He likes to decorate himself with fancy titles like Social Entrepreneur or Civil Society Diplomat who functions as Special Representative to the United Nations for many organisations. That does not really explain that Dayo Israel was already earning over N1 million per month from UNICEF Nigeria when he was in his 20s. Nseobong Okon-Ekong reports his trajectory from an unusual childhood to an emerging leader
His father retired as a Group Captain in the Nigeria Air Force. Unfortunately, he died when his son was 11 years old. At that time, if anyone had told Dayo Israel that he would someday become one of the emerging leaders in Nigeria, he would very much doubt it. This was when newspapers – a present legacy of his grandfather that he could feel and touch – became his companion. His mother was not the only wife of his father and this disadvantaged position galvanised her to drive Dayo and his sibling to succeed. To comfort himself, he talks of his family as multi-pronged and not a polygamous family.
He admits now that her concern was driven more by fear. Her mantra was, “my children must succeed so that my enemies will not rejoice over me.” To overcome these anxieties, she created a world that excluded the appearance of anything that may corrupt her children, including television.
“Some of those things that my mother did are laughable, but she took them seriously. We could not watch television. We did not have a normal childhood, playing around with other children. When she was not around, we would peep from the fence to catch a glimpse of television in a neighbour’s house, although we had a small television in the living room, we could not touch it without her permission.”
He was still laughing over these reminiscences. The next revelation was seemingly devastating to his reputation, but he did not mind sharing the information. “I used to bed wet till I was 10, not because anything was wrong with my bladder, but if you wake up at night to use the toilet, it was sure that my mother would be awake, praying and you could not go back to sleep. She would force you to join her prayer session. So, I opted to lie in bed, relieve myself and continue sleeping rather than join her endless prayer. She would pray for the General Overseer, pastors, elders, ushers, legislators, councilors, governors and the president. I did not understand it.
What did I have to do with all these people?”
However, with the benefit of hindsight, he is thankful that this strict regime instilled a lot of positive virtues and values that have guided his life till today. “She wanted us to be spiritual. We grew up in Ebute Metta where we had all these poor people. She would constantly point out to us that she did not want our future to be like those people. My friends were always scared to come to our house. If you were in our house on Saturday, we start prayers at 5pm and we will not end till 12 midnight. She used to borrow money to pay our school fees. That is why I love my mother. I celebrate her till today.”
Dayo went to Government College in Ikorodu. For a season, he was a day student and recalls walking all the way back home to Ebute Metta. That sounded too far-fetched, but he insisted that he actually made that distance on foot many times because school fees were increased and he had to drop out of the boarding house to become a day student. “When my mother noticed that I was returning home very late. She moved me to Government College, Eric Moore in Surulere. The students in that school were always getting into a fight with those of a neighbouring school at Onitolo. One day, I was nearly beaten to death. To save my life, my mother moved me to Methodist Boys High School where I finished my secondary education at 14 years.” It was the same age that he was elected into the Nigerian Children Parliament as the first Deputy Senate President; quite an eventful teenage for a boy who started secondary school living with his grand father in Abeokuta.
“I started working for UNICEF Nigeria at 14 years. I was a Collation Assistant for the Global Movement for Children Campaign, it was led by Dr. Nelson Mandela. In 2001 when they were going to hold the General Assembly for Children in New York, UNICEF Nigeria supported me to attend the event. Unfortunately, there was a bomb blast on September 11 and the event was postponed till the next year. I was there. I met lots of leaders.”
Because he was not allowed to interact with other children at all, newspapers that his grandfather bought dutifully, became his closest contact to the outside world. What dominated the news of the day was pro-democracy activism. Dayo imagined himself an activist. It wasn’t just an idea he romanticised, he actually went in search of the leaders of the day and took his place beside them.
“I had an uncle called Taiwo Ajala, He was a lawyer. I wanted to become a lawyer like him. I got into Lisabi Grammar School at the age of eight. When Gani Fawehinmi did his One Million Man March I was in the crowd. I was interested in human rights, governance and leadership. From a young age, I have always been positively restless. I was always interested in what was happening around me. At the age of eight, I held a crusade. I read in the Bible about Josiah, David and Solomon, all these young people who became king. That inspired me.”
As soon as he left secondary school, he became a volunteer for the United Nations programmes. He was also preaching the gospel in buses around Lagos. “I believe everything I am doing today is a calling.”
Dayo Israel has spent more of his life working with non-governmental service institutions. He has been in their circle for so long that he has become the shadow of many leaders in civil society, governance, faith and politics. He has maintained his closeness to many of them through the years. Among other things, at the moment, he is one of the top aides of Senator Jide Omoworare.
Dayo became an acquaintance of many leaders. Some of these relationships developed into enduring friendship and alliances. From former Presdent Olusegun Obasanjo and former Vice President Atiku Abubakar, to Senator Remi Tinubu, activist lawyers, Olisa Agbakoba, Femi Falana, Hafsat Abiola-Costello, Pastor Enoch Adeboye and Pastor Sam Adeyemi, Dayo paid his dues, eventually earning the privilege to enter the inner circle of some of these personalities. At the same time, he made a name for himself, becoming increasingly well connected as a voice for young people in Nigeria and Africa. “We have done a lot.
As Deputy President of the Children’s Parliament, I was one of the people who crafted the Childs Right Act in Nigeria. In 2002, President Obasanjo appointed me as the Chairman of the Summit on Nigerian Children. I have been holding programmes that build capacity for young people in Nigeria. In 2004, I held the UN Young General Assembly in Nigeria. We had 156 young people from all over the world and the Diaspora. In 2002, I took eight young people to the UK. I was a teenager myself. I have led a delegation of business and government leaders to the Commonwealth Business Summit in the UK since 2014.
Today, Dayo is touted as one of the 100 Most Influential People of African Descent, and describes himself as a Social Enterpreneur. Well, that depends on who is asking.
At other places, he presents himself as a Civil Society Diplomat who functions as Special Representative to the UN for many organisations to the UN. “I currently serve as Head of Operations for the Commonwealth Africa Initiative. I am also Vice President Operations of the US Exchange Alumni Network, the International Visitors Leadership Programme. I work with GHLEED Foundation, an international NGO. I oversee its operations in Africa.”
If you still can’t put a finger on what he does, this explanation should help. “I was a Consultant to UNICEF Nigeria. I was working on the Lagos State Violence Against Children Committee as National Officer Basic Consultancy. I was earning One Million Naira a month. A UNICEF driver earns N450000 a month. These are outstanding institutions. They pay their staff good money and pension. My organisation is called a Fresh Start Initiative. I am the Founder and Executive Director. I have GHLEED Foundation that I am a member of the board and I am also the director of Africa operations. It is an international organisation with headquarters in the UK.”
Dayo doesn’t see anything wrong in receiving generous amounts as salary charity works. “Yes. It is service to humanity, but if you have given your time, how do you pay your bills?” With that question he wanted me to appreciate the necessity for a good reward to those who serve humanity. “I also work for Youth for Transparency International. I attend UN meetings representing YTI. I have a lot of experience in operational management. I help organisations set up operations.”
For 22 years, he has been a Civil Society Diplomat, instead of minding his space as a lawyer; a specialty he enhanced by studying International Relations at master degree level. He had his doctorate in view when the then Minister of Youths, Bolaji Abdullahi, sought his services. He has not gone back to the UK since to complete his doctoral studies or go the Nigeria Law School for his call to bar examinations.
“It is not yet time to practice law. My interest is really in development. I may go for it when I stabilise a bit more. Right now, I am pushing a movement to see what young people can achieve in our continent. It is taking a lot of my time. We have different platforms like ‘Ready Run Win’, ‘Not too Young to Run’ and ‘Emerging Political Leaders Summit’. With these platforms, we train young people to go into politics. I am not keen to be a lawyer, but I need the knowledge for everything I do.”