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Saturday, April 13, 2024

Fayemi, the scholar-politician who wants to change Africa – By Julius Ogunro

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On this Wednesday afternoon, in the study of his Abuja home, was Kayode Fayemi, the former governor of Ekiti State. He looked relaxed in a multicoloured cotton shirt and black trousers. His midsized study was packed full of magazines and books on governance, leadership, diplomacy, war, and any subject you can imagine. It is obvious Fayemi is an avid reader, and since leaving office 16 months ago as Ekiti governor and chairman of the governors’ collective, he has immersed himself in books.

This afternoon, in Abuja, Fayemi, or JKF as he is best known by his associates and friends, was almost carefree, as if a burden had been lifted off him. But, if one were to be truthful, he has always been unruffled, almost too easy-going for a Nigerian politician. However, as a governor, beneath that façade of calm, one would sense urgency and notice the involuntary frown now and then and how he hurried a conversation or appointment to get back to the business of governing.

But today, JKF was genial and said life outside the Ekiti government house ‘’has been very peaceful.’’ He was quick to point out that he had been very busy. Since leaving office as governor, he has been appointed as the inaugural President of the Forum of the Regions of Africa (FORAF), a platform for subnational entities in Africa that seeks a broader distribution of power that favours regional and local governments. He has also taken up a professorial chair at the African Leadership Centre at King’s College in London.

Besides, Fayemi said: “And I’ve also not been totally disconnected from my local front. Yes, we have a new governor in office, but the governor is from my party. He was Secretary to the state government when I was governor. And to a large extent, I played a critical role in his coming to office. So, I’ve been involved in some of the developmental work that was carried over from my period in office. Not in micromanaging or even directly administering any of the projects, but some of them were things that I initiated. So, the government naturally felt that they needed to consult or engage me in some way to reach some of our partners on this.’’

That he is still involved in some form with the government of Ekiti State is atypical of Nigerian politics, where bad blood often flows between incumbents and their predecessors after only a few months. Nothing exemplifies this better than the cat-and-mouse relationship between Governor Sim Fubara of Rivers State and his predecessor, Nyesom Wike, who is now the FCT minister. The conflict between the two politicians has polarized the state, increased tension, and even led to the burning down of the State Assembly building. Although Fubara and Wike have agreed to some sort of peace, it is apparent that the conflict is still simmering beneath the surface amid the constant hurling of insults by their followers.

Not so for Fayemi and his successor, Governor Biodun Oyebanji. It appears the relationship between the two politicians is rooted in genuine friendship and commitment to the development of Ekiti State. Fayemi explained: ‘’For me, I am not a slave to office. Leadership is not the office. Leadership is also not the title of Mr. Governor. Leadership for me is service. It is a sacrifice. Governor Oyebanji is there and if he asks me for whatever reason to do anything for him and it is within my powers to do, I will but I will not necessarily poke my nose into what is going on in Ekiti unless I’m asked. That is my philosophy and I believe that has also helped. I don’t reside in Ekiti. I’m often in Ekiti and I am still actively involved in the party work in Ekiti but I really don’t get involved in the minutiae of governance in Ekiti.’’

Fayemi is modest. He should get some credit for the lack of political tension and rancour in Ekiti State. Because, apart from his warm relationship with his successor, he also has a good rapport with Ayo Fayose, his predecessor and political rival. He is perhaps the only former Nigerian governor who maintains this sort of relationship with both his immediate successor and predecessor. That must be a marker of his character and his live-and-let-live outlook on life.

Of Fayose, he said, ’My philosophy is always to seek out the good in every human being. Governor Fayose and I are not enemies. We disagreed primarily on an ideological basis. He is a populist and people-pleasing politician. I am a bit different. I am seen as an intellectual in politics. I am not a social animal and I take things maybe a little bit too seriously but we found a middle ground in the sense that what unites us is Ekiti. What binds us is Ekiti and the progress of the state is one that I believe we are all committed to, whether you talk of Governor Adebayo, Fayose, myself, or the current government. One critical success factor that I can also maybe attribute it to is the fact that we all respect the position of the office (of the governor) and when you respect the office you respect the personality occupying it regardless of whether you played any role in the person coming to office.’’

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Fayemi’s confession about being a little too serious should not come as a surprise. Nothing about him typifies the average Nigerian politician. In a society that thrives on retail politics, where political actors have to dance on the street, eat roast corn publicly, and essentially ‘dumb down’ to connect with the masses, Fayemi, with his PhD in War Studies, is the professorial type, who speaks in a magisterial style.

Fayemi’s political life is a storied one, full of ups and downs. And up again! It was in 2007 that he first contested the Ekiti gubernatorial election. The electoral commission declared Segun Oni, his PDP rival, the winner, and Fayemi had to resort to the court, reclaiming victory after a three-year legal battle. Since then, he has been in and out of power, regardless, playing a central role in Nigerian politics and conversations about the devolution of power.

However, since he stepped down for Bola Tinubu during the presidential race and left office as governor, Fayemi has been unusually quiet, except for the occasional press statements from his media team. It would appear that since 2007, this is the first time that he has not been active in Nigerian politics, leading the FORAF and teaching at King’s College. Has he quit active politics? ‘’The short answer is no,’’ he said. “I am still an active member of the All Progressives Congress. My party is in office, nationally and in my state. I regularly engage with the leaders of the party, right from our pioneer Chair, Chief Akande to the current Chairman of the party, Dr. Ganduje. I am still an active member of the All Progressives Congress. So really, I’m not taking any sabbatical from politics. If the party needs me to do anything, they know that I’m just a phone call away even though I am busy on other assignments which are not connected to party politics.’’

If Fayemi is not as active in Nigerian politics as one would expect, it may be because he has always maintained a broader vision of politics from a Nigeria-only perspective to a pan-African one, investing his time and mind in the challenges confronting the continent and what we need to do to overcome them. When asked about what he considers the most pressing challenge facing the continent, Fayemi became more animated – his eyes lit up, hands moved more – as he provided a thesis on Africa’s problems and how to solve them. It was a sort of mini-lecture, and it was Fayemi in his element.

A summary of that ‘lecture’ will suffice here: Africa has long been at a disadvantage in the global political interplay, often treated as a pawn or site of struggle between major powers rather than an equal partner setting its own agenda. Despite goals like the Africa 2063 agenda and the Continental Free Trade Agreement, Africa has struggled to define and pursue its best interests collectively. This is partly due to the Westphalian notion of sovereignty that pits African nations against each other rather than allowing them to unite.

However, Africa has a major demographic advantage that it should leverage. By 2050, one in five people worldwide will be African, and half the global workforce. With a median age of just 18 compared to ageing populations elsewhere, Africa has a demographic dividend it could harness through aggressive investment in functional education and healthcare relevant to the future of work. Doing so could allow Africans to earn resources without feeling inferior while allowing Africa to be an equal rule-maker rather than a pawn as multipolarity replaces U.S. unipolarity in the shifting global order. This period of transition presents an opportunity for Africa to finally take its rightful seat at the table.

His proposition makes sense, but on the surface, it appears to fit into the thinking of some of Africa’s intellectuals to blame outsiders or external forces for the continent’s woes while neglecting the ‘internal’ issues around capacity, institutional weakness, as well as the lack of transparency and corruption of government.

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Among the seven continents of the world, Africa comes in last on all socio-economic indicators. Compared to Asia, for example, as of 2020, the poverty rate in Sub-Saharan Africa was estimated to be around 41 percent, compared to around 7.4 percent in East Asia and the Pacific region, according to the World Bank.

According to the Fragile States Index by the Fund for Peace, several African countries rank among the most fragile states globally, including Somalia, South Sudan, and the Central African Republic. While Asia has its share of political challenges, including authoritarian regimes and ethnic conflicts, the overall stability and governance in many Asian countries tend to be stronger compared to some African nations. Africa experiences a higher prevalence of armed conflict and internal unrest compared to Asia.

Can Africa, with adept diplomacy, stand toe to toe with the leading countries of a multipolar world without overcoming its internal challenges and contradictions? Would China have become the global leader it is today without first overcoming its economic and sociopolitical problems and lifting almost half a billion people out of poverty?

Fayemi explained that the two issues can go together; that in the new world, Africa cannot avoid collaboration with other countries, but it must do so on its terms, and not as a subservient or junior partner, despite its problems. The sense one gets from his postulation is that Africa can work towards solving its internal issues on the one hand and, on the other hand, become more assertive in its relationship with the world, by seeking equality at the table of nation-states and multilateral institutions.

It is a tough and audacious task, no doubt. One that requires long-term planning and a shift in thinking on the continent that is comfortable going plate in hand to the capitals of even middle powers for grants and aid. Fayemi is confident it can be done and revealed that he is establishing a continent-wide institute with this kind of challenge in mind.

“I’m actually establishing an institute – a policy and leadership advancement institute, to really look at it on a continent-wide basis. Find a way to support our policymakers to focus on the right things. So that when they get the opportunity to sit at that table, they are asking relevant questions. They’re proffering relevant solutions in the interest of Africa, not in the interest of those who are paying the bills. Just as Kwame Nkrumah said to us, ‘If you like, take from the West. If you like, take from the East. But what’s important is to face forward.’ Know where you’re going. The reality of the world is that we must collaborate, we must partner with other nations, but not to the detriment of our own overarching framework, our own agenda. But first, we must define that agenda,’’ he said.

He is sure that a confident and sprightly Africa can emerge in time, and his proposed institute would play a significant role in its emergence. He stated, “For me, the reason why I decided that I want to focus on a continent-wide initiative, taking advantage of the resources available – yes, there may be people doing many things around – but I am not aware of any that is fully concentrated on utilizing available resources in a wide range of sectors, to develop and provide the necessary tools that would strengthen the capacity of a successor generation.

‘’Many people get into positions of authority in Africa, even here in our country. I was talking about this yesterday at my lecture at the Abuja Leadership Centre. They get into these positions without the foggiest idea of what the big picture is, of why they are even in that office, of what they can do that is above even themselves, of the plan, of a team, of the capacity, that would enable them to even have peer-level conversations on trade, on migration – the big ticket items of the moment – on security, and the place of regional integration in all of this.”

Fayemi hopes to succeed where nations and multilateral institutions such as the African Union and the Ecowas have come short. But if there is one man with the social capital, intellectual resources, global network, political experience, and drive to take on Africa’s problems, it must be Fayemi. Fate, it appears, has led him here – where one person has to take on the intractable challenges of a continent. Yet, he is positive and confident about making a difference. ‘’Oh yes. I am very confident in the future (of Africa). I am very confident,’’ he said.

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