the politicians. A delegation from the party then went to Ewi’s palace out of courtesy to brief His Royal Majesty on the party’s choice and to their utter shock discovered that the party’s choice had defected to the rival PDP the previous day.  Disappointed, the leadership then urged me to give the party any candidate of my choice. With the freedom to choose entirely mine, I knew I wanted a woman as running mate, largely due to my wife’s influence and also because it is sensible politics in Ekiti given the central role our women played in my success at the primaries. The first Ado-Ekiti woman that I approached declined for personal reasons. It was in this context that Mrs Olayinka came into the picture and given the deadline I confronted, this dinner was going to be a make or mar experience since there was no other woman in the picture.

Thus began a journey that I could only describe as God-ordained until the cold claws of death snatched her away from us on April 6, 2013. In the first place, by the time dinner was over two hours after; her scepticism had been replaced with a curious interest – a maybe, not an outright No!  She asked pointed questions based on her google search of my name, wanted to know about the campaign agenda and was worried about political violence, given what she knew of the recent past.  She had also read about my wife and was keen to know more about her work. I too asked about her experience in the corporate world, her family and her worldview. It became clear that she was bold, driven, deeply religious, very concerned about entrenching good governance and even more Ekiti than me.

Her earlier discussion with Femi Ojudu and Otunba Adebayo had clearly helped but she was still not ready to commit. She however promised to consult her husband and children as well as her employers and also pray over it.  We agreed to speak two days later as I’d impressed it on her that I needed to know in good time, given the INEC deadline.  In the intervening period, I called Bisi in Accra to give her an update on the search and also got back to Otunba and Femi with updates. They kept up the pressure on their side.  In the end, she did get back to me in 48 hours but only to ask for an extension by another 24hours. To my relief, she phoned a day later to say she had given it extensive thought, prayed about it and consulted widely and was ready to give it a shot. We both congratulated each other and she asked me to hold on for her husband, Lanre, who was very warm on the phone and equally gave his blessings. I re-assured him that even though the journey would be rough, with God on our side, I was confident we would triumph.

And the journey was rough and tough! That weekend, she came to Ado Ekiti to be introduced to the party leadership and the Ewi-in-Council. And she got her political baptism of fire. News had filtered out that I had chosen another Ekiti ‘abroad’ just like me, a professional woman from the bank, as my running mate. Many of the politicians interested in the position were disappointed and their supporters organised a protest against her at Ewi’s palace when she arrived there. If she had been a faint-hearted, lily-livered person, she would’ve thrown in the towel at that point when all sorts of unimaginable expletives were hurled at her and returned to her cosy bank job. Her steely resolve manifested itself early when I called to apologise to her for sending her into the Lion’s den. She waved it off and insisted that the outcry was understandable and that it was her duty to win the doubters over.  And that was exactly what she did.  By the following day, there was a remarkable turn-around and those who led the protest against her had become her cheer-leaders. She didn’t stop at that. She also visited key party leaders and all the potential running mates in humility and with respect requesting their support and solidarity. Slowly, even they began to warm up to her. She was a natural.

Having crossed the initial hurdle in Ado Ekiti, Abuja was the next port of call to complete INEC formalities in order to meet the sixty day deadline before the governorship election on April 14 2007. More importantly, Bisi was also due in Abuja same week to attend a conference and we had arranged that this would be a good time for her to meet Funmi. Even though my wife had vigorously campaigned for a female running-mate and I’d kept her abreast of all discussions in relation to Mrs Olayinka, I knew it might be dicey if they didn’t hit it off. Fortunately, Bisi and Funmi got on very well from the minute they met in Abuja. And the relationship grew from strength to strength despite the common tendency of people to try and generate conflict between two strong, principled women. Indeed, in many ways they became inseparable – almost like twin sisters till the end.

This was to be the relationship between myself and my deputy and our spouses and children.  It was a relationship based on mutual respect, genuine admiration and commitment to our people in Ekiti. From the time Funmi Olayinka became my running mate to the day the Lord called her, our bond remained strong  – even in the saddest of times, we gave each other strength. After the egregiously rigged election of April 14, 2007, when I apologised to her again for dragging her into politics and suggested that I would understand if she chose to return to her corporate world since she only took a leave of absence, she was very displeased with me.  She was so confident that we would get to government because we won the election and because we genuinely wanted to serve our people.

Although I had no doubt she was right, the depth of her conviction was infectious.  Even when we lost at the Justice Bukar  Bwala led Tribunal in Ado Ekiti, she remained unperturbed.  A woman of immeasurable faith, she urged the team to go on Appeal as Chair of our Strategy Group. When we won the appeal in February 2009 and a re-run election was ordered, she worked with Bisi on one of the most challenging elections in the country, not just organising the women but also charging the men not to go wobbly at the knees. We went back to the polls in April/May 2009 and the election was again rigged. We were back in court from June 2009 till victory finally came our way in October 2010 and she was unwavering in her commitment all through.

I cannot now recall the exact date she gave me the worrisome news about the lump she had felt in her breast but it was after the re-run election in 2009. She kept me in the picture from that moment – right from the first wrong diagnosis that gave an all clear to the second diagnosis later in the year that confirmed there was a problem – leading to surgery late 2009 in the United Kingdom. Virtually all through 2010, the cancer was in remission following chemotherapy and radiotherapy as well as regular checks in the UK and at home in Nigeria and we were relieved.  By October 2010 when we won at the appeal court and were sworn into Government in Ekiti State, the indication was still good.

Early in 2011, she had gone back to the UK for yet another check and there was an indication that the cells had metastasized to another part of the body. And so she renewed the battle with the dreaded disease with some of the world’s most renowned oncologists on the case from Nigeria, America, Canada and the UK. It was a tortuous time for a woman who had given her all to the struggle to retrieve our mandate.  All through, Bisi was at hand with her in the UK from September 2009 till her last visit in February 2013. We did everything and refused to accept that the situation could not be saved. She was also a source of inspiration.  Just as she refused to give up on the struggle to retrieve our mandate, Funmi never gave up on recovery from cancer. She kept hope alive, refused to stay off work – no matter my admonitions; she insisted she cannot give in to the disease. Even when she came back from the UK in February 2013 and I had to insist that she stayed off work, she was still insistent on serving Ekiti people.  She believed she must continue to relieve others of pain even at a time that she was experiencing excruciating pain. She was so selfless in service and was hopeful till the end. Indeed, when I saw her a week before she passed, she still felt the need to discuss work. Till the end, she felt she had let me down by not being there to contribute her quota due to ill health.  That’s Funmi Olayinka for you – a stickler for hard work, determination and perseverance till the very end.

Funmi Olayinka was indeed the Moremi Ekiti. In the true tradition of the legendary Moremi, she gave her all in defence of our people. Indeed, there are bound to be many people who will insist that had she stayed away from politics and Ekiti, she probably would still be alive. Funmi would disagree with that. As a devout Christian, she believed we all have our appointed time with our Maker. In the six years that I was privileged to be her political partner and boss, she was never given to regrets. She was pleasant in disposition, but always business-like in work. She focused on our goal of bringing succour to our people in Ekiti with extra-ordinary dedication. I had no reason at any point to doubt her commitment, loyalty or integrity. She was stellar in the performance of the tasks assigned to her and she was clearly central to the success of our administration to date.

Both as a banker and politician, Funmi Olayinka has clearly written a new chapter in the history of service as sacrifice. Of course, when women succeed in any endeavour – career, business or politics, it is still often presented as the benefit of patriarchal generosity, spousal tolerance, pure luck or wanting to be male.(obinrin bi okunrin) They said that about her erstwhile name sake – Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti. Mrs Margaret Thatcher also suffered the same fate. The reality is of course often more complicated and we tend to understate the courage of conviction, perseverance and capacity to negotiate and re-negotiate patriarchal terms of engagement by such women individually and collectively. My friend’s life is a study in redefining our society as a space guaranteeing increasing measure of opportunities for both men and women to actualise their dreams. This point was clearly captured when Mrs Olayinka joined Bisi, Mairo Mandara and other leading ACN women to draft a Womanifesto for the Action Congress of Nigeria in 2010 insisting that our progressive party must live up to its billings by paying more than just lip service to gender equality. It remains a bounden duty for us to ensure and promote more women in public life against all odds.  It is for this reason that we must make every effort to remember by not forgetting the contributions of my remarkable, redoubtable, courageous, dedicated and loyal partner in the Ekiti project.

This is why Ekiti will invest in efforts at early diagnosis of the dreaded disease.  This is why I shall not relent on delivering our promises to Ekiti people through our eight point agenda.  This is why your family is now my family.  This is why Bisi and I will forever remain grateful to you for being part of the Collective Rescue Mission. This is why you’d remain my sister, my friend even in death.

Moremi Ekiti, Sun re o!


Kayode Fayemi

Last modified: April 25, 2013

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