With President Muhammadu Buhari’s return from his 50-day medical vacation a few things are settled and a few lies are debunked: (a) he went to Britain for medical attention not for a holiday (b) he was not hale and hearty when he was there because even when he returned he looked frail and fragile. On his return the truth-speaking President told a confused nation that he cannot recall when he was this sick and that he even had blood transfusion. (c) he was not dead as the practitioners of yellow news mongering had said. He is back to his desk at the Aso Villa, feeling relieved that while he was away his deputy who acted as the President had filled the void admirably. By general consent Professor Yemi Osinbajo who by the media’s love of acronymisation shall be named YO did a good job of repairing a bad situation thus making the nation look less bad than hitherto.
In the discharge of his stand-in role as Acting President, three things stand out in YO’s favour: (a) He showed undiluted loyalty to his boss (b) he gave our democracy a life-saving tonic by declaring that Nigerians have a right to public protests (c) he showed that our presidency can achieve more by elevating physical contact with people to a viable instrument for problem solving. His whirlwind trips to the Niger Delta silenced the guns and the bombs and oil production rose dramatically. I call this Management By Moving About (MBMA). But this column is not about YO today.
It is Buhari we wish to commend for dealing with the issue of granting his deputy an acting appointment status without creating a constitutional crisis. Secondly, his honesty about his health status is worthy of commendation. He did not tell us he was playing football at Wembly Stadium while in London, because he wasn’t. A few people have asked him to disclose the cost of his treatment abroad. That is fair because public funds were expended so there must be full disclosure and accountability. Other people have asked Buhari to name his ailment. That is of no interest to me. What I would like to see is an enhanced tertiary medical facility for the treatment of patients within Nigeria including the President, other heavy-hitters and the rest of us. In other words, how can we cut or halt medical tourism and cut capital flight to a minimal level?
People undertake medical tourism because Nigeria’s medical infrastructure quality is low, the investment in health is low, the attitude of some health workers is poor, professional conduct and efficiency are very poor. I was treated some years ago in a highbrow hospital in Lagos four times for malaria by four different doctors, two of them grey-haired men. Their grey-hair gave me the confidence that medical wisdom was lodged there but it was not. The fourth doctor who eventually cured me, a 26-year old lady who just came out of medical school, said to me of her senior colleagues: “They don’t read anymore.” That day I raised shirted hell at the hospital and asked them to refund three of the past payments or they risked being sued and savaged in court.
Another story: A relation of mine was about to get married. The new generation church she attends said she must undergo a pregnancy test to ascertain her eligibility for marriage under the rules of their church. She went through the test and it showed that she was pregnant. A doctor signed it. The church said she will not be married in their church. I said to my relation: “We will go to another church and get your marriage dream fulfilled, after all didn’t Jesus come to save sinners.” If you are a sinner they should help you not hinder you from being happy.” The girl, 26, pulled me aside and said “Uncle, I am not pregnant. I have never slept with any man in my entire life.” I thought to myself: Is this a holy spirit pregnancy? Or is it a doctor’s incompetence? Or is the girl telling lies? I suggested we have a second opinion from a reputable hospital. She agreed. She was vindicated. She was not pregnant. She was more sinned against than sinning. The foolish doctor with his nyama nyama equipment would have damaged the innocent girl’s reputation and her chances of saying “I do” at the altar. Many people in Nigeria have paid dearly for medical misdiagnosis, because of obsolete equipment, low technical capacity for utilizing ultra-modern equipment, poor power supply and inappropriate therapy. It is these factors that fuel medical tourism especially by financially well-endowed persons.
It is estimated that Nigerians spend at least $1billion yearly on medical treatment in various countries of the world. The favourite medical destinations for Nigerians are: Saudi Arabia, South Africa, Germany, UK, USA and India. In 2015, India raked in an estimated $3 billion in medical tourism, a large portion of this coming from Nigeria. In 2015, the Indian High Commission in Nigeria issued 40,000 visas to Nigerians, out of this 20,000 were for medical reasons. India is attractive because of its experience in high technology especially in diagnostics and also for the relatively lower cost of treating patients. So Nigerians go there for cancer, spinal cord, plastic and neuro-surgery as well as fertility and transplant tourism. Despite its relative inexpensiveness, they are not quite cheap when you include air transportation and accommodation costs.
Past Nigerian leaders – Ibrahim Babangida, Umaru Musa Yar’Adua and now Buhari – have been treated abroad including Saudi Arabia which is, like Nigeria, a third world country. It is a crying shame that 56 years after our independence and trillions of dollars in our kitty since then we have not been able to establish one or more well-equipped public hospitals that can cater for Nigerians without the resort to medical pilgrimage abroad. Many years ago, five of the oldest university teaching hospitals in Nigeria were christened as centres of excellence. Each of them was assigned an area of specialty in the management of terminal and other life threatening ailments. But it turned out many years later to be centres of excellence on national television only. Nothing much that you can consider positive had happened to them. The excellence that we expected to find at these centres died from the lack of blood transfusion. For me, this is the most cynical evidence of leadership failure and the lack of political will. Why? Because if there is one thing that everyone needs, rich and poor, rulers and ruled, it is good health. Without good health no leader can govern. But our leaders take solace in the fact that they, unlike the rest of us, can always fly abroad at public expense for their medicals and leave us here without the ability to receive blood transfusion.
When they survive serious ailments, most public spirited people set up funds or foundations to combat the ailment that nearly took their lives. Nwankwo Kanu, one of the legends of football, who had a serious heart ailment and needed an operation to survive has set up the Kanu Heart Foundation. The Foundation has done a lot for people, especially children, who have had heart defects to the admiration of the watching public. Buhari as a person and as a President can do the nation a favour by giving extra attention to health matters in the country. He owes it to himself and to all of us, his subjects, who held prayer marathons for his survival. So the responsibility is both personal and official.
I have no idea why the five teaching hospitals did not receive the kind of attention expected. Maybe it was lack of finance for appropriate high technology infrastructure or simply a lack of political will or a lack of appreciation for the centrality of health matters in the development matrix.
However, there is a way out. Sometime ago, the Minister of Health, Professor Isaac Adewole, visited the Ibom Specialist Hospital in Uyo and commented on its with-it-ness level in terms of infrastructure. He also promised that the Federal Government will like to collaborate with the Akwa Ibom State Government for the benefit of Nigerians. Recently, the Chief Medical Officer of the hospital, Dr. Adewale Adekanye, took journalists on a tour of the facility. He said that the hospital was specially designed by the Godswill Akpabio Administration to stop medical tourism in Nigeria. The successor, Governor Udom Emmanuel, has enhanced the facility with his commitment to its full delivery of medical excellence.
The hospital just a spit distance away from anywhere in Nigeria is said to be equipped with 640 slides CT scan, digital mammography, sophisticated surgery facilities, highly sophisticated intensive care units and medical gas plants. It also has a helipad to facilitate easy emergency movements to and from the hospital. As a testimony to the hospital’s ability and potentiality Dr. Adekanye said that the neuro-surgery unit has just successfully conducted a lifesaving procedure on a three year old baby. She is alive today. The Chief Medical Officer mentioned the successful handling of other complicated cases.
So since we have a place like that, and it is said to be the best on this side of the Atlantic, why can’t the Federal Government seek to collaborate with the Akwa Ibom State Government. It will save the country a lot of money in medical tourism. It will save lives. It will also free us from the shame of trooping to even other third world countries for treatment. There will be an experiential build-up for future use. That way our medical bread will be buttered on all sides. Buhari can give our health a freshly squeezed beginning by buying into the vision of the Akwa Ibom behemoth.