by Bisi Fayemi
Three weeks ago I was at a meeting in Accra, Ghana, in preparation for the biennial African Feminist Forum, which is convened by the African Women’s Development Fund (AWDF), an Africa-wide grant-making foundation for African women which I co-founded twelve years ago.
I was told at the meeting that someone had made comments on Facebook during the fuel
subsidy crisis, asking, ‘Where are the Nigerian feminists? Where are the voices of activists like Bisi Adeleye-Fayemi’? The Facebook comments implied that I had stopped being a feminist because I am now the Wife of a Governor.
Soon after I returned home, there was an article in the Sunday edition of one of the national newspapers that was serialised over a two week period. It was a blistering attack on First Ladies, and how they constitute a drain on resources while they conduct themselves in ways which raise questions about credibility and probity.
In the article, the writer also made reference to the fuel subsidy crisis and the fact that nothing was heard from any of the First Ladies in the country. The writer then went on to say, ‘anyway, such issues are probably beyond them’.
A third, and this time, more direct attack on my activities in Ekiti came from Steve Osuji, a columnist with The Nation newspaper unequivocally that my job as the wife of Ekiti Governor, was to look “after the home-front” rather than meddle in the affairs of state. I cringed reading through these articles.
Shortly after my husband became Governor of Ekiti State in October 2010, I spoke to Mrs Kemi Mimiko, Wife of the Governor of Ondo State. She said something to me which I have never forgotten. She said ‘My sister, whatever happens, never take anything personally. It is never about you, it is about the position you are in’.
Reflecting on the discussion with my colleagues in Accra about the Facebook comments and the articles I referred to above, I knew that the advice I had received would come in handy. I however confess, with all sincerity, it is hard.
I have often spoken and written about the fluidity of identities, and how important it is for us to invest in managing our various transitions from one identity to another, whether these identities are claimed by us or thrust upon us. From being a women’s rights activist, gender specialist and social change philanthropy advocate, on October 16th 2010, I became the Wife of a Governor. My own understanding of what happened to me did not translate into abandoning all the things that are important to me – my world view, values, affiliations and principles. I was aware that to make this work, I would need to strike a balance between the things I truly care about, and the expectations of the position I found myself in. I also knew that I would have to work hard at ensuring that my theoretical understanding of power and transformational leadership would be matched by sound, ethical practices.
For many years I have engaged in debates about the role of First Ladies and the pros and cons of the use of informal power structures. The historical use and abuse of non-accountable, unconstitutional power has fuelled suspicion and hostility towards First Ladies, and rightfully so. As a feminist activist, 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. The abuse of the Office of the First Lady and the questions about its legitimacy are not a solely Nigerian phenomenon. These debates continue to take place elsewhere.
The problem we have in Nigeria is the unique ways in which this position has been so grossly abused that people find it hard to be objective or flexible in their assessments of either the position or the occupants. 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. I have had the opportunity of working closely with such great role models as Graca Machel Mandela, who taught me that it does not matter if people are suspicious of you or your intentions just because of who you are married to – if there are things you feel strongly about go out there and get the job done. Till this moment, Mama Graca as some of us fondly call her, remains one of the most credible and consistent advocates of gender equality, children’s rights and good governance that we have on the continent.
I accept that because I am the Wife of a Governor, I can no longer go to Aleshinloye market in Ibadan (a favourite place of mine) or Balogun market in Lagos without causing a stir. I agree that it is not appropriate to stop the convoy just because I want to buy Gala. I however do not agree with the assumption that because I am the Wife of a Governor, my IQ has dropped to single digits. I do not agree that I cannot find a way of working with government officials without making them feel that I am bossing them around. I do not agree that working collaboratively and respectfully with people in government amounts to meddling. I do not agree that I cannot do things different from the norm. I find it hard to understand why people will believe that because my husband is Governor of a State, my only role now is to make his bed, wash his clothes, take care of the children, cook his food and rub his feet when he comes home. This is what is called ‘looking after the home front’, and it seems to be the preferred and only role for First Ladies. This is fine by me, as long as we can also accept the fact that ‘looking after’ and ‘home front’ means different things to different people.
Since October 2010, I have been spending my time ‘looking after the home front’ in my own way.
I resigned from my full-time, extremely well remunerated position as Executive Director of AWDF in Ghana and moved back to Nigeria to be with my husband. I figured out how to run our own homes in Ibadan and Isan-Ekiti, as well as living in State House. My husband is adequately fed, healthy, well groomed, and on top of his game. I am involved with government agencies such as the Ekiti State Agency for AIDS Control which I Chair, as well as the Ekiti State Consultative Committee on Arts, Culture and Tourism. I also do a lot of work with the Ministry of Women Affairs, Social Development and Gender Empowerment, the Ministry of Youth and Sports and the Ministry of Health to mention a few. My involvement with these agencies is mainly advisory and based on tremendous mutual respect. In addition, I have commitments to national and international organisations such as the Nigerian Women’s Trust Fund (as Chair), the African Women’s Development Fund and the African Grantmakers Network.
Over the past sixteen months, I have worked with various stakeholders to ensure that we have more women in decision making at all levels in the State. Before the April 2011 elections we had no women in the Ekiti State House of Assembly. Now we have four. Again, in June 2011, Ekiti State became the first state in Nigeria to domesticate the National Gender Policy. After being faced with a wave of violent attacks on young girls and women in the State, I pushed for the Gender Based Violence Prohibition Bill which was signed into law on November 25th 2011. I advocated for the establishment of the Multiple Births Trust Fund which is managed by the Ministry of Women’s Affairs. In order to bring back to Ekiti what I have done in the field of social change philanthropy, I launched the Ekiti Development Foundation (EDF) on June 10th 2011. Since then we have supported a range of women’s organisations across the state, reaching out to hundreds of women in remote places. We have also supported several government projects with funding we have raised from donors. The funding for EDF comes from collaborations with various institutions, corporate sponsorship, wealthy philanthropists and support in kind.
I have been involved in all these things because I want to remain true to who and what I am. I am acutely aware of the dreadful baggage my position carries, and how easy it is for people to cast aspersion on the motives of people such as myself, based on the experiences they have had with many spouses of occupants of State Houses at the national and state levels. I however know that I am in a position where I can make a difference in the lives of people and for once, allow myself to be held accountable, the same way in which as a member of many social justice movements over the years, I have demanded accountability from leaders across the African continent.
My main responsibility as the Wife of a Governor is to support my husband. The husband I have been married to for over twenty-two years needs me to work with him and his team to help build our beloved Ekiti State, the Land of Honour, and to make good on all the promises he made to the electorate who stood by us all through our legal battles to reclaim his mandate. That is the ‘home front’ support my husband needs from me right now. My husband will be very disappointed in me if I opt to spend most of my time sitting at home and attending social functions to show off my latest lace and head-ties. He will consider it a terrible waste of my experience, skills and talents.
Many commentators on the First Lady debate raised the issue of the ‘illegality’ of the position, since it does not exist in the Constitution. The fact that it is not written in the constitution does not make the office ‘illegal’. There is nowhere in the constitution where it is written that there shall be an Office of the Chief of Staff, for example. However, it is hard to see how a President or Governor can operate without appointing someone into that position, even if the designation is called something else. One of the problems with the Office of the First Lady is that over the years, we have allowed our experiences with power-hungry, unscrupulous women listening to poor advice to cloud our judgement.
In my own opinion, the question of legitimacy can be addressed if we can engage in conversations devoid of the usual venom, hypocrisy, sexism and ignorance which bubbles to the surface every time the First Lady question comes up. If there is legislation and a budgetary provision recognising the Office of the Spouse either at national or state level, then there will be more transparency and accountability around their activities. I know many people will raise hell at this suggestion of mine. The Office of the First Lady of the United States evolved over time. It is not in the American constitution, and for many years the Office was not funded, except for the use of seconded, temporary staff. All this changed in November 1978 when President Jimmy Carter approved Public Law 95-570 which provided for the First Lady’s budget and staff. Till today, debates still rage in the US about the various occupants of the office, their politics, choices, their value addition or subtraction and so on, but there is consensus that the Office itself has come to stay and it does have a vital role to play.
There are many historical, cultural and social reasons why we might never do this in Nigeria. When I have raised this in private discussions, people ask about those who have more than one wife, and how this will work? My response to this is – let the laws provide for one spouse and let the husband and spouses concerned figure it out amongst themselves! Please note that I am asking for recognition for ‘Spouses’ and not ‘Wives’ in anticipation of when we will have women in these key positions. As I agree that this is not something people are prepared to countenance at a time when we have serious debates around the cost of governance, what I am calling for is for us not to conflate our apprehensions, no matter how legitimate they might be, with the reality that this despised ‘Office’ cannot be wished away. First Ladies are not a homogenous group. We have different contexts, interests and abilities. Just as is done in other places like the US which we are often fond of quoting, why don’t we try separating the Office from the individuals who transit through it and allow for processes of accountability, monitoring and assessment based on individual merit?
I often tell people that we can have lengthy debates about the constitutionality or otherwise of my office but the fact remains that if you have been trying to see my husband for three months and he will not return your calls, I can arrange for you to have breakfast with him tomorrow morning. Now you can debate the constitutionality of that! Just because we have had Presidents who have fallen short of our expectations or Governors who cannot govern does not mean we should stop having them. It means we should ask hard questions about the quality of leadership we need in our country right now and ensure that we stop scratching the bottom of the barrel. It is true that we have experienced First Ladies at all levels with little or no understanding of strategic thinking, good manners, decorum and protocol. This however does not mean that we should not try to learn how to do things differently. We simply need to add this to the long list of good governance issues we have to grapple with. There is no point electing a saint as a leader if he is going home to the warm embrace of a dragon.
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 the 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 the leaders and the people. I have an opinion on the kind of legacy I would like to bequeath my children. I have an opinion on the conduct that is expected of Wives of top government officials, particularly First Ladies. I have strong opinions on our national and human security challenges and the implications for women and children. 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.
I did not decide to write this article to appeal for sympathy for First Ladies. I needed to find my voice and speak for myself. I wanted to let people know that things are not always what they seem. The few First Ladies I am close to work extremely hard. People see the glamour, the glitz, the fashion parades, the perks, the gaffes, the slights—both real and imagined. No one ever talks about the loneliness, the vulnerability, the toll on relationships, the hard work, the unbearable pressure from family, friends and political associates, the sacrifices, loss of privacy and the claustrophobia. As a Governor’s wife I don’t have the luxury of thinking or talking about these things. I am too focused on not taking things personally.