By Owei Lakemfa
NIGERIA in 1988, had just a handful of human or civil right organisations. They were in their infancy in a country with very high mortality rate.
To some of us, it was worrying that while large parts of the world would mark the fortieth commemoration of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the largest Black nation in the world, was going to be left out.
More so when the country was under military dictatorship which had scant regard for basic rights. So the leadership of three leading professional organisations; the Nigeria Medical Association, NMA, the Nigeria Bar Association, NBA, and the Nigeria Union of Journalists,NUJ, met to organise a national event that will command the attention of the country.
To organise it, the NBA sent Obi Okusogu, a brilliant mind with a natural disposition of putting people at ease. The NMA presented a thoughtful Dr. Ekpo then of the Yaba Psychiatric Hospital, Lagos while the NUJ sent Kayode Komolafe, now the Deputy Editor-in-Chief of THISDAY Newspapers, and I. Given the short notice, we worked non-stop to put up a national event packed full with people including Nobel Laureate, Professor Wole Soyinka.
Needless to say, the four of us became quite close. United by common beliefs of social justice and faith in the ability of Nigerians to take their future in their hands. We were to play lead roles in the eventually confrontation with military dictatorship. Okusogu was later elected General Secretary of the NBA and conferred with a Senior Advocate of Nigeria, SAN.? I knew I had a dedicated brother out there in the legal world who would not hesitate to gallop to my side pro bono. What I did not know was that on November 23, death will pluck such a noble heart.
Henry Odugala, was courage, commitment, intelligence and a high sense of proletarian internationalism combined. I have met very few courageous fighters in street protests against military dictatorship and bad governance like him.
I met him not at a bar or social gathering, but in the streets leading protests when it was quite dangerous to do so. He was young, brilliant and a good journalist. He was ready to throw away his job at the Nigeria Television Authority, NTA ? Benin if that was the penalty for being committed to a better country. He was also a leading human rights activist.
Just as I moved from journalism to the trade unions, he also moved, becoming the General Secretary of the Radio, Television and Theatre Workers Union, RATTAWU,.? In labour, he helped to anchor many of our programmes giving them the professional touch of a broadcaster. November 4, was my birthday, a mutual friend and veteran of street battles, Biodun Aremu called me. He did not know whether to wish me happy birthday, or simply to break the tragic news; Henry Odugala passed away!
I could not wait for the month of November to pass away as it seemed to rain death. The dedicated human rights community in Nigeria is small. A lot also depends on lawyers who take the defence of human rights as their primary duty. One of the most outstanding was Fred Agbaje. I called him ‘World Fred’.?
He had gone on to cook himself in constitutional law and became a major asset to the country after civilian rule was restored. He was a dogged fighter and defended the weak using the judicial system. A number of us benefitted from his advocacy and the country, from his mastery of law which he viewed from the prism of the people. Just as I heaved a sigh of relief that November was finally folding up, it took along Fred Agbaje. It was November 24.
If the best of our middle and upper middle-class patriots are dropping off so fast, we need no divinity to tell us what is happening to the masses down there. If brilliant, educated people who can make choices on food and health are going so fast, we do not need to wonder how fast the poor who may not be so endowed, will be ticking off the earthly register. If our country in these times of recession and nation building, is losing its endowed ones who can point us to a path of recovery, we require no prophet to tell us that we need to gird our loins.
Every one of these brothers have some means, will and courage to fight off death; if they succumbed, then what we require as a people, is collective fight. We need not bother ourselves with any tale of fatalism or destiny, but to re-examine ourselves and ask; why is death lurking around Nigeria and scoring so cheap goals?
Is it in our food or life style? Can the cause be located in our health system that provides no early warning signs? Or can it simply be that our hospitals are not equipped, not just for the poor or middle classes, but also for the ruling elite whose members take refuge in good health facilities abroad, and mostly make the return journey as cargo?
Many of our elite undertake the medical journey to India and United States; countries that we officially classified in the late 1970s as having inferior education system. What have they done right, and we have not? What did we do with our annual budgets while they invested theirs in development?
It is not a matter of Nigeria being a poor under developed country lacking resources; it is more a matter of priority, planning and leadership. Cuba, the small island of the brave and courageous, lacking the vast natural resources we have, enduring over fifty years of economic blockade and isolation, has one of the best healthcare system in the world.
This is not just in terms of its modern facilities, but more importantly, in its holistic approach to healthcare as general wellness of the body; physical and mental. It has a life expectancy of 78, and a healthcare system focused on prevention rather than cure. The ratb.org.uk organization notes that:
“Cuba has a record unmatched in dealing with chronic and infectious diseases with amazingly limited resources. These include (with date eradicated): polio (1962), malaria (1967), neonatal tetanus (1972), diphtheria (1979), congenital rubella syndrome (1989), post-mumps meningitis (1989), measles (1993), rubella (1995), and TB meningitis (1997)”.
We can learn from small Cuba beginning with keeping our communities clean by at least clearing refuse; didn’t the Holy Book say cleanliness is next to godliness? Cuba teaches us that you do not need to be rich to make healthcare affordable. We do not need our citizens wail daily on television appealing for funds to undergo urgent medical treatment abroad. Fellow Nigerians,the grave need not be so close.