15th September 2
Nigeria is sick at present. A sickness made worse by the lukewarm patriotism of its successive leaders, making cure remote. Lip service to nation-building is an early sign of a country in decline. And in no sector is this made more manifest than in education and health. These two critical sectors are not dead though, but the terminal date can be predicted, if the aggressive decay continues unchecked. Are our leaders embarrassed by the distressing lack of faith in our public education and health systems? You can guess.
It looks like the months-long worldwide lockdown at the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic last year taught little lesson because the rapidly progressive wave of institutional tourism has resurfaced. Public schools and hospitals are only for the poor. While the children of the rich are overseas, shuttling for medical check is next door for their parents at home. So, how would they bother if all the schools and hospitals are shut, Nigerians grumble about their leaders.
The situation is such that one can bet offhand that there is no member of the ruling class whose children are in public schools. A few at home are in private schools. The middle class hard hit by the economic downturn is also caught in web of this jostle for overseas schools. The pressure on families has thereby increased, so also the desperation and sharp practices among those in the public service.
Overseas school fees are in five to six digits in dollars! But the irony and sad reality is that some of these schools, especially in neighbouring West African states, even fall below the standard of the ones in Nigeria. In spite of the downturn, the quality of doctors trained in Nigeria continues to attract positive global rating, indicating that the sector is not yet finished. Evidence shows that, beyond exposure to top-notch medical equipment overseas, medical students in Nigeria still pass through the intricate crucible of practical training. The cadaver dissection, for instance, which gives critical insight into the spatial relationship of the structures within the human anatomy, has given way for the artificial in some institutions overseas. Nigerian doctors are not vainly sought after in the West and the Middle East.
But this tiny portion out of an entire decadent whole does not vitiate the tragedy of the festering rot in the critical health and education sectors, where successive leaders are blamed for neglect. Not surprising then it sounds incredible each time the Minister of Labour and Employment, Senator Chris Ngige, says his children are all studying in Nigeria. However, those who doubt him must have been stunned by the September 10, 2021, graduation of his daughter, Azuka, from the College of Medicine of the University of Lagos. That event scripted a bold epitaph on the inflamed national psyche that at least some of our leaders can be held to their words and all are not hypocrites. Ngige’s first son, Chukwunyelugo, had also graduated from the College of Medicine of the Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu University, Awka, last year.
While this good news is a redeeming symbolism for the leadership class, with Ngige as the totem, it sends a clearer message that Nigeria is not completely depleted of leaders with demonstrable patriotism. A former editor with the Leadership Newspaper, Simon Imobotswam, summed it up in a Facebook post: “This is really impressive and even instructive. In a season of exemplary scarcity, Chris Ngige keeps upping the game, and telling the entire nation that he is not a hypocrite! His is a classic case of the power of example as well as the example of power! Plus, this too is a social landmark; Ngige may be short size but he keeps giving his country very tall lessons. Hope others in his class will borrow a leaf.”
Shehu Sani, former senator representing Kaduna Central, saw in it an opportunity to mock other Nigerian leaders in a post in his verified Facebook account.
“Dr. Chris Ngige is proud to showcases his daughter graduating from UNILAG; other leaders in office will show theirs abroad and preach patriotism to you,” he wrote.
But the abundant lessons in this do not orbit entirely in the aforementioned. Part of it, too, is trust, a test case of living by example, a virtue that runs against a convention eminent among the Nigerian ruling class. It gives testimony to the sincerity Ngige brings to dispute conciliation as the Minister of Labour and Employment. Here also, the Nigerian Medical Association (NMA) and its belligerent affiliate in National Association of Residents Doctors (NARD) may now better appreciate the minister cannot do them in, bring down his own profession or align with acts that impede the Hippocratic oath.
Hence, whether reference is to the brain drain, which those with insufficient knowledge and mischief-makers skew in the now famous “surplus doctors,” comment he made in 2018, in an entirely different context, or the comparison of medical residency training against what obtains abroad, which the NMA president inexplicably picked holes in earlier in April this year, or his stoic position on the ongoing strike by NARD. The future will fairly judge Ngige the same way those who said he lied his children were in Nigerian public schools are mouth agape, eating their words today.
But there can be no outright conclusion that doctors all see issues from a different prism as does Ngige who, with Senator Ifeanyi Okowa, majorly authored the National Health Act in the Seventh Senate. Despite latter-day tirade against him by NARD, the same doctors had in a well-publicized letter on April 17, 2021, described Ngige as a medical elder of repute and thanked him for the swift resolution of the Easter eve strike. The same NARD, through its first vice-president, Arome Christopher, in July, declared that Nigeria would be a better place with more Nigerians like Ngige. Nothing has really changed, except emotions, if you ask me.
Overall, Ngige’s made-in-Nigeria doctor-children have done to him what six years of quality stewardship as minister couldn’t fetch him, many said. In a clime brimming with hypocrites, he is a rare ‘talk na do,’ as is said in our local parlance. He has become a public address for all who seek the renewal of faith and trust in Nigeria. Through his children, ordinary Nigerians now see him as part of their everyday struggling life. His children and theirs all live in the degraded infrastructures in the public schools, hustle for bus and keke and queue for food and pure water. This is indeed an illumination on the dark, inclement horizon. Which other revolutionary example bears out a true leader that Nigeria desperately needs at the moment than this?
•Deji, a doctoral candidate, writes from Lagos