The recent announcement by the billionaire business magnate, Mr. Femi Otedola, CON, that he was gifting each of the N750 students of Augustine University, a privately-owned Catholic-oriented institution in Ilara, Epe in Lagos State, the sum of N1m (translating to a total of N750m) has been greeted across the length and breadth of Nigeria, and on social media, with universal acclamation, expressions of gratitude and invocations of divine blessings upon him, his family and all that pertains to him. He made this announcement on the occasion of his formal investiture as the new Chancellor of the University, as he outlined his vision and commitment to the educational institution and its student body. On that auspicious occasion, he also announced further contributions, pledging another N140 million for the furnishing of the recently-completed Engineering Faculty building and yet another N110 million for the installation of street lights around the campus and a new standby generating set – bringing his total donation to a staggering N1 billion. This is apart from his earlier commitment of N2 billion for the construction of the school’s Faculty of Engineering.
It is the latest example of the determination of one of Nigeria’s richest men to use his vast wealth to make a difference in the lives of his fellow citizens, and humanity as a whole. It is certainly not the first time the tycoon, who is the Founder of Zenon Petroleum and currently Executive Chairman of Geregu Power Plc, has made news with the scale of his giving.
A man with an abiding love for education and human capacity development, he has in the past made several donations to the Michael Otedola University Scholarship Scheme, established in 1985 to give under-privileged students in Lagos State access to higher education. In 2005, his oil and gas company, Zenon, donated N200m to the scheme’s Fund. Since its inception the scheme, which is named after his late father, the former Lagos State Governor, Sir Michael Otedola, has benefited more than 1,000 students. In 2007, he donated N100 million to the Otedola College of Primary Education in Noforija, Epe. In 2008, he donated N80 million to the Faculty of Agriculture at the University of Port Harcourt in Rivers State.
Outside education, Otedola, in 2005 made a N300 million personal donation towards the completion of the National Ecumenical Centre in Abuja (Nigeria’s primary place of inter-denominational Christian worship). In 2007, he was among a group of donors who handed over the sum of N200 million to the Lagos State Security Trust Fund in a drive to reduce crime in that state.
His philanthropic imprint has also been seen in the field of sport, and football in particular. His donation of the sum of $25,000 to the Super Eagles, Nigeria’s senior men’s football team, following a pledge he made during the team’s FIFA World Cup qualifying campaigns is particularly noteworthy.
Some go-givers and public-spirited persons find themselves in the public eye, wittingly or not, thanks to the sheer scale of their philanthropy, while others are known only to those whom they have helped privately (but no less impactfully). In the wake of the Augustine University windfall, a number of beneficiaries have reached out to blogs and online outlets to put it on record that Otedola’s public giving is complemented – if not matched – by his many private gestures of solidarity, assistance and succour. One of these beneficiaries, who calls the tycoon an angel of mercy, says Otedola’s benevolence is not contrived but genuine and heartfelt. ‘A year ago,” this person writes, addressing the tycoon, ‘while we were struggling to save my dearest only daughter Morore from a cancer-related death, you came through for the family and sent in a couple of millions without knowing me personally. Morore’s staggering hospital bill then was in the tens of millions. It was an absolute strain on the family then. But you came through for us via a friend of mine … which lifted the burden a whole lot.’
‘Though we tried our best, Morore sadly left us at just over 12 years of age in February of 2022. God knows best. But my solace was that we still gave her a fighting chance to survive, thanks to you.
I haven’t ever said Thank You before, either privately or publicly, but I have thought to do so now, and this way, from the bottom of my heart! Hearing that you just donated a whopping N750m to 750 students (most of whom you probably will never know) aroused in me the need to say that, indeed, your benevolence is second nature to you.’
Though not a direct beneficiary, another observer, a Prof. Falusi, is particularly impressed with Otedola’s massive support for education, seeing it as the demonstration of the tycoon’s understanding that an investment in education and human capacity development – whether for profit or as a social responsibility – is a visionary act, as it is a projection into the future of individuals, communities, nations and even the global village.
‘I’m in awe of the spirit behind this exemplary giving from the heart!’ Prof. Falusi writes. ‘This is impressive, thoughtful and worthy of emulation. Much respect, Mr. Otedola. You have shown an excellent example of the good use of wealth to raise the next generation of scholars and a few who in the nearest future will also benefit others and the education sector… Those who want to emulate you and bless others from their wealth will … be noted. Thank you so very much for this community spirit.’
Prof. Falusi’s description of the mogul’s open-handed generosity as ‘worthy of emulation’, and his call on other highly-placed Nigerians to do replicate Otedola’s gesture, is instructive. Nigeria is one of the world’s most unequal societies where – especially in urban centres like Lagos – stupendous wealth sits in uneasy proximity with abject penury. It’s a society where, it is often said, there is no longer a middle class; you’re either very rich or very poor. In such a society, a combination of factors need to come into play to achieve a measure of socio-economic equity (though not of equality, for that is not of this world). One of those factors is a deliberate and intentional government policy and accompanying programmes aimed at enhancing human capacity development and empowerment, as well as targeted social investments. Another is affirmative action aimed at giving preferential treatment in respect to educational, career and business opportunities in favour of vulnerable and disadvantaged groups such as women, young people, members of certain ethnic minorities, and people living with disabilities, etc. Unfortunately, the continued rise in the poverty rate in Nigeria is a bitter commentary on how well (or otherwise) governments at all levels and their relevant agencies have done in implementing their social investment programmes (to the extent that they have any in the first place). Today, thanks to the weakness or non-existence of a social safety net in our society, the vast majority of our people are excluded from the good of the land (and from the so-called ‘dividends of democracy’), a situation which threatens us all with the dangers of rising crime and insecurity. If not ameliorated soon, this social EXCLUSION – as someone has warned – might soon culminate in a social EXPLOSION.
Also important is the role of the organized private sector, especially the leading conglomerates, in regard to their Corporate Social Responsibility, or CSR, obligations towards the people, communities and interests they identify as parts of their catchment areas.
High networth individuals such as Mr. Femi Otedola have also proven that beyond government action, beyond CSR, a individual can make a huge difference, too – and so can a critical mass of such individuals. All it takes is a willing heart and open hands. A healthy bank balance doesn’t hurt, either!
In the end, as the American civil rights icon, Dr. Martin Luther King reminds us in his essay, ‘On Jericho Road,’ we humans (whatever our station in life) are all on a journey along Jericho Road. And on that road there are some who have been injured by life and left for dead. How we respond to the plight of these wounded souls by the wayside – whether like the Priest and the Levite in Jesus’ famous parable (who prioritized religiosity, ceremony and status over humanity) or like the Good Samaritan, who did the opposite – will determine the fate (at least in the short term) of those whose destinies are, directly or indirectly, connected to ours.
To call Mr. Otedola a Good Samaritan will be to state the obvious. But this writer who’s also a beneficiary of his big heart and open hands wishes to submit that the accolades being showered on him, especially after his latest gesture in respect of Augustine University, Epe, would probably be much louder if more people knew where the impetus for his active (one can even say, activist) philanthropy came from.
No, it didn’t just emanate from his own privileged background as the son of the illustrious Sir Michael Otedola, a one-time Governor of Lagos State, or his elitist upbringing and education, or even his accomplishments in business and position atop the financial totem pole in Nigeria and Africa. As another child of privilege – the late Diana, Princess of Wales – once said, wealth is a blessing, but if you have a conscience, it is also a burden. What you do with that burden determines much more than just another’s welfare or your own peace of mind.
Beyond privilege, therefore, Otedola’s philanthropy is also motivated by an experience he had a number of years back. Believe it or not, Otedola, this giant of global business, this epitome of success, had once contemplated suicide in the not-so-distant past. In 2008, to be precise, his investment in the diesel business failed – taking with it his almost half a billion dollars worth of investment (at a time, he recently disclosed, when he had 93% of the diesel business at his fingertips). This massive and unexpected loss marked a journey into severe depression for a man who, in spite of his larger than life public persona, is very much an intensely private man given to much introspection. It was a trigger for suicidal thoughts on his part.
Two things, he said, held him back from ending his life – thoughts of his wife and children, and what would become of them in the aftermath of his decease, and his encounter with the man who today is the Chief Executive Officer of Geregu Power Plc – Akin Akinfemiwa. Otedola attributes his meeting with Akinfemiwa to what he calls ‘ the hand of destiny. ‘ Rather than commit suicide, Otedola says, he decided to ‘sack’ himself from day-to-day management of his business and hand same to Akinfemiwa. Impressed by the latter’s brilliant performance in his role at Geregu’s London office, Otedola also made him the CEO of Zenon Oil, and then that of what is now Forte Oil – in addition to handing him a well-deserved 1% stake in the business.
The rest, as they say, is history. “When I was making that decision,” Otedola says today, “I knew that (failure) was … not my destiny. I can’t fail in business because I am an entrepreneur. I can make money but I would have to give to charity. It’s no longer about me.”
It was James D. Purkiser who said that it is not what we SAY about our blessings, opportunities and second chances, but what we DO with them, that shows the full measure of our thanksgiving.
Fortunately for the students of Augustine University, Ilara-Epe, and for all who have benefited directly or indirectly from his largesse, and indeed for society in general, Olufemi Otedola, CON, embodies that principle to the letter.