Simon Kolawole: Left with a broken heart

Sadness overwhelmed me — that’s if sadness is not a criminal understatement. Sometime in May 2005, I had taken my daughter to Lagos University Teaching Hospital (LUTH) for a Friday clinic. Then I saw an elderly patient being physically carried upstairs by a relative. The elevator was broken and the patient was too frail to climb the stairs. As he was being clutched like a baby, someone else carried his wheelchair. It was depressing. How much would it cost to put the lift back in order in a country where public officers and politicians earn and share crazy amounts of money running into billions on a daily basis?

If you want life to humble you, go and spend just two hours at the general hospital nearest to you. If what you experience at the reception alone does not break your heart, then you are no longer a human being. The way ordinary Nigerians are treated, at the very point of their need, is nothing short of dehumanising — assuming that is not another criminal understatement. What is not heartbreaking in the entire experience? Is it the compound overgrown with weed? Or the torn window nets that invite mosquitoes to come and feast on you? Or the kilometres you or your loved ones trek to buy drugs that, according to the budget, are already at the hospital’s pharmacy?

Should we discuss the state of equipment? What equipment? Forever and ever, we have been told about how our hospitals are being modernised and equipped with the latest machines in the world, with the contracts usually in billions of dollars. Yet most of these hospitals cannot boast that these machines are available or functioning well. I recently wrote about a teaching hospital that had only one functioning dialysis machine, and the authorities were mad at me, saying there were actually two but just that one was faulty. Yet in the same territory, a private hospital has 16 dialysis machines! Who should be able to afford more machines? Government or individuals?

I have been asking the same question for decades: what does it take for the government to build a well-equipped, world-class hospital? I mean: what does it take to acquire land, to unite mortar with bricks, to paint, to furnish, to equip and to put qualified humans to run it? Is it that these things are so expensive Nigeria cannot afford them? Or that the world will come to an end if we try to do the right thing here? Or there is little or no interest on the part of the powers that be to make life a little bit better for the masses who voted them into office? Or is there something about the Nigerian soil that makes it impossible for government to plant a good hospital?

There is nothing wrong with the Nigerian soil, I insist. I was on a visit, along with a friend, to the Nigerian-Turkish Nizamiye Hospital, Abuja, recently. As you drive into the compound, the first feeling is that this is not part of Nigeria. You know, just as you board British Airways or Emirates in Lagos or Abuja and you already have a feeling you are no longer in Nigeria. When I saw the facilities at Nizamiye, the neatness, the staff attitude and the general ambience, the first thing I told my friend, Joshua, was: but this is on Nigerian soil, isn’t it? If we can have this kind of hospital in Abuja, not in Istanbul or Ankara, then the Nigerian soil is not resistant to good things.

I later met Dr. Mustafa Ahsen, the medical director, who, on being told I am a journalist, was glad to offer me hot Turkish tea — without knowing that I was boiling inside. He told me the hospital was inaugurated by President Goodluck Jonathan in 2014. So it is not as if the government does not know what a good hospital can look like. Every equipment looks new. Some facilities you will never find at several federal medical centres or teaching hospitals are there — MRI and 4D Ultrasound machines. Ahsen said his hospital even does open-heart surgeries. I don’t know anything about medicine, but I know a hospitable medical facility when I see one.

I left Nizamiye with a broken heart — after learning that it took only $20 million to set it up. Only God knows how much we spent on the 2015 general election. The only thing we’ve been told is that the Office of the National Security Adviser shared $2.1 billion for the PDP presidential campaign. Nobody has told us how much APC spent on its own campaign. Neither have we been told what the governors spent on their own elections. We are probably talking of another set of billions of dollars. Yet it took just $20 million to put Nizamiye on Abuja soil. Imagine how many world-class hospitals we could build in this country if our heads were correctly screwed on our necks.

There are many arguments you can make against my position. You can say that Nizamiye, like Reddington Hospital in Lagos, is a private concern, and people pay heavily to receive medical attention. I didn’t ask how much patients pay at Nizamiye, to be honest, but I understand it is not a business venture in that sense. I understand it is part of the First Surat Group which runs as an NGO and invests all its earnings back into education and healthcare in Nigeria. I would argue that government hospitals used to work very well in this same country even when service was being offered for free or for a token. It was the same Nigerian soil. What went wrong?

I would argue further that if government management of hospitals has deteriorated over the years, it is not enough reason to give up and expose hapless Nigerians to ill-treatment. What exactly is the problem — or what are the problems? Why is there so much ineptitude? Why is there so much mindless corruption? How do drugs that should be at the pharmacy find their way into private chemists owned by hospital personnel? Why are bed spaces never “enough” and patients at times have to bribe nurses to secure one? More painfully, why do hospitals turn away dying patients whose lives could have been saved with emergency attention?

There are many things I will never understand about us. I’ve spent the whole of my adult life asking questions, wondering why what works in nearby Benin Republic does not work here, wondering why politicians feel so comfortable that the lives of Nigerians are being wasted daily in avoidable circumstances, wondering why the healthcare system is contract-focused rather than people-focused. I have asked a million times why democracy is not working for the poor people of Nigeria. Governors and presidents claim to have revived our health sector but they travel abroad to attend to their medical needs. If you can’t eat the soup you made, then something is not connecting.

I am not attempting to suggest that every public hospital in Nigeria is bad. That would be a mindless exaggeration. I am aware of efforts being made to get things running at a few hospitals across the country, both federal and state. But you only need to visit a hospital like Nizamiye to understand my anger and frustration. I have seen hospitals abroad and often conclude that these are advanced countries, so they should be expected to have quality facilities. What breaks my heart is when I see a similar thing being replicated by foreigners on our own soil, meaning our problem is not geography or topography. It is not even economic. Something is just awfully wrong.

So I ask again: who really, really has the interest of ordinary Nigerians at heart? How many Nigerian public servants and politicians can look up to heaven and say — without flinching — that when they sit down to take decisions on how public money should be spent, the only thing on their minds is how Nigeria would be a better country? We say “health is wealth” and make a song out of it, but how many Nigerians have access to quality healthcare? And if politicians can spend billions to win elections, how much does it take to build a world-class hospital? Nigeria is 56, big deal, but is healthcare better today that it was in 1960 — minus the new technologies? Disheartening.

 

ASSETS AND LIABILITIES
As dollar starvation continues to destroy our economy, a debate has broken out over the proposal to divest our stake in some national assets in order to raise the badly needed forex. As things stand, only an urgent massive FX inflow can save Nigeria from imminent collapse. Our options are limited: to take IMF loan, to sell valuables in dollars (not naira) or to get a Father Christmas to bless us with $30 billion. Whatever decision the government takes, however, we must NEVER sell our stake in NLNG Ltd. It is a very successful company with even brighter future, more so with its expanding cooking gas business. Commonsense.

AND FOUR OTHER THINGS

FAMILY AFFAIR
The Nigerian elite have long resolved how to take care of themselves — no matter their region and religion. The looters of Nigeria have no tribal marks. They are one family. Injury to one member of the family is injury to all. But deluded Nigerians on social media continue to classify Nigeria along ethno-religious lines. As soon as Hon. Abdulmumin Jibrin broke ranks with his partners-in-crime in the house of reps and began to sing, I knew he would be the one to bite the dust. I just knew it. His budget-padding allegations should naturally provide an opportunity to cleanse the legislature. Instead, Jibrin has been suspended. And the beat goes on. Nigeria!

EDO MODEL
Finally, INEC has conducted a conclusive election and, irrespective of the litigation that will certainly follow the Edo governorship poll, that is one monkey off the back of Prof. Mahmood Yakubu who was appointed chairman last year. Meanwhile, the election was held on a Wednesday, not the traditional Saturday, and it went well. That is another landmark — and another monkey off INEC’s back. One more monkey remains: restriction of movement during voting. Curfew is a military idea which we have accepted as part of our culture, but which doesn’t make any sense. Hopefully, we would stop monkeying around and join the civilised world. Someday.

BINDOW LOW
Adamawa Governor Jibrilla Bindow is an interesting character. He has threatened to sign the white paper that indicted former governor Murtala Nyako if his supporters don’t stop criticising him. The Justice Umaru Boboi Judicial Panel of Inquiry had investigated and indicted the administration of Nyako (2007-2014). “I have no intention to expose anybody, but if pushed to the wall, I swear in the name of Allah and Qur’an, I will sign that white paper against Nyako’s government which, as I am talking to you, is on my table,” Bindow said. You get the point? He is not interested in justice for Adamawa people. His interest is to shut up his critics. Wonderful.

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