By Babafemi Ojudu
“Femi, you have come again with your jokes,” she said on that faithful afternoon when I invited her to become the running mate to the gubernatorial candidate of the Action Congress in Ekiti State.
“I am not a politician. When last did I visit Ekiti?”she asked.
“So you are serious about this?” she asked.
I said, “Yes.”
“Running mate to who?” she pursued.
“To Dr. Kayode Fayemi, a committed young man with good education and a decent family background.”
“Ha! If that is the case, Femi, let me think about it.”
She promised to call back after discussing with her husband and her boss at work.
An hour before this discussion, I was driving on Aromire Avenue in the Ikeja area of Lagos and suddenly the Land Cruiser I was in with my friend, Kayode Afolabi, had a flat tyre. For about a week prior to this time we had been searching and racking our brains on who would best pair up with Dr. Fayemi to fight for the governorship seat of Ekiti State. Our parameters were that the person must be as equally educated as Fayemi, urbane, good-looking and committed to the development of the state. We were looking for a co pilot as the Governor later stated in his tribute, and not a spare tyre.
We werelimited in our search because we had agreed that the deputy must be a female and must be from Ado Ekiti – where the two main parties going for the election had zoned the position of the deputy.
While we were waiting for the tyre to be fixed, we were ruminating over this when Kayode Afolabi who had just relocated from Atlanta, US said, “Femi, what about this Ado Ekiti lady I once met in your office?”
“Which Ado-Ekiti Lady?” I asked to be sure.
“The banker,” he said.
“Oh! You mean Funmi Olayinka?
“I don’t remember her name,” he said.
“You must be talking about Funmi,”I told him, “But Kay, Funmi is not a politician and she appears too clean and delicate to go for Ekiti politics,” I tried to dissuade him.
He insisted that I put a call through to her and suggest the idea.
“There is no harm in trying,” he said.
Right on that roadside on Aromire, I made the fateful call to Funmi and there began Olufunmilayo Adunni Olayinka’s journey into politics and finally to Ekiti Government House.
It was rough. It was full of thorns. Sleepless nights, frustrations, insults and abuses, an accident on Lagos – Ibadan highway that almost terminated her life, all of these characterised the quest.
When Funmi finally got back to me about three hours after I first broached the idea to her, she said to me in a measured tone: “Femi, the ways of politicians are very strange to me. But coming from you and having also googled the governorship candidate, I can see you people mean well.”
After pausing for a few seconds, she said, “Since it is about our people, do count me in.”
I immediately linked her up with Dr. Fayemi who later got back to me to say she sounded very intelligent, committed and urbane.
The following day, Funmi and I were on our way to Ado Ekiti. Our first port of call was the palace of Ewi to pay homage to the Kabiyesi and also get introduced to a couple of elders in the town that I had alerted and asked to be at the palace to meet this accomplished daughter of our town who had agreed to sacrifice her plum job in a bank and serve the town and the state.
Apparently, the news about her coming had leaked to some party members. They organised a reception, albeit a negative one at that.
The moment we stepped out of my car, the crowd of about 200, largely women, greeted us with abuses. We were both called all manner of unprintable names and almost physically attacked. Their grouse: why were we bringing a “Lagos import” when they had an idea of a local person who they wanted as deputy governor”. We ran into the palace to avoid attack.
“Funmi”, I said, “I am sorry for this embarrassment I have caused you.
Let’s get back into our car and be on our way back to Lagos. Our people do not want to be helped, to be salvaged.”
Funmi took a long look at me and said: “Femi, listen, you and I were born and raised in this town. We should not allow ourselves to be intimidated. It is precisely because they have behaved in this manner that I am going to stay put and make this dream a reality.”
She was not through with me. She then went on to lecture me on the need to save this ‘misguided people’ from themselves.
“If we don’t tackle this problem now, help this people out, our children will not be able to visit this place, not to talk of live here in the future.”
This was my first lesson from her. Courage was her forte. Her heart was full of tenacity and she radiated commitment the way she radiated beauty.
When we were finally ushered her to where the elders were, Chief Dele Falegan, the retired Managing Director of Federal Mortgage Bank and former Director of Research, Central Bank of Nigeria, had come to the same conclusion as I did and in annoyance said: “Femi, Funmi, you people should go back to your work in Lagos. Your fathers have tried for this town. If these people don’t want you to assist their progress, leave them to continue in their suffering.”
Funmi, as she earlier did again put her foot down.
All this while, I was eager to get out of town and be back on my desk in The News magazine.
I kept reporting the situation to Dr. Fayemi and overnight he was able to calm frayed nerves. He too had met with similar antagonism when he was first introduced in the state to be the ACN gubernatorial candidate. When Funmi stepped out the following morning to visit some elders of the party, it was the same women who gave us hell the previous day who were quarrelling among themselves as to who would carry her bag.
Several meetings thereafter with party elders across the state, Funmi was announced as running mate to Dr. Fayemi and her name forwarded to INEC, the electoral body.
She worked very hard, partnering with Bisi Fayemi, another accomplished woman who gave up her women advocacy job to join in our collective mission to rescue Ekiti. Between them, they quickly fashioned out programmes of mobilisation and empowerment for Ekiti women while also giving time to join in our endless strategy sessions either in my house in Ado or at the Isan modest bungalow of Dr. Fayemi, or in Ibadan where the couple built their first home.
Funmi took on the financial management of the campaign. We set out to mobilise resources and left her to disburse the funds as it is done in a corporate environment. For this, she again drew the ire of traditional politicians who could not understand why they should make written requests for funds or found it insulting to be asked to retire same after spending.
Funmi took to the podium campaigning as if she was Indira Gandhi who was born into politics. She switched easily from Queens English to Oyo Yoruba and sang fluently in Ekiti dialect. She was a delight to see as she engaged in a call and answer with fellow women, shaking her body to the rhythm of Ekiti songs, dancing and waving the broom, her party’s symbol.
Before long she had been given the title ‘Moremi’, the Yoruba woman in mythology who sacrificed all for her community. Looking back now that was so prescient.
Sometimes, she got irritated, but she was never deterred. She will always find a very deep local proverb to explain the situation.
She gave her all. Journeying from Lagos to Ekiti, taking care of family responsibilities, managing the affairs of her young daughters who were all registered in US universities.
She combined all this with the drag of unending political meetings, settling petty rancors among the locals while finding time to organize. It was telling for her and on her both physically and psychologically but her strenght of character kept her going.
The schedule was very hard and tough on her. Sometimes Kayode (Afolabi) and I, would take a look at her and conclude that we had been unfair in bringing her into politics because sometimes we could see that she had lost the sheen and radiance we knew her for. There was no time for make-up anymore, no time to wear those designer dresses and jewelries anymore. It was total commitment to the objective of rescuing Ekiti. Our mantra for this purpose was COLLECTIVE RESCUE MISSION.
The journey to Ekiti Government House, which we thought was going to last for a few months, good or bad, was going to consume another three years . From the first election to a journey through tribunal, to the Appeal Court, then a re-run and back to the tribunal, again to the Appeal Court and finally the Government House , it was a challenge that could weigh down a faint hearted but Funmi soldiered on like the amazon she has come to be known as.
The challenges and intricacies of serving a people who, over the years, have been deprived of purposeful leadership and life-changing service itself was daunting. Funmi remained undaunted.
All through this period, Funmi stood resolutely by her principal, unflinching, unwavering, ever-smiling and always full of words of encouragement to our compatriots and to supporters young and old, men and women, genuine or fake.
Funmi had poise and she was dignified in it, she had splendor and she was sartorial . She was a woman of extraordinary courage.
On the occasion of our first judgment at the tribunal, we were gathered in my house to know the outcome. The moment we heard the verdict, people around us burst into crying. Funmi was the Consoler-in-Chief, assuring everyone that we were just starting and that the destination was sure.
Very early the following morning – I think about 5.00am (and that is the time we used to talk to each other all through our campaign, victory and governance) – I put a call through to Funmi and apologised for the trouble I had put her through by bringing her over: I was overwhelmed by emotions and started crying. She put down the phone and emerged at my house 30 minutes later, pleading with me not to regret bringing her into politics. She said good or bad, victory or defeat, she would forever be appreciative of me for the experience.
“Femi”, she said, “let’s keep hope alive.” She went further to say that her fate and the genuineness of our purpose would see us through.
We parted smiling and with a new resolve to continue to fight. That was the stuff Funmi was made of, never say die – a woman of intellect, a woman of substance, a woman of courage, a woman forged in steel.
All through, she was the chair of our strategy committee, a task she handled with tact, maturity, intelligence, experience and candour.
When I started seeing the telltale signs of the sickness in her, I couldn’t summon the courage to ask her. I went on the internet to research the symptoms and came to the conclusion about what was wrong with her, while praying that my fear would not be confirmed. As she later told her very loyal personal assistant, Teju, she too could not tell me. We had become like twins and she told Teju if she told me, I might die before her. It would be better for her to fight it without putting me in the know. I kept my suspicion to myself and this itself was killing. Every morning, I would wake up, call her and offer the few words of prayers I could summon and thereafter send a text message telling her to take care of herself and have enough rest. She probably knew at that point that I knew something was wrong, yet she wouldn’t tell me and I wouldn’t ask pointedly.
When in February, Senators Oluremi Tinubu and Olusola Adeyeye were honoured by the State College of Education, I came back from there and went to her house to ask why she was absent from the event. She told me she was tired and barely made it a day earlier to the convocation lecture delivered by Mrs. Bisi Fayemi.
On the evening of the Sunday following the convocation, I requested to see her to discuss some political developments in the town. She gave me an appointment for 7.00 pm. I got there at exactly 7.00 pm and I could see that the security aides were unusually dodgy, first telling me she was not in and when I pressed further, they said she was sleeping. I called her number and unusually it rang out. I rang that of her PA and she too did not pick the call. I left the house with a lot of misgivings. Somehow I had this feeling, a feeling that something must have gone wrong? I then switched off my phones. Two hours thereafter my wife and everyone close to me gave me messages that Funmi said I should see her urgently.
When I got to the house, I sat in the outer sitting room and I saw her come out of the bedroom, but not with the usual gait. I immediately put on my reporter’s cap. As a result of my earlier suspicion, I had invited Kay (Kayode Afolabi) to join me for the meeting. She ushered us into the inner room of the Deputy Governor’s lodge and struggled to take her seat. I saw the difficulty with which she went on with the meeting and I signalled Kay that we should keep it short.
When we got up, she struggled to see us to the door. Kay and I discussed our suspicion and we both agreed that I should go and raise her health issues with the governor so that we could do something urgently.
I went that night to see the governor who gave me a detailed account of the ailment and how they had been managing it. For me, that was it.
We agreed to go see the husband to help convince her to take time off to take care of her health. Incidentally, she was scheduled to fly to London during the week to see her doctors and undergo further tests and treatment. We chose the day she was supposed to travel to see Lanre. It was in the course of this meeting that I heard stories of her bravery, how she fought to keep her condition away from those she loved. How she would leave her desk in Ekiti for Lagos to have chemotherapy and return the following day to her desk. How she one day left Ekiti for treatment and spent about 10 hours on the highway due to gridlock and collapsed on getting home and had to be rushed to the hospital. How she left the hospital after having chemo and insisted on calling on my colleagues in TheNews magazine to commiserate with them on the fire incident that ravaged the office. She flogged herself, sometimes over-flogged herself. With the benefit of hindsight, perhaps, knowing she might not survive, she was bent on leaving people with a good impression of her.
I remember her bringing her children home in December 2011 and taking them on a trip to Calabar to watch the carnival. I remember a similar trip to Dubai in December 2012. I remember the details of the planning and execution of Mama and Papa Famuagun’s 80th birthdays in 2011 and 2012 respectively. I remember the early morning prayer messages she use to send to Tola, my wife, and her close circle of friends daily in the last one year.
All this now suggest to me that Funmi may be have been aware that the end was nigh and tried to face it with candour while spending her time doing good and spending quality time with the children and friends alike.
We came to an agreement that when she returned from Lagos she should not bother coming around until she was fully recovered, but we didn’t know the worst was about to come.
While in London, I called her; she didn’t pick my call. I called Teju, her PA, who had stood solidly by her all through this period and demanded to know the result of the test. She was reluctant and when I saw that she was battling with her emotions, I ended the call. I knew the door to the long night had opened and the journey to the final day for my sister had begun.
I kept calling Lanre (her husband) and he kept telling me things were under control. Of course, she returned and apologized to me profusely for having kept me in the dark about her condition. I then started praying for her and I could hear her sobbing at the other end. Before I could ask her why, we both started crying. That night, I couldn’t sleep. I had to call Kabiyesi, the Ewi of Ado-Ekiti, to let him know what the situation was.
I kept in regular touch with Lanre with text messages, praying and consoling him. Similarly with Yeside, her first daughter. I didn’t give Teju too a breathing space. I couldn’t summon the courage to talk to Funmi on the phone again. Two days after the encounter, I couldn’t sleep. I woke my wife up and told her I was worried for Funmi. She said I should not call at that hour of the night. By 5.00 am, I called Teju several times, but there was no response. I called Lanre too; the phone rang out.
I went to the toilet in the visitors’ room downstairs and cried. After ridding myself of that emotion, a call came through from Teju and I shouted, “What happened!”
“Sorry”, she said, “your sister was rushed to the hospital last night.”
I cried and cried again. There was nobody to share my sorrow with other than my wife who was scheduled to return to her Lagos base from Abuja that morning.
Later that day, a call came through from the First Lady of Ekiti, my sister Bisi Fayemi. She too burst out crying as soon as I picked the phone. “Ha! BOT (Chairman, board of trustees, her affectionate name for me) I don’t like the way I saw your sister today,” she said. She had just arrived from a trip to Australia and went to the hospital from the airport to see her.
Bisi, had from the moment Funmi was diagnosed of breast cancer stood by her. She was her pillar of support. She was with her whenever she went for radiotherapy, mastectomy, days of chemotherapy and the final visit to her doctor in London. We cannot thank her enough. This has been the stuff our friendship, association and partnership are made of. Even when people want to divide us and sow seeds of discord, we just laugh it off and with the refrain that: “They think we are fools, they don’t know we have come a long way.”
The governor too came back from a trip to South Africa the following day and called to tell me how Funmi’s condition had taken a turn for the worse in less than a week after returning from London. I called Teju who confirmed this and said the governor couldn’t hold himself when he saw her.
All this while, I was still too scared to go see her on her sick bed in a discreet hospital off Gerald Road, in Ikoyi. When I finally summoned the courage and entered into the room where Funmi’s ghost lay on the bed, I didn’t know when my legs crumbled under me and I rolled on the floor crying. She cried with me and I rushed out of the room to cry the more. When she failed to stop crying, the husband came to me and said I should come and pacify her.
I summoned courage again, went in and held her hand assuring her she was going to pull through. “Do you mean it, Femi?” she asked. I said, “Yes.” She then said I should stop crying. “This too will be over and we shall celebrate, have a big thanksgiving”, she said with a quaking and distant voice. “Yes,” I said, mumbling all manner of mumbo jumbo in the form of prayers. I was completely devastated and disoriented. I held her hand, tears welled up in my eyes again. I pulled back, but she held me still. She beckoned me to come and give her a hug. I did, but with trepidation. Funmi, my dear sister, friend and compatriot, comforter in difficult times had began the journey to the end.
When I got there the following day, she was no longer talking intelligibly. She kept murmuring. Nobody could decipher what she was saying. I ran out again crying. It was Yeside who came and said I should not cry but keep praying for her. She told me of plans to bring back her two sibblings from the US to see her. I left praying for miracle to turn her around and put her firmly on her feet.
I paid the last visit the day after. In company of Senator Oluremi Tinubu, I was at her bedside. At that moment, I suspected it was a matter of days, if not hours……And Funmi was gone to the land of no return, never to smile at me again. Never to hug me again. I called her ‘Eye’ and she called me ‘Aba’, an affectionate title of mother and father in our dialect.
I am crying as I write this, Funmi. I can only wish you a peaceful rest. You have surely earned a place in the pantheon of our Ekiti, of Yoruba and Nigeria.
I miss you sorely, Eye.
O digba o!
– This Best Outside Opinion was written by Senator Babafemi Ojudu