by Femi Olugbile
Oyewale Tomori Professor of Virology, is one of those larger than life figures you could routinely meet on the corridors as a Medical Student at the University of Ibadan in those days when Ibadan had a towering reputation, and encountering brilliant, occasionally eccentric luminaries was almost commonplace. Virology, you can remember now, was where the almighty Tam David West held court, with a younger Tomori in his wake. Many of your teachers, beyond the narrow confines of their specialties, had wide-ranging, larger-society concerns, and were very voluble in their self-expression. A few among them even had a literary bent, which they were not shy to display. Some were, for want of a better description, quite opinionated. Sometimes they would share their opinions with students, staring down their bespectacled noses at them, as if daring them to raise their head above the parapet and risk decapitation by presenting a contrary opinion. It could be intimidating, but it was also always exhilarating. The odd student, head filled with facts laboriously crammed through several nights of ‘ghosting’, would occasionally take on the master and survive to tell the tale.
Professor Tomori went on from those UCH days to occupy various positions of authority, including the Vice Chancellorship of a University, and the Presidency of the Nigerian Academy of Science. He has acquired a big international footprint as an academic researcher, and occupies a position of distinction as Nigeria’s preeminent virologist. He is acknowledged as a world authority on the many viral afflictions that plague Africa, such as Ebola, Lassa Fever, Yellow Fever and Monkey Pox.
When the COVID19 pandemic reared its head, Nigeria, and the world, called upon his expertise to help to analyse, understand and cage the virus.
And, indeed, Nigeria made a mark early on in the drama when the Redeemer’s University, clearly showing the influence of its erstwhile Vice Chancellor, was fast out in the field with the sequencing of the genome of the virus.
More lately, the Professor has been involved in an initiative to bridge that gap that leaves Nigeria vulnerable and dependent on the Western World – the country’s inability to manufacture vaccines and pharmaceutical products for its people. Africans could chafe about ‘Vaccine Apartheid’, but you could not really blame the people who invented and produced things for giving preference to their own nationals when it came to the crunch. He formed an outfit which started work on a vaccine candidate. His logic, presumably, was that it was time to break the jinx of ‘underdevelopment’. It would, of course, take a humongous amount of money to break the monopoly of the ‘big boys’ of the pharmaceutical industry, the Pfizers and their ilk, in Research and Development. It was a matter not just of economics, but national pride. China had produced its own vaccine. So had Russia. India, too, had put forward its own vaccine candidate. Who was better situated to make academic knowledge ‘translate’ to a vaccine to save Nigerian lives? It would be a coming-of-age moment for Nigeria.
But where would the ten billion naira needed to develop the vaccine candidate to approval stage come from? Not from the private sector, which has not been noticeably allied with innovation or nationalistic self-belief.
Breaking the mould, desperate to be seen to be fighting COVID19 ‘no holds barred’, the federal government agreed to provide funding for Tomori’s vaccine.
There was sensation in the press and social media, a few days ago, therefore, when the self-same Professor Tomori broke down repeatedly in tears while making a speech at a National COVID19 Summit. The video went viral.
‘I have wept for this country on several occasions…’ he said, trying to rein in his emotions, even as he erupted in a flood of tears.
Oyewale Tomori was born in Ilesha. The thirty-ninth child of his polygamous father, he went to Primary School only because the government of Obafemi Awolowo in the Western Region declared Free Education and made it compulsory for parents to send their children. From there he went on to Government College Ughelli on a shoestring, and then University.
It was a ‘Utopia Nation’ then, in his eyes, where people had values and cared about other people, and about society. His tears, he said, were because it was a different country now. Nigerians had just been banned from travel to some countries because some Nigerians issued fake COVID19 vaccination certificates and forged negative laboratory test results to other Nigerians. Nigerians daily displayed a galling lack of honesty and a lack of a sense of obligation to society and the common good.
He, for his part, was eternally obligated to Nigeria. Without the start that he got with Awo’s Free Education, nobody would know his name at the WHO, or anywhere else. He was mystified at what had happened to the soul of his nation, and the conscience of its people. He still believed in Nigeria. But Nigeria needed to ‘build back better’.
Was he crying for a lost world? Was he, a Professor of the hard bolts and nuts of scientific research, pining for a society that now existed only in his memory, and in his imagination?
Were there other unstated frustrations behind his tears, such as a dawning realization that the Nigeria of his dream would not come to be, at least not in his generation?
Or perhaps he felt an inexpressible despair at the conduct of legislators who might have said and done untoward things during their ‘oversight’ visit to his vaccine project and put it in jeopardy?
Will Nigerians ‘build back better’ their tattered culture and values which have brought them scorn and disrespect in other countries of the world, and impaired their National Health Security? Will they build back honesty and good governance?
Or will the tears of Professor Oyewale Tomori prove prophetic of an infection too far gone among the populace to be arrested, and a national project that can only fly if it is re-invented root and branch?