Nestled among the lush green woodland in Owerri’s near south-west, Umuokanne is a town of subsistent farming, rich culture, law-abiding citizenry, and hardscrabble living at the epicentre of Ohaji district in Imo State. It is home to an elite mix of civil servants working at the district office as well as the state secretariat, such as teachers at Umuokanne Comprehensive Secondary School; staff and students of Federal University of Technology Owerri; University of Agriculture Umuagwo; an Anglican diocese. It is complemented by armies of artisans, and a cluster of businesses ranging from retail shops to massive oil palm plantations and mills. Incidentally, over the past 10 years, political mendacity and unfavourable power play combined to hit the town hard.
Unable to challenge former Governor Rochas Okorocha’s contemptuous script that was designed to strip it of every vestige of its illustrious past, the town’s municipal landscape has withered, taking hundreds of jobs and a once blossoming human capacity with them. Okorocha’s first term in office brought the biggest single blow. The Umuokanne General Hospital was closed. More than 50 people, around one tenth of the town’s white-collar workforce, lost their jobs while the entire district of over 20 autonomous communities with an overwhelming population of women and children lost access to quality healthcare.
The idea of a general hospital in Ohaji area was conceived sometime around 1974, while Flora Nwapa, the first female minister of health and social welfare for Nigeria’s East Central State, served as minister for lands, survey and urban development. Backed by Professor Ukwu I. Ukwu, the then commissioner for education, Nwapa identified Umuokanne as the best geographical and logistically advantaged location for the hospital considering its centrality as the district headquarters of Ohaji. The hospital was to serve the entire Ohaji area with specific mention of the flourishing farm settlement, which is now Adapalm.
The idea was still incubating when General Murtala Muhammed created Imo State out of then East Central State on February 3, 1976. The foundation stone laying ceremony of the hospital thus became Ndubuisi Kanu’s first official assignment as military administrator of the new state. Like most government projects, partly due to coups and counter-coups, work on the site dragged until 1990 when Anthony Oguguo was appointed military governor.
Without let, work resumed at the abandoned project as the dogged naval officer set a target – to get it ready for opening by the end of 1991. The D-day came on December 23, 1991 when General Ibrahim Babangida inaugurated the project after opening the permanent site of the Federal University of Technology Owerri, located less than seven kilometres away.
The close proximity of the hospital to the university as well as the history and patronage they share were so significant that analysts began envisioning a complementary role for the hospital in the spatial and life of the university. There were, in fact, speculations that the hospital might in the near future metamorphose into a teaching hospital for the university’s imminent medical school.
Long before Babangida’s official visit, leaders like Obafemi Awolowo and Nnamdi Azikiwe had walked through the doors of Umuokanne in search of votes. Others who also visited Umuokanne for various reasons were Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu, Anthony Ochefu, Sam Mbakwe, Ike Nwachukwu, Amadi Ikwechegh, Allison Madueke, James Aneke, and every other governor who has ruled Imo State, including Okorocha. Other notables who still drop by are oil multinationals in their quest for the liquid gold, Ohaji being one of the very few communities that placed Imo on the list of oil producing states.
A number of those who lost their jobs at the hospital have died while for some, particularly those in their 50s, the future looks bleak. Aside from the few who still work in the morgue operated by a private undertaker on the hospital premises now overgrown with weeds, the rest see no hope of getting another job. To most of the villagers however, closing down a hospital while the morgue still runs is a macabre paradox that gives them a glimpse of the mournful future the government plans for them.
The reason behind Okorocha’s decision to close down a thriving hospital serving a vast, thickly populated area like Ohaji and moving its multimillion-dollar worth of equipment to unknown destinations is still shrouded in secret. But one obvious reason every indigene can point to is the innate contempt which successive occupants of Douglas House have dispensed to Umuokanne, a degenerating administrative ulcer which festered during Okorocha’s eight years, in spite of the huge contributions of the land and people to the economic wellbeing of the state.
The answer to the community’s healthcare distress, which escalated since the general hospital was closed, seems easy: reopen the hospital. The task of restoring hope for improved healthcare and job opportunities to a deprived agrarian community is more important than any amount of political experimentation.
If Governor Hope Uzodimma really wants to rekindle Douglas House’s relevance and political appeal to the people, resolving Okorocha’s miscalculations in healthcare infrastructure is still the best place to start. The best medicine to revive the pathologically sick Umuokanne General Hospital is a general rehabilitation by the government without further delay.
- Chigozie Chikere is a lecturer based in Lagos.
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