The Minister of Health, Dr. Osagie Ehanire at the recent 90th reunion of the Government College Ibadan Old Boys Association shared rare insight into his life’s journey and belief system. Martins Ifijeh, who was there, writes
Beyond the newspaper headlines, not many people know Dr. Osagie Ehanire outside being the current Minister of Health or as former Minister of state for Health. But he is much more. He is a longtime politician. He was a key member of the All Nigeria People’s Party (ANPP) during the 2003 and 2007 presidential elections.
Prior to 2011, he, along with few others, pioneered the birthing of the Congress for Progressive Change (CPC) in the South-south, and he set up a group to ensure the party gained prominence in Edo State. By January 2013, he was among the 12 persons selected by CPC to discuss merger with the 12 representatives from Action Congress of Nigeria (ACN), which eventually resulted in the birthing of All Progressives Congress (APC) in February 2013. By the time Buhari won in 2015, it was mission accomplished. He jetted back to the United States to live his life.
These were some of the revelations the trauma doctor shared at the 90 years reunion of the Government College Ibadan Old Boys Association (GCIOBA); a secondary school he graduated from in 1959.
Providence didn’t allow him enjoy his stay in the US. Without lobbying directly or in proxy, he was asked to report for a ministerial screening. First in 2015 as Minister of state for Health, and then as substantial minister in 2019. It was history repeating itself. He is the second person from his family to be minister of health. First was his uncle, Dr. Samuel Ighodaro, who also at a time became the Attorney General and Minister of Justice in the first republic.
“Knowing that I will be working with President Muhammadu Buhari, it was easy taking up the job. Who wouldn’t want to work with a man of vision? I realised early enough he was different from the regular politicians we knew, hence my resolve to stick with him all these years even when he wasn’t winning the elections,” he said.
Ehanire, unconsciously has been preparing for this job. From studying medicine in one of the most prestigious university in Germany; College of Medicine, Ludwig Maximilians University of Munich, Germany, to holding post-graduate diplomas from the teaching hospital of the University of Düsseldorf and Essen, Germany in the areas of anaesthesiology, general surgery, and orthopaedic trauma surgery, it was only a matter of time until his wealth of experience is demanded by the president.
16 years after living in Germany and bagging all the required degrees there is, he came back to Nigeria, took up a job with the University of Benin Teaching Hospital (UBTH) as Senior Registrar Clinical Instructor.
“But I didn’t have job satisfaction. The public sector was different from what obtains where I was coming from. I had to resign, took up a job with Shell Petroleum Development Company of Nigeria.” But Ehanire felt he was seeing too few patients. He resigned and started a private practice. He crisscrossed the public and private sector, until he landed in the Federal Ministry of Health.
What Ehanire Brings to the Table
Exposure: Apart from Ehanire’s rich educational background, and the public and private health sector experience, his over two decades stay in Germany and the United States where healthcare works, may play a huge role in how he leads the Nigerian health sector, as well as how much support is attracted to the system through foreign aid and development partners.
Already, this may have attracted his counterpart in Germany, Mr. Jens Spahn, who along with the Secretary of State and German Ambassador to Nigeria visited the Federal Ministry of Health in Abuja recently where the foreign minister announced a €30.5 million support for the eradication of polio, as well as strengthening the healthcare system of the country.
Spahn had said the bilateral dialogue, which occurred recently in Abuja identified five hospitals in Nigeria that would be supported by Germany’s Ministry of Economic Development as pilot scheme of the train-the-trainer concept towards better healthcare delivery.
Integrity: The minister, at the gathering with his old boys, emphasised his passion for the Nigerian dream and his straightforwardness; attributes the health sector cannot afford to do without at this critical time where the health indices of the country are still regarded in the global community as one of the worst.
In his speech at the old boys gathering, a respected don of medicine, Prof. Oladipo Akinkugbe described Ehanire as a focused goal getter and whose integrity and dedication will play out as he steers the ship of the health sector.
Experience: The ministry of health is no doubt the most complex in the country, given that it has over 50 parastatals and many more mini parastatals under it with very strong different unions with capacities to shut down effective healthcare running should they have agitations as usually seen from time to time, but Ehanire has had an uninterrupted three years and six months as Minister of State for Health, therefore, the opportunity of having a minister who already understands the system, the challenges and bottlenecks is a major advantage for the trauma doctor.
Hurdles Before the Minister
Poliomyelitis: Even though Nigeria’s last poliomyelitis case was recorded August 2016, the country is still regarded as one of the polio endemic nations, along with Afghanistan and Pakistan, until the World Health Organisation (WHO) declares the country free from the public health challenge. This is perhaps the first visible hurdle before the minister. Nigeria is billed to be declared free at the first quarter of 2020. Will this rare feat happen under his watch? Will there be another case of polio? His leadership style would have a role to play.
Poor Funding: Presently, Nigeria’s health sector funding is one of the lowest globally. If there is one common hurdle that past leaderships of the ministry have not been able to surmount, and which has led to the snail growth of the sector since the last 20 years, it is the low budgetary allocation to the sector.
Global economic and development experts have often said for any nation to be considered strong economically, and on human capital development, it must have given priority to education and health.
This perhaps signals why in April 2001, members of the African Union, including Nigeria met in Abuja and agreed to allocate 15 per cent of their national budgets to the sector, and it was believed that if this was adhered to strictly, within the next five years, the poor health indices emanating from the continent would have been a thing of the past.
Since the Declaration, the highest health allocation for Nigeria was in 2012 where 5.95 per cent was allotted to the health sector. In 2014, it allocated N216.40 billion to healthcare, representing 4.4 per cent. In 2015, it was N237 billion, which represents 5.5 per cent of the entire budget. Same with 2016 (4.23 per cent) and 2017 (4.16 per cent).
It would be a major task of the leadership of Ehanire to see that the sector attracts more government funding. On specifics, healthcare experts believed government spending for health should be as recommended by WHO, which is 13 per cent, or the Abuja Declaration, which is 15 per cent. last year, health allocation was on 3.9 per cent of the national budget.
Incessant Strike Action: It is no longer new that the health sector has more than one strong professional unions, who often than not, go on strike actions to press home their demands at the tiniest provocation. Whether from the Nigerian Medical Association (NMA) or the Joint Health Sector Union (JOHESU), it leaves sorrow, tears and blood for the citizens.
This is one hurdle before the minister and his team to surmount. Is it possible not to have strike actions all through a minister’s tenure? Prof. Eyitayo Lambo, the then Minister of Health under ex-President Olusegun Obasanjo did it. It is doable again. Ehanire’s experience and exposure has a huge role to play to addressing many of the agitations of health sector workers.
The Position, the Legacies
Till date, late Prof. Olikoye Ransome-Kuti, decades after leading the health sector, is still remembered for his impact in addressing the then monster of the health sector, HIV/AIDS. The story of Nigeria’s National Health Insurance Scheme (NHIS) cannot be told without the mention of Prof. Lambo, an economist. The immediate past Minister of Health, Prof. Isaac Adewole, in whose tenure the Basic Health Care Provisions Fund (BHCPF) kicked off will ever be remembered for this. But these mentions still represent small parts of the health sector targets.
Will Ehanire be remembered for one or two things he did in the sector, or will he be remembered for totally transforming the sector into what obtains in Germany and the US where he is familiar with?
With development partner and stakeholders unanimously agreeing that Ehanire is a round peg in a round hole, it is believed when the curtain is drawn on his tenure, he will be remembered for playing a major role in Nigeria achieving UHC, achieve various Sustainable Development Goals relating to health, revitalize primary health centres, as well as curbed medical tourism abroad. Time will indeed tell.