Cholera epidemic: God has been very kind to us with poor hygiene level in Lagos, Nigeria –Dr. Sonny Kuku

By Agatha Emeadi

The cholera epidemic which broke out in Lagos and later marched through 31 other states as at last count, has continued to claim lives. It is to a large extent the result of very poor food handling practices coupled with the failure of drinking water regulation and laxity of environmental monitoring agencies.

Accomplished physician and endocrinologist par excellence, renowned scholar and Co-founder of the Eko Hospital Plc, Dr Sonny Kuku, the Olor’Ogun, who was recently bestowed with the prestigious title of Ogbeni Oja of Ijebu land, in this interview with Sunday Sun, took a hard look at the cholera outbreak and expressed displeasure that it was allowed to happen. He also touched on other issues of culture and particularly the insidious effort by spreadsheet specialists and hostile corporate raiders who know nothing about the vision of the founders of Eko Hospital, to take over the renowned health facility in the country’s private sector healthcare delivery firmament. 

What are your thoughts on the cholera epidemic that began in Lagos and has spread to several states across the country?

The cholera outbreak in Lagos State was an accident waiting to happen, especially considering the various teachings and knowing that potable water is probably the most important element in the wellbeing of the human being. To start with, proper potable water is not available in Lagos. Most people depend on boreholes. Then, where it is even available, the hygiene is so poor. Then again, people hardly wash their hands. When they wash plates, they use the same water for other things. The wells and boreholes are contaminated as well. If you see where the food handlers cook the food that they serve the general public, you will not eat that food again. If you also see the drains near where they prepare the foods, I can only say that honestly, God has been very kind with the level of hygiene in Lagos State and in Nigeria. It is amazing to imagine what else would happen. So, this outbreak has been waiting to happen and the reason it has not spread the way it did is because these days antibiotics are easy to buy. So many people have antibiotics on their body for other things, especially for the famous typhoid which has been over diagnosed. So, every other person who says they have typhoid and malaria, they get their drugs which in many ways prevent malaria. Then, the drugs that cure typhoid are also effective against cholera and that is why cholera has been suppressed. Now, because those drugs have been overused, people are now having drug resistance. Cholera is very infectious.

Again, to tell you the level of unhygienic nature of Lagosians, if you get to parties, try and get behind the hall and see the way the food is dished to serve the guests. Some even serve leftover food to other guests. Also go and visit some restaurants’ kitchens; you will not like to eat again. Simple food like bread that is wrapped, just go and see the way it is wrapped from the bakery. In fact, in all these negligence, nature has been so kind to us all. People have developed antibodies to all these infections. But then, once in a while a very virulent organism would come out which would overcome all these drugs.

What is the way out?

We just need to spend more time on hygiene. Years ago, Nigeria was a very safe place because we had inspectors employed by the local governments who go round to make sure that refuse and drains were cleared. They also made sure that there was no stagnant water for mosquitoes to breed. They used to be called Woli-Woli, someone who looked into your house to make sure that your surroundings were hygienic enough. When they came to see the environment they could go into the house too to make sure that things were done well. At times people sang for them that they only saw mosquito larvae and nothing else.

Government has attributed the cholera outbreak to tiger nut drink. How true is that?

Why tiger nuts? Is it only tiger nuts that people drink? Even bottled water –  an area that the National Agency for Food and Drugs Administration and Control (NAFDAC) has turned blind eyes on. Have you gone to see where individual bottled water brands are made?  Many people just go to the back of their house, dig a borehole and begin to produce bottled water. So, it is not only about tiger nuts and Zobo drinks, there are so many areas that these kinds of producers will never pass the test. Yet, it is an industry that is sustaining the system and the government turns its eye off them. If they were to go after them, this relatively clean water would not be there. Even river water, if you do not drain it, once it is flowing, it is okay; but just that it depends on where it is flowing from, maybe from where people are washing clothes or defecating. Once water is flowing, it tends to sieve out the dirt.

What should the government do to salvage the health of the people?

Basically, it is not about the government alone. From the basics, families should learn hygiene. They should know what to do in the area of cleanliness. Government is another layer entirely. Then when pupils go to primary schools, they should be taught hygiene as a subject. When that is done, the government can now come in because they cannot regulate what people do not know how to go about it. If the government says wash your hands, people can query why they should wash their hands when they did not eat. So, even if the government comes in, the foundation, social unit should be the sought after one first.

You just came back from the popular Ojude Oba festival where you played a prominent role. What exactly is the significance of the festival?

My ancestors from my lineage, where I am a direct descendant, were the founders of the Ojude Oba festival. I am talking about the Balogun Kuku lineage from Ijebu Ode. He was a famous warlord in Ijebu and probably the richest in his time with fame as well. So, with his charisma, whatever religion he takes is very important as a warlord. He actually popularized Islam in Ijebu and converted about 70 to 80 percent and then turbanned them. Now, the Ijebus normally go and pay a pagan homage to the king, but since Balogun Kuku was no longer a pagan, he could not go with his people, but decided to have his own entourage to go pay homage to the king. He then chose the third day after the Ileya festival. That was how Ojude Oba festival started as a purely religious event around the Muslims celebration. With time, it became secular, which involved Muslims, Christians, pagans and all others. Everyone is there because it is the biggest festival in Ijebu land. In that manner, not only was Balogun Kuku the greatest warlord, but an Islamic clergy who used to be called ‘Esin Kuku’ which means that Balogun Kuku did not start Islam, but brought it. Based on that, he popularized Islam and Ojude Oba in Ijebuland. With time, it has gotten bigger and better and the Kuku family has been involved in Ojude Oba since 1904 or even earlier. The focus then was for the warlords in Ijebu who followed him to pay homage to the Awujale (The king). That went on for a long time, but the current Awujale has raised it to another level.

What is the icing on the cake now?

What he has done now is to break people into various age groups which the Igbo people call age grades. People that were born within a certain specific age are encouraged to come together, dressed in a particular outfit different from another age group. Those outfits that were showcased belonged to different age groups. It is not for societies, but for age groups. They start by parading with their outfits, after which the  come around to perform, then run around the whole town to perform.

What was the achievement of Ojude Oba?

First of all, the main achievement was to pay homage to the Awujale. Now, it has become a unifying factor for all Ijebu people, not just Ijebus. People come from all over the world to celebrate and it takes about 6 hours.

Though it is a one-day event, it is heavily crowded; with time it might exceed one day. Then again, there are many competitions which include best dressed female and male groups, then the best horse riders. Modesty prevents me from saying that the Kuku family has won horsemen riding in the last nine to 10 years since it started. I have been involved in horse riding very much. In fact, I am the Olor’Ogun which means (head of war chiefs).

It is Balogun’s right. My family has had Balogun for a long time. Then, eventually the Kabiyesi gave us this Olor’Ogun as a family title. That is why you can see Balogun Kuku dynasty; because it is a title. It is only our family that can take it. I used to actually lead the Kuku family into the arena with a horse then. With my present elevation as the Ogbeni Oja of Ijebu land, the highest non-hereditary traditional title in Ijebu land, I ride the horse-drawn chariot like the royal family. It is like a prime minister. Based on this, I now sit with the king to receive people. But when my ancestral lineage, Balogun Kuku came, I came down to join to pay homage to the king.

Does Ojude Oba festival bring any development stride in the state?

Yes, of course it does. It drives people to make sure the place is developed. The 2024 Ojude Oba festival is estimated to have brought about N10 billion to the economy within one week of its celebration. It starts from the Muslim holiday for three days until a day after. In Ijebu, all the hotels were fully booked for one week non-stop. All the clothings and daily partying is like a carnival. The aim now is to make it a tourist event. We are very proud of it because every year it gets better.

The fashion and colouration were much!

In every home in Ijebu, there was an on-going celebration and everybody was cooking. When we go to pay our homage to Awujale, it does not stop there. The horsemen now ride round the town, and every town they visit, there will be heavy speakers, blaring of music. Artistes were ready for entertainment all day and that really brought money into the system. Kwam-1 had a special stand and performed all through. Though the merriment is not enough, we are now looking into infrastructural development. In fact every year, the Chairman of Ojude Oba invites guests in the class of presidents and governors alike, heavy captains of industries; the event is at a very high level. So, it is really quality.

Let’s step a bit away from the Ojude Oba festival.  You are one of the co-founders of Eko Hospital which was a very prominent hospital years ago. It was either Eko Hospital or nothing. With new hospitals springing up with state-of-the-art equipment, what is that state of Eko Hospital today?

Of course you know, every business has its ups and downs. Right now, it is going through the down part of it. But attempts are being made to raise it up again. That is one thing about hospitality and hospitals because other things happen and people move. But in this case, it is not really a movement. It is because there have been some attempts to take it over through the back door. A hostile kind of thing. There has been in-fighting among the board members and shareholders.

Though death has occurred, three of you, Eneli, Kuku and Obiora are still there as shareholders?

Yes. my partners have passed on. Eneli was the first to pass on 20 years ago while Obiora passed about two or three years ago. But they still have their shares in Eko Hospital. Somebody is trying to displace us because Nigerians like good things. One of the things that happened was because we became very famous not just in service. We were the first hospital to be quoted on the stock exchange. It was the first organized business concern in the health sector; and that is what corporate traders are looking for. They now want to reap where they did not sow. There is a lot of legal battles which are very painful. Eko Hospital was a very standardized trending hospital then. The service was at international level. Then, it also trained medical practitioners like doctors, nurses and laboratory technicians. It was a training and research centre as well. So, it was a tertiary hospital. In fact, it was the first private hospital that was recognized as a tertiary hospital in Nigeria. Eko Hospital had many things going for it and therefore became a darling of all. Then these corporate raiders came because it is quoted, one can go to the stock exchange and buy shares from there without knowing the vision of the founders. That hospital, even if anyone brings N50 billion into it, it will not achieve anything because someone needs to know the thinking of the founders and the way they planned it. It is not easy to have a hospital that serves, trains and does research and is all over the place. So many things that are looking simple today like kidney dialysis, cancer treatment all started from Eko hospital. It was the only cancer treatment centre in the private sector. In fact, then all the cancer treatment centres in the government hospitals collapsed and they relied on Eko Hospital. It was the same in all other areas of medicine. It was something else.

With the standard of service then, was there still medical tourism?

Oh yes. People were still going abroad because Eko Hospital was not enough. That was why most of the private hospitals sprang up to reduce medical tourism. I remember people used to come directly and indirectly to spy on us. They will say please tell us what you did to get this place running effectively and we told them. Many of these big hospitals borrowed a leaf from us and I did not mind because the sky is too big for all the birds to fly. So, it is really a pity that greed entered. The partners are still together which was one of the reasons we went public. It belonged to three of us, now it is about 15,000 of us. People have shares; in that case except the institution fails, it is there in perpetuity.

Were three of you Eneli, Kuku and Obiora (EKO) friends or schoolmates before you came into partnership?

No. we were not at all. In fact, the age difference between us is large. Obiora was the oldest, followed by Eneli and I am the youngest. We joined because we were in different specialties and circumstances made us come together. It was all by accident and when God drives you in the right direction.

Were you all in the same field?

No. I am a physician and an endocrinologist. Obiora was a surgeon while Eneli was a gynecologist. So, we were three major specialists. What we didn’t have was a pediatrician, but that was a child’s physician which could be treated by an adult’s physician as well. That was how we worked and worked well. The hospital was purposely built by G-Cappa, who were the first-tier builders. We did not have any foreign influence. In any case we were all coming from abroad so there was nothing they were going to teach us. We used to look after the American Embassy staff because the American who was in-charge of their health said, this is an indigenous hospital. They came for inspection and asked us about our technical partners and we said the three of us were the technical partners. We settled to talk, I told him this was an indigenous idea, promoted for the society and that was one of our major breakthroughs then. They were paying us in dollars.

The post Cholera epidemic: God has been very kind to us with poor hygiene level in Lagos, Nigeria –Dr. Sonny Kuku appeared first on The Sun Nigeria.

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