I like to believe that I have a few things in common with Femi Otedola, the billionaire business mogul, founder of Zenon Petroleum and former chairman of Forte Oil PLC. I know what you are probably thinking but I do not count in billions just yet and so let’s get that one out of the way. For whatever it’s worth, we are both November babies. Yay! I know right! That’s not all, we were both born, raised and hopefully practicing Catholics. But that’s where the similarities begin and end. Femi’s father, Sir Michael Otedola, was the former governor of Lagos state during the Nigerian third Republic. My own father? Well, let’s just say that he was not a governor during his time. Femi is that one guy with his many long fingers buried deep in every edible pie that Nigeria has to offer. It will amount to a gross understatement of facts to say that the now 60 year-old Adagbádá has done incredibly well for himself and his family.
Speaking of turning 60, Femi celebrated recently with pomps and vanities reserved only for those who hold membership in the exclusive club of the uber wealthy. Since this past week, one could hardly scroll through a page or two of Nigerian news stories without the ubiquitous Mr. Femi Otedola’s over two-billion naira rental of a luxury super yacht making headlines. If you think somebody was just out there making things up, Otedola was reported to have rented the yacht for three and a half weeks at a whopping $745,000 per week, including taxes and fees, running into a total cost of about $3 million. With how much the US dollar is exchanging in today’s parallel market, you do the math.
Otedola’s rental, Christina O Yacht is not your run-of-the-mill vessel. It’s the undisputed king of the sea. The famous yacht was initially purchased in 1954 by the Greek shipping magnate, Aristotle Onassis; the man who later married Jackie Kennedy, the widow of the late US President, John F. Kennedy. It is reputed to have once hosted the likes of British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill and American President, Franklin Roosevelt. It boasts of alfresco dining and bar, swimming pool complete with an aft spa pool, a dance floor where Otedola’s daughter Florence, aka DJ Cuppy, a DJ and music producer did a number in honor of her father. Christina O Yacht is luxury redefined.
But let’s face it; Femi Otedola was born into wealth and privilege. His case is not one of those famed rag-to-riches stories. In fact, his inspiration for renting the yacht I leant was because, growing up as a teenager, Aristotle Onassis was his role model and he would end up collecting all kinds of the magnate’s memorabilia, including documentaries, books and movies. The love for Onassis also kindled his interest in shipping and today Femi Otedola is the chief executive and president of SeaForce Shipping Company Ltd. He also carries with him the enviable title of Nigeria’s largest ship owner. But as huge as that is, however, the value of his shipping line does not even scratch the surface of an estimated $1.8 billion financial empire according to Forbes.
A 1985 graduate of Obafemi Awolowo University, Femi came into prominence when he led an audacious takeover of the former African Petroleum which later became Forte Oil Plc with him serving as the Chairman. Prior to venturing into Oil and Gas, he was just lying low in the background and managing his family’s equally successful printing press business. He later founded Zenon Petroleum and Gas, alongside other companies in the maritime industry, real estate, financial and power sectors.
Since 2005, Zenon has been holding a significant portion of the Nigerian diesel market and is the major supplier of the nation’s largest manufacturers. The company’s clients include the Dangote Group, Cadbury, Coca-Cola, etc. This didn’t come without blemishes, however. In fact, his name featured prominently in Nigeria’s often talked about fuel subsidy scam.
In 2012, Otedola’s Zenon Oil was accused by the House Committee on Fuel Subsidy Regime to have fraudulently obtained over $230 million foreign exchange from Nigeria’s Apex bank for use to import petrol under the subsidy scheme, but failed to use it for that purpose, a charge that Otedola denied. In fact, he claimed that the committe chair, Farouk Lawan extorted $500,000 from him through threats to indict his firms without justification. He then reported the matter to the State Security Service (SSS) who asked him to play along in order to have a proof of crime against the lawmaker. Mr. Lawan was later convicted after the court found him guilty. However, not everyone bought the story about what exactly transpired but Otedola did not face any charges.
For somebody with a net worth higher than some state government budgets in Nigeria, Femi is no stranger to philanthropy. The man has contributed to a garden variety of worthy causes within and outside of Lagos state. Through his Michael Otedola University Scholarship Scheme, established in 1985, many underprivileged students in Lagos State now have access to higher education. In 2005, Otedola made a N300 million personal donation to the completion of the National Ecumenical Centre, Abuja. And few others I am sure. That said, what is also obvious is that the combined total amount of what we know about Femi’s philanthropic efforts seem to pale in comparison to the more than 2.4 billion naira splurge on luxury yacht alone this month.
In November last year, David Beasley, the director of the United Nations’ World Food Program in an interview with CNN stated that a small group of ultra high net worth individuals could help solve world hunger with just a fraction of their net worth. Given that the net worth of US billionaires has almost doubled since the pandemic began, standing at $5.04 trillion in October last year according to the Institute of Policy Studies and American Tax for Fairness, this claim may not be totally unfounded. With a net worth of about $289bn, Mr. Beasley argued that $6bn or 2% of Elon Musk, the Tesla CEO’s wealth, could help 42 million people escape death from hunger.
Mr. Musk responded and challenged the World body to show him via Twitter how $6 billion could be used to overcome world hunger, prompting the UN’s World Food Program to produce a detailed plan. The world is still waiting to see if Musk and his likes will follow through but more than anything else, this exchange brought again to the fore, the discussion surrounding the role of the stupendously wealthy in solving society’s hunger problems. This is more so in a world where a combination of war, political corruption, natural disasters and other factors have continued to erode income and widen disparity which ultimately has made life increasingly unbearable to the most vulnerable population all over the world.
Of course, many wealthy people have shown willingness to help and some have even gone above and beyond. Charles Francis Feeney is an American businessman known for his legendary frugality who gave away this total fortune of more than $8 billion anonymously. According to a New York Times article in 2017, “Until he was 75, Chuck traveled only in coach, and carried reading materials in a plastic bag.” He does not own a car or a house and wears a $10 Casio F-91W watch while living in a rented apartment in San Francisco, California. Feeney gave away his fortune in secret for many years, until a business dispute resulted in his identity being revealed in 1997.
But there are also those who will tell you that giving out their wealth to benefit others which they describe using such phrases as trickle down economics or income redistribution doesn’t work. They are often quick to let you know how hard they work and the sacrifices they made to get to where they are. Of course, there is a solid point in the later argument and we can all attest to the insane amount of hours these folks put in everyday to get to where they are, but that’s completely beside the point. Maybe that’s an extreme response to those who are advocating for the rich to be taxed to death or tell them how to spend their hard earned money which is crazy. But beyond all the noise, to whom much is given, much is expected. Truth be told, very few can accumulate such an insane fortune without cornering an unfair share of the commonwealth through political wheel dealing, having friends in high places, engaging in sharp practices and other sundry means. Rather unfortunate.
Nigeria is the new poverty capital of the world, overtaking India, a country with a population of 1.4billion people and about seven times our size. That means that our nation has too many hungry mouths to feed. The situation has even become dire in these past several years especially with rising insurgency, farmers-headers clashes and other issues. We are almost at the point where Nigerians would soon be feasting off of each other’s flesh to live.
Perhaps no one knows the importance of feeding the poor and hungry more than Femi’s mother and matriarch of the Otedola family, Christine Doja Otedola. Between 1965 and 1982, Lady Doja as she is fondly called, was the Chief caterer of the University of Lagos. She was very loved by her students for the way she made sure that everyone gets fed and was known to even go the whole length of saving leftovers for those who could not afford the meal ticket, something that earned her the nickname, madam efficiency.
Born a Catholic, she is well known for her strong Christian values, charity and dedication to community development. She single-handedly built Saint Peters Catholic Church Epe. Femi’s dad though born a Muslim would later convert to Catholicism and Sir. Michael Otedola lived his life as a knight of St. Sylvester before he passed on May 5, 2014.
I am hoping that when our billionaire business mogul makes it back from his Mediterranean cruise, he will march straight to the church at Odoragunsin, Epe where mama Otedola worships every Sunday. In presence of the most high, Femi should pledge to give more to our society’s growing poor and feeding Nigeria’s hungry. Mama whom I am sure is already proud of all his son has achieved, would be very thrilled for such a move. And while at it, I would urge him to also seriously consider following in his father’s footsteps and embrace Catholic knighthood. But instead of belonging in the order of Saint Sylvester like dad, I would rather suggest he pitches his tent with Saint Francis of Assisi, the Saint of the poor. Nigeria’s poor and indeed the world surely need him and his uber-wealthy friends.
Here is to wishing Mr.Femi Otedola a very happy birthday. Oga, may your tap never run dry. O ka re o! Your boys are loyal.
•Osmund Agbo writes from Houston, Texas. Email: [email protected]