Benjamin Oni-Okpaku, the former Chief Medical Director, of Benoni Clinic/Hospital, Benin, Chief Medical Director University of Benin Teaching Hospital (UBTH), Fellow Royal Society of Medicine of England, talked extensively on a myriad of issues in this interview with OJIEVA EHIOSUN. Excerpts…
You are 86 now; could you recall how growing up was like for you?
I was the first child to survive as a motherless baby in Eme-Ora at that time because my mother died at the point of giving birth to me. My late grandmother played a divine role in my survival because she let me be contrary to what was the norm then. It was when the crying and mourning over my late mum had subsided three days later that people were alerted to my cry.
‘That terrible child who killed its mother is still alive?’ people asked. Noticing that I am a male child (my mum had two daughters before I was born), my grandmother said she would not lose her first daughter and her first grandson at the same time and that anybody who tried to harm me would have to kill her first. That was how I survived what would have been a terrible ordeal.
Growing up was memorable as my father played a dual role in my upbringing – as a father and a mother. My grandfather died when my father was eight years old. My father was brought up by some relatives in the police barracks and that influenced his decision to join the police force. He was posted to Onitsha and a few years later (when I was 4 years old) he was posted to Lagos.
He was among the pioneer set of policemen to be promoted to the rank of Superintendent of Police. He ended up as a Senior Superintendent of Police before his retirement. I recall that the first indigenous Inspector General of Police, Louis Edet, was one of the clerks in my father’s office when he was still in service.
You disobeyed your father for the first time in the course of choosing a career, how did it happen?
My father actually wanted me to become a lawyer. He must have been impressed with what went on in courts then. He once told me a story of an English judge, Mr. Egerton Shyngle, who was listening to a Nigerian lawyer (a Yoruba man) in court. The Nigerian lawyer asked the judge ‘in your country do they spell water with a double T?’ The judge responded that ‘no in my country we spell manner with a double N’.
So, my father was impressed with the Europeans in the judiciary. I did my school certificate in 1950 at the King’s College, Lagos. When the result was released I had a credit in Biology, a pass in Physics and a pass in Chemistry which was converted to credit in Physics with Chemistry. Whereas in the arts subjects I scored credits in all of them. So, instead of nine subjects it became eight subjects. When my father saw my result he said although I insist on doing Medicine, my result showed that I was better in the arts than in the sciences. Then I responded that ‘Daddy, you want me to read Law. I will do it just to please you, but what I want to study is Medicine.’ A cousin of mine, Samuel Idowu, and I were sleeping next to each other once in 1937 and my father woke us up.
He first asked my cousin ‘Idowu, when you grow up what would you want to be?’ Idowu responded that he doesn’t know. Then my father asked me ‘what of you, Benji, what do you want to be?’ I replied that I wanted to be a doctor. The fact was that I had never met a doctor before and I didn’t know what they do. I feel that at that time my father must have thought that there must be something unknown to me that was behind my desire to become a doctor.
At what point did you travel abroad for further studies?
In July 1951, my father sent me to Egbatson School of Science in England. I discovered that they were doing the Advanced (A) Levels in two years. I told them that I wanted to do it in a year. The Head of the Science department interviewed me. After the interview he told the principal of the school that as far as the science subjects were concerned there was an issue of lack of knowledge in some areas.
That they were not even sure whether I could pass the A levels in two years. So, the principal wrote a letter to my father to tell him that I was still insisting that I would do the A levels in a year. That they would see what they could do to make me achieve my dream. I had to do three hours in each of the subjects -Physics, Chemistry, Botany and Zoology.
Three extra hours of private tuition in a private school. I was doing 12 hours a week. They were charging my father one pound per hour for those extra lessons. Then the students sponsored by the government were getting £25 a month. That’s why I said my father also played the role of my mother to me, he accepted the proposal. The school management said by Christmas Eve of 1951 they would let me know if I would be able to do the A levels or not. At the appointed day they called me to confirm that I was capable of doing the A levels, that I had done well so far.
However, they advised that I should do the last GCE A levels examination of 1952, which was organised by Bristol University. That was in August, 1952 and the result came out in September. I passed the four subjects I registered for. I was invited to Birmingham University for an interview. Before then my brother-in-law, Mr. Imoukhuede, introduced me to the college he attended in Cambridge.
When they saw my A levels result they said they were sorry as they had done all their admission for that year but that I could defer my admission till the following year. Oxford and Cambridge Universities did not really train doctors but they did the first year training (pre-clinical). I was interviewed by Birmingham and got admitted. But I was admitted for the first year programme as the institution did not admit foreigners into the second year programme. I was a little disappointed.
But I said ‘it’s okay’. The English man asked if I wanted to be admitted or not. I said ‘yes’ because it suddenly occurred to me that if I didn’t get admitted that year and I waited for the promise from Cambridge the following year, anything could happen to me. It turned out that it was a good thing that happened to me because I didn’t have to study in my first year as I had done all the subjects before. I only did one week serious study before I did my examination. I went through the whole of the medical school never failing even a class test.
I got a Grade 2 in my school certificate at King’s College and some of my classmates were (Philip) Asiodu, Ayida, Duncan, Tugbobor, Oyewole, Sola Onajobi who all got Grade 1 but I gained admission into the university before any of them. This is because they did not do their examination until the next year. They were in Nigeria while I had already done it overseas. I even welcomed Asiodu and Ayida when they came in 1953 to attend Oxford University. They did PPA in Oxford University.
The late Dr. Alex Ekwueme was your senior at King’s College, what was your relationship with him like?
Alex Ekwueme was a year my senior at King’s College. We were in the boarding house. King’s College started on a temporary site at King George V Road in Onikan. My father’s residence was almost opposite the school, so I didn’t need to stay in the boarding house. But by 1948, King’s College had moved to its permanent site which is opposite Race Course. Alex and I were in the same house.
Students from outside Lagos who stayed in the boarding were in Hyde Johnson House. While those of us who stayed in Lagos but not in the boarding house were in McIrie House. The different houses wore different colours of jerseys. Hyde Johnson’s House wore red, McIrie wore yellow and Payne’s House wore blue while Hamma’s House wore green. Alex was a friendly person. By the time we left the school we were mates.
The interesting thing is that people only recall that he was a Vice President. Very few people remember that he was an Architect and that he got degrees in other disciplines. He was a brilliant mind. He was one of the founders of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP). I want people to realise that it’s not only politics that they should know others for. If I was in politics I wouldn’t have wanted to be known as a politician but as a surgeon. After our school years and even as he became a respected politician, we still retained our relationship. In fact, anytime he came to Benin I invited him to join me in whatever I was doing. I would not say we were that close but as college mates we still got on easily.
What informed your establishment of the famous Benoni Hospital, one of the best in Benin at that time?
Benoni Hospital was a memorial hospital. I had always had it in my mind that when I left government work I would establish a private hospital. That was why I left government work at the age of 43 in 1975. I started receiving pension in 1977. And do you know how much my pension was? N249.80. My last salary as officer on Grade Level 16 step 1, as a Chief Consultant Surgeon and Chief Medical Director, Specialist Hospital, Benin, was N750. And recall that one naira was equal to one pound then.
To build Benoni Hospital I got loan from the Nigeria Bank for Commerce and Industry. Do you know how much the loan was? N500, 000 (Five hundred thousand naira). I added money I could get from the private practice I was doing to complete the project. I ran a clinic – Benoni Clinic – in my house from 1973 till 78. I will always remember a good friend, one gentleman called Hope Harriman, his brother was in the Foreign Service.
He said to me once ‘Benji’ I said, ‘what’s wrong?’ and he responded ‘why don’t you get out of this place and build a hospital for the sick?’ I replied: ‘My dear, hopeless Hope I am not surprised the way you talk.’ But after sometime I started thinking ‘hospital or hotel, patients or guests?’ I was pondering the fact that if I built a hospital and I later sold it, the new owner could turn it into a hotel.
That was why I built the Benoni Hospital the way I did. Four beds, three beds, double beds and single bed. Every room was equipped with a air-condition unit. The four bed and three bed rooms also had fans. The hospital also had an elevator. The first private hospital in Nigeria that had an elevator. The theatre was on the first floor and I didn’t want the patients to be carried through the staircase. Even on their sickbed they could be carried in the elevator into the theatre.
So why did you sell the hospital?
I did so because I felt that there was no person nearby to hand over to. I have four children – a boy and three daughters – my first daughter is an Architect, my second daughter is a medical doctor, my third daughter is a lawyer and my only son read Agric Economics. He was not interested in medicine. The doctor is married and has been abroad for quite some time.
When I was owing New Nigerian Bank (NNB) so much money, I said ‘you people I am owing you, but you should be able to do something for me.’ So, when my daughter, the lawyer, finished from school and she wanted to do the her youth service I went to see the General Manager but I saw the Personnel Manager and I told him I wanted my daughter to serve with them in their head office in Lagos. Interestingly, she decided she did not want to be a lawyer but that she would rather be a banker. Until recently she was a General Manager at Guaranty Trust Bank in Lagos. The Architect is married to a Yoruba man, Soetan, who was in the Foreign Service. They’re now in the UK. My son is the only one who stays with me here.
I asked myself what I wanted for the Benoni Hospital? And the response was ‘I want the name and image of the hospital to be retained forever.’ Thus, I promised that I would sell it to a group that will retain it as a hospital and also keep the dream alive. After eight years, I sold it to those that I feel are the right people – the Nigeria National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) – who will know its worth. The NNPC had been our client for 20 years.
So, they knew of the facilities therein. Till date, in the whole of Benin City, I have not heard of any hospital talked about in positive terms the way people talk about Benoni Hospital. I refused to lease it out because I didn’t want its reputation to be tainted. I didn’t want the hospital to be turned into a place where people do abortion or treat armed robbery suspects with gunshot wounds.
The road on which it’s situated is called Benoni Hospital Road. So, even as it has now been acquired by NNPC, the Benoni Hospital signpost is still noticeable around the area. From time to time I go there to see what’s happening and I am happy that they are giving the hospital a good facelift in line with what is obtainable in the modern day. And I do hope that the equipment they would acquire would be such that would attract people from all over the country apart from their staff, so as to curb capital flight in the medical sector. Medicine has advanced a lot and this was what I had in mind when I built the hospital in my desire to make it the best.
How could the issues of brain drain and capital flight in the health sector be stopped?
Now, we hear of people going to India to get treatment. That is rubbish! There are lots of top class doctors from Nigeria who are in these hospitals abroad. That’s brain drain syndrome. If we have the right equipment in the hospitals and a good welfare package for them, I am certain that these doctors will not leave our shores. People will come to Nigeria for quality service and not the other way round. When Nigerians go abroad for treatment, the doctors that handle their cases are Nigerians. Is that not absurd?
You gave special preference to the army by offering them free services; could you shed more light on that aspect of your work?
Many people will be hearing this may be for the first time. I was a surgeon to the Nigerian Army for nine years. While I was in Warri, I was the surgeon treating the Nigeria Army. Also, while I was at the Specialist Hospital, Benin, even though there was a military person there, everyone knew that I was the one who could handle surgical cases. The army had their own people. But I was with them. At one stage they wanted me to wear army uniform and be getting something, maybe. But I declined. I didn’t need to get anything from my country. I was serving. So, I remained in government service did part time work for the military. Throughout this period I did not charge the military any money. I was doing it free.
The situation in the country’s health sector is very pathetic…
In our time, you did not serve as a doctor because you wanted to make money. That’s the fact. In colonial times, they knew they could not pay doctors adequately, so those who were practicing in government service were allowed to have private clinics. But those clinics were in their homes. When you close from government work, your patients could come and see you at home where you attend to them and you are paid a little bit. But as you know, things are different now. It’s not for me to say how different they are. My word of advice is that you cannot take anything with you when you die. You can have billions stashed everywhere but when you die you go six feet under unless you say they should put the money in the coffin with you, which is rubbish. I am a typical example.
You are here to interview me. But you can see where I am living. You can see the garden, the car park etc. The house was built almost 48 years ago. It’s all right. What do I need? Luckily, I was able to build a hospital and then sold it. Those days we used to encourage patients to come and see us in the government hospital. When you come to the government hospital you pay all the dues meant for the government.
I will give you an example. When I was in Warri, a gentleman came to see me (probably an Urhobo man) one day. As he entered my parlour he lifted the wrapper he tied on his waist. I noticed two spots where I had operated on him. He said he came to thank me. He put his hand in his pocket and brought out four freshly laid eggs which he gave to me in appreciation of the successful operation I had carried out on him. He also offered me prayers. My cook then ate one of the eggs which nearly earned him a sack. What I am saying is that there are many ways of showing appreciation not necessarily by giving money. I left Warri in 1969 but they still have good things to say about me.
The young ones (children) still talk about what they heard about me from their parents. You benefit in many ways when you genuinely offer service to people. You are even blessed with long life. You achieve nothing meaningful when you charge people excessively for services you render. You may end up not living long. You can ask people about me and they will tell you that I do things correctly.