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Search for UNAIDS Executive Director: an opportunity to bring a fresh perspective to global AIDS response

The UNAIDS is going through it most challenging era of transition, and the world is watching with great anticipation to see how it manages this situation. The ugly circumstance it found itself led to a global consensus that there MUST be a change of its leadership. Yes, it’s a difficult circumstance no organization would wish to find itself, but at the same time it presents such a great opportunity to reinvent and reposition itself for the goal of ending AIDS by 2030 by ensuring that HIV is eliminated as a public health threat.

There is no gainsaying that the choice of leadership UNAIDS makes at this point in its history will determine the future of the agency and that of the global AIDS response. The critical mandates of UNAIDS can be summarized as coordination, fundraising, diplomacy, charting the direction of the global AIDS response. These are the primary demands of the leadership of UNAIDS at this time. Thanks to the efforts of past leaders of the agency, global response today is firmly rooted in scientific evidence and human rights, however, beyond understanding the dynamics of the epidemic, the greatest threats to ending AIDS today are political commitment among world leaders and resourcing the response. This further emphasizes the fundamental role of UNAIDS in coordination, diplomacy and fund raising.

The problem of AIDS epidemic will be best solved and faster by a collective commitment of leaders across the globe and sectors, and the ultimate leadership question for UNAIDS at this time is who is best prepared to galvanize the global community towards the common agenda of ending AIDS by 2030? This places the demands of trust, integrity, multi-stakeholder management skills and decisiveness on the new UNAIDS Executive Director. A former President of the United states, Ronald Reagan, once said that “The greatest leader is not necessarily the one who does the greatest things. He is the one that gets the people to do the greatest things.” Those saddled with the task of identifying the new leader for UNAIDS should focus on a candidate who has demonstrated the ability to get people do the greatest things, whilst focusing on the goal of UNAIDS. The selection panel must be objective and blind to any other considerations except the ability of the candidate to lead the agency to its desired destination.

The final five candidates in the running for the position of UNAIDS Executive Director have achieved great things in their respective fields of endeavor, spanning biomedical research, organizational management, promotion of human rights and resource mobilization. Perhaps these contributed to their making the final five. The position in question demands much more than these;skills in coordination of countries and global communities’ response to AIDS, including the dynamics associated with multi-stakeholders’interests’ management are very critical to the success of the leadership of the agency at this time more thanever.

Only recently, the United States government honoured Dr. Sani Aliyu, one of the top five contenders for this position. The statement on the US government’s twitter handle reads “Dr. Aliyu led the Nigeria HIV/AIDS Indicator and Impact Survey - the largest HIV-specific survey in history. Under his leadership as DG of NACA the survey was completed in a record 9 months and is pivotal in efforts to halt the epidemic.” This singular achievement tells a perfect story of what leadership of UNAIDS should represent at this time - a leader who is proactive and gets the people to do the greatest things – that’s the only way to get ahead of the epidemic.

On resumption as DG NACA, Dr. Aliyu immediately started mobilizing support of government, partners, civil society, people living with HIV and key affected populations on the need to have a better understanding of Nigeria’s epidemic. He succeeded in galvanizing all stakeholders to action around this common goal. His track record of integrity facilitated inflow of resources from the US government and the Global Fund to fund the largest HIV-specific survey in world history. Other surveys targeted at key affected populations and those in prisons were also successfully concluded under his leadership. Today, Nigeria and its partners are better armed to end the epidemic.

Nigeria has been referred to by many as thirty-seven countries in one given its size and population. Having coordinated AIDS response in Nigeria places Dr. Aliyu heads and shoulders above the other candidates. He has engaged with political leaders and private sector leaders at national and sub-national levels, and mobilized enormous resources for the AIDS response through such strategic engagements. Under his leadership, the budgetary allocation to NACA grew by over 100% in two years. This means more PLHIV are placed on life saving drugs with government support. Additionally, he extracted commitment from the governors to allocate 0.5% of their monthly statutory allocation to AIDS response in their respective states. Partnering with the private sector, he established the HIV/AIDS Trust Fund to mobilise contributions of the private sector to the national AIDS response. The management structure of this fund is modelled after the Global Fund structure.

The integrity and trust Dr. Aliyu commands have turned Nigeria’s AIDS response into development partners’comfort zone for investment. This is because they are certain that under his leadership, every dollar would count and be fully accounted for. Nigeria’s Global Fund grant which was suspended in 2015 was restored soon after he assumed the office of NACA DG. He went to Global Fund Headquarters in Geneva from his residence in the United Kingdom to negotiate restoration of the NACA Global fund grant even before he resumed at his office in Nigeria as NACA DG. Again, this demonstrates proactiveness, commitment, sense of purpose and sacrifice. These leadership qualities will be of immense value to the UNAIDS and global AIDS response under Dr. Sani Aliyu.

On resumption as DG NACA, Dr. Aliyu initiated anadvocacy to end mother to child transmission of HIV in Nigeria. His strategy is to ensure that every available resource is channeled towards this agenda as he consistently insists that it is totally unacceptable that any child should be born with HIV in Nigeria. He has mobilized government commitment at the highest level and championed the inclusion of PMTCT services in the benefit package of national and states health insurance schemes and the recently launched basic health care provision fund which targets women and children with free basic health care services. Given Nigeria’s highest contribution to the global MTCT burden which has defied solutions over the years, perhaps Dr. Aliyu’s leadership of UNAIDS will be the game changer in Nigeria’s and indeed global agenda to eliminate mother to child transmission of HIV.

Dr. Aliyu has demonstrated great support to the civil society, especially people living with HIV and the key affected population by ensuring they have the opportunity to meaningfully contribute to the national response to AIDS. He provided funding for institutional and living support to PLHIV network in Nigeria and their members, regularly engaging with them and other civil society networks. He promotes and support removal of all forms of barriers to access to services for vulnerable and key affected populations, despite the same sex marriage prohibition law in the country. He is very supportive of an on-going reforms and governance strengthening of the Country Coordinating Mechanism of the Global Fund and the executive committee of the CCM which he serves as a member, approved an observer status for a representative of the key affected population on the CCM. He made it a duty to render his stewardship of Nigeria’s AIDS response to the Civil Society Accountability Forum each year.

He has demonstrated a high sense of transparency in governance since resumption at NACA to bridge the gap between the leadership and the staff. He initiated the whistle blowing policy which encourages all staff to report any untoward or unethical behavior to him directly through his personal email, suggestion box (which only him has the keys to) or one on one discussion. He also restructured the organization to be more efficient in its operations, whilst ensuring round holes are placed in round pegs. This brought a new energy and sense of purpose to the organization and its staff leading to improved performance, respect from all and very much improved public perception and corporate image for the organization.

From the foregoing, it is evidently clear that Dr. Aliyu has done in Nigeria everything UNAIDS is looking for in the new Executive Director, and will only take them to global scale at UNAIDS. His integrity, credibility and wide acceptance amongst stakeholders will be great assets to the new UNAIDS we all desire. He candidacy presents an opportunity for a fresh reengineering of UNAIDS and the global AIDS response especially at this time; and to mobilise every stakeholder towards fast-tracked progress towards ending AIDS as a public health concern.

Walter Ugwuocha PhD
Executive Secretary
Civil Society for HIV/AIDS in Nigeria (CiSHAN)


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