Senator ‘Lanre Tejuoso, a former chairman, Senate Committee on Health, grew up amidst affluence and opulence. That sheltered reality has by no means obscured his determination to pursue the public good and render selfless service. That fact also did not imbue him with an insufferable pride common with wealth. Royalty flows in his blood as the first son of Osile Oke-Ona Egba, Oba Adedapo Tejuoso. Rather than living an indulgent life, Tejuoso upon graduating from medical school at 21, was one of the youngest doctors around. His thirst for public service saw him go into politics serving as a commissioner for the Environment in Ogun State. Thereafter, he represented his senatorial district in the last National Assembly. A successful businessman, medical doctor, politician and a committed family man. In this interview with Funke Olaode, Tejuoso talks about the coronavirus pandemic and the realities of being a family man
As a health professional and former lawmaker, one would expect you to join forces with the government to support the lean team of health workers fighting the coronavirus pandemic. What have you been doing?
Well, I was a government official that had a four-year tenure when I was elected to represent my State, Ogun in the last dispensation. I later held the position of the Chairman, Senate Committee on Health. Now, there is another person occupying the same position in the senate. All I can do at my level since I have access to him, the minister and other stakeholders, is to contact them and give advice where necessary. It is not that I have been folding my arms, I am working behind the scene giving advice, my observations, and recommendations where necessary. COVID-19 that is ravaging the entire world requires collective fight and all hands must be on deck.
From the Spanish Influenza to Ebola, throw HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, malaria, etc., in the mix, will you say the state of global health isn’t something to be worried about?
Of course, there are so many theories but nothing has been confirmed. But what is important is that it is a wake-up call for nations generally to attach a lot of importance to their health infrastructure, to attach importance to how they prepare and have the workforce that are skilled to respond to any kind of emergency like this. You know human beings don’t pay much attention until an emergency like this occurs.
Why are African public health organizations, scientists, and government not so keen on research and development that can lead to the invention of vaccines and cure of many of the diseases ravaging the tropics?
In my sojourn at the last senate, I discovered that the funding for research work was very insignificant. So if you don’t fund research there is no way you can get results? The mentality of the government must change towards increasing funding for research work. We have a very good array of professors in Nigeria, good intellectuals who can carry out research but funding has been an impediment. I believe with the intelligence of professors we have in Nigeria, we are going to do wonders in the area of research. Generally, it is an issue of funding deficiency.
COVID-19 is the rave of the moment in the world but with the Ebola virus, Africans are still staring down the barrel. What do you think?
Nigeria’s response to emergency situations is very good. We managed Ebola effectively when it came and we thank God that Ebola has gone. What we are now doing today by wearing masks and using sanitizer began when the Ebola epidemic broke out a few years back, and immediately Ebola left we went back to the basics. We started seeing empty sanitizer cans in hotels and public places. With COVID-19 now, again we are seeing sanitizers everywhere with people adhering to basic health hygiene and rules. Let’s pray that after COVID-19, we will continue the culture.
There are fears though subdued about confirmed cases of COVID-19 exploding in Lagos. The state government is applauded for what it’s been doing so far. What still needs to be done to fight the virus head-on?
World Health Organization (WHO) has applauded Nigeria and the Centre of Excellence, Lagos State, for the way it has handled the COVID-19 cases so far. Kudos to governor Sanwo-Olu and his team led by the highly-respected Prof. (Akin) Abayomi for their swift effective response. Again, we are lucky and God is with us really that we are not having the kind of outbreak we are seeing on television happening in other countries. And what needs to be done? In my own opinion as a medical practitioner, I think the government should upgrade our primary health care centres to function maximally. We are such a large population with a large populace in different geographic locations all over the country. You will be surprised that there are regions or locations that don’t even know what is called COVID-19 today because of their distance to the urban centers. The country is well-spaced out on paper in terms of local governments and wards. So we expect that every ward must have a functional primary health centre. We expect that with a primary health centre that is well-equipped with drugs, basic equipment and skilled workers, anyone that has simple complaints like fever, diarrhoea, etc can go there and be given immediate attention. Not only that, we expect to have a functional laboratory that is close by to carry out tests and identify the diagnosis. When I was in the Senate, we fought for the implementation of the Basic Health Care Provision Fund, a game-changer for the health sector of Nigeria. This fund, according to the law we introduced, is to ensure that every primary health care centre in the country is funded maximally and directly by the Central Bank of Nigeria avoiding all the bureaucracy of government. The centers would be able to receive any low or high-income earners and our elites in the country for basic health care services. For instance, if we had such in place today, we won’t be struggling to look for locations to receive our suspected covid 19 patients for their first management when they present with symptoms.
Nigeria’s health system, largely, at private and public levels have been in shambles. National and subnational budgetary allocations to health leave much to be desired. Why do you think health is one of the least important items on the government’s menu even though every leader parrots, ‘health is wealth’, ‘life has no duplicate’?
The answer to your question is being seen with the scenario created by the COVID-19 pandemic. You can see that now that it is affecting everybody, the low, high and mighty, government at every level has risen to the occasion working on how they would make the health system work. At the National Assembly, as earlier mentioned, a law was introduced called the Health Act of 2014 wherein we declared that a minimum of one percent of the Consolidated Revenue Fund of the country must be set aside into a basket for the health sector to offer basic health care provision to all Nigerians. It was signed during President (Goodluck) Jonathan but since then the government did not recognize or obey the law until we pushed for it in 2016/2017. For the first time, the one percent was put into the budget in 2018 and also 2019. For me, to have a robust health care system, the private sector must be involved even with management. When the banks, telecoms companies, etc become privately-run in Nigeria they became successful. Also, the fortune of companies once owned by the government changed positively when they were privatized. We can replicate that in the health sector. We need the private sector to get involved in our health sector and the management should be removed from the government. Let’s run the primary health centres the way we are running our banks and everyone will enjoy going to see doctors and nurses as we know that the private sectors don’t joke with their businesses.
Would the poor be able to afford privately-funded primary health care centres?
It can work. Today, both the rich and the poor have mobile phones. Both the rich and the poor have bank accounts, even if it’s only N500 that’s in it. Health sector financing will be robust, being a volume business, if supported by mandatory health insurance with every Nigerian paying a token of N200 per month. If 20 million out of 200 million Nigerians decide to pay N200 every month, for example, that is N4 billion per month. This translates to N48 billion per annum which is greater than the capital budget of the health ministry ever. Tell me, how much do they want to spend in one health care centre? Okay, the health workers’ salaries, basic medical drugs, power, and water maintenance. Then who is going to run it? This is why the private sector must get involved and management revolving round a health practitioner and administration by the private sector. The government should just create an enabling environment. This mandatory health contribution was injected into the new health insurance commission bill that we passed in the 8th senate and still awaiting conclusion.
It has become a status symbol for Nigerians to go abroad for a medical check-up. Are we in a hopeless situation where a President, governor or lawmaker seeks health care abroad and the have-nots languish in ramshackle clinics fighting for bed spaces or medicines?
Nigeria is the greatest beneficiary of this COVID-19 pandemic because we are forced to upgrade our health care facilities and practise what we have been preaching. We have good theory and documentation on how to run hospitals and primary health care centres, policies introduced year in year out but we lack the practical aspect but now, we are forced into the practical aspect. So our situation is not hopeless if the right things are put in place. Even the donations received so far can be used for the cause but at the same time, part of it can be used to strengthen and upgrade our primary health centres through the basic health care provision fund. It will help the country in case of any emergency.
Apart from the one percent separate funding, do you think the five percent budgetary allocation to health is sufficient?
Well, as said earlier I am no longer in the senate and can’t say what is going on now in terms of budgetary allocation being given to the Federal Ministry of Health every year. As said earlier, the one percent fund was signed into law in 2014. This fund will be run by a separate entity so that all monies coming to Nigeria will go into that basket. The donations for COVID 19 could also be managed through this channel.
What is the way forward in view of the COVID-19 pandemic? Advice to the world?
Well, all the processes that we are adopting in Nigeria today for COVID-19 are the lessons we are learning from the international community; that we should use mask, cough and sneeze into your elbow, we should have lockdown and we shouldn’t go out. Fine. It is working for them. But here in Nigeria, we have a peculiar problem of the poverty situation and therefore, should modify our approach to avoid hunger being more dangerous than Covid 19. We can adopt the approach that everybody should use mask when they are outside so that they can still go out for minimal existence process, for them to be able to buy something to eat and those who rely on daily income can attend to their businesses. So we are not comparable to the western world so we have to create our own solution.
What’s your thought on Nigeria’s political system?
I want to encourage the technocrats to get interested in politics, leadership positions, and government. It is not everybody that will go for political office contesting this and that. What I am saying is that they should identify with a political party and contribute to the process of presenting qualitative candidates for elective posts. Sometimes if you read these people’s robust analysis on social media, you would be amazed on how knowledgeable and intelligent Nigerians are. Such people will be influencers in the political party if they do not want to present themselves for elective posts. If they get involved in politics their ideologies can help in piloting the affairs of the country through the right candidates presented by their party after rigorous screening.
From medicine to business then politics and now private life. What have you been doing since you left the senate?
I have been very busy developing myself in my professional field which is medicine. I have been involved in online courses, getting information on how to develop the health sector, health financing, etc. And of course, trying to be useful when I am invited to give advice by individuals, government and private organizations as a consultant. Also, I have two beautiful grandchildren that keep me busy. So I have been very busy. I also try to develop myself spiritually.
You have one of the best restaurants in Nigeria, located in Abeokuta, Ogun. Why did you go into the ‘food’ business?
The restaurant is a mixture of everything. We have Chinese and continental. One is Royal Mandarin Restaurant and Mayfair Executive which is an exclusive membership club with a gym, etc. I moved to Abeokuta over 10 years ago and with my experience in Lagos and other countries, I said there is no point moving somewhere and not improve on your immediate environment and get what you see in other developed societies. My wife, Princess Moji Tejuoso, decided she would run such an enterprise and I supported her. We have been seeing such beautiful projects in Lagos, London, Paris, etc and we felt it would be a nice idea to replicate in Abeokuta. It’s a good feeling to put smiles on people’s faces.
You got married at 22 and became a grandfather at 49, what have you learnt?
I consider myself very lucky to have become a grandfather at such a young age when some of my contemporaries are still raising their children. It is not by my power but by the grace of God.
One of the major lessons that l have learnt is that such privilege comes with a lot of responsibilities. For instance, knowing that you have young grand children help to guide your behaviour on how to present yourself among your peers especially in politics. I find myself in contest with much older people desperate for positions but my grandfather status, that they don’t have, make me concede as I assume they are still growing. A form of consolation for me.
Grand fatherhood also inspires you more to develop a nation that these grandchildren will inherit because most people pray that ‘they want to do such development right so that the generation yet UNBORN will inherit’…By the special grace of God my own generations are already born and I am young enough to see even more generations by the special grace of my God.
I thank Him that He has allowed me to see my next generation and I have an urgency attachment of my own perception of bequeathing a better nation.