Dr. Sampson Parker, medical practitioner and former Rivers State Commissioner for Health in the Chibuike Amaechi administration in an exclusive interview with The Vortex Newspapers Editor-in Chief, Dr Alpheaus Paul-Worika, speaks on his foray into politics and other issues. Excerpt:
You left medical practice, for politics, why ?
I enjoyed medical practice and I still remain a medical doctor before anything else including politics. I apply the principle of medicine in almost every decision I take. To me, medicine is about the human being and politics is also about the human being. To understand and provide basic needs for the people, you will have to understand the first principle of things and how best to tackle them. From primary health care, education, infrastructures, security, etc. there are principles on how best to tackle all of these issues. Construction of roads, schools, flyovers, etc are all based on the health and welfare of the human being.
What are your thoughts on the pattern of works in Rivers State?
To me, something great is happening in Rivers State. It is only a person without a conscience that will see and not hail what is going on in the state. There is nobody that would not complain about the traffic in garrison, waterlines junction, or GRA junction. These are gridlocks points in the state. Some persons may question the projects. But going through Aba Road with the whole traffic gridlock, a three hours journey is now reduced to less than 30mins. The governor is doing something great. Something that should have been done before now. There is no one governor or government that can do everything. You just focus on what you have to do and do it.
What is your view on completion of the Monorail Project?
I think it is about priorities. Transportation is about taking a volume of people from one point to the other. If you consider the cost of the monorail and what many flyovers cost on an economy of scale, you will see that the construction of flyovers is more cost effective. Without condemning anybody’s project, the former governor saw the monorail, the present governor is seeing flyovers as a solution to the problem and he has taken that solution.
Why the switch from medicine to politics?
I have not switched from medicine to politics. I am still practicing medicine even in politics. The motivation to go into politics was medicine. I was practicing medicine but there was dissatisfaction because of priorities placed on different departments by governments of those times. In fact there was a need to go into government and make my input at the policy makers end so that practice could be better for my colleagues. The patients are the beneficiaries of the process, but the doctors are not happy when the patients are not taken care of. A good doctor would not sleep if he loses a patient. The issues we had in the health sector is because policy makers haven’t made healthcare a priority. So having me there, I knew I had to make my colleagues know that healthcare is a priority and to some extent, we achieved much to reduce maternal mortality and infant mortality.
Was it why there was proliferation of hospitals by your administration?
We tried to reach the people through healthcare. I was deliberate about giving the people quality healthcare and the people appreciated it. That was why it was not difficult for us to be re-elected in 2011. As a commissioner for health, I visited almost every community in Rivers state. Not just the health centres, I was taking healthcare talks and campaigns from community to community. During the Ebola outbreak, we were almost everywhere in Rivers State, sensitizing the people. I got to know how vast Rivers State is. In some communities there was no drinking water, I had to insist on the provision of portable water even without being the commissioner for water resources. I decided to use healthcare to drive politics That is where I bridged politics and healthcare.
Did you achieve your aim or were there things you’d have done differently?
I don’t know how to assess myself. That is left for the people. The target was the people. Did they access better healthcare in my administration? Did they feel government a little more through healthcare? Those are the things I look at. But to assess myself, I believe we did well but perhaps not to the extent I would have wished. For instance, politics fought against politics and a lot of the projects did not get to the end point. Even a lot of the celebrated primary healthcare systems I started had not been completed and of course, we had not entered secondary healthcare. I thank Governor Wike who has finished some of the work on primary health centre and has gone ahead to do secondary healthcare and is even touching tertiary. Our time, we got into 60% of what we would have achieved in infrastructure. We were still struggling with power supply to the primary health centres and manpower. The plan was to have one doctor and 8 nurses at the primary health centres, but we did not achieve that. At the secondary healthcare, we tried to set up zonal hospitals but it was difficult. Manpower is a big issue. The only one we did was the Kelsey Harrison Hospital which we had outsourced to the private sector so we could do some form of PPP work with the private sector to push healthcare forward. The Braithwaite Memorial Hospital, we wanted to convert to a teaching hospital. We started it but did not conclude it. Thank God Gov. Wike saw it as a veritable venture and has done well about it. I’d have cried if we lost the accreditation we got then. I am very happy with the work done now.
The college of Health Sciences was a key area to produce manpower for the primary health centres. It was suppose to be upgraded to a polytechnic level and also partner with some renowned health investors abroad so that we can raise manpower for our primary health centres. The Karibi-Whyte Hospital which is a news point these days was not well managed. We should have done better in that area. The goal was to reduce medical tourism abroad by investing in our ealthcare systems. But I cannot tell you I know why that project was stopped. The complications were many.
So Gov. Wike is continuing on the legacies of the past administration?
Gov. Wike and myself were in the trenches with a few others to make former Gov. Amaechi realize and bring to bear his governorship. There we saw ourselves as young men that can rely on one another to fight for a goal and establish it committedly. Beyond that, we had the natural attribute of politics and we saw him in that light. But I did not know that there are other aspects of him such as playing politics calmly and achieving goals.
All that he knows would be beneficial to the state are what he has put his hand in. The ones he has not attended to may be due to lack of funds. I believe the Karibi-Whyte Hospital has been attended to because it is a private project. I must say that by the time we left office, we were having financial crises. So I begin to wonder how he manages the funds to do these much projects.
Tell us about your stewardship.
As Commissioner for Health, I was not getting enough money to fund the primary healthcare centres. We made a law that in the first line charge from the JAC, 5% should go to the primary healthcare board. We could not get that out. We got just 3%. But today, I understand they receive the 5%. We declared free medical care, about two years before the end of our tenure, we weren’t able to pay. Kelsey Harrison hospital had to stop working because we owed about two billion naira for free medical care. There were no funds. That is what we were made to understand. Now, a governor comes in and these things are happening. He is doing well. In the next 20 years, this singular Rivers State University medical school and teaching hospital would have attracted sufficient doctors to deliver healthcare to the people of Rivers State. Doctors were going to other states to be trained. Now, there will be no reason for a Rivers medical student to go outside to be trained.
What were your most memorable moments?
I was carried away with the primary healthcare I was building because it was probably the first time that a government looked at it. Before then, it was left for the Local Government Councils and they were not able to handle it. You will see what was called a primary health centre like a poultry. I thank God for the opportunity to have initiated the programmes we did with special assistance from the governor. Today, we are talking about COVID-19, but the Ebola virus crises posed a great challenge to us. I must thank our staff, everyone joined hands to face Ebola in Rivers State. For that reason, we received award for effectively containing the spread of the virus.
Why are people scared of COVID-19 vaccination?
People are scared because of the wrong message passed by the media on the discovery and validation of vaccines for the coronavirus disease. No vaccine irrespective of where it was manufactured would be administered without validation in Nigeria. All the fears are not necessary. Polio vaccination has been on for years. I will suggest we let the medical scientists handle the issues. It is time for the media to ask pertinent questions and not infiltrate our society with fake news. Vaccines enable the body to defend itself. It takes a lot of effort to produce a vaccine and we cannot take down its relevance in this time of the pandemic.
Rivers State Government promoted syringe production. What happen?
Its politics fighting against politics. The project was inherited by our government from Dr. Peter Odili. It was supposed to be big with the support of foreign partners. It was not actually a government project but an NGO, Pan African Health Foundation. Because of the relationship between former President Obasanjo and Dr. Odili, they decided to locate it in Rivers State. Gov. Odili gave grants and land to the foundation to start the production of syringes that should not be re-used. With donations from the Federal Government and several foreign partners, they were to build a 160 million syringe per annum factory. By the time we came on board, there were some structures but they had not started production. Gov. Amaechi helped to complete and commission it. It was world-standard as certified by the WHO. We had a challenge as the type of syringes produced were not competitive in the open market because syringes were selling for about N6 by the Chinese. But our cost of production was up to N10. We decided to expand the factory to produce more. So we had a project of 1 billion syringes per annum which could supply the whole country and persuade the federal government to inhibit the importation of syringes.
There were other things like medical devices, drip giving sets, granular, a lot of things that can be done in the factory, encapsulation, generally integrated medical devices. It was suppose to be funded by ECA Germany. The cost of the project was about 300 million dollars. Rivers State was to put in about 10% of the project cost, the rest of the fund was to come from Germany. We needed a patronage guarantee by the federal government that they Federal Government) would buy the syringes. While we were processing the papers, the Rivers state government gave a bridge financing to continue the project. I think we spent about 20 billion naira. When it was time to get the money in, we needed that guarantee from the federal government. If that guarantee was signed by the president, the bridge financing of 20 billion would automatically go back to Rivers state government and at that time, the rift between Amaechi and Jonathan had started.
Amaechi’s move to the APC stalled the move to get the Federal Government guarantee. The same thing happened when the tables changed. With APC at the helm of affairs and the PDP in control of the state, we are where we are today. The state government can revisit the factory if funds are available because originally the plan was for funds to come in. Don’t forget there was a partnership between the federal and state governments more like a collaboration, bringing in the Pan-African Health Foundation.
Have you really returned to politics?
Before embarking on a journey, you must first assess yourself. As a follower, you listen to your leader. But even in your own home, your father tells you things. When you are of age, you ask him some questions and you follow because he is your father. We went to the APC, at that time the general idea was the PDP was bad. But it was party politics and we followed. Some people stood firm saying they would not move to the APC. But at a time, we began to ask pertinent questions of what our expectations were. We got to realize that all along what they wanted to do was to remove the party at the centre for their own interest. So I decided to come back home to the PDP and make amends with my people. Again, politics is about patronage. Seeing there is nothing productive from the APC-led government after 6 years, I have no reason to stay there. I rather come back, team up with my people and look at the next election. All my friends there know when I take a decision like this I have my peace of mind. As I have come here (PDP), I am at peace and well, let us see what the future has for us.
Do you regret the times wasted?
I regret it in one way, but it is a learning experience. It was a time to see the other side. Now we have seen both sides and have known which is better. That explains why I rejoined the PDP. It is my family. Nobody persuaded me when I joined the party after its formation in 1998 as a young doctor. I was not a full time politician then. The only reason I left PDP was because my leader, Gov. Amaechi left and since we achieved a lot together, I decided to give it a try. But grudgingly I left, and happily I came back.
What is your projection for 2023?
A lot of things are happening now. With my experience, it is to go slow and observe what is going on. This is a transition phase both at the federal and state level, we must watch a lot of things. But first thing is support my old family, to work with them and to encourage them to be together. We have lost a lot of grounds in the state. If not the doggedness of Gov. Wike, we would have lost the state. But now is the time to hold hands, elbow to elbow so that we can do well. But it is too early for people to scramble for positions and display ambitions.
What is your advice for Gov. Wike?
He will go through a turbulent time this transition period. But he should be calm. This is a time to focus only on God. If he has been living 50% for God, he should increase it to 70%. He is going to have a lot of temptations. This is the time, transition hour. We have not had a peaceful transition from Amaechi. He needs to be careful so that he would get a peaceful transition.