No ethnicity, favoritism in FUHSO -Prof. Ujah …hails Ortom for ceding hospital to University

Professor Innocent Ujah

Professor Innocent Ujah is the pioneer Vice -Chancellor of the Federal University of Health Sciences (FUHSO), Otukpo in Benue State. A former Director-General of the Nigeria Institute of Medical Research and immediate past National President of the Nigeria Medical Association (NMA). In this interview with The Voice Editorial Team, the professor of medicine spoke on the level of development in the institution since inception, his vision and mission and the culture of merit and transparency in university administration, among other issues.

As pioneer Vice Chancellor of FUHSO, how has the journey been so far?

It may interest you to know that the university was established in 2019 by the federal government. However, the appointment of the principal management staff was done in 2020 by President Mohammadu Buhari. It’s the first of its kind in Nigeria; therefore, we’re making history. When we started working, we were using a small apartment at the National University Commission (NUC). We were allocated three rooms.  One for me, one for the Registrar and one for the Bursar. It was not comfortable but, we didn’t mind because we were determined to succeed.

We later decided to relocate to Otukpo to closely monitor the progress of work. Here, we were operating from hotel rooms while renovation work was ongoing on structures inherited from the Youth Development Centre of the Federal Ministry of Youth and Sports which today, serves as the temporary site of FUHSO.  We then saw that there was a need for recruitment of foundation staff to enable the institution to take-off. So we put up adverts in national dailies; the Head of Service approved 350 for us, but, over 30,000 applications were submitted.  And that goes to show the level of unemployment in this country.

But, since ours was a specialized institution, we could not select everybody. We only went for   those with the requisite technical-scientific skills.  We also recruited academic staff  for the take -academic programmes, And we started with nine (9) programmes, namely Medicine and Surgery Biochemistry, Microbiology, Computer Science, Biostatistics, Biology, Physics as well as Mathematics.

For the commencement of Medicine and Surgery, we admitted 100 students. This is unique. It had never happened in the history of medical education in Nigeria the intake at the formative stage is usually fifty (50) students for a new university. And I tell you, this is unusual as I’ve been involved in the accreditation of Medical programmes since 1992 being a member of Medical and Dental Council of Nigeria.  Being a medical school, you need to see the persons you are recruiting so we conducted a physical recruitment exercise. We got some pre-clinical, clinical, science and other relevant subjects like English. Although English is not medical but to study Medicine in Nigeria, you need English. At 100 level, what you need is mostly pre-clinical and science subjects. At this level, everyone study together but at 200 level which, is the stage we’re now, the knowledge of clinical comes in. You begin the study of Medicine.  Here, you go into   anatomy, physiology Biochemistry. We also needed clinical staff in anticipation of the studies at teaching hospital.  Although, we could not get all but we got some. There is a brain drain in the country now.

Editor, The Voice Newspaper, Solomon Ayado(right), explains an interesting point to Prof. Innocent Ujah, during the interview.

At this juncture, we must appreciate the effort of the Governor of Benue State, Samuel Ortom for unconditionally ceding the General Hospital Otukpo to the university as its temporary teaching hospital. Some work has been done on it. All we are waiting for now is the official handing-over of the structure to the Federal Ministry of Health. Within one year, we were able to admit students to study Medicine and other courses. In fact, when NUC said we would not be able I said we could and with the commitment of my staff, we succeeded. In fact, at that time the school was on the JAMB portal so we could not advertise it on it. But, once we sent notice that people who were interested should chance the choice of institution, many came. And we selected the best rigorous screening. Within one and a half year we commenced academic programme and had a very successful matriculation. The governor was represented at the event by the state Commissioner for Health Dr Joseph Ngbea. We also had a successful session because by NUC policy, new universities are exempted from ASUU strike. Another set of students have been admitted. We’re now in our second year. When you came in what you met us doing was orientation for our fresh students. For our students who are going to 200 level, going to read Medicine we’ll have their orientation. So that is how we have gone; it has not been easy, but, we thank God. In a way, we have done our best. We can’t say we’re perfect because in life, there is no perfection. I cannot say there are no challenges, there’re so many challenges.

Also, we had a commitment from TetFund. It gave us a grant and as I’m talking to you now, construction work for the school as well as the teaching hospital is ongoing at the permanent site at Akwete -Akpa.  We’ve 600 hectares of land. We are constructing a College of Medical Sciences. We are constructing the administrative block which includes Senate building. We are constructing lecture theatres, faculty of Science and auditoriums and very soon work will commence on hostels and principal officers’ quarters.

How are you managing the issue of accommodation at this moment?

As I told you earlier, this is a medical school, so right from the onset the culture and tradition of Medicine was brought into it. The idea of in-housing for students was thought out right from the beginning. Tradition demands that as a medical student, you must be accommodated on campus. So, we are going into the second year and the issue of accommodation is being adequately addressed.  The beauty of it all was that some of the community members were very fast. Before we knew, some of them started building structures around the campus. We went into MOU with them and the buildings were leased to the school.  Odata was a remote area before the coming of the university.  Look at the tarred road, which is the fallout of the community in addition to the university.

The host community has been very supportive. Some indigenes even gave free accommodation to some of our staff. That is community development. Part of it is that when we started, we carried out community sensitization.  We involved community leaders and rulers. We even paid courtesy visits to the Och’Idoma and the Tor-Tiv and this has helped us greatly.

How about ensuring security?

The issue of insecurity is also being adequately handled, we don’t want our students to get mixed up with miscreants from outside, if that happens, social vices will begin to set in.  Do you know what?  Part of what we did during admission was to send a letter of undertakings to their parents which they signed with their phone numbers. Here, we do not tolerate cultism, sexual harassment, substance abuse among others.

There are widespread allegations of ethnicity and sectionalism in the conduct of affairs of the university. Why is it so?

Here, where you come from does not matter. For our recruitment you have to be qualified and; you pass through the screening and interview process and if you pass, you are taken. You don’t need to know anybody. It is based on merit.

When I came in, some people came and said give us allocation and I told them we don’t have any allocation to give. Even if you come with a written note, we ask you to pass through the stages of the recruitment test and if you pass, you are employed.  None of my staff can say he or she gave any money to anybody before being employed.  In FUHSO, we have people from all over Nigeria, people from Igbo, Hausa, Yoruba and others. For my staff, if you are giving admission to anybody you must not ask for money. Here, we don’t sell handouts. We’re ICT compliance; as medical students we were given hangouts, but, we never bought handouts. If you sell handouts you go. There is nothing like sexual harassment. There’s nothing like a lecturer is drunk to class, even those staff who are not clinical. It’s in their appointment letters which they are made to sign and the moment you sign and you are involved and caught, you are going. You don’t need any disciplinary process because already you signed.

As it is, do you think the university can meet accreditation?

Yes, they are coming and we are ready for them. If they come we will pass. I asked them to wait, yet because I know what it entails. I have been involved in the accreditation of other medical schools. I was involved in the establishment of the Benue State College of Medicine, I and Prof. James Ayatse, the current Tor -Tiv under the leadership of late Prof. David Ker as Vice Chancellor. The college is one of the best in the country. However, at inception, the idea of teaching hospital was not adequately thought out. They thought they could succeed just like that. They were not listening to advice that was why their first set of students spent so many years to graduate. Ours will not be like that as we’re giving that the right attention.

There are some persons who were instrumental in lobbying the federal government for the establishment of the university. What have you done in appreciation to them?

The fact that the university is here is more than enough appreciation to them. And that we are carrying the banner of excellence is an achievement. I wish you know what I suffered before I got here. I came on merit not because of the role I played in the establishment of the university.  When I came, I also became the president of NMA. And let me tell you, when I was contesting for the NMA, people doubted my ability to handle the two positions without contradictions. They said I would sell NMA. But, I headed the two posts creditably; I did not sell NMA to government or government to NMA. I’m the first in the country to be Vice Chancellor and a union leader simultaneously.

ASUU strike is incessant. How do you intend to cope?

The issue of frequent strike is destroying the university education. I don’t believe confrontation should always be the method use by ASUU to compel government to answer their demands. Government on its own hand should be more sincere in handling agreement signed with the union.

There is this perception that with the establishment of the University of Health Sciences in Otukpo and the College of Health Sciences of the Benue State University in the Tiv axis, there is this ploy not to allow Tiv gain admission into your institution. Why?

As I said earlier, at FUHSO, we don’t discriminate. I myself was trained in ABU Zaria, worked at the University of Jos. I had everything I wanted in Jos. I rose to become the Chief Medical Director of Jos Teaching Hospital and l later became a Dean of Faculty. From then, I was appointed as DG Nigeria Institute of Medical Research, Yaba Lagos, an Idoma man for that matter. In our place, all we care for is your qualification. When conducting the orientation exercise this morning, I asked every student to identify himself. And it was not surprising we have students from Adamawa, Akwa-Ibom, Cross-River and all over the country. In all my life, l craves for merit. Ask the Commissioner for Health, Dr Ngbea if at the University of Jos, I collected from anybody as bribe or asked for sex to pass a student. That is the way I was brought up. Although, I’m not perfect. We are humans.

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