Ten eventful years have passed since I met my mentor and benefactor, Dr. Kayode Fayemi in Accra, Ghana during the African Business Leaders Forum. The ABLF was the brain child of Mr. Everest Ekong, now of blessed memory, designed to be the premier annual gathering of African business and policy leaders to advance the peace and prosperity of Africa. For that edition, the organisers had collaborated with Ndidi Nwuneli’s LEAP Africa to identify 101 emerging young African leaders, and invited them to participate, all-expense paid, in the conference.
The initiative was to create a platform for the selected young Africans to receive leadership training, and to connect with older and more accomplished leaders. I was blessed to be chosen, alongside a number of other exceptional young Nigerians, many of whom have gone on to accomplished careers in the public, private and civic sectors. My relationship with Dr. Fayemi today is as much a testimony to late Mr. Ekong’s vision and facilitation, as it is a demonstration of Dr. Fayemi’s patient commitment to mentoring the successor generation.
Looking back over the span of the decade that has followed, it has occurred to me that it was a providential meeting – one that altered the course of my life and spawned a richly fulfilling professional and personal relationship. On Dr. Fayemi’s 53rd birthday, I find it appropriate to celebrate not only the man, but my relationship of ten years with one of the most remarkable individuals I have ever met. Within this period, I have been privileged to work with him at close quarters, first as a volunteer in his campaign before he became Governor; as Principal Private Secretary during his term as Governor of Ekiti; and now as an adviser to him as minister.
It is often said that politics is a game of facades in which no one is truly as they seem. However, there are spaces within which a man cannot be anything other than himself, for no human being can possibly wear political masks at all times. I count myself lucky to be within Dr. Fayemi’s circle of trust and space of authenticity, and can confirm that he has no facades – what you see is what you get. He exhibits a consistency of character that extends from his personal space to his public persona. There is no contradiction between private convictions and his public persona, which is a rare trait among public figures.
At the time I met Dr. Fayemi, he had made the fateful plunge into partisan politics and run for governor of Ekiti. What followed was a protracted and ultimately successful court battle to reclaim his mandate. During the three and half long years of litigation, he underwent the trials of uncertainty without becoming embittered by the rejection of his adversaries and the treachery of supposed allies. His equanimity of spirit made a profound impression on me.
As someone whose work at the time had been in the academia and civil society, Dr. Fayemi’s migration from the sidelines into the trenches of politics was intriguing. It seemed an experiment to test the widely held theory that honest and competent Nigerians cannot survive the quagmire of politics. This is the theory that has kept many good people of my generation, and that before mine, out of politics for fear of being tainted and consumed. Fayemi has negotiated the turbulent waters of partisan politics without losing his humanity. At the heart of this achievement lies Fayemi’s moral compass. He is first a man of deep convictions, and a politician driven by concrete principles rather than situational ethics. This became apparent when during his three and half year legal battle, he made it clear that he was not merely engaging in egotistical obduracy, but was seeking to expand the possibilities of legal remediation in our politics through his dogged pursuit of justice.
After his tenure as Governor, and a central role in the APC Presidential campaign council, there was surprise in some quarters when in November 2015? Dr. Fayemi was appointed Minister of Mines and Steel Development. The Mining sector was not the most obvious choice for a distinguished scholar of History and Strategic Studies, with an expansive array of relationships in the international development and governance circuit. But he was not fazed. Illustrating his conviction that every position is only a point on the continuum of public service, Fayemi confronted his assignment with customary rigour, immersing himself in studying the sector, researching its history, consulting predecessors, and arming himself with knowledge. He has demonstrated a clear determination to leave a legacy in the annals of Natural Resource Governance in Nigeria with his methodical approach to addressing the sector’s historical challenges.
Thus, within his first year, Fayemi drove the formulation of a sector roadmap unprecedented in its scope, ambition and buy-in. The reforms in the sector required a figure of stature to rally all the stakeholders. Fayemi fit the bill. Using a decisive yet consensual leadership style, he secured the buy-in of a disparate range of industry actors in charting a new course for the sector. If his transition from state governor to federal minister has been seamless, it is due to Fayemi’s consistency. In bringing all the sector stakeholders together, Fayemi was applying the same philosophy of participatory governance that defined his gubernatorial term in Ekiti, embodying the belief that the people must have a say in the policies that affect them.
Despite his tedious schedule, the quintessential philosopher-king Fayemi always finds time to engage with public issues. His calendar brims with engagements on the public lecture circuit. Despite being in the political space, he believes passionately in connecting governance to ideas. He is a policy wonk that grounds policies in philosophical yet pragmatic contexts.
Values-centered leadership is perhaps the most important lesson I have learnt from Fayemi. As he often says, a public-spirited, service-driven citizen is undaunted by the transience of power. On the day he left office as governor in October 2014, together with his wife, he flew to the United States where he was billed to deliver a lecture at the John Hopkins University the very next day. He made it a point of duty to be properly addressed as a private citizen since he was now an ex-governor. Having performed creditably at the sub-national level, he certainly was not at a loss as to what to do post office, before duty called for greater roles at the national level. I was privileged to have accompanied him on that weeklong trip and what struck me was the utter absence of defeatism or bitterness following a controversial electoral defeat – only a resolve to get on with life.
In that week, I got a measure of the man, observing his fortitude and even-temperedness despite a campaign of calumny against him and his dear wife by his successor in office. These slanders have since been proven baseless even as that administration has sought to undo the good works of the Fayemi administration. Dr. Fayemi however remains determined to use every means at his disposal to set Ekiti, the object of his labour of love, back on the right path.
Together with his wife, Erelu Bisi Adeleye-Fayemi, he has participated in every major life event I have had, making time out even in inconvenient circumstances to offer their support; thus demonstrating uncommon loyalty and commitment to those associated with them. This is a consistent testimony by his family, mentees, friends and associates. Personally, he has also allowed me room to make mistakes in my own journey of self-discovery, and I am deeply grateful.
Rotimi is Senior Special Assistant to the Minister