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Protecting Africa’s Pregnancies By Sonala Olumhense

I wish to commend President Goodluck Jonathan for his role in the prosecution of Every Woman Every Child, the roaring campaign being waged upon avoidable maternal and child deaths by the United Nations Secretary General, Mr. Ban Ki-moon.

I wish to commend President Goodluck Jonathan for his role in the prosecution of Every Woman Every Child, the roaring campaign being waged upon avoidable maternal and child deaths by the United Nations Secretary General, Mr. Ban Ki-moon.

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The campaign is part of the Secretary General’s Global Strategy for Women’s and Children’s Health in fulfillment of the Millennium Development Goals.   

Mr. Jonathan co-chairs the Commission on Life-Saving Commodities for Women and Children, the report of which was launched last Wednesday, which aims to improve access and use of essential medicines, medical devices and health supplies in pregnancy, childbirth and the early years of life.  By plugging this loophole, the United Nations estimates that the lives of 16 million women and children can be saved by 2015.

This is no less than spectacular news for Africa.  But it is at once a wonderful opportunity and a challenge for African countries, most of which still have horrendous maternal and child mortality statistics.
This is why Mr. Jonathan’s involvement may become a big blessing to the entire continent, beginning with Nigeria, which is one of the biggest offenders.  

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Speaking in New York this week, Mr. Jonathan pledged his presence on the job.  “I am…committed to seeing these important recommendations implemented at country level, where they will impact millions of lives,” he said. “As co-chair of this important Commission, I will be hosting a meeting in Abuja later this year to discuss with ministers from other countries how we will rapidly translate this work into tangible action for women and children.”

This is wonderful news, and it was no surprise to learn that his listeners clapped.  

In the end, the campaign to save the lives of women and children is really one of the simplest of all, especially in the African context.  It is simply to ensure that every pregnancy is registered with the authorities, and that childbirth is supervised by a trained childbirth person.  Everything else falls in between.

It is in this context that Mr. Jonathan’s Commodities Commission holds one of the most important decks of cards in the campaign, as these deaths are often a result of ignorance and the absence of supervision.  

Where the drugs and equipment are available, and dispensed by a trained professional, there is almost no reason for childbirth not to be a happy occasion, or infancy not to be loaded with wonderful memories for families.

If Mr. Jonathan is serious, Nigeria can make amazing leaps and bounds on this file.  And the success of Nigeria can reverberate throughout Africa and influence progress everywhere.  

The problem is that while Nigerian leaders are often very eloquent at the United Nations, perhaps because they arrive armed with speeches written by others if not for others, they return home and ignore the same problems and their own words.  

When you think about it, had Mr. Jonathan’s predecessors taken the MDGs seriously, Nigeria would now be leading Africa on the development question, not struggling to persuade the world that it cares.

If you look at the years between 2000 and 2007, you will find that while President Olusegun Obasanjo was often full of bluster on keeping the Peoples Democratic Party in power, he showed no such determination or focus on the implementation of the MDGs.  Following him, President Umaru Yar’Adua’s interest was in his Seven-Point Plan, while his friends looted the States blind.  

What has changed, and may yield success at least on one or two of the MDGs, is that the United Nations has, in Mr. Jonathan, encouraged a Nigerian leader to come out of hiding and take a lead role in accomplishing something.

Will Mr. Jonathan deliver?  

This is not clear.  The issue, as the international community has always complained, has always been the absence of political will, alongside heavy dual agendas in Abuja.  Last week, Mr. Jonathan spoke of his forthcoming meeting in Nigeria where he will discuss with other countries how to translate the recommendations of the Commodities Commission into tangible action for women and children.
That sounds good, but it is not good enough.  

First of all, we are talking principally about 2015, and there is no time at all to squander.  If Nigeria, like its brother African countries, is really serious, she should push for a new action plan which has a robust implementation structure.  Unless this is the case, the fate of African mothers and babies will not survive the lackadaisical attitude of the average African leader whose focus is often on the next election or the next foreign trip rather than the nearest pregnancy.  

Second, Nigeria can lead by example.  Mr. Jonathan is quite proud of his co-chairmanship of the Commodities Commission.  

As a Nigerian, I share his pride.  The problem is that Nigerian leaders tend to think of these things as we do chieftaincy titles: as an end, not a means.

Mr. Jonathan can change this.  He can do that by bringing maternal and child health into the frontline of governmental activity.  Let him work with the States and local administrations in establishing a one-year timeframe to accomplish 100 per cent Maternal Index Reporting (MIR)—that is, a comprehensive database of all pregnancies—as opposed to Maternal Mortality Ratio (MMR).

The idea would be to take creative advantage of all of the emerging technologies to have and to use that comprehensive record in establishing approaches to pregnancy management and childbirth, using the community—not the family—as the unit of responsibility.  If a pregnancy becomes a community investment, it can easily be nurtured and protected.  

Speaking of nurturing and protecting, Mr. Jonathan’s wife is reported to be in Germany, in poor health.  Curiously, Mr. Jonathan has failed to issue an official statement about the First Lady’s condition.  What the average Nigerian knows has come from press sources, and government spokespersons have been silenced.  

What is worse, Mr. Jonathan has failed to visit his wife, who has been in Germany for four weeks.  It is possible, of course, that he has taken advantage of the dead of night to slip out of Nigeria to go and see his beloved wife for a few minutes.

Even then, the question hangs in the wind: what is wrong with a man going to see his ailing wife in a hospital?  As a Nigerian, I would rather she were being treated in a local hospital, but whether we like it or not, she is bedridden abroad, and there is where her husband ought to visit and hold her hand.  
I am not the best friend of the Jonathans, because I know they are hiding more than they are showing, but when it comes to health and life, there is no question as to whether the sick should be cared for and prayed for.

That is why it is curious that Mr. Jonathan treats his wife as a great state secret, when most of our state secrets are out on the street.  

And that is why I fear that, in the end, Mr. Jonathan’s new-found “commitment” to maternal and child health issues may be no more than politics.  If he is deathly scared of showing care and compassion for his wife in her moment of greatest need, does he really care about someone else’s wife in Oghara or Mubi or Ogbomosho who may die because she became pregnant?
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