In a fast-paced world where events of tremendous impact are taking place in split seconds, it is easy to be engrossed with current realities, forgetting that yesterday’s business had not been pursued to a logical conclusion. This appears to be the case with the teaming, intimidating and scandalous population of Internally Displaced Persons, IDPs. Instead of feeling sorrowful over this unfortunate situation, Yomi Awobokun, a successful businessman left his privileged position to find a place in history along with those focused on returning dignity to these inopportune compatriots. Nseobong Okon-Ekong reports
He has no history of personal calamity that could have persuaded him to undertake this journey on a road called compassion. Raised by affluent albeit humble parents, his father, a medical doctor still runs a thriving practice in Ibadan. If anything, he recalls a childhood filled with happy and fond memories. It was at this early stage of his life that the values of altruism were inculcated into Yomi Awobokun and his siblings. Frequent visit to charities exposed him to the pitiable plight of the less fortunate. It has since become a part of him to lend a helping hand and to offer his comforting shoulder to the needy.
Before now, he carried on his charity projects on a regular personal scale which was mostly limited to his family and friends. That was until he identified a catastrophe of national and international dimension which was begging for urgent intervention. As he focused on it, his thoughts became clearer and he decided to establish a structured involvement that will not only outlive him but run seamlessly on its own steam. This led to the birth of TS20F, The September 20 Foundation. To be sure, September 20 is Yomi’s birthday and to remind him that his birth into this world should impact his generation positively, he anchored charitable efforts on this significant date which now means more than a personal memorial.
His history with selfless service has gone through quite some interesting curves. He explained. “I have always done one charity work or the other. Many years ago, I was associated with my church working with victims who had used drugs, cocaine and Indian hemp creatively and had become addicts. I worked on that initiative for a few years, after that I worked with an organisation looking to rehabilitate women who had been abused physically and sexually. I also worked with an NGO working to provide story books to children from less privileged homes-‘one book, one child’. At least, each child was entitled to one story book and they were taught to exchange. There were no libraries around them so we gave them that orientation- ‘own a book, take care of it and then exchange’. I have always done one charity or the other. It’s just the way we were taught by my parents- to give back. My wife is involved.”
Reeling out shocking figures of the humanitarian disaster which inspired him to do something that has been so surprisingly successful that even he can’t believe he did it. “I was shocked to discover that seven million Nigerians are internally displaced. There are 2.1 million Nigerians in the IDP camps. There are another five million people displaced but not in camps. That is a massive challenge. There are countries that have only five million inhabitants.”
Scandalous as this statistics may appear, it immediately helped to identify the niche area of intervention he needed to make with the IDPs. While there are so many areas that existing groups and some individuals are already mediating, he discovered that lack of accurate information often led to overconcentration on one area of need neglecting other sectors that are as well critical. For instance, donors may supply mattress without taking into account the profile of persons who need the mattress-how many adults? How many children? This is the kind of support TS20F hopes to provide. It is Awobokun’s hope that by providing a graphic and detailed picture of the situation in the IDP camps, potential donors will be armed with the right information to make constructive intervention in critical areas.
“You have several millions of people displaced and it doesn’t come up on social media, I am worried. Does it mean we have lost our humanity? The goal here is to join the people who are already doing things. We should support the government and humanitarian agencies to improve the quality of the livelihood of people in the camps. We are not set up to give food. We do contribute food and household items but more importantly we do everything it takes to bring to the knowledge of Nigerians, the plight of residents at these camps. We work to humanise the people in these camps, so that Nigerians can know they exist. We publish information about these people. Whatever we can appeal to organisations to help them with, we will. Interestingly, since our last trip to the camp, one of the big mattress manufacturers was really impressed with the report that we provided. They told us they will contribute 1,000 mattresses, because some of the people there sleep on the floor. They had been contributing but didn’t know what the requirements were. They were specifically keen on giving us mattresses for kids. Our goal is just to continue to bring more information about these camps to the fore.”
To underscore the seriousness of TS20F, Awobokun headhunted a skilled and experienced lawyer, Ola Arowosaye who previously worked at the Lagos government owned charity, Office of the Public Defender. With her in-charge of the TS20F Secretariat, the organization is getting increasing recognition and invitation to collaborate with United Nations organs and international humanitarian organizations like the International Red Cross. Helping him to keep the flame of his vision burning are trustees of TS20F which includes his wife, Mrs. Sunmisola Awobokun, his father, Dr. Abimbola Awobokun, Mr Tunde Abiose and Temitayo Ogunbanjo. Setting up a fully functional secretariat became necessary as the vision unfolded into bigger realms that demanded more time and engagement than Awobokun’s regular work as the chief executive of an Apapa-based oil and gas company allowed. He could only travel weekends and public holidays. For three years, he visited the camps in his personal capacity. With each trip, he became more drawn into the suffering of the IDPs. “We took it a step further with volunteers and friends, colleagues from work, just to give everyone a sense of what is going on in those places. I think it drives home the point that we are very fortunate because most of the people there have done nothing wrong.
It is just that they come from a different part of the country which is unfortunately the part that has trouble with insurgency. Otherwise, they are not different between you and I. The goal is to continue to bring awareness to those camps, to Nigeria so that everybody can contribute something, from clothing to time. Children there have birthdays. Nothing says we can’t celebrate their birthdays. There are so many things we can do. Saying that somebody cannot do something for those people is false. There’s a lot to contribute.”
Working from a deep conviction that every member of the society, particularly leaders must grow with a consciousness to give back, Awobokun is honestly connected with the landmark communal and individual events in the Apapa community where his office is. “We came to Apapa, put up a world-class office here as you can see and everyday interact with the community. Did you see any mobile police downstairs? We work freely with the community, we attend their naming ceremonies, their sons are marrying our daughters and vice-versa. So there’s no tragedy that has happened to me that is requesting me to do this”
It might be early in the day, but Awobokun does not foresee a future when there will be no IDPs. “There are IDPs all over the world. Look at what is happening in Europe. For the moment, there are massive migration issues. There are IDPs in France, Germany, Italy so some of these things are always going to be with us. The IDPs are not always caused by insurgency. Some are caused by natural disasters.”
Leaving his vantage position to interact with agencies of government with the statutory responsibility to deal with the IDPs has been an eye opener for Awobokun. Now, he is better placed to assess the challenges these organizations are confronted with. “I think that we don’t commend NEMA enough. All the states have theirs like in Borno, there is BOSEMA who have done fantastic jobs with the resources under their control. I think they too need to be supported, the government has done a good job setting up those agencies and if you read some of the things they’ve done, the most positive is that you can actually put people in the camp and at the right time successfully return them to their homes, villages and farms. I think that needs to be commended. In the circumstances, they have very difficult jobs and I think that they are doing their best. They may be better organised in some countries and less in others but again it is also directly proportional to the resources of the country. Sometimes, it is better organised in some countries because they are developed and have more resources.”
Thanks to good orientation from his parents, Awobokun has learnt to situate his charitable works in context and prioritise them on a need-to-do basis. But whatever he does, he is guided by the dogma that charity must begin from home. Although, there are no IDPs in his home state of Ogun, he has the presence of mind to identify challenged communities, particularly in his Ogere-Remo homestead where he supports the community with agricultural produce. Guided by this philosophy to take care of his immediate environment, he ensured that impactful CSR projects are executed by his company. “We invested about N200 million to build the road leading to the this office. We invested another N400 million to build adjacent roads that have nothing to do with this office.
Over the last two years, we invested in water and power for the community. Apart from blue collar workers, every year, we invest in artisans. We give a quota to the community after training we send them to proper mechanical institutions so they too can become employers. We recently started to invest in painters, not just skills that deal with our product directly, both male and female. We call this our home community. We invest significantly in infrastructure, improve livelihood in each community. And you know apart from the indigenes, we also have host communities. We have the armed forces, it’s a dynamic community.”
The host community where his business is located and his homestead may be challenged, but it is nothing compared to what he saw at the IDP camps. “The conditions at the IDP camp are significantly worse. This community has water but there is none in the IDP camp. The morale in this community is better. They are not inmates of a camp. They live with their families. In one of the camps we visited, there were about 1500 people, 600 of which were men, 150 women and 300 children. Even the balance creates all sorts of issues because a lot of the men have lost their families, they were attacked so they fled. They don’t even know where their families are.”
One of the images that have haunted Awobokun since he started working with the IDPs was an unfortunate incident where the IDPs polarized themselves along very rigid fault lines that are manifest in the larger society. But he could not have imagined that it would rear its ugly in a community of challenged persons. “We met Borno IDPs and the Bauchi IDPs fighting. ‘I had to say to them, we’ve come from Lagos, we are all Nigerians. How does somebody give you aid and you from Borno say you will not share with the one from Bauchi and the person giving you aid is from Lagos and Ogun. It makes no sense. That is a point we have to fight. All of us have got to stop this state of origin or culture bias, it just tears this country apart. I learnt from that experience that you don’t have to eat well to discriminate. These are people from the bottom of the pyramid, fighting themselves for aid. It is unbelievable.”
Conversely, on the positive side, Awobokun pointed out an example of dedication and commitment. “We met a camp manager who had some educational background. He was there initially as a corper and has stayed there. He was essentially in charge of food distribution. He had a fairly honest system with which he ensure that everybody got food. We met a leadership structure which we thought was positive. At least, there was organisation. There was a woman leader, a chairman- their own little government. We asked them how they resolved issues and there was a reasonable appreciation of law and order to the extent that they acknowledged that whenever there is an issue, the chairman thought was outside his capacity, they called the police. The conditions were not too good, but there were areas for sanitary activities, separate from areas of cooking and resting and sleeping. They have makeshift schools for the children, they agreed on uniforms so as to help the children orientation. Before we left, there was a little girl that fell ill. The whole community brought her to us and we ensured that she was sent to the hospital very quickly. I have been in touch with the coordinator and the girl is much better. She had suffered from typhoid. She is back to the camp with her parents. There were flashes of what makes us a great country. The men had gone out to look for work. Our men like to work. Of the 600 men, I think we met 10. All the men had gone out which is the way Nigerians are. Some of the women had also gone out while others looked after the children. There are enough positives to wish that we have more resources to help them all.”
It is this hope and deep-rooted conviction that he is doing a good thing that fires his ambition every day. With each contribution, Awobokun is happier that he is inching towards the mark. “Our last contribution to the IDP camps, came from close to 1,000 people. Some of these donations are very little sums. I think the highest donor was N1 million. People donate as little as N5,000, and that’s what we are trying to encourage. To live thinking and caring about other Nigerians. Don’t say that your situation is the worst, and so you cannot give back. So it gladdens my heart to find people donating N5000 and N10000. It is good news to hear the billions donated, but it is also big news to hear thousands and hundreds being donated. Our interest is in information management. We want to bring information about the inmates and persons in these camps to the public. We don’t think that enough Nigerians know that these conditions exist. We don’t think enough people understand that every little bit counts.”