In our last article, this column celebrated the ranking of Nigeria’s COVID-19 response as the fourth most successful in the world by the World Health Organisation (WHO). In that article, this column agreed totally with WHO’s very high ranking of Nigeria’s COVID-19 policy response as consistent with what the column had documented since the emergence of Nigeria’s war against COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. The Presidential Task Force on COVID-19 (now turned Presidential Steering Committee on COVID19) was specially commended for its courageous fight against the COVID-19 pandemic in Nigeria. The article also recognised the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) as a strong and effective member of the Task Force that made its enormous responsibilities easy to accomplish. Specifically, the Director-General (DG) of the NCDC, Dr. Chikwe Ihekweazu, distinguished himself as a dogged fighter in the war against the COVID-19 pandemic.
It is against this background that the announcement of the appointment of Dr. Chikwe Ihekweazu as ‘an Assistant Director-General for Health Emergency Intelligence from November 1, 2021’ by the WHO did not come to us as a surprise. The announcement further said that Dr. Ihekweazu “will lead the work on strengthening pandemic and epidemic intelligence globally, including heading the WHO Hub for Pandemic and Epidemic Intelligence in Berlin.” (See SundiataPost, September 1, 2021 via https://sundiatapost.com/dg-ncdc-chikwe-ihekweazu-appointed-who-asst-dg-%ef%bb%bf/). The fact that his appointment by WHO was specifically in the area of “strengthening pandemic and epidemic intelligence globally”, is a clear demonstration that Dr. Ihekweazu’s accomplishments in the war against COVID-19 pandemic in Nigeria was extra-ordinarily noteworthy. In actual fact, he fought the war with a high sense of patriotism without minding the risk to his life.
The news of Dr. Ihewkeazu’s well-deserved elevation to this global health body was also well received by the Federal Government and other well-meaning Nigerians and organisations. The Federal Government paid him glowing tribute for leading “the NCDC through period of remarkable transformation”. The Minister of Health, Dr. Osagie Ehanire, in a statement signed by the ministry’s permanent secretary, Mamman Mahmuda, said that Dr. Ihekweazu’s new appointment by the WHO is in recognition of his excellence and professionalism. The statement further said that “Dr Ihekweazu joined NCDC as a nascent institution and has led the agency through a period of remarkable transformation and global recognition. Under his leadership, Nigeria’s health security capacity has improved, evidenced by the improved capabilities and resources for infectious disease control”. (NAN’s news as reported by TheCable via https://www.thecable.ng/he-led-ncdc-through-period-of-remarkable-transformation-fg-commends-ihekweazu.)
On her part, Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala said very aptly that “his appointment is a great choice but a big loss to Nigeria”. Yes this column can authoritatively say that Nigeria has lost her COVID-19 dogged fighter. The Good Morning Show of the ARISE News Television celebrated his appointment in recognition of his accomplishment in the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic. The Premium Times, September 1, 2021 in a news report titled ‘Encomiums as NCDC boss, Ihekweazu gets WHO job’, reported also that “many Nigerians have continued to shower encomiums on the director-general of the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC), Chikwe Ihekweazu, over his appointment as an assistant director-general of the global health body- World Health Organisation (WHO)”. It specifically reported for example that “a former deputy governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) and former presidential candidate during the 2019 general election, Kingsley Moghalu, spoke glowingly” of Dr. Ihekweazu, describing his appointment “as a reward for hard work” (See https://www.premiumtimesng.com/news/more-news/482420-encomiums-as-ncdc-boss-ihekweazu-gets-who-job.html).
It is indeed “reward for hard work”. The saying that ‘the reward for hard work is more work’ (ie. additional higher responsibilities and more recognition) applies very aptly to Dr. Ihekweazu’s meritorious elevation. For example, in the last 17 months (i.e. a year and five months) that this column has been monitoring and chronicling Nigeria’s policy response to COVID-19 (of which Dr. Ihekweazu was a key player in both policy formulation and implementation), there is ample evidence that Dr. Ihewkeazu demonstrated by his numerous actions that he is quintessentially an exceptional and exemplary public servant. This contrasts with many ‘accidental public servants’ (apology to Governor Nasir Ahmad El-Rufai) who preoccupy themselves with the looting of the treasury leaving no remarkable achievements before they ‘accidentally’ also exit the service. Again, Dr. Ihekweazu’s mien which epitomises unbounded humility (clothed with confidence), made the fight against COVID-19 to go on unhindered in spite of the huge risk. This was particularly helpful during the lockdown period when the whole nation was living in great fear.
Again, at a time for example when many others in his position would shout at Nigerians who were violating the non-pharmaceutical interventions with impunity during the lockdown, Dr. Ihekweazu would respectfully and with a persuasive tone remind Nigerians that wearing a mask is better than being on a ventilator. Wearing a mask, he said, might seem cumbersome, but it is less cumbersome than being on a ventilator. He repeatedly appealed to them to bear the inconveniences of the mask than suffer the precarious condition in the Intensive Care Unit (ICU). And also in the same spirit, he appealed to Nigerians to “take responsibility” for their actions with respect to observing the safety protocols of COVID-19. He reminded them that anyone who is not taking the virus seriously has himself or herself to blame. Furthermore, he appealed to them to do their best to protect one another, never to throw caution to the wind and to take responsibility so that together Nigerians can collectively win the war against COVID-19. His risk communication strategy either at the PTF briefings or in the social media platforms, are very endearing and commendable. This is something that other public servants who do similar work, should emulate.
Looking at the secret of his success and staying power on the various aspects of his risky job, Dr Ihekweazu was known to repeatedly emphasise, that health professionals and workers need continuously to focus their eyes on the ball without distractions that nevertheless abound. That was the philosophy (if you like) that kept him and many of his staff working courageously irrespective of the dangerous nature of their jobs in the infectious disease world particularly during this COVID-19 pandemic. Under his watch, Nigeria was able to expand rapidly the building of molecular laboratories from about two or so at the emergence of COVID-19, to 52 in federal medical centres and teaching hospitals across the country. A man of great vision, he worked tirelessly to see this dream come through. He was not known to be hypocritical in the discharge of his duties and like the Chairman of the PTF/PSC on COVID-19, Mr. Boss Mustapha, he worked the talk, and as a leader, led from the front. These are the special breed of public servants that Nigeria continuously needs in order to get out of her current cyclic trap of underdevelopment.
In conclusion, Dr. Ihekweazu is much more than what has been said here, and he has accomplished a lot more in other areas of infectious diseases control which formed part of his mandate as the DG of NCDC. As a man not given to too much controversy (if any at all), Dr. Ihekweazu stands tall and remains properly and well equipped to face the challenges of his new office in Berlin, Germany. This column therefore wishes him well as he prepares to resume work in November, 2021.
•Prof. Isaac N. Obasi of the University of Abuja, is a Visiting (Adjunct) Research Professor at the Anti-Corruption Academy of Nigeria, (ACAN), ICPC, Email: [email protected].