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60 garlands for the champion of anti-HIV/AIDS campaign

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Folasade Tolulope Ogunsola, professor of Medical Microbiology, with specialisation in Disease Control, particularly HIV/AIDS, an academic of global standing, is the Deputy Vice Chancellor, Development Services, at the University of Lagos in charge of entrepreneurship, innovation, quality assurance and internationalization. She has since 2004 been involved in HIV prevention initiatives, presiding over PEPFAR-supported HIV Reference Laboratory that has processed over 15,000 samples. She has also coordinated many international grants and is presently the Principal Investigator (PI) of an NIH-funded grant for research capacity building in junior faculty, called Building Research And Innovation in Nigeria’s Sciences (BRAINS), as well as a PI of the NIH-funded U54 Epigenetics of HIV- related Liver and Cervical cancers. She, who is currently working on the prevention and management of sepsis, both community and hospital acquired, clocked 60 on November 14 almost unsung. There wasn’t any feast commensurate with her towering feat as she was declared among the “16 prominent Nigerian women that excel in science and research” last year. Ogunsola shared that ‘hall of fame’ with distinguished personalities, such as Professors Grace Alele-Williams, Francisca Nneka Okeke, Deborah Ajakaiye, Olabisi Ugbebor, Ayoka Olufunmilayo Adebambo and Adenike Osofisan. Her 60th birthday occasion was simply marked with “a celebratory church service” on November 14 and a luncheon on November 18.

But why would the immediate past provost of the College of Medicine, University of Lagos, choose not to celebrate her entry into the Sexagenarian club in a big way? “I am a low-key person, naturally. For my birthday, I just wanted to thank God for where I am, the things He has done, for preserving me, and really, I have never been a socialite, so, the birthday… I think it even turned out bigger than I planned,” she responded with simple and humane tonality that Thursday afternoon in her expansive office on the 8th floor of the institution’s Senate Building.

As HIV/AIDS specialist, she did a panoramic overview of Nigeria’s fight against the scourge and declared: “It’s a fight we cannot afford to slip back. I think our greatest challenge is the sheer number of people we have and the fact that we must continue to persevere, whether we have funding from abroad or not. The issue is whether we, as a people, are ready to put our money in the fight against HIV and AIDS, because we would not have international help forever, and I think AIDS is going to be around for a very long time.

“The major danger is, as a country, we have never really committed our money to the health of our people and we don’t have a well-coordinated healthcare system, plus the fact that the healthcare workforce is very poor, in terms of ratio of healthcare worker to people. We have got to face health in this country in a more serious manner. If we don’t, we are not going to get very far at all.”

At the heart of the HIV/AIDS campaign are the issues of lack of access to drugs, stigmatisation, discrimination and criminalisation of HIV patients. While scoring efforts to combat these issues averagely, she attributed indifference of many Nigerians to know their HIV status as well as viral load to fear of death and stigmatisation.

“The fear of stigmatisation is high, not just by the people, but self. It is better now that people know that there are drugs, but there is still the unawareness of the availability of drugs, in some places. I think we need to do a lot more of health sensitisation, not just among health workers, but also religious leaders who are closer to the people. We need also to talk to the people, groups, market women associations, etc, so that when these people are talking, they can truly understand that when your viral load is very low, your risk of transmission is very low and that HIV is not as infectious as some other diseases that we don’t stigmatise, such as hepatitis and tuberculosis. We need to do a lot more health education; not one-offs, but sustained sensitisation.”

How much impact has her call for sustained infection and prevention mechanism made in fostering the healthy Nigerians? She said: “Not very much. Infection, prevention and control are a specialty. Part of the issues we have is, if you go abroad, it is fundamental to every healthcare service, in the sense that it is the practical way of preventing transmission of infection within the hospital. For instance, you go for surgery and then you get an infection after surgery.

“What we have in the country is an ad-hoc reaction to infection. The standard elsewhere is that no hospital should be registered without the Infection Prevention and Control (IPC) infrastructure in place. The first record of IPC was in the 1970s and it was more, in terms of research and in the hospitals, mostly among the clinical microbiologists.

“When HIV came, they came with IPC, because they recognised that it was a necessity and so, somehow, we have come to a point in the country where IPC is attached to programmes, rather than attached comprehensively to healthcare systems. So far, our advocacy is to institutionalise IPC and not attach it to diseases. For as long as we attach it to diseases, we treat it not as prevention, but as a treatment, whereas you are supposed to do it every day to prevent any kind of infection.

“We haven’t done too well, but we have set up associations and we are talking with government. We recently developed a curriculum to train practitioners and we are talking with the NCDC (Nigerian Centre for Disease Control). We hope we would be able to go around the country and train people properly, so that we would have a large cohort of people doing it.

“We are also advocating for a career path for nurses in IPC, very much like we have theatre nurses. It’s not new; they have it everywhere in the world where they take health seriously. I think we can do that here too.”

However, she is optimistic that Nigeria is not losing the fight against HIV, since its risk rates are not going higher. With renewed commitment and better funding, especially from within, she believed we would get there.

Ironically, microbiology wasn’t her favourite subject, yet she reached the pinnacle of her academic career through it as a professor of Medical Microbiology. She detests micro managing people, yet obligations have to be performed by people working with her.

Asked how does she manage the perceived contradiction, she responded: “When I was in medical school, most of my Medical Microbiology was taught from the Department of Biology Sciences. I wanted to be a doctor. It was hard, somehow, to see what they were teaching me and how that related to medicine.

“So, I just thought they wanted to make my life difficult. I mean, I understood, in a broad sense, that microorganisms could cause infections, but they dealt a lot more in understanding the microorganism in a way that was more biological than medical; less of the applied, which we have corrected in many ways, as we now relate these organisms to the diseases they cause, clearly. At that early stage now, students were beginning to see the relationship between what they were studying and what they wanted to do.

“In terms of micro managing people, that has nothing to do with microbiology, beyond the micro. Micromanaging people says, ‘fundamentally, you believe people cannot deliver, unless you are standing beside them.’ And I think that is a two-way thing. One, a sign of insecurity on your part or a lack of trust for the people you work with. Sometimes, you are justified.

“I try to teach people what to do, so they can work on their own. If you have a team and you are the one going around and working with every single person, your team won’t achieve much, because it is essentially one person trying to do five peoples’ work. So, I try to build them, because I find out it is better that they are smart and I let them use their initiative, as long as it is towards a certain goal, and we have regular feedback.

“At the end of the day, you find people with innovative ways of getting some things done, which I may not have thought about. It has its own downsides. Sometimes, they would take initiatives that you would wish they did not, but I would rather live with that than trying to get into people’s heads and not giving them room to express themselves.”

As provost of the College of Medicine, University of Lagos (CMUL), she reportedly had a good relationship with the students and the union by making them realise that she was not a politician and had no hidden agenda. Why has it become a norm to always associate politicians with hidden agenda? “Politics at its best is about being able to get diverse people to work together towards a set goal, and for you to be able to do that, you must be able to influence people, and in general, people who aspire also would have power.

“One of the downsides of influencing people, if you are not careful, is that you become manipulative. In other words, what you want to do is different from what you are saying, but you know that if you get people in the general direction of where you say you are going, you would achieve your own end, but that kind of behaviour always backfires in the end.

“When I became provost, truly, I planned to be provost for four years and return to the academia, and I also had the fundamental belief that if I improve the College of Medicine, in general, I would be better off for it. In other words, you don’t need to know a governor.

“When the road is good, all of you would go on a good road, whether he is from your hometown or not, it is irrelevant. Even, if he is your brother and he doesn’t do what he should do, all of you would suffer for it. You may make money for your pocket, but you would have no water and no light and you would have to be spending money to buy it.

“So, from where I am sitting, there is enlightened self-interest. If we all can make sure that where we work or govern is better, it is irrelevant, whether you like me or not. I have always said something: whether I like Buhari or I don’t like Buhari, I have never met him and I might never meet him, it is irrelevant. Whether he is from my hometown or not, it is even more irrelevant. But if he gets the job done, I would feel it in my backyard.

“What happened with the unions was that I never promised what I could not deliver, no matter what they said, and we had lots of discussions. I would tell them, ‘you know the rules, this is what I would do.’ And they also knew that I cared about the welfare of the people, but I am not a personal believer of bending rules for people who don’t take responsibility for their growth.

“If you need promotion, you already know the guidelines. If you didn’t, then you were careless, because you needed to know the requirements of what you need to grow, so that you ensure you have it. I would not now change the regulation, just because you think you have been on a position for five years, when it is very clear what it takes to move from that place.

“So, for the unions, my discussions with them was ‘those I can help, we will. Those we cannot, there is nothing that we are going to say that would change it, because there is also an element of personal responsibility.’ And it was what I would do.

“I didn’t ask them to do something else or differently. Throughout my tenure, I didn’t buy a car, because there were many other pressing things than cars, and I found it very hard to justify buying a car when we didn’t have light or equipment. But I bought a car in the end, because the car I was using was the one the previous provost had used and by the time I was leaving, the incoming provost could not use that car, so I bought a new one.

“Where I am going is, they saw that I didn’t ask them to do more than I was ready to do for myself. I would tell them what I would not do and stand by it. I think it is about integrity. Now, I am not saying I didn’t make mistakes, I am very human, but as much as I could as a human being, I would like to say that the much I said I would do, I did.”

On how is her current portfolio adding value to the quality of the institution’s products, she said: “I am part of a team and we have a vision. One of the good things with the university is that it continuously seeks to improve itself and any institution that continuously strives to improve would not slide back.

“The world is changing very rapidly and whether we change or not, that change is going to fall on us, and from UNILAG, we have decided that we are not going to be playing catch-up; we are going to jump into the middle and do what it takes, so that the negative impact of this change would not fall on us.

“The future of work is going to look very different. A lot of jobs that we have now are not going to be very available. As we go into artificial intelligence, it means that any job that can be reduced to an algorithm can be taken over by a machine. And we might say that in Nigeria, we haven’t got there yet, but they would bring it. We are not, as a nation, producing a lot of things; we are consumers.

“So, we are not producing a lot of jobs and somewhere along the line, government thinks that producing jobs means giving bureaucratic jobs. That just swells a very unproductive sector. Bureaucracy should be very lean. What they should be doing, and what they are doing now, which I think they could be doing better, is ease of business. Businesses create jobs.

“Government forgets that the business people are the ones who create the jobs and they seem to have a love-hate relationship with them, in areas of multiple taxations and all kinds of oversight functions. Create a way for them to have business, so they would employ. A lot of countries develop from many small businesses.

“Ask the entrepreneur, it is so hard to do business. Government itself must invest in Nigerians; we can’t keep bringing people from abroad. As we are today, government does not trust its people and the people do not trust the government, and we, as a people, want everything perfectly done and now.

“I was in China and everything you would use in China are made in China. Some of them are not as good, but when all of you are using it, we would improve. But in Nigeria, are we ready to walk that line? In Nigeria, we just want it as in America. So, we keep selling our birthright.

“We must take it abroad. For us to develop, we cannot have all the perfect things. It means we have to be able to use less than perfect. But when we use it, we understand it; we improve it, like they all did. But we want finished products.

“So here, we are trying to recognise that the unemployment rates are very high and want our students to be able to solve problems. We recognise that problem-solving is not something you teach; it is something you show how and you ensure that they learn to do. We have the entrepreneurship centre, which is working on what we call ‘Design Thinking.’
That is our basic structure, which is a solution driven way of thinking.

“At the end of it, we want them to leave here with a certificate on entrepreneurship. It is not so much a certificate that ‘I can make a cup or I can do this business,’ but it is also a certificate that ‘I can think strategically and I can apply myself to any problem.’ If they have other things they can do, that is fine.”

She continued: “We are going to equip them that way, because in going out that way to the real world, there may be no job waiting for them; they are going to have to create their own jobs. They are going to be dealing with the realities of life and there would be many problems. They must have the attitude of problem-solving, not waiting for someone to bring. So, we are waiting to change that.

“We also recognise that in doing that, there are all these new skills we have to learn, such as presentation- how you talk, your communication skills, teamwork, how do you work with other people, all those things are now the things that would get you a good job.
Knowledge without those things does not make you a good team player. Companies would not hire you and we must be hirable across borders.

“We are also looking at working with people over there. You cannot be a good academic when all you do is within the confines of your local environment. We have to brainstorm outside our country, we must be able to be attractive to people.

“So, we are working on those interchanges and forming new alliances, so that we have scholars come here and ours go out there. That is the only way we are going to grow, mentally. And that challenges us. We are not inbred; everything Nigeria. People who are so closed are usually hostile to new ideas. We have to change that and widen our horizon.

“We are working on that and exposing our students, so that it is not strange, and bringing in new ideas, and it is already even working. We hope the structures we put in place would be sustained, and if so, you would see a major difference.

“We have also put a lot of infrastructure so that people who come here can feel comfortable during their stay here. I think we are getting there. We are organizing ourselves, putting in the structure and policies to make sure that our going and coming is smooth, so that we would achieve what we want to do.”

At 60, she is very conscious about values. “Sometimes, when everybody is doing the other thing, you don’t want them to think you are too good, but I realise that I am a cautious optimist. I can see the sparks of improvement in this country. It is not cohesive yet, but I have also learned patience.

“In my 60 years, I have come to believe more in the good in people than in the bad. I recognise that there is a lot of good and there is a lot of bad, but I think we focus more on what is bad and ignore what is good. I am more confident and happier, despite the corruption, of being a Nigerian.

“I value the things that make us Nigerians. We are very innovative and warm. Nigerians are basically kind and generous. We are noisy, which can be one way or the other, and we have a lot of humour in every tribal group.

“We have a love for strangers and I think more and more that those are the things that would save us. We are very competitive, what I think is happening is that we have got the wrong people, and I use the word ‘wrong people’ in a very loose way, and the wrong system that corrupts. If we are serious that we are going to grow, we have to be radical, and I think what we have not exhibited a lot of is courage to radically change.”


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