Medical Training and Odili’s Pioneering Efforts

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SATURDAY INSIGHT 

Last Saturday’s installation of former Head of State, General Abdulsalami Abubakar as the Chancellor of PAMO University of Medical Sciences in Port Harcourt, Rivers State, attracted from across the country, friends and well-wishers of the promoter and former Rivers State Governor, Dr Peter Odili. Olusegun Adeniyi who was there reports

It was a roll call of who-is-who in both the bar and the bench in Nigeria as well as a collection of the finest in the profession of medicine at the PAMO University of medical sciences, the first tertiary institution in Nigeria dedicated solely to the study of medicine. Promoted by Dr Peter Odili, it is also the first private university in the state he governed between 1999 and 2007. Being a medical doctor and his wife, Mary, a Justice of Supreme Court, it was understandable that lawyers, judges and healthcare practitioners would dominate the occasion. But not to be outdone, there were also several politicians from across the country led by the former Kano State Governor and presidential aspirant, Senator Rabiu Musa Kwankwaso who arrived the hall with several of his supporters, all wearing the trademark red cap.

Expansive and serene, it was difficult for most guests to believe last Saturday that they were on the campus of a University that is yet to admit the first set of students. But the remarkable story would come from Odili, the founder and pro-Chancellor who attributed everything to “the outcome of two providential occurrences”: The first, a 21 acres land purchased from two families in 1989 for building a ginger processing factory and an infusion manufacturing plant–a project that never took off; and the second, an encounter with a ‘stranger’ in the course of a four-hour delayed flight at the Abuja airport on 19th December 2016.
The said ‘stranger’, who challenged Odili to think about giving something back to the profession that made him, by way of a tertiary institution for the training of future doctors, turned out to be the Executive Sectary of the National University Commission (NUC), Prof Abubakar Rasheed. According to Odili, “Prof Rasheed has shown, through this project and the processes leading to this event, that there are still in this country, true patriots devoid of the primordial, divisive and selfish tendencies that have kept us down as a people over the years”.

It is indeed remarkable that from conception to the realisation of the University which is starting with five faculties (Allied and Health Sciences, Basic Medical Sciences, Clinical Sciences, Dentistry and Pharmaceutical sciences), the whole process took exactly one calendar year. The first contact with the Executive Secretary was on 19th December 2016, a letter of intent was submitted a month later on 19th January 2017, the final inspection was done by the NUC on 19th July 2017 and the licence was granted by the Federal Executive Council on 19th December 2017.

In his reflection Odili believes that providence played a significant role not only in the fact that the idea of farming for which the land was purchased was jettisoned but also for the interest of his wife in encouraging constructions for the training of traditional birth attendants before the premises migrated to a skills acquisition and youth/teenage pregnancy reorientation and rehabilitation centre. At some point, the National Open University of Nigeria (NOUN) was also using the premises as one of their learning centres. So, by the time the idea of a University came, there was already a campus.

Notwithstanding, Odili believes that the credit for the university goes to the NUC Executive Secretary for upholding the duty of care which, in his words, is rare within the Nigerian environment, especially since the man had never met him before and would gain nothing personal from him establishing a University. This made Odili to wax lyrical: “Prof Rasheed is a Northern Muslim. He is not in the medical profession. We had never met before and yet he walked up to me feeling that there was the possibility that I could contribute to the growth and development of the medical sector. He neither considered ethnicity, tribe, religion or geography. He just wanted what could bring about improvement for Nigeria and Nigerians in medical education, using his position as an opportune channel. Our country will be a better place if people like Prof Rasheed are given opportunity to serve in executive national positions”.

However, even when Odili could not hide his admiration for the NUC Executive secretary, the day belonged to the former Head of State, General Abdulsalami Abubakar, who was accompanied to the ceremony by a large delegation from Niger State led by Governor Abubakar Sani Bello and his wife, Fati, a retired Supreme Court Justice. Upon his investiture as the first Chancellor of the University, General Abubakar thanked Odili for the honour before adding that if the zeal, dedication and commitment that were deployed in the planning stages are employed in running the university, it will, in a very short period of time, become a world class institution worthy of emulation within and outside the country.

PAMO University of medical sciences, the General promised, “will strive to address all these challenges as it aims to achieve global excellence in terms of teaching, research and community services. The university is set to produce graduates in different fields of medicine who are not only competent in their profession but also entrepreneurial, ICT driven and that are worthy in character and learning.”
Explaining the rationale for such a specialized University, General Abubakar said the “inability of our universities to meet up with the increasing demand for placement is more pronounced in the field of medicine and medical related programmes” while recent reports “have shown that less than five percent of qualified candidates are able to gain admission into medical programmes in all Nigerian universities.” He listed inadequate number of qualified medical practitioners and the rising emigration of the well-qualified few as part of the reasons for medical tourism with billions of naira “spent annually in foreign countries to treat ailments which could have been easily treated in Nigeria if there are adequately qualified doctors in the country.”

Nigeria, according to General Abubakar, has been witnessing an increasing out-flow of students seeking tertiary medical education in neighbouring African countries such as Ghana, Uganda and Sudan and other countries outside the continent with disastrous consequences. “The last medical and dental council of Nigeria examination of foreign trained doctors saw 680 doctors sitting for the examination. The sad aspect of this however is the monumental failure rate of the foreign trained doctors in the medical and dental council professional qualifying examination as witnessed in the last examination,” he said.

Praising what he described as a phenomenal growth in the number of private universities due to the increasing number of applicants seeking admission every year, the Nigerian former military leader said the enormous role being played by the private sector cannot be overemphasized. Besides, he added, “we should encourage more private our large population and a significant percentage of it being under 25, the demand for higher education is going to increase in the years ahead.” And with that, he called on the NUC to, as a matter of urgency review the requirements for the establishment of private universities “Such a review will take cognizance of the nature of mono discipline and city based institutions like PAMO University of Medical Sciences”.
Even though it was a solemn ceremony as one would expect of such occasions, there was a stand-by choir even though the Rivers State Governor, Mr Nyesom Wike, who was special guest, added drama to the occasion with his banters, first with the NUC Executive Secretary with whom he worked when he (Wike) was Minister of State for Education and then with the man holding the portfolio he left behind in Abuja, Prof Anthony Onwuka. In his speech, Wike bemoaned the fact that “because the carrying capacity of existing public tertiary institutions in the State is limited, majority of our children are unable to access higher education to actualize their educational ambitions.”
While the licensing of private universities by the Federal Government was meant to address this challenge, the governor argued, none of the existing private universities was located in Rivers State until Odili’s intervention. “I can only at this stage envision what the people of Rivers State stand to benefit from this landmark venture which has set itself the mission to contribute to the global stock of medical knowledge and we are all quite excited about it, both as a Government and, as a people,” said Wike.
Pledging that the River State Government would partner with the university, being the first private institution in the state, Wike announced a grant of N500 million to support the development of the school and its students. To consummate the partnership, and in what became a fitting end to the ceremony, Wike also pledged that the state government would sponsor 100 students annually in the school for the next five years.