By Morenike Taire and Ebunoluwa Sessou
Just approaching her mid thirties, Simi Fajemirokun’s political career is already intimidating. An educationist, entrepreneur and politician, she is a member of the All Progressives Congress (APC) and was appointed to work on the Presidential Campaign Council while serving as a member of the Election Planning and Monitoring (EPM) Directorate under the leadership of Babatunde Fashola.
At the EPM, she coordinated the National Situation Room and the core strategy team that helped to successfully re-elect President Muhammadu Buhari.
She was also appointed as the Secretary of the Federal Capital Territory (FCT) APC State Campaign Council under the leadership of the State Party Chairman Mr. Abdulmalik Usman and the FCT Minister Mr. Mohammed Bello. She also served as the Director General, Welfare for her Ward Campaign Council in Gwarimpa.
Prior to her appointment on the Presidential Campaign Council, she ran as an aspirant for the House of Representatives, representing Abuja North Constituency. Although, she didn’t win the party ticket, she ran a most inspiring primary election campaign that served as a game-changer in FCT politics.
She runs an NGO, ‘Read to Succeed Africa’, aimed at changing the face of Education in Nigeria especially to improve public primary education. She runs a literacy and entrepreneurial programme by preparing young children for the workforce. In this interview, she bares her mind on the poor education system in Nigeria and jungle politics.
You were recently invited to the University of Lagos to speak to the youngsters; what was it about?
It was basically to share my experience as a young woman and what I have been through and how I have been able to overcome some of the obstacles and barriers.
What were those barriers?
Moving back ten years ago from the UK was probably the first time that I remembered that I was a woman. I had worked for fourteen years before that. I graduated in 2005 and being in the workforce was just results and results, and that is how you got ahead. But moving down to Nigeria, I discovered if you are trying to get things done, somebody will remind you that you are a woman. So, for the first time in my life, gender was a big thing. Even in my family, children were not raised differently. We were taught how to get jobs done and we were raised by values. So, fighting that stereotype was more of a mental fight and making sure that you do not succumb to what other people think you should be doing. When you believe in your dreams, you should go ahead. It is very hard when people are wondering why you should have a seat at the table. So, it was that constant battle, reminding myself of my purpose and understanding that people have done it before me, therefore, I also need to do it for those behind me.
What are your concerns about the Educational curriculum?
I think the curriculum itself needs to be upgraded. The curriculum is not a curriculum for the future of work; even the current workplace we are living in. It is scary to know that we are turning out a workforce that is not equipped with the skills that are needed in the knowledge economy and digital economy. Ten years ago, some of the jobs that exist now were not there and it is going to accelerate in that direction. With everything being automated with technology and going back to our schools, the lack of ability to prepare students for the workplace is a big thing. It is not enough to go to school or getting a degree or certificate but to prepare students for the world of work. So, it goes beyond one edition of a book to another.
So then, how do you come in? Is it through advocacy….?
We have three approaches. Advocacy which focuses on public schools. There is lack of awareness of the state of public schools. I did not know how bad it was until l adopted the first school. The public education system has been left for the poor. No one is really interested in fixing the problem. They do not even know how bad it is. Imagine a primary 6 pupil who does not know how to read or write. The problem with education is that issues that come up are not immediate. It takes like seven years to realise that they are problems. It is not like health where you see malaria as malaria, polio as polio. There is no sense of urgency in fixing education because the problem only comes up when you find a university graduate who does not know how to write a letter without spelling errors and good research. Most of the public schools are not habitable. Our public Education system shows that we do not value Education at all.
When we introduced our advocacy to the presidency, it was a welcome initiative. We have engaged people who have created alternative ways. We are introducing new career pathways that can make people to be valuable to their communities without necessarily being a doctor or engineer.
Your schooling was not in Nigeria and likewise some of the children of Nigerian leaders. How do you start the conversation? How do you get them to understand the realities on ground?
I do not think there is one answer to that but I will clearly say that, that was part of the reason I joined partisan politics. Because, it was very difficult running advocacy programmes to people who did not care. Right now, there is a dichotomy. People in government do not care but I believe with constant engagement, we can get them on board. I was frustrated at first because it was a constant vicious cycle. There are over 24,000 public primary schools not including secondary schools. Politics is one platform that provides you the opportunity to do the greatest things for the people and as much as we portray it to be devilish and self centered, it should not be the future. We are opportune as citizens who care about this country to design this future that we want.
What was your first assignment in the public domain like?
My first experience was running a literacy programme in an orphan home. I believe in public service by private citizens and instead of focusing on what government should do and less attention on what we can do, we can equally make change and impact. I am interested in ensuring that reading culture is imbibed in our children. Interestingly, when I started, we discovered that 1 out of 3 pupils in primary six cannot read.
The case was different during my primary six days. I was reading my teacher’s books in the 90s and I was wondering how education got degenerated to this point where primary six pupils could not read a book. I was angry. There is nothing as heartbreaking as the fact that we have continued to recycle poverty and introduce children to a vicious cycle of poverty. When children wear their uniform to prepare for school, something at the back of their mind tells them that they are being prepared for the future but it is a lie. And we have failed not just one generation. It is an appalling situation but I remain an incurable optimist that things can change. Teacher absenteeism was the norm and we tried to change the narrative by providing adequate power supply. We paid their electricity bills and provided a generating set. We eliminated teacher absenteeism and ensured that children attend their morning assembly. After investigation was carried out on why children do not come to morning assembly, we then bought a school drum band for the school. These are little things that I contributed to the school down my street. When we also find out that girls were missing in the school, we tried to sort out what the problem was. When people are talking about girl-child equality, sometimes, fixing the toilet goes a long way. So, it will be convenient for them to come to school. Some of these girls would not want to come to school because they are having their menstruation. Some of them miss examination because there is no good toilet facility.
So, how does that interface with your political journey?
Politics for me is service. I do not see it as a tug of war. I think, it is a transition. Politics is determining who gets what, when, where and how. And we all do that in our families so, it is first in our family before we step out of our house. It was a natural transition for me to enter into the political space and I hope to do much more in the Education sector both from the policy perspective and from the inside. Education should be valued; it should not be on nepotistic basis. So, getting into politics, you can whisper into the ears of the politicians who are recruiting the teachers and make them employ the right people. I am happy about the impact we have been making in the space.
Isn’t it part of making things happen by pushing policies; have you done much of that?
You have to have the platform to do that. Right now, I ran for office and I did not win because we did not have legitimate primaries. I also served at the presidency level for the campaign council, so, it is more of politicking at my local government level and my ward where I have control via my counselor and guiding them with the decision they make. I am not in the position to make a national policy but I can push for it using my personal networks.
What have you learned since you joined politics?
I had a good experience. Of course, the injustice of not having a primary election occurred after spending that money. I had the pain and a sense of injustice but I will not throw away the baby with the bath water. My experience with politics is that people are ready for change. I do not sound like a typical politician but I have been blessed to have people that supported me during my campaign. They actually sought my advice and put me on committees where they think, I can add value. When I got into politics, everyone was talking about the fact that I am a woman and therefore ‘they will not take you seriously ‘ but that has not been my experience. So, I am very hopeful for this country. I think, half of the battle is showing up. People are just jaded, they treat politics with so much disdain that people do not what to get involved. But, when I got involved, I discovered that half of the battle is showing up. When it comes to gender in politics, you do not see lots of women. The only place we see women is either selling the food or party clothes, ankara. They are in a strategic political space. And at the end, you could look at it from outside and lament that there is gender inequality. When I got to the political room especially APC, nobody will tell me to shut up, and I have not been reminded that I am a woman; I cannot do this or that. Rather, I have been given the platform to get things done. I think, if more women show up. I know, it is a very scary experience but if more women show up, we will have a more diverse and inclusive political class that would make better decisions for the citizenry and for Nigeria at large.
The leaders of APC nominated 43 ministers and only 7 women were included, are you saying that party is gender sensitive?
I did not say, the party is gender sensitive. I said, in my experience working with the party, I did not feel excluded on the basis of gender. So for me, politics is local. I am talking from ward and state level. When I got involved in politics, I found out that if there is ward executives, 2 of the members will be women leader and welfare. This is crazy but we have left the local politics and feel that the same people that make up the majority at the ward level, local government level and the state level, and somehow, when we get to federal, we are supposed to have gender parity. When it comes to politics, we need to rewind and look closely at the local level because if it changed at the local level, it is inevitable that we find changes at the Federal. We see when it gets to the Federal because that is obvious.
I would say that the president tried by including seven women because at the ward level, you will have one. So, it is better to get involved in politics at a very granular local level because once we start changing there, then, it will inevitably change at the top. But, we leave the local level and all of these things are in the hands of men.
What do you think is responsible for the reaction of the women?
By nature, we care about the things that make the headlines. The local news is not going to make the headlines. So, by virtue of that, awareness at the local level is inevitable. When it comes to election at the local level, the turnout is always appalling and yet this is the government that is closer to the people. There are more turnouts for the presidential election that is more detached from the people. And with the way we vote, you can tell what our priorities are worth. There should be less voter turnout for the presidency. It is ridiculous. I think, our idea of democracy is worst. President Buhari does not have influence over the immediate market road of a bread seller in your community whether it is built or not but you will come out for his election whether you hate or love him. But, the one that has direct jurisdiction over your daily affair, you prefer to stay indoors during election. For me, it is something that I think, we need re-orientation on. The civil society groups, media are not also helping issues in making deliberate efforts to pass the appropriate message, so we need to switch it on its head and begin to reflect on what is relevant to us in each local government, state and then the federal government.
Let’s bring it closer home. There is an urgent call for stakeholders to attend to the problems faced by workers and the company in general especially as it concerns traffic gridlock, bad roads, invasion of trucks among others in the Apapa axis. Nobody is paying attention. Is this a Local government issue?
Let me start by first of all apologizing to the management of Vanguard. I think that businesses should not generate losses because of infrastructure that is supposed to have been put in place. That is investment for industries to thrive. I am a believer in big business small government. But, I do want to highlight that these problems did not start today. We have mismanaged our resources. Apapa should not be where it is, it has been degenerating since 1960 unabated and it is going to take more than a government and a four year cycle to fix the problem. I am not into Maritime but I do know that the system and processes that allow for decisions to be made quickly are in place. The needs for procurement, contracting laws are processes that need to be considered.
For a country that needs lots of infrastructure, the process of getting backlog of payment for contracts signed is to be considered. In the course of involvement in politics, I have seen that there are measures that make it impossible for the government to move at the expected pace.
Generally all over the world, government is not the most efficient, it is the private sector. But I know that government has priorities for infrastructure and I am optimistic that people will begin to see the changes, I just hope that the problem will be solved. As long as it is the priority, I believe, we will begin to see changes.
I will urge to continue the job you are doing because it is the media that is capable of holding any government of the day accountable. You do not need to be bullied. Sometimes, someone who believes in jungle politics or sycophancy politics might be responsible for what is happening in Apapa. With our democracy that is maturing and the level of representation and conversation in the country, you will begin to see change.
The name Fajemirokun is a household name, maybe it paid off?
My family is not known to be politicians. It was not really an advantage. It was known in a business world. Therefore, anything I have acquired in the polity has been on merit. I think anyone that is coming out leverages on his or her strength. And that has been my life. I am an advocate of result, making impact, quality of work delivered, people you have empowered and what people are saying around you. Keep working; never think nobody is noticing, someday, your reward will come. I pray that we begin to raise servant leaders who are there to serve. We need to live the greatest that this country possesses by virtue of our resources, human population, and culture among others.
Do you think marriage will not be a barrier for you in politics?
I do not think so. I studied politics and international relations and I studied Nigerian politics while I was abroad. I would advise that we should begin to treat politics as a place where professionals can go. The idea that people see politics as a place for mediocrity is irritating. The idea that any one person can join politics should be erased. There should be prerequisites for joining politics. It should be a case of track record. Someone once told me, “what are you doing here, this place is for animals, this place is for dogs”, and I am wondering how we would change the narrative. We should not be stuck in the past. We should believe that, it can change, it will change, and it is changing.