*Why I Accepted To Chair NACA Board After Rejecting Ambassadorial Nomination
By Kemi Yesufu
Former Deputy Governor of Plateau State, Dame Pauline Tallen chairs the recently inaugurated board of the National Agency for the Control for AIDS (NACA). Tallen, who also served as minister of State, Science and Technology in the Obasanjo administration, spoke to journalists on why she accepted to head the board of the agency, not too long after rejecting an ambassadorial posting. She also highlighted her plans to support the NACA management to scale up advocacy and the Prevention of Mother To Child Transmission (PMTCT) of HIV services. Excerpts:
You’ve seen it all, serving as Deputy Governor, minister of State Science and Technology, why did you accept this appointment? Most especially as you recently turned down an ambassadorial role?
It’s quite unfortunate that procedure was not rightly followed. I rejected the appointment for a very good reason. But before that, the President was kind enough to sound my opinion and I gave reasons why, I would not be able to go for ambassadorial posting. My husband was ill and we had gone round different hospitals, with the last one being in India. And he told us, ‘please I appreciate all your effort. But please, don’t take me anywhere outside Nigeria again’. He made his position very clear to me. My husband is the one that groomed me. He stood by me all through my political career. This is why when I am mentoring younger female politicians, I tell them, any woman that doesn’t respect and listen to her husband will not succeed in politics. Once a female politician has the blessing of her husband, she will go places. On the contrary, just one negative sentence from him will mar your chances. So at that’s I felt, that at the time I should give back to my husband for all his love and support, there is no way I would make a decision that runs contrary to his wishes. I explained this to Mr. President and he was so touched by my explanation. He completely understood my situation. He directed that my name should be removed from the list. I don’t want to mention names…. But some people…. They sent out my name and the press analyzed the list… I was also shocked to see my name on the list sent to the Senate. On my accepting to chair the NACA board, I would say, it is nothing but service to my nation. Like you said, I have seen it all in life. I am here to serve Nigerians from in a humanist agency….
Can we trace your interest to serving mankind to being a staunch Catholic and a papal knight?
(laughs). Oh, I can see, you’ve done your research well. Caring for the sick and less privileged is the duty of a true Christian. It’s also something that a true Nigerian patriot should be involved in. You must have that human feeling, that empathy, that time to reach and care for not just the needy, but in this case, those who need the right information to prevent or manage HIV/AIDS. So, I believe my appointment as chairperson of NACA board is a call to service and that’s why during the first meeting I had with my board members, I told them, we have been given an opportunity to serve our people. I told them we have to make impact. We can make much impact with the management of NACA,because all of my board members are well experienced people with integrity. If you look at the list of my board members, you will see that they all came to serve. They have nothing to prove.
As the chairman of the NACA Board, what are you bringing to the table?
What we are bringing to the table is a new spirit of advocacy; serious advocacy, serious awareness and to ensure a significant reduction in new cases HIV- yes we know that HIV/ AIDS is deadly but people can live with it and survive and love their normal lives, if people accept that their situation and the reality of it.
But I’m most worried about the status of Nigeria on the world map with regards to the prevalence of HIV/AIDS. It is quiet disturbing and not much is being done as regards addressing the situation. Yes, something is being done, but out of almost three (3) million that are affected, we are treating only one million.
What happens to the rest? And even the one million that we are treating is with reliance on foreign donors. It is not acceptable. I know that the president has inherited so many problems in other sectors, but I know that he respects the sanctity of life. He knows very well that as a leader, one of the greatest responsibilities that you can do for your citizens is to protect lives and property and ensure the health of the citizenry, because the health of the citizens translates into a very productive economy. I am very much pretty sure that we are going to enjoy the political will of the president to turn things around. Government will throw its weight on this (national response to HIV/AIDS), I’m speaking with confidence became I know that the political will is there. Once we have the political will, we are sure that we will turn things around. South Africa has the highest prevalence rate of AIDS in the world but South Africa is addressing it very well. I want Nigerians to know that the political will is there and things will be better. There is much that the civil servants can do but with the board, we have a higher authority and we shall do the right thing. South Africa started its national programme and now they are treating all those with HIV/AIDS for free. I believe that can do it. We are already reaching out to our brothers in the upper and lower houses of the National Assembly and all the chairmen of committees on health, they are people that we have working with for the past 20 years since the ban on politics was lifted, some of them are my brothers and friends and they have given me their word that they will do anything possible to gives us the necessary support. So the political will is there. We will not always y the grace of God rely of foreign donors. Assuming if they pull back today, what do we do?
So your plan is to turn things around for NACA?
Yes….by the grace of God.
Advocacy is key in the national response, but what interventions will be of top priority to the board?
We are planning to largely scale-up the Prevention of Mother To Child Transmission (PMTCT) services. This is a very important and strategic aspect of the national response. We cannot afford to leave the safety of the unborn child to chance. I was Commissioner for Health in my state of Plateau between 1994 and 1995. I worked closely with persons living with HIV. I’m not new to these area of healthcare and their exceptional cases where infected mothers have HIV-negative children. We as an agency will scale -up services to prevent pediatric AIDS. But for those that are born and unfortunately get infected, that child got it through no fault of his and needs to be treated and must be on medication for life. That is an area that we must strongly address and ensure that the drugs are there at all times to reach out to those people.
How are you going to further improve engagement with international donors?
These are people that have been supporting and assisting us, we must hold them in high esteem and we must cooperate with them and work with higher authority to sustain our relationship with them and even have more collaborations. to reach to them.
What do you intend to do with regards to transparency in the management of donor funds?
I will definitely put my feet down and ensure that we closely monitor that. It is part of what I just discuss with you colleagues. Like the theme of this year’s AIDS council meeting is on finance and ensuring that we have value for money that we receive. The board wants to assure all of our donor agencies that under my watch, I will ensure transparency and that all funds released for this project will be closely followed and properly executed to make the lives of our people better.
Majority of these three million Nigerians infected with HIV are women who are socially disadvantage, as a foremost female politician, what are you going to do to reach out to them?
I don’t really want to believe that a majority of people with HIV are women. Maybe, it’s because the women have subjected themselves to test to know their status. The men have more multiple sex partners and most of them don’t want to subject themselves to screening to know their status. But in reacting to the statistics before us, as a mother and female politician, I am most pained that more women have tested positive. That is why I say we will intensify advocacy and we must not relent in talking and enlightening people about the basics of the HIV/AIDS.
At the early stage of fighting HIV/AIDS, there was much political will. So we will intensify advocacy, especially in the rural areas. People should know that AIDS is real and is living with us because now people don’t talk much about AIDS again, but things like cancer. I know cancer is more deadly but with AIDS, if you know your status, you can live your normal life. But that doesn’t mean that we should not talk about it because people are dying in our villages and most youths are wasting away. You don’t even know the statistics of people dying in the villages particularly among the low income earners. This is because they don’t have access to good nutrition and access to ART. So, we will work hand in hand with state governors. We will start by pleading with Mr. President to grant us time in the Council of State meeting, for us to appeal governors to collaborate with NACA even more effectively. The governors also influence what happens at the LGA level .
When you look at the 2018 Budget, the amount of money owed donor partners in terms of counterpart funding is staggering, how do you ensure that this money is not always in areas?
Mr. President has the political will. He has the power to give out funds where it is most needed. If he sees the critical need for this, he will put everything on the table to achieve this.