PROF. UMARU SHEHU: AS A CHILD, I THOUGHT HARDSHIP WAS NORMAL
I had called him, soliciting this interview. Actually, in my first contact - on phone - I had told him why I needed to interview him. He is one of those, well, who still command genuine public respect on account of the quality of his person at a time when integrity and honour are in short supply. He obliged. Few days later, he sent an SMS, asking for a formal letter, explaining exactly what I had told him on phone.
The letter, he instructed, should be sent to his office at the National Agency for the Control of AIDS (NACA) in Abuja. He is the chairman of the agency's Governing Board. 'Yes, sir,' I told him.
These men! They must create some hiccup.
I made the letter quite all right, but at the end, he didn't bother about it - I should think. Why? Few days before we were to meet, I sent him a text: 'Sir, while I will yet send the formal request for the press interview as you requested, please try and read today's edition (Sunday) of The Sun newspaper. In it, you'll see what we did with Justice Adolphus Karibi-Whyte and a re-publication of the late Hajiya Laila Dogonyaro. Such is what we intend to do with you.' That was 1st of last month, May. The following day, I received this: 'I was able to buy the paper today. I look forward to seeing you on Monday 9th May in the NACA office around 11am.' So the letter was no longer necessary.
Although I did not see him on 'Monday 9th May,' I made it few days later. It was an early appointment, 10 a.m., he gave me because his flight was 11 a.m. Thirty-five minutes earlier, I was in his NACA office reception, waiting for him. He came a few minutes after 10 a.m. and it would take only a few minutes for the tape to start rolling. The letter? He didn't ask, but I brought it and gave it to him all the same - I went along with it. We didn't have so much time because of his scheduled flight, so the session started without the initial chitchat. This is the outcome:
You are 81 and you have worked all your life; you have been Pro-Vice Chancellor, Vice Chancellor, Pro-Chancellor, years after, you are still working. For instance, you have been here, in Abuja, working for five days now. Let me ask you, sir, at your age, where does the energy to do all this come from?
Normally, what I say is that, it comes from above. I didn't plan it. The only thing I can say is that God, in His wisdom, said Umaru Shehu shall live in this manner for so long and that is final. Destined. But obviously, I always look back and I put it down to, one, not being alcoholic and not being a smoker. I am a medical man, so I take those health matters seriously, and again because I know how some of my colleagues became heavy smokers and drinkers.
So, in concrete human terms…, well I used to smoke pipe when I was a medical student. I was just showing off then. So, I was really not a smoker. As for alcohol, I had a sip here and there, I shouldn't have done it but it wasn't bad enough to affect my health. So I put it down to those two things. And things like exercise, I didn't do much of it; I wasn't much of an athlete. In fact, it was during my old age that I started to do regular exercise. Before, I was averse to physical exercise. But mental exercise was a part of life.
But from your stature, one would think that you had something to do with athletics, possibly when you were a much younger man.
Well, I have never been fat, whether in the middle or back or leg. I have always been slim. But I tell you that when I went to Kaduna College in my first year in 1944, everybody had to compete in athletics for his house. And there was a mark, if you exceeded the mark you would be awarded a point for your house. And I remember doing the long jump, where you jump into a pit. I remember that I never even reached the pit (laugher). So, it was as bad as that. But I did play some tennis and some golf. But those were not really strenuous exercises that would affect your stature.
You said you never smoked and you don't drink, which will mean that you must have lived a very disciplined life as a child and in your growing-up years.
Well, I love dancing. For example, I am one of the first batch of students who passed entrance examination (to the University College, Ibadan) in 1948. There, of course, I came to dancing, ballroom dancing and girls and all those kinds of things. So those things I picked up. Otherwise, really, my real pressure had been reading and travelling - I love travelling very much and I had friends all over. I remember going in the back of a lorry from Maiduguri to Jos and by rail to Enugu. My friend Walter Obianwu met me at the station and we travelled to Owerri where he worked with ShellDiacy. I went to see him and from there I went to Port-Harcourt by road and from there I flew to Lagos and then back to Ibadan as a student. That was how friendship was. Those things I loved doing very much - visiting friends wherever they are if I can afford it.
How much of it do you still do now both local and outside of the country?
Well, locally, of course, primarily to Abuja, I have been very busy since I retired from the WHO. I retired from the civil service in 1980 when I left the VC-ship of University of Nigeria at Nsukka. And then I went back to WHO, where I was the WHO representative in Nigeria. Until 1985 when I went to Zimbabwe as Director of the Sub-Regional Health… And then by 1990, I reached the statutory age of retirement in WHO, I retired and came back home. Since I returned and came back home, I have been in Maiduguri.
You studied Medicine. Of all the courses in the world, why medicine?
What I have been telling people as far as I remember, is that I was very much fascinated with people in white coats even when I was in school; middle-school and in Kaduna College. And I myself never had any operation except circumcision when I was seven years. That was the only operation I had in my life. So I was fascinated by their appearance and their behaviour. They seemed to be above board, in the sense that they are nice to people, they help people and they never seem to quarrel with people. I mean, that was my impression when I was young and I said I want to be a doctor.
But I think God, in His wisdom … in what way could I have been a doctor in those days when there was only one secondary school in the North? There was only one in the whole of Bornu Province, Kaduna College now called Barewa College. And there was only one examination for the entire North and they take the first 20.
You said 20 people in the entire North?
Yes, in the entire North, for entry into Kaduna College. And I passed that and I went there. Although I said I would like to be a doctor, the question of planning for it didn't even arise because by the time I finished at Barewa College, we were not even allowed to sit for the London matriculation examination; that is the Northerners; no Northerner was allowed to take the exam.
Why was this?
It was the colonial government policy. They said you should go back and work in your local authority. So when I completed in 1944, the only thing I could see nearest to medicine was as a veterinary assistant. The Von school was there, that is the Vetenary School in Vom. So I had to go to Von school because it was the only one similar to medicine; there was no other one to go. Of course, the other one at that time was Yaba Higher College, but they only admitted people who were matriculated. Again, God in His wisdom, the colonial government decided to open up a University College of London for West Africa. And then one examination was conducted for the whole of Nigeria and they were going to take the first 20 or 25 candidates. So four of us from the Barewa College were called to sit for the examination in 1947.
So we were recalled and I said, 'What have I done?' The principal said, 'Well, a university college will be opened in October in Nigeria for West Africa, I would like you to come and sit the examination, the next year.' So when we came there we were given some additional lessons and we sat for the examinations - two of us passed. That was how my dream to be a doctor began to be realised.
You said two of you passed.
Who was the other person?
Unfortunately, he is of blessed memory. He died some years ago. And that is what I was saying about smoking…
Who was that?
Abubakar Umar, he studied obstetrics and gynecology at St Andrews, Scotland. He was a very, very heavy smoker. And that was what eventually killed him because it was quite clear from the clinical that his lungs had been dead.
Now, sir, what were your influences when you were growing up? That is, things that influenced and conditioned your life?
The only thing I know is that, in my early days when I was in Maiduguri, my stepfather was an educationalist. So even though he didn't go very far in education, he insisted that I went to school every day and came back every day. In those days, there was one thing that was very clear about the colonial masters, even the teachers - because most of our teachers were British and Scottish teachers - they loved honesty, sincerity and hard work. And if you are good, it doesn't matter where you come from or what your name is, they encouraged you.
Once you are good, they really helped you to reach whatever objectives, whatever goals you have. So the teachers at the secondary school level really guided me and most of them were British. And from then on, at that point, one virtually takes control of one's life, really when nobody can tell you to do this or do that. One begins to take responsibility of one's life. Life is your responsibility; how you relate to people; how you talk to elders; how you talk to traditional institutions.
But one profound thing I remember was the conduct of political leaders at that time. They had enormous respect for students in those days, particularly university and college students. I mean people like Nnamdi Azikiwe, Obafemi Awolowo, Sarduana and others. You could talk to them one-on-one and they listened to you. If you wanted to see them, you could go on and see them. Those were my recollections about people that shaped my interaction.
But, of course, never did we think about getting into politics ourselves. If there was something you felt was not right, you could tell them pointedly and they could ask, 'Why do you think so?' Then that would be the end of it. But it was not that we were going to make them do something, but to make them understand from our young point of view. Those were the people who really influenced our lives. Among ourselves, we still talk about it; people like Maitama Sule, for example, Chinua Achebe, Ade Ajayi and others. Now this was the student days.
I just asked that question as a young man growing up. Now, as an adult, what was your passion?
It is very difficult to zero in on anything, because in those days, there were so few of us, Nigerians, particularly Northerners, who had reached that level of education. Certainly, like most of my colleagues, I didn't see anything else other than to try and do the best for the people that I am supposed to serve. And, of course, I suppose you mean from the time I became a doctor.
That was in 1956. I finished and came back in 1957. And, of course, one of the first things you came into was the reception you got. You could talk to ministers, you could talk to permanent secretaries and they would relate with you and tell you, this is their objective.
When I came back, there were only five doctors in the civil service; only five doctors in the Northern civil service and we were looked at with a lot of respect and regard. They would tell us: 'We have very high expectations from you' and all that. That was shortly before 1960. And the type of dialogue that went on between us and our leaders was so enlightening and so reassuring that they had no other alternative. I mean, you could not even think about doing the wrong thing, like charging people for treatment; (there) were no charges in the hospitals.
Hospital services were free at that time. Or some of the things, which people talk about now, like diversion of patients to private clinics. There were no private clinics then and in most cases, you worked day and night because in many cases, you were the only person and you can't do anything else because there is nothing else to do but to serve those people that you have been asked to serve and to submit to authority. And I think this was at the back of our minds, that you should not undermine authority. But even at that, the authority listened to you and there was no fear or reservation about saying the right thing to the authority. Also, if you say this is wrong, people will take that seriously.
If they don't take it, then there are sanctions. That was the situation in those days. You are warned, or sanctioned, or dismissed. That was the civil service then. And even in the private sector, it was more of the same, because you had the UACs of this world. The same standards were maintained. So this really was the order of things; you were given a responsibility and you did it to the best of your ability. There was even one time when I was sent on my first posting, it was a medical area, which was what we called it in those days. I refused to go…
You refused, why?
Because there was one skill which I had not acquired. And I said to the minister, 'I am sorry, sir, I am not going.' And there he sent me somewhere to learn the skill. Then he sent me to a Doctor Ikechukwu something, a surgeon from the East. And I went there and I spent one month in learning things like repairing hernia which I had not done before. And after that, I went to Azare, did my first procedure and they said, 'You were right.' They never said, 'Why did you question authority?' Or 'you must go whether you like it or not.' Nothing like that. I just gave you one example in my professional life when you question authority for the right reasons. So those were the standards that guided one. There must not only be rules and regulations, but also sanctions for those who break them.
Let's go back to your background, your family, that is. How was it like?
I lost my father very early. My mother, a beautiful young lady, got married to a schoolteacher because schoolteachers in those days were treated with very high respect. Of course, in those days, you know I was telling people the other days in Maiduguri when they were saying, 'it's hot, it's hot' and they had shoes and that sort of thing, I said, 'Look, when I was in elementary school and middle-school age, we didn't have shoes to wear, we didn't have umbrellas, we didn't have air-conditioners.'
You didn't have shoes? Why was that?
Well, somebody had to buy shoes for me.
Was your family that poor?
Absolutely! Yes. When I am talking about this, I am talking about myself because, for example, one of the things we discourage when we are talking about wearing shoes even with grown-ups is that wearing shoes and going along the streets and passing a group of elders sitting about a 100 yards away, you can't think of doing that. So you keep on taking off your shoes and putting them back on every crossroads and every path that there is someone's house there. You had to take your shoes off there.
So if you had to stop by somebody's house, you would remove your shoes?
Oh yes, particularly if he is sitting outside. But the thing is that people didn't have durable, cheap, affordable shoes that they could wear regularly. And then, of course, with all the sand, and you had hot sand burning your feet. So I tell people this is what I went through and you tell me that you can't do it. But anyway, the long and short of it is that, my mother was a disciplinarian, very much so. Of course, she died early.
Which means you lost your parents when you were really young.
Yes. But my stepfather who really brought me up educated me; he passed away when I was a medical officer in Azare in 1959.
But you didn't think about life as being hard; it was just normal life. For example, when I went to elementary school, we didn't have pencils or paper. We didn't have chairs or tables or benches to sit on.
So how did you people do it?
We started writing on sand. We would sit on the ground and write our letters. That was how we started our education. Nobody thought of giving us chairs or tables because they were not there.
So there were no buildings?
There were buildings.
But you had to write on the floor?
You had sand; everybody had sand. Then the teacher would write there and you would write on the sand. So it was like that for the first year or two until the third year when we got papers and pencils in elementary school. By the time we were in middle school, then we had tables and chairs. So it was very hard but we didn't think about it as being hard. It was just normal.
You know, sir, when I was contemplating this interview with you, I told one of my colleagues that you were the person I was going to interview and he said, 'that man, is he a Nigeria?' He said, with your complexion, your frame and all that, you look like an Arab.
I am a Nigerian. Nobody can challenge my origin. I was born and brought up in Nigeria by my parents.
You are Kanuri?
Yes, I am Kanuri.
After all your university education both in Nigeria and Liverpool and particularly having studied medicine, why did you end up in academics?
No. That came later on. When I finished in Liverpool and so on, I came back home. Actually, when I finished, I wanted to do surgery; I wanted to specialise in surgery. So I wrote to the Northern Nigerian Government saying that I had finished my studies; that I wanted to specialise in surgery. They wrote to me saying, 'Well, sorry, we can't sponsor you in. If you can do psychiatry, we will sponsor you.'' So I said, 'I am sorry I don't want psychiatry.
So I came back home. At that time, as I said, there were only five of us from the Northern region and there was really nothing else to do. You can't set up your own practice, there was nothing like that at that time. So like everybody else, I joined the civil service. I can say that I must have moved up rapidly because from Medical Officer I became Senior Medical Officer and then Principal Medical Officer. In ten years, I had reached those positions.
And then, there was so few of us that I was posted to the Ministry of Health in Kaduna. And within two, three years, I had climbed from Deputy Chief Medical Officer to Chief Medical Officer. Now this is again fate, because I hadn't planned anything except civil service career. Then, of course, Ahmadu Bello University was established in 1962 and 1967 I was then Chief Medical Officer. The university decided to establish a medical school. Professor Ishaya Audu was then Vice-Chancellor and it was then under the interim colonial service agency. Prof. Audu, as the Chancellor of ABU, was very eager to start this and the Ministry of Health gave them full support. So they set up a committee to plan a medical school and I was put there to represent the government of Northern Nigeria. We worked very hard, we made a plan and all of that.
Then at the end of it, a delegation went to the authority and said, 'Well, we want Umaru Shehu to be part of the initial staff in the school particularly because of the new concept of medical education at that time, which was about preventive health care. And it really came to me when I was serving in the field that many diseases were preventable. Why can't we prevent these things? So that has always been in my mind and when I got there, I insisted that preventive medicine or community medicine was going to be given a pride of place. WHO was fully in support of that. So when the medical school was coming up they offered me the position of Reader, Community Medicine. So I said, 'I would teach free of charge. I would go from Kaduna to Zaria to teach community medicine.' I don't know how I managed to do that.
Anyway, by the time I finished one year, they said, 'Oh you must be the Deputy Dean, Deputy Chief Medical Director,'' all these were loaded on me at that time. So in 1968, I transferred from the pure civil service to ABU. That was when my university teaching career began in 1968. And of course that went on for ten years. And of course that went on for ten years.
And then WHO, in their wisdom said they wanted me to do the work for them. Actually, it was the Government that said they wanted a Nigerian to head the WHO office in Nigeria, which is against normal regulation. So, this was how I got to WHO, working in Nigeria for five years and in other African regional offices. I spent five years in Zimbabwe, five years in Rwanda and Ethiopia. Then I retired from WHO and came back home.
To be continued next week