© 2019 - International Centre for Investigative Reporting
Imo residents suffer as government hospitals are abandoned, privatized
By Gabriel Ogunjobi
In July 2018, Mrs Emeka Jacinth lost her son, Wisdom at the tender age of 13.
The widow said her son may not have died of an enlarged spleen, popularly called ‘Apa-afo’ or ‘Nwapa’ among the Igbo, if she was able to afford medical care.
“I tried managing his deteriorating health traditionally until his body system could no longer fight this bloodsucking illness,” she bitterly flashed back, still mourning the young lad’s death after many weeks he had passed away.
Ironically, Mrs Emeka’s house is just a stone-throw to the Imo government’s uncompleted and abandoned Ezinihitte Specialist hospital located at Iho community in Ezinihitte Local Government.
If functional, the hospital could have given the family a ray of hope on the ailing boy before he died.
Bereaved of her husband since 2007, Mrs Emeka, a mother of four boys and one girl, and a peasant farmer, would have fought harder if a seer had told her she would later lose her first son after seven years of the father’s death.
To avert such fate, sixty-year-old Sylvania Nwoke in July 2018 resorted to spiritual help when her only daughter Stella started manifesting signs of illness in mid-year 2014.
Her face dimmed with distress, at the same time glowed with faith when this reporter met her and Stella at Living Faith Church in Amanze community, Obowo Local Government Area.
All hopes are now cast on the ‘great physician’ to cleanse her daughter as she could barely afford their feeding let alone pay medical bills.
‘In 2014, I returned to the village (from Plateau state) with my sick daughter who has been suffering mental illness. I first thought she was possessed of Ogbanje (water goddess) and went to several churches in search of deliverance’, recounts the old woman.
“Someone invited me to this church where she was miraculously healed of the infirmity but there is still one thing left, my daughter wakes up in the night once every month, rolling and vibrating on the floor helplessly,” ’, she said, trying to resist tears.
Asked how she has been coping since July 2018, she said: “I only gather and sell bitter leaves to feed her and myself. I don’t have any money! I wish the government can help in any way possible.”
The Evangelist, who sheltered Mrs. Nwoke and her daughter said God has healed the young lady of mental illness but she needs ‘to be exposed to thorough medical check-up’ with regards to the recurrent epileptic seizures she usually suffers every first week of the month.
As in Iho community, the government hospital in Amanze community of Obowo Local Government is also uncompleted and abandoned.
These two edifices, both at Iho community, Ezinihitte LGA and Amanze community, Obowo LGA, are two of the 27 proposed general hospitals by the Imo state government in January 2013.
When this reporter visited these supposed hospitals in October 2018 both have been taken over by bushes.
The initiative and its implementation
In 2013, the Imo State Government launched a N20 billion project to construct 27 specialist hospitals in all the 27 local government areas of the state.
These hospitals were conceived to make free health services available to the people at the grassroots, as well as attending to complex cases such as tuberculosis, cancer, psychiatry, among others so that people of the state would not have to travel abroad again for medical services.
Governor Okorocha – during his first tenure – got an approval of a bond from Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) in January 2013 to change the use of the N18.5 billion bond proceeds (which was once floated by the former governor of the state, Ikedi Ohakim) for the “construction of 27 modern general hospitals in each of the 27 local government areas of the state as well as the construction of the 305 modern primary and secondary schools in all the 305 wards in Imo State.”
Five years after, none of the hospitals is functional, leaving many citizens of Imo State doubtful of the good intention of their governor. Of the 27 proposed hospitals, four have been completed but not accessible yet to the people.
Findings revealed that the hospital building at Owerri North LGA has been completed, equipped with furniture and has been handed over to the Nigeria Airforce. The Nigeria Army is to take possession of the hospital facility at Owerri West, while the one at Ngor-Okpala has been given to the Nigeria Navy. The Nigeria Police will own the one at Ideato South upon completion, making it the fourth for the security agencies. The agencies will be responsible for the management of laboratories’ equipment and other medical machinery. These facts were confirmed by the state’s commissioner of health, Mrs. Angela Uwakwem when she spoke with this reporter on December 22, 2018.
The completed fifth yet inaccessible to the poor
The fifth hospital facility located at Ikeduru is still inaccessible to the people. Sources told this reporter that the Ikeduru Hospital has been partially privatized by the state government as it is now being managed by an American Company, International Healthcare Consulting, IHC.
Consequently, medical expenses at the Ikeduru hospital is quite high.
Austin Agbahiwe, the administrator of IHC earlier disclosed that the partnership would cost the foreign firm N1 billion.
“International Healthcare Consulting from the United States, being the owner of Imo International Health Systems Limited, agreed to take over hospitals belonging to the government of Imo State by providing necessary manpower, which includes medical doctors, nurses, para-medical workers and equipment to run the hospitals and at the end of the day, we have the understanding to pay rent to the government”, Agbahiwe was quoted by Independent Newspaper on May 7, 2018.
Ikeduru: the ‘no-go area’ hospital
Being the only general hospital completed and functional, the Ikeduru Hospital, specializing in Accident/Emergency cases and Cancer would have a soure of pride to the government, but the chrages at the hospital are beyond the reach of the general public .
Residents complain about the exorbitant cost of treatments even though the government promised that the medical facility would be free when completed.
Prince Chinedu, a building materials seller at the Amanwaozuzu Junction in Iho community quickly dismissed the expectation of getting anything free in the hospital. “Free kwa!“, exclaimed the man.
‘That place is a no-go area o…. my friend’s wife that had her child delivery there paid a sum of N90, 000. That hospital is very expensive. Just ask anyone around’, Chinedu complained.
At about noon on October 29th, 2018, this reporter went undercover to the medical facility to find out whether Chinedu’s claim is true or not. His request to see the Doctor for medical attention was turned down by Ms.Obiajunwa Nancy, a fair nurse at the reception.
‘Is this your first time of seeing him?’ she queried. ‘you will pay a token of N1,000 for Doctor’s consultation’.
After reluctantly withdrawing from the counter for few minutes, a peek on the template fixed at multiple places around the facility indicated that registration was free and that prompted the reporter to swiftly return for clarification.
‘Yes, registration is free’, she buttressed, drawing out the plastic card as she talks, ‘…but you will still have to pay that one thousand naira to see the Doctor.’
Pestering further, the reporter said he doesn’t have the money with him and he needs urgent medical attention.
The receptionist simply dismissed him. “I am very busy right now. When you come back, I will do everything for you together,” she said.
The experience of this reporter mirroring that of Iho residents is a sharp contrast to the promise of the governor.
The governor had earlier asserted while flagging off these projects in 2013 that although private firms will run the hospitals upon completion, patients would not be burdened in accessing any of the medical facilities but only made to pay a token of N200 for card registration.
The government’s scheme VS existing mess
The overall projects across the twenty-seven Local Government Areas were earmarked to cost N20.2 billion, with an estimated average of 750 million to be spent at each Local Government site.
The Okorocha-led government birthed the idea of constructing these ‘world class hospitals’ in 2013 was because the existing general hospitals were old and could no longer serve the purpose of sound health system in the 21st century, as Governor Okorocha put in a press release signed by the then Chief Press Secretary, William Unadike on October 28th, 2013.
In an interview with this reporter in November, the Imo state chairman of Hospital Workers Welfare Association, Mr. Friday Mgbemere dismissed the initiative as white elephant project.
Mr. Mgbemere said all the hospitals were intended to be concessioned to a private firm, Messrs Lantech Solutions Company, a move the Labour kicked against.
“We kicked against the concession because the state government was reluctant towards abiding to the rules of concession. We demanded the payment of our workers’ entitlements, equipping of the hospitals among other salient proposals. Moreover, our workers were not assured of job security after the concession hence we failed to consent to the move.”
Since the concession was aborted, most of the hospital building projects remain abandoned till date.
Why projects are abandoned
Anthony Igwe, the Director of Medical Services at the state’s ministry of health, who was once the acting permanent secretary, hinted that the project suffered a setback due to a paucity of funds.
He noted that half-way through construction, the Okorocha-led administration became overburdened by the high cost to complete and equip the hospitals to topnotch standards, hence, the need to source alternative means of funding.
The government wooed volunteer contractors to continue the project and later reimburse them after completion. This, according to the top civil servant, still didn’t materialize because the government breached part of the agreement.
‘Before this project was birthed, the governor had passed circulars to all the health practitioners in the state to enquire of us what can be done to improve the health sector in the state.
“We advised that if the deteriorating conditions must be salvaged, the government should equip the hospitals as well as recruit more staff. Instead of yielding, he fell prey to the counsel of his liked minds within the cabinet who were also ready to gulp money.
“By the time the reality that they had bite more they could chew dawned on them, they started inviting volunteer contractors to come and finish up while they reimburse them later. These people too later ran away when they began to incur debts as the government failed to meet up with the agreement.
Absolutely referring to the Ikeduru General Hospital managed by IHC, he added that ‘the only one that survived was the one at Ikeduru and this is an exception because of the intervention of an international team who were ready to institute cancer healthcare there.’
The doctor said fund intended to be spent on each of the hospitals would have catered for the needs in all the existing hospitals as at then rather than venture into a pipe dream in the construction of twenty-seven general hospitals.
Meanwhile, 70 per cent of the construction at Obowo from January 2013 – the clearing of the expanse of land, foundation-laying up till the roofing level – was handled by Dom-Serina owned by Architect Eddie Ndukaire but the government disengaged the company from completing the project in 2014.
The same project was re-awarded to Gosh Projects Limited, an Abuja-based construction company.
From the last week of August 2018, their workers first erected dwarf wall, which temporarily curbed the periodic cattle grazing on the premises, and also continued with some other minor interior works after experiencing a short delay for almost one month. This latest development by a different firm was supervised by a man named Mr. Jonas Garfield in this same local government.
Further investigation also revealed that the Gosh Project was as the same time in-charge of the same project at Ihitte-Uboma LGA but that the progress of the work there is still behind.
According to their website, the construction firm is also in-charge of construction of the hospital in Obinze, Owerri West LGA.
The Public Relations Officer at the State Ministry of finance, who insisted that his name should not be published, explained that the Rescue Mission administration of Governor Okorocha runs a vertical system of governance. What he implied by this is that the award of contracts come directly from the state house while the ministry are handicapped.
‘On this project you are seeking information, it does not take more than ten minutes for anyone to roll out the details but we do not have any. We never issued certificate for contract award, supervised nor evaluated neither did we pay the contractors’, the PRO stressed.
Almost the same response was gathered from the Director of Planning, Research and Statistics at the state’s ministry of health when enquiries were made at her office.
The Director, whose name could not be ascertained affirmed that the reporter’s expectation to fetch relevant paper-works on the procuring the health facilities should be sought within their agency but they are unfortunately sidelined in the scheme of things.
She was also confident to excuse consulting the Permanent Secretary for same reason.
In spite of these revelations, it is arduous to establish there was no fraudulent practice as such as inflation of contracts and award of contracts to incompetent individuals and firms especially as the abandonment of projects are recorded in several sites.
Attempts to reach Sam Onwuemeodo, the Chief Press Secretary to Governor Rochas Okorocha was abortive. When our reporter visited the government house on December 5, the securities resisted any passage until he calls his host but Onwuemeodo had said he was in a meeting that day and therefore could not grant an interview.
In another telephone conversation that lasted less than a minute on December 20, he told this journalist that the network was crappy and suggested that a text message be sent as he promised to reply. No reply came from him since the time the message was sent.
The State Commissioner for Health Angela Uwakwem noted that not all the remaining projects can be completed at the same time.
She said the government is currently building ten more hospitals, a partnering with some foreign firms to equip the laboratories.
“Not all of these hospitals will even be fully functional because of the high volume of staff that will require. What the government wants to do is to ensure each local government area has access to a doctor’s care.
“Some of these hospitals will kick-off as specialists hospitals while some will not have facilities to admit patients for now.
“Growing needs in comparison with the services rendered at any of these locations will subsequently call for expansion in the capacity,” Uwakwem added.
She refuted claims by the director for planning, research and statistics that the ministry was not carried along in the process.
‘They are supposed to have information but maybe they are careful about divulging it because they didn’t take some sort of permission,’ she said.
On the procurement process and re-award of contract, she claimed not to have full knowledge of the project inception as she only became commissioner in 2017.
“I became commissioner for health in December 2017 and by that time the projects were far gone. I didn’t follow the projects from inception and but I will expect that they must have complied with some kind of procurement process. Besides, you know there are different procurement options, some go to the State’s Tenders Board’.
“I don’t know the exact option implemented but I wouldn’t expect these projects to be under the ministry because of the level,” the commissioner said.