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Turai Yar’Adua and the Cancer Billions

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The Verdict By Olusegun Adeniyi;   olusegun.adeniyi@thisdaylive.com
In what turned out to be perhaps his last public outing, the late President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua spent practically the whole of July 18, 2009 at the International Conference Centre, Abuja. It was to attend a fundraising event organized by his wife and then First Lady, Hajia Turai Yar’Adua to build an international cancer centre in Nigeria. With President Olusegun Obasanjo as chairman of the occasion, the ceremony had in attendance most of the movers and shakers in Nigeria, and financial pledges were made, all running into about N6.8 billion. On return to the Villa that day, the late President told one of the aides, “Please tell Mr Hallawi I want to see him.”

Born in Kano to Syrian parents, Mr. Waleed Hallawi, a respectable old man, was a dependable associate of the late Major General Shehu Musa Yar’Adua.  “Inherited” by his younger brother, Mr. Hallawi was the go-to man whenever the Yar’Adua family wanted results on any project. That the president would send for him was significant and I was not surprised when I learnt from inside sources within the family a few days later that he had not only asked Mr. Hallawi to superintend the project, the late president had also requested a direct involvement. I gathered that he instructed that his wife would neither be a signatory to the account nor be on the board of trustees for the cancer centre and with Mr. Hallawi as project coordinator I knew it was in safe hands. But that was the last I heard about the project.

With cancer ravaging our country in recent times, I have had to dig to find out what happened to the initiative. Of course, I have read unfounded reports about the former First Lady going away with the money realized at the launching. I know that could not be true given the way things were structured but I have also been interested in what happened to the Cancer Centre whose fund was launched with fanfare some five years ago. And I have received mails from several people who sought my explanation on the issue.

Thanks to Jackie Farris, the Director General of the Shehu Musa Yar’Adua Centre, I visited the Cancer Centre last week and was delighted that work is practically done on the building. What remains now is to bring in the equipment. More delightful is the fact that the centre will be recruiting the best Nigerian professionals in the field from the Diaspora so that they can come home to work. It is conceived to promote excellence in cancer management (diagnosis and treatment), cancer education, training and research as a one-stop centre of its kind in Africa where, Mr. Hallawi told me last week that “the rich patients will pay for the poor.”

The first phase of the project just completed consists of three units: The general out-patient department; the link building and the diagnostic and therapy building. In the general out-patient building are the emergency reception hall, consulting rooms, nurse stations, X-ray rooms, scan rooms, theater complex, ultrasound room, observation rooms, treatment rooms, drug storage, wheelchair and stretcher rooms, dispensary, I.C.U rooms, screening lab, blood bank, microbiology laboratory and several general and private wards. The link building is solely for administrative purposes with offices, conference room and board room while the diagnostic and therapy building comprises evaluation rooms, nurse station with waiting area, equipment sterilization room, bachitherapy control rooms, scan rooms, radiography x-ray rooms, fluoroscopy rooms, mammography room etc. Plans are also underway to build the doctors’ quarters, guest accommodation, half-way houses, auditorium, mortuary etc. Ultimately, the idea is to make it the number one referral centre for cancer in Africa.

The Centre has a temporary board of trustees that include Mr. Hallawi, Dr Kase Lukman Lawal (a US-based businessman), Ms Comfort Sira Wiwa, (legal practitioner and immediate younger sister to the late Ken Saro Wiwa), Hajia Zainab Dakingari (the late president’s daughter), Alhaji M. A. Maimaje (brother to the former First Lady) and Alhaji Bilya Sanda. With Senator Adamu Aliero (former Kebbi State Governor and immediate past FCT Minister) as chairman, I have been made to understand that a management board comprising professionals from across the country will be constituted before operations start. But there remains the issue of how much money has actually been realized to date.

While media reports after the launching suggested that about N7 billion was raised, my findings reveal that there is a gap between pledges and what actually came in at the end of the day. For instance, Senator Aliero told me on Tuesday that despite all their efforts, they could only realize about N3 billion from all the pledges but from the way he sounded, he and some other members on the board of trustees of the centre are no longer as involved in the project contrary to what their titles suggest. Yet, by Nigerian law, trustees are the legal owners of all properties or assets deposited in a trust and given the way the cancer centre is structured, Senator Aliero and other members on the board hold a strategic position for which they would be held to account for two reasons. One, the fund involved is public money (no matter how one looks at it) and two, the land on which it is being built, 7.3 hectares in a prime area of Abuja (on the airport road), belongs to the federal government. It is also important to know that by Nigerian law, the founders or promoters of a trust fund can neither usurp the functions of the trustees nor take over its assets one way or another.

On the actual amount of money raised, I understand that the Chief launcher, Alhaji Aminu Dantata, who publicly pledged N500 million gave N10 million. He reportedly said that on the day of the event, he came with the intention of donating N10 million but the organizers told him that if he pledged such a “paltry sum”, it might discourage other potential big donors, so he announced 500 million. Unfortunately, that is what obtains at most launchings in Nigeria where “chief launchers” are made to pledge scandalous amounts they are not expected to redeem, just in the bid to get others to make big donations. Another businessman who is now a governor in one of the southern states pledged the sum of N210 million but up till today, not a kobo has been received from him. One particular donor who also made pledge of a hefty amount gave a cheque of N10 million that bounced. By the time they met him on the issue, Yar’Adua was already in Saudi Arabia and Dr Goodluck Jonathan had become the acting president. The businessman said when he made the pledge, he did it in anticipation that he would get contracts from Yar’Adua’s government but since that didn’t work out, they should bear with him. So, at the end, he gave nothing! But at least he was honest. Several other people who pledged jumbo sums of money just vamoosed the moment Yar’Adua was out of the scene. Notwithstanding, Mr. Halawi assured me that the hospital will be fully equipped to international standard, because of the solemn commitment he made to the late president. He also said the centre would focus on four types of cancer that account for most deaths in Nigeria: cervical cancer, breast cancer, prostate cancer and throat cancer.

In her speech at the occasion on July 18, 2009, Mrs Yar’Adua had said that the whole idea of establishing the cancer centre was conceived out of her utmost desire to contribute her little quota to achieving standard healthcare delivery for the vulnerable of our society. She said the centre would specifically render services to women and children, especially the rural and urban poor. “My resolve to stand up to the menace of cancer is occasioned by the devastating effects of the disease on our population,” she said before adding that “the more enlightened and financially capable among Nigerians suffering from cancer have been able to travel out to seek professional and medical attention in the form of diagnosis and treatment.”

I believe the idea of a cancer centre is noble but it is important that we all remember that the National Hospital in Abuja was conceived and built by Mrs. Maryam Abacha as National Hospital for Women and Children, also in her capacity as First Lady at the time before the federal government took it over. Therefore, the cancer centre is not a personal hospital of the former First Lady and cannot be run as one because the money with which it is being built was raised from the public using the instrumentality of her position as wife of the president at the time. While the project has been designed to operate as a not-for-profit NGO, there is need also for constituting a proper board that has to take into account the diversity of Nigeria with the right mix of professional men and women of integrity who will ensure proper management of resources in such a manner that there will be transparency and accountability.

The Shehu Musa Yar’Adua Foundation provides a worthy template of how such trusts are managed as it remains perhaps the best-run not-for-profit institution in Nigeria today. That is because the founders and promoters in the persons of former President Olusegun Obasanjo and former Vice President Atiku Abubakar are not known to have taken over or undermined the functions of the trustees or that of the management. The family of the late Major General Shehu Musa Yar’Adua has also commendably stayed clear of the Foundation except as members of its Board of Trustees, and in this role they have not tried to show that they are more equal than the other members. It is therefore important for the former First Lady to allow the trustees of the cancer centre to discharge their legal functions for which they will be held to account if they are ever found guilty of ignoring their fiduciary responsibility.

All said, the unfortunate bit is that it would seem that we are not paying enough attention to what has become the most lethal but silent killer in Nigeria which is cancer. That explains why we have over the years neglected to build facilities for its care and treatment in our country. That is also why the Abuja cancer centre initiative of the former First Lady, Hajia Turai Yar’Adua, is very important and we must commend her for it. But to the extent that my late boss was involved in the project, I will be monitoring developments on the cancer centre until it is completed and delivered to the Nigerian public.

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