by chikwe ihekweazu and ike anya
At all of the previous four international conferences on AIDS that we have attended, there are always meetings called for all Nigerians attending or those working on HIV/AIDS in Nigeria. The meeting at the Durban conference in 2000 was chaired by Professor Ibironke Akinsete the then Chairperson of NACA, while the meetings at the last three conferences have been chaired by Professor Babatunde Osetimehin, the incumbent Chair of NACA which has since changed from a committee to a full fledged parastatal under “The Presidency”. We have attended all 4. Below are our thoughts…moving forward…
At the meeting in Durban in 2000 at the Chamber of Commerce Building, Stanger Street, Durban there were 104 Nigerians gathered with one common interest; HIV/AIDS in Nigeria. This meeting was the initiative of Mr Omololu Falobi (RIP) (add link) and was heralded to signal a new spirit of dialogue. Just a year into our new democracy, a HIV prevalence that had just crossed the 5% mark, a new “National Action Committee on AIDS” etc, Nigerians were indeed enthusiastic about defining the way forward. The room was filled to capacity as people kept pouring in. Wearing identification tags from a wide variety of different countries it became obvious that Nigerians were indeed involved in HIV/AIDS research and activism all over the world. A wide variety of issues were discussed…a plan to place the first 10,000 patients on ARVs, a new strategic plan, negligence of NGOs, poor research capacity and the pervasive “Abalaka issue” (add link), who was absent. In attendance at that meeting included Prof. Maurice Iwu, a active researcher on alternative medicines for diseases before his foray into election management. : It was agreed to that the problem of inadequate research into the AIDS situation in Nigeria was definitely not due to lack of human resources as evidenced by the participants in the forum, however there was a large ignorance of each other and their activities. The decision was taken to compile a resource bank which would hopefully be a starting point for a change of attitude. Names, addresses and affiliations of those in attendance were collected by NACA. We left…full of hope. (minutes available on request)
In Spain in 2002, the next meeting held at the Fira Palace Hotel, in Barcelona. Over 130 Nigerians attended the meeting and was chaired by Professor Babatunde Osotimehin, the director-general of the newly-created National Agency for Prevention and Care of HIV/AIDS (NAPCA) (later dissolved by the National Assembly). As usual, in typical Nigerian fashion…we took the first hour to introduce ourselves with our inevitably long profiles . This meeting was interesting in the large attendance of research partners interested in supporting Nigeria; the National Institutes of Health, Fogarty International Center, the Institute of Human, Virology of University of Maryland, as well as the Harvard School of Public Health. Dr Phyllis Kanki of the Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH) gave delegates an insight into the activities of the AIDS Prevention Initiative in Nigeria (APIN) one of the largest early HIV?AIDS response programmes in Nigeria supported by the HSPH and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Professor Osotimehin then informed us that there was now “Political will” at the highest level in Nigeria to move the agenda forward in Nigeria, however the consensus in the house was that this had not trickled down to other levels of leadership in Nigeria. He was announced that a pilot programme for ARVs had been successfully initiated by the Federal Government and that arrangements had reached advanced stages for the commencement of a Prevention of Mother to Child Transmission (pMTCT) programme in Nigeria. The last contribution of the day was made by a person living with HIV who called on all delegates to show sincerity, honesty and commitment in the efforts to stem the epidemic in Nigeria. He stressed the need to match words with action in line with the theme of the AIDS conference. Again we left…full of hope. (minutes available on request)
In Bangkok in 2004, there was another meeting of Nigerian delegates featuring a key challenge from an HIV/AIDS activist, Rolake Odetoyinbo who challenged the leadership on their perceived failures in adequately making use of the resources available through the Global Fund for AIDS TB and Malaria. Her contribution illustrated the usefulness of the links that had been forged between Nigerian activists and the wider global community. There were also sadly stories of infighting among key leaders and researchers which were impeding progress, and concerns were raised about the adequacy of the Nigeria exhibition stand in the exhibition hall.
At the last conference in Toronto in 2006, Nigerians attended again; No surprise there! Yet, despite the obvious huge numbers of Nigerians in attendance and the ubiquitous presence of Professor Babatunde Osotimehin with his large entourage of staff moving around the conference venue, there was little information about a meeting this time. We wondered if we had lost steam. However, on the third day of the conference, word quickly spread that there was indeed to be a meeting of all Nigerians present at the conference, convened the NACA chief executive. Some delegates grumbled at the meeting being convened by NACA even when the body did not know how some Nigerians had managed to make their way to the conference, the turn-out at the meeting was large, overwhelming the tiny meeting room that had been arranged for the purpose. Prospects for the success of the meeting were not improved by the loud drumming coming from the nearby Global Village, which nearly drowned out the Chairman’s introductory remarks.
As with all the previous meetings, apart from the opening prayers and opening remarks, there was no structure to the meeting, no agenda, no targets stated, no outcomes reported. As usual in all previous meetings it was open “town meeting style” with contributions solicited from the floor. A number of delegates expressed their displeasure at the fact that Nigeria did not have an exhibition stand at the conference in direct contrast to many other African countries. This, they opined had robbed the country of the opportunity to showcase some of the achievements the country had made in tackling HIV. Concerns were also expressed at the absence of Nigerian official presence at key press briefings such as the one on PEPFAR and the presentation of what some argued was dated research by the Physicians for Human Rights on attitudes of Nigerian healthcare workers to people living with HIV.
As in all such meetings, at the end contact details for all those present were collected by the NACA staff who promised to get in touch with every one after the conference. Have they been in touch with you?
This time, we know that NACA is planning another meeting in Mexico….as well as a satellite meeting to give people an opportunity to engage with Nigeria. There will be a Nigerian stand. There is even a pre-conference meeting! We are hopeful this time that it will be different. That there will be an open diualogue with Nigerians. That we will hear how many Nigerians are actually on ARVs. How the PMTCT programme is saving lives. How and where the prevention activities are going on.
How, where, when…how much!? We will ask the hard questions! It c
annot be business as usual. So we appeal to NACA to keep the speeches short and answer our questions in Mexico!
We hope to hear from a NACA truly accountable to the Nigerian people.
If you are not there…we will let you know how it goes!
Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed people can change the world; indeed it is the only thing that ever has…Margaret Mead