Dr. Benjamin Aigbobasimi Oni-Okpaku, the former Chief Medical Director(CMD) of the defunct Benoni Clinic/Hospital, Benin, is a reporter’s delight any day.
He answers questions, no matter how sensitive, with a gentle mien. In this interview, with ISAAC OLAMIKAN, which according to him is his first in decades, the octogenarian, who among several life accomplishments is a Fellow Royal Society of Medicine of England, talked extensively on a myriad of issues. Excerpts:
Dr. Oni-Okpaku was born on January 25, 1932 in Eme-Ora, Owan West Local Government Area of Edo State. He started his education at the St. John’s School, Sabongida-Ora in 1942. He proceeded to the prestigious King’s College, Lagos in 1946. He had his Cambridge School Certificate in 1950. He was at Egbatson Science School, Birmingham in 1951-1952; Bristol University (Advanced Level); Birmingham University Medical School 1952-1958.
He started his medical career at Hallam Hospital, West Bromwich, England in 1958. He was with the Midwestern Region Hospital Management Board where he served in Sapele and Warri General Hospitals from 1964-1969. He set up the defunct Benoni Clinic/Hospital in 1975.
Dr. Oni-Okpaku has been married to Justice Abigail Olufunmilayo Oni-Okpaku(nee Dixon) since 1960 and the union is blessed with a son and three daughters.
BIRTH AND GROWING UP
I was the first child to survive as a motherless baby in Eme-Ora at that time because my mother died at the point of giving birth to me. My late grandmother played a divine role in my survival because she let me be contrary to what was the norm then. It was when the crying and mourning of my late mum had subsided three days later that people were alerted to my baby cry. ‘That terrible child who killed his mother is he still alive?’ they asked. Noticing that I am a male child(my mum had two daughters before I was born) my grandmother stated that she will not lose her first daughter and her first grandson at the same time and that anybody who intends to harm me will have to kill her first. That was how I survived what would have been a terrible ordeal. Growing up was memorable as my father played a dual role in my upbringing – as a father and a mother. My grandfather died when my father was 8 years old. My father was brought up by some relatives in the police barracks and that influenced his decision to join the police force. He was posted to Onitsha and a few years later (then I was 4 years old) he was posted to Lagos. He was among the pioneer set of policemen to be promoted to the rank of Superintendent of Police(SP). He ended up as a Senior Superintendent of Police(SSP) before his retirement. I recall that the first indigenous Inspector General of Police(IGP), Louis Edet, was one of the clerks in my father’s office when he was still in service.
HOW I DISOBEYED MY FATHER ON MY CAREER CHOICE
My father actually wanted me to become a lawyer. He must have been impressed with what went on in court. He was told me a story that an English judge – Mr. Egerton Shyngle – was once listening to a Nigerian lawyer(a Yoruba man) in court. The Nigerian lawyer was asking the judge ‘in your country do they spell Water with a double T?’ The judge responded that ‘no in my country we spell Manner with a double N’. So, my father was impressed with the Europeans in the judiciary. I did my school certificate in 1950 at the King’s College, Lagos. When the result was released I had a credit in Biology, a pass in Physics and a pass in Chemistry which was converted to credit in Physics with Chemistry. Whereas in the arts subjects I scored credits in all of them. So, instead of nine subjects it became eight subjects. When my father saw my result he said that though I insist on doing Medicine but my result has shown that I am better in the arts than in the sciences. Then I responded that ‘Daddy, you want me to read Law. I will do it just to please you. But what I want to do is Medicine’ I found out later that a cousin of mine, Samuel Idowu in 1937 were sleeping next to each other and my father woke us up. He first asked my cousin ‘Idowu, when you grow up what would you want to be?’ Idowu responded that he doesn’t know. Then my father asked me ‘what of you Benji, what do you want to be?’ I replied that I wanted to be a doctor. The fact was that I had never met a doctor before and I don’t know what they do. I feel that at that time my father must have thought that there must be something unknown to me that was propelling me to want to become a doctor. In July 1951, he sent me to Egbatson School of Science in England. I discovered that they were doing the Advanced(A)Levels in two years. I told them that I want to do it in a year. The Head of the Science department interviewed me. After the interview he told the Principal of the school that as far as the science subjects are concerned there are large areas of non knowledge. That they are not even sure whether I will even pass the A levels in two years. So, the principal wrote a letter to my father to tell him that I was still insisting that I would do the A level in a year. That they will see what they can do to make me achieve my dream. He has to do three hours in each of the subjects – Physics, Chemistry, Botany and Zoology. Three extra hours of private tuition in a private school. I was doing twelve hours a week i.e. 48 hours in a month. They were charging my father one pound per hour for those extra lessons. Then the students sponsored by the government were getting £25 a month. That’s why I said my father also played the role of my mother to me, he accepted the proposal. The school management said by Christmas eve of 1951 they will let me know if I would be able to do the A levels or not. By the promised day they called me to confirm that I was capable of doing the A levels. That I had done well so far. However, they advised that I should do the last GCE A level examination of 1952 which was organised by Bristol University. That was in August, 1952 and the result came out in September. I passed the four subjects I registered for. I was invited to Birmingham University for an interview. Before then my brother-in-law, Mr. Imoukhuede introduced my to the college he attended in Cambridge. When they saw my A level result they said they were sorry as they have done all their admission for that year but that I could defer my admission to the following year. Oxford and Cambridge Universities do not really train doctors but they do the first year training(pre-clinical). I was interviewed by Birmingham and got admitted. But I was admitted for the first year programme as the institution does not admit foreigners into the second year programme. I was a little disappointed. Then I said ‘it’s okay’. The English man asked if I wanted to be admitted or not. I said ‘yes’ because it suddenly occurred to me that if I don’t get admitted that year and I wait for the promise from Cambridge the following year anything could happen to me. It turned out that it was a good thing that happened to me because I didn’t have to study in my first year as I have done all the subjects before. I only did one week serious study before I did my examination. I went through the whole of the medical school in Cambridge never failing even a class test. I got a Grade 2 in the school certificate at King’s College against some classmates like (Philip) Asiodu, Ayida, Duncan, Tugbobor, Oyewole, Sola Onajobi who all got Grade 1 but I gained admission into the university before any of them. This is because they did not do their examination until the next year. They were in Nigeria while I had already done it in overseas. I even welcomed Asiodu and Ayida when they came in 1953 to attend Oxford University. They did PPA in Oxford University.
MY RELATIONSHIP WITH DR. ALEX EKWUEME
Alex Ekwueme was a year my senior at King’s College. We were in the boarding house. King’s College started on a temporary site at King George V Road in Onikan. My father’s residence was almost opposite the school so I didn’t need to stay in the boarding house. But by 1948, King’s College had moved to its permanent site which is opposite Race Course. I and Alex were in the same house. Students who stayed in the boarding house from outside Lagos were in a house called Hyde Johnson House. While those of us who stay in Lagos but are not in the boarding house belonged to McIrie House. The different houses wore different colours of jerseys. Hyde Johnson’s House wore red, McIrie wore yellow, Payne’s House wore blue while Hamma’s House wore green. Alex was a friendly person. By the time we left the school we were mates. The interesting thing is that people only recall that he was a Vice President. Very few people remembered that he was an Architect. Not only he got degrees in other disciplines. He was a brilliant mind. He was one of the founders of the Peoples Democratic Party(PDP). I will want people to be aware that it’s not only politics that they should know others for. If I was in politics I wouldn’t have wanted to be known as a politician but as a surgeon. After our school years and even as he became a respected politician we still retained our relationship. Infact, anytime he came to Benin I invited him to join me in whatever I am doing. I would not say we were that close but as college mates we still get on easily.
THE STORY OF BENONI HOSPITAL
Benoni Hospital was a memorial hospital. I have always had it in my mind that when I leave government work I will establish a private hospital. That was why I left government work at the age of 43 years in 1975. I started to receive pension in 1977. And do you know how much my pension was? N249.80. My last salary as somebody on Grade Level 16 step 1; as a Chief Consultant Surgeon and Chief Medical Director (CMD) of Specialist Hospital, Benin was N750. But before you say ‘hey’ you are a young man, one naira was one pound then. To build Benoni Hospital I got loan from the Nigeria Bank for Commerce and Industry. Do you know how much the loan was? N500,000(Five hundred thousand naira). I added other money I could get from the private practice I was doing to complete the project. I ran a clinic – Benoni Clinic – in my house from 1973-78. I will always remember a good friend, one gentleman called Hope Harriman, his brother was in the foreign service. He said to me once ‘Benji’ I said, ‘what’s wrong?’ and he responded ‘why don’t you get out of this place and build a hospital for the sick?’ I replied: ‘My dear, hopeless hope. I am not surprised the way you talk.’. But after sometime I started thinking ‘hospital or hotel, guests or patients?’ I was deliberating on the fact that if I build a hotel and there comes a time I sell it then the new owner can turn it to a hotel. That was why I built the Benoni Hospital the way I did. Four bedded, three bedded, double bedded and single bedded. Every room was equipped with a aircondition unit. The four bedded and three bedded rooms also had fans. The hospital also have a lift. The first private hospital in Nigeria that has a lift. The theater was on the first floor and I didn’t want the patients to be carried through the staircase. Even on their sick bed they can be carried through the lift into the the theatre. When I closed down the hospital in 2005 I did so because I felt that there was no person nearby to hand over to. I have four children – a boy and three daughters – my first daughter is an Architect, my second daughter is a medical doctor, my third daughter is a lawyer and my only son read Agric Evonomics. He was not interested in medicine. The doctor is married and has been abroad for quite sometime. The lawyer…when I was owing New Nigerian Bank(NNB) so much money, I said ‘you people I am owing you you should be able to do something for me’. So, when my daughter, the lawyer, finished from school and she wanted to do the her youth service I went to see the General Manager but I saw the Personnel Manager and I told him I wanted my daughter to serve with them in their head office in Lagos. Funny enough, she decided she did not want to be a lawyer but that she would rather be a banker. Until recently she was a General Manager at Guaranty Trust Bank(GTB) in Lagos. The Architect is married to a Yoruba man, Soetan, who was in the foreign service. They’re now in the UK. My son is the only one who stays with me here. I asked myself what do I want for the Benoni Hospital? The response was ‘I want the name and image of the hospital to be retained forever.’ Thus, I promised that I will sell it to a group that we retain it as a hospital and also keep the dream alive. After eight years, I sold it to those that I feel are the right people – the Nigeria National Petroleum Corporation(NNPC) – who will know its worth. The NNPC had been our patients on retainership for twenty years. So, they are abreast of the facilities therein. Till date, in the whole of Benin City I have not heard of any hospital been talked about in positive terms the way people talk about Benoni Hospital. I refused to lease it out because I didn’t want it’s reputation to be tainted. I didn’t want the hospital to be turned to where people come and do abortion or threat armed robbery suspects with gunshot wound. The road on which it’s situated is called Benoni Hospital Road. So, even as it has now been acquired by the NNPC the Benoni Hospital signpost is still noticeable around the area. From time to time I go there to see what’s happening and I am happy that they are giving the hospital a good face lift in line with what is obtainable in the present day. Not only that I hope the equipment they will acquire would be such that would attract people from all over the country apart from their staff so as to curb capital flight in the medical sector. Medicine has advanced a lot and this was what I had in mind when I built the hospital in my desire to make it the best.
HOW TO CURB BRAIN DRAIN AND CAPITAL FLIGHT IN THE HEALTH SECTOR
Now, we hear of people going to India to get treatment. That is rubbish! There are lots of top class doctors from Nigeria who are in these hospitals abroad. That’s a brain drain syndrome. If we have the right equipment in the hospitals and a good welfare package for them I am certain that these doctors will not leave our shores. People will come to Nigeria for quality service and not the other way round. When Nigerians go abroad for treatment the doctors that handle their case are Nigerians. Is that not absurd?
I OFFERED FREE SERVICE TO THE ARMY
Many people will be hearing this may be for the first time. I was a surgeon to the Nigerian Army for nine years. While I was in Warri I was the surgeon treating the Nigeria Army. Also while I was at the Specialist Hospital, Benin, even though there was a military person there everyone knew that I was the one who could handle surgical cases. The army had their own people. But I was with them. At one stage they wanted me to wear army uniform and may be I will be getting something. But I declined. I don’t need to get anything from my country. I am serving. So, I remained in government service and I did part time work for the military. Throughout this period I did not charge the military any money. I was doing it free.
THE TREND IN THE HEALTH SECTOR NOW IS ABSURD
In our time, you did not serve as a doctor because you want to make money. That’s the fact. In colonial times, they knew they could not pay doctors adequately enough so those who are practicing in government service where allowed to have private clinics. But those clinics were in their homes. When you close from government work your patients could come and see you at home where you attend to them and you are paid a little bit. But as you know now things are different. It’s not for me to say how different they are. My word of advice is that you cannot take anything with you when you die. You can have billions stack everywhere but when you die you go six feet under unless you say they should bury the money in the coffin which is rubbish. I am a typical example. You are here to interview me. But you can see where I am living. You can see the garden, the car park etc. The house was built almost 48 years ago. It’s all right. What do I need? Luckily, I have moved on to build a hospital and then sold it. Those days we used to encourage patients to come and see us in the government hospital. When you come to the government hospital you pay all the dues that is meant for the government. I will give you an example. When I was in Warri, a gentleman came to see me (probably a Urhobo man) one day. As he entered my parlour he lifted the wrapper he had on his waist. I noticed two spots where I had operated on him. He said he came to thank me. He put his hand in his pocket and brought out four freshly laid eggs which he gave to me in appreciation of the successful operation I had carried out on him. He also gave me prayers. My cook then ate one of the eggs which nearly earned him a sack. What am saying is that there are many ways of showing appreciation not necessarily by giving money. I left Warri in 1969 but they still have good things to say about me. The young ones (children) still talk about what they heard about me from their parents. You benefit in many ways when you genuinely offer service to people. You are even blessed with long life. You achieve nothing meaningful when you charge people excessively for services you render. You may end up not living long. You can ask people about me and they will tell you that I do things correctly.
NO NATIONAL RECOGNITION
I don’t need it. I have narrated how I picked my career choice against my father’s wish. You know what happened? In England, I married a young lady who was just starting life. She did law. When we came back to Nigeria she practiced in Lagos. Later, we relocated to Warri she was the only female lawyer of repute practising in the Midwest region. We had a terrible accident on the 5th of July, 1966. We were admitted in the hospital. My wife was unconscious she had to be resuscitated. She was unconscious for 13 days and 13 nights. I remember one night when we were in the hospital I woke up, held her hand and prayed that if my wife was going to be paralysed when she recovers I will look after her for the rest of my life. She got better. The Chief Judge at that time was my senior at the King’s College, Lagos. He advised me to let my wife join the magistrate court. She joined the magistrate and rose through the hierarchy. She later became the Chief Judge of Edo State in 2005. She took over from Justice Constance Momoh. The point I am trying to make is that the plan my father had for me was actually actualized in my wife’s life.