April 2, 2017

‘We need to subject political office holders to mental illness test’


•Says meeting Prof. Lambo Adeoye was his life’s turning point
•‘I did odd jobs to pay school fees’

By Gabriel Enogholase, Benin-City

Fred Odemwingie Okhomina is among the first generation  of psychiatric  doctors in Nigeria. Okhomina went into psychiatry after his mentor, Dr Adeoye Lambo, advised him to go into it. In this interview, Okhomina, who recently celebrated his 80th birthday, speaks on why he was influenced by his mentor to study that branch of medicine, corruption in Nigeria and the need to subject  political office holders to psychiatric test.

How do you feel being 80?

I feel like a baby in the cradle. I have looked forward to be an old man in my life time but my only joy is that I attained this age  with a lot of accomplishments. My life has touched so many people and I believe I am paying back human debt because I would not have been what I am without the grace of a few people.

What were the major signs in Benin when you were born in the 30s?

I will say I was too young to know what was happening. I was told that in 1937 when I was born, my late elder brother, Engineer Aiwerioba, was going to Government College Ibadan. I knew my parents came from a village not too far from Benin, I knew Benin wasn’t as developed  as it is now.   But in 1944 when I started going to primary school  and in 1950 when I went to St Peter’s Anglican Primary School, we were told that pupils in  schools were doing  better than those in government schools which was the fact. That was when Edo College admitted 25 students every year and 14 came from St Peter’s which means St Peters had good teachers. One  of my very good classmates is Prof. Sunday Iyahen who remained my classmate for many years through secondary school and at the University of Ibadan where I did medicine and he did mathematics.

What is the secret of your good  health given the backdrop that many others of   your age are in bad health?

I didn’t have it too rosy; I mean my father wasn’t a rich man. He was a farmer and became a contractor later. It was not easy in my early life, so I did a lot of farming at a site where Edo Textile Mills is now located in Benin. There, I used to plant okro for my father and mother. While I was in primary school, I did a lot of menial jobs to pay school fees and we will get up very early in morning to go and fetch water; so throughout primary school, it was hectic and that is what gave me a bit of courage that the future will be great


What gave you the inspiration to study medicine at the University of Ibadan ?

I didn’t know what medicine was in primary school but I knew people went to hospital. I had a hand injury in 1946 and I was taken to the General Hospital, now Central Hospital Benin, for treatment. I admired people who wore white overall and doctors were like small gods; even  nurses, we called them doctors and they would approach you and you treat them with respect.

When I went into secondary school in the 1950s, I had the opportunity to be nursed, mothered and cared for by Mrs Esther Ogbe who now runs an orphanage in Benin and she always said I was very caring. And she told me that was the only way I could  get the benefit of God.

So she encouraged me to do medicine while studing at the Government College, Ugheli in 1956. We were about 32 who wanted to do medicine but only two of us went through, myself and Dr Obiora of Eko Hospital, Lagos.

What impact did your growing up had in your life?

When you are growing up and people take you as a messenger and you think you are being  maltreated, it made me a stronger person. It equipped me for the life to come. I have never grumbled for anything I was asked to do, no matter what it was.  I molded the blocks for my house in 1958/64. So, doing what is right gives me joy. I thank my father who always told me that when you work hard, you will never starve and that the sky is you limit, and I have seen it that the sky is my limit.

What motivated you to study psychiatry in the university?

I had a mentor in the late Prof. Adeoye Lambo who was the Deputy Director General of the World Health Organisation. He encouraged me to do psychiatry and this was aided by the fact that I got a scholarship. By the time I did psychiatry, it was only me in my class.

What is the state of research on psychiatry today in the country?

We haven’t really done much in the field of psychiatry because there is this need for people to grab money. The study of psychiatry depends on human touch and this is even with the revolving-door syndrome. A patient is brought in today and you treat him and he gets better, he fails to take his drugs; in two or three months, he is back in hospital; we call it revolving-door syndrome. It discourages a doctor and it is really made worse if there is a family history of mental illness. It is an open task especially when you realize that about 25 percent of psychiatry cases are family lineage.

Do you regret studying this branch of medicine?

Yes. You have to do a lot of research. First, you take the pain to go into family history, study the genes and, if you think there is no family history in the management of a psychiatric patient, you are joking.

When I took over Uselu Psychiatric Hospital in 1972 as the Medical Director, I discovered that the hospital was standing on its own. So what I did, with the help of the late Senator Olu Akpata, was to open different departments in the hospital so that the mentally ill patient could  meet with those who had physical illness and it worked. Except you were told you  were there for a particular sickness, you wouldn’t know why you were there; you could be treated for malaria, typhoid or pneumonia.

Are you in support of Nigerian political office holders undergoing  psychiatric test?

I buy the idea. I can’t see why somebody should steal 1.3 billion government USDollars, that is a sign of madness. And many European leaders have said that there is something basically wrong with the black man. Why will somebody steal the money meant for road construction, school, for building hospitals and pocket it? Money they will not even finish in five generations!

So I buy the idea. This idea came up when Hitler came to power in 1937 and he wanted to make sure that people who were going to rule were not  greedy. The act  of stealing money is greed and it is a form of mental illness.

If these people were stealing the money to educate the children of poor citizens, we wouldn’t mind; even then it is still stealing.

Chieftaincy title

I was palace doctor to Oba Akenzua and he gave me several parcels of land which have been encroached upon. He wanted to make me a  chief but I refused because I don’t really like chieftaincy title.

At 80, what are your happiest and saddest moments in life?

I am always happy when I receive tributes from those  whose school fees I have paid. When I read one of those tributes last night I was surprised. Without people being nice to me I wouldn’t have been what I am; so, if I am nice to you I am paying back human debt.

My regret, however, is that sometimes you want more from those you have invested so much in and they turn around to show ingratitude. During this birthday period that people were coming to show gratitude, I discovered that those that I invested more on were not forthcoming to say ‘thank you’.