Nigeria continues to experience resurgence in polio cases despite the interventions put in place to halt transmission. The chairman, Eradication Review Committee on Polio, a committee saddled with the task of putting strategies in place for the country to get out of the polio woods, Prof Oyewole Tomori, shares with WINIFRED OGBEBO, his grief and frustrations over Nigeria’s slow pace.
What is your take on Nigeria’s immunization effort so far?
We are grossly disappointed with our immunization programmes but the thing is not to lose hope. Since 1971 we’ve been seeing the same thing, the same story year in, year out; nothing seems to change. So we get frustrated but we say for the sake of our children and our generation we cannot lose hope. We just have to keep talking; someday, somebody will hear and take action.
How do you describe our progress so far?
I say 20 years is too late. We shouldn’t be patting ourselves on the back for what we could have achieved 20 years ago. If anything, we should redouble our efforts for the lost ground because we’ve lost a lot of ground. I was looking at some of the reports from the ministry, the health indicators are worse now than they were 10 years ago. So we are not actually making progress. You saw Ghana’s report; they’ve not had any child dying of measles for a long time, no polio case for the last six years and we are saying we have 15 cases of polio and we are making progress. What progress is that? These are the issues that we need to be talking about. Sometimes we are not realistic about our problems in this country. We look at things in a lopsided manner; last year we were better than this time in terms of polio cases but the question is: should you be where you were last year? We should see other things around us, other countries around us; smaller countries. They said Ghana is smaller than us but their life expectancy almost double that of Nigeria’s own. So what are we talking about?
You said political appointees who still have polio cases in their states should not be voted for?
What I am saying is that we should be able to hold our leaders to some achievement. One of the greatest legacies I think this president can leave for this country is that he should be able to hold his head high and say, during my time we eradicated polio. If you cannot do that then you shouldn’t be seeking second term. To seek second term for what? To do the same kind of performance? The same should go for everybody: local government and for every other situation. Whenever you’re in a position, a chancellor or whatever and you are there for a term and you’ve not been able to achieve anything, you shouldn’t be seeking appointment for a higher level or seek for a second term if you have nothing to show for what you’ve done in the first place. You should ask yourself what’s the benefit to the people who elected you in the first place. The people were elected there for a purpose and if you’re not fulfilling that purpose, why should you come back again to repeat the same thing? This is against my own attitude and this government has said by the time it finishes in 2015, polio would have been eradicated. The other day I was reading a paper and he was saying that he was also entitled to a second term. But if he’s entitled to a second term, then we should hold him responsible.
Is polio eradication target now 2015?
No, what it means is that you have three years of no polio before you can be declared as free of polio. So starting from the end of this year, it must be seen that we don’t record any case of polio, just like India has been declared free of polio because they’ve gone for a whole year. But they cannot be declared free of polio until two years later. So if for the next two years we have no polio, then by 2015, we would have been declared free of polio.
Apart from lack of political will, what other factors do you think are militating against Nigeria’s efforts to eradicate polio?
Let’s be frank, in Nigeria, our attitude to things is not something to cheer about. When Ghana made their presentation, we saw that there’s nothing Ghana is doing that we are not doing. The thing behind it is how committed the people are considering it. Are they seeing it as a passion to see to its end? Yes, they are given incentives They are given all sorts of things but beyond that the people themselves are taking it personal and not a country thing. I said earlier that we should develop a sense of national pride in what we are doing. India was in the same position as we are, it’s the people that made up their minds that they were not going to have this. So this issue of national emergency on polio should be the people’s thing. It’s not for Jonathan alone to do, it’s for everybody: parents, youths, caregivers, you name it. The government can do its own bit but each of us still has a role to play.
Our attitude to things is very bad. We are in this country and we are hearing of police pension scheme where bogus sums of money were taken away by man. And among them are 60, 50 year olds who have worked all their lives there. So what kind of attitude has such a person? What kind of a human being is such a person who is doing that? Until we begin to change those attitudes, no matter what plans we put, it will still remain. Remember it’s like new wine and you put it in an old bottle, its not going to work. So our attitude to things must change in this country if we are ever going to make the progress we want to make.
How do you propose we change our attitude?
It starts with you and me. Wherever I am, if I were stealing money I can’t condemn the minister or anyone who does that . The gatekeeper who will not allow me to enter without taking bribe from me is also as bad as the minister. So it is not the minister or governor alone, it is us as individuals. For us to make up our minds to do what is right. Nigeria is saying that Okonjo-Iweala’s loss is due to politics and merit. But do we have merit in this country? Certain things affect us because of our people.