Dr. Jide Idris, as the Commissioner for Health in Lagos State, has been on top of his game in handling health care challenges in the state, a factor, which probably explains why he has kept his job all through the tenures of three governors- Asiwaju Bola Tinubu, Babatunde Fashola and the incumbent Akinwunmi Ambode. It was under him the dreaded killer disease, Ebola, broke out and was successfully contained. Also, the ministry has done a lot in taming and checking the spread of the latest contagion, Monkey pox which ravaged and claimed lives in other states.
The longest serving commissioner in the state of aquatic splendor, speaks with Effects about his former bosses, the success story of the Lagos health sector, his lifestyle and more.
Kindly share your experience working with these three governors- Tinubu, Fashola, and now Ambode?
Let me put it this way. The three of them have different styles of operation. I worked with them at different phases of Lagos State. Asiwaju when democratic dispensation came, of course, there were things he had to do in context of that period. To me, he has been a wonderful person. I think he’s a strategist and a great planner. I think again, he brought the experience of working in the private sector. He’s a chartered accountant in a private sector and again his leadership style; he has a flair for picking people he thinks are capable of doing the job. He has flair for it. I think during his time, a lot of planning was done for Lagos State. That was a time of change from military to civilian dispensation. The period he came in is slightly different from the period the other two came in. On that basis alone, I look at him as somebody who is a visionary, he has leadership qualities, he understands how to groom people and he is a team player.
The other two are very good. The next person was Fashola. (BRF). He’s a different person from Asiwaju. He doesn’t have the political experience Asiwaju had; I think he developed that later because he was never a politician. He too had his own style. Ambode is slightly different. Frankly, I’m still trying to understand him. He has his positive colour. He is a focused person, he knows what he wants, he’s an accountant, but I think his style is slightly different. BRF and Ambode were also part and parcel of the planning process that Asiwaju put in place, so implementing some of these things were much easier. Ambode is relatively quiet, Fashola too is relatively quiet. Ambode, from my own perception, has kind of empowered the civil servants in Lagos a bit more as against the previous government. Like I said, the three of them have different styles, but again, they are all focused, they are all part of the planning process that Asiwaju raised. Asiwaju had a combination of people in the civil service, people from outside the government, in the oil sector, with specific needs and again they were brought up again to address the challenges at that period. But with Ambode, there is recession now and he’s working very hard. In spite of the recession, you know he’s also an accountant; he has a tighter control of finances, because of what he inherited. They are all wonderful people to work with, though they have different styles of operation.
Who among them is most challenging to you?
Hmm, it’s interesting. I will look at challenges from the point of view of what happened during the period of governance. With Asiwaju, I was mostly a permanent secretary. I more or less worked as a technical person. With BRF and Ambode, I was a commissioner, part of the policy -making group. In terms of challenges, you need to understand the people you work with, they have their different styles. I will say during BRF’s term I had some issues. Doctor’s strike and all that. That absolutely posed a challenge. But here, because I’m still not used to his style of operations as a financial person, I think I like challenges, let me put it that way. Quietly, you study people and you operate, you try to get your own thing in terms of getting your own results.
Tell us the success story of the health sector in Lagos State, having been there for years?
The success story is also dependent on the style of the person you work with. I’m fully convinced that in anything you do, if you don’t have governance, you don’t have a leadership, you can’t do much because those traits are charts that you pass through. It took me a while to fully understand that. That’s what Asiwaju did. There are positive issues in terms of policies and governance. Policies were laid, and again, that was because they looked into the past. When he first came in (Asiwaju), he set up these committees of people who advised him in different areas. He gave us what we want to work with, which we worked with for some time before we started having our own path.
Secondly, the idea that you are bringing private sector initiative into governance in civil service was good. I think that was the thing that created a positive growth for Lagos State, because you needed to get out of the box. You needed to unshackle yourself from the bureaucracy of governance. Thirdly, you are not scared of innovating. You try anything if you fail, you try again. That is what it’s all about as long as you keep it at heart that you are spending people’s money. Again, we didn’t limit ourselves to the health sector. Our bench mark actually was not within the country, but what is happening in other developed countries. That’s our aspiration, that’s our goal. Again, Lagos State is peculiar, there’s a greater awareness on the part of people of Lagos, so you have to be on your toes. They have peculiar expectations which you must fulfill. Again, over a time we decided to go into reform agenda. Things were not working, we needed to sit back again, why is this not working, how is it done over there, what is it we are doing wrongly. Contrary to what people think, the health sector is very wide. People think the health environment is just hospital, No. The health sectors are things that are not visible, but without which we cannot operate. But we are lucky, in the sense that if you look at the primary health care system, then the local governments are being aided by public health expertise. So we supported the primary health care system there. Again, because of leadership style, we are doing things to create evidence for us to work on. We are looking at health sector in its totality we are not afraid to implement. We are not afraid to try new things. We have efficient private sector in Lagos State here to complement our efforts. So we are able to plan, we are able to strategize; we are able to develop the information systems. For instance, when I got to the ministry of health even as permanent secretary, I looked at the structure in the civil service, the planning section was under director of finance and admin. I insisted that for a health sector for Lagos State, we must have a health planning unit, because without that, we can’t even move forward. Health care planning is a specialty. It’s different from the way administrators looked at it who are not health people. So, with that health planning unit, you need all collated data, all different data you need for you to succeed. Again, the experience in which you sit down in your office they just post doctors to the ministry from the civil service, I said no, I don’t need these kinds of doctors. They asked why? I tell them if I need doctors I will put them in the hospitals. For the health ministry, there is specific requirement for it to move forward.eg: policy making, programme development, monitoring, it was because of that again we decided to go to the first reform agenda. Look at public health issues, population health, not individual health. If you are able to team that together you have a broader picture of the health system. Again, what of the ill functioning in the health system: leadership and governance, infrastructure, primary health care, health care financing, public enlightenment, technology, you must have your consumable drugs available, research. If you are able to look at all these in totality, you can now address areas you feel you are lacking. All those things are intertwined.
Who influenced you to become a doctor?
In a way there are three people I can try to think of. My mum because of her motherly role. I have an auntie who was a matron in Island Maternity. She was the first person who talked me into medicine. Of all the three of them, my late uncle has the most influence on me. I was closer to him than I was with my dad. Without him, I might have ended becoming something else. I could have been a mechanic, carpenter or taxi driver.
That means you were probably wild growing up?
I was a quiet person. I grew up in central Lagos. (Tokunboh street in Isale Eko) I went to Holy Cross Catholic School, (next to the Cathedral) then Kings College. I wasn’t rascally, but my uncle just decided No, I’m taking you out of this environment. I don’t know why he did it, but I think that movement more or less changed the course of my life.
What has life taught you as a person?
Life is not a bed of roses. Life will always present you with challenges it depends on how you react to these challenges. If you react positively it makes you a better, stronger person. You learnt lessons from it. If everything is going good, good, it becomes boring. Like somebody says our life is to solve problems. There a colleague of mine, he used to say something about ‘One Life’ and each time he said it I used to fight him, but now I’m thinking about it again. At times, what you plan in life may not necessarily be what God has planned for you. If you are facing challenges find the ability to face those challenges and ask God to give you the strength and wherewithal to face these challenges.
Did you say one life?
I will give you an example. When I had the doctors’ crises. It was a major issue, a prolonged one in Lagos State. Up till now many people did not know what was behind it. It was a period of my life I learnt great lessons. It was a conspiracy, people within the system, and God gave me the strength at that point in time. All of a sudden things changed. At the end of the day people saw what was happening. At first, I was being assaulted (laughs) that’s a story for another day.
Conspiracy? So, how did you cope and managed to be the longest serving commissioner?
It is the Grace of God. There are people who believe in you and give you the full support quietly; and people did not know. When Ebola struck, I was just reacting to it and making frantic effort to curb it. One thing I believe is that if you are passionate about your job, have fear of God and you have not gone your way to hurt anybody, not biased, things will work your way. If you have challenges at the end of the day, the challenges will strengthen you.
You look good; do you do anything extraordinary to keep in shape?
(Laughs) I don’t know about looking good ooh. But throughout my life in secondary school I was a heavy sportsman. I played cricket, I played hockey, I played tennis, I was a competitive squash player. I did not have the issue of being fat. Over the time, I had surgery on my neck, I had to stop all those active sports, because of that I started having weight problem. Then, I addressed my diet. Now, I play golf. I can’t sit down in one place, though I have back ache, I love to do one sport or the other. I wish I had time to play golf more frequently. What I do may not be necessary good for you. I love eating meat, I don’t smoke, and I drink coffee a lot. I love my brandy; I drink beer but not excessively just social drinker.
When you are not thinking about Lagos State, how do you unwind?
What I get to hear now is that I don’t unwind, that I spend all my time working. The reason is that if anything goes wrong in the health sector I will be held responsible. There’s a reason to delegate. I don’t switch off my phones, because I can have emergency at any time. At times again people can be very selfish; they call you up at mid night for very flimsy things. But the fact remains that you never know which call is emergency. Though some people feel they must call the commissioner anyway, I think there’s need to educate people about that.