As the world marks World Cancer Day, today, the multi-billion naira International Cancer Centre (ICC) located on Nnamdi Azikiwe Airport road in the Federal Capital Territory (FCT), is yet to take off 12 years after the project was established.
Mrs Turai Yar’Adua, wife of the late former president, Umaru Yar’Adua, once had a grand dream to build a cancer centre in the nation’s capital that would cater, especially for the poor.
The state-of-the-art cancer centre was conceived after the former First Lady’s visit to the MD Anderson Cancer Centre in Texas, United States in 2008.
On July 18, 2009, she assembled the rich and powerful to a fundraising in Abuja, which was also attended by his usually taciturn husband, battling some complicated diseases at the time.
Financial pledges made by the galaxy of guests to actualise her dream amounted to N6.8 billion and the ICC was born.
But since then, apart from the imposing structure on the Umaru Yar’Adua Expressway, the project has now been completely abandoned.
The project was designed to be fully private driven and meant to provide comprehensive cancer diagnosis, management, treatment and care, as well as promoting excellence in cancer education, training and research.
Cancer is a major public health problem in Nigeria and the country records over 100,000 new cases of cancer yearly, while more than 70,000 Nigerians die yearly from cancer.
According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), cancer is a leading cause of death worldwide, accounting for nearly 10 million deaths in 2020.
The most common in terms of new cases of cancer were breast (2.26 million cases); lung (2.21 million cases); colon and rectum (1.93 million cases); prostate (1.41 million cases); skin non-melanoma (1.20 million cases) and stomach (1.09 million cases).
WHO disclosed that the most common causes of cancer death in 2020 were lung (1.80 million deaths); colon and rectum (935 000 deaths); liver (830 000 deaths); stomach (769 000 deaths); and breast, responsible for 685 000 deaths.
HOWEVER, 12 years down the line, the centre has remained like a ghost town with the multi-billion-naira equipment and mini-buses already procured for the project rusting away.
The massive compound was for a long time overtaken by weeds, which was later cleared while about 200 mini-buses parked at the open space in the middle of the compound were moved to a hidden side of the premises.
But amid the neglect of the centre, the Federal Ministry of Health has raised a memo directing its legal department to investigate how the former First Lady acquired the land on which the centre was sited and to ascertain whether the land was allocated to her NGO, Women and Youth Empowerment Foundation (WAYEF) or to the Federal Government.
When The Guardian visited the centre on Wednesday, there was no sign of activity there except one white utility vehicle, Hilux, seen driving into the arena.
Unlike most healthcare facilities, the entrance gate was locked and it took several knocks before a policeman guarding the place opened to find out who the visitor was and her mission.
After exchanging greetings, The Guardian told the officer that she came to find out whether the centre is already accepting patients and would like to see any of the staff who could provide information on procedures for booking an appointment, to which the policeman replied: “Oh, they have not started, but I believe they will start soon.”
The Guardian gathered that the centre’s inability to take off is a concern not only to Nigerians but also to the Federal Government.
It was learnt that the Federal Ministry of Health had sometimes reached out to the former First Lady through the Director General that would be in charge of the facility to have a meeting with her but the plan never worked out.
A reliable source close to the health ministry who pleaded anonymity, said: “We were made to understand that the centre belongs to her NGO. At a point, government tried to get across to her but it didn’t work out. Even now, the legal department has been directed to find out how she acquired the land and whom the land was allocated to, let’s start from the basis.”
“We raised a memo, we want to know about the land allocation but it seems they are having problems sorting it out. Even the Abuja Geographic Information Systems (AGIS) couldn’t verify the land too. The concern has been coming from the public on why the centre has not become fully functional. Most Nigerians think it belongs to the Federal Government.”
In September 2017, the former First Lady had told Nigerian students in Uganda, led by their president, Mubarak Yahaya Adamu, who presented her with a merit award, that the cancer centre has not commenced operations because those who made big financial pledges during its fundraising absconded after the death of her husband.
She said: “Before my husband died, I intended to have a hospital. We had a launching, some people made pledges but after my husband died, they just vanished. But we have finished the first phase of the hospital, it’s a very big project.”
According to Turai Yar’Adua, the first phase consists of about 200 rooms, four theatres and other administration offices.
One of the security guards at the ICC, who simply identified himself as Garba, said there has been no activities to actualise the centre, as envisioned by Turai.
According to him, Turai came twice in 2016 to the site and had not been seen around the area since then.
Garba said some bandits invaded the ICC last year to dispossess them of their valuables, adding that few items belonging to the centre were also stolen.
He added that after the incident, some policemen from the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) have since been deployed to secure the ICC against further attacks.
“Six of us were employed to secure this place and we do alternate shift, but because the bandits were fully armed, they overpowered us and beat the security guards,” Garba said.
MEANWHILE, wife of the President, Aisha Buhari, yesterday, declared war on cancer in Abuja, with a pledge to work with the National Youth Service Corps (NYSC) and Onyebuchi Chris Ifediora Foundation (OCI). Mrs Buhari made the promise during the official flag-off of the Arm Our Youths Anti-Cancer Health Campaign.
In her speech, she declared her support for the NYSC/OCI anti-cancer awareness campaign and any other organisation or NGO involved in the fight against cancer.
She said: “I wish to declare my support in the fight against all forms of cancer. I wish to also use this medium to call on cancer stakeholders to exact more effort in awareness creation among our citizens. It is also important to come up with new ideas such as this campaign to secondary schools.”
Director General of NYSC, Gen. Shuaibu Ibrahim, said: “As long as health is one of the cardinal programmes of the scheme, NYSC will take the awareness campaign to all corners of the country.”
Speaking through the Director, Corps Mobilisation, Victoria Ango, he said: “Health service to community is one of the cardinal programmes of the corps.
“The awareness might, among other things, reduce medical tourism and conserve the hard-earned foreign currency of Nigerians. Thus, creating awareness to enable Nigerian prevent or better manage this ailment is quite commendable.”
Founder and President of OCI, Chris Ifediora, said: “The campaign offers an innovative approach to stemming the scourge of breast and cervical cancers among Nigerians. It also aims to include preventive teachings into the academic curriculum of all senior secondary schools in the 36 states and the FCT before the end of 2025.
“We are currently working with First Ladies (at the state levels), and the Nigerian Educational Research and Development Council (NERDC), at the national level. With recent developments, we are hopeful that the current Office of the Nigerian First Lady and her NGO, as well as the current legislature, will also partner with us.”