By Dotun Ibiwoye & Charles Kumolu
TODAYS’s personality, Prof. Friday Okonofua, narrates how his exposure at some of the world’s best universities moulded him into the authority he became in the field of medicine and other endeavours he got involved in. With stints at the Ford Foundation, International Federation of Gynaecology and Obstetrics, Royal Free Hospital, London, and Obafemi Awolowo University among others, he rose to become the pioneer Vice Chancellor of University of Medical Sciences, Ondo, UNIMED. Okonofua, who is a renowned gynaecologist, discusses his life and craft with Dotun Ibiwoye & Charles Kumolu, declaring that the desire to improve humanity powered his steps to significance.
HOW was it like coming this far in life?
The remarkable experiences I have had I would say include my education at some of the world’s best Universities, including the Obafemi Awolowo University, and the Universities of London, Harvard and Karolinska University in Sweden. The essential element of these educational exposure was my meeting with some of the best minds in academia and the feeling that one was in the world and not just belonging to an insular community.
I have, therefore, developed extreme love and passion for humanity rather than for the segregated part of the country from where I come from. The desire to do the best to improve humanity has always propelled me, especially recognizing that one can only be appraised by the quality of the contribution that one makes rather than the quantum of individual possessions.
You are a renowned Obstetrician, Gynecologist, Public health expert and Educational administrator, how did you get involved in these?
It’s by the grace of God. And the goodwill of many Nigerians and development partners who believe in me. The Ford Foundation was a particularly good place for me. It embodied me with the philosophy and principles that I always held dear to my heart.
These are commitments to transparency, accountability, efficiency, and effectiveness which are the driving force of development. When you add anti-corruption and high integrity to this, people will trust you and you will get to where you want to be in life.
On professional and personal life
There has never been any such instance of regret. I am a contented person, and have always been positive about life. I am also forward-looking in the sense that I plan ahead. Even when I fail in some milestones, I always stand up immediately and do not allow such failures to weigh me down. I also do not hold grudges against anyone who disappoints as I have learnt to factor disappointments into my futuristic planning.
As the pioneer Vice Chancellor of Ondo State University of Medical Sciences, in what ways have you been able to bring your robust background to bear in the institution which is the first of its kind in Africa?
Heading the first University of Medical Sciences in Nigeria has indeed been a challenge but it has also been interesting. The opportunity was given to do things differently and to be innovative and creative in thinking of ways to improve the quality of medical education in the country has been the major impetus for my commitment to this work. I am one of those who believe that the curriculum for medical education in this country is outdated and that this partly explains our inability to address the multiple health problems that beset this country. I wish therefore to use this opportunity to request everyone to look out for a new set of medical graduates from UNIMED because I believe they will be multi-faceted and poised to solve the multiple health and developmental challenges that our country faces.
Being a new University, the resistance to change that is often witnessed in older Universities has been less intense. This has enabled UNIMED to develop an all-embracing and participatory strategic plan, which we believe will take the University to greater heights of achievements. We have not been buoyed down by lack of funds due to the on-going economic downturn in the country.
By contrast, we have been propelled by the encouragement, tenacity of purpose and commitment of the local community as well as the goodwill and dispassionate disposition of two successive Ondo State governments that we have had. Ondo state is one of the most socially conscious states in the country. The priority the two governments have given and continue to give to health and education is perhaps second to none in the country. We are leveraging on this opportunity to drive the development of the University.
Where do you see UNIMED in the next five years and what should other aspiring Universities in your field learn?
We intend to make considerable progress in various aspects of academic development. The University was established in 2015, with the first set of students coming into residence in January 2016. This first set of students are currently in 300 Level – our projection is that the first set of doctors and dentists will graduate in the third quarter of 2019.
We are actually now working hard to ensure that all our programs are accredited by the NUC, the Medical and Dental Council, and other health professional organizations not later than 2018.
Additionally, within the next five years, we hope to firmly consolidate and entrench our existing courses in Medicine, Dentistry, Nursing, Physiotherapy, Basic Medical Sciences, Applied Sciences related to Health and Medical Laboratory Sciences. Our aim is to ensure that our training curricular and teaching methods not only meet national accreditation standards but, indeed, are accreditable by international accreditation agencies. We are working to ensure that we draw our students not only from Nigeria but from neighbouring African countries. We are presently in discussion with the embassies of all African countries in Abuja to assist the University in ensuring that this happens.
During this period, UNIMED will also establish additional courses in pharmacy, biomedical engineering and public health. Our postgraduate training will begin in earnest in the 2017-2018 session, while we will lay a novel niche in research into locally available medicinal plants. We believe very strongly that the future of global health lies in the many un-researched medicinal plants that abound in many parts of Nigeria and other parts of Africa.
Once the chemistry and bioactivity of these active agents are identified, it will lead to the generation of a new set of drugs that would likely be more cost-effective in the prevention and treatment of diseases. UNIMED will lead the pathway to this discovery through multi-disciplinary primary, applied and clinical research. This research initiative will be launched in the University this August. Our vision is to see that in the not-too distant future, a new pharmaceutical industry based on newly invented drugs will be located in Ondo City as the drug manufacturing city of West Africa.
What are the peculiar challenges of pioneering a university of medical science?
The challenges are not much different from those in leading the older Universities. Except that the leader in a new University needs to be more creative, resilient, hardworking and knowledgeable. As resources are often limited in new Universities, a strategic plan for fund-raising and resource mobilization needs to be put in place from the very beginning. And available funds must be used wisely and judiciously to ensure that they are prioritized for academic development and not devoted to wasteful self-aggrandizing projects.
It’s also very important to ensure that initial recruitment of staff is based on merit and ability to deliver the objectives of the various units of the University. If a mistake is made at this stage, it will be difficult to wish away and will remain a bottleneck for all time. So, the initial phase of a medical University, and indeed all Universities at their initiation is akin to building the foundation of a house. If anything goes wrong at this phase, it will be difficult to correct in future.
The only challenge has been the limited available funding. But we are addressing this in multiple innovative ways, including intense fund raising. We transited from the proprietorship of the forward-looking and progressive Governor Dr. Segun Mimiko to another very progressive, dynamic, resourceful, thoughtful and knowledgeable Governor Arakunrin Rotimi Akeredolu, been understanding and very supportive. three of us were at the same time at the then University of Ife (now Obafemi Awolowo University). That may be the secret, but I continue to say that when there is a good idea, every good person everywhere will support the idea. o what we lose in funding, you have gained in high ranking support which then propels us to put on the thinking cap to serve the interest of the institution and the good people of Nigeria. On this, we are convinced that UNIMED is a vision come to fruition and will never fail.
On positive change in medical sciences
Surely, the establishment of UNIMED is already turning out to be a driving force for change in the health sciences in Nigeria. The inter-disciplinary nature of course delivery, where different professionals – doctors, dentists, physiotherapists, nurses, medical laboratory scientists – are being trained under the same philosophy and guiding principles will reduce the level of tension and inter-professional rivalry that currently bedevils the health profession. Our community focus where we are part and parcel of our community enables our graduates to be prepared to solve the immediate problems of their communities. Furthermore, the integration of entrepreneurship into the curriculum is possibly the first time this is being done for medical education in this country. This will ensure that UNIMED graduates will not just be employees in future, they will also be employers of labour. The high number of applicants seeking admission into various courses in the University from all parts of the country eloquently testifies to the belief of Nigerians in the strategic position of UNIMED to be a trail-blazer in medical education in this country. I will also add that the currently enrolled students in the University are drawn from 23 states of the country (an un-usual demography in a State University), which confirms the high rating of the University by the average Nigerian.
Such a University must be founded on the basis of need rather than for political purposes. Before UNIMED was established, there was no tertiary institution for the training of health professionals in Ondo State. Indeed, before now Ondo State was the only State in southern Nigeria that did not have a medical school. Indeed, States like Edo, Oyo, Lagos, Osun and Anambra have 2-3 medical Schools. As you know, Ondo State has the one of the highest numbers of graduates in other fields, and merit award winners (especially in the field of medicine), yet they did not have a medical school. So, the establishment of UNIMED was clearly borne out of the need of the State. So, my major recommendation is that a medical university to be established by the federal government must emanate from a strategic assessment to identify its location and unique orientation with respect to the need for human resource development in health. Additionally, such a medical University must be adequately funded and must be given the enablement to develop unique curricular and research platforms that will address the many health challenges in the country.