By Ebuka Onyeji
A fortnight ago, inside the 500-seater conference hall of Nicon Luxury Hotel in Abuja, Dapo Olorunyomi, Publisher of PREMIUM TIMES, called for a national honour for late Stella Adadevoh.
Mr Olorunyomi was giving his welcome address at the 2019 National Health Dialogue, an event this newspaper organised to find ways to bridge the funding gaps in Nigeria’s quest for Universal Health Coverage (UHC).
His speech was brief but long enough to resonate outcries that have followed the failure of successive governments to recognise late Mrs Adedevoh who through her bravery warded off the dreaded Ebola epidemic from Nigeria.
The publisher charged the federal government to immortalise the late physician, saying “it is long overdue.”
Adedevoh: The heroine
Family, friends and associates of late Mrs Adadevoh will gather at the First Baptist Church at Gimbiya street in Abuja on Sunday for a candlelight procession in her honour, on a day she would have been celebrating her 63rd birthday.
A series of events will also take place to mark her birthday and remember her colleagues: Amos Abaniwo, a doctor; Justina Ejelonu, a nurse; and Evelyn Uko, a nurse aide.
The four of them lost their lives to Ebola, an infectious virus that causes severe bleeding and organ failure – often leading to a painful death.
Mrs Adedevoh was the physician who discovered that a Liberian, Patrick Sawyer, who arrived in Nigeria five years ago, was infected with Ebola.
She died after contracting the disease while trying to treat Mr Sawyer and prevent the disease from spreading.
In late July 2014, Mr Sawyer, an American-Liberian lawyer collapsed upon arrival at Murtala Mohammed International Airport in Lagos.
He was taken to First Consultant Hospital in Obalende, where Mrs Adadevoh, then 57, was working as a Lead Consultant Physician and Endocrinologist.
She was not a virology or public-health expert but her sharp diagnosis identified Nigeria’s first case of the virus – then 40-year-old Mr Sawyer.
She prevented him from leaving the facility.
When threatened by Liberian officials who wanted the patient to be discharged to attend a conference in Calabar and later by the patient who was also suffering from ‘Ebola denial’, the physician resisted, saying, “for the greater public good” she would not release him.
Her bravery had a higher price. She contracted Ebola alongside three of her colleagues and on August 19, nearly a month after Mr Sawyer’s death, she died. She was one of eight people that had primary contact with the Liberian.
The late medic and her colleagues were eulogized home and abroad for their heroics which contributed to the early declaration of Nigeria as Ebola-free by the World Health Organization on October 20, having passed the mandatory period (42days) with no new cases.
Posthumous National Honors
Mrs Adadevoh has received several local and international awards posthumously including receiving the 2018 ECOWAS Prize of Excellence alongside former Secretary-General of the United Nations, Kofi Annan.
However, she is yet to receive any of Nigeria’s national honours, a set of orders and decorations, instituted by the National Honors Act No. 5 of 1964 and conferred upon Nigerians who have rendered service to the benefit of the nation.
In September 2014, barely a month after her death, the Nigerian government released that year’s National Honors award list.
Mrs Adadevoh’s name was conspicuously missing in the list of more than 300 persons, resulting in a public outcry that prompted the senior Special Adviser to then-President Goodluck Jonathan on Public Affairs, Doyin Okupe, to release a statement.
Mr Okupe argued that Mrs Adadevoh could not be honoured posthumously at the time because such would amount to breaking laws of the National Honors Act.
He said the national awards can only be received from the president by the awardee who is “physically present,” according to the law.
Mr Okupe’s statement, however, did not stop the advocacy for late Mrs Adadevoh to be honoured posthumously.
Posthumous Awards: Law vs National Interest
Last June, calls for Adadevoh to be immortalised received a boost after President Muhammadu Buhari conferred posthumous national honours on late Moshood Abiola, winner of the annulled 1993 general elections and late Gani Fawehinmi, a rights advocate.
While Mr Abiola received the highest award, GCFR, Mr Fawehinmi bagged the GCON.
The president’s move also reignited the protracted debate on whether national awards can be conferred on a dead Nigerian.
Evidently, the National Honours Act (PDF), is silent on whether or not the national honours could be bestowed on a deceased citizen.
The law states that a fallen member of the armed forces could be posthumously awarded a medal for “pre-eminent act of valor or self-sacrifice in the presence of the enemy, or for devotion to duty in the presence of the enemy,” but was silent on the national honours, which are civilian honours different from medals.
While Mr Buhari’s action was debated by legal experts chiefly because of the vacuum created by the apparent silence of the law on the eligibility or otherwise of a deceased, it gave credence to the push for Mrs Adadevoh.
“From the constitutional angle, there might be a flaw but when you look at national interest as a whole, you will see the need for her (Adadevoh) be awarded”, said Kayode Akiolu, a member of the House of Representative representing Lagos Highland Constituency 2.
“I think that (National Interest) should supersede any other things because what is being done is not going to be injurious to the country, rather it will encourage patriotism”.
Mr Akiolu, a lawyer, alluded to the need for the law to be amended to pronounce that dead Nigerians deserve national honours.
“Abiola, for instance, is the hero of democracy we are enjoying today. He also paid the supreme price just like Adadevoh and therefore deserves a national award,” the lawmaker noted.
Movement for Adadevoh
While the legality and morality conundrum continued, the push for the government to recognise Adadevoh snowballed into a full-blown movement.
Two months ago, the Guild of Medical Directors of Nigeria said the Nigerian government should declare August 19 each year a national holiday in memory of the deceased.
In his speech, Mr Olorunyonmi said an online petition has been created to galvanize momentum for the call.
“This is an attempt to make the government see the need to honour someone who laid her life for her country,” he said.
The publisher said PREMIUM TIMES has subscribed to the petition, urging “everyone else to do so too.”
The petition was created last month by the Centre for Impact Advocacy via Change.org, a petition website which claims to have over 240 million users and hosts sponsored campaigns for organisations.
Peter Nkanga, the convener, said each time a Nigerian signs the petition, it is sent directly to the emails of the presidency and the principal officers of the National Assembly.
He described the petition as a living document that will continue to be a blight on the government “until they heed to the call.”
“Adadevoh and her medical team represent the best of who we are as Nigerians,” Mr Ikanga, a journalist and activist said.
“Dr Adadevoh deserves Nigeria’s highest National Honours award of GCFR for her sacrifice which has been acknowledged and honoured around the world, except Nigeria her country.
“Moreso, I’ve not seen in the Nigerian National Honours Act of 1964 that the GCFR is reserved for only Presidents or heads of States. Therefore, it can be given to a deserving female Nigerian who practically saved the country by her decisive actions in the face of diplomatic threats and great personal risk.
“That is why this petition is symbolic,” he noted.
Mr Nkanga described as “unbelievable and truly embarrassing” that Nigerians in their thousands, and ultimately millions, are now having to sign a petition that is being emailed to President Buhari; Vice President Yemi Osinbajo; Secretary to the Government, SGF, Boss Mustapha; Senate President Ahmed Lawan and; House Speaker Femi Gbajabiamila.
“So for as long as Nigerian authorities refuse to give due honour to a True Patriot and National Heroine, this petition will continue to run and be a stain on their conscience that they should have, could, but have refused to be humane to do what is right by giving honour to whom it is due.”
As at the time of filing this report, the petition has received about 4,000 signatures.
Click here to sign.
Chikwe Ihekweazu, the Director-General of Nigeria’s Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) also endorsed the petition.
“We will always support calls by citizens to acknowledge and celebrate the work done by Mrs Adadevoh and her colleagues”, Mr Iheakweazu wrote in an email to this newspaper.
“The efforts of these fallen health care workers continues to inspire the work that we do at the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control, where my colleagues work 24/7 to ensure that we are better prepared to prevent, detect and respond to infectious disease threats.
“We will always support any efforts to recognise these fallen heroes. We believe that Mr President is well aware of the sacrifices made by Dr Adadevoh and her colleagues and will recognise them appropriately in due course.”
Health activists Dale Ogunbayo and Henry Ewononu were among those that threw support for the petition and call.
Mr Ogunbayo said honoring Mrs Adadevoh will encourage heroism and patriotism.
“It is a despicable wonder that government hasn’t honoured her up till now. President should possess the moral capacity he used in honouring Abiola on Adadevoh,” he noted.
Apart from endorsing the online campaign, Mr Akiolu, the lawmaker, said he is working with some of his colleagues to move a motion for the late medic to be immortalised with a national award.
“Currently, we are working on a motion to be presented to the speaker for approval”, he said.
The lawmaker said the motion will subsequently be raised on the floor of the house.
“It will be debated among the 360 members of the house, including me,” he said.
Mr Akiolu said Nigeria should emulate countries like America who honour heroes who died for their country, saying such recognition motivates heroism for national interest even at the cost of the “supreme price.”