Olayemi Oyebanji: It’s tough being Ekiti First Lady
Wife of Ekiti State Governor, Dr. Olayemi Oyebanji, has made remarkable impact on the lives of the vulnerable in the state since her husband assumed office on October 16 last year. In this interview with RASAQ IBRAHIM, the former university lecturer speaks on her experience as the First Lady of Ekiti State, the motivations behind her pet project and the personality of her husband, among other issues.
It has been one year since you left the University of Ibadan for the Office of Ekiti First Lady. What would you say you have missed about the classroom?
As you are aware, I was a university teacher before coming into this office. All my life, I have worked in the university environment. I started as a Graduate Assistant from Ekiti State University, known then as the University of Ado-Ekiti. I was a year into Lecturer 1 when I moved to the University of Ibadan for family reasons.
On getting to the University of Ibadan, I had to start all over again. It was like taking a fresh appointment, and it has been so far so good.
I just gave a little background about myself so that you will know that all my life, I have been an academic. I joined the university system in the year 2000, almost 23 years ago. I have worked in the university system, held various positions, committees and many responsibilities. I have worked with senior and junior colleagues.
With that background information about my career, about my journey, you will agree with me that I have missed a lot. I have missed the rapport in the academic world, the liberty, the freedom. You know in the university system, there is this academic freedom that we enjoy. It is a platform where you can express yourself; where you can be what you want to be. I missed that. I also miss my students because of my close relationship with them. Some of them call me Aunty and some call me Mummy, you know. I miss all of that. But so far, so good, I thank God for everything.
How has it been since you assumed office as the First Lady in Ekiti State, considering that you came from the classroom to find yourself on the seat?
I want to thank God for His grace. God has been very gracious to me, and my journey as an academic has prepared me for this office. I have worked with various people in the academic system. It is like one of the things I did when I was at UI. I was as Assistant Hall Warden of Queen Idia, the biggest hall in the University of Ibadan, and I was in that hall for four years where we mixed with young adults, girls, ladies. We gave accommodation. They had to choose and we had to resolve their issues. So, that has prepared me for this office.
Of course, it has not been easy. But we have been pulling through. The experience I had garnered in the academic world has helped me to deal with many issues we have to deal with women and children, and that is awesome. It is tough, but God has been helping us.
What specific roles did you handle in the past to have prepared you for the demands of the Office of the First Lady?
Like I rightly mentioned, before coming to this space, in the university system, you know we have three major areas as academics. You have to teach. In the course of teaching, you meet with your students, you pass knowledge. You have to carry out research work with publications here and there in reputable journals, and you have to give community service whereby you are invited in your community to give talks; to sensitise people. So, to me, there is a correlation between what I am doing now and those roles. Basically, what I am doing now in the Office of the First Lady is more or less like community service, which I have done in the university system. So for me, it is a continuation of what I have done in the university system.
Can you highlight some of the impactful interventions your have made since you assumed office?
When I came on board, I was fortunate to take over from the former First Lady who is like a mother to me. She took me through what I needed to know, especially in the area of campaign against Gender-Based Violence in Ekiti State. And you will agree with me that Ekiti has been in the forefront in the campaign against Gender Based Violence: issues like rape, abusive relationship and all such stuff.
When I came on board, I hit the ground running on that because that has been institutionalised. By the grace of God, I have been able to intervene in some gender based violence cases. A case in point was the case of a woman who was sentenced for owing, and at the time of her sentence, the woman was about two or three months pregnant. It was brought to my notice and I was able to work in collaboration with the Ministry of Justice, because along the line, before we got justice, before we got the woman out, she delivered in prison. So I had to come in to ensure the safety of the baby, to stabilise the woman. The Ministry of Justice in partnership with my office swung into action and today, the woman has been released.
We filed a case in the Court of Appeal that the woman should not be sentenced for owing; that she couldn’t pay from prison. It is when she is free that she can pay. So, there are many cases like that, and that also afforded me the opportunity to know that there are so many women in prison. I am working on that to see how the Ministry of Justice can intervene so that we can salvage the situation.
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Sensitization is going on in Ekiti. People now know that you cannot just rape and get away with it. And people are coming out to complain not about rape alone. Women are coming to this office to tell me that their husbands are not doing what they are supposed to do. We mediate and things are getting normal in the area of GBV.
Since my coming into office, there are lots of interventions that we have done. Many people come, students, the poor, the needy, and we have intervened. We gathered people in need together and we do empowerment for them.
Not long ago, I was able to do the Back to School programme for over 400 orphans. Those are the things I will be doing, God helping me.
It was learnt that your pet project called the Widows and Orphans Project (WAOH project) would soon be unveiled. what was the motivation behind the project?
My background actually helped be to look into that project. As a lecturer, you meet with lots and lots of students with different socio-economic backgrounds. We have those of them who are indigent who have parents and we have those who don’t have parents but are very brilliant. So, in my own little corner as an academic, I have been intervening, paying school fees here and there, giving them money to support them in school, buying mattresses when they get accommodation. You know, those things you do silently, and it has always been a burden in my heart.
And even widows, of course, where I worship, you see people coming to you after service. They are widows; they want you to come and help them. As an ardent believer in God, the Scripture says that the poor will not cease among us. So, if God has deliberately left them among us, it means those of us that have been privileged to be where we are, then we must take responsibilities for them. And that is one of the reasons why I look in the direction of the widows, because I believe that they are the most vulnerable in our society. Many of them have been subjected to one form of inhuman treatment or another. We have to come in and assist them. So, I have compassion and burden for them.
Don’t you think that funding will be a major problem for the project because of the huge number of intending beneficiaries?
Funding has always been a problem for every project. Even if you bring Governor BAO (Biodun Abayomi Oyebanji) on board now, sit him on this seat and ask him how he has been doing it, does it mean that he has enough funds to do what he has been doing? I believe in this kind of thing, there is need for someone to be sacrificial. There is need for someone to make sacrifice.
If it may interest you, when I dabbled into this project, one of the things that I started doing was to put some money aside as my own seed money. When God sees where you are coming from, when you have a good intention, there is a way God will help you to make that intention prosperous. By the grace of God, people have been coming to assist me in this project. I have been going around telling people that please help me in this project, and ironically, people have been so warm to the widows.
There was a case when I told someone and he said, ‘About this issue of widows, we are going to help.’ With God on my side, we are going to get funds, because if we have to be talking about this issue of funding, I won’t do anything. So, I have to start, because on the day of the unveiling, we are looking at 300 widows with various needs. How did I get funds for that? People assisted me, and I know many more people will assist me. So, if I don’t start, such assistance may not come. If I don’t do anything, the platform will lapse and posterity may not judge me well.
So on the issue of funding, we are getting to the bridge and we are already crossing it. With God on our side, people are responding, and people like you will respond too with your own widow’s mite. People are supporting us. Like I said, they are already supporting us, and most of the things we are going to do on the day of the unveiling of WAOH are gifts and donations from people, and that is quite encouraging. I believe that many people will still respond to us when they see the sincerity on our part on how we have handled the ones they have given us. That will not be a problem because I believe God will make a way.
Another challenge is sustainability. What are your plans to see that WAOH project is alive and kicking by the time you complete your tenure?
Thank you for that question. I think it is very germane to the issue at hand. Look at the Gender-Based Violation Prevention and Prohibition Policy which was initiated by the former First Lady, Erelu Bisi Fayemi, is she still in office today? She is not. But we are still running the GBV policy in a way that it has been institutionalised. The kind of work she did while she was in office was to sensitise people on this GBV thing, and everybody now in Ekiti is aware that you cannot just treat your wife anyhow, you cannot just rape and go scot-free. So, what I intend doing that even after office this project will not die is to sensitise people, appeal to the emotion and consciousness of the people. Like I told you earlier, when I approached people that I am interested in orphans and widows, the first thing that I realized was the compassion in them. They say, ‘Oh, widows.’ It’s like this set of people evoke compassion when you mention them, and people want to help them. I want to leverage on that. I am going to carry everybody along and very soon, I want to involve the wives of the local government chairmen. In fact, they have been coming. I am going to involve them. I am going to integrate this project in all sectors and it is going to be a culture and we are going to imbibe it in Ekiti.
You know when we were growing up here in Ekiti before this generation came on board, the Yoruba have a saying that one person gives birth to a child and many people join hands to take care of him or her. I remember growing up, and whenever I came back from school, when my mother was not around, neighbours would give us food. A neighbour would come around saying, ‘Yemi, your mother is yet to return, have this.’ This project, we are going to tailor it along that line. We are going to appeal to the conscience of the people that please, these widows, let’s help them.
That is why I said the poor will not cease among us. We will always have widows. We will always have orphans. What do we do to help them and appeal to the people’s consciousness, and as a result of that people will imbibe this culture of helping them?
Like I told you, the kind of response I have received really encouraged me. So if I use this platform to sensitise, people will really be helping them. That is the way I want to go about it.
Can you recall one or two unpleasant experiences about widows and orphans which have really touched your heart?
You know I told you that I am from the university community. Let me start from the issue of orphans. Part of my responsibility in the university system before coming on board was to compute the results of students. We are called course advisers. We compute results, take a student maybe from 100 Level, you carry that student from 100 Level to final year, so you monitor the academic progress of that student.
There was this student, he was on first class and just realised that this student on first class from 100 Level, we are always advised to monitor them, and we should not allow them to drop. So, there was this student that started dropping, and you have to look for students with such a case because in the university system, we are not just lecturers, we are “in locoparentis” to these children. So, when you bring your results for next session and student who is in 100 Level, this year, who is on first class has now dropped to second class upper, the question they will ask you in the Senate or when we are presenting results is, ‘Coordinator, what happened to this student?’ We have to explain. Seeing such students, you know that they are going to ask you in the Senate Chambers, so you have to do your homework. In the course of that I encountered so many of such students. Some of them will say, ‘I am an orphan, I have to go and hustle before coming back to school.’ So, that will affect their academic performance.
So, in many cases like that, we have to intervene, because we ask, is it about your school fees? And if you cannot do it alone, you call your colleagues that please, this student, we need to gather money, even lecturers to assist that kind of students. That is where the passion for orphans started.
And when you are dealing with orphans, many times, you see their mothers who are widows. They themselves come. They do come to school. For instance if you are to present 80 students from 100 Level and at the end of the session, you are presenting their results, don’t forget, you are carrying this set to the final year. In your 200 Level, if you come for presentation and you are presenting 78, they will ask you, ‘Oga, what happened to the two?’ You cannot tell the panel I don’t know. You must know because you are the course adviser. In the course of checking for these students, you discover that they have no money. They may be single orphans. At times, their mothers will come, maybe the surviving parents, mother or fathe; but it is usually mothers that come and they begin to tell you, ‘Mummy, this child, it is because there is no money.’ So, my job exposed me to both widows and orphans and I know that they go through a lot.
Then in the society, you meet them everywhere. In places like churches, they ask you for assistance, wanting you to help them. You know, they go through a lot. That is where the passion to assist them comes from.
We may have to digress a bit, and this has to do with your own loving husband. His passion for people, is it what he has been doing before he decided to embrace public service?
I think I should be able to speak about that because I have been married to the man for the past 25 years. Well, don’t forget that BAO, has been privileged, has been blessed to be in public service. He has been in the midst of his people for about two decades. If you will recall, he started as a Special Assistant, which is the lowest cadre of political appointments. He later became a Special Adviser, Chief of Staff, Commissioner about three or four times, Director General, Secretary to the State Government. All these positions, have of course, exposed him to Ekiti people and naturally by nature, he is just a compassionate person.
BAO cannot stand somebody suffering, even when he was outside public service. He is a farmer. He has a poultry business in Ibadan. People still come for assistance. From his business, he is somebody I know will go and dip his hands into business money to pay school fees. I would tell him, ‘Oga, this is not how to do business,’ and he would say do you want them to die of hunger? By nature, he is a very compassionate person, and this is what he had been doing before coming to office.
But with this political trajectory, you will know that he has spent long time in the political space. People have been coming to him and he has been assisting. So it is not a new thing. For him, helping people, putting up an excellent performance is as easy as breathing. We can only pray that God will help him the more. One single prayer I pray every day for him is that this good work the Lord is helping you to do in Ekiti, there shall be no reversal of it, there shall be no stoppage and there shall be no reduction.