How about this? By 2030 — that’s a little over 10 years from now — no Nigerian child will die from preventable diseases such as malaria, pneumonia and malnutrition; all children will receive quality basic education, and their parents will not have to be politicians or bankers; and discrimination against the girl-child will end. These are the big dreams of Save the Children, the UK-based charity that has operated in 16 Nigerian states since coming here in 2001. Clearly, these are tall orders in a country where 50% of girls who are 15 years and older are illiterate; where 32% of school-age children are on the streets; and where 104 out of 1000 children die before their fifth birthday.
But you know what? Most of these horrible statistics come from north-eastern Nigeria. You can now understand my joy when Mr Femi Otedola, billionaire businessman and executive chairman of Geregu Power Plc, dropped the “bombshell of the century” with his N5 billion donation to support Save the Children’s north-east intervention. The gala, which took place on Sunday, November 10, 2019 at the Transcorp Hilton Hotel, Abuja, was organised by the Cuppy Foundation to raise funds for the 100-year-old charity. Florence “DJ Cuppy” Otedola, who set up the Cuppy Foundation in 2018 to tackle issues surrounding vulnerable young girls and disabled people, is Otedola’s daughter.
Those who initially thought Otedola’s donation was N5 million are forgiven; N5 billion is unprecedented. It is the largest single donation by an individual in Nigeria’s history. Otedola, who recently sold his majority stake in Forte Oil Plc, is taking philanthropy to a new height. He said: “God has been so kind to me in life. I feel highly privileged. 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.”
In that case, he has thrown down the gauntlet on “next level” philanthropy with the N5 billion bombshell. He does not have a foundation himself, at least not now; that is similar to the path chosen by Mr Warren Buffet, the US billionaire businessman who prefers to support charities rather than set up his own. Buffet is reputed as one of the biggest givers in the world. He is a major contributor to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, set up by his fellow billionaires. Whether or not Otedola ends up setting up his own foundation, the most important thing here and now is to get the job done, to touch the lives of underprivileged and displaced Nigerians.
As massive as Otedola’s donation is — N5 billion is terrific in any currency — the fact remains that humanitarian organisations working in the poverty-stricken, war-ravaged north-east can do with more Otedolas. We are dealing with a tragic situation of disease, hunger and homelessness. If Nigeria is rated as the poverty capital of the world, I can declare without looking at the raw statistics that the north-east contributes the highest to this dubious distinction. As bad as things are for the whole country in terms of quality of life, southern Nigeria is like Europe compared to the north-east. The poorest of the poor live in this region — and this is pulling down the rest of Nigeria.
Almost 20 years ago, His Highness Muhammad Sanusi II, the emir of Kano, warned, in a paper he delivered in South Africa, that the north-east would soon become the problem region because of the level of poverty and deprivation there. Sanusi, who was then a banker-cum-public commentator, warned that Lake Chad was drying up and pointed out the implications for the economic life of the region. The response of the typical Nigerian would be: “That is their problem.” The region became the breeding ground for Boko Haram. Today, the death and destruction Boko Haram has brought upon the whole of Nigeria cannot be described as “their problem”.
We woke up too late to the north-east catastrophe. We know how the Boko Haram insurgency has cost us billions of dollars, wasted the lives of hundreds of thousands and brought social, political and economic ruin upon the nation. We are now living with more ripple effects: the menace of the herdsmen, many of whom were displaced from the north-east, and the replication of violent crimes as evident in the mindless banditry and sadistic kidnappings across northern states. A Yagba proverb says if your neighbour is eating a poisonous insect and you keep quiet, when he starts crying at night, you too will not be able to sleep. It will not be his problem alone as you initially thought.
That is why I am scandalised by the debate as to why Otedola, a Yorubaman, should donate to “Hausa” children. I think people are taking this their “fiscal federalism” thing too far. Those who argue like this — that Yoruba should support only Yoruba, Christians should donate to only Christians and southerners should care only about southerners — are very difficult to debate with or persuade to see the bigger picture. My advice to them is that they should choose where to do their own charity and allow those who see humanity as one blood to also do theirs as they please. Nobody should be harassed or insulted for seeing beyond ethnic and religious cocoons.
Tackling the north-east condition has to be multi-dimensional. I am aware that there is a North-East Development Commission (NEDC) targeted at developing the infrastructure, but that one will be more about sharing contracts. This is Nigeria. We know all these things. If government bodies can solve problems, the Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC) would have turned the south-south to a mini-Dubai with all the resources it has received since 2001. It has, instead, produced a generation of sleazy billionaires, demigods and pompous criminals. The region is still longing for good infrastructure and the majority of the people still smell of abject poverty.
While government interventions must go on everywhere in Nigeria — why do we have government in the first place? — I would rather trust private humanitarian initiatives for more direct impact on the masses. That is why the rich must do more to help the poor in a country plagued by colossal inequality. Otedola’s donation may be his way of challenging Nigeria’s billionaires to give sacrificially to charity. I hope they will all graduate to another level of philanthropy. Alhaji Aliko Dangote, Africa’s richest man, announced at the gala that he plans to give away most of his wealth before he dies. He donated a princely N100 million. He is easily one of Africa’s biggest givers, in any case.
One of the things that make philanthropy essential in a country such as ours is the failure of government to provide basic social services to the lower rungs of the society. In the advanced societies that we envy and give as examples of how things should be done, basic education is free, quality health care is affordable and healthy nutrition is taken for granted. But in our country, and indeed most African countries, the mass of the population struggle from the womb to the tomb. Potable water is gold, public education is poor and public health services are sickening. The inequality is so sharp that one person often carries the burden of a whole family.
There is a debate out there over how well Nigerian billionaires give to good causes. I won’t join the debate but I would just say no matter how well they are already giving, they can always give more. You get to a point in your life when you start asking yourself how much land you really need. You engage in so much vanity that you begin to dread the day you die and wonder what would happen to your riches. But you can never go wrong putting smiles on the faces of the poor, providing safe water for communities, giving scholarships to indigent students, saving the lives of those in distress by paying their medical bills, and so on. You can never regret such good deeds in your life.
After the gala, I asked Otedola how he felt giving away N5 billion at one blow. He replied: “Save the Children has a global reputation. They will not steal one kobo of it and you will see the results.” He said he was “very fulfilled” because “if I die today, I am not taking my wealth anywhere… it is far better and more gratifying to make a difference in the lives of the poor and give them an opportunity to also make it in life”. He has made life-saving donations to foot the medical bills of many prominent Nigerians and has been awarding scholarships to students for nearly 15 years. He is currently building a N2 billion faculty of engineering at the Augustine University, Epe, Lagos state.
Make no mistakes about it: we will always have the poor among us. There is abject poverty and there is relative poverty. Even if we conquer absolute poverty, we cannot conquer relative poverty. There will always be poorer people in comparison to others. That is a fact of life. But the majority of Nigerians are stuck in the miry clay of abject poverty. While we await government policies and programmes to eradicate this, we will continue to need the vital intervention of philanthropy. In truth, we are all philanthropists in our own ways; paying for someone’s malaria drugs or giving out your clothes is charity. So, don’t feel bad if you can’t give N5 billion like Otedola.
AND FOUR OTHER THINGS…
Everything is wrong with The National Commission for the Prohibition of Hate Speeches Bill as proposed by Senator Sabi Abdullahi. First, it is grammatically bizarre — “hate speech” is the standard form. More so, you want to set up a whole commission over hate speech that can be dealt with by a division in the police? Another chairman, board and director-general for hate speech? Above all, proposing the death penalty for an “offence” so open to interpretation in a politically warped system like ours is an open invitation to anarchy. Abdullahi should kill the bill and, instead, propose the death penalty for lawmakers who tamper with funds meant for constituency projects. Suicidal.
Saturday’s elections in Bayelsa and Kogi states have further confirmed some peculiarities that are now becoming part of our electoral culture in Nigeria. Before every election, these things are certain to happen: last-minute court orders and injunctions, intimidation of political opponents and violence. On election day, there will be gunshots, ballot-snatching, vote-buying and more violence. After the election, there will be manipulation of results and election petitions running into months and going all the way to the Supreme Court, where applicable. We still do not have the right temperament for democracy in Nigeria but we shall get there one day. Hope.
After the court disqualified Mr David Lyon as the APC governorship candidate in Bayelsa state, the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) came up with some confusing explanation. Mr Festus Okoye, the commissioner of voter education and publicity, said it was Lyon, and not APC, that was disqualified by the court — so the party would still participate in the elections. “We do not have any court judgment that said the APC should not be on the ballot paper; what the court said is that the party does not have a candidate,” he said. Why then was APC not allowed to participate in Rivers and Zamfara governorship elections even though its logo was on the ballot? Puzzling.
Something has been going on in Lagos for years that nobody seems to care about since it seems to affect only the poor: public water has dried up! Are we now having cholera cases? Could it be what the government has been describing as “gastroenteritis”? Prof Akin Abayomi, the commissioner for health, said 400 cases “have been recorded in health facilities in the affected LGAs and 370 of these cases have been treated and discharged”. He said the increase in the number of cases of gastroenteritis “is not unconnected to persistent rain with flooding of some LGAs in the state”. Lagos, of all states, shouldn’t be starved of potable water. Embarrassing.