The aero plane he was flying in was in turbulence. A trip from Ibadan to Abuja soon became an agonizing flight that might last forever. When the shaken aircraft eventually landed, he stormed out and hurriedly left, fearing the plane may explode. It was a natural reaction to nightmarish flight. At St. Paul’s Anglican School, he was dismissed for being a Muslim. At a foreign university, he was scored lower grade than deserved. His father was the first Auchi man to visit Mecca on pilgrimage by plane. Easy-going exuding brilliance and modesty, the former Executive Secretary of the National Health Insurance Scheme, Dr. Muhammed Mustafa Lecky had twice been framed, twice been shamed by the country he loves to serve and twice vindicated with his sterling reputation intact. He hasn’t given up on his country. At the height of his career, he was once referred to by the then President Olusegun Obansanjo as ‘Your Excellency’. The action-driven intellectual and philanthropist, graduate of University of California and Harvard University, Lecky serenely navigates through the course of his past, which were often not charted, in this interview with DAMILOLA OYEDELE as he clocked 60 on August 2, 2014.
Born in Auchi to a prominent family, Lecky grew up in a polygamous, Muslim home. His experience of polygamy was however different from what obtains across polygamous homes synonymous with bickering and unhealthy rivalry. His father, Alhaji Yaro Lecky employed a very clever approach to make sure his children and wives stayed united.
He was always holding constant scheduled meetings and discussions with us, that we should not allow anybody to set us up against one another. He passed on the message to his wives, not to cause division among the children. Everybody did adhere to it; he always threatened that something bad would happen (‘to you and your mother’) if we tried to divide the family. We grew up like that and we even laugh at ourselves now,” he said. His father’s children, 36 of them, saw one another as being from the same mother. Lecky’s siblings, many of whom reside in the United States were able to relocate through him, in a rare demonstration of filial love from someone raised in a polygamous home.
His father ruled the household with a firm hand that demanded everyone’s compliance. As a staunch Muslim, he insisted all his children must finish studying Quran before proceeding to secondary school. Lecky, the third in line was an obedient child and so he proceeded easily to St. Paul’s Anglican School for his secondary education. With a smile as if sharing a secret, he however disclosed how it was easy for him to memorise the Quran. I was among the first to finish. In fact, I was teaching others. People even thought I was going to be an Ustaz, but the secret was that I could memorise easily. Even though I did not understand, I could read pages of Arabic, and write them but I did not know their meaning unless the teacher explained. I was not reading to understand, he recollected with a sense of nostalgia of a happy infectious childhood. His father was the first Auchi person to go to Mecca, by plane, for the holy pilgrimage. He recalled how the village school declared a holiday at the older Lecky’s return and had all the school children lined up to receive him. He was however a balanced person despite his strict religious leaning. He allowed his children to attend missionary schools because of his belief that the schools had stronger standards. Unfortunately, Lecky’s enrolment at St. Paul’s was short-lived because of the principal’s insistence that even Muslim students must attend church on Sundays, while they were not allowed to go to the Mosque on Fridays.
My mother was from the Ikaro royal family; her grandfather was one of the Otarus of Auchi. She was a very industrious and beautiful woman. She was also well known in her own right as a strong trader who supplied foodstuffs to the Army at the garrison in Agenebode near Auchi. She also ran a restaurant. Even though I think most of the food was given out for free as people were eating without paying, she built a house for herself, bought a pick-up van with which she ran her business. She made money. We were really close; whenever I came around, she would jump from her seat and hug me. She came to the US when I had my twins. He took a long pause, sighted and described how his mother died on August 8, 1988, at the age of 58. Not that she was sick, Lecky said wistfully; she had gone to the market, where she collapsed and died. His father however lived till 2009; he died at the age of 89.
Schooling in the United States…
Lecky considers himself very lucky; after all while he was processing his papers to go to Russia through the Nigerian Scholarship Board to study National Economic Planning, he secured another scholarship from the Bureau of External Aid for Education to study Town Planning, initially in Australia, but later changed to the US. He departed for Iowa in November 29, 1977. I had read about winter in geography courses, but experiencing it was completely different. The place was very cold. The ground was white; it was snow but I kept saying ice. I kept telling the guy who volunteered to pick me from the airport to the school that evening to turn the car heater higher. He said it was on maximum already. I wrote to my dad after a week, and told him how cold it was. Characteristically my dad asked me whether there are people living there. I just knew what he meant and learnt not to complain again. He just told me to find out how those people survived, and survive the same way.
Studying was painless for him as he was on scholarship and therefore did not have to work. He finished his first degree and applied for post-graduate in Cornell University, Harvard University and University of California, Berkeley. Berkeley offered a tuition waiver and so off to California he went. Lecky was to obtain his master’s and doctorate degrees at Berkeley before proceeding to Harvard School of public Health for his post-doctoral work. During his master’s programme, he experienced racism in its raw form. He was part of a group of four for a design course and expected to get a group grade I was discussing with one of my team mates, Tim, telling him I did not like the grade we got. he asked ‘what grade do you want higher than what we have? I told him I got a B, and he asked how that was possible since he had an A and I was the team leader. I went to meet the Professor, to ask questions. He said he could not determine what role I played in the group. I asked how he was able to tell what role Tim played.
That was racism. I then told him I was the team leader, I came up with the project design that we elaborated on because I had done it in my undergraduate, and we just scaled it up. I should have gotten an A plus. He did not argue. He changed my grade to an A. The next semester; he still gave me a B on the next sequence of the course, and I went back to meet him, he changed my grade again to an A.
Why did he choose a doctorate in Health demography, one could not resist the urge to ask since it was a little known discipline in those days? His response was as revealing.
I was looking for something that would help me work in society better. Demography has to do with study of population and population systems; people, structures and things that affect their livelihood. It also includes issues on population growth, determinants of population and health. I decided to do a double degree, majoring in demography and planning. In terms of demography, I specialized in the area of health demography; I later branched off to health systems and health care financing. After his doctorate, he got a fellowship to Harvard after attending a meeting in Ottawa, Canada. He had dropped his resume into a pool and was invited to a concurrent interview with three others, by a team from Harvard who were seeking to recruit into the Population and Development Programme of the Harvard School of Public Health. He was chosen from the three and was in Harvard for two years as a MacArthur Fellow. He graduated to become a research associate, and also taught at the school. His job as a demographic expert has taken him to Switzerland, South Africa, Botswana, Congo, Namibia, Sierra Leone and several other countries. He has also been identified by the World Health Organization as an expert in his field.
Moving to Nigeria…
He paused in the course of this interview as if looking for words to describe how his transition and integration back to Nigeria was. He observed that it was the best anyone could hope for; with a dollar-paying job the World Bank. Though an international consultant, he was to work with the Ministry of Health to establish health information systems. Since he felt his salary from the World Bank was adequate, he wrote a letter asking that the money he was entitled to from Nigeria’s health ministry be paid to his local government. Lecky never found out if this was done though. At the end of the World Bank project he joined the ministry as a deputy director.
Sojourn as NHIS Boss…
In December 2004, he was appointed interim Executive Secretary of the National Health Insurance Scheme (NHIS). Before then he had worked with the former executive secretary and even produced a paper on how to make the scheme more effective considering the peculiarities in Nigeria. The pride was evident in his voice as he described some of the reforms he was able to implement which finally saw the scheme become effective, and launched with so much fanfare by then President Olusegun Obasanjo. I did a quick survey and found out that so much needed to be done. I thank God I was the one who really got it started. For the first time ever, Nigerians were carrying NHIS card and were accessing services at various health facilities. Obasanjo was very happy when he launched it. He actually called me, ‘Your Excellency, Dr. Mohammed Lecky’ on the day it was launched. People called me asking what I gave to him.” His appointment, which was confirmed in January 2005, was however cut short less than two years into his tenure with his removal on allegations of financial mismanagement. With a pained expression characteristic of one who has worked to preserve a good name, Lecky narrated how the EFCC was invited to investigate the matter. To his credit and good name, he came out clean from the defaming accusation and the tortuous investigation.
But why would he be so unceremoniously removed despite the successes he recorded in the NHIS? Not one for lobbying, nocturnal visits and pandering to the powers that be, Lecky disclosed that despite the fact that the EFCC found nothing on him, his traducers went ahead to set up an administrative panel through the civil service commission to have his disengaged completely. The panel took over a year in investigating the allegations against him, and also found nothing. But it was recommended that he should be reinstated because there was a lack of due process in his removal. The look on his face as he told his story showed he’s still stunned by all that happened. I heard from credible source that Ribadu had said there was no money; they just wanted me to go. I do not know who they were… I started to wonder what I could have done wrong that made ‘them’ hell bent on having me removed. I still do not know what I did. Success is its own worst enemy and we were successful, and I still ride on that wherever I go. He continued his career in the ministry and later rose to become a director. But his travails were not yet over. Lecky alongside 216 others sat for the permanent secretary examinations in 2009. One day in 2010, a top-rated permanent secretary gave him a call, and asked if he had an issue with the then head of service.
I said no. I do not work directly under him; we have no operational contact to the extent we would have issues. But the PS insisted there was an issue and that he would help me resolve it by arranging a meeting with the HOS and my own PS at the health ministry. I realized this must be serious. The meeting did not hold. Three months later, on February 10, 2012, he went to the HOS’ office to meet him. At the meeting, I told him I have come to apologize for whatever I might have done directly or inadvertently. He said ‘what are you saying? What do you mean? Apologise over what? You have not done anything. He insisted I had been a good civil servant. I thanked him and as I got up to leave, he asked me to sit down. He said “if the corners of people who are talking to you that maybe you have problem with me, has to do with the PS exams in which you participated, yes, there was a problem’.
The HOS said he was the overall best candidate from all the 216 who sat for the exams, but that there was an adverse report that had been written against him, which he (HOS) relied upon and did not put forward his name for the post of Permanent Secretary. Lecky was shocked because even if there was a petition, he should have been given a fair hearing, according to laid down non-discretionary procedures for writing petitions in the civil service. His PS at the health ministry and the Civil Service Commission also ought to have been formally notified. These did not happen but according to the HOS, he relied on this, even though I came first. I later found out this was known by many people up there that I did very well. It was very sad for me. I think it was just divine that I should through that process know how I did, because I had no idea I came first in the exams. I just left the matter.
The petition had alleged that he had risen too fast and irregularly in the service. Lecky however explained this could not have been possible because in both cases cited that he had irregular promotions, he had taken the required examinations along with other qualified candidates. He could not have taken the exams if he was not deemed qualified in the first instance and had spent four years in previous positions. The office of the HOS itself had declared the positions vacant, and had directed the health ministry to fill them with qualified candidates in both instances. Curiously, despite both cases of injustice, Lecky does not think the Nigerian civil service is ruthless. The people in charge however should be courageous enough to take appropriate actions and execute them, he said, adding that such people lack courage and are easily persuaded by sentiments and other primordial interests.
Lecky is a proud father of six children (four boys and two girls) including a set of twin boys he had in 1983. They have grown now; have finished their Masters degree, looking for work. My family is fun. The kids are mostly overseas, one is in health care management, and another is in logistics and supply chain management. One is doing health informatics in Los Angeles; one is doing core health systems evaluation. The girl is pre-med doing public health at Boston University and the other girl is still very young.
Certainly I feel older. Its prayers answered because I prayed to Allah that I should be old. I also look forward to being older than 60 for as long as Allah would allow me. But I am not unprepared to go anytime to meet my Lord. I just hope I would have had enough forgiveness of my sins and lapses by then. He almost ‘went’ on July 23, 2013 during a flight experience on Overland airline from Ibadan to Abuja. The flight had departed at 5.45pm for what was expected to be an hour’s journey. Close to 8pm, it was still airborne and had entered into a thunderstorm backed by pitch blackness and lightning. The pilot had completely lost his way and his voice, when it came over the speakers; it was not comforting at all. Lecky recalled that people began to scream as they were all sure the plane would crash.
I just gave up, but I was calm. It actually strengthened my faith. It was Ramadan and I thought ‘if I’m going to die, this is not a bad time to die because I am fasting. It is a good thing. Every fast must be broken. I will break this fast in heaven tonight. He almost did until the plane landed safely. Were the passengers relieved! We landed around 8pm. One woman knelt down, sobbing. I ran as if the plane was on fire. I really wonder why it was never really in the news. My children were here, they had been calling my friends asking if anyone heard from me. And everyone was being hush-hush, I had boarded a plane, my phones were switched off. No one could reach me; Ibadan is not that far, but where was I? It took two months to get on another plane. I had to do it so I would not develop a phobia for flying. The experience also made him to move fast on certain things he had promised God he would do. One is to contribute to propagating Islam and to contribute to enhancing the ambience and the functionality of a mosque in Auchi. He wants the people to have a good place for worshiping and Itikaf (staying at the mosque during Ramadan and not come out until the last day).
I want to work with people who may want to build a place in Abuja where people of any faith, poor people, can find solace; used clothes, books, shoes and food. While in the US, I used to volunteer in a soup kitchen. I am looking forward to retiring to such a thing, even though it’s stressful work managing such. God endorses those things, I think, as a validation from my near-death experience. As he gets older, his biggest fear is to be found wanting spiritually. He has no fear when it comes to worldly issues, which is why all the injustices he suffered in civil service, he did not take legal action even though there were lawyers close to him willing to take up the matter and seek redress in court. Even though he has integrated into the Nigerian system, Muhammed still cannot stand hypocrisy in people. He believes people should be able to speak up for whatever they believe in. He also detests people using their position to victimize or oppress others.
Now retired from the civil service, Muhammed is not letting up. He is now the Executive Secretary of Health Reform Foundation of Nigeria (HERFON); set up as an NGO in 2004. Interestingly, I was one of those that said this NGO should be created, even though I was in the ministry. Some of us had called ourselves changed agents. We had gone to South Africa and many other places to understand what is happening and what we can introduce to get our health system functioning. We decided to create an organization that would also create and develop more change agents across the country; we have been doing that.
He does not know how not to work; he’s still involved in a floodgate of consultancies. None the less, Muhammed finds the time to hit the gym several times a week and walk his dog, Onyx, almost every night. I still work weekends, and my wife is not too happy about that, “he said.
(PUBLISHED BY THISDAY, OF SATURDAY, AUGUST 2, 2014.)