Dr Timothy Ndubisi Menakaya was born on May 27, 1936. He is among the first set of Nigerians to earn a degree in Medicine and Surgery. He started his career in the civil service and was later appointed minister of health under former President Olusegun Obasanjo. He had a short stint in partisan politics in the Second Republic on the platform of the National Party of Nigeria (NPN). He also fought the civil war, where he commanded a battalion in the Biafran Army. He is a knight of St Christopher in the Anglican Communion. This professional golfer took Daily Trust on Sunday down memory lane.
You were born some 83 years ago; what was it like growing up in Umunya, Anambra State?
I wasn’t born in the present Anambra State; I was born in Imo State, in the Anglican Church Mission House. My father was a missioner from Anambra State, but went to work in Imo. My parents had us – myself and my younger brother – quite late in life. They had other children much older than us. My eldest brother was about 20 years older than me and we are from the same mother and father. My father retired a few years after I was born and went back home, so I was brought up in Anambra State. I had my elementary and secondary education in Anambra.
How did growing up in a Mission House influence your life?
It really influenced my life. In fact, that was my start in life. We got up very early morning for prayers, prayed before we ate and before going to bed. I was taught to always thank people for gifts, say ‘thank you’ after eating and to always thank God for everything that happens to you. That is still my life; I cannot deviate from it. God has always been part of my life. He is my beginning, not yet my end, but it is my ambition to end with Him.
What was life like in primary school?
I started primary school in the village; from kindergarten. From there to Class 11, after that I moved to elementary school, that is what you now call primary school. Then, we stayed in primary school for six years before moving to secondary school. In our days, students worked hard, and if they did badly in examinations, they received some strokes of cane. But today, things are changing. Some countries are even saying you don’t need to traumatise the students with examinations. But we went through it and there was no psychological problem. In our time, we saw it as a privilege. We were privileged to go to school; to have parents who could send us to school and pay our fees because some parents could not do that. Those fees; I don’t know what they were; maybe not more than one shilling a term, but some parents could not pay. After the six years, I passed entrance examination to secondary school.
Take us through your stay at Dennis Memorial Grammar School.
At Dennis, it was the same type of discipline. We were required to wake up at 5.30 in the morning, say our prayers, exercise, have our bath, go for prep, then return and have breakfast, then go to school. After school, we had our meal, siesta, then went for games, had out bath, went to dinning, then prep. It was constant. That is why most of us in my generation don’t joke with time. If I tell you I will see you at 2pm, I make sure I am there at that time or I must have a good excuse. I do that every time.
What influence did your parents have on your life at that stage?
They did a lot; we saw them as God-sent. They were very well respected. In those days, the churches and their workers were highly respected. My father was not born a Christian. His parents were not Christians, but they were religious. They obeyed all sorts of things; had many taboos. They had a lot of laws, and that was understood. Nigerians, had religion before the white men came. My grandparents were very strong in their own religion.
Was there any particular event that occurred that made an impact on your life?
Lots of it; but basically, hard work. We did a lot of work. We even struggled to help out at home. Today, it is difficult to get children to wash plates or do any form of work. There was nothing we didn’t do – we cooked food, washed, etc. And when we got to higher classes; precisely in Standard 4, I had to trek a long distance to school every day – four miles to go and four miles to return for five days a week. Because there were no higher classes in my town, I had to go to another town. And if you went late, the cane was there waiting for you. Sometimes, we even had to carry water for the teachers, and we were small. I never regarded that as labour or punishment because from when I was a kid I was taught that “hope for reward sweetens labour.” Many of my classmates fell along the way because they could not cope.
What informed your career choice?
I told you about my father, who was a missioner and he was in Imo State most of the time. At that time, there was only one hospital in the whole of eastern Nigeria, which was at Ogidi, very close to Onitsha. Each time we were ill they carried us on the back on bicycle to the hospital, and that was the only hope for anyone. Sometimes, people were taken on bed made of sticks and raffia palms to the hospital. Sometimes people went there from Owerri, and the journey was 70 to 80 miles, and it was done in a few days. Some people died on the way and some got there, received treatment and recovered. I was at that hospital most of the time. Most Wednesday, I went to the hospital to do manual work. I did a lot of social work as a student. All those made me to develop interest in medicine. Slowly, I started feeling a need to heal the sick, and as I told you, I was brought up in the Christian way, and as Anglicans we are students of the Bible. I became very interested in the Bible and I know that there are two very important injunctions Christ gave to the disciples. He told them to “go into the world, preach the good news and heal the sick.” I first wanted to be a priest in the Anglican Church, then I changed my mind. I started arguing with myself – if there are two injunctions, why can’t I choose one? And I was good in the sciences. I won prizes in Biology and other courses, so I chose Medicine. Luckily for me, I worked hard, earned a scholarship and was admitted in medical school.
You studied Medicine in Italy, how did that happen?
Scholarship! I filled the form, went for an interview and I was successful. All this was pre-independence and Nigeria was in a hurry to do a lot of things. It wanted to have many educated people to man the affairs of the country. So after the interview, I forgot all about it. I was in Lagos with an elder brother, but I never cared about the mail box in the house. So one day, I decided to just check and I found my letter there, it had arrived four days earlier.
What was the experience like studying Medicine in Italy?
It was a wonderful experience. A different system from the British, but a system that was original because the university I went to is the oldest university in the world. The University of Bologna was founded in the 11th century. At that time the seat of knowledge in the world was Italy. So Italy was the first country that established a university and it was in Bologna. First, I was admitted to the University of Rome, it was the biggest university they had in Italy. But in my final year, I said if Bologna is the oldest university in the world, why shouldn’t my degree bear that name? So I transferred to Bologna and did my degree there. And then you don’t stop at first degree. I came out with an M.D degree.
Did you lose any year?
No, they have a system that accommodates you as long as you meet the requirement.
Before coming back to Nigeria in 1966 you worked in Italy and the UK, tell us about that.
When I finished my studies I did my housemanship in Italy. I worked in a general hospital, after which I said to myself, why are you going back to Nigeria, have you seen anybody that studied Medicine in Italy? Are you sure what you did was right? I had never worked with a doctor then. Two of my brothers had been to university, but they did not study Medicine. One did Pharmacy, one did Education, Geography and Classics and another one did Agriculture. And I said, let me go to Britain and know the acceptability of my degree because I had no reference. We were three from my class. Three of us won the scholarship and came out of the medical school at the same time. Upon completion, one of us returned to Nigeria, the other remained in Italy and I went to the United Kingdom. I was particularly lucky that my immediate younger brother was doing Medicine at the University of Manchester at that time, so I went to Manchester. And then I went for an interview. They asked me where I got my degree and when I mentioned it, silence enveloped the room. I was expecting questions, but they just asked me, ‘When do you want to start work?’ They said, ‘This thing you did must be real. That was my first baptism. They then gave me a licence. That’s how I started.
Can you remember the two others that studied with you?
Yes. The two others went into the academia. One was Professor Ofoegbu, who ended up as a cardiovascular surgeon. He is former Deputy Vice Chancellor, University of Benin. He retired as the Head of the Department of Surgery. He is still alive. The other one, unfortunately, is late. He was Professor Raymond. He died about 10 years ago.
Three of us left Nigeria on the same flight. We did not understand a single word of Italian language and we were supposed to go and study in Italian. We were advised by the Federal Ministry of Foreign Affairs to go to a language school and study language for one year, and that when we passed we would start our studies and if we failed we would return to Nigeria. That was the condition they gave us. We had a return ticket to use if we failed. So we went to the school and found the language fairly easy. It is not as complicated as French. It is as easy as Latin. You spell most of the things as you pronounce them.
We had a meeting and said we would not waste one year. We enquired from the school and they said the beginning of studies depended on when we passed the language school. We devised a way of doing that language, and within one month, we became very good in grammar. In the morning we went to class for grammar lessons, and in the evening, the three of us went to cinemas or bars, where we practised the language. Italians are the warmest people you can think of. They received us very well, so mixing up was not a problem. We did that for three months, after which we went for the exams. Three of us passed and began our programme. We didn’t lose one year.
Then, we had another problem – the system was a little bit different from the British system. In the British system, you do all the A Level subjects, which we had already done before entering into the programme fully. But this one, the day you enter, you start studying part of the subjects you do in medical school. So Anatomy is taught from the first year. We insisted that we started from the second year because we had passed the other subjects; but what of the Anatomy? We presented ourselves before the Senate and argued our case. They even started with the syllabus, which was in English. They said they did not understand it and they were not going to translate it. We volunteered to translate it. We sent for the syllabus for A Levels to be translated into Italian. After translating it with our own money, we passed it on and they considered us and they made us do Anatomy of the first year in the second year. By the fourth year, we cut off everything. After five years, we graduated. I won’t mention names, but there was someone who had done second MP when we joined, but we graduated a year before him because we put in a lot of effort. At the end of the first year, the ministry called us to see our reports; everybody on that scholarship. We had students from Kenya, Ethiopia, Sudan, Eritrea, Ghana and Liberia. We were called in for them to know how we did, and the Minister of Foreign Affairs addressed us. He told us that they got reports that some people had already passed their language course to enter into the university and he mentioned the names of those who were going back to their countries because they didn’t make it. At that time, our group was like a five-man students union because we were the first.
At that time, if you saw a black man in Italy he was either training as a Roman Catholic priest or one of the five of us. So I raised my hand and he said, ‘Is it about the language you passed? I said no. I told him we had completed second year and he said it was not possible. But we told him we finished learning the language three months after we arrived and that we were already students in the university. We showed him our identity cards and he decided to compensate us for what we had achieved. So, instead of 12 months allowance, they were giving us 13 months,
Five of us from Nigeria remained friends. It didn’t matter where you came from. There was nothing like Yoruba, Igbo or Hausa. We were all one. Among us, three were Igbo, one was Itshekiri and another one was Yoruba. The Yoruba chap was more mature than us. He had already married before he went to school. I am the godfather to his first child. Up till today, we relate very well. In fact, the chap from Itshekiri did Architecture, and when he returned to Nigeria, he became very famous. He even became the president of their association and the pro-chancellor of the University of Benin because what they studied was a little bit different from what other countries did. They did Engineering/Architecture so that they could do any part of structure without referencing. He ended up with a doctorate degree like all of us.
What was working in Italy and the United Kingdom like?
It was wonderful. I was lucky I got a very good hospital in the western part of Manchester. The hospital was very close to the stadium of Manchester United. Work in Italy was also a pleasure. There was no discrimination whatsoever in Italy at that time. We enjoyed a wonderful life.
You said working abroad was wonderful, why did you return?
My father was well over 80 years of age, my mother too. I told you we came later in their lives. I also asked myself what I really wanted as a doctor and what I was doing abroad: to heal those who had so many doctors or to heal those who did not have enough? I also wanted to take care of my parents, treat them and make sure they were happy.
The day I finished my last job in England was the day I entered the ship. At that time, we didn’t travel by air. Your employment with the Nigerian government started the day you entered the ship, not when you arrived Nigeria. As soon as you entered into the ship you were already employed by the government. And when you entered into Nigeria, they received you at the wharf and lodged you in a hotel.
These days when you see young graduates earning so little you weep for them. We never suffered. In fact, when I was doing my housemanship in Italy, my mates asked why I didn’t return home because my colleagues in Nigeria were earning more than what I was earning in Britain. That was how good Nigeria was.
I can remember one incident that happened at my first point of duty, the General Hospital, Enugu, which is now a Teaching Hospital. In my examination in paediatrics, I had a patient with sickle cell anaemia. As a student, I never saw one. I never saw somebody suffering from sickle cell anaemia. I knew the theory and diagnosis, but I never saw a patient with it. The first letter I sent to my classmates was that I met a patient with sickle cell anaemia. I was working with two friends in the same consulting area, so I ran to tell them that I saw a patient with sickle cell anaemia and they started laughing at me, saying I must have missed so many. But I was so happy to confirm that it was real. I never knew they existed because they were not in Europe. So you see, all the illnesses you don’t see as a medical student, you see them here. Therefore, there is an advantage studying Medicine here. Unfortunately, things have been neglected, but we still produce some of the best medical doctors in the world because Nigerians are very resilient and hardworking. My younger brother finished a year after and joined me in the same hospital.
Shortly after you came back, the country went into the civil war. Did you have any regret?
I don’t think I do. I didn’t just return at that time. I left Liverpool on January 14 of 1966 and the coup was on the night of January 14/15. In those days, it was a marvel to see a young man qualifying as a doctor or lawyer, so some of us who were young graduates were invited to have dinner at the Captain’s table. One of the best things that could happen to you then was voyaging back to Nigeria on a ship. For 13 days, it was enjoyment galore. About six of us, Nigerians were on the table and we started arguing and somebody (I won’t mention his name) said military coup was the only solution to the problem we had in the Western Region. Another person said it was not possible since there were only a handful of soldiers. We kept on arguing. Later in the night, I heard on a French radio station that a coup had taken place in Nigeria. I started waking others others to tell them what I heard and they said I was joking, that maybe I dreamt about what we talked about during dinner. It was in the morning that we confirmed that indeed a coup had taken place. That time, things were so good that while you were on the ship in the middle of the ocean you could still receive telegrams and send out same.
Following the development, we stopped in Gambia to test whether we could continue with the journey because we had said we would not get out of the ship if things were not okay. Nigerians there were all happy. We again stopped in Sierra Leone, saw Nigerian newspapers and read that people were celebrating the coup and we continued on our journey. We stopped in Ghana. In fact, we spent a full day there, and we had the same reaction to the coup.
The war things changed and things became hotter. All of us became zoombies. We were no longer thinking straight, but I lived in Biafra. I was an officer in the Biafran Army. I ended up as a commanding officer of 117 Medical Battalion in the Biafran Army.
What was your rank in the Biafran Army?
I was first a Captain, then, I became Tracker Major, which is equivalent to a Lieutenant Colonel and we worked hard. We learnt about a lot of medicine.
What was the period like?
It’s an experience you can never have anywhere. First, I had a challenge when I came back. I was at the General Hospital, Enugu, and they had a place they had no doctor – the whole of Ogoja Province, which comprised of Ogoja, Ikom and Obudu. I became the only doctor in the whole province, so it was a big challenge. I was there alongside one Rev Sister, who was a doctor in a hospital managed by the Roman Catholic Church. I had the privilege of volunteering to help them from time to time.
My 82-bed hospital was reasonably big and I had 23 health centers and maternity homes, which I was expected to visit from time to time. Going to bed at 12 midnight was a luxury. During the war I saw hopelessness, I saw and treated kwashiorkor. I saw hunger. I saw the vulnerability of women; that women could be raped in broad daylight. I pray I never see such a thing again in my life. We must find a way of having peace in this country.
How did you cope?
At that time, I was a bachelor; and I didn’t belong to any club. The only thing I knew was Medicine. And being a very young doctor, the energy and enthusiasm were unbelievable. Most of the time it was very challenging. The nearest hospital to mine was in Abakaliki and you couldn’t refer someone there because he/she would die on the road. The acceptance was also very encouraging.
I still dream of that wonderful country, Nigeria, which had a national anthem that was very attractive to everybody; ‘‘Though tongue and tribe may differ, in brotherhood we stand.’’ I don’t know why it was changed because it was the reality. It told our story of love that had no end. There was no fear. My parents were living in Anambra, and because of work, I visited them on Fridays. Sometimes I would take off at 12 midnight and I had nothing to fear. But now, we have all sorts of name for evil. Today, somebody who was a servant yesterday will join politics and become your boss, yet you are expected to work happily. Somebody will be in the civil service, become the best, but tomorrow, they will bring somebody to be above him. How do you expect that kind of person to work well? One of the things that bother me in this country is the plight of pensioners. I had a friend who retired as a Court of Appeal judge. He came to Abuja to fill forms for his pension and he was beaten by rain. He caught pneumonia, and a week later, he died. I don’t understand why a human being who will one day earn his pension would behave that way.
What went wrong with the country?
There is no need pretending that we don’t know how things got bad in this country. We allowed the military to come into government. They had no training to govern anybody. They are wonderful people, they are gentlemen, but we say, ‘give to Caesar what is Caesar’s.’ When they got there they found something they never saw before – money, power and privilege. Impunity started and they became demi-gods. Today, you attend a meeting and you see somebody who didn’t pass School Certificate examination presiding over it. The Bible tells us that one of the things that annoy God is when a knowledgeable, educated man is serving somebody who is inferior. That thing irritates God. When you see somebody in Nigeria today and ask what he does and he says he is a politician, does any university produce politicians? They produce political scientists. These are the things we are seeing today.
Tell us about your private hospital, MENAX
After the war, my immediate younger brother and I had a discussion on whether to go back and I said I would remain, but since he was younger, he could go back. I went back to the government and I was posted back to Onitsha as a medical officer. Then one day, the Archbishop of the Catholic Diocese of Onitsha came to us and pleaded with us to volunteer to work in their clinic. I volunteered, so I went to their hospital around 6:30 am, saw patients, did ward round and went to the government hospital. I held the two hospitals. After some time, they came to me and asked if I could work for them permanently. I asked them to tell government to post me to their hospital on secondment. That was how I joined the Catholic hospital in Onitsha.
I enjoyed medical practice. I enjoyed seeing patients recover. After some time, I decided to establish my hospital. I didn’t pay for the land I used for it. The head of one family had a medical problem and they begged me to come and see the person in the house. I gave them advice and they followed it. At the end they were very grateful. One day they called me, saying they heard that I wanted to open a hospital and I said yes. They asked if I had a land and I said, no. The head of the family then showed me the land. At that time a piece of land in that part of Onitsha was selling at N4,000 and I got six times the normal plot and they collected N500 from me.
That was how I started. Many of my old patients brought cement, blocks, etc. The foundation was laid in May, 1973 and on February 24, 1974, the hospital was commissioned. It was fully equipped by Kingsway Stores. I didn’t have money, so I approached a bank and all the equipment were supplied and I paid on an installment plan.
Is it still in operation?
Yes, but I am not in charge anymore. My younger brother is now in charge.
You later became the Minister of Health under former President Obasanjo. How did that happen?
I wouldn’t really say I know how it happened. I met Obasanjo in Enugu, shortly after he was released from prison and our chemistry was very good. I didn’t complete the four years with him, but I know what happened. I am not somebody that can be pushed around. I have my own opinions and I express them. We never quarrelled; but he was under pressure and I had no problem with that. What surprised me was that before he declared for the party, he called me on phone, myself and one other person, Jacob Nwokolo, saying that if we were not there he would not declare. I went from Onitsha to Enugu to fly to Lagos, then went by road to Otta. When we got there in the evening, all the flights had been cancelled for three days, and Obasanjo said we must be there. So for the first time, I travelled by road to Lagos by night bus. I went there, he declared, and we returned home by bus again. From that moment, he was following us and we were following him and we worked hard. Anytime he needed my advice I obliged him. I campaigned hard for his election. One of the greatest things I admire about him is that there is hardly any person who can work as hard as him. He is very hardworking and knowledgeable. I don’t think any file passed through him without him reading every line of it. Up till now, I have respect for him.
I saw my appointment as minister as a privilege and my aim was to make a difference. I thank God I was able to do so. In the short time I stayed there, Roll Back Malaria was done under me, HIV/AIDS was brought out of the closet. A lot of work had been done, but it was locked up. I brought it out and help came from many places.
The National Health Insurance Scheme was a civil service thing, but when I came in, I brought in Labour because they control the engine of government anywhere in the world. Our teaching hospitals woke up from slumber. We were doing only polio vaccination and others were neglected. During that period we were doing vaccination, but we were not doing the real thing. We started house to house and changed a lot of things.
Nigeria has boundaries with a lot of countries, so we said if you vaccinated somebody in Idi-Iroko and didn’t vaccinate somebody in Benin Republic, if they inter-crossed infections would continue. So we started what we called synchronised vaccination. The one I did not complete that annoyed me was intramural practice which would have stopped strikes in the health sector. It would mean that consultants have their beds in the hospital, have time of seeing patients there. It will no more be an illegal thing to have clinic, but you must work for the government. You will know how many times you must see a patient and all those things.
Why is health care delivery still a huge problem in Nigeria?
We have very qualified doctors, but they leave the country for greener pastures because they are not valued here. Like I said, reward sweetens labour. In our own time, doctors were not doing private practice as they are doing today. You must be well equipped to do it. But today, even a doctor who has not done housemanship wants to own a clinic; that is part of the problem
You were a member of the NPN, how would you compare politics as it was played then and now?
There is no comparison. Politics now is a market to buy and sell.
What are they buying and selling?
Is there any political party with ideology now? Do they have any idea of what they are talking about? Why should a legislator collect N15million and they are debating whether to pay N30,000 as minimum wage? During my time we went from house to house to ask people to contest elections. Some said they didn’t have money. Politics in Nigeria now is not service. It is the fault of all of us who say we are good and politics is dirty. What does a good person do with a dirty thing? Is it a thief that will make things better? The good people should come back to politics and clean it up. However, there is a challenge because the good people will not even have the money to challenge the charlatans who are there.
Why didn’t you seek political position?
I rendered my service in various capacities to make things better. I have done things that looked like politics, but I regarded them as social work. I was the secretary of new Anambra State Movement. I wrote all the memos for the creation of new Anambra State. I also took part in interviewing those who held positions. Till date I give advice when needed.
Tell us about Tempo Mills.
One day, I read in the paper that the military governor of Cross River State stopped every vehicle carrying flour from Calabar Flour Mill from coming to the East. In fact, he stopped every Igbo man from getting flour from Calabar. They were beaten, their monies collected and they were sent away. I read it more than four times and asked if there was anything impossible to do. Some Germans were building a brewery in Onitsha at that time, so I went to them and asked how I could go about building a flour mill. Many people cooperated with me to make it a reality. Within two years, we commissioned a flour mill and it was doing 450 tons a day, which was more than enough for Anambra State. The mill made a lot of difference in my town. Petty stealing disappeared because people were employed.
But six month after the commissioning, the then head of state, Ibrahim Babangida went to Delta State to commission a flour mill and he banned the importation of wheat in the same breath.
The good thing about industries is that they hardly die; the worst is that it could change hands. I also established a steel mill, but by Act of government they were all closed. We are praying that we either get back the flour mill or it will be sold to somebody.
At 83, you still look fit, what is the secret?
God. I strongly believe that whatever you are is from God. But there are a few things you have to do; for example, exercise in every shape or form, then eat properly. Most of us eat poison. Most of the drugs we take are poison and we swallow so many a day. We don’t take care of ourselves and we don’t have time for recreation. There are some rich Nigerians who have never gone on vacation. People should learn to laugh more, live life and don’t quarrel with anybody. For instance, today, I was on the field for five hours playing Golf.
You are a professional golfer; how did you get into it?
Was it your first choice of sports?
No, it is the last. I was a very good athlete in school. I was a sprinter. I played hockey too. I played for the city of Rome when I was a student. I played cricket, tennis and chess as well. Towards the end, I was told that there’s a game meant for the lazy, so I started to ask questions. Until I was in my 60s I knew nothing about golf, but through association I started playing. I advise people to go into it. It is not as expensive as people think. And you can make more friends in golf than any other sport. It also touches every part of the body. You can play golf alone and make scores, but the brain must be very active to do the calculations. Golf is sweet; you travel a lot. It has helped me a lot. There was a time I was working very hard in the hospital and was closing at 12 midnight, but I made sure I had one hour game before going to bed. That is the life I enjoy now. I don’t go to club and I don’t drink.
Do you still see patients?
Mostly, I give medical advice now. Sometimes I go into the hospital and do some minor surgeries. Once you are into it, you can’t fully leave it.
How did you meet your wife?
At that time, it was mostly by introduction that people met their spouses in Nigeria, so you could say I met my wife by introduction.
How many children do you have?
I have nine of them
What meal do you enjoy most?
I used to enjoy ukwa, but it has a problem. It is one of the most proteinous foods, but it is easily converted to carbohydrate. Now, I enjoy salad. Almost every night I eat salad and go to bed and it sustains me.
Always believe in God and know that he is always there for you. Look up to him always.