If there’s any government agency that gets heaped on regularly, it is the National primary Health Care Development Agency (NPHCDA). It coordinates primary health across the country, delivered at more than 10,000 primary health centres. It has come to be known “health centres” and for polio.
In the decades since it was established, its work in polio has seen pushbacks-vaccine rejection, communities refusing to comply, polio outbreaks, immunisation campaigns. Now with no new case reported in the last two years, it seems polio might ease out.
But how do Nigerians see the agency? It has a public relations unit whose job it is to maintain its public image in the press and outside.
For 19 years, Sa’adu Salahu headed the unit until he proceeded on pre-retirement leave in this month. His end of service by September marks the end of his career at the agency. He can look back on an agency, whose esteem has risen in the eyes of Nigerians and in the impression of the global community.
Salahu started out as a journalist on Radio Kwara in the ’80s, rising to become an editor. When he moved on to the agency, he took on the mantle of a public relations man. For a health institution, dealing with the media is a delicate balancing act.
“Health institutions are not like others. You know the approach of medical practitioners, their approach not to advertise, their approach to publicity,” says Salahu.
“They are much more preoccupied with getting the technical angle of their job first and foremost. So if you have to manage a health institution like the NPHCDA, whose impact tells on the lives of overwhelming majority of the population, you need to be on top of the job.
“If you are talking of primary health care, you are talking of the family unit. You need to make sure you are familiar with all the indicators on primary health care over the years. The overriding concern is to make sure you get to the family unit in the remotest part of the country, because whatever happens there is what eventually accounts for the data, for the global picture, the global impression on primary health care in Nigeria,” Salahu explained.
The agency’s romance with the media mirrors the changing mediascape that Nigeria has gone through. Nineteen years ago, the agency’s output was a periodical. Then its engagement was with the “big traditional media”-the NTAs and FRCNs of Nigeria. Private media has opened the space and pushed up the plurality of voices. As if that wasn’t enough, online media has barged in. The agency’s media database currently contains outlets of every shape, size and form.
“Over the years, we evolved an integrated communication policy that does not leave out any platform to communicate with Nigerians wherever they live, whether in urban or rural areas, where rich or poor, no matter where they live,” says Salahu.
The cross from journalism to public relations is important, and a lesson for anyone stepping into those shoes.
“You must aim at excellence. We work in an environment where it is difficult to say the truth. But public relations begins with knowing the truth. There is no shortcut to it,” says Salahu.
“Before you represent the reality to the masses-it is not about perception, it is about the reality. You must connect with the masses, you must connect with the people, and you must make sure the management, leadership is able to know. The difference is that you are trained to package your message in a way different from how others would say.”
The Executive Director of the agency Faisal Shuaib calls Salahu a “pillar of strength” at the agency.
“For everybody who has been here and observed the work of Salahu, he will leave us with a weakness in the system that will be very difficult to strengthen,” he said at a valedictory session.
“It also means that we have to try and live without him being the foremost voice of this agency. In the last two and a half years [that I have headed the agency] has been a strong voice for a lot of the innovative ideas that we’ve rolled out in the agency. If it makes sense to Salahu, it makes sense to the rest of Nigeria.
“Salahu is one person in the whole agency who does not shy away from the truth. He will say it as it, no matter how bitter it is. He has a way of delivering the truth that is coated with sugar. It is only after you’ve licked the sugar that you begin to see the bitterness.
“I have not worried my head in the last two and a half years that I’ve been the ED about the press because he takes good care of that department,” Shuaib pointed out.
One way was opening up the agency’s immunisation campaign to full media scrutiny. Journalists fan out to remote communities across states to monitor days of immunisation.
Salahu says years bridging the gap between a health institution and the public-in the eyes of the media-has been fulfilling and a “work in progress.”
“Today, every state has a primary health care board, there is local government primary health care authority, the traditional institution is today involved in advocacy for primary health care, you have a lot of community-based organisations and nongovernment organisations and the media trying to make sure they carry the same message to Nigerians all over the country.
To that extent it has been a great relief. But that doesn’t mean we don’t have work to do. More still needs to be done. Children are born every day and the birth rate in the country is high. We need to work harder. More priority attention should be given to effective communication and advocacy until every Nigerian begins to recognize that it is only by giving priority attention at the political level, community level, or at any level at all, that you can address the 80% of burden facing the health sector in Nigeria.”