The Federal Government, through the National Agency for the Control of AIDS (NACA), has continued to wage war against HIV/AIDS in the country, using a number of strategies which include partnership with the private sector to reduce the scourge.

An example of such government and private sector partnership was demonstrated recently in Sokoto when the MTN Foundation, NACA and Hope World Wide Nigeria, commissioned a Youth Friendly Centre at the Usmanu Danfodiyo University, Sokoto.

In this interview, the Vice-Chancellor of the university, Professor Riskuwa Arabu Shehu, a professor of biochemistry speaks on the continuing efforts to combat the scourge through student enlightenment programmes and the benefits of the public-private initiatives such as the Youth Friendly Centre established in the institution and funded by MTN Foundation. Excerpts…

The government has stepped up awareness campaign against HIV/AIDS of late. How has the fight against the spread of HIV/AIDS been at the Usmanu Dandofiyo University?
Like you rightly pointed out, the efforts of government has been on the increase. When you look at the history of HIV and AIDS in this country, in the level of awareness, it certainly has improved. It has also contributed to making people take the necessary precautions. Here in the university, we have been trying to further create more awareness because we have the most vulnerable group in our community. So, the response has been very good. We involve students very much in the campaign against HIV/AIDS. In fact, many of the student groups take the initiative themselves. So what we do is that we make sure the environment is conducive for all the necessary sensitizations and campaigns.

Like you have seen, our environment is such that we live with some neighbouring communities, who are also vulnerable and many of them are very ignorant of the scourge of HIV/AIDS. So, we decided to also extend our campaigns to them. Our Health Service Department has been going round, visiting the neighbouring villages and teaching them how to take the necessary precautions. We are also aware, and concerned that members of these villages travel to the Eastern and Southern parts of the country for business and trading. We realize that some of them do not take the necessary precautions. They get married and life goes on. We are trying and I believe we can do more.

Do you think there has been enough involvement of the private sector in this battle against HIV/ AIDS?
Well I think to some extent, yes but you see there is no end to contributions from the private sector. If you look at our economy, really, the private organisations have their own serious challenges and many of them are not performing up to their maximum capacity, coupled with a number of systemic challenges in the country. But that notwithstanding, I think a few of them have done their own bit. Government policies on private sector participation over the years have changed.

We have seen some improvement but I think more needs to be done, even on the part of government, in respect of policies, that will encourage private organizations to participate actively in national issues. But then you can’t blame the private sector too. For them to participate and really give meaningful contributions you must provide them with a conducive environment.

You must create competition in such a way that those who will survive will survive and succeed in their businesses. There must be fair competition and those who emerge as the best must give back to the society. So it is for government to really create that conducive environment for private sector participation and I think there is still room for improvement under this democratic dispensation, a lot of private organizations have been socially responsible to their environment, especially to the institution.

In Usman Danfodiyo University, we have benefited very well from private sector participation. Aside from MTN Foundation, which has donated this wonderful and important centre we have just commissioned, we have tried to link up with NDIC. Although it’s part of government, they have contributed their own quota. And individuals have been contributing. We are also trying to link up with international organizations and Usmanu Danfodiyo will be one of the many institutions that will benefit from the grants they are giving, including the Step B project.

On our own part, I must say we haven’t been very active in terms of soliciting for help. You must say what you have to qualify for help and if you are not up and doing, you may not get the support you deserve. So, we have to reach out. In the past, many universities limited their scope within what government gave. What comes our way mainly meets academic needs, but I think it is time to look around and see other sources of support. This is what we intend to do in this university. It has started and God willing, I believe we are going to get more benefits in doing so. We are not going to just ask for something. We must also show what we can offer, a kind of mutual cooperation.

Would say that the Youth Friendly Centre has affected the social behaviour of the students on campus in the one year it has been functioning? From statistics available to you, do the students visit the facility? Are they curious about knowing their status and what has to be done?
Yes. Before the coming of the Youth Friendly Centre, we used to call the place IBB Centre. It was designed for recreational purposes only. But with the support of the MTN Foundation, we now have other amenities located within the complex. The place has an internet café. Though we have internet cafes on campus, having it at the Youth Friendly Centre is an added advantage.

We also have the library and counselling rooms for students who seek advice and other sporting facilities. Students are happy with the facility and are really utilizing it. They were eager for it to be commissioned because we had to limit the usage of the facility, pending the commissioning and now that it has been commissioned, we believe that traffic to the place will increase.

Generally, the students are happy and we are grateful for this partnership with MTN Foundation, which has added value to what we have here. All we need to do now is design programmes to make sure that the aims of the MTN Foundation are achieved and that the university gets the maximum benefits from the facility.

What measures specifically will the school take to encourage more students to visit the facility and avail themselves of the services provided by the centre?
Very soon the Students Affairs Division in collaboration with the Students Union Government will come up with a series of programmes. I have already discussed with the Dean of Students Affairs concerning the need to have programmes for optimal utilization of the centre and all we need to do is to ensure sustainability. Hopefully, we will soon go live with our campus radio and that will also be a medium through which awareness for the Centre will be further made known to the students.

We already have a license and we are about to begin broadcast.
Luckily for us, we have experts who have been working on HIV/AIDs, with some in the Social Sciences and we believe that with the Centre and the support of the MTN Foundation and NACA, we can collaborate to have more programmes that will not only benefit the immediate university community, but the state and even beyond. We have to collaborate with other organizations who are working towards the reduction of HIV/AIDS in our community. Incidentally, almost all the coordinators around this zone are products of this university. Added to what the teaching hospital is doing with the Ministry of Health, I believe we can ensure that this region as a whole benefits from our little efforts.

One of the major problems in this country is poor maintenance culture. How does the institution plan to maintain the facility?
With respect to maintaining the Centre, our thinking is that the students will be involved in its maintenance. There are some who will be happy for an opportunity to do little work and earn something as reward. We plan to engage them to maintain the place, keep it clean, while we in turn pay them a stipend to add to their pocket money. Another aspect is for us to work towards generating little money at least to keep the place up and running. The school can charge the students a token, just so we continue to sustain and maintain the facility.

Secondly, the university will show its appreciation by augmenting what MTN Foundation has put there. Just after the commissioning, I told the Deputy Vice Chancellor (Admin) that we should at least make sure there is constant power in the centre and with our solar energy project, we can have a solar back-up for the server, in case of public power failure and that is another way the university can contribute to the centre.

So I believe we will sit with the Students Union Government and the Students’ Affairs Division to marshal out what and what would be done to make sure the centre is well maintained and we can possibly improve on what we already have.

What’s your message to the government, the private sector and youths in general?
What I will say is that this disease is everybody’s problem. Look at what is happening in other developed countries. It’s not like Nigeria cannot afford all those good things, it’s just that we need a change of attitude, from the leaders, the followers; everybody needs a mental re-orientation. Our major problem is not poverty and we have no business being poor.

We have all it takes and we have the best that God can give to any country. If you look around at our environment, you will marvel at the talents, the natural resources, the weather etc. Nothing stops us from being the best, the key issue is our attitudes and if we change our attitudes for the better and at every level, I believe we can make this country a better place for all. That is the key issue. Nothing can change, if we don’t change our attitude towards life. My appeal is a total change of attitude.