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AKWA IBOM WEEKEND SPECIAL: Interview With Prof. Offiong Aqua November 20, 2010

Posted by Ibompulpit in News, Society.
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The AKGLOBAL WEEKEND SPECIAL affords us opportunities to know and celebrate each other in the global community. Its goal is to profile and/or interview notable AKWA IBOM WHO-IS-WHO from the pool of our leaders, professionals and community service champions who have excelled in various fields.
 
On behalf of the AKWA IBOM GLOBAL team of Moderators, we present one of the most prominent Akwa Ibom leaders in the Diaspora and an accomplished academician: Professor Offiong O. Aqua.

AKGLOBAL: Prof. Aqua, you hardly need any introduction to many Akwa Ibomites in the Diaspora. But, tell us briefly about yourself.

My name is Offiong Offiong Aqua. I am from Afaha Ikot Obionkan …. in Ibesikpo-Asutan Local Government Area. I had my upbringing in Lagos and Calabar. Both cities, as you know, are in Nigeria.

I received my education at the following schools: St. Patrick’s School, Lagos; St. Patrick’s College, Ikot Ansa, Calabar; University of Calabar, Calabar, Cross River State; and Friendship University, Moscow, Russia.

While pursing the B. Sc, Zoology degree ( 1976-1978 ) which was then considered a premed concentration, I was expelled from UNICAL by the then General Obasanjo-led military government in 1978 for the leadership role I played in the historic pro-democracy and anti-corruption strike ( ALI-MUST-GO ) alongside other 4 patriotic student leaders. I first learnt of this expulsion listening to the British Broadcasting Corporation – BBC.

I then proceeded abroad to continue my education and eventually obtained a Doctor of Medicine degree from Friendship University, Moscow, Russia.

AKGLOBAL: Other than being fully involved in Akwa Ibom Diaspora affairs, what is your present occupation?

Presently, I am a Clinical Associate Professor, New York University, Manhattan, New York (Joint Appointment Across 3 departments) Also, I am a leader of Global Health Program of New York University (NYU) AFRICA HOUSE. Africa House is a research institute of NYU which focuses on contemporary African Issues like Global Health etc. New York University is the largest private university in the United States. It has the largest global program of any US University outside the shores of the United State.

As an innovative leader on health issues, I have helped found new health programs in NYU CAMPUS, Accra, Ghana. I have helped negotiate new health care initiatives between the Ghana Minister for Health, University of Ghana Medical School, Legon, Korle- Bu Medical Center, Accra and New York University, NY City. We have concluded negotiating a MOU between Akwa Ibom State Government and Korle- Bu Medical Center for the post graduate training of 30 AKS medical doctors, 25 nurses and 29 biomedical engineers. In January, 2009, The Executive Governor of AKS, H.E. Chief (Dr.) Godswill Akpabio dispatched his Hon Commissioner for Health and Permanent Secretary, Hospitals Management Board to Ghana for these negotiations. This program envisages the training done by NYU professors in Accra.

I was invited as one of six senior NYU Professors to help set up an Emergency Medicine and Poison Grant Initiative for Accra, Ghana. This Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation Grant when completed will be co-signed for the University by Mayor Bloomberg of New York City and the former UN Sec Gen, Kofi Anan. This will be the first program of it’s type in sub-saharan Africa.

AKGLOBAL: Tell us about your life story.

Growing up as a child in post-independent Nigeria in Lagos, we lined up along Ikorodu Road and other Lagos highways during national celebrations to cheer on our new leaders. Even as a kid, I remember standing ramrod at attention whenever leaders like Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe ( Ceremonial President ) and Alhaji Abubakar, Tafawa Balewa ( Prime Minister ) drove by motorcade past our school. I, like many others, had very high hopes for Nigeria those heady days. I had always wanted to play a leadership role in building this newly independent country. I recall sneaking away from home at age 11 to join rallies organized by the nation’s number one labour leader, Pa Imoudu. Unfortunately, because of poor leadership, the nation stumbled in later years and failed miserably to fulfill it’s promise of nation building, infrastructural development and social progress.

I believed even as a 17 year old, that progressive Nigerians needed to stage a battle to put Nigeria back on track. I helped found, organize and write the constitution of the 1ST Student Union Organization for the then School of Science, Uyo. Through this Union we wrote letters and organized events to highlight the need to rebuild Nigeria.

In 1978 I was elected as the Pioneer Student’s Union President at UNICAL. Like the student leaders of my time, our emphasis and agenda was less on bread – and- butter issues like the size of fufu served in our cafeterias but more on national issues like the unbearable cost of education for poor families and corruption. We organized series of strikes to bring these problems to the nation’s attention. It was a very important role we played because the country at the time was ruled by the military and we, along with the labor union and others from civil society, provided the democratic counterbalance to the military regimes of the time.

I was on a committee that participated through our representative, President Segun Okeowo in the drafting of the 2nd Republic constitution. The Eminent Sir Udo Udoma was the Chairman of that Constitution Drafting Committee. Mr Okeowo represented us alongside the likes of then future President, Alhaji Shehu Shagari, to usher in the 1979 Constitution which is basically a copy of the presently used 1999 Constitution. I participated in writing position papers for our representative which were then presented in raucous sessions we attended in Lagos.

Our progressive demands and actions for reform in our educational system culminated in the historic ALI-MUST-GO strike in the late 70’S. The strike was called to prevent the Federal Government from introducing school fees in our universities. It was also a call for educational reform nationwide. We strongly believed that considering the country’s oil wealth, higher education should be a right for all citizens of the country. Not only will this ensure national progress, but it will also make sure that less well-off Nigerian will also have a chance to partake of the national cake. After an unsuccessful meeting in Dodan Barracks ( then seat of government) with members of the then Supreme Military Council, student leaders from all the nation’s universities met to decide on our response to the new government proposal on school fees at the University of Ilorin in Kwara State. On behalf of UNICAL, I moved the motion that triggered our subsequent action. I hosted the meeting in Calabar where this action was declared.

We shut down all of the nation’s universities a couple of days later. I was picked up for questioning by the Security Services and put on intensive daily observation where my freedom for months was curtailed at their offices in Calabar and Lagos as one of the five organizers of this popular action.

A decision was made later to expel the five of us from our various universities by the ruling Supreme. I left the country to pursue medical education shortly after. When democracy returned to Nigeria in 1979, the newly elected President, His Excellency Alhaji Shehu Shagari granted me along with four others a Presidential Pardon the day he was sworn into office. This lifted the ban on our attendance of school and also cleared us of the allegations including treason leveled against us for our struggle to reform education in the country.

Considering this background I was very excited when in 2008, the young newly elected Executive Governor of my native state Akwa Ibom State, His Excellency Chief (Dr.) Godswill Obot Akpabio after a long meeting asked me to come down to the state and help him rebuild a basically collapsed health care system he inherited in 2007.

AKGLOBAL: Is the government keeping its promise to rebuild the health care system and how bad was it?

I still remember that first meeting with pride – that my state had the foresight and instinct to elect such a compassionate, selfless and totally focused individual to help steer it’s affairs. His Excellency made it clear to me, at that meeting and subsequent ones for the past three years, that he was prepared to expend the state’s resources in rebuilding the comatose health care system. I can PROUDLY proclaim today that he has kept his word on that promise to the people of Akwa Ibom State.

When I arrived Uyo two years ago, the state had only one consultant ( expert in a particular field in medicine, like say, cardiologist ) All the other doctors were generalists with almost no opportunities to undergo specialist training and continuing medical education. In fact, the only consultant in the state’s employ was working as an administrator at the time.

The doctor population for about four million Akwa Ibomites was a little more than one hundred.

The 45 Secondary Health Care Hospitals ( General Hospitals ) was in a state of disrepair. I did not find a workable morgue in any of them.

Basic equipments like incubators were absent in almost all of them. The only incubators I found was at the Ikot Ekpene General Hospital and I later learnt was donated by the Governor’s wife, Her Excellency Mrs Ekaette Unoma Akpabio.

The 287 Tertiary Health health care centers had grass growing in a lot of them.

About 70% of the nurse were about to retire in five years and the remaining ones of course received zero continuing medical education.

The morale of the health care workers was at a very low ebb. Many were exiting for greener pastures outside the state.

AKGLOBAL: What is happening in the health sector today?

Today, partly based on recommendations I made after a year long audit of the state’s healthcare system there has been a lot of improvement considering what the Government of His Excellency inherited. I presented my report at an Emergency Executive Council Meeting that was called just for immediate intervention on health care at the Governor’s instance. All through the audit period, Gov. Godswill Akpabio was hands on about our work. I recall a night he had his assistant text me at 4am to meet with him so that he could find out about the progress of our work.

During this period, he made constant visits to the hospitals like Iquita General Hospital in Oron and Ituk Mbang Hospital. For him, it was a passion and a mission. He made it clear that he will never rest until there was a turnaround in our damaged health care system. Almost every emergency issue we raised on healthcare improvement, he immediately, usually in a matter of days expended the state’s financial resources to address.

Improvements:

1. We now have twenty five ( 25 ) consultants from just one that was inherited in 2007.

2. The number of newly hired doctors has almost doubled in two years.

3. Massive renovations worth billions of Naira is ongoing and has been completed in some of the general hospitals.

4. New modern morgues have been built along with a new oxygen factory at Ikot Ekpene General Hospital.

5. Free health for children up to the age of five and elderly adults is being rigorously implemented after an initial slow start. This is partly made possible because of the infusion of new doctors and consultants into the system.

6. A new Millennium Hospital that will be a center for specialized care is being built in Uyo. His Excellency Chief (Dr.) Godswill Akpabio, the Executive Governor of Akwa Ibom State, has not only made resources available for this but has also promised that this hospital will be the best equipped in the Southern part of Nigeria. He anticipates that it will be a center for Medical Tourism.

7. Doctors welfare has been addressed. Doctors have received brand new cars to enable them carry out their very vital activities comfortably and with dispatch. Gone are the days when I arrive for inspection and visits and witness medical superintendents run late because they were waiting to be picked by Alalok ( motorcycle taxis ) They now proudly show off their new cars with special Hospitals Management Board ( HMB ) license plates. Our phones now ring off the hook with inquiries from doctors nationwide about how to get hired by us. They have also received other welfare packages including a substantial salary increase.

8. State Health Officials now regularly attend overseas conferences in Europe, US and other parts of the world where they meet with their foreign counterparts and keep abreast of the current developments in global health. I have hosted the Health Commissioner and Permanent Secretary several times here at NYU Medical School in New York.

9. International Health Care- I have attended a World Bank Meeting in the company of the Health Commissioner and Finance Commissioner in Washington, DC where I was a signatory on behalf of the state for it’s malaria booster program. This is a program His Excellency Gov. Godswill Akpabio insisted the state should be part of. It is a program where the state gov, federal gov and world Bank each contribute money to buy millions of mosquito nets and establish an infrastructure to combat malaria.

10. Continuing Medical Education: We have now created a system which CME’S ARE PART AND PARCEL of the state’s healthcare system.

11. This past summer, we invited top experts from New York University Medical School, NY, University of Hackensack Medical Center, New Jersey and EMS experts from Rockland County, NY to launch the first of our training for the healthcare system. His Excellency Gov. Godswill Akpabio insisted that we should include non-medical people in this. So we trained doctors, nurses, Federal Road Safety Corps ( FRSC ) members, Nigerian Red Cross members, Alalok representatives, people from Nigerian Emergency Management Agency, etc in Uyo. I have received a couple of phone calls from some participants how our training helped them save some lives.

I want to, however, point out that our work is still continuing as we speak. The above was connected with my work in the state the past 2 years. Outside that, health care agencies in the state have registered record accomplishments in other areas like immunization which I did not work on. I expect that the Gov. Godswill Akpabio’s RE-ELECTION in 2011 will provide us with an opportunity to continue this very important work.

Let me also say that the progress we are making is almost singlehandedly guided by a Governor who because of his hard and difficult upbringing by a single mother has the compassion to make health care a major priority and has put his money where his mouth — is spending whatever it takes to make health care available to all Akwa Ibomites irrespective of station in life.

I WANT TO THANK HIM FOR THE OPPOURTUNITY HE HAS PROVIDED TO BOTH ME AND MY COLLEAGUES FROM NYU TO PARTICIPATE IN HIS DREAM – ultimately turning our state into an international medical tourist center.

AKGLOBAL: Do you agree that there are many “uncommon transformation” projects by the Gov. Godswill Akpabio’s administration? If so, which projects do you consider to be of most impact?

I not only agree that there are “uncommon transformation” projects by Gov Godswill Akpabio administration, I am also a living witness to them. I remember how I used to sometimes spend six hours or so to travel from Calabar to Uyo on my frequent trips, but today I simply fly to the Akwa Ibom International Airport, Uyo effortlessly from Lagos. This airport was a decision the Governor made to complete in a few months and it happened. It has changed the lives of people like me who travel there to carry out projects and of prospective investors I have spoken with who see this as a sign of the determination of the Akwa Ibom State Government to create the environment for investment and economic development.

The other project is the ongoing construction of the Millennium hospital which, when completed and equipped, will serve to stop the practice of our people traveling to Calabar to consult on serious health care problems.

How about those new wide open smooth roads His Excellency constructed that has immediately seem to make Akwa Ibom State seem so small because you can now travel north-south, east-west in record time across the state? I remember driving on the flyovers less than twenty four hours after President Goodluck Jonathan declared it open at an event I attended this past summer in Uyo; the psychological effect of seeing Ikot Ekpene road and it’s environs from the raised platforms for me was a sign of hope and a better future for the state.

Let me just leave it at the couple of above examples.

AKGLOBAL: What other project would you like to see the government complete as a priority?

What I would love to see is the completion of the already announced industrialization projects which will provide quality employment and uplift thousands of families in AKS.

AKGLOBAL: How would you rate the governor’s performance since 2007 and do you support his re-election?

Considering the fact that I have worked closely with the Governor and his government for most of those three years on health care issues and that I have witnessed the developmental revolution in the state, I would rate his performance as an A plus. And remember, I have a reputation among my students as a professor who grades firmly but fairly.

I wholeheartedly support his re-election based on his vision and demonstrated commitment to improve the lives of AKS citizens. And please, remember, my endorsement is based on what I have witnessed on ground in Akwa Ibom State as a participant in this revolution, not what I read in newspapers.

AKGLOBAL: What roles would you like to see the Diaspora play in Akwa Ibom State?

I hold myself out as an example of the role Diasporians can play in the development of the state – a strong role as a stakeholder and partner with this determined governor.

AKGLOBAL: It is our pleasure having you on AKWA IBOM GLOBAL WEEKEND SPECIAL. Thank you and much success with your work for the Akwa Ibom people.

You are welcome! Thanks for doing a very good work for the Diaspora and for Akwa Ibom people as well.

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