Officially a member of Nigeria’s political elite, as the immediate past governor of Ekiti State, and current Minister for Solid Minerals in the cabinet of President Muhammadu Buhari, Fayemi was once an avowed enemy of the very institution of which he is now a key part.
With Sani Abacha at the head of Nigeria’s brutal military junta in 1996, after playing a behind-the-scenes role in successfully truncating the June 1993 election of the late Moshood Abiola as president, in a poll generally acknowledged as the best conducted in the country’s history, Fayemi was an important member of the London-based Nigerian opposition that fought the dictator’s government in the following years.
In conjunction with Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka and other leading political figures in exile, with financial support from the Norwegian government – who were particularly supportive of the cause to restore democracy to Nigeria in the 1990s – Fayemi was one of the brains behind Radio Kudirat.
Named after one of the wives of Moshood Abiola, brutally gunned down by Abacha’s goons in broad daylight in Lagos, as a result of her firm public support for her husband’s cause, the station’s “guerilla broadcasts” infuriated Abacha, who put a price on the heads of all those behind the station.
Those were extremely dangerous times for Fayemi the rebel, who had to look over his shoulder, as he was on the assassination list of the security services.
These are the same institutions that have been duty-bound to protect him since October 2010, when he was sworn in as Ekiti State governor, after a protracted legal battle. The irony is certainly not lost on him.
Expected to easily win a second term in office, as he was generally acknowledged as one of the country’s forward-thinking, progressive governors, Fayemi’s defeat to Ayo Fayose in 2014 was a huge shock.
Now charged with the responsibility of reviving the country’s mining industry, Fayemi admits that the journey from being the chief executive of a state, on whose table the buck stops, to being a cabinet minister, who works at the pleasure of the president, has been a sharp change.
“As a minister, you are bound by the principle of collective responsibility. As a state governor, you are actually an authority on your own… By virtue of the Nigerian constitution, the state is a coordinate body, rather than a subordinate body to the central government.
“All of the powers that the central government has are replicated at the state level. It’s far more complicated, you’re dealing with people at the front end, you’re addressing a range of issues, mining inclusive…
“But in a federal cabinet, you have a specific portfolio. You might be given additional responsibilities by the president, but your primary responsibility is for that portfolio which you have been given,
which, in my case, is reviving the mining sector that has been comatose in Nigeria for a very long time.”
With a PhD in War Studies from London University’s King’s College and a long career in good governance advocacy for Africa, which was the focus of the Centre for Democracy and Development (CDD), the think-tank he set up and ran for several years, the 51-year-old’s appointment to the Solid Minerals portfolio was a bit of a surprise.
“Yes, my background is in security and international relations but politics is about management of human resources… It’s about ensuring that you make a fundamental difference in the lives of people.
“I actually think, stepping back, that mining is a portfolio I’m quite comfortable with.
“Originally, I didn’t think so myself. But getting into it and seeing the attention that the president has decided to vest in mining and its associated activities, it’s an enormous responsibility I have been given… at this particular time, when oil prices are falling and the need for diversification of the economy cannot be over-emphasised.
“I think [being in the Nigerian cabinet] is about service, it’s about duty and it’s about sacrifice.Those are the qualities leadership demands of anyone and I believe that I will be able to hold my own in mining.”
Fayemi admits that creating the right regulatory landscape is the primary step for rejuvenating the sector and attracting international investors, whose hard cash and industry expertise are desperately needed.
“Investors will not come in if they don’t have bankable information that they can trade with. We are lagging behind in that…
“In the past decade, the government has done some work on the legal and regulatory issues. So, the laws are there, they can match others around the world, in this particular sector.
“The incentives are attractive enough – we have a five-year tax holiday, we have a 100% ownership arrangement for companies that want to come into mining. We even have a waiver for bringing in equipment. The licensing regime is also clearer than what it used to be before.”
But with Buhari’s government just getting its 2016 budget passed by parliament and with longstanding uncertainty, over economic direction, creating a fiscal and monetary dark cloud that is leaving the business community extremely worried, Fayemi insists the criticism that the APC (All Progressives Congress) government has lost its way, is baseless.
“Our first budget has given a sense of what the detail is. This is a government that believes that it must focus on infrastructure development, in order for us to trigger growth in the country.
“We must reflate the economy… We must diversify that economy as well, in order to ensure that other growth centres emerge from the diversified economy…
“When people say there is no plan, I really don’t know what they mean. By the time that you look at our manifesto and you add to it our budget plan, you will see that the three major strands that Mr. President campaigned on are contained in it – security, the economy and anti-corruption…
“We must spend money on those critical segments of our decrepit infrastructure – road, rail, airports and power. Everybody knows that one of our biggest problems is the lack of adequate power. If we can improve the generating capacity and improve the transmission capacity, as well as distribution across the country, with increased megawatts, things would improve, particularly for the industrial sector…
“Of course, there are other things that would fall into place, in the development of those three major strands.”
But without a stable and predictable monetary policy, the government would find it extremely difficult to convince the business community to take long-term positions.
President Muhammadu Buhari’s refusal to sanction the official devaluation of the Naira, despite the sharply declining value of the currency in the open (black) market, has led many to question the 72-year-old’s understanding of economics.
His determination to stick with an official rate that is anything between 50-70% lower than what is obtainable on the open market has led many to question whether his cabinet has rigorous and frank discussions on this critical matter, which ought to have led to a speedy and logical resolution to the logjam.
Fayemi has a hearty laugh when asked about the robustness of dialogue within the cabinet on critical matters of state – the prevailing foreign exchange regime being at the top of the list.
“We have very robust debate [within the cabinet]. We’re a democratic party, one committed to protecting the interests of Nigerians. That is why we were voted into office.
“You would also understand that we have, both within cabinet and outside cabinet, an economic team having exchanges and discussions on how best to improve what is going on.
“People divorce what is going on from the mess that Nigeria was put in by the preceding administration.”
After nearly a year in office, there is a significant number of Nigerians who argue that the current government is using the performance – or rather, the lack of it – by Buhari’s predecessor, Goodluck Jonathan, as a recurring excuse for their failure to deliver, quickly, on their election promises.
Rather than complain about the past, they argue that the present government should quit moaning and squarely face the business of governance.
“We are facing the problems,” Fayemi insists. “But we cannot give anyone the impression that we knew what we were going to find out in government. We didn’t, not to the extent that we discovered.
“We did not know that huge sums of money, belonging to the state, supposed to be used in protecting and securing Nigeria, were frittered away on personal election expenses.
“There are layers and layers of malfeasance, of corrupt practices, many of which we are still not aware of. That is not shirking our responsibility. We have not said we will not deliver on the promises we made to Nigerians.”
But with a cabinet where the finance minister, Kemi Adeosun, is the youngest person, at 48, while the agriculture minister, Audu Ogbeh, is knocking on the door of 70, criticism persists that Buhari’s team lacks the verve and dynamism of youthful, “out-of-the-box” thinking, required to face Nigeria’s 21st-century challenges.
That attracts a fierce response from Fayemi: “Shouldn’t it worry you that the person voted out of office started in his 30s, as deputy governor, governor, vice-president and then he became president, but performed abysmally?
“I don’t think the cabinet alone constitutes the government of Nigeria. There are other positions in government being occupied by younger people. I think that it’s only fair for you to wait for the entire government to be formed.
“Never let the perfect become the enemy of the good. We would love to have younger people in office, who can do well, and who can contribute their energy.
“But we also think that experience counts for something. It’s striking the right balance that we ought to be interested in, not an obsession with one or the other.”
Acknowledging a certain level of discontent about the supposed slow pace with which the government is moving, Fayemi exudes confidence that it is only a matter of time before the government’s policy tree begins bearing juicy fruit.
“Yes, some people may be agitated [that we have not yet delivered on our promises]. But most trust the president and believe he is genuinely committed to turning around the country. He’s got competent hands to help him deliver on this.”
An overwhelming majority of Nigerians, who are looking for transformative change from a government that promised it, repeatedly, during the 2015 presidential poll, are fervently hoping that Fayemi is right.
The alternative – that it all goes horribly wrong – is too frightening for the country and continent to contemplate.