Dr. Edugie Abebe and the NPI


Few Nigerians may have heard of Dr. Edugie Abebe, inspite of her famous surname. The Abebes, as most Nigerians know, were Nigeria's First In-Laws, until Stella died as the country's First Lady last December.

But before President Obasanjo married her decades ago, Chief Christopher Abebe, the family's late patriarch, was already well known as a chieftain of the giant conglomerate, the United Africa Company, UAC. He was to eventually become its first indigenous chairman.

It was this famous Edo family that Edugie, herself an Edo, married into many years ago but became widowed not so long ago. It is, I think, a reflection of her character that she apparently never sought to exploit her marital link to the former First In-Laws to further her career or feather her nest or seek undue publicity as a senior civil servant.

She will sustain this virtue depending on how she handles her new job as Interim Coordinator/Chief Executive of the National Programme on Immunization, the NPI. That she got the job apparently had little or nothing to do with her marital links to the family of the late First Lady; at the time of her appointment in December, she was already well regarded in medical circles as the director of pubic health at the Federal Ministry of Health.

Dr. Abebe's new job is a most unenviable one. By the time the president dismissed her predecessor, the unlamented Dr. Dere Awosika, the NPI had become a bye-word for scandal. From 1993 when the then First Lady, Mrs. Mariam Abacha, consolidated child immunization into a unit under her office, national immunization became a honey-pot for self-aggrandizement and a veritable source of scandals, what with allegations of inflated contracts, importation of vaccines of suspect safety, vicious internal feuds at the top and very opaque accounting, especially of funds from abroad. The result was predictable; soon there were threats from foreign donours of withholding their funds for a programme which, unfortunately, had become donour driven. Then there was a sharp decline in the rate of immunization from over 80% during the Babangida regime under the ministration of late Professor Olukoye Ransome-Kuti, to under 20% in the last few years. Along with, some will say because of, this sharp decline, the eradication of polio in the country, whish was on the verge of success, suffered serious set-back particularly in the North. Today, according to experts, Nigeria accounts for 100% of the incidences of the wild polio virus (WPV) in Africa, the only two other countries with the disease, our neighbouring Niger Republic and Egypt, having eliminated it last year after a sustained and intensive campaign. One reason for the sharp decline in the polio eradication campaign, was the claim by some Muslim clerics some three years ago that the imported vaccines had been laced with anti-fertility agents in order to curb the Muslim population in the country, as part of the West's global war against Islam. Rather than address this claim, the authorities and the global media chose to dismiss it as superstitious and absurd. Somehow they conveniently ignored the historical fact that science, medical science included, is replete with cases of conflicts of interest, conflicts involving profit or ideology or both. For example, an article in the London Guardian of February 24, 2004,quoted a Union of Concerned Scientists as claiming that President George Bush has "systematically nobbled" American science when ever it conflicted with "the needs of his corporate sponsors or the religious fanatics who helped him into office." More specifically the article accused the White House of, among other things, ordering America's Environmental Protection Agency to "dump its temperature records and replace them with a discredited study partly funded by the American Petroleum Institute". The White House also allegedly ordered the agency to delete its findings that "climate change has global consequences for human health and the environment". Even more tellingly, the article pointed out that an analysis in the Journal of American Medical Association revealed that "87% of the scientists who write the clinical guidelines used by doctors for prescribing drugs have financial links to drug companies. Over half of them are connected to the companies whose drugs they are reviewing". The White House is, of course, hardly a pioneer in the attempt to politicise science or put profit before safety. Long before Bush, Hitler in Germany had done precisely that with, among other things, his attempts to create a so-called Aryan master race. Indeed the politicization of science has been as old as the human race, human nature being what it is. So while the claim by some Muslim clerics about the deliberate adulteration of the polio vaccines may have sounded superstitious and absurd, the right answer was to have embarked on a credible and sustained enlightenment campaign to convince sceptics about the integrity of the vaccines. This was the more necessary given the terrible experiment by Pfizer with a new meningitis vaccine in Kano a few years before the polio contrversy, an experiment which led to the death and crippling of many children. It therefore seems to me that the failure of the polio eradication campaign in Nigeria was more a failure of leadership, both in the Office of the First Lady and at the NPI, than a failure of some Muslim clerics to grasp the danger of rejecting immunization. This failure of leadership was of both conceptualization and implementation. Conceptually, it was wrong for the federal authorities to have seized ownership of an aspect of public health which was best handled by the State and Local governments, simply because First Ladies must have a job to do and patronages to distribute. At the level of implementation, it should have been obvious to the authorities that without transparency and accountability, any campaign, not least one dealing with the prevention of diseases, is unlikely to succeed. There were, of course, other problems of technical nature, like providing cold-chains that keep the vaccines at the required temperature between their importation and usage. Such problems were, however, solved by transparency in the construction of cold stores and in the procurement and/or installation of equipment. It is to President Obasanjo's credit that he eventually acknowledged these failures and gave the job for correcting them to someone with the right qualifications and experience. The signs so far are that Dr. Abebe intends to use her qualification and experience to achieve her briefs which include the eradication of polio before the end of this year, the achievement of a 65% rate for routine immunization in the near future and the devolution of the ownership and responsibility for routine immunization to the State and Local governments, hopefully by next year. These are by no means easy targets, especially given the dismal record of the NPI since its establishment in 1993. But, as I said earlier, Dr. Abebe seems the person that fits the bill. First, unlike your typical Johny-Just-Come-To-A-"Lucrative"-Job, she has not indulged in getting friends and relatives to throw parties and sponsor newspaper adverts congratulating her over her new job. Instead she has quietly but effectively engaged religious leaders, traditional leaders, medical professionals and the media in a dialogue that can only tear down the unfortunate wall of suspicions that the NPI's mishandling of immunization had erected in the North. In under two months of her appointment, she has already initiated two of such dialogues. Second, she seems to have approached her job with a humility that suggests she is willing to learn on the job and with a self-confidence about her competence which suggests she is not prepared to ingratiate herself to any one just to keep her job. There can be no doubt that if she carries on the way she started, she will restore the nation's immunization programme to at least its satisfactory pre-1993 level. She would thus save the country from a future of catastrophic pandemics of all sorts of immunizable diseases.

  Mrs. GLADYS SASORE AT NEPC While Dr. Abebe is doing a commendable job at the NPI, another lady Mrs. Gladys Sasore appointed by the president about two years ago to do a somewhat similar job at the Nigerian Export Promotion Council (NEPC), seems determined to make matters worse than they were before her appointment.

First, Mrs. Sasore sacked over 500 of the 660 staff of the council. Downsizing the council may have been part of her brief, but she has gone about it without final clearance of her parent ministry, the Ministry of Commerce. She has also gone about it in a most arbitrary manner, thus disrupting, if not terminating, the career of competent and qualified staff. And as if all this was not bad enough, she surreptitiously placed some adverts in newspapers for fresh recruitment.

Second, along with cutting down staff size, she reduced the zonal headquarters from 12 to 5, which seemed alright, except that she retained the two in the South-West where she comes from but abolished the two in the South-South and the North-East and retained only one each in the remaining two zones.

But of all the mess she seems determined to make of the NEPC, none comes close to her appointment of her son, a two-year graduate, as her special assistance on GL 16 and her daughter, with only an ordinary diploma, a staff on GL 13! With such arbitrary conduct, or more accurately, misconduct, it will take a miracle for NEPC to be in a position to help any one export any thing out of this country, _______________________