Olajide Idris is the Lagos State Commissioner for Health since 2007. He turned 60 on Monday, February 9, 2015. He held a special prayer at his GRA, Ikeja, Lagos residence that day. A small reception followed in the evening also at his residence.
In this exclusive interview, he told us about his experiences, particularly during the Ebola scare in Nigeria.
Looking back now, do you think you would have done better if you had been in private business and not public life?
It is very hard to say because I have experienced both. They have different experiences and they bring out different characters in you. I count myself lucky to have both experiences. You need to be in civil service to know what it’s like. For somebody from a private sector to be in civil service, initially it was a bit strange. But again you are better for it. That is why I can hold my head very high because I have experienced both.
In this world, you must be able to blend the two, especially in this part of the country. You need experience in civil service and you need the private sector experience to achieve what you want. Right now, a lot of people in the private sector are talking about private public participation. It means there is value in the private sector. There is also value in the public sector. You just need to harmonise the two. You are better for it.
How does it feel to be 60?
I think it feels wonderful. I don’t feel 60 because age is in the mind. But I thank God for His mercies and getting this far in life.
Do you feel your new age?
No. I feel young and I am young at heart too. A lot of people are surprised that I am 60. When I told them I was 60, they said, what?
What would you say you are doing that makes you look younger than your real age?
I am not going out of my way to do anything wrong. I believe in myself. I do what I feel like doing. I used to be an active sports man when I was in school. I still do some sports. But the fact is that you don’t allow age to bother you.
Are there things you were doing 10, 20 years ago that you can no longer do?
I used to be a very, very competitive squash player. Very energetic sport but I can’t do that again for medical reasons. So, I miss that. And if you are used to a certain lifestyle, it is very difficult when you stop. So, you have to adjust. I will not call myself a saint, I have had my share of pranks.
Can you share with us some of those pranks?
Ah no, that is a secret (general laughter).
Can you tell us a bit about your family background, schools you attended, marital life and so on.
Let me say I was born into a purely Muslim family. My mother is a Tinubu. My father is Idris. Both from Central Lagos. My wife is the daughter of my former principal in Kings College, she is a lawyer. We have a child. In my family, we are one. Both extended and nuclear, we all support each other.
You have warmed yourself into the hearts of many Lagosians and Nigerians by the way you and your team handled the Ebola scourge. How did you achieve this feat?
It’s knowledge and experience I acquired at Yale (University). My experience as a consultant in public health. Again, I had the opportunity of using that based on some structures that Lagos State Government has put in place. Let me be frank with you, if not for the fact that we are forward thinking in Lagos State, it would have probably been a different story.
A lot of infrastructure that we put in place were not because of Ebola but a continuous level of preparedness for any emergency. Lagos State Emergency Management Agency (LASEMA) was established because the state has achieved a mega city status. Apart from LASEMA, we had the ambulance service. This was created during Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu’s time. That same unit metamorphosed to the decontamination unit and supported the contact tracers. We had a surveillance system in place. We also engaged the unit when Ebola came.
There are so many units that were in place not for Ebola but things that we put up quickly. The Mainland Hospital, an infections unit hospital had been in place before Ebola. So, we were lucky because we had planned ahead. So, forget about what people say. Yes, it was a collaboration of many people Lagos State government, Federal Government and our foreign partners. Everybody came with different specialties, different attributes. We just put all heads together to address a common enemy. That was why we were relatively successful in containing Ebola.
When the Federal Government took glory of the whole exercise, how did you feel?
I am not bothered about that. People play politics, but you people know the truth. So, there is no point saying anything. Let us be thankful to God we contained Ebola. The international community was worried. In fact, they were scared. I must tell you that some Nigerians abroad felt we were finished. About two weeks ago, one of them made a public confession that when he heard it (Ebola in Nigeria), he said we were finished. He was very proud to be a Nigerian when we were able to contain it. So, I am proud to be part of that team.
What is your assessment of healthcare system in Nigeria today?
We still have a long way to go. We’ve made progress but with the huge population (170 million people), different challenges, different states with different problems, we still have a long way to go.
One major fact is that Ebola taught us a lesson. If we do not establish a public health infrastructure, we are wasting our time. A lot of people think building hospitals is all about healthcare. It is not. If you start building hospitals that means you want people to fall ill so that you can cure them. Whereas we need to prevent sickness and there are certain things you need to put in place to ensure that happens.
So, we still have a long way to go. We have human resources issues. We have doctors’ strikes. Yes, there are reasons to strike, it is just that we don’t agree on methodology. Health workers in this country are poorly paid, there is no doubt about it. But again, there are ways of going about it, not by industrial action. We need to look at the problems and address them. Really, the major part of that problem is at the federal level.
When would you consider the best moment of your 60 years of existence?
That is a tough question. I am a very quiet person. One of the best moments of my life was when I got admission into Kings College, Lagos. I remember my late uncle, Alhaji Tinubu, when he heard it he lifted me up. I will always remember that. When I was appointed a Commissioner, I felt it was a challenge. I won’t say elated, I took it as a challenge. I felt we had problems to solve and I was determined to be part of the solutions to the problems.
Again, I was within a government, I was forward looking, I planned ahead. Asiwaju Bola Tinubu laid the foundation. Let’s not forget it, a lot of things we are enjoying today were the things he started. We are lucky to have Fashola again who took it up and built on it. So, when Ambode comes in he is going to continue. You are laughing, there is no doubt about it.
When would you say has been the most challenging moment of your 60 years of existence?
The Ebola period. No matter the success now, when the thing was at its peak, there were times I did not sleep. There are some stories we cannot tell outside. Let us thank God we were able to contain it.
What is going to be your next step after being a permanent secretary for eight years and commissioner for eight years too?
I take each step as they come. I know what I have and I know the resources that I have on my hands. If I don’t work in government, I can still contribute to the development of Nigeria elsewhere. So, I am not worried about that.
Any ambition of fighting for elective position?
All of us are politicians, it depends on the way you play it. Some people play it quietly, some do it in other ways. Some people make a lot of noise. There are different roles for different people. We are all political animal.
You’ve worked with Tinubu and Governor Fashola, how would you compare the two men?
Every individual has his own strength and weaknesses. Asiwaju Tinubu is a master planner. Some of the things happening today are things he planned. And he builds people. The other one (Fashola) is an actualiser. He was part of the development and he knew what to do and we are doing them one by one. He is focused. A no nonsense person and he was ready to take the state to the highest level. They all come with different expectations. I am sure when Ambode comes, you will see other characteristics.
Will you say you are fulfilled at 60?
Right now, I thank God for where I am. I don’t think I have attained my potential. If I have challenges now, I never know what form it will take. You don’t know what it can bring out of me. It depends on how you are challenged.