FEATURES: Bisi Fayemi @ 50: First Lady, One Of A Kind

October 14, 2013

Ekiti State Governor, Dr Kayode Fayemi and his wife, Erelu Bisi Fayemi during her 50th birthday celebration of in Ado-Ekiti.

Erelu Bisi Fayemi turned 50 back in June 2013. But it was in her character that she pointedly deferred any celebration of the milestone until much later in further deference to the memory of Ekiti State’s Deputy Governor, Mrs. Funmi Olayinka, who passed away in April, as Mrs. Bisi Fayemi explained to me when I saw her with her husband on the occasion of a lecture being given by Professor Wale Adebanwi at the Oxford University, UK in May.

The marking of the 50th birthday was week-long last week in her Ekiti State with activities that bespoke a kind heart, a compassionate lady, a woman-rights champion, and an intellectual in her own right. I write in tribute to this amazing lady of exemplary attributes.

Although I cannot claim to know Erelu Bisi Fayemi and/or her husband, Dr. Kayode Fayemi (JKF), in a ‘close family’ sense, I have yet known and followed the activities (indeed, activism) and accomplishmentsof the couple, individually and together, for about two decades, beginning from England in the 90s where I was also running my newspaper, the celebrated (now defunct) Nigeria HomeNews.

It was then uncommon to find black women – women of African descent – in leadership positions in virtually any sphere, be it politics, the arts, sports, media, or whatever. You could count those demonstrating sharp focus, commitment, and intellect on your fingertips. It was then I began to read or hear about this young, beautiful and brilliant lady at the top of some organisations concerned about the plight of women, children and the underprivileged.

One of such organisations was the Women in Development Europe where she was the UK representative on the Steering Committee. Bisi Fayemi was also a vocal and visible Executive Committee member of the Black, Migrant, Refugee and Asylum Seeking Women’s Network in Europe (BWEN) that she co-founded in 1992.

The period of her activism in England, Europe and America, particularly between 1996 and 1998, incidentally also coincided with the time her husband, Kayode Fayemi, a first class brain and political and military strategist, was in the forefront of the struggle against continued military rule in Nigeria, and was reputed to be the “brain box” behind “Radio Kudirat” that became the scourge of General Abacha’s government.

It was intriguing to watch her furiously sharing her time between her own, increasingly global, women and human rights activism and joining her man in the many rallies and public engagements to denounce Nigeria’s military government and advocate the release Chief MKO Abiola from military captivity and the validation of his electoral mandate as President of Nigeria.

And I remember how she stood by her man as he traversed the globe from 2008 to 2010 giving lectures, attending conferences, and generally drawing global attention to the travesty of electoral result in his 2007 governorship contest for Ekiti State that had temporarily robbed JFK his mandate. Bisi was always there, stern yet charming, equally engaging attendees in questions and answers on the way forward, and confident that the truth shall prevail in the end.

After three and half years fighting through the legal system, JFK’s mandate was restored to him by a final Appeal Court judgment on October 15, 2010 as the duly elected Governor of Ekiti State. He was sworn in on October 16, 2010 and Erelu Bisi Fayemi thus became the First Lady of Ekiti State!

Unfortunately in Nigeria the place and concept of first ladyship has been much abused by many who turned it simply as easy avenue for publicity hugging, public purse rending, and general air-fouling business. As Bisi puts it, “the historical use and abuse of non-accountable, unconstitutional power has fuelled suspicion and hostility towards First Ladies, and rightfully so”.

She adds: “I have also always known that it is precisely because First Ladies wield so much power and influence that it is very dangerous for such power to fall into the hands of ignorant, uninformed and unethical persons”!

This column of February 19, 2012 titled, Bisi Fayemi’s Burden of First Ladyship, ran an appreciation of a treatise Erelu Bisi Fayemi had written, widely publicised in some major newspapers, in bold defence of her individuality and worth, and her refusal to be cowed into a passive existence as a “mere appendage” of her husband, the governor of Ekiti State, by those who felt uncomfortable with her “activist” brand of first ladyship.

“This brilliant, self-assured, fiery and beautiful, lady reminds one of Hilary Clinton as America’s First Lady many years ago, and now as America’s Secretary of State in charge of its foreign affairs.

“ ‘As a feminist activist’, she says,‘I have been very critical of the ways in which women married to men in power hijack the spaces, voices and resources of others, particularly civil society and use this as a platform to dispense political favours and elevate other elite women.’”

Just because she is the wife of the governor Bisi is not ready to confine herself, as she puts it, ‘to make his bed, wash his clothes, take care of the children, cook his food and rub his feet when he comes home’!

“ ‘I now believe that some of the things expected of people such as myself is silence on things that matter and invisibility in things that can truly make a difference. For those who would like to know, I do have an opinion on fuel subsidy crisis. I do have an opinion on the gap between the kind of leadership we deserve in Nigeria and the kind we have right now. I have an opinion on the breach of the social contract between leaders and the people. I have an opinion on the conduct that is expected of First Ladies. I have strong opinions on our national and human security challenges and the implications for women and children.”

“According to Mrs. Fayemi, ‘All my opinions are channelled through my work as a pan-Africanist, political activist, human rights advocate, women’s rights defender, social change philanthropist and being the wife of a progressive, brilliant, visionary governor.

“‘Every day I work hard at ensuring that I exercise my informal power and authority with the utmost discretion, respect, sensitivity, and integrity. I might not always get it right, but I try.’ ”

Happy 50th birthday, to a worthy daughter; a dutiful loving wife; a great champion of noble causes; and an exemplary role model.


By Tunde Fagbenle

This article was first published in The Punch

Last modified: October 14, 2013

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