‘I have No Other country’ An Interview with Professor Oyewale Tomori

My country gave me security, gave me the sources and funding to do my education. – Oyewale Tomori 

Editor’s note: This essay is available in our print issue, Godfathers: An Introduction. Buy the issue here.

Oyewale Tomori is a Nigerian expert on global health. He is a professor of virology, an educational administrator, and a former vice chancellor of Redeemer’s University. He has worked for the World Health Organization to eradicate polio and sits on several committees and boards in the global health space. Tomori received the Nigeria National Order of Merit in 2002, the country’s highest award for academic excellence and is the incumbent president of the Nigerian Academy of Science. He views every accolade as a debt to Nigeria because they are the results of the investments the country made when he was younger.  

Tomori tells me his path began with his father. In his words, to call his father simply polygamous would be an insult. His father had 15 wives of which Oyewale is the 39th child. His father was more than polygamous—he was ‘multi-gamous’. At the time, all the children were destined to work on the family farm but then the Nigerian government stepped in with mandatory free education. 

‘My father, not wanting to go to prison, sent all of us to school,’ Tomori says to me. ‘Without that, I wouldn’t be where I am today.’ 

Speaking to him it becomes clear what the secret to his successful career has been—free education. Tomori’s education was all free; primary, secondary, and university. ‘Those are the things I owe my country, and that I can never pay back,’ he says.  He clarifies that this investment has led to a certain sense of national pride unique to his generation. Future generations don’t have that same sense of pride, as they do not imagine that Nigeria values their worth and will invest in them. Therein lies the challenge for a future Nigeria; how to rekindle the belief that the government is working on behalf of its citizens, investing in them, and creating the enabling environment for them to thrive. 

Tomori’s first degree was in veterinary medicine and his training began in veterinary sciences, studying animal viruses. Today, he spends much of his time talking about human viruses.  

‘We learn more and more that we cannot really separate animal and human viruses as many of the viruses that cause epidemics, such as yellow fever, originate in animals. So a thorough understanding of the human-animal interface is what is needed,’ Tomori says.   

A serendipitous moment on Tomori’s career path was during a Lassa fever outbreak in Nigeria in 1969, when the team investigating the outbreak came to talk about virology at his university. He mentions this moment as an example of how enabling environments work. While Tomori believes Nigeria lacks the enabling environment for its people, he also believed that if university students are exposed to real-world challenges, it would spark interest in their minds as it did his. 

Nigerians are renowned the world over and have developed a positive global reputation for their contributions to innovation across business, science and technology. I ask why it is not the same within Nigeria as Nigerians are already well-trained when they land in other countries and immediately become the diaspora.  

‘In Canada, USA, UK, and Japan, Nigerians arrive with the knowledge and know-how to succeed. Other countries seem to possess the enabling environment that Nigeria lacks,’ Tomori says in response.   

A lot of this has to do with the lack of government investment and funding within Nigeria, Tomori explains. One of the challenges of global health is to increase domestic funding. Many national-level disease programmes, health services, and interventions are all externally funded. African governments struggle to prioritize and invest in their own ecosystems, and Nigeria is no stranger to this.  

‘These are the things I think we need to organize in Nigeria. If we don’t put our money into this, develop the environment and make it possible, then you can train 200 people but none of them will function. Nigeria’s problem is not the training of the people. Nigeria’s problem is creating the enabling environment for those who have been trained to function maximally.’ 

The challenges that Nigeria faces are, unsurprisingly, faced by the rest of the continent. Having a long distinguished career means that you have seen many of the old debates before, and many of the lessons learnt become forgotten in time, leading to the same mistakes and the persistence of the same challenges. 

In June 2021, the World Health Organization announced Africa’s vaccine technology transfer hub. The objective of the technology transfer hub is to build capacity in low- and middle-income countries to produce mRNA vaccines through a centre of excellence and training (the mRNA vaccine technology hub). The hub is located at Afrigen, Cape Town, South Africa, and will work with a network of technology recipients (spokes) in low- and middle-income countries. The solution that is the mRNA hub is the problem faced by the continent for many years.  Similar initiatives have sprung up over the years with good ideas to allow different countries in Africa to produce different vaccines that would allow other African countries to buy from that single source, therefore making it financially sustainable.  

‘For example, Nigeria can make a cholera vaccine that Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda and South Africa will buy. Yet, many of these plans never come to fruition due to a multitude of different reasons. Political will is one big reason,’ says Tomori. It is often easier to rely on donor and external funding for health on the continent. And this influx of foreign money, whether we like it or not, clouds the system, making it harder for national governments to ‘put their money where their mouth is,’ says Tomori.  

He believes that it is time for Africa to stop being reliant on foreign handouts and the generosity of the West. The pandemic was a wakeup call to African governments; in an emergency, every country will take care of their citizens first. Africa should learn this lesson. 

I ask what an upcoming election would look like for Tomori. Having seen it all, is there hope left for something better in the future? 

‘A commitment to move from mere political will to political commitment on issues of employing science research and technology to improve public health,’ Tomori says. ‘First, through increasing awareness and preparedness for preventing epidemics, and provision of basic health essentials via universal health coverage.’ 

Health hasn’t had a centre stage during the Nigerian elections, often taking a backseat to economic matters. ‘I look forward to increased budgetary allocation, not just to health, but to all health-enhancing interventions—education, improved supply of quality water. I pray the government will make accountability and transparency its mode of operation, so that whatever is allocated is spent for intended purposes.’ 

Given the challenges that lay ahead, the next Nigerian government has a long list of priorities.  I ask Tomori if Nigeria’s democracy is suitable to provide what is needed. 

‘I do not think there is a Nigerian democracy per se,’ says Tomori.  ‘We know what democracy is all about: government of, by, and for the people. It is not democracy that is at fault in Nigeria or has brought us to this deplorable state, it is the practice of democracy. Yet, the fault is not solely of the politicians but more of the people that can be bought and forced to remain silent when poor governance reigns.’ 

I agree that there is a recurring theme in the plan that is Nigeria and its implementation. Accountability is also a recurring theme; the lack of it and the lack in demanding for it. How can the pull of corruption be resisted? These are few of the many unanswered questions about the future of Nigeria. 

We reserve our harshest criticisms for the ones we love the most. It is with passion and pride that Oyewale Tomori critiques Nigeria, but it is also with a unique sense of knowing that things were and could be better in the future.  Professor Oyewale Tomori’s path to here may have begun with his father, but it is because of Nigeria that he is where he is today. A Nigeria he is hoping will do it again for another generation

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