PROFILE: Bisi Adeleye-Fayemi will not be put in a box

Fayemi

The life cycle of a Nigerian first lady is pretty much well drawn out. Has been since Maryam Babangida stepped forward and changed the game irrevocably with her Better Life for Rural Women program There may be slight variations moving from President to local government chairpersons, but the general outline is this; be a comforting, strategic presence on hubby’s campaign trail, appeal directly to the considerable female electoral base, pay particular attention to widows and children, smile. Be by hubby’s side as he takes the oath, start up a pet project targeted at helping society’s most vulnerable people, smile. Raise funds from the considerable networks opening up to support said project, smile, attend social events, smile, go away gently into the night as hubby’s tenure winds down.

Bisi Adeleye-Fayemi didn’t get the memo. Obviously.

For twenty eight years- about three years after they met while both pursuing Masters degrees at the Obafemi Awolowo University- Adeleye-Fayemi has been married to, Kayode, current Minister of Mines and Steel Development and former Governor of Ekiti state. Because of his high profile political career, the Minister is usually the one in the spotlight, but Bisi Adeleye-Fayemi has never been one to be shuffled off to the other room.

Long before the Fayemi family ventured into the murky waters of Nigerian politics, Bisi Adeleye-Fayemi had constructed for herself, a full and active life, scoring various personal and professional accomplishments.  Successful in the home front- she is a mother of a young man- and on the professional stage, Adeleye-Fayemi has carved out a formidable career as an academic, researcher, women rights advocate, international development specialist and social entrepreneur.

She took a break from a high flying career in international development to assume the role of first lady of Ekiti, her state by marriage. After Fayemi was defeated at the polls as he sought for a second chance to govern Ekiti, Adeleye-Fayemi went back to work full throttle. She is principal partner at Amandla Consulting, the family owned private enterprise firm started when the Fayemis were based in the United Kingdom.

It was no surprise then to those familiar with Adeleye-Fayemi when in October this year, it was announced that she had been appointed Visiting Senior Research Fellow of Kings College, London by the institution’s Africa Leadership Centre (ALC). She joins two other recipients at the Africa Leadership Centre for a period of reflection, writing and mentoring.

Above a whisper

Born in Liverpool, England in June 1963 to the family of Pa Emmanuel and Olufunke Adeleye, both from Ondo state, Adeleye-Fayemi returned with her parents to Nigeria at the age of six and had her education up until post graduate level at the Obafemi Awolowo University where she studied History. Her father was a sportsman, competing as a boxer before going back to school. He practiced as an accountant in the private sector before joining the civil service. In his spare time, he ran the affairs of the Nigeria Boxing Board of Control and supported a lot of young men who showed interest in taking up the sport.

Bisi Adeleye-Fayemi credits her father with instilling in her the temperament and zeal for working in development circles. Her career path is merely a continuation of her father’s work with the sportsmen he came in contact with. Hear her, ‘’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.’’

On the second of January 2003, Pa Emmanuel left home to visit a younger friend and was never seen again. Adeleye-Fayemi describes this period as the most trying time of her life. After all efforts to find him proved unsuccessful, to get some closure, the family convinced themselves that he had lost his life somewhere, somehow.

After completing her first Masters degree in Nigeria, Adeleye-Fayemi convinced her husband on a move to the United Kingdom. While studying, she had developed interest in women’s contributions to socio-economic development in South-west Nigeria and convinced of her career direction, decided to opt for a second Masters degree, this time in Gender and Society, at Middlesex University.

She told PM News in an interview commemorating her 50th anniversary in 2013, ‘’I wanted to familiarize 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 lives and provide better access to opportunity and create a level playing field.’’

She worked as an administrative officer in the department of health to support the family while they acclimatized to life in the United Kingdom. Adeleye-Fayemi also worked actively alongside her husband in the pro-democracy struggle.

Adeleye-Fayemi served as the director of Akina Mama wa Afrika (AMwA,) an international development organization for African women based in London. During the interview process, she had to convince the employers that as a young British-Nigerian woman, she had the experiences and capacity to empathise with the realities of African women based on the continent.

It turned out a perfect fit.

For ten years Adeleye-Fayemi garnered valuable experience as she travelled round the world on advocacy and fundraising trips. At AMwA, she set up the African Women’s Leadership Institute, now a respected training and networking forum for young African women that has produced over 6,000 women leaders across the continent.

Together with the late Joanna Foster (Ghana) and Hilda Tardia (Uganda,) Adeleye-Fayemi co-founded the African Women’s Development Fund (AWDF,) credited to be the first Africa-wide grant-making foundation for women, serving as its first Executive Director. The AWDF provided financial and technical support to the Women in Peace and Security Network, the organization founded by the Nobel Peace Laureate, Leymah Gbowei from Liberia. Gbowei gave a lecture, titled ‘’Leading the Change: The Journey of an African Woman” at Adeleye-Fayemi’s 50th birthday program in 2013.

She had to step aside from the AWDF in 2010 to take up first lady duties after her husband had reclaimed his mandate through the courts.

First lady

When Kayode Fayemi made the decision to run for political office, Adeleye-Fayemi offered her total support even when it meant shuttling between Ghana where she was stationed at the time, and Ekiti. She joined him on the stump and they both played down their international credentials in attempts to become more relatable to the electorate. Adeleye-Fayemi was quite influential within the campaign machinery that got her husband elected.

She was also active in the selection search for a running mate for Fayemi and quickly became fast friends with Funmilayo Olayinka, the former banker who became politicized when she accepted the offer to join the party’s ticket. While the late former deputy governor battled with an advanced stage of breast cancer, Adeleye-Fayemi was at her side, accompanying her for treatment procedures in Lagos and in London, even as the rumor mill kicked in that the overbearing first lady was muscling the deputy governor out of power.

Funmilayo Olayinka lost her battle with breast cancer in 2013 and Adeleye-Fayemi wrote a moving tribute that till today, serves as a testament to female friendships and sisterly bonds. She expressed her disgust at the machinations to a reporter at the time, ‘’It’s a sad commentary on our state of affairs that it can be assumed that two women cannot be friends. And that is the way patriarchy is structured. Men can be friends throughout their lives, from childhood to when they pass on. But people don’t think it is possible for two women to find companionship together, to share dreams together, to be there for each other, to love each other.’’

Adeleye-Fayemi came to the political space fully prepared for service and as such, hit the ground running. Sound in policy matters, one of her early achievements was the successful passage and domestication of the Gender Based Violence Prohibition Bill, signed in to law in November 2011. She also led the lobbying for the Equal Opportunities Bill which became law in December 2013, and an Anti HIV Stigma Bill in 2014. In many ways, she was merely transferring all of her international experience onto a local medium.

Loud Whispers

When Adeleye-Fayemi left government house in 2014, she didn’t just slink away into obscurity. She went back to work big time, starting a radio program and an online community for self-expression titled Above Whispers. The former first lady made a commitment to publish at least one article every week detailing her thought processes and has submitted opinions and interventions on some of the biggest news headlines and pop culture moments of the past year.

The essays on the site coalesced into content for her latest book titled Loud Whispers, a nine part collection of essays which was presented in a high profile ceremony in Lagos in December. Guests who came out for Adeleye-Fayemi include Aliko Dangote, Betty Irabor, Folorunsho Alakija and Wana Udobang. She was also at this year’s feminism themed Ake Arts and Book Festival where she participated in a session alongside the first lady of Kwara state titled, ‘’Getting Women into Politics.’’

On Above Whispers, Adeleye-Fayemi has tackled women’s rights issues, sexual rights and social justice. Her views are quite progressive and some of her submissions have flirted with controversy, especially when they concern her thematic areas of women and development. She respectfully told the former Olori Wuraola of Ife where to shove it when her comments on female equality at an Emerging Women’s event at Maryland, USA were perceived to be toeing the patriarchal line.

At part of the events celebrating the life and legacy of the late Chief Hannah Awolowo in 2015, Bisi Adeleye-Fayemi was of course, the natural choice to deliver a lecture titled, ‘’The Role of the Political Spouse in Our Evolving Democratic Space.’’ In her lecture, delivered with relish, Adeleye-Fayemi called for the level of political discourse surrounding political spouses to be raised and expressed her interest when the idea of the political spouse would come to include men as much as it does women.

Feminist

Because of her progressive characteristics, Bisi Adeleye-Fayemi can often come across as intimidating. This is a challenge that ambitious, driven career women have to battle with at some point in their careers. To mitigate this, while running for office or engaging in similar activities, they go out of their way to soften up their public profile in order to make themselves more ‘’likable’’ or at least less threatening. And this is not just restricted to conservative societies like Nigeria.

In the United States of America, Hillary Clinton discovered this (yet again) in her latest unsuccessful bid to be President. As recently as this December, Vanity Fair magazine ran a sexist skit that suggested the former New York Senator take up knitting in the new year.

In the course of her public service career, Bisi Adeleye-Fayemi has had her fair share of troublesome questions- like how does she manage the home and maintain a career at the same time?- questions that no serious or unserious journalist would think to ask a man in her position. Usually she would start with mentioning how unfair the treatment is before going on to humor the interrogator with a response.

Speaking with The Sun’s Tope Adeboboye in 2013, Adeleye-Fayemi responded to one of such questions- Does she find the time to cook and clean?- with a rebuke not to the journalist, but directed at her womenfolk. She observed, ‘’I read a lot of interviews that women give, professional and very successful women and they get asked the same question. And I’m amazed at the length to which women go to demonstrate that they are very good wives, that they are still home compliant, they are still domesticated, they still shop, they still cook.’’

Adeleye-Fayemi then went on to give a direct response, ‘’I’m 50; I’m not a 20-year-old bride. There are things I don’t have to worry about anymore. And this has nothing to do with being a governor’s wife. I have been married for 24 years now. Over the years, I’ve cooked and cleaned and ironed and shopped and done all that. You get to a point in your life as a married woman when you can take a break, and it’s all right if you are married to the right kind of husband. So, that’s one of the freedoms of being 50. I’m done.’’

Making no apologies for her privilege and her feminist activism- she kept her maiden name and compounded it with her husband’s- Adeleye-Fayemi is just as comfortable engaging with policy wonks in conference halls as she is identifying with market women in Ikole-Ekiti. Her husband refers to her as the real politician in the family and she agrees with him. She told Adeboboye, ‘’Anyone who is married to a politician and likes to say she is not a politician is just deceiving herself. Having said that, I know that I’m very politically active, because I’m interested in political processes, I’m interested in democracy, I’m interested in democratic norms and values, and I’m interested in pushing an agenda. And the agenda I’m interested in pushing is the participation of women.’’

Bisi Adeleye-Fayemi certainly has the total package; name recognition, guts, substance, ideas and passion.

Maybe one day she will run for office.

 

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