Prof. Onyebuchi Chukwu is the former Minister for Health under the administration of former President Goodluck Jonathan bares his mind to Daily Sun on his experiences and achievements including his fight against Ebola virus while in office as well as his failed bid to become the Governor of Ebonyi State and many other issues. Excerpts:
As the former Minister for Health, what were your experiences like and how were you able to surmount the challenges you faced in the course of your duties?
Thank you very much Even five hours will not be enough for me to recount my experiences; but I will try to summarize it. I was Minister of Health, Federal Republic of Nigeria, from April 7th, 2010 to October 20th, 2014. Indeed we had challenges compounded by the fact that we are running a federal system. Running a federal system in health means that since health is on concurrent list, so much of it resides in the domain of the states. Yet, when things go wrong, it is the Minister for Heath who is to blame. I can tell you that 80 percent or more of health activities reside within the domain of the states and local government areas. So my experience had to do with overcoming these challenges. We have the National Council of Health and we met quite a number of times. I introduced a meeting in-between the annual Council of Health meetings. We call its pre-National Council of Health meeting. It has to do with being able to review what has been decided in previous National Council of Health meeting and also to see what next we can do in the forthcoming National Council of Health meeting.
When I came in; we actively sought passage of the National Health Bill. I was the Health Minister that ensured that the Health Bill became the National Health Act. When I came in, I tried to pursue teamwork and I did not do it at the expense of professionalism. Probably, that is why I had “issues” with some of the unions because some of them just wanted to carry on with business as usual. I believe that if a leader is not criticized by his followers, then, the person is not a leader because we know that if the society is working perfectly, there will be no need for leadership. It is because the society believes that things could still be done that the leadership is relevant. Now, in getting things to be done better, those people who are comfortable with the status quo will not be happy.
What exactly were these major achievements you recorded during your tenure as Minister?
The number one function of the Federal Ministry of Health is public health for the generality of the people and not at the individual level. The Federal Ministry of Health supervises hospitals that essentially address the problems of the individual. But public health focuses on community interest.
My principal, former President Goodluck Jonathan kept telling Nigerians that one thing that he was very sure was that he was not going to hand over polio to the next administration, whether it was himself succeeding himself for the second term or another person. I think he had confidence in us under my leadership. He didn’t hand over polio to President Buhari. Nigeria has not had a single case of polio virus disease for eleven months. The last case we had was in July, 2014 clear three months before I left office. We have interrupted the transmission of polio disease in Nigeria. If we maintain the clean slate, the World Health Organization (WHO) will remove the name of Nigeria from the list of endemic countries. If we keep the slate clean for additional two years, WHO would formally declare us as having eradicated polio. So President Buhari should ensure that for the next two years, we keep a clean slate, that way, we would be issued certificate for eradicating polio. As for guinea worm, under my tenure; we maintained zero case for three years. That was why WHO gave us the certificate that we had eradicated guinea-worm disease. Nigeria had 50 percent of the cases in the whole world in 1988 when the world decided to eradicate the disease and for Nigeria that had 50 percent to have eradicated it before some other countries, that is an achievement.
And of course, you are aware of the Ebola virus. I was watching television recently and a European professor who came for a meeting in Nigeria said “Come Nigerians, even though the world has not said it too clearly, whatever we are now implementing in the rest of the world as far as Ebola virus disease is concerned is your blueprint. We have nothing to add. You should be proud of yourselves”. Former President Olusegun Obasanjo recently invited me to a meeting that was held in Wales as one of the fifteen experts from around the world to advise the Interaction Council. The Interaction Council is a body comprising former Presidents and former Prime Ministers but membership is by invitation. You need to have done well by their own standards. For the first time ever, they had global health security as the major agenda for their annual plenary meeting. At that meeting, a colleague of mine, a professor from the United Kingdom, during the discussion that followed my presentation said “Prof Chukwu, you have just understated your achievements. You know that I had attended a meeting where your achievements were presented at an international forum? Let me be clear, if UK today experiences such problem you had with Ebola and we are able to tackle it the same way Nigeria tackled it, we would have every reason to be proud of ourselves”. Let us take the issue of National Health Act. For the first time in this country, we have a National Health Act. We worked very hard with the National Assembly. Finally, it was approved and the President assented to it in 2014.
One key achievement of the National Health Act is that primary health care is going to receive boost in a sustainable manner. The law says that at least one percent of Consolidated Revenue of the Federation Account will go into Basic Healthcare Provision Fund. If the President is submitting his appropriation bill to the National Assembly, at least, one percent of the budget is going to be dedicated for that purpose.
For many years there have been controversies over traditional medicine and the federal government has done little or nothing to douse the tension. What did you do as the Minister for Health in that area?
Traditional medicine is too wide. For now we are talking about evidence based medicine. Some types of traditional medicine, we don’t have the tools to prove their efficacy. Take for instance, incantation, it may be possible that truly incantations cure cancer but can we prove it? On the other hand, extensive research has been done on herbal medicine. Scientists have done a lot of work. We set up a committee on that, I made sure that anybody that needed to be in the committee was in the committee. They completed their work while I was still in office and I received their report. I just hope that whoever is going to be the next Minister of Health will implement the report.
You took a shot at Ebonyi State governorship seat, what happened?
From the beginning, I made it clear that my own understanding of politics is all about service. I believe that genuine service means working for the people. I also remember that I made this statement that we all have acquired skills and it is the experience that will make me to be an effective governor. I also wanted the people to believe in me. If at any stage, stakeholders felt we can do it, we were ready. And that is what happened. A large segment of the PDP said that they wanted me to be their governor but then, it is politics and so many things happened. Then again for me, politics is not a profession but a vocation. It is not a do or die affair. If truly you rated yourself as a politician, you will likely spend more of your resources than whatever you will get from it. I see politics the way I see religion, when you go to church, you meet all kinds of people. For you to be admitted in the church, nobody asks you for any qualification, they will ask you, do you believe in God? And when you are there, it is assumed that you believe in God. But then, we do have bad people in the church including armed robbers and good people are there also, so also in politics. We should not define politics in Nigeria from the standard of the crooks who are also in politics. I have always joked with some elected officials whether they would vouch that an armed robber did not vote for them. You did not reject their votes and you did not ask INEC to remove the votes of armed robbers who voted for you. We are getting to the stage where politics will be for the best hands.
I will not comment further than that because as you are aware, we went to court after the purported primary election. I believe that the process was not what it was supposed to be, the process was doctored and I went to our party to see what they could do so that we could resolve it as a family. But when they failed or refused to address it, I had no option than to seek redress in a competent court of jurisdiction. For me, it doesn’t matter what the ultimate judgment will be, what is important is that we had followed due process of seeking justice.
At a time, you were faced with option of joining another political party especially with your former Governor, Chief Martin Elechi who wanted you to be. Why did you refuse to defect with them?
This is because being a governor, I wasn’t desperate for it. If I am a governor, I know I will work hard. If you look at people from my family, when we want to do something, we will like to do it well. I will not be governor who will be owing workers’ salaries. It is when you don’t pay salaries that you start to fail. You know, to pay salaries is not an achievement that is expected of you. I will not be governor who will not reduce the rate of unemployment. I cannot be a governor who will not get more money for the state and instead leave any empty treasury for my successor. So, I am not desperate about it because I know if I go into that place, it will be hard work for me and my family will suffer just like they suffered when I was fighting Ebola. So I am not desperate, I wanted to sort out things within the party, PDP, it is only after this that I can consider other options to see whether there are people who share similar ideology with me or not. For now, I am still in PDP and I am seeking justice within the party. Nothing is permanent, but I will not be in a hurry because I am not desperate.
How did you feel about your friends who betrayed you especially your people in Afikpo?
I am a forward looking person. In politics, some people go there for service, some go there to line up their pockets. I have not really sat down to search for those who betrayed me but I know it is a possibility. But, I am liberal minded enough to know that within a family, we have different persuasions. If you look at Afikpo, I expect that we have people belonging to all the registered political parties under INEC which are more than 60. Some people might have supported me because I am in PDP, while others may have supported me based on my personal merit. My thinking is that a lot of them feel that I could do the job, but then nature abhors a vacuum. Since I did not contest and had to vote, they didn’t want to stay at home, so they went out and voted for the candidates presented to them by INEC. Some people interpret it as a betrayal, but I don’t. I voted for candidate of my choice at the elections and my supporters voted for their second choice after me. Of course, I know that in politics, some people actually betray you, for me, I don’t bother about that in any case, if I became governor, I would be governor for all. What is important is what I will do in the office.