Kayode Fayemi: My story as Minister and Ekiti Governor
Former Governor of Ekiti State and one time Minister of Solid Minerals Development, Dr. Kayode Fayemi, is currently taking a break from active political engagements. At the moment a Visiting Professor at the African Leadership Centre in the School of Global Affairs, King’s College, London, Fayemi discloses what life has been like in a little over a year that he’s been out of office. He also shares some of his experiences while in office. Excerpts:
You’ve been out of office for some time now and you appear to be observing a well-deserved break. How has life been treating you?
I’ve been out of public office for the last fourteen months. October 2022 was when I left office. I seamlessly transitioned into campaign mode when I left office.
Between October 2022 and March 2023, when our presidential candidate eventually became the president-elect, it was an intense period of political activity and as you know, subsequently after that, I took up a position as a Visiting Professor at the African Leadership Centre in the School of Global Affairs in my old university, King’s College, London.
I ought to have taken that position in October 2022, but I asked that it be deferred because of the campaign that we had to undergo.
I didn’t go to King’s College till April 2023, immediately after the victory of our party in the election and that’s pretty much what I’ve been doing. Teaching, mentoring our fellows, undertaking research, engaging in a range of international activities because I still represent the Forum of Regions of Africa, which is an intergovernmental forum of sub-sovereign leaders on the continent, and preparing for the establishment of my ‘Think and Do’ Policy Institute, which you’re going to learn more about in the future.
Given that you’re still pretty much young and energetic, is this break of yours by choice or circumstantial?
It’s been almost 17 years of intense activity since I left as Director of Centre for Democracy and Development in December 2005, to the campaign for gubernatorial race in Ekiti, which eventually culminated in the election of April 2007 and the battle that I had to wage to reclaim my mandate between April 2007 election and October 2010, 42 months after, when I eventually became governor in Ekiti state.
October 2010 to October 2014 was my first term in office and the loss of the election in 2014 did not really stop me from active engagement. I became intensely involved in the formation of the All Progressives Congress as the head of the coalition of progressive Governors that played an active role in that process and then headed the presidential primaries in Teslim Balogun stadium that produced our candidate for that election – Muhammadu Buhari.
From then to my role as a minister after President Buhari won the election; my decision to resign and go back to Ekiti in 2018 and victory in that election, service in office, exit in October 2022, the succession of my SSG into office. So, it is time to sit back and engage in other activities and it is also important to demonstrate the importance of what is often known as “the revolving door” in politics and public service,which basically gives a sense that you have an alternative address.
You clearly belong to the academia, but was it any difficult returning to this community after your sojourn in politics?
When most people leave public office in the United Kingdom, in the United States, they either go back into the academia to impart knowledge to reflect on the practical dimensions of those theories that other professors, who have not been privileged to be in office, teach their students or to business utilising their network in the private sector.
They don’t just sit and do nothing. They write about their time in office so that the next generation can learn from their experience. Of course, I’m combining both writing about my time in the office and teaching younger graduates about the lessons I have learned in public office that they can benefit from.
But I’m still involved in politics, particularly in my state but if my leader in the state (Governor Biodun Oyebanji) does not ask me for specific advice on governance, I don’t get involved.
Ekiti just got 80 million dollars for the knowledge zone that I started while in office. That was a process initiated in 2019,when I went with a delegation to the African Development Bank but it did not culminate into substantive support until 2023, but that is the benefit of also having someone, who is committed to continuing what was started and ready to follow through on the state development plan.
Just like he has done with other things, he’s just commissioned the Independent Power Project that I started in 2020. That was supposed to have been ready before I left office but Covid and other unforeseen issues got in the way.
I have seen myself as a prime beneficiary of a government that continued with the philosophy and the vision of our development plan. Having a 30-year development plan that the new governor is just continuing to implement seamlessly partly because he was SSG and he was privy to all the things that I did while in office, has been a major benefit to us.
I just came back from COP 28. In my capacity as president of the Forum of African Regions, which was the position I stepped into when I was the chairman of the Nigerian Governors Forum.
With respect to Kings College, I was part of those who were involved in the inauguration of the African Leadership Centre, when it started. I left the same institution 30 years ago with a PhD, so it’s a return home for me.
In my years in the academia, I was always an activist. As a student, I was involved in the anti-apartheid struggle, in thestruggle against military dictatorship, particularly Abacha, and the June 12 annulment crisis.
A lot of the people I dealt with in my 20s were leading lights of the nationalist movement: Chief Anthony Enahoro, Professor Wole Soyinka, Chief John Oyegun, and even the current president of Nigeria, Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu,was with us in exile at the time. So, I wasn’t just a greenhorn coming from the cloistered world of academia into politics; I was also an activist and I transitioned almost seamlessly with the help of more experienced hands.
When I was Director of the Centre for Democracy and Development, it was more a bridge building institution between academia and public policy providing ideas, offering policy directions for many governments and intergovernmental bodies on the African continent.
For example, I was involved in many of the activities that took place in the early years of the Obasanjo administration on human rights violations, on security sector reform, on constitutionalism, on the Millenium Development Goals to mention a few. I was a technical adviser on the human rights violations investigation panel – the Oputa Commission.
I was a member of the Millenium Development Goal Steering Committee at the time, I was a member of the Security and Defence Policy Committee under the Obasanjo administration, I was a member of the steering committee of New Partnership for African Development, even though I was not in any elected position.
But, in all of these, I was involved because I was a backroom operator in many ways to the Obasanjo government and he (the former President) encouraged it, because he also wanted young people with ideas around. That assisted my entry into politics. By the time I came into politics, I was really not an unknown quantity, even if I was not an active partisan.
I did not pursue an ambition when I came into politics. I was invited to come and run for Governor in my state by former Governor ‘Niyi Adebayo, who was no longer keen on running for second term and wanted somebody, who could continue with progressive politics that he pioneered in his time as the first elected governor of the state, even though you could say I was an outsider in Ekiti politics and many insiders were interested, including his deputy at the time. Again, as a backroom operator, I had been involved with development partners in support of his administration. So, there were a number of factors that worked in my favour.
What would you consider the challenges that set you apart in office?
Politics is not an academic exercise, two plus four is never six in politics. In the classroom, that’s what you get, but in politics, it’s not like that. There are always extenuating circumstances. You are always blindsided by the things you haven’t fully considered because in politics people often never forget a slight. They may forget a favour but never a slight.
For me, there were challenges with my coming into the race. I was an unknown outsider.
When I came in, we had people who went and formed an association of indigenous politicians just to paint a picture of this rank outsider, this rookie Tokunbo politician, who wanted to take what they thought belonged to them. I was able to overcome that with humility, with my family name and also a very clear cut story, not denying the fact that I went out of Ekiti after secondary school but acknowledging to the elders in the party that, that’s what they’ve always prayed for all their children, to do well, be successful and bring the proceeds of their success abroad back to the homebase. It is true I went away but was never far removed from Ekiti.
It was tough because the two governors before me were also seen as outsiders who came home and of course, it was a good campaign rhetoric for the other party. Unfortunately, for them, Governor Oni might have been better rooted in Ekiti than I was at the time, but he also went to work with Rank Xerox in Kenya. So, he can’t accuse me of being a foreigner in my state. In fairness, he was not one of those weaponising the fact that I’d been away from Ekiti. Ironically, that’s one of the ways my successor was branded.
Many of our supporters bought into the Oyebanji candidature because they saw him as Tiwan Tiwa (our own). In the end, what I think set me apart was that even if people saw me as aloof and detached, they believed I served the state well and concentrated on preparing the state for the future with our signature projects like the Ekiti Knowledge Zone, the Agro Cargo Airport, the Independent Power Project and the Special Agriculture Processing Zone without neglecting those things that were important to them now like payment of civil servants, free education and healthcare and community empowerment.
What were those things that prepared you for politics, coming from academia?
The struggle and the campaign for Governorship was intense but the court battle was tougher. I believe I was also helped by the fact that I had an academic background. We approached the court battle scientifically and clinically. We brought in forensic experts, the first time in the history of election petition in Nigeria. And the main credit for that should go to Asiwaju Tinubu, who led the court battle from the front in all our states and our astute lawyers.
But my activist background also helped us. We were on the streets of Ekiti 24/7 and adopted many strategies to keep the spirits of our people from flagging. I think that also prepared me for office because in the three years we were in court, Ekiti was probably the only state where the opposition played the active role of a shadow government. Every time the government released a budget and read the budget in the assembly, we would release an alternative budget for the state and advertise it in The Nation newspapers, which was popular in Ekiti, highlighting our own priorities.
We had a unique assembly. There were 26 members; 13 from our side and 13 from the Peoples Democratic Party side, so the government was shaky until we removed it and so Governor Oni was put on his toes permanently for those 42 months. He tried to focus on some developmental projects but never saw any to completion. He was clearly distracted by the stolen mandate.
We were declared in Ilorin at 1pm on October 15th, 2010. I was sworn in at 10 am on October 16th without any preparation and governance started. We were of course helped by all the preparation we had before hand. We were in too much of a hurry to ensure people-oriented development. Much more in a hurry than the citizens, who supported us, as it turned out.
This was the government that pioneered social security benefits that have now become a standard, where we were paying N5,000 to every qualified indigent elderly person,who had no means of either child support or extended family support of any sort. For the eight years I was in office, with the limited resources available to Ekiti, every child went to school for free and we paid WAEC and Jamb fees for every qualified student.
We also provided free healthcare for the vulnerable segments of our population – children under 5, pregnant women, the elderly and people living with disabilities. Some conservatives accused me that we were the ones who created a sense of entitlement and made parents irresponsible because they felt the government was doing everything for them. I don’t think it’s a valid complaint because many who could afford it still sent their kids to fee paying private schools and many still patronised private hospitals.
I have always operated as a social democrat, ideologically,and I believe the government has a responsibility to lift the weak and vulnerable in society and that’s what informed everything we did in office. Even then, it became clear to me that no matter how much you put into government in our clime, enduring change is always incremental; it’s never revolutionary or immediately visible. While the people may appreciate your strides, the most significant strides like human capital development hardly gets the accolades they deserve. And unlike infrastructure development or ephemeral stomach infrastructure, which gets disproportionate attention, improving the health, education and poverty indices don’t.
As I said, people may not remember a favour but they always remember a slight. The only thing that gives me joy these days is that I run into people, even in London, where I spend time, who walk up to me to express gratitude for being a beneficiary of one programme or the other when I was in office. One young man came to me at Heathrow Airport and said, “I’m a beneficiary of yours, sir, and I asked how did that happen since I’ve never met the young man. And he said, your government sent me to school and you paid my WAEC registration fees and you also gave me my first laptop computer. I later studied computer science in the university and I now work with Google”. I was very thrilled that day. And this has happened to me on numerous occasions.
In Nigeria, when things are not physical, we don’t remember and that is why you will see that many people in public office don’t want to do intangibles. It is often difficult to get people to do that, which would improve human capital which is the greatest asset that I believe our country possesses.
There was also the challenge of having a civil service that shared your vision and ideals. Bringing them up to speed and building their capacity and improving their work environment is always seen in a different light. I recall when I asked teachers in my state to undertake a Teachers Development Needs Assessment, which became a big challenge.
I also recall when I introduced an integrated biometric payroll system, the trade unions opposed it and would rather continue with the manual payroll system. So, sometimes having one’s eyes trained on the future of the state is not often welcome by our people. Yet, leadership should be forward-looking and focused on what is in the best interest of the people in the long run, and not on populism.
What would you say challenged you the most in office?
The greatest challenge is the sustainability of the programmes. In 2014, Governor Fayose came and he wasn’t interested in many of the things that we did and he just left them exactly the same way he found them. That was how I met them when I returned in 2018. In a lot of cases, the damage had been done.
For example, Ekiti was a leading state in school enrollment in Nigeria as of 2014, when I left. When I came back, so many had dropped out simply because Governor Fayose did not continue my free education programme and he did not continue my free WAEC payment programme.
It was when I came back that we started the struggle again and the enrollment jumped when the free education programme started again. By the time I left office in 2022, Ekiti has become the state with the least number of out of school children, in the lowest five states with multi dimensional poverty and the state with the highest life expectancy. So, improving the quality of life, which was my priority was significantly addressed but it is still work-in-progress.
Again in 2010, when I came, I said the airport was not my priority, I wanted to focus on human capital development. But my priority will rather be how to fix the Ado-Akure road. In 2012, I set up a viability appraisal committee headed by Chief Afe Babalola, on the airport. They produced a report that justified the need for an airport and I said we’ll work on it but then I got thrown out in 2014. Governor Fayose promised to do it, but it wasn’t really his priority too, even though he tried to do it but ran into some challenges.
When I came back in 2018, we started again. It was one of the projects I presented to the African Development Bank. We started the airport in November 2019 and Covid started in March 2020 and almost two years of government were gone but we persisted even with our limited resources. We finished the runway and terminal building and had the first test flight before I left office and now the airport is almost ready with the control tower, power house and fire station ready but the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA) still has a few things that they’ve asked the state to complete, particularly on navigational aids for the runway and the control tower in order to get full certification. I believe the airport will be fully functional in a few months.
What was it like being a minister and was it true that your ministry was just another wilderness of sort?
Before I became a minister, I was Director of Policy for the presidential campaign and also worked in the transition committee, so I had a comprehensive view of what was going on in the Jonathan administration, but I wasn’t prepared to go to the ministry I was assigned to.
When I was announced as the Minister for Solid Minerals, I must confess, I was surprised. I honestly thought I was going to be Minister of Foreign Affairs, an area in which I was a frontline adviser for President Buhari during the period leading up to the election and before Ministers were announced.
In fact, I was with President Buhari on his last assignment at the United Nations before the ministerial list was released on the day we returned from the United Nations. I got home after we were sworn in and portfolios assigned and told my wife and our leader, Otunba Niyi Adebayo, that I was going to inform President Buhari that I couldn’t take the appointment. What do I know about the ministry? It was not even about being a dry or juicy ministry. I was not prepared to mess myself up, after coming this far. I thought the Ministry should go to a subject matter expert. So, I decided I wasn’t going to take it.
But Otunba said, no, that would be selfish and that I must put our people into my consideration. I must take it. He added: “Kayode, your strength is in managing people and resources, and you are going to take it and make a statement. Having managed a whole state, you can manage anything.” And my wife aligned with him. But I was still not convinced but at least they stopped me from going to tell President Buhari I was opting out of the cabinet.
Eventually, President Buhari explained to me that he was deliberate in sending me to the Ministry because he had three priorities – infrastructure, agriculture and solid minerals development and he wanted excellent hands in the three areas. I took it up as a challenge and I believe I grew into the job. In my three years there, we grew the contribution of solid minerals as a percentage of GDP, developed a comprehensive road map for the sector, started the aero-magnetic survey of the country, which was completed during Architect Adegbite’s tenure and also conducted the national minerals exploration project amongst many other initiatives.
When you returned as governor, you became a completely different person. What changed?
I’m not sure I became a completely different person, but you are right that I softened my outlook from what it used to be. As governor, during my first term, I was too consumed by what I wanted to achieve for the Ekiti people. Development was the sole defining characteristic of my governance but I discovered that no matter how our people claim to love good, dutiful delivery agents that are serious-minded, more often than not, they also want leaders they could touch and feel and hang out with; one that’s ready to be with them at ‘shepe’ joints and motor parks.
That was Governor Fayose’s strength and he exploited that effectively. In public communication, you probably would refer to it as connecting with the people and it was interpreted that in terms of retail politics, “Fayemi thinks that we’re beneath him” and that was the time I built the Government House on the hill and they used that as a good meme to say, “He’s up there looking down on us.”
Those propagating such lies knew they were lying but they also knew they were dealing with a gullible population and I also gave our people too much credit for intelligence because I felt people would not believe it. My media team told me that they wanted me to go to parties, markets, etc. I despise that kind of retail politics. When my wife got fed up, she took up the responsibility of attending every naming ceremony and funeral because she knew I would not answer.
There is such a sense of entitlement that does not acknowledge the real developmental effort and that is why they get cheated by charlatans who have nothing to offer because they can play the game in a way that the majority gullibly fall for. By the time I came back after four years of Governor Fayose, you could see the sobriety because they’d suffered but I also learnt my lessons that I had to connect more, which I tried to do but I didn’t do it like the former governor.
Governor Oyebanji has conducted himself much better than me in terms of connecting with people because I also said to him, “Don’t inherit my enemies. And I have many who regard me as their enemy, even if I don’t see them as such. Don’t be too serious. Our people don’t like leaders that are too serious.” And he seems to have found the right balance without diminishing the office he occupies.
Many people had thought that you and some other persons would have been a part of this government, but that was not to be. Have you left politics with style or you’re on sabbatical?
I worked for the party and the president and I don’t forget that wanted to be president, too, so walking away from governance or politics is not going to happen. When I was stepping down, I made some remarks that I have known President Tinubu for over three decades and he knows that in or out of office, I will always be there to support his government. But I am not one of those who will make unsolicited calls on him. If he calls for me, I’ll answer the call.
We saw at COP28 and at some point, he pulled me aside to discuss some things, particularly our challenges in Ondo, knowing my relationship with the Governor and I gave him my own perspectives and advice. So, I’ll always be here to offer services from the background. His presidency is our collective responsibility in APC.
I am a foundation member of the APC. For me, all of us owe our president and the party a duty to keep him fully abreast of what he may not be getting inside the villa, and the chairman of the party has that as his number one responsibility because what we want is a president that meets the yearnings of the citizens, who have put him in office. After all, if he doesn’t do it, it diminishes all of us.
What future do you see for yourself, going forward?
I’m starting a policy institute basically to provide emerging leaders with the tools to engage in policy-making, policy management, and policy implementation, particularly on a continental basis. You’d soon hear more about that.