MSF and Nigeria…joint at birth

by chikwe ihekweazu

I recently attended the Scientific Day of Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors without boarders) in London where they presented some of the good work they do around the world. MSF is probably the best known non-governmental organisaton in the world and their good work was rewarded with the Nobel Peace Prize in 1999…and needs no further introduction.

What many might not know is the the role of the one of the saddest parts of our history; Nigerian/Biafran war in the formation of MSF.

The Nigerian/Biafra war was particularly hard on the civilian population because of food blockades, and massive flows of refugees and internally displaced persons under very precarious circumstances. The Red Cross managed to send some 50 doctors to Biafra. These doctors were driven by a desire to use their professional skills to save as many lives as possible. Among those 5o doctors that sacrificed so much for the survival of our people were the future founders of MSF, including Bernard Kouchner, who later became France’s former Minister of Health and present foreign minister.

The Biafran war clearly revealed the shortcomings of the Red Cross in responding to emergencies. Some of the future founders of MSF opposed Red Cross regulations that forbade the Red Cross staff from making public statements about human rights violations and genocide. ICRC was not entitled to intervene in a country without the approval of the country’s authorities. Several Red Cross doctors defied this prohibition by organizing a “committee against the Biafran genocide” as soon as they were back in France.

The committee argued that medical action should not
be turned into a blind and dumb instrument.

This activity attracted a group of approximately fifty people who were persuaded that conflicts such as Biafra would happen again (how right they were) and needed to be anticipated. Thus, the Biafra veterans began meeting once a month to share and refresh their memories….and the MSF story began. Read details here. Today, MSF’s work is based on the principles of impartiality, operates independently of any political, military, or religious agendas…and most importantly in my opinion commits to Bearing Witness & Speaking Out.

MSF has been working in Nigeria for many years. They ran a Malaria programme in the heart of the Niger Delta as the Nigerian Government and its buddies in the oil industry ignored the people. MSF has been in the lead of the response to almost all outbreaks of infectious disease in Nigeria and notable has been the first to respond to the cycles of Menigitis outbreaks in Northern Nigeria. When HIV/AIDS emerged, MSF again was one of the first organisations that set up treatment centres in the heart of Lagos serving the most underprivildeged in society. Read this incredible story by one of the doctors that volunteered their time…HERE. Presently…they are helping us deal with gunshot wounds at MSF’s Port Harcourt trauma centre.We Nigerians have a lot to be thankful for! Rather than spend their energy and scarce resources on countries that are really poor, they help a country that is extremely rich but has decided to abdicate its responsibility to provide for the health of its population.

I digress…back to the conference.

In a presentation titled “Viral load testing in resource-limited settings: the devil is in the detail. Experiences from Lagos”. the presenter used carefully chosen terms to describe the huge challenges MSF faces with the laboratories it relies on for the testing that needs to accompany antiretroviral therapy for people with HIV. These included “poor quality control” “poor technique” etc…and concluded that ….this has significantly delayed and inhibited the operational research ambitions of the project. ….in a subtle tone she mentioned the huge challenge of running complex tests in an environment where electricity cannot be guaranteed for an uninterrupted 1 hour stretch!
So…this puts into context for me the last governments priority of equipping our teaching hospitals with state of the art diagnostic equipment….when the “simplest” of tests are impossible in our setting. Yes The devil is in the detail….

Ill conclude by saying THANK YOU for all those that choose to give up their time and resources to work for MSF in Nigeria.
If I was European…and decided to work for MSF…would I choose Nigeria? Hell no! I would go to Tanzania, to Ghana, to Malawi…one of those beautiful countries where one can really look at the African sunset after a hard day at work. Not so in the heart of Lagos, Bayelsa or Kano where MSF works…

So …thank you folk!

The rest of us…do not really have a choice…Na Naija get us!

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

Chikwe Ihekweazu is an epidemiologist and consultant public health physician. He is the Editor of Nigeria Health Watch, and the Managing Partner of EpiAfric (, which provides expertise in public health research and advisory services, health communication and professional development. He previously held leadership roles at the South African National Institute for Communicable Diseases and the UK's Health Protection Agency. Chikwe has undertaken several short term consultancies for the World Health Organisation, mainly in response to major outbreaks. He is a TED Fellow and co-curator of TEDxEuston.

Discussion6 Comments

  1. I genuinely recognise your point and was very impressed by your brave conclusion about not desiring to volunteer your time or skills in Nigeria.

    I would like to introduce you to the work of a few Nigerians in the UK Diaspora who are working to do something about the problem.

    Wish For Africa is providing affordable and accessible healthcare in poor communities of Lagos, through an innovative ‘hybrid’ strategy pioneered by the Founder of the organisation, who have managed to combine his unique blend of skills (a medical doctor and a business graduate) to develop projects and sustainable solutions to some of the healthcare problems in African communities. Wish For Africa has delivered microfinance projects to over 50 healthcare workers and has helped to open and run a pharmacy shop in Nigeria. Wish for Africa has successfully set-up 3 healthcare centres in poor areas of Lagos, delivering low-cost and affordable healthcare to the people living in these communities – please check out more details of these projects on

    Several professional UK-based organisations such as Medical Association of Nigerian Specialists and GPs (MANSAG) and Nigerian Nurses Charitable Association (NNCA) know of our work and the pivotal role our projects play amongst African Healthcare professionals in the Diaspora willing to volunteer their skills to improve healthcare delivery in poor communities of Africa where we work. Our volunteering project is being supported by free adwords grant donated by Google inc.

    Our fervent hope is that as we gain ground and recognition for the work we have started in Mafoluku, Ketu-Kosofe and Ifako-Agege, that others will join us and truly let us change the landscape of healthcare delivery in that beloved country of ours.

    – Wish For Africa

  2. Great post. As we continue to neglect infrastructure in Nigeria we continue to slide backwards in healthcare delivery.
    The rest of the Third World is fast overtaking us in this aspect. I applaud your previous posts on the National Health Bill and job requirements for a Minister of Health.
    Whether Nigeria needs volunteer organisations providing health care (in view of the vast resources and the intentional lack of health care policy) is a topic for further discussion

  3. Thanks once again for your excellent post. It is almost obvious that saving lives and alleviating suffering is very important, but unfortunately may never take the ailing nation beyond the horizon. While we are grateful to all those that help in different ways like MSF and Wish for Africa, the crux of the matter is CHANGE. Our efforts should be geared towards CHANGE, responsibility in both the governed and the governor. Hand outs will never get us out of the quagmire called the Nigerian Health Situation. Diaspora Nigerians should start considering ways of bearing down on the country for responsible leadership that addresses the real needs of the people. It is wiser to show a child how to make good fishing nets and fish than to teach him how to be a perennial beggar. Hand outs kept us where we are today, oil money locked the gates and humanitarian help will keep us there, permanently! We need to break that cycle…NOW!

  4. I have come to the conclusion that we will never break through until we break through our infrastractural problems i.e. power and water supply and good roads. Until we sort those out, everything else we do will be undermined…a mere plaster over a deep wound.

    How can you run an emergency service without roads? How can you run a laboratory effectively with sporadic power supply? How do you …

    It’s so tiring sometimes.

  5. Your knowledge of msf is not objective and you cannot talk about the biafran war without taking into consideration our territorial integrity.

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