By Bassey Ubong
Femi Otedola (in a country where people are mad about titles, no reference material adds a title to this man’s name, which someone can quote) has been on Nigeria’s rich list for decades and has a fine pedigree.
When Augustine University, Ilara-Epe, Lagos State inducted him as the Chancellor of the Catholic institution some weeks back, he made a cash splash of N750 million in favour of the 750 students of the institution. The donation has attracted considerable attention, as it should, but one angle requires attention here – would the Nigerian system be better served if the largess had gone to real indigent students? Before the question receives attention, we need brief backgrounds on the two principal parties – Augustine University, Ilara-epe and Femi Otedola himself.
Augustine University, as indicated on the institution’s website, received approval to run as a private university in 2015. Institutions in the group are described as faith-based, and one can guess may have access to financial support from the primary promoter, the Roman Catholic Church. It runs few courses in the sciences, arts, and management. The average fees, without boarding and lodge, ranges a little above N1 million, with extra hundreds of thousands on course by course basis. The low fees may explain the ‘large’ student population of 750 as at 2023/24 academic year. Private universities in Nigeria charge high fees, some beyond N5 million per year.
The Augustine University fee may be low, compared with others in the big league. it begs the question whether any child of a petty trader or small holder farmer can study there, except on scholarship, whether personal or corporate.
My direct neighbour has a child in Akwa Ibom State University where the ‘high’ fee of N95,000 per semester rules. The man and his wife struggle to raise enough from their shop where crayfish sells for N50 per wrap and maggi cube can be bought per unit. When I enquired from a friend of the new fees of the University of Uyo I learned it has gone up from N28,500 for close to a decade to N96,000 at present.
Femi Otedola hails from Ibadan, Oyo State and appears to have adopted Epe as his second home. His father, Sir Michael Otedola, served as Governor of Lagos State between 1992 and 1993 and bowed out when General Sani Abacha took over as military Head of State.
Femi Otedola graduated from the Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-ife. The Forbes magazine listed him as one of the five dollar billionaires from Nigeria as at 2016. His name has been absent thereafter for unexplained reasons. His principal source of wealth has been petroleum products marketing, a sector he has been a key player through African Petroleum, rechristened Forte Oil.
One of the wonders of the Nigerian state continues to be the absence of names from the Niger Delta which remains the goose that lays the golden egg. The majority of Nigerian billionaires made and continue to make billions from the petroleum sector, but the list excludes people from the Niger Delta region.
Femi Otedola, as indicated in Wikipedia of 2023, has been a notable philanthropist. He has donated huge sums to several humanitarian causes, and in particular to educational causes. When Bashorun MKO Abiola donated monies all over Nigeria and people quoted his political ambitions, I told friends I prefer people who donate to grab attention for political reasons than those who make their wealth exclusive to their families, but seek political office later just to acquire more wealth for their families. Femi Otedola has done well and should be applauded, for there are other Nigerians wealthier than him who find it impossible to buy one pencil for a child from a poor home.
But in the trending donation, we should be permitted to ask whether Femi should rather have sent the fabulous sum to public universities, where poor students abound. The capacity of the 750 students of Augustine University to pay their fees can be assumed.
When the story of the cash splash broke, I spoke with Professor Joseph Ushie of the University of Uyo on the case of a child forced to defer admission at the University. The child, a teenage girl, gained precious admission for the 2023/24 academic year, but her father, a pastor, had to channel what he has to the girl’s brother admitted for the 2022/23 academic year, which has been merged as a result of last year’s ASUU eight-month strike. Payment of the acceptance fee before application for deferment has proved difficult for the pastor.
Professor Ushie told me of the pain he felt each time a student entered his office to seek his signature for deferment of studies, sometimes for amounts as small as N7,000, when he served as Head of Department. How many can one Head of Department cover in a year with his or her low salary?
If we are permitted to review the Otedola donation further, N1 million per student of Augustine University would pay school fees for 10 students of a public university with fees are below N100,000 per semester. The N750 million, which Femi, with our knowledge of him, must have paid already, would advance 7,500 poor students of a public university by at least one semester.
Yet, President Bola Tinubu may be ready with the execution of the Student Loan Bill, which would compel public universities to charge commercial fees higher than Augustine University charges at present.
Whither the poor in Nigeria, we should ask ourselves as well as the government. Should Femi ignore poor students when they need assistance far more than students from homes with reasonable capacity to meet high fees? A friend, Mercy, told me the rich will continue to associate with the rich, after all as our primary school teacher taught us, birds of the same feather flock together.
This should remind us of the conflict theory of education, which I have quoted several times. The theory says the structure of education often crafted by the middle class works towards the stability of the social system in which children of the upper crust become adults in the upper crust, while children of the lower crust, described as the proletariat by Marxists, grow up to be adults in the lower crust.
But the middle class has disappeared in Nigeria, to the extent that just two levels are left – the upper upper and the lower lower. Those who claim middle class from 2016 till today live in self-delusion. Ordinary citizens of Nigeria form the dominant majority, and anyone should be baffled how the super-rich have managed to keep them docile and silent.
One more thing to consider in what appears to be misplaced philanthropy. Years ago Richard Quest of Cable News Network (CNN) interviewed a dollar billionaire from Ibadan who made money from the oil sector. The man at the time donated $1milliion to the city of Houston, Texas and the leaders of the city gave him a key to the city. Mr. Quest asked the man what he has done for Niger Delta where his wealth came from. With clear irritation, the man said he keeps his philanthropic activities to Niger Delta silent (but can announce the ones abroad). The interview entered the home run when Richard requested him to comment on youth restiveness in the Niger Delta, a region, which best fits what American high caliber public servant Susan Rice christened, “Too poor to be rich and too rich to be poor.” The billionaire, with undisguised anger said: “Niger Delta youths should bear in mind they have just one country to call theirs. Interpretation? He has two, Nigeria and United States, where he has citizenship and holds top positions.
In essence Femi Otedola should support students at all levels, but more of his goodness should be focused in areas of highest need. Most public universities host the extreme poor who continue to seek deferment or are forced to terminate studentship.
Other billionaires, such as Kase Lukman Lawal, Kola Karim, and Mike Adenuga all of them from Ibadan who made money from the petroleum sector should consider support to poor students in public universities. When they donate, they should make it public, just as they publicize their other donations. I cannot think of any Niger Deltan who would speak against announcement of donations to the traumatized region by those who have benefitted from the Region. Let them forget Federal Government which can claim releases of 13% derivation to the region, although they know just dregs get to the people after political parties and political office holders have satisfied themselves. Can Femi and his fellow Ibadan billionaires from petroleum set up Foundations?
Imagine a Femi Otedola Fund for Niger Delta Students and what it will do to thousands of youths desperate to expand their coasts, which is the primary thing tertiary education does. They will be grateful to him all their lives as will their families.
Maybe another life case will enable us to berth and consolidate our argument. My Clan association (Asang Nsit Area Development Association) raises funds from philanthropists to empower youths. In one case, a potential beneficiary applied for N100,000 for acceptance fee, and other start-up expenses following admission into a nearby university. Some members of the association wondered how the young man will fund his studies if he could not meet commencement expenses.
Things are this bad and philanthropy will be appreciated. Mr. Tony Elemelu funds young people with desperate needs, and who cares if he has political ambitions? During the last election cycle, I urged him in one of my posts to contest. If he did I would have waged a one-person campaign war in his favour. University of Port Harcourt imposes a surcharge of 50% on any student who has been unable to pay fees by end of an academic year. Imagine such irony – someone unable to pay N50,000 told to pay N75,000 one day after a semester ends or withdraw from the institution in this case for financial failure.
And, 7,500 students by any stretch of the imagination will likely do more for a country than 750 students all things being equal, just as the prayers of 7,500 poor families will generate more blessings to Femi than the prayers of 750 rich families.
I have served as the Chief Executive Officer of a Federal institution of higher learning. Poor students require assistance, rather than loans which will keep them poor all through life, the reason I will continue to appeal for abandonment of the Student Loan Bill. It has viruses with the capacity to destroy opportunities for higher education for Nigerian youths from poor families.
This piece acknowledges the right of any donor to give to whoever he or she pleases, after all scripture says the Almighty Father does same.
Dr Ubong, a writer and public policy analyst, lives in Uyo.