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Nigeria part 2: Make do and Mend

06 Apr 2022 | Written by By Paul Phillips

Nigeria part 1: ‘News is what somebody, somewhere wants to suppress. All the rest is advertising.’ was published prior to this piece, and can be found here.

The village of Onicha Olona is a half-hour drive from Asaba, the Delta state capital in Nigeria. Not long ago the journey would have taken much longer. There wasn’t a road to speak of.

The main street of Onicha Olona is lined with all sorts of small shops, the odd bar and barbershop, a few mechanics fiddling with a few Okadas, the basic motorcycles that buzz around everywhere like wasps. Inevitably there’s a place selling replica football shirts. Football, especially the English Premier League, is huge in this part of the world. 

The street is littered with goats and kids, just roaming about and apparently belonging to no one in particular. Chickens wander here and there in that unconcerned way chickens have. There’s a pig lashed to the back of an Okada. The pig did look a little more concerned than the chickens, understandably.  

Small children with large water containers take the well-trodden path to the nearest supply. Young women walk along the side of the road with unfeasibly large bundles of firewood balanced on their heads. All very rural, maybe a bit clichéd.

But this is the location for one of the Delta State Governor’s proudest achievements. He commissioned the village hospital, mainly to try to tackle the number of women dying during childbirth. As a former consultant paediatrician, he was all too aware that Nigeria maternal mortality rate was among the highest in the world. 

So, after getting filming permits from the Information Minister and the ok from the Health Minister, I travelled to the new hospital with a film crew believing this would provide the material to fulfil my mission for the Governor which, just to remind you, was to showcase his achievements in office for a domestic and international audience. 

There is no doubt that the hospital has made a huge difference to the lives of people in the area. 

Expectant mothers no longer have to get to the state capital, Asaba to deliver. Malaria and diabetes patients receive treatment more or less on their own doorstep and the victims of the countless accidents involving Okadas, are patched up by the hospital team.

But when I say ‘team,’ don’t think of a cast of thousands, hundreds or even tens. You can count the number of staff on several fingers, but not too many.

The hospital was run by a young doctor – the hospital’s only doctor, in fact.  He had to be a master of lots of different medical skills, from delivering babies by caesarean section to treating children with a whole list of illnesses. He lived on-site and he never closed. His team, such as it was, consisted of young nurses doing their National Service. 

The doctor showed us around the hospital and it became clear we would face quite a challenge to create the positive story that the Governor was wishing for. 

The feel of the place was ‘make do and mend.’ The hospital had no mains water. It was collected through rainfall via a construction reminiscent of a Heath Robinson creation. 

There was no direct electricity supply (but that is an issue across the country) so power came from a diesel generator, which would have been fine if the hospital had the fuel to run it. 

The doctor explained that the budget for diesel was supposed to be around $10,000 a year. The hospital actually received a fraction of that. 

We were told that meant the doctor had to carry out operations by torchlight at times. The impact on refrigeration and sanitation can only be imagined.

A couple of questions spring to mind here. 

How could one of the richest countries in Africa build a hospital then leave it to struggle financially? 

Why couldn’t the hospital always be sure of enough diesel to run its generator even though it stands in a State awash with oil? What had happened to the money in the fuel budget?

While we were filming the doctor at the hospital’s main entrance a car arrived. Two men in smart suits accompanied by an armed guard got out. 

‘They are from the Health Ministry,’ the doctor told us. ‘I have to go.’

The Ministry men approached us and asked us what we had been doing.

I explained that we had permission to film the hospital and that it was at the request of the Governor. We would be making a documentary to show part of his legacy from his time in office. 

Not for the first time I was eyed with suspicion. With the benefit of hindsight, I realise that what I did next was a big mistake.

As I have mentioned, I am not a Public Relations man. If I was, I would surely have looked past the obvious issues at the hospital, created a story about all the good bits and left it at that. 

But I am a journalist with an enquiring mind and I thought it would be a good idea to choose this moment to ask the men from the Ministry a few questions.

Did they know who could explain why the hospital didn’t seem to be getting anywhere near the amount of fuel it needed to have the full electrical power running properly, even though there was supposed to be a sizeable amount in the budget to cover it?

The Ministry men didn’t answer but one of them walked away and began making a phone call. He quickly returned and said we had to leave the hospital. 

I tried to explain again that we had all the necessary permissions but I was told – bluntly – that they had been withdrawn. We were told we had to hand over any material we had filmed. 

There was clearly no point in arguing so we packed up and left. When I returned to my accommodation in Asaba the intermediary who had recruited me for the Governor’s legacy project explained that my work was done; I’d be leaving the country in a couple of days.

So the project achieved nothing in the end and you can come to your own conclusions about the reasons for that. 

But I couldn’t let the hospital story go. I discussed it with a colleague who I have made documentaries with and he sold the idea to an international broadcaster. There would be no element of PR this time. It seemed to us to be a good story about a young doctor making a real difference to a community despite the obstacles in the way.

I contacted the doctor and he was very keen to take part. I spoke to a former government official – a contact of a contact – who was sure he could pull a few strings for us. 

We waited for something to happen. We’re still waiting. 

What did you think of Paul’s Nigeria stories? Share your thoughts with him in the comment section below!

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