By Adagbo Onoja
The charge of abandonment in the message from the medical legend as well as the hint about a dying Prof Peter Obekpa were such that there had to be a quick visit to him. The bearer of the Professor’s message was told to fix the details. And for close to three hours on Sunday, October 4th, 2020, the Professor and this reporter as well as Iduh Onah, another online editor, sat together in his well appointed house.
The good news is that he is not dying. In truth, his problems are the complications that come with the evening of life of most people across the world. It is the essential Prof Obekpa in terms of the sarcastic and the hyperbolic that brought in the element of a Prof Obekpa at a point of death. As I argued, it is the surest sign that he is not about to die. People who are about to die have other things bothering them to even talk about it.
If Nigeria were a well governed society with a system of tracking such people, a state intervention in his medical situation would not be out of place. It is, indeed, the irony his case illustrates that someone who devoted all his life in the struggle for good health conditions for everyone would even have to fight for his pension. Iduh Onah, publisher of National Record who has worked with the Nigeria Labour Congress, (NLC) has offered to make an editorial intervention on how it happened that Prof Obekpa’s pension was paid last in 2013. He has grown up children, three of whom are already consultants in their own right. But, supposing he doesn’t have those or cheerful givers, is this how a national government treats someone who has been a pioneer Professor of Surgery of the National Hospital, Abuja; a Commissioner for Health in his Benue State, Chairperson of the Benue State University Teaching Hospital, among many others?
It is doubtful if the new generation of politicians groomed by military dictators understands this but the old order political parties do. In Jigawa State from 2007 to 2015 where the old PRP structure was in place as is most likely in the old South West, the government had a way of knowing who is deserving of such intervention irrespective of whether the affected person is known to the governor or not. In the absence of such network by the root-less so called political parties existing now, only children and wives of people in power are savouring medical tourism even for headache.
It is a case of ultimate gratitude to God that, without self-conscious governments, Prof Obekpa was actually in the United States of America where he obtained good medical attention. If not for his overpowering desire to die surrounded by weeping beneficiaries of his unorthodox professionalism, he would still have been in the US. He opted to return to Nigeria so that, if he were dying, those weeping upon that would be those genuinely concerned. We laughed the more as this seemed to matter to him a lot.
But Prof might have a strong point there. There are too many who will genuinely feel a great sense of loss to hear his death. He has a way with treatment that is uniquely his and cannot be transferred to anyone else. He embodies language, culture and medical science into a tough brew in himself. It can be argued that sarcastic and hyperbolic expressions in the local language of his patients heal them more than the medicine he prescribes for them. So, most of them who leave the hospital do so with a personal attachment to him and his professional ease.
Of course, he trained in Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria of those years, worked in ABUTH, then JUTH before becoming Honourable Commissioner for Health in Benue State under the Joshua Obademi administration in the early 1990s.
Benue State has had two unorthodox Commissioners of Health. One of them is Reverend Cornelius Bello who now belongs to Kogi State. The second is Prof Peter Obekpa. These two are unique because they were the commissioners whose sense of duty included carrying out their normal medical duties, especially surgery, even as commissioners. If that of Dr. Cornelius Bello is understandable on account of his being a priest, that of Prof Obekpa could only be on account of genuiness and commitment to human beings.
So, I asked him how he came by the decision to read Medicine in the first. He told an interesting story. As the junior brother of First Republic Minister, Abutu Obekpa, they were watching a programme in the minister’s house one day during holidays. The programme was about surgical operation dynamics in the hospital. At the end of the programme, his minister brother, in a way of throwing a challenge, asked, “can you do it?” Without replying immediately, the young Peter Obekpa took it as a silent challenge. According to him, he was already a high scorer at Saint Michael’s Secondary School, Aliade which was one of the top finishing school in the area then and where known names such as Chief Audu Ogbeh and Cardinal John Onaiyekan, for instance, were a year ahead of him. From Aliade, he proceeded to St. John’s College, Kaduna before arriving at ABU, Zaria. He applied to the University of Ibadan but, humorously says Ibadan never replied him till today.
The Obekpa family was a huge family but that was not what gave him advantage. Like most great things, his advantage came from chance. The Sanitary Inspector for the area at the time was on tour of duty at Otukpa District where Prof comes from. His name is Obute Aboje. The young Obekpa was so helpful to him that, at the end of his tour of duty, the Inspector requested the young Obekpa’s father to allow him go with the boy. The family considered the issue and approved. One of the outcomes of that is how the young Obekpa attended a boarding primary school – the Native Authority Primary School, Otobi. No one can measure how that formative experience might have contributed to Prof’s proficiency in medical practice. Apart from the rural women he now thinks would be the genuinely weeping at his death, an American medical expert shocked him in recognition in Thailand in 2008.
Prof Obekpa was on the entourage of a Benue State delegation to Thailand that year. Although the narrator of this incident cannot remember the name of the American, he recalls he was the head of the hospital where the delegation led by Chief Steven Lawani, then Deputy-Governor of Benue State, went to negotiate a health issue for the state. after asking repeatedly if he was, indeed, meeting the real Peter Obekpa he had heard so much about, he said to the hearing of other delegation members how fulfilled he was to meet him in body and soul. He must have been referring to an essay or some intervention in medical practice to Obekpa’s credit previously.
He must be speaking the truth when he said he has no grudges against the society. In any case, he has never struggled for any position or office in his life. Everything that ended his came to him without any extra efforts on his part. And that is not the case because his brother was a minister or because of the Otukpa mystery in Idomaland. By his narrative, his brother became a minister in the First Republic simply because he was spending his own money campaigning for the Northern People’s Party, (NPC). As there were few Christian leaders in the party, he was considered. So, he himself did not become minister by lobbying. He was not spending money with any particular office in mind but because that was where his sentiment laid. And not the Otukpa mystery either. The Otukpa mystery is this reporter’s coinage for the pre-eminence of Otukpa names in Idoma affairs. In the current epoch, all such names as Chief Audu Ogbeh, Chief Steven Lawani, General Chris Garba, the incumbent Och’Idoma and so on are all from there. Prof Obekpa’s explanation is that Otukpa embraced education very early. His second thesis is the commercial creativity of the people of the area, whether among those who remained in the district or those who migrated to Otukpo.
Asked to compare what life was when they were growing up and what it was which their generation eventually experienced, Prof Obekpa says the most important difference is that money has supplanted good name as the defining value. In other words, during their time, the big deal was having a good name. Now, the big deal is to make money, irrespective of how that is achieved. He is not against money. He is only making an observation. He might have added the qualifier just for decency. Otherwise, his MayDay Hospital in Abuja was better rated in helping people than in making money unscrupulously. Even the logic behind the name of the hospital speaks to that: a rescue intervention for those that development has left behind.
It had been over two hours with Prof. He is not as healthy as he was a decade ago but he still remembers, for instance, that his visitor had a marital crisis sometimes back, an issue he had once intervened in 2016, responding with a cryptic, catch all phrase in Idoma with “ee la noo” to something that others had been unable to understand that quickly and deeply.
The theology of predestination prescribes that every one of us has his/her time schedule in terms of departure from this world. That would also apply to Prof Obekpa but, for now, Prof is coping and he says the magic of that is the quality wife he says God has given him. If not for her, I would have died, he says at the back of his wife.
The best thing would have been for Joe Akatu, the legendary vocalist who dominated Idomaland some few decades ago to have been here to wax a number on Prof Peter Obekpa. Only his Alime would most creatively situate the Prof Peter Obekpas of this world in tensions and contradictions of Nigeria’s struggles with modernization in that spatio-cultural space called Idomaland in the period shortly before Independence and thereafter.