She has many titles and nicknames such as; Erelu, Mother-General, Oluomo, Ochiora etc. She is the wife of the immediate past Governor of Ekiti State, Dr. Kayode Fayemi. She turns 60 today, June 11, 2023. I have been waiting for this day to say something about this wonderful woman. Though I have written a lot about her on her birthdays either when she was in government or outside. We have come a long way and our relationship remains as solid as ever.
Erelu Bisi Fayemi is not a saint but she is not a bad person. She has her own human foibles like any other mortal but she has a pure heart flowing with milk of human kindness. Ever since I have known her over two decades ago, she has remained a dependable and open-minded person. Before she came into the murky waters of politics as a result of her husband’s emergence as the Governor of Ekiti State in October 2010, she has been a gender activist fighting for the emancipation and protection of the rights of women and the girl child. She established the African Women’s Leadership Institute (AWLI), a training and networking forum for young African women. The leadership institute she developed has become such a powerful legacy that today, the AWLI has trained over 6,000 women across Africa, and most of these women are now in senior decision-making positions as Ministers, Members of Parliaments, academics, civil society leaders and employees of international organisations.
She has won many accolades for this humanitarian pastime and she has been recognised by many communities outside her native Ekiti State and internationally. She did a lot to help many vulnerable women and girls. One of this was the chieftaincy title of Ochiora of Umezi Owa in Enugu State in 2008. The meaning is “leader of the people”. She has supported through her organisation, African Women Development Fund (AWDF), many helpless and hopeless widows in that community and they showed her gratitude by honouring her with the title of Ochiora.
I remember with nostalgia when I, and other Fayemi aides accompanied her to Enugu for her installation as the Ochiora. It was an experience that will remain evergreen because it was my very first close encounter with the very witty, pleasant and intelligent woman. We were lodged at ROBBAN hotel. I will never forget how she technically aborted our plan to hit town that night like men always do. She stocked her fridge with assorted beer, meat, fish and many edibles. She and the late Deputy Governor, H E Funmilayo Adunni Olayinka (may God continue to rest her soul) engaged us in arguments till the wee hours of the morning and by the time we realised what was happening, it was already 3.00am and we made straight to our beds but fulfilled. We couldn’t have enjoyed ourselves better if we had gone to town. We discussed almost all the topics under the sun and Erelu Bisi Fayemi was at home with every topic especially the one that concerns her area of interest, women rights and the protection of the girl child. One funny escapade I shared with her and Mrs Olayinka was one of the pranks common with boys of that time in Ekiti where I grew. We were always afraid to approach girls for friendship so boys usually devised other means which was diabolical. A freshly exhumed juju ring which had been buried in the mouth of a dead agama lizard for seven days was believed to be very potent such that when a boy wears it on a finger and use the hand to slap the buttocks of a girl, the girl would follow the boy like a zombie and you can then do as you wish with her. I was chosen to test the ring on a girl I have been eyeing for a long time but whom I didn’t have the courage to approach. I was about 11 years old and I wore the ring and slapped the girl’s buttocks but instead of her to follow me, she gave me a dirty slap and I saw stars of many colours. Obviously, the magic ring did not work! The saddest part is that when I looked back for support from my friends, they had all disappeared and I was left alone to nurse my shame. Mrs Fayemi and Funmi Olayinka laughed, made jest of me and clapped for the girl even though they didn’t know her.
The former Ekiti First Lady had been a gender specialist right from her youth and she got better with this noble pastime as she grew older. The opportunity to do more of this came when she became wife of Governor in October 2010 and for the second time, in October 2018. She launched The Ekiti Development Fund (EDF) in 2011, a platform through which she assisted many categories of women, giving them grants and tools to improve their businesses. She also introduced the Multiple Trust Fund where money and cash gifts were given to mothers with multiple births. She assisted the market women and donated a bus each to Iyalojas in the 16 local governments of the State. She visited the rural areas and donated cash, materials and also influenced the sinking of boreholes in many of the remote areas. Between 2010 and 2022, she initiated many anti gender-based violence bills which became laws in the state. Such bills include; the Gender Based Violence Prohibition law (2011), Equal Opportunities Bill (2013) and HIV anti-Stigma Bill (2014), A Law to Repeal The Ekiti State Gender- Based Violence (Prohibition) Law (2011) and Re- enact the Ekiti State Gender Based Violence (Prohibition) Law, 2019; A Law to Prohibit Discrimination Against Persons With Disabilities (2020); Ekiti State Gender-Based Violence ( Prohibition, First Amendment Law, 2020); and the Ekiti State Sexual Violence Against Children ( Compulsory Treatment and Care ) Law, 2020.
She has settled the hospital bills of many indigent women and has resettled many victims of domestic violence at the Ekiti State transit home, a building she initiated in conjunction with the Ministry of Women Affairs and Social Welfare. She introduced the Pad Bank, which is aimed at keeping girls in school. She had in the course of research and advocacy visit to schools, discovered that many female students of secondary schools stayed away from school during their menstrual periods because of the lack of decent sanitary towels to use and this made such poor female students depressed. She, therefore, came up with the Pad Bank where she gave secondary school girls reusable sanitary pads thus solving this problem. Erelu is always thinking about how to solve problems. She is witty, intelligent and good natured. She is a cheerful giver and kind to a fault. She is a prolific writer and author of many books such as; Speaking above a whisper, speaking for myself, where is your wrapper and Voice, Power and Soul .
Erelu Bisi Fayemi was given the “Changing the Face of Philanthropy” award by the Women’s Funding Network in 2007, and was named one of the 20 most influential African women in 2009 by New African magazine. In 2011, Women Deliver listed her as one of the top 100 people in the world, advancing the rights of women and girls. In 2019, she was awarded the 2018 Zik Leadership Prize for humanitarian Leadership by Public Policy Research and Analysis Centre (PPRAC).
Bisi Fayemi is an organiser per excellence. I cannot remember any event she organised as chairperson while in government that flopped. This is because she is very meticulous. What many of us have learnt from her is her organisational acumen and her popular saying whenever she is handling any event which is,” always have a plan B”. This has been my guiding principle not only when I am handling any event but whenever I am doing anything serious including elections and it is working for me. Despite our closeness, we had our moment of disagreement. This was due to communication breakdown and the antics of political jobbers whose main trademark is lying against others to seek relevance and attention which is common in politics. However, she handled the situation with such maturity and pure heart which convinced me beyond reasonable doubt that she would never sacrifice any of her favourites with whom she had come a long way, on the altar of political intrigues woven by shenanigans. She earned my respect and admiration more after that episode. She is so civilised, cultured and experienced in matters of the heart that she will disarm you with many case studies such that your own case would pale into insignificance.
It is also worthy of note that in and out of government, Erelu Fayemi has continued to do what she knows how to do best, fighting for the rights of women and protecting the girl child. Not even the loss of election by her husband in 2014 discouraged her. She is still showing interest in advocacy by delivering papers on gender equality across the world. She was until recently a UN Women Nigeria Senior Advisor, and was recently appointed as a Visiting Senior Research Fellow at King’s College, University of London. She received her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in history from the University of Ife, now the Obafemi Awolowo University, Nigeria. She also received an MA in Gender and Society (1992) from Middlesex University, UK.
As she turns 60 today, we celebrate her and pray for more strength and good health so that she can continue to serve humanity. Happy birthday and congratulations to our own jewel of inestimable value.
Hakeem Jamiu is the immediate past Deputy Speaker, Ekiti State House of Assembly
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