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Pfizer, Kano State And The Compensation Crisis

By Tommy Odemwingie
31 October 2009   |   10:00 pm
In the mid 1980s, as the 1990s drew closer, I was a part of the national communication and mobilization (NACOMO) effort to make Nigeria achieve the target of universal child immunization (UCI) by 1990. It is therefore impossible for one like me, immersed as I am in development work, to ignore the silently raging controversy around the implementation of the agreement between Pfizer, the giant pharmaceutical transnational, and the government of Kano state. One of the concerns that I was called upon to address, using my communications skills, was how to make the issue less controversial than it was getting. Among the allies to achieve this was the Ulamaü the intellectual movement of the Islamic community.

I spent a day meeting with a top member of the group in Sokoto in the course of my assignment of charting an effective communication and mobilization paradigm. One of the tools for this was a newly published book titled Child Care in Islam. Published in Egypt , the book sought to discredit the notion that Islam was against any of the practices required of parents to ensure child survival and development.


The controversy is raging on both national dailies and the internet. Much of the language is vitriolic. There is also politics oozing from some of the comments. These all conspire to foul the air around the matter. I would like this contribution to be seen as impartial, because it is. To begin with, a number of positives have emerged from an otherwise sordid episode, among which are the fact that, for the first time in Nigeria’s living memory, and despite claims of citizens diplomacy, a government, albeit not without encouragement from a concert of global civil society organizations and the federal government, took the initiative, following a civilized course of action, to seek redress on behalf of persons injured through the carelessness of a huge business establishment. That is the hallmark of good governance, which remains in danger of being turned into the capacity to deliver concrete social amenities. We are all too familiar with massive cover-up of large-scale scandals on platters of filthy lucre.

Thus, the attempts by some commentators to detract from Governor Shekarau’s valiant fight must be one of the most laughable exercises in futility in history. It doesn’t really matter how many lives were lost as a result of the Trovan misadventure in medication. Even if the redress were on account of one dead person, the effort would still be well worth it. I have always dismissed, and will continue to do so, the theory of conspiracy that some commentators have postulated, for the reason that an organisation like Pfizer, which needs to sell its products to people, would have nothing to gain from decimating any human population, which leads to the other positive that I have noticed from the episode. Though not strictly out of its own volition, I find the idea of Pfizer opting for an agreement that entailed it parting with $30 a very welcome development.

However, the protracted disputations that have bedeviled the implementation of this agreement are quite worrisome, given that money has become the issue. Evidently disturbed by these controversies, Pfizer only last week (Friday, October 16) issued a press release to try to assuage frayed nerves and dispel the many misrepresentations that have sprouted around the implementation of the agreement. It said: “We are pleased that the Board administering the Fund is taking its job seriously and is working toward a process by which claims will be appropriately considered and verified. We want to emphasize that the $4.5 million USD set aside to support the work of the two Boards – administering the Healthcare/Meningitis and Healthcare Programs funds respectively – will come from the monies allocated for healthcare programs in Kano State and will not reduce the funds available to eligible study participants who submit valid claims.” That, sadly, may not be last word on the matter, as can be seen from the picture of the situation that a commentator has painted: “The biggest industry in Kano now is the Trovan list. All manners of disabled people, especially those with well-connected family members are lobbying to be listed as ‘victims’. The calculation is that once your name is on the list you are a potential millionaire. “

In response to this, the idea of using DNA to determine genuine claimants has been mooted. But this approach is being fiercely resisted by a “faction” of the interested parties. But they seem, in their positions, to be calling to question the integrity of a number of eminent personalities. In the first category of these persons from the Healthcare/Meningitis Trust Fund (Hon. Justice (Rtd.) S.M.A. Belgore; Bala Borodo,M.D.; Professor Isa Hashim; Muuta Ibrahim, M.D.; Prosper Ikechukwu Igboeli, M.D. and Hon. Justice (Rtd.) Abubakar Bashir Wali. Those from the Healthcare Related Programs Trust Fund are: Professor Shehu Galadanchi; Ibrahim A. Haruna; Adamu Jafiya; Adamu Aliyu Kiyawa; Habibu Sadauki, M.D., and Professor Auwalu Yadudu. The very respectable General Yakubu Gowon has also been involved in trouble-shooting on this issue.

Why are some of the claimants to compensation opposed to DNA tests? There is, of course, a socio-cultural dimension to it all. Isn’t the collation of ordinarily innocuous demographic data in Nigeria always bedeviled by bloated claims?. There is the story of an occasion in which local governments were asked by a federal agency to provide data on basic education. Thinking that the data were going to be used as a basis for allocating funds, each Local Government submitted figures that indicated that there more pupils enrolled in primary schools than the entire Nigerian population. But when it dawned on everyone that, on the contrary, the data were for the purpose of deducting at source from the Local Governments, every LG representative present was ready with another set of data! Any wonder that censuses have become a most expensive, yet largely unreliable, undertaking in this country? This also explains why we can’t get even the most elementary electoral processes right.

Again, in a rather paradoxical twist of fate, the funds being made available by Pfizer have the potential to change the course of development in Kano State if well utilised. This expectation is heightened by the fact that NGOs are known to be showing concern on the issue. One of the major fuels of the current controversies surrounding how to implement the agreement is the prospects of sharing the booty. While some of the patients may be in dire need of food for their stomach, we need to interrogate the booty sharing option. Do the individuals have the capacity to use the monies that may accrue to them in a transformative way? Will their patterns of utilisation improve the health care delivery systems whose failures predisposed them to the dangers that brought the French NGO Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders) and Pfizer and their Trovan in the first place?

Making the option of money sharing even more frightening is the fact that not many of us can be trusted these days to do a blameless job of such assignments. What then are the other options? One is to simply pay the money into the coffers of the government of Kano state. Regardless of my kind words about Governor Shekarau on his handling of the matter so far, I would be the first to say no to such and idea, simply because, however well intentioned he may be, he will still rely on a nebulous governmental bureaucracy to do the sharing. The millions of poor farmers who rely on government-supplied and subsidized fertilizers and other inputs are very unlikely to embrace that option, either! It is to NGOs that we must turn, although it will not be the same NGOs that have behaved as if the rest stakeholders in this matter are fools. Rather, experiences should be borrowed from credible NGOs about how not to throw money at issues.

ActionAid, the international anti-poverty agency working in more than 50 countries, including Nigeria , has a time-tested approach called child sponsorship. It is a programme that enables individual donors mostly from European countries channel funds from their monthly salaries in sponsorship of children in developing countries. This is how it works: a donor is linked to a child through a set of personal details about the child. These details are regularly updated through a system known as child profiling, in terms of its physical growth, progress in school and other indices. This profile provides the incentive for the donor to continue his/her support. However, the most intriguing part of the story is that the funds from donor do not go directly to the “adopted” child, but are, instead, committed to community-based and community-driven projects that have the net effect of making the community environment congenial for the child’s growth.

What ActionAid does is to identify local NGOs, mostly community-based organizations (CBOs) and build their capacity for service provision, but also for making duty bearers (mostly state and local governments live up to their mandates. The latter it achieves through policy advocacy, public finance analyses as a basis for budget tracking. Thus, in a sense, an amount of Euro exchanged between a cheerful giver and an innocent child in a rural community becomes a development catalyst. The organisation is therefore changing lives in very innovative ways, depending on the capabilities of partner organizations, on the hills of Eggon in Nasarawa state; in the creeks of Arhavwarien in Delta state and communities in desert areas of the north.

This is, by no means, the only example of the kind of work that committed NGOs are doing in different parts of this country, or that ActionAid is the only NGO working in difficult terrains, but only used to buttress the position that there is an alternative to the present acrimonious agitation by some interests in Kano for them to dip their hands into funds that are meant to compensate a people who were the real victims of an unfortunate incident. Finally, may this act of compensation not engulf Kano in another conflagration — Amen!

Odemwingie, a public health and development advocate, lives in Lagos