At the just concluded International AIDS Conference in Barcelona, Peter Piot, UNAIDS director, repeatedly stated his wish for a day when elections would be won and lost on the issue of HIV/AIDS, a day when leaders would win or lose elections on the basis of how much they had done or planned to do on HIV/AIDS. While this may sound extreme to some, there is no doubt that this disease with potential to gravely affect all spheres of life should occupy a prominent role on any political manifesto in the twenty-first century. For HIV/AIDS is so closely and inextricably linked to economic and social development, that any plans for growth and development that do not take it into account are bound to fail.
In Nigeria, as we approach 2003 and fresh elections into all levels of political office, the time is ripe to begin to put HIV on the political agenda. Nigeria currently has one of the fastest growing epidemics in West Africa, based on recently released statistics. To turn the tide requires massive commitment from all sectors of the country and especially by the political leadership. This has been achieved in Senegal and Uganda and there is no reason why it cannot be done in Nigeria.
The government of President Obasanjo has made some effort in addressing the issue. The President himself has become a personal advocate on the issue, a fact alluded to by Dr Piot. His speaking up on HIV, reaching out to people living with HIV and setting up of a multi-sectoral presidential committee on HIV/AIDS are worthy of commendation. Similarly the pilot anti retroviral treatment programme, the Ford Foundation sponsored National HIV reference laboratory and the Gates Foundation funded AIDS Prevention Initiative Nigeria (APIN) are all steps in the right direction Nevertheless, Nigeria still has a long way to go. The fact that for three years there were two parallel government organizations overseeing HIV activities was one major drawback that has hindered prevention and care efforts. Hopefully the recent emergence of a single agency may yield positive changes.
The tasks ahead of the new agency are enormous. At the moment, voluntary counselling and testing is virtually non-existent in the country, adolescent sexual health programmes are in their infancy and standardized treatment guidelines for sexually transmitted infections and opportunistic infections are either still in development or are not yet implemented. Safe blood for transfusion is not yet guaranteed. Research into various aspects of the disease is either non-existent or under-funded. There is no functional Ethical Committee to review research proposals. The private sector health facilities which see a significant number of patients have not yet been fully incorporated into the National HIV control programme. Most multinationals in Nigeria are yet to implement comprehensive care and prevention programmes for their work forces. Faith based organizations are only slowly rising to the challenges posed by the epidemic.
While the situation appears daunting, it provides a lot of challenges. It is up to the different sectors of Nigerian society to rise to these challenges. This is why the issue of HIV/AIDS must be placed on the front burner in the coming elections. What have the various local government chairmen and councillors done in this area? Governors? Legislators?
They must be held accountable on this score. It behoves us all, the people of Nigeria, to demand this. The media have an important role to play in this regard. People like Omololu Falobi of Journalists Against AIDS in Nigeria have led the way. We must all move with them to sensitize the Nigerian populace to why they should only vote for candidates with a coherent agenda on HIV/AIDS.
The various non-governmental organizations working in this area need to present a coordinated effort in this regard. Persons living with HIV and their support groups must make their voices heard. The role of activists in enhancing global responses to HIV is well documented. It is time we learnt from these lessons and applied them in our own contexts.
As the elections draw near and we demand water, education, housing and affordable food from aspiring office holders, let there also be a distinct voice calling for HIV prevention and care.