Mrs Erelu Bisi Adeleye-Fayemi, wife of Governor Kayode Fayemi of Ekiti State, who celebrated her 50th birthday last week, speaks with GBENRO ADESINA on how God has been good to her and other issues affecting women in Nigeria
How do you feel at 50?
I feel happy, blessed, lucky, grateful and full of praises to God Almighty.
How has the journey of 50 years been?
The journey has been what you expect of life – full of ups and downs, challenges, triumphs, travails, successes. Looking back, I thank God that I have had more cause to rejoice in my life than to cry. I give God glory for that.
Could you shed more light on the ups and downs of life that you just mentioned?
I am very grateful that I was born into a loving and caring family. My father, the late Pa Emmanuel Akinola Adeleye, was the best father anyone could ever have and my mother, Mrs. Olufunke Emily Adeleye, who is still alive, is also a wonderful mother. I was born in England. At that time, my father was a student and my mother was a casual worker, supporting my father’s studies and so on. They struggled together in UK for years. They both came back home in the late 1960s. My father came back in 1968 and I came back to Nigeria with my mother and my younger brother in 1969.
My father was an accountant and he started practising in the private sector and ended up in the civil service. He had such a powerful influence on me as a child. He was very strict and was a disciplinarian. He was very proud of me and quite affectionate towards me. He gave me a lot of confidence. He always told anyone who cared to listen around him that This daughter of mine is worth more than 10 sons because she is bright and her future is bright. Coming from that kind of background boosted my self-esteem.
As I went through school and profession in the UK, getting married, being part of a political family, the background and the training that I have had from home, my mentors and my academic training have taught me that it is important to stand up for what you believe in, get committed to something, as there is no room for sitting on the fence. I also have a strong sense of community service, of giving whatever you can to people around you.
My father was a professional boxer in Nigeria. He travelled to the UK to box professionally. When he had a quarrel with his manager, he decided to go back to school to study accountancy because he had his high school certificate in Nigeria before he travelled to England. When he came back to Nigeria and was practising his accounting, he still retained his interest in boxing and he became the honorary secretary of the Nigeria Boxing Board of Control, NBB of C, and he ran the affairs of the organisation for 19 years. I grew up watching my father attending to the needs of these young men who wanted to start career in boxing coming around to seek advice and support. He did this in his spare time. I got that sense from him and the way he always responded to the needs of people. So I grew up to have a strong sense of what it is to serve community; what it means to serve others as opposed to others serving you. I think that has put me in good stead in doing what I am doing now.
What about the influence of your mother?
My mum has a lot of influence on me in her own way. My mum is a gentle person who didn’t speak as much as my father. She is soft spoken and down to earth. What I learnt from my mother was the virtue of generosity. My mother will give anyone anything. She could have 50 wrappers in her wardrobe and give everything out. There was a time when she had all these beautiful dishes that she used to collect. It was in vogue then with women of her social class in Lagos. They had all these dishes and bowls that they would collect and decorate the house with them.
The practice then was that when their daughters were getting married, they would give some to them to take to their husbands’ houses. I grew up with a lot of aunts in the house, my mum’s younger sisters. Over the years, my mum gave away almost all those things and I kept asking what would be left for me and she would reply telling me they needed it more than I did. I never understood what she meant but now I do. I learnt from my mother how to share. One doesn’t need more than one thing at a time. One can only sleep on one bed at a time, ride in one vehicle at a time. So what is the purpose of going through life hoarding things and wanting to grab things here and there for yourself? I thank my mother for giving me that training.
Is it correct to say that you have more of male attributes considering the fact that the influence of your father was more than that of your mother?
I will challenge that because I have spent all my academic and professional life making a case that women are not inferior to men. That if women were given the same opportunities and advantages that men have, there is nothing they can’t achieve. That was what my father taught me. So my father did not bring me up to act like a man. He brought me up as someone who has potential, someone who has dreams and expectations and there shouldn’t be a barrier or obstacles to achieving these dreams. Unfortunately, this is the situation of some women in our society because of attitude, stereotypes and negative beliefs that there is a limit to what women can achieve.
Women have not stopped believing that they are second class citizens. So whatever they want to aspire to, they always have to take second place to what men can aspire to. That is why right from childhood, young boys are taught how to go out and play football, roam around, own the world, be leaders and take ownership and women are the ones confined to the kitchen cooking and cleaning, growing up to be the good wife and so on. It is okay to learn how to cook and clean, but for me what is important is ensuring that men and women are given equal opportunities to achieve whatever goal they want in life.
What are the memorable incidents in your life?
There have been lots of wonderful things in my life. I thank God for the kind of family that I had while growing up. I am grateful for the kind of education I received. I went to excellent schools. I married a wonderful man, the best husband in the world, Kayode Fayemi! I am thankful to God that I am a mother of a handsome son, Folajimi, who is 18 now. And I am thankful to God for having the opportunity to develop a career around women empowerment and social justice issues, being an advocate for women rights and being in a position to help build institutions both in Europe and Africa that can empower women and give them access to opportunities to make life better for them. I thank God for putting me in this position to support my husband as he tries to govern this state.
There are a number of regrets, some sad moments in my life. Like every human being who has achieved this milestone, there have been very trying times. The most trying time I know I have faced in my life has to do with the circumstances surrounding my father. For those that are familiar with the story, my father actually disappeared in January 2003 and we never saw him again. In 2002, he had a mild stroke and he recovered to some extent but he had dementia – occasional memory loss. He was finding it difficult to remember people but he was still capable of going out to do something for himself. On 2 January 2003, he told my mother that he wanted to go out to see a young friend of his who was his driver when he was in the ministry. By then he had retired. My mum asked if she should send somebody to accompany him and he said he would be fine. He left home and that was the last time we saw him. We searched for him everywhere. Till today, we don’t know what happened to him.
The only way I and my siblings have been able to get through is to accept that he died somehow but we don’t know when and how. It was the most traumatic experience of my life. I don’t wish it for my worst enemy. But I am comforted by the fact that he was a wonderful man who left a great legacy behind and almost every time, I try to remember the things he taught me and the things I know he would disapprove of. I still have some memory of him. I still miss him.
Another trying moment of my life is something that happened recently. We lost someone who was very dear to me, who was like a twin sister to me, the former deputy governor of the state, the late Mrs. Olufunmilayo Olayinka. Between 2007 and 2010 when we were trying to get our stolen mandate through the legal means was a trying time. It was a traumatic period. But I was optimistic that justice would eventually be done.
Is that why you are having a low-key celebration?
For now, it is not possible for me to celebrate my 50th birthday the way I had wanted. I was very close to the late Mrs. Olayinka. We both struggled together for our political mandate. We were fighting two battles; one was a political battle and the other was her illness. There is no way I can roll out the drums. Yes, there will be some kind of celebration because we have to thank God for what he has done. But I cannot have the kind of celebration I would have had if she was around. There will still be a celebration later on in the year. Some of my friends are working on that. They actually started working on my birthday in January, this year. Around February when I knew that things were not going on too well, I told my friends to step down the activities; that we might not be able to do the kind of thing they were planning. Later on, it could happen. The most important thing for me is that I am alive.
Why did you support your husband to go into politics?
Initially, I was reluctant because around 2005, if someone had made a list of 20 things that Kayode Fayemi could have done, as he was going forward in his career, being a state governor would not have been in the list at all. Besides, I have always been among the young Africans who have said consistently that we deserve better leadership. Our legacy could not continue to be one of clueless leadership, leaders who don’t know what they are doing, who don’t know how to honour social contract that they have with the people and who consistently produce a narrative about Africa that is negative and counter-productive and bring out the worst in citizens as opposed to bringing out the best.
I have been part of that campaign for years, throughout my years in the UK; been part of pro-democracy movement and struggling against military dictatorship. My work in the Pan-African Movement, my work in the women movement, the women’s rights and so on. After having been part of those struggles, then there is a point in which we need to accept that things have to change. And it can’t be somebody else making those changes; those changes have to start with us. Why do we consistently have to choose between the devil and the blue sea, between a thief and a murderer, between a lion and a hyena? Why can’t we have a definite choice for ones that can transform the lives of people for better?
That was why I supported my husband to run for the office of the governor. People mounted pressure on me to ask my husband to stop going to court during the struggle, but I strongly felt that the right thing must be done. So, I am thankful that on 15 October 2010, the stolen mandate was returned and the people of Ekiti now know what a true leader is like. I am very thankful that I supported him then and I support him now and I will forever support him. He is my husband, leader, political comrade, friend and mentor.
You have won many awards locally and internationally, how have you been able to manage your career and the home front?
This is a question that is asked of all women but I hardly ever heard people asking men that question. My view to that is that it is about balance and figuring out the things that are important to you. You make time for the things that are important to you. My husband, children, family and friends are important to me so I make time for them. But the father needs to be there for his family too.
At what point in your life did you think of gender advocacy and what motivated you into it?
I started thinking about doing work around women-driven issues when I was doing my Master’s degree at the University of Ife, now Obafemi Awolowo University, OAU. I did my Master’s degree in History and I became interested in women’s contributions to socio-economic development in South-west Nigeria. When I finished my master’s and moved to England, I was interested in pursuing that area of work and that was why I did another master’s in Gender and Society at Middlesex University, UK. I wanted to familiarise myself with the literature and I wanted to equip myself with the tools that would be needed to enable me to make a career in that area due to my determination to transform women’s life and provide better access to opportunity and create a level playing field.
What will be your advice to the youths in equipping themselves for future challenges?
It is very important to everyone to first figure out what they want out of life. It is important to set goals and work toward achieving those goals. I find it very difficult to use myself as a reference point in many ways because I accept the fact, without being told, that I am privileged and lucky because I had parents who were able to provide for my needs. Also I grew up in Nigeria at a time when the system had not totally collapsed. At the time I was in the university, there was a level playing field. Children from not too wealthy families could attend university. There were ways people could access resources to attend school. We had one of the most vibrant cafeteria systems in the country and the meal ticket was very cheap. I am aware of the fact that young people of these days might not have the same opportunities that people at that time had. Those who do have these opportunities should not waste them. They should not allow themselves to be exploited; they should not exploit people but stay focused on whatever opportunity they are given; be it education, training and employment. There are no shortcuts to success. Anything you want to achieve in life has to be through dint of hard work. No godfather, godmother, sugar daddy, sugar mummy, can get things done for you. If you go through that route, it is only a shortcut to nowhere. You are at some point in life going to reach a dead end. The only road I know to success that is sustainable and lasting is hard work, tenacity, perseverance, and the fear of God.
How did it start between you and Governor Fayemi?
That is old news that everybody knows. It started in Ife. He attended University of Lagos, UNILAG and came to Ife to do Master’s in International Relations. I did a Master’s in History but I did elective in the department of International Relations. I knew him in my class as someone very quiet and good looking. One day, I was in the library and I needed to borrow some books from the library and I was not with my library card and I looked around to see anyone who could help me take the books out. I saw Kayode sitting on the other side. I walked up to him and very politely asked if he had his library card on him and he said “Yes” and I told him that I needed to take some books out and asked: Do you mind borrowing the books for me? And he said, “Of course” and I gave him the list of the books and l told him I would come and pick the books from his room and that was it and the rest is history.
What advice do you have for women and youths?
My advice to the young people is that they should read more. I am not convinced that our young people are reading any more. They should not live their lives as if everything depends on technology. The advent of new media has brought in many challenges and our young people need to be aware of that. A lot of young ones are using the social media as an excuse for not being able to write properly. Whenever my young friends or nephews send me text messages like they send to one of their friends, I reply and ask them to send me something written in proper English!
A lot can’t read well and cannot write properly. Again, it seems there is no longer value in privacy. It is nice for you to be able to share something about yourself, but a time will come when you look back and say I should not have put that thing online about myself. Young people need to learn how to keep certain things about themselves. When it comes to money, money is good, money is important but not everything is about money. There are more important things in life than money; a good name is one of them.
From now on, how will you live your life?
I think from now on, I will continue to learn and do things that work for me, which include not allowing people with negative energy to be around me or influence me; to deepen my commitment to service, to serving people. There is no end to that.