What we may legitimately say is that the example of Femi Otedola and others like him necessarily generates a conversation about the purpose of wealth and the place of the privileged in a dispossessed society.
“God has been so kind, the only way I can show my gratitude to Him is to use my resources to support those who are underprivileged. This I intend to do for the rest of my life. In a world full of conflicts, diseases, calamities and inequality, we all need to show the milk of human kindness, to reach out and comfort the sick and give a helping hand to the weak.” With those touching words about the collective humanity that we all share and the purpose of life, Femi Otedola, Nigerian multi-billionaire and entrepreneur issued a cheque of N5 billion in support of Save the Children, a 100-year old UK-based charity. Otedola’s donation is for the rehabilitation of displaced and underprivileged children, who are victims of the insurgency in the North Eastern part of Nigeria. The cheque was presented by Tolani Otedola, the billionaire’s eldest daughter, at a gala event in Abuja, Sunday, organised by another daughter, Florence Otedola, who is popularly known as DJ Cuppy. The latter is an Ambassador for Save the Children and a member of the organisation’s Africa Advisory Board. Femi Otedola’s friend, Aliko Dangote, also a billionaire and a philanthropist of note, added his own donation of N100 million, bringing the total donation to N5.1 billion. I do not know how rich Otedola is, but any man that would give away N5 billion (about US $14 million) to support children or anyone in distress certainly has the milk of human kindness flowing through his veins. Otedola deserves special recognition and a word of gratitude for his generosity. By this singular act, and similar gestures in the past, he seems to be changing the narrative about the art of giving and the need for a sense of community and philanthropy in Nigeria. It is not enough to give, but to give consistently and generously, without any expectation of reward or gain.
Of all his efforts as an entrepreneur, Otedola would probably be most remembered for his acts of philanthropy in the long run, that is his social entrepreneurship, the readiness with which he offers a helping hand. In the last year or so, he has been on record for picking up the medical bills of Christian Chukwu, former captain and coach of the Super Eagles or the Green Eagles, as the team was earlier known. Chukwu (now 68) was a commanding presence on the football field. He led his local team, the Enugu Rangers to many victories, and as a member of the Green Eagles, he was a play maker and motivator of the team’s last line of defence. Both his fans and teammates called him “chairman.” That was not for nothing. And yet the same man could not pay his hospital bills. Femi Otedola stepped in and helped out. He did the same for Peter Fregene (now 72), Nigeria’s former international goalkeeper (1968-1971). And for Majek Fashek, the gifted Reggae musician who at the height of his glory was dubbed “the rainmaker”, in attestation of the force and mythical quality of one of his famous tracks: “Send Down The Rain.” Many fans of his would insist even today, that whenever Majek Fashek performed that song, rain actually fell! But the magic has since left the stage, the myth has been compromised. The same Majek Fashek could also not pay his hospital bills. Femi Otedola bailed him out. He also did the same for two famous Nigerian actors: Sadiq Daba and Victor Olaotan. There are probably many others whose cases are not reported in the media.
Nigeria is a very strange place where the future is as uncertain as the present. The gap between the rich and the poor is wider than the entire Sahara Desert. The average Nigerian lives on less than a dollar per day. Social infrastructure is in a state of decay. There is no social security scheme. The public health system collapsed long ago. Private hospitals detain the sick who are unable to pay for treatment. One woman gave birth in a hospital; she and her baby were detained. The country once tried to introduce a National Health Insurance Scheme. It has never worked, because it is used as an instrument of political and ethnic patronage. Ours is a country where even the rich are not sure of tomorrow. Talented people, distinguished professionals in various fields of endeavour end up becoming beggars, or destitute, not necessarily because they did not plan for their future or for unforeseeable accidents of life, but they suffer because Nigeria often leaves its citizens stranded. The state routinely disappoints the people. It is unfair. It can be cruel. People are treated as if they do not matter.
This is why every act of kindness is significant. It is not the amount that matters, but the very thought itself, that gesture that reminds us occasionally that in this pressure cooker of a society in which we live, you can still find a rich man who gives out a dollar or two, a concerned citizen who helps an accident victim, a cab driver who finds a document or some money forgotten by a passenger and returns it, or a security agent who does his work with the fear of God. Such persons are quite rare in these parts, and it is why we need a constant reminder that beyond the state or government, Nigeria is a country where we must continue to search for the meaning of Being-ness, and the reasons for being human. An Otedola helping the sick and the weak reminds us of the big difference that we all can make, not in dollars but each man in his own station, according to his strength through simple and possible gestures of kindness.
As for Otedola, I do not imagine that he goes about with an ambulance-load of cash looking for other people’s medical bills to pay. Far from it. He supports other causes as well, particularly poor students whose school fees he pays, educational institutions to which he has donated buildings and religious bodies and groups that he has assisted. By involving his children in his most recent donation, he also signposts a strong narrative about parenting and sustainability. His N5 billion donation is routed through the Cuppy Foundation. The cheque was delivered by his eldest daughter. What else does a man need to say to his daughters or the suitors who want to marry a billionaire’s daughters? He tells them clearly that life goes beyond music, fashion, dancing, boo-ing, bae-ing, vacationing and Gelato-ing.
It is not surprising that his donation of N5 billion drew enthusiastic applause. The vice president, Professor Yemi Osinbajo said it is “the single largest donation to philanthropy in the country.” He may well be right. But perhaps the most notable reaction has been that of Reno Omokri, who describes himself these days as “a table-shaker.” And did Reno Omokri try to shake the table? In this particular matter, he didn’t actually shake the table; he broke the legs. Said he: “Femi Otedola has just put the billionaires of the North East to shame. Where are the Indimis, the Mai Deribe family and other oil billionaires from the North East? Google their names and some of the first pictures you will see are of their children in private jets marrying President’s children and displaying obscene wealth while surrounded by extreme poverty. It took a Good Samaritan stranger to do what the natives of the North East failed to do! Shame on them and God bless the talakawa that they have refused to look after.” This harsh and pain-inflicting comment has stretched the narrative a bit further – with the daughters of the two families that Omokri calls out directly defending family integrity on social media. The emerging controversy about how the rich Nigerian one per cent engages the rest of society and gives back or not is useful. But while Omokri may be accused of trying to politicise or ethnicise the Otedola gesture, we need to place his comment in proper context.
One, he probably generalises when he refers to “Oil billionaires from the North East” in a manner that may be unfair to some other persons from that part of the country. The North-East, one of Nigeria’s six geo-political zones, consists of the following states: Adamawa, Bauchi, Borno, Gombe, Taraba, and Yobe. I don’t know whether Alhaji Atiku Abubakar is an “oil billionaire” or not, but I know he is from Adamawa State. One of the reasons for his popularity among his people is his generosity and common touch. General T.Y. Danjuma is from Taraba State. He easily belongs to Omokri’s “Oil billionaire” category, but it is a fact that through his T.Y. Danjuma Foundation, the General has done a lot for his own people in Taraba State and across the North-East and Nigeria. There is also a Muhammadu Indimi Foundation which prioritises the North-East. We can praise Otedola without hurting the feelings of others. Two, while stating this, I am mindful of the bigger point in Omokri’s comment which is the felt, seen, and often commented upon abdication of responsibility by the Northern Nigerian elite.
The Nigerian elite is generally callous, selfish and irresponsible but the most alienated, the worst set can be found in the Northern part of Nigeria, an indolent elite that has occupied the higher rungs of privilege and power before and after independence and yet has not been able to translate its access to power into advantages for its people. Northern Nigeria has the largest number of out-of-school children. It has the largest number of girl-child brides, and other children under difficult circumstances. It has the largest number of persons living below the poverty line. It has the smallest number of educated Nigerians, and the highest number of Nigeria’s “lazy youths.” Reno Omokri throws up the questions: Why don’t we have the Northern rich, as many of them as possible, helping their own people? Why must it be a Yoruba man from Epe donating N5 billion to assist displaced children in the North-East? Our response to Reno Omokri is that philanthropy needs not wear an ethnic or partisan garb. It is about the collective humanity we share. Isn’t Reno Omokri himself running a #Free LeahSharibu campaign? Leah Sharibu is neither a member of his church nor is she of the Itsekiri stock. Bill and Melinda Gates, Bill Clinton, Jimmy Carter, Oprah Winfrey, George Soros, Mark Zuckerberg have supported worthy causes around the world.
What we may legitimately say is that the example of Femi Otedola and others like him necessarily generates a conversation about the purpose of wealth and the place of the privileged in a dispossessed society. Aliko Dangote who made his own donation to the Save the Children charity is probably the leading philanthropist in Nigeria today, in terms of spread and scope, through the Dangote Foundation, which is run by his daughter, Halima Dangote. Dangote appeared on stage recently in New York, with Mo Ibrahim and Bill Gates and he said he is inspired by their examples. Mo Ibrahim, Bill Gates and Warren Buffet are among the most generous givers in modern history. It is an ethic that should be encouraged. Closer home in Nigeria, there are other examples: Tony Elumelu, of the Union Bank of Africa (UBA) is the founder of the Tony Elumelu Foundation, which promotes Africapitalism and provides opportunities for young entrepreneurs in more than 40 African countries. What TOE, as he is otherwise called, has done with that Foundation is impressive and reliable. Jim Ovia is the founder of Zenith Bank. He has invested heavily in education, not for profit, but to provide opportunities for young persons. He is the founder of James Hope College, a world-class, private school in Agbor, Delta State, where he tries to provide a strong, educational foundation for the youth of tomorrow. Recently, he launched a branch of the school in Lagos with an offer of full scholarship to 40 per cent of students. Aigboje Aig-Imoukhuede of Access Bank and Coronation Capital, has a scheme called Africa Initiative for Governance (AIG). Every year, AIG sends five students from Nigeria and Ghana to the Blavatnik School of Government, University of Oxford, to take post-graduate degrees in Public Policy. He believes that when they return and they are injected into the public sector, over time a crop of well-trained experts would have been created to act as agents for public sector transformation in Africa. The scholarships are fully funded. There are other philanthropists, of course, who intervene in their own way – like Professor Pat Utomi who supports widows, Florence Ita-Giwa who provides for the poor in Bakassi, Sir Emeka Offor, Mr. Oba Otudeko, Folorunsho Alakija, Otunba Subomi Balogun… We can have more people in this country willing to give back and help. Reno Omokri may have been direct in his finger-pointing but there is certainly a large community of rich Nigerians out there who do not know what it means to be public-spirited. They are happy to go about in private jets: it costs about US $4 million per annum to maintain a private jet in Nigeria (Otedola’s N5 billion donation is the cost of maintaining a private jet for about 4 years) and yet most of the nouveaux riche are much happier going about in those jets with girls with long legs, fake skin, fake eye lashes, Brazilian butt-lifts, fake accent, and small brains, rather than help the poor. Their type can be found across Nigeria.
But it is not enough to make donations or set up a Foundation. There must be transparency and accountability in the management of funds and processes. Sustainability is important. Too many Foundations rise and fall. We hope Femi Otedola and his daughters will find every reason to sustain their new-found passion.
Reuben Abati, a former presidential spokesperson, writes from Lagos.