Professor of Medicine at the College of Medicine, University of Ibadan, Babatunde Lawal Salako is the Director-General, Nigerian Institute of Medical Research (NIMR). In this interview with SEGUN KASALI, he speaks about growing up and his career path.
Did you ever dream that you would become a doctor?
No. This is because the vision was not well-defined then. My mother was a kolanut seller. She supplied Hausa sellers in the North. It was on a larger scale than that of a retailer, while my dad was a businessman. By the time I was growing up, he had retired. He was a cocoa seller. At some point, he was also taking people to Hajj and that was at his twilight age. In fact, he took me to Hajj at the tender age of 13. Growing up was really exciting. So, all that we had in Sango Ota then was a teacher’s training programme and that was where everyone attended. Teachers at that time were held in high esteem and so everybody wanted to become a teacher because of the prestige attached to the profession. But for me, my case was a product of providence.
What do you mean?
I had older brothers and sisters who had become doctors, lawyers, estate surveyors, administrators, teachers and the likes. So, the doctors and especially the real estate agents amongst them motivated me. So, he advised me on what to do at that time. I was originally thinking of studying Engineering at the university.
I think it was one of them who advised me to study Medicine. I felt since we already had two doctors in the family, I should choose another discipline. But, somehow, one of them managed to convince me and I ended up going to Medical School. After graduating from the Ansar-ud-deen College in Offa, I went to Kwara State College of Technology. From there, I went to the University of Ibadan (UI) to study Medicine. So, I benefited from my older ones who showed me the way and advised me. If they had not been there for me, I would probably have ended up like some of them who are teachers. I recall telling my sister that I wanted to attend the University of Ibadan, but she discouraged me, saying I would not be admitted. She probably considered how competitive it was to get into UI and advised me to apply to the University of Ilorin. I remember that she bought the JAMB form and filled in the University of Ilorin as my preferred institution. She told me to submit the form and I erased the University of Ilorin and replace it with UI.
You did that?
Yes. The reason was that many of my course mates in basic studies wanted to attend the University of Ibadan. So, why would my friends go to Ibadan and I would go to Ilorin? So, I replaced it and got admitted.
What was your sister’s reaction to this?
She was just surprised. Perhaps she thought I would not be as competitive enough as other candidates who would be applying. But I must say that I was the best candidate in my secondary school. I had the best result in my school. So, I was confident that I would be admitted
How did you settle in at the University of Ibadan?
It was a completely new environment but we were excited to be in the university. Medicine has always been a tough discipline. We had no time for extracurricular activities. We went from class to dining, from dining to class and we didn’t go on holidays because the courses are designed such that we probably would have only two breaks in three years. When others had holidays, we were in school. In fact, Medicine’s academic year is not the same as that of other courses.
Your MBA examination must have been eventful.
It was very memorable. It is an examination that would determine whether a medical student would go to clinical school or not. During our time, it was an examination that determined if one would be a doctor or not. Once you excel at the exam, you would proceed to the final class. You might repeat over and over again, but you will eventually graduate. All that has changed now because if you pass that exam, you have to pass two other exams before getting to the final. And if you don’t pass one, you cannot move on to the next stage. So, it was an exam everyone got excited about whenever they passed. When I finished, I said to myself ‘finally I am going to be a doctor.’
Any memorable event?
We had social clubs and my club was Embassy Club, a socio-cultural organization promoting United Nations ideals. We were visiting embassies around Nigeria and consequently well received by ambassadors. At the end of the year, we had parties. I became the prime ambassador, which was also the president of the club. One of the powers of the prime ambassador is that you would have this red pen for screening members. Screening means dismissal. The story was that we had a Press Attaché, which is the name of the office of the person who wrote a query to the president. I can’t remember why but I took the query to the meeting and said the press attaché was responsible for discipline and that the press attaché wrote a query to the president that that should not happen. If the president is going to be disciplined, it should be the collective decision of the executive. In fact, I felt that the press attache deserved a query having done that for daring to disrespect the office of the president. But, few of them said the press attaché can’t be disciplined and that he should be able to give anyone a query. I said to them, “so this is how you want to run your own organization?” Then, I told them that I didn’t want to stay in a club like that. I wrote that I was going to resign and I think when I said that, it dawned on them because they did not know I was going to take that kind of decision. So, they eventually apologised and I accepted. But I insisted that the query cannot stay in the file for future purposes.
What do you think about the perception that doctors don’t party?
Funny enough, many of us in that club were doctors and we always tried to outshine each other in the club because we had a Sigma Club which I believe was a leading club at the University of Ibadan. So, that was the only way we eased tension.
How was life after university?
I did my Housemanship with the Lagos Management Health Board, specifically, Lagos Island General Hospital and I served in the then Imo State. When I came back, I went for my Residency. So, I was on that for another six years. I completed my residency in one of the shortest possible time.
How did you do that?
The shortest time is four years and I finished in four and a half years. So, I stayed in the system for one and a half years. I was hoping I would get appointed as a teacher at the University of Ibadan and a Consultant at the University College Hospital, Ibadan.
What eventually played out?
Having finished, I spoke to some of my mentors about how they could help me secure a job in the University of Ibadan. After some time, it seemed as though there would be no opportunity for me and I was running out of time. So, I decided to apply for the role of Medical Adviser at Glaxo Wellcome. I had told my uncle, who incidentally happened to have served as Director-General in this same institution several years back, but was a Professor of Pharmacology at the University of Ibadan then. I had already informed him I needed a job and I wanted to stay back at the university. But, in the midst of that, I thought I was not making any progress. So, I applied for that job and got to the interview stage. We started gisting amongst ourselves regarding who worked there and my uncle and HOD’s names came up but I did not tell them I was coming for an interview. So, I just packed my bag and said I was going back to Ibadan. I felt that these were the people I was telling I wanted a job back home and they would see me. But, one of the candidates like me told me not to leave. “You have stressed yourself so much to chicken out now. Stay. What are they going to do to you? Just tell them you are sorry and that is all.” He encouraged me and I waited. Apparently, my uncle and the HOD had seen my curriculum vitae. It was later that my uncle told me that when it was my turn to come in, he tried to leave the interview session obviously due to a conflict of interest. But the chairman stopped him, saying I would be scored appropriately. So, he stayed. It was a very exciting interview because, for the first time in my life, I was asked how much I would like to take as a salary. I never thought of that. So, I said I wanted 5000 dollars. And they said “is it per month or per annum?” And I said per annum. And my uncle said “you mean per month?” And I said, “no sir, per annum”. My salary at that time was N6,000. So, I had calculated and thought that 5,000 dollars would be a big lift for me. But he kept on saying “you mean per month?” But he got tired and kept quiet because I insisted that I meant per annum. They also asked me what kind of car I would love to have as a Medical Adviser.
I said any vehicle that fits the office. They asked where I would like to live. I said I would like to live in Ikoyi. “What kind of a house?” I told them a Duplex. I think I was 36 years old then. So, they calculated everything together and that was after they asked me all those questions.
What happened after the interview?
When I got to Ibadan, I quickly went to my uncle’s wife to help me beg him because I did not tell him I was going for the interview and that I did not want to look like someone who was not serious. She said she would talk to him when he comes back home. So, I went back to see him when he came back from the office.
What did he say?
He said I did very well, that I came top. So, I was happy that finally, I would be in Ikoyi with my 5,000 dollars earning.
What about the earnings?
He told me he was telling me per month but I did not get it. So, I said I didn’t think I could ask 5,000 dollars per month. But he said, “the position you are applying for can support that.” He said regardless of what you said, they have their own salary anyways. That was when he told me that he wanted to go out when he saw my credentials. He said he thought I was the best so far after asking questions from all other candidates and he gave me the maximum score. But he was worried about how others would score me. He said he became excited when he discovered that others scored me more than he did. He then said that they did not want to give me the job.
Because they said I would not stay in the company as I would do better in a teaching hospital. They thought I just wanted to use the company as a stepping stone and that if they give me a job in a teaching hospital tomorrow, I would leave the place. That they would rather give the job to another person. But that he and my HOD said they should give me the chance of the first refusal. So, after arguing back and forth, they said they would give me the job. But, apparently, they just said that to stop the argument. When they left, I was waiting for the letter for three weeks to four weeks and I started telling people that I had got a job and I was leaving. In fact, I told them I would be living in Ikoyi with a very good car and a driver. So, after about 5 weeks, I went to my uncle’s place again and he said he was going to call the Managing Director that they have a meeting the following week in Abuja. When he came back, he said they gave the job to the other person. He said they had to send the list to their headquarters in the United States and that they were the ones who chose the second person.
How did you feel?
I felt very bad. But soon after that, there was an opening for me at the University of Ibadan. I joined the team in the department of Medicine as a Lecturer Assistant and Consultant. The interesting thing about the story was that six months after, the man who was given the job was fired.
Providence must have indeed played out for you in disguise then.
I want to believe so. I was surprised. I could have been the one to be fired like that. Meanwhile, this opportunity I had might have been lost. So, it taught me a spiritual lesson. In my usual style, I usually ask for prayers from the medical students whenever I wanted to face any new assignment. Before going for the interview, I called those students and they said specifically that they are praying that God should give me this job if it was for me. When they fired that guy, I remembered the prayer. So, I concluded that I wasn’t given the job because it was not meant for me.
In all of this and your coming to the Institute, what lessons did you learn?
We must all learn to accept God’s decision. That is not to say we should not struggle. Once the decision has been made, don’t struggle with anybody. If you miss it, start to think of something else to do. If you get it, don’t struggle with the people who struggled for the position with you because to me it means you are ungrateful. I would rather work with them to take the establishment to the next level.
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