The recently concluded XVI International AIDS Conference witnessed a strong Nigerian contingent of participants; perhaps not surprisingly considering the daunting statistic that 1 in every 4 sub-Saharan Africans is a Nigerian. From journalists to clinicians to activists to people living with HIV, to Nigerians living and working abroad – they were all abundantly represented in Toronto.
The first event at which I came across other Nigerians was the opening event of the first ever Black African/Caribbean Diaspora stream at an international AIDS conference. Drawing together black African and Caribbean groups in Diaspora from Europe and North America, there were several Canadian- Nigerians present at this thought-provoking and historic event. Most of these were professionals resident in Toronto and either working in the area of HIV or with strong interests in the area. One of the speakers, Dr Cheikh Traore from London announced during his presentation that he was half-Mauritanian and half-Nigerian, which earned him cheers from the Nigerians in the audience. He emphasized that it was important to acknowledge all the different groups affected, including the marginalized and voiceless, if the battle against HIV was to be won.
No less controversial was my second encounter with a Nigerian speaker- Ibrahim Umoru, a peer educator living with HIV who with wit, humour and good grace illustrated the challenges that face people living with HIV in Lagos especially as far as access to second-line drugs were concerned. His tale of having to keep his drugs in the house of a friend who had a generator in order to ensure that the erratic power supply did not destroy his medication drew gasps from the audience. He also talked about how the lack of adequate counselling before he commenced treatment had led him to initially stop treatment after he ran out of funding about five years ago. He paid tribute to his current employers- Medicins Sans Frontieres MSF whose treatment programme in Lagos he lauded as one of the best in the country. He then spoke to support MSF’s campaign to ensure that the big pharmaceutical companies make the second line drugs available to all who need them at affordable prices. Ibrahim’s eloquence and passion, which he attributed to his international exposure since he publicly disclosed his HIV status was awe-inspiring.
A significant proportion of the Nigerian delegates present were journalists- from both print and broadcast media. From NTA, I spotted Sele Eradiri and Rabi Hassan; from Radio Lagos, Bimbo Odumosu who had won a media scholarship to the conference; and from the Guardian were Ben Ukwuoma and Ebere Ahanihu, who presented at the Journalist to Journalist pre-conference workshop. At the pre-conference workshop, I rashly offered to help find a Nigerian restaurant in Toronto for Ebere and Bimbo- a promise that they did not let me forget and which sadly, I was unable to fulfil by the time the conference ended. This was not because there were no Nigerian restaurants in Toronto. On the contrary, there were many, but they all seemed to be situated far from the city centre where the conference was holding, and therefore difficult to locate.
Other journalists present included the contingent from Journalists Against AIDS which included Omololu Falobi, the founder; Olayide Akanni who was later to act eloquently as one of the Chief Rapporteurs at the closing session of the conference and Ogechi Eronini, programme officer. Akin Jimoh of Development Communications Network and Josephine Kamara of Internews were also present facilitating and supporting many of the Nigerian journalists in filing their stories.
Throughout the duration of the conference, I kept bumping into Nigerians in the numerous corridors as we dashed from one session to another. On the third day of the conference, word quickly spread that there was to be a meeting of all Nigerians present at the conference, convened by Professor Babatunde Osotimehin, chief executive of the Nigerian Aids Control Agency (NACA), the over-arching Nigerian governmental body on HIV. While some delegates grumbled at the meeting being convened by NACA even when the body did not know how some Nigerians had managed to make their way to the conference, the turn-out at the meeting was large, overwhelming the modestly sized meeting room that had been arranged for the purpose. Prospects for the success of the meeting were not improved by the loud drumming coming from the nearby Global Village, which nearly drowned out the Chairman’s introductory remarks. He welcomed everyone especially, the newly elected Primate of the Methodist Church of Nigeria- Patriarch Makinde whom he asked to open the meeting with a prayer. A special welcome was also extended to the Amanyanabo of Brass, Alfred Diete Spiff who was in attendance with a legislator from Bayelsa State. Also present were Dr Pierre Mpele of UNAIDS Nigeria, Dr Timi Koripamo-Agary of the Federal Ministry of Employment Labour and Productivity (representing the ILO), Dr Babatunde Ahonsi of the Ford Foundation, Nigeria and Charles Abani and Izeduwa Derex Briggs of Action Aid Africa Office in Kenya. Following introductions, Professor Osotimehin asked for contributions from the floor and the first few speakers emphasized the importance of fully involving civil society in the response to the epidemic. The Primate emphasized the importance of working with the leadership of NACA and appreciating what achievements had been made.
A number of delegates expressed their displeasure at the fact that Nigeria did not have an exhibition stand at the conference in direct contrast to many other African countries. This, they opined had robbed the country of the opportunity to showcase some of the achievements the country had made in tackling HIV.
Certainly, progress has been made, with between 60 000 and 100 000 Nigerians now on anti-retroviral treatment, a massive leap in under five years, though still short of the 3 million estimated to need treatment. Many civil society organizations were doing excellent work on HIV/AIDS and some of the faith-based organizations had also become involved, as well as many Nigerian businesses. A new curriculum incorporating sexuality education had been prepared by the Federal Ministry of Education and was now being implemented in a number of states. The absence of a forum to articulate these achievements was regretted.
Ms Nike Esiet of Action Health International asked the Nigerian government to be more proactive and forceful in dealing with international donors, especially in making it clear that Nigeria would formulate its own strategies and policies in-house and would not be dictated to by any donors. She expressed sadness that the government had not done this more forcefully especially in relation to the US government’s PEPFAR funding which came with a whole range of stipulations that she argued were not in Nigeria’s best interests.
The issue of Nigeria and PEPFAR funding was to re-echo in a press conference held by Congresswoman Barbara Lee from California who is proposing a bill to amend the US PEPFAR bill. In her bill which has won significant cross party and multi-faith support, Ms Lee is seeking among other things to remove the condition in the current bill that stipulates that 33 per cent of all US funding for HIV prevention must go to untested and unproven abstinence only programmes. In her presentation at the press conference, Lori Jacobsen revealed that in Nigeria, in 2005, 70 per cent of US government funding went to abstinence only programmes- over and above the 33 per cent requirement in the original Bill. Ms Jacobsen also revealed how in many countries, including Nigeria, PEPFAR funded treatment programmes were sucking up staff and patients from other programmes – t
hereby cannibalising other programmes instead of increasing capacity in terms of trained staff and number of patients on treatment. Congresswoman Lee paid tribute to the large number of Nigerian-Americans living in the United States and urged them to get in touch with their representatives and ask them to support her Bill.
Going back to the Nigerian meeting, the UNAIDS country representative for Nigeria Dr Pierre Mpele urged all Nigerian present to work together in tackling the HIV epidemic in the country stressing that we all had much to learn from each other and emphasizing that Nigeria is a very large country with a lot of challenges. He said that he was impressed with what he had seen during his stay in the country and hoped that the Toronto conference would provide an opportunity to build on those achievements.
Another important contribution at the meeting came from Dr Izeduwa Derex-Briggs of Action Aid who revealed that preparations were currently going on for the preparation of bids for a new round of the European EDF funding. She stressed the importance of Nigeria being fully involved and prepared in preparing its bid and asked that everyone present should go back and make enquiries to identify who was responsible for making Nigeria’s bid and to ensure that the bid was credible and robust enough. She also revealed that there was a meeting of legislators planned that evening and promised to provide the details to the legislator from Bayelsa State.
At the end of the meeting, contact details for all those present were collected by the NACA staff who promised to get in touch with every one after the conference. The meeting closed with Prof Osotimehin paying tribute to Professor Viola Onwuliri, the only Nigerian on the Governing Council of the International AIDS Society for acting as an effective ambassador for Nigeria during the planning of the Toronto conference.
The next event at which Nigeria featured prominently started off in a fairly innocuous manner. Chatting to Akin Jimoh in the Media Centre, we were approached by a woman brandishing a press release with Nigeria emblazoned at the top. While it was normal to have various media officers pushing their press releases and trying to promote their press conferences, it was the Nigeria in the title that sparked our interest. Together with Rabi from NTA, we asked for copies of the press release and settled down to study it. The press release was from the international organization, Physicians for Human Rights and it announced the results of a new study that the group said had found that “a disturbing number of health care professionals in Nigeria engage in discriminatory behaviour toward treatment and care of People Living With AIDS.” Akin and Rabi felt that this was not a new finding that warranted a press conference and they were concerned that while this research had been carried out together with the Nigeria- based Center for the Right to Health, there was no representative from the collaborating centre billed to speak at the press conference.
Carrying out a quick internet search revealed that the study had actually been carried out in 2001. Why then was it being presented as a new study? Mystified we headed to the press conference and following the presentation, asked the questions that had been bothering us- As this study had been carried out nearly five years ago when the level of awareness among healthcare workers and the general public was quite different from the present time, why was this study being presented with such fanfare? The representative from the organization explained that statistical analysis had taken a good deal of time leading to delays in releasing the results but that it was still an important finding. We disagreed, and Rabi asked why there was no mention that the research was carried out in conjunction with a Nigerian group- the Centre for the Right to Health – and the response was that this was an omission. By the time the press conference ended, some of the journalists present left grumbling at having wasted their time on an old story. It was a pity though that there was no official media officer from the Ministry of Health or the National AIDS Control Agency to counter some of these claims, for if we had not happened to be in the media centre at that time, the journalists at the conference would have gone with a false impression of Nigeria. Indeed that incident had me wondering why the Nigerian authorities had not held a press conference to highlight what they had been able to achieve since the last conference. Holding such a media event would for instance have been an occasion to celebrate the Nigerian based NGO Youth Empowerment and Child Labor Elimination Project which was one of 25 global finalists for the Red Ribbon Awards at the Conference. The group was nominated for its work in the education and empowerment of young people in the truck-stop communities of Cross River State, Nigeria.
There were many other events at which Nigerians were prominently represented but it was often difficult to get to them all as there were lots of other interesting events at the same time. At the closing ceremony Olayide Akanni of Journalists Against AIDS eloquently presented the Chief Rapporteurs summary report from the Community track of the conference to the audience. As delegates left re-energized to continue in the fight against AIDS, I was struck by the assertion from one speaker, that knowledge was not enough, committed action was what was needed. This certainly seemed like a useful message for Nigeria.