Abiodun Oluseyi Akinwunmi is the immediate past Nigerian Football Federation (NFF) 1st Vice President and present chairman, Lagos State Football Association (LSFA). He is known for his passion for youth and grassroots football development. A legal practitioner and philanthropist, Akinwunmi spoke to Adekunle Salami and Isioma Madike about this Charity Foundation and other sundry issues. Excerpts:
What’s the idea behind the Seyi Akinwunmi Charity Foundation (SACF)?
First, SACF is a charity through the Seyi Akinwunmi Charity Mini-Tournament (SACMT), a yearly fiesta of football. The idea is to feed a minimum of 1000 children and the funding of numerous talented, intelligent children. We have been doing this for the past eight years now
What are the other motivations for this?
Well, I guess it’s just a part of me. For a very long time now, I realised that I was just fortunate to be born to a family that can send me to school, send me overseas and so on. Even when I was in school, sometimes, during the holidays, I’d go for summer holidays and some of my friends couldn’t go. So I would buy stuff for them and give them. But beyond that, I also realised that there were those who were really unable to do things that we took for granted.
Was that what formalised the idea?
The major thing that formalised that aspect of my life was that I used to live in a block of flats and then I had this security guard. One day I saw that his son was sleeping on the bench outside when I was going to work. So, I stopped, reversed and got out. I asked why he wasn’t in school and he said they didn’t allow him to go to school because he couldn’t pay. So, I told him when his father is back, he should see me. So I said you know what, whatever it is they are asking for, I will pay for it, let the child go to school. Interestingly, at the end of the term, the boy’s father brought the child with his school result and he was top of his class. So, I said “wow”.
Was that what gave birth to the College Education Foundation?
Of course, yes. In any case, all the people I have been helping are driver’s children and all those sorts of things. So, I decided to formalise it and that’s how the College Education Foundation (CEF) was born. We carried on. We have had over300 children who have passed through there. We have some of them who have finished university and are working. We have two who were first-class graduates from the universities and so that has gone on. So, when I became the first vice president for Nigerian Football Federation (NFF), I decided not to waste my money but to use it to build something more to help the children who are indigent and are talented. That was how the Seyi Akinwunmi Charity Foundation started. Every year we feed the children.
Have you spread out or are you still experimenting with the children of the poor in Lagos State alone?
We have gone round the various geopolitical zones to give scholarships. COVID-19 pandemic hampered us a bit but we do it every year. This year we are hoping to do something special to make up for the past few years. We want to give out small scholarships, at least 60 children which will cut across the states; one from each state and the balance from Lagos State.
What’s the essence of that?
That’s what gives me joy. I like to see people have hope. And not just in the area of sports, we have children, who have interests in music and photography and who we have helped. There’s a particular lady who is into photography and she’s doing really well now. From the outset I supported her getting a camera and all those things. I don’t like to make noise about it for obvious reasons, but you know, that’s what gives me joy. And that’s just the truth.
Are there schools that are affiliated with the scheme, like where you send the children to?
Yes there are. There are a number of schools across the board. I can’t remember their names but I can get a list, that won’t be difficult. But with the College Education Foundation (CEF), there is Wellsprings .Wellsprings has been wonderful and has partnered with us along with Lagos State Faith Academy. It has been really wonderful because it’s easy to pay the school fees wherever the children go to school and support the parents to encourage them.
For clarification, some of these children are in the university; can you buttress more on that?
Yes, all the way through to the university. So, we have them in universities across the country; many were in the University of Benin, University of Lagos, and Caleb University. There is even one who said he wants to be a pilot and he is in the aviation school as we speak. He will be finishing this year. So, we have them in schools all around.
Do you have any particular criteria for picking out these children?
Yes, for the CEF, we set out the criteria a long time ago. We have someone who runs it and we have set out parameters. One of such is that you have to be intelligent, and indigent. We also check to see family background and there are certain things we look out for in that respect. Our trustees look through that and it has been working for us so far. With the football side of things, Lagos is easy for us. Your results this year must be better than the one the previous year. We look for talent, intelligence and obedience.
Given your background as a lawyer, it’s quite amazing how you combine your law practice and that of being a sport enthusiast, especially at management level. How do you manage to combine all of these?
I get asked this question a lot of times. Usually, my answer would have been ‘I don’t know’. You know when you have conviction and are passionate about something; personally I don’t see it as work. I see it as furthering my passion. It doesn’t bring me money but it is something I love to do. It’s like people who go to work and like to party. You don’t ask them how they combine that; it’s easy. So, that is how I see it. I love football. I’m passionate about it. Luckily, the aspect of football I’m extremely passionate about is the same one I’m passionate about in my everyday life. Football enables me to help people have hope. That is all for me. It is my work. I’m always working. I live on my iPad. It’s always with me; that’s what I work with. In the car, at home, I’m working. My wife says I don’t get enough sleep. Maybe that’s part of it.
I’m sure the passion is what drove you to SOS Village. How do you feel seeing those children being touched by your acts of kindness?
There is no better feeling. There really is no better feeling and anyone who has not experienced it needs to. There’s no better feeling than seeing someone who had had little or no hope when you met but you were able to impart some hope in their life and be part of the hope that God gives them in various ways. Looking back and seeing pictures of these kids who are now my children, the feeling is intangible. The feeling is much more than making money or any of those things.
Some people would describe you as being lucky to have had a wife who also keyed into this vision. Was it a deliberate thing for you to consciously turn her to focus toward this vision or did it come for her naturally as well?
My wife didn’t need that at all. In fact she encouraged me at every point in time. You know, one of the things we always pray for is having a good wife because if you don’t have a good wife you’re in trouble. So, everything that I’m passionate about, my wife is passionate about it, with me and for me. But in this case, I didn’t have to do that because she also is involved in philanthropy. She sits on the board of an orphanage and so it’s something that is natural to her as well, even our children. I guess we’re all cut out that way. As for football, she had no choice. When we were younger we used to play football every Sunday. She’d come with me sometimes even though she didn’t like football at the time. But now, she could tell you all the teams that played today and all of that.
This passion has not gone unnoticed as some entities and organisations have decided to confer on you one award or the other to celebrate you. What do these awards mean to you?
For me, sometimes it’s hard to believe that people are noticing your little effort at making others live well. I just do it from my heart. Sometimes, these recognitions are from the oddest of places but things happen. It just gladdens your heart. I went for a seminar once, outside Nigeria. I wanted to ask a question and then the moderator obliged me but said before I asked my questions I should pack my things and come to the high table and I was surprised. He thereafter spent the next 10minutes talking about things I had done and this person isn’t even Nigerian.
It appears people actually appreciate what you do as a humanitarian?
Yes, people do notice anyway – whether you do good or bad, but it is an inspiration each time anybody notices. A few weeks ago, I was given an award and I’ll be honest with you, I didn’t remember it was coming up. I wasn’t feeling too well, but I had to attend and so I did. It wasn’t a very big event. It was a small one but I felt that if these people, even in their number, could appreciate what you’re doing then it means you’re doing something right. Then there are large organisations, which see every day what happens in our sphere and pick you out to be honoured. It is a responsibility. Not just an inspiration but a responsibility that you must live up to the honour. So, when you say well done to me you’re giving me more problems. I have to do more to keep up that ‘Well done’.
With all these activities on a daily basis, how do you really relax yourself?
I watch football. I watch football. Then I love music. In fact I used to own a lounge until just before the COVID period. I had a lounge. People would come, play music and all that. So, I love music. It’s probably my other passion. I’m generally a relaxed person anyways.
So, what’s your typical day like? How do you begin your day?
I wake up with prayers. In the morning, everybody comes down to pray and then I used to work somewhere close to where I live. After that I return back and have a shower. I don’t rush out to the office like I used to. So, depending on what’s on my schedule, I take it one by one. I like to plan so I know what I’m doing per time and can take it one by one.
Let’s talk about the country’s judiciary because of your background and knowledge. How would you evaluate Nigeria’s judicial system?
I believe that there’s a lot that can be done, but I think we need to give it kudos. The judiciary is working under an intense atmosphere. Honestly, not because I’m a lawyer, but I see the work that has to be done by judges and that’s one of the reasons I declined going towards that sphere. They work so hard. When I see the list of cases that they have to take in one day…that they have to evaluate and write judgements and resist pressure. And knowing what Nigeria is like.
Pressure from where and what?
The pressure they must insulate themselves from is a lot, talking about bribery and all that. Although most of these things require control, assuming there are judges who go down that road, the percentage of those ones are infinitesimal. Being a professional, such as a lawyer, journalist, or doctor in this environment is tough. As well as being a judge. So, rather than castigate them as we do, we should give them ‘kudos’.
It’s simple; they work extremely hard in very difficult circumstances. Normally, in other environments, judges are almost like deities. You can’t touch them but here they have been disrespected, threatened and so on. So, that is the circumstance we find ourselves in. I feel the judges in this clime should be praised.