In the wake of the coronavirus outbreak in Nigeria in March, Toyosi Akerele-Ogunsiji, 36, was named the chairperson of the Theophilus Danjuma-led Victim Support Fund’s (VSF) taskforce on COVID-19 relief response.
Few days before the youth-led #ENDSARS protests started across the country, Mrs Akerele-Ogunsiji sat with PREMIUM TIMES’ Ebuka Onyeji to discuss how the VSF has lent support and relief to both the government and vulnerable Nigerians adversely impacted by the pandemic.
The #EndSARS protests which initially started peacefully transcended into a looting spree, after hoodlums took advantage of a government crackdown.
Warehouses for the COVID-19 palliatives especially donated by the private sector-led Coalition Against COVID-19 (CACOVID) were massively looted in several states including Lagos, Osun, Kwara, Cross River, Kaduna and Plateau. The stolen food items including garri, rice, spaghetti, Indomie and vegetable oil were carted away.
A few days ago, Mrs Akerele-Ogunsiji said none of the COVID-19 intervention from the VSF was looted, clarifying that the VSF operates independently and differently from CACOVID.
In the interview held last month, the VSF official explained how about N1.8 billion worth of palliatives were shared among 12 states in the first and second phase of their interventions. She also spoke on what to expect in the third phase and how the government can leverage the expertise of NGOs in a national response among other issues.
PT: What is the Victim Support Fund (VSF) all about?
Toyosi: The Victim Support Fund (VSF) was set up by the former President of Nigeria, Goodluck Jonathan, in June 2014, as a national response private sector-led humanitarian institution to provide psychosocial support, economic empowerment, educational support, resettlement and rehabilitation for victims of insurgency and terrorism across the North-East of Nigeria.
As of 2014, insurgencies were at its peak and the government were concerned about the plights of the people from regions hugely affected. The then-president Jonathan created the VSF and made it a private sector-led organisation because he wanted an independent humanitarian intervention without government or political interferences.
In addition, the sort of money that could fund the operations of VSF could only be gotten from the private sector. And it was only logical to allow the private sector to take the mantle of leadership in the funding they provided. The president appointed TY Danjuma as the chairman of VSF and Fola Adeola as the vice chairman at that time.
The current vice-chairman is Tijani Tumsa. The president also appointed 20 other members to join in steering the affairs of the organisation. Prominent amongst them are Folorunsho Alakija, Wale Tinubu, Cosmas Maduka, Sunday Oyibe, and John Gana.
A couple of months after inception, we had our committee meeting during which we decided that we should register the victim support fund as a private foundation limited by guarantee to be able to limit the interference of government. Since then, our work has cut across the length and breadth of the North East.
Until March 2020, we have rebuilt police stations, government infrastructure like local government, rebuilt tons of schools, we have put children back in school, we have partnered with some of the major teaching hospitals across the northeast to provide pre-natal, natal and post-natal care for pregnant women. As you know, a lot of women and girls get raped by terrorists whenever they (insurgents) invade communities.
Part of what we now have are girls who get pregnant out of wedlock against their own will. Some of them also lose their lives while trying to get abortions. VSF has invested in maternal health care for women. The chairman, Mr Danjuma, on March 29, 2020, inaugurated the Victim Support Fund COVID-19 Task Force.
PT: From 2014 to March 2020 when COVID-19 intervention started, how much has the VSF received as donations?
Toyosi: In 2014, the pledges we received were over 60 billion and of those pledges, I think we redeemed about 50 per cent. A lot of people who made pledges on the night of the setup of the VSF are yet to redeem their pledges until now.
PT: How did the COVID-19 intervention come to be?
Toyosi: On March 29, TY Danjuma inaugurated the VSF COVID-19 Task Force with the intention of supporting internally displaced persons and vulnerable families across Nigeria. Our first outing was on April 15 in Malaysia garden, Abuja where we began the COVID-19 intervention.
PT: Can you give us a breakdown of the first and second phases? What are the expectations from the third phase of the VSF COVID-19 intervention?
Toyosi: TY Danjuma inaugurated the Task Force with N1 billion on March 30 and it was broken down into a granular form. The first thing we did was to work on the need assessment. Data is important when you are coordinating humanitarian support especially if you are a credible organisation that wants to be able to provide and speak on issues around transparency and accountability. Aside from the United Nations and other international donor agencies, I don’t know if there is any other local organisation that has done extensive work like the VSF in the North East.
In fact, if you go from Maiduguri all the way to Goza and other places, you will probably see the schools on the road. The school bag for the kids is VSF customised bags.
So, what we did was to lean on an existing framework that we already have as an organisation and then break the funding down to be an adequate guide for us to build a sustainable framework around the project. The one billion was broken down and we prioritised the core North-Eastern states and the frontline COVID-19 states at that time.
You will recall that Lagos, Ogun and Abuja were the frontline COVID-19 locations where the federal government had already declared the lockdown. We, then, in addition to those three states, chose Borno, Yobe, Adamawa and Taraba.
Borno State got 20 per cent of the N1billion, Lagos got 20 per cent, Yobe, Ogun, Adamawa, Taraba got 10 per cent and Abuja got 20 per cent. We further broke it down into food, medical items and Personal Protective Equipment.
We set up a pricing intelligence unit so we could compare our prices. At the very height of the pandemic, we couldn’t mop up the number of commodities we needed to donate within the states. Logistics were a nightmare as vehicles couldn’t move because of the lockdown. So, for food items, we gave out 10kg rice, 10kg maize for the North. For the South, 10kg garri, 10kg beans, vegetable oil in four litres and salt in 2kg.
For PPE, we gave out surgical face masks, some re-useable face masks, latex gloves. We gave out alcohol-based hand sanitizers, Harpic toilet cleaner, Jik, Dettol soap amongst others.
For medical items, Lagos got 25 per cent, Borno 20 per cent, Ogun 10 per cent, Abuja 15 per cent, Yobe 10 per cent, Taraba 10 per cent and Adamawa 10 per cent. We invested a lot in hygiene and sanitation. We also invested in preventive measures. The reason we did that is, for you to really reduce the scourge of the pandemic, people’s immunity needs to be strong. So, if you give people food without the right multivitamins, it would not be good for us at all.
Our budget for the second phase was about N832 million. We covered Edo and Delta states and we covered Ebonyi, Enugu and Ekiti states. We also provided support of N150 million to the Federal Ministry of Health covering specifically technology equipment, laptops for their COVID-19 secretariat, WiFi, zoom meeting etc.
We also donated Teleconferencing and surveillance equipment to the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC). We also provided an infrastructural upgrade for some of the elevators in the ministry of health because of an increase in the number of people coming into the ministry. We also funded the National COVID-19 response action plan for the federal ministry of health.
Also, in phase two, we supported, through the Presidential Task Force, by setting up hygiene facilities in schools to support the gradual reopening of schools. In addition, we also donated hand sanitizers, face mask and hygiene kits for children.
For the third phase, we are going to be focusing on the North West and North Central geopolitical zones of the country. For the North West, we will be doing Kano, Kaduna, Zamfara and Katsina. For the North Central, we will be focusing on Plateau, Benue and Niger states. As an organisation, we are very big on sustainability.
So, consolidating on the existing mechanism as state governments have already taken crucial operation for our task force. To select states, we also look at states that are in deplorable conditions where we can upgrade the system from zero.
Kano is a densely populated state and you will recall they almost had a tragic situation some months back with the surge in deaths rates. Katsina has also had a crisis and insurgency in the last couple of weeks. Victims of terrorism and insurgency are the ultimate priority of the VSF. Zamfara also has issues of insurgencies and killings. Kaduna also has pockets of crisis but specifically, we are concerned about the southern Kaduna crisis. We are going to try to mediate between the government and people of Southern Kaduna. We are also going to be supporting both stakeholders on different levels and on different sides.
For North Central, Plateau currently has the highest number of COVID-19 while Niger is an extremely poor state. They have not been able to do so much in the middle of this COVID-19 pandemic. The citizens are very poor and people almost have no food to eat. Also, Benue has a huge population of IDPs spread across their various ethnic diversities.
We may also set up molecular laboratory in some states that do not have. Some states are not recording huge numbers because they are not testing enough.
Finally, we are going to do a lot of communication which we have already started. We have started campaigns on radio, printing fliers in Kanuri, Hausa. We are partnering with influencers to do short skits on social media around issues bothering on COVID-19.
PT: You have so far visited 12 states. What are the pressing challenges you have encountered?
Toyosi: The greatest challenge is the personal risk involved, the cost of risk to each of all our members of taskforce and staff who are on the frontline during the height of the pandemic.
While everybody was working from home, VSF staff were going to work. We needed to do our paper work, we needed to plan our travels, procure our items and coordinate the donations. The personal risk was a huge sacrifice on our part because any of us could have contracted the virus. A lot of members are also over 60 years, which makes them vulnerable to COVID-19.
Other challenges we also had was in pricing. Logistics were crazy, security of our staff and task force members who had to move by road was also at stake. Some had to travel with support of the Nigerian Air Force but some of the plane were small and could not accommodate all of us. To also cut cost, we had to drive to some locations instead of flying down.
We had to go through all of this to ensure that whatever we are donating to the public commiserate with the actual value of money we had at our disposal. We did our best to do justice to that process.
The family was also a major challenge. The last challenge is the complexity of working with state governments. The bureaucracy, the bottleneck around this is how governments do their thing. So, what we did was split all our donations into 50-50. Our programme monitoring and evaluation team did a lot of work around looking for credible local NGO’s within all the states visited. So that they could partner with us on the donation especially because we wanted checks and balances between NGO and the government. We experienced bottlenecks in some places but it was a thorough, fair and easy breeze process in some states. Like in Lagos State, all items donated were going into a data dashboard as we were donating them. The state governor personally views the data dashboard.
PT: Are there particular challenges you experienced in any of the states?
Toyosi: Each state came with its own unique challenges. Some states visited were already running out of resources due to the lockdown so they were really eager to see us. Meanwhile, some states didn’t understand why we wanted to have our Monitoring and Evaluation in place to monitor the process.
We are ultimately accountable for every Naira spent so we can’t give you without meeting the beneficiaries. The government can make input by advising us on the local government to cover and the regional spread of the state.
We understood the political considerations that governments want to make in the donations but we made sure not to give our donations any sort of political colourations that could mar the successes already achieved from the beginning of the interventions. When we arrived Warri, we were restricted from going in by some boys. They hijacked the trucks from our suppliers, removed the batteries and went away. I had to call the brother of Olu of Warri to intervene before the trucks were released.
In Enugu, the state government said they wanted to know who the NGO were to avoid giving the items to NGOs that are not credible. In Ebonyi State, our sanitisers did not arrive early before handover date. We had to push forward by 24 hours.
PT: In your interview This Day newspaper, you mentioned that NGOs have a huge role to play in this kind of intervention, how can the government leverage on what NGOs have to offer?
Toyosi: One of the things that make the government strong is to be able to understand the power of stakeholders’ management. There is no single institution that can be successful by itself. Even the VSF cannot attribute all of its successes to itself.
We have partners in the remotest community in this country. There is no way the government can succeed in itself by itself. The government needs to begin to open up its doors to collaborations with credible institutions. One of the things the government can do to engender more trusts on the part of citizens is to make sure they are partnering with an institution that are accountable to the general public. VSF deliberately chose NGOs already using their own resources to donate foods because if we give them our items, there is no likelihood it will be converted to theirs. Another thing we did was to brand the bags and I was on the ground myself. The advantage of being a transparent leader is that you enjoy the trust and support of the people.
PT: You are the only woman amongst the COVID-19 Task Force. You are also the youngest and also the chairperson. How has it been working with other members of the Taskforce?
Toyosi: I always describe myself as a servant leader. I believe leadership is about consensus, we won’t always agree on everything but we will always agree on the common good of our beneficiaries. And that is the greatest priority. For me, this is a learning exercise, it is leadership in action. It is an opportunity for people to appraise me and to question me. Leadership is not a position but a state of mind. I have never made any unilateral decision on this Taskforce. Every single decision on this Taskforce was jointly discussed, agreed, disagree, debate and then reach a conclusion. No one person’s ego is as important as the happiness and impact of the beneficiaries of these interventions.
That is a mindset everybody in the taskforce has exhibited in the last few months. Whether I am a woman or not, I am a legitimate member of this society and that is what matters. When people are giving tasks to do, what should be focused on is the competence, capacity and character of the person who has been given the leadership opportunity.
PT: You always speak so highly of Gen. TY Danjuma. What is your relationship with him like? What kind of man is he?
Toyosi: My relationship with him is like a father and a daughter. My very first encounter with him was on the VSF. The privilege of working closely with him in the past six months is one I will cherish for the rest of my life. He is a very seasoned military leader who is now a democrat. He has a penchant for giving, he is concerned for the poor masses. At age 83, he is so connected to people at the grassroots that you would assume he shouldn’t know anything about them.
This task force is not a recommendation from me or anybody to him, it was his idea to set it up. He called and said people are dying in Italy and the United Kingdom he is worried that if nothing is done, there can be a coronavirus outbreak in IDP camps and it will be a total disaster. And it was at that instance he set up this taskforce. As you know, this is my first shot at public service as I have always worked in the private sector. Even simple things like budgeting must be presented to him. He tells me to justify some things and sign. It is also amazing how respectful he is, even though he is old enough to be my grandfather. You know we have a stereotype of what military people should be like.
PT: There has been a lot of conversation around allowing women equal opportunity as men. You are an example of a woman towering despite the odds, what is your advice for young women aspiring for greatness?
Toyosi: I like to think that women are equal and legitimate members of any human society. I don’t like to be boxed into a corner because I am a woman. I don’t like to be given any special treatment because I’m a woman.
Give me equal opportunities like men and give me the opportunity to perform. I don’t think that women should get political offices because we are women. I don’t want to be selected because I am a woman, I want to be selected because I’m competent. My human dignity is the most important gift I have. I like to be treated with regard and honour. It therefore doesn’t matter how inspirational women are within the political field.
If I ever get the opportunity to do politics, I will like to participate more on debates about economic development, national security architecture, I will talk about education policy, protection policy for local businesses, talk about the local content act. I would like to debate on very hard issues not talking about women empowerment and children. I deliberately don’t socialise my daughter into the current Nigeria society so I don’t buy her baby dolls. I buy her machine guns and toy cars because I need her to begin to envision the future of science and engineering, which will eventually change the world.
Women need to be 10 times more competent. We live in a patriarchal society where people give women opportunities to add up the number. Women must stop making the kind of excuses I hear. Pregnancy is not a disease, with a seven months old pregnancy I travelled to Adamawa state for a project.
I knew that it was a risk but I am very passionate about humanitarian work I do. And if I didn’t go, next time the men will make excuse for me. Life gives women what they negotiate for. Leadership by women comes at a cost, but then again, the greatest decision any woman will ever make is the person they marry. This is how I have always been driven- passionate, highly intellectual, very inquisitive- which my husband always knew and he still decided to marry me.
My husband always asks when I want to run for president. Does he not know that if I’m president I will not be at home 24/7? You need to marry a man who is secure and feel enough because if he doesn’t feel enough, your own activities will become his problem. I don’t make any decision without telling my husband because he is 10 times a better person and 10 times wiser. My personal happiness depends on the things I do for humanity and I like when people congratulate me on that. When people ask what I think about feminism, I tell them feminism is a concept.
The lack of economic empowerment for women is the weapon society has used to keep women down. How many women can run for governorship and win today? The election is about money and it’s the men that have money. If you don’t build the economic base for women, we will remain the minority for a long time. The quality of women we select to represent us in government will determine the outcomes and results in the women of Nigeria will have.