We received N4,000 monthly as Reps, still being owed 3 months since ’93 —Oladimeji
Dr Olumuyiwa Oladimeji studied Medicine in the defunct Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) before moving to the Welsh National School of Medicine (now called University College of Wales) in the United Kingdom, for a Ph.D in Tumor Biology or Cancer Immunology; and then to the King’s College Hospital Medical School as a Commonwealth Scholar for a post-doctoral study in Nuclear Medicine. He was very active in the Marxist movement and had wide-ranging experiences as a left-wing activist. He will be turning 70 years old on Tuesday and has taken time to reflect on his journey as a student-activist, medical practitioner and politician. Sam Nwaoko brings excerpts:
Turning 70 is a huge milestone in a country where life expectancy is put at 52.7 years. How does it feel, does it make you feel old?
I feel grateful to God because I’ve been involved in a lot of activities, some of which were really very risky. So, for one to get to this age, I feel very grateful to God, my parents, my sibling and my family. They’ve all been around me. You can imagine if you were radical and leftist at that time, it wasn’t the easiest thing. During the civil war, before we went to the Soviet Union, we used to arrange to donate blood and we said our own blood was for Nigerians and we didn’t discriminate. We used to carry the small red book of Mao Tse Tung, we crammed everything in the book and could quote any part of it whenever necessary. When I was in the Soviet Union, I had the opportunity of going to many of the Eastern Bloc countries of that time, and even to Cuba on the world youth festival as a delegate of the students organisation.
Looking back, having capped your studies with a Ph.D in Tumor Biology and a post-doctoral work in Nuclear Medicine, don’t you feel under-utilised considering the level of our development and the amount and quality of facilities we have here?
Oh yes, seemly so. In the days of Murtala Mohammed/Obasanjo/Yar’Adua, South Africa had nuclear capabilities or, at least there was the suspicion that it had. Obasanjo used to say that if South Africa has, Nigeria too must have and that was when the centre for energy research was being developed in Obafemi Awolowo University, in Ahmadu Bello University and in the University of Nigeria, Nsukka. These centres were supposed to help Nigeria to understand the use of nuclear technology for peaceful purposes. And it became very fascinating for one in the medical field to also get involved. But coming back to Nigeria, that government had handed over to civilians and everything had gone comatose and the first department of nuclear medicine in University College Hospital (UCH) Ibadan, which was donated and funded by Chief Afe Babalola came into being in the 2000s, that is decades after.
The only semblance of need for nuclear medicine was when the Koko toxic waste was brought and there was so much fear that there must have been some radioactive waste there. When the British team came, it was one of them that mentioned my name that I could be there. I was frustrated so much that I was going to go back abroad. That’s how I got involved in the Koko toxic waste saga. And that was the beginning of awakening Nigeria to environmental management, which led to the establishment of Federal Environmental Protection Agency (FEPA). Before then, it was Ministry of Works, Environmental Protection Division. Mamman Kontagora was the Minister of Works then. I was also doing some part-time teaching at University of Ibadan for the Federal Radiation Protection Service. But definitely, one was under-utilised and that under-utilisation was one of the things that made it clear to me that no matter how smart or qualified you are, the political terrain has an impact or influence on how effective you could be.
Therefore, I felt that rather than remain in the university, I might as well also go into politics. That’s how I found myself in full scale politics and I went to the House of Representatives under Social Democratic Party (SDP) in 1993. In the House of Reps, I became the chairman of the Committee on Health and Human Services and I was one of the very fiercely pro-June 12 advocates. But that assembly was dissolved when General Sani Abacha took over power. With Abacha’s arrival, political activities went into some form of comatose. But then, there was a constitutional conference and I was elected as a delegate from my area, Osogbo/Olorunda/Ifelodun. But then I was also pro-June 12 and I used to write in the Tribune every other week. In one of my articles, I asked the government of Abacha to hand-over to (Chief M.K.O) Abiola and I said that if he didn’t hand over to MKO Abiola peacefully, the people would get rid of him and take over the government for the person who won the election. Soon after, my house in Abuja was bombed. But thank God that was before the Abacha’s regime became more vicious. But eventually, that era ended.
As a student and an activist, you surely would have had some off the course experiences in the Soviet Union which stand the era out for you and which you wouldn’t forget?
I found that in the Soviet Union and at the time we trained there, it was not usual to come back after the training and you want to make money. The orientation was that we wanted to make Nigeria a great country and not how to make money. We were focussed on how to make Nigeria a great country and leader, not just in Africa but in the world. We wanted to do the things the advanced European countries do. That was the motivation. Things of making money and co were not there.
Secondly, contrary to the views people held about the “Iron Curtain”, studying in the Soviet Union gave us opportunities to travel. I was able to travel to the USA and the UK many times; and I went almost everywhere with the stipend that we earned as a student. The “Iron Curtain” didn’t curtail us as foreign students. I make bold to say that we even had more freedom and travelled more than our contemporaries in the West.
Your wife also studied Medicine in the Soviet Union?
No. My wife studied Psychology.
Is it a coincidence that she studied in the Soviet Union too?
Yes. It is, I will say it’s a coincidence.
So, it’s not that you were here and arranged to move to Moscow for further studies…?
We knew ourselves here, but we were pretty young. It think it would be right to say that our relationship got more serious when we got to the Soviet Union. And we got married actually in the Soviet Union in 1972, when I was still a student.
And she could condone your radicalism, frequent travels and so on?
Yes, and that’s because she understands me very well. I think it’s also because she’s quietly political. Intellectually and politically, we are together. She’s not physically like me, but she’s able to understand and appreciate my views because we have similar backgrounds. She also went to Wales, that’s where she did her Ph.D in Clinical Psychology and she’s now a Professor of Clinical Psychology in the Department of Mental Health in the Obafemi Awolowo University.
It’s obvious that you are being under-utilised and it now seems you came too soon for Nigeria. Your mental worth isn’t appreciated perhaps because of the kind of society we found ourselves. Do you sometimes feel like you regret the area of study you chose…do you sometimes look back and say I might as well have chosen some other path?
In my days in Government College, Ibadan most of the students in GCI at that time were science students. We entered the school when Nigeria was just getting independence: in 1961. And the emphasis was if this country has to move and develop, then there was need to have engineers, doctors, agriculturists and so on. That was the emphasis. And the Government College kind of put that into us. So, most of us in my time ended up doing sciences, even though we did Literature and some other Arts subjects too. And then, going to Soviet Union too, because science is universal, you get there and just fit in. Though some went and studied Law, like Professor Akin Oyebode, Dr Bode Olajumoke and so on… They read Law in Soviet Union. Some others did Economics and made their mark.
However, whatever anybody would want to say about regretting, I think is to my generation. Most people in my generation would have felt the need that they want to contribute to make Nigeria greater than it is today. Unfortunately I don›t think Nigeria is as great as we want it to be. Nigeria has not reached the level we want it to be.
You were in the House of Representatives of the diarchy era, when we had a military head of state and a legislature elected by the people. What differences have you seen in the House of Representatives of your era and that of today?
Let me tell you straightaway that we were being owed money by the time we left the House. Our allowance was not up to what I was earning privately at that time. We were earning about N4,000 – N 4,800 a month by the time you add all the allowances. My younger brother who is my partner in our private hospital, had to be subsidising my earning. By the time we left the House of Representatives, we were even being owed about three months because the allowance was not regular at that time. Not the megabucks allowances of today. I can say without fear of contradiction that we all – Bola Tinubu; Olu Alabi; Chief Yinka Omilani were senators then – went to the National Assembly not for the pecuniary gains but because we felt that there is something we could do. I remember that Wale Oshun and many of us who were in the House of Reps then were not doing badly in our private businesses compared to now when (apologies for this) National Assembly seems to be a gold mine.
You were the chairman of Ladoke Akintola University of Technology (LAUTECH) Teaching Hospital Board when the ownership crisis started around 2009/2010. It is still on and affecting a lot of lives. What do you think is the ultimate solution to this debilitating crisis?
LAUTECH as you know was established by the old Oyo State government. Then Oyo State became Osun and Oyo, and it was the wisdom of the governments of the time, late General Adisa and Ajiborisa; and the people involved that the two governments should continue to run the institution. And that is how it was being run nicely by the two establishments. Then came civilians. Before then, LAUTECH became the best state-owned university at a time and it was rated the sixth best university in country, competing favourably with the federal government universities. During the time of Chief Akande and the late Chief Lam Adesina as governors, there was no friction. When Chief Ladoja came and Prince Oyinlola, Ladoja rightly said if Oyo State was funding a teaching hospital, the hospital should have some service in Oyo State so that the people in Oyo State should benefit. It was felt then that there should be a satellite hospital just like UCH has a satellite in Lanlate and in Okuku. We said let there be a satellite in Ogbomoso and another one in Oyo North. That was the idea, but incidentally, Ladoja›s tenure ended the way it did and Adebayo Alao-Akala came. I think Alao-Akala felt he needed to impress the Ogbomoso people by transforming what was originally not his own concept into a big hospital in Ogbomoso. Unfortunately too, I don›t think he had time to think through it fully, because if he did, it would not have been the old Ogbomoso General Hospital that he would have broken down because Ogbomoso has so much land that he could easily have gone to any of the expanse of land to build a teaching hospital that suits his vision. Be that as it may, under Alao-Akala we said okay, we could have another teaching hospital in Ogbomoso but the one in Osogbo was the main teaching hospital. For someone like me, what Alao-Akala wanted was not anything strange because the University of London at a certain time had 13 teaching hospitals, including the University College Hospital (UCH) but Kings College is the oldest. While this was on, the people of Osun State told Oyinlola that they wanted a university and he established one for them and made it a multi-campus institution. But what is unfortunate was that as soon as this concept of having two teaching hospitals came, rather than let›s continue to manage these two hospitals, I think it occurred to some people that LAUTECH should then become that of Oyo State, since Osun State has now established its own university. It seemed illogical because even if that were to be the case, it had to be discussed. If you and I are siblings and we inherit a property from our father, and you worked hard to also build one personally for yourself, I cannot succinctly appropriate the one we inherited and say now that you have built one, I›m going to take this over. If that would happen, I should call you and negotiate and pay you some compensation to be able to take it over. But I didn›t do that and I just suddenly take it over, you›ll feel cheated and insulted. That was what Alao-Akala government was trying to do and he still said it recently. He said since Osun State now has a university, it was now left for them to take over LAUTECH. That was when wahala started, from that time and it’s still brewing till now. One must however give credit to the immediate past government because when they came, at least at the initial stage, they said this is a common patrimony. I agree because university and a teaching hospital are capital-intensive ventures, and both states are not particularly very buoyant states. When they were sharing the expenses, they were able to keep the university at a top level and the hospital too but when the “politricking” started, which led to one withholding its subvention and the other also doing the same, the standard fall, institutions and it›s staff members suffer and the students are affected, and that is what is happening till today. One can only hope that the new regimes that are coming in the two states would see that it is the interest of the people that matters most. If there has to be a divorce, it has to be discussed and negotiated. That›s why Osun State went to court and the Supreme Court ruled that no one state can suddenly decide that it belongs to it. Oyo State now has a Technical University, so what happens now, when the argument of Osun State University came up?
However, while we were there as a board, it was not as bad as what it is now. The two governments were still giving money then and we were able to record some achievements.