Oladipo Akinkungbe: The Educator in Hippocrates’ Shadow

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Association refers to a psychological process that enables a person generate the memory of an event through a related idea or word. ‘White’ automatically conjures the idea of ‘snow’ just as ‘lion’ represents ‘fierceness’. In the same manner, the associative memory of Nigerians will essentially connect the word ‘medicine’ to a series of eminent personalities who have traversed the Hippocratic profession and impacted on the national healthscape in Nigeria—Umaru Shehu, Adeoye Lambo, Oritsejolomi Thomas, Olikoye Ransome-Kuti and many others. These are figures who—each in his own instance—transposed the medical profession into a national concern; a metaphor for the dynamics of national health.
Yet, that association resonates with one figure: Oladipo Olujimi Akinkungbe—father, teacher, physician, intellectual and administrator. Akinkungbe’s negotiation of the complex medical landscape in Nigeria is nothing less than definitive. He charts an illustrious trajectory of healthcare-education nexus girded about with a patriotic dedication for more than fifty years of his renowned life as a Nigerian. He brought a resolute and patriotic dedication to a lifetime of dogged professionalism combined, almost superhumanly, with an unassuming, humble character.
‘The first qualification for a physician is hopefulness,’ says James Little, the American physician. Hopefulness, in this context, is the determination that consistently labours within the limit of rough reality. Hopefulness is required in the heroic art of snatching wellbeing from the grasp of sickness; and hope must accompany plying that art in the midst of traumatic social anomie. Akinkugbe began the practice of medicine on what he called the ‘rugged path’. It was a case of beginning with all the hopes that medicine instigates in those who trust that the Almighty would work through their medical skills to accomplish the wonders of healing. Yet, before their very eyes, the best of infrastructural expectations turned to a nightmare of depreciation and rot. The excitement of impending medical voyage and discovery as well as the promise of therapeutic release all fizzled out within the complex dynamics of a nation coming to term with the euphoria of independence and the agonies of postcolonial development.
At this critical juncture, the University College Hospital, Ibadan became a metaphor for possibility and disillusionment. It came into existence as a exultant signal to the nation’s readiness to confront its citizens’ psychosomatic condition as a dimension of unravelling the deepest exigencies of making life worthwhile within the context of national development. Health is wealth, goes the saying. Health is also an indicator of a nation’s willingness to make progress, and the University College Hospital was one of the markers of Nigeria’s development aspiration buoyed by the abundance of oil and a robust and vibrant development projection.
Professor Oladipo Akinkugbe was right in the midst of the excitement of progress and possibilities. He had a vision of preventive medicine interjected by a robust practice of clinical research in cardiovascular care. He wanted to study in order to be able to serve; so he became a perpetual medical student. He wanted to embody the connection between medicine, education and national vision. He wanted the University College Hospital to be a flagship for a continental achievement in medical advancement. ‘A good clinical teacher,’ says Oliver Wendell Holmes, the American writer and physician, ‘is himself a Medical School.’ And for Prof. Akinkugbe, the two objects of such a medical education were to be healing and the advancement of medical science. These two subjects possess intrinsic qualities that a nation cannot ever hope to neglect. Thus it was, for instance, that within the cauldron of a rigorous vision of a national health framework which Akinkugbe carried in his heart, the foundation for the first Renal and the first Hypertension Clinics in Africa was laid.
Preventive clinical medicine, for Professor Akinkugbe, was to take on a national and indigenous hue in the sense of serving as the medical platform to tap into a vast endogenous body of remedial knowledge that could jumpstart Nigeria’s development efforts. UCH and various multidimensional researches in medicine were to take their place in ideological and nationalistic renewal alongside such academic phenomenon as the Ibadan School of History and the Institute of African Studies. The national profiling of diseases, mortality and morbidity gives unique insights into national development while instilling its brand of therapeutic vitality into the national project. It would seem, in Akinkugbe’s reckoning, that even the aetiology of diseases and sicknesses is not so immune from colonial surveillance. Independence therefore requires a remapping of tropical diseases.
Eventually, as with all other areas of national significance, policy inertia and infrastructural collapse caught up with the UCH and healthcare in Nigeria. And then the brain drain took root; and healthcare was dragged into the muddy context of political shiftiness. Healthcare administration got caught up within a complex national and constitutional gridlock that ensures that, together with education, it becomes difficult for healthcare to unfold in a simple policy atmosphere. It therefore became inevitable that Prof. Akinkugbe would seek the path of education/medical administration. The challenges are too enormous and complex to settle alone in practice or the classroom. More can be done within the ambit of administrative negotiations to fashion a viable national health policy that would rethink the dynamics of healthcare in Nigeria. As Dean of Medicine, Vice Chancellor, Pro-Chancellor as well as the Chairman of the Management Board of the University College Hospital, all at various times, Prof. Akinkugbe was presented with the opportunity to intervene in the thorny process of recalibrating medical education, healthcare policy and educational advancement that would restore the enthusiasm and promise of the past. According to Peter Drucker, ‘Before an executive can think of tackling the future, he must be able therefore to dispose of the challenges of today in less time and with greater impact and permanence.’
That was the challenge Prof. Oladipo Akinkugbe set himself. At 80, he still doesn’t have an iota of regret over Nigeria. Nigeria is a worthy project. And if it must work, according to him, ‘The salvation, whether it is education or health, lies in collective partnership and in sacrifices.’ Collective partnership requires a huge dose of leadership willingness to set in motion the necessary policy and institutional dynamics and frameworks that would arrest the drift of social and infrastructural anomie plaguing the nation.
Prof. Akinkugbe represents a part of the critical mass of patriotic professionals who have committed ideas, time, energies, and vision to the Nigerian project. Akinkugbe represents those who are still not too old or tired of believing in the imminence of greatness in Nigeria.
And, as Margaret Mead, the American anthropologist, counsels: ‘Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.’ Maybe oil reserves will be here with us for a while; but human capital is not available for ever.
The hearts grow old, the passion becomes dispirited, and even the most hardened will diminishes in ardour.
Professor Oladipo Olujimi Akinkungbe believes in Nigeria. For so long, he has toiled and sweat at the noble task of exploring her possibilities in what he knows how to do best. He is still hard at the breach of national renewal. But the promise of giving birth to a national future needs many more Nigerians to step beyond cynicism and join Professor Oladipo Akinkugbe on the other side of national commitment. And, for Robin Sieger, ‘When enthusiasm and commitment take root within a project, that project comes to life.’ With people like Professor Akinkugbe, the Nigerian project is assured of life.
–– Olaopa is Permanent Secretary, Federal Ministry of Youth Development Abuja. tolaopa2003@gmail.com
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