Pharm. Eugene Chibuzo Okonkwo was born at Nise in Awka South Local Government Area of Anambra State. The first of five surviving children, he is the managing director of Chixie Pharmacy in Aguda area of Lagos. In this exciting interview with Adebayo Folorunsho-Francis, Okonkwo recounts some of the challenges faced by early pharmacists in the country and how the civil war almost compelled him to give up his pharmacy study.
Tell us about your younger days.
At age five, I started my early education at St Bartholomew’s Primary School, Enugu, capital of the Eastern Region of Nigeria. After primary five, I was transferred to St Paul’s Practising School, Awka, to complete my primary six. It was in that great school that I gained admission into the prestigious Government College, Umuahia. While there, I was among the first batch of students who were selected to write the West African School Certificate Examination (WASCE) in four years instead of the normal five years. My best friend, Prof. Bona Obiorah, was then my classmate at Government College, Umuahia.
After passing my WAEC examination in grade one, Prof. Obiorah and I got admitted into the Nigerian College of Arts, Science and Technology, Enugu, for a two-year pre-pharmacy course which included Physics, Chemistry and Botany. At the end of the course, we both passed the three subjects in the London GCE A-Level Examination. From there, we moved to the University of Ife to start our course in Pharmacy.
How did you decide to study Pharmacy?
Honestly, my decision to study Pharmacy was by chance. While at Government College, my decision was to study Medicine, while Prof. Obiorah was considering Agriculture. We were lucky to have wonderful masters in Chemistry and Biology, namely Edmund Wilson (Briton) and W. E. Allagoa (Nigerian). Because we were well grounded in these subjects, we were sure that we would scale through our chosen courses.
However, just before we started WAEC Examination, we heard about the Nigerian College of Arts, Science and Technology for the first tme. We were told that if we passed the written examination into this institution, we would get automatic East Regional Government scholarship to pursue a five-year course in Pharmacy and this would remove the burden of school fees from our parents. Additionally, we were told that at the Nigerian College, we would have a room to ourselves in a hostel and that we could wear trousers instead of the Khaki shorts we wore at Umuahia. We were also told that we could wear suits, attend dances and that our hostel rooms would be cleaned and our dresses washed by washerman. That was it. We decided it was Pharmacy or nothing!
Looking back, was it a good decision?
Yes, indeed it was a very good decision to study Pharmacy. Pharmacy, as a profession, has broadened my perspective of life. I started out as a hospital pharmacist at the Enugu General Hospital and later at Arochukwu General Hospital for one year in each station. This exposed me to make friends with doctors, nurses and patients.
In 1971, I joined Glaxo Nigeria Limited as a medical representative based in Aba. I covered the present Abia, Anambra, Imo, Ebonyi, Cross River, Akwa Ibom, Enugu and Benue States. As a medical representative, I lived a glamorous life, staying in good hotels and meeting and discussing with prominent doctors and pharmacists in my area of operation.
In 1974, I was promoted and transferred to Lagos as a product manager. I later to move up to become the western branch manager, marketing services manager, general manager and, eventually, marketing manager, before my retirement in 1987. These positions enabled me to be familiar with all the states in Nigeria.
If not Pharmacy, what other interests would you have followed?
If I had not studied Pharmacy, I would have studied Medicine because I was very good at science subjects.
As one of the second set of B.Pharm graduates of Ife in 1967, can you tell us some of your memorable experiences?
After passing my London A-Level GCE Examination, Prof Bona Obiorah, Pharm. Dennis Okolo, Pharm. Pius Ogwueleka and I were given admission to pursue a degree in Pharmacy at the University of Ife. On the resumption date, we and other students started our lectures in the Pharmacy block of the University. A couple of weeks after we started receiving lectures, a young, handsome man was ushered into the Pharmacognosy lab by Dr J. D. Kulkani and was given a seat at the back of the class. We thought he was a new lecturer in Pharmacognosy and wondered how such a young man could have become a lecturer at such a tender age. He had neither a paper nor a pen and his poise resembled that of a teaching staff member. It was a few days later that we discovered that the young man was just a fellow student like us. That chap is Pharm. (Sir) Ifeanyi Atueyi, publisher of Pharmanews.
And then, in our second year, we started hearing speculations that the university was not certified to offer the B.Pharm degree after three years and that we would end up with Diploma in Pharmacy. All hell was let loose. Some of our classmates such as Nath Ozobia, Augustine Oronsanye and Bayo Owoseni quickly applied to the Lagos University Teaching University (LUTH) to study Medicine and were offered admission. They formed the foundation students of the College Medicine. Prof. Bona Obiorah and I also applied to the German Embassy in Lagos to study Medicine in Germany. Luckily, we were offered a scholarship to study at the University of Heidelberg. I believe Pharm. Atueyi also got admission to study in either Germany or elsewhere. We were all totally disillusioned and disconsolate.
However, as time went on, we became more rational and changed our minds to complete the three-year Diploma in Pharmacy at the University of Ife. We decided that instead of starting another six-year course in Germany, we should complete the diploma course, own our cars and become senior civil servants, even though our salaries would be £408 per annum compared to other graduates who earned £720 per annum.
Just before we left Pharmacy school, one of the lecturers, Dr Vernon Walters, gave us assurance that an opportunity would be given to us in future to come and complete our B.Pharm degree.
Was that prediction fulfilled?
Yes, just as Dr Walters had predicted, we were invited to the university in 1966 to do a one-year course to complete our B.Pharm. degree. You can imagine the elation we had as our dreams came through! However, little did we know that unforeseen circumstances would threaten our dreams.
As the session was beginning, the killing of Easterners in the North had begun to escalate. Most of my classmates then were Pharm. Moses Azuike, Pharm. (Sir) Ifeanyi Atueyi, Prof. Bona Obiorah, Pharm. Dennis Okolo, Pharm. Pius Ogwueleka and Pharm. Bola Olaniyi. Those of us from the Eastern Region were really afraid. There was tension in the country and Lt. Col. Odumegwu-Ojukwu, the then military governor of the Eastern Region, asked all Easterners to return to the East. We stayed back to continue our studies, until two days to our final examination when Ojukwu declared the Independent State of Biafra. With that announcement, we, the students from the Eastern part of Nigeria, felt that our lives were in danger. We sent a delegation to the amiable vice chancellor, Prof. Hezekiah Oluwasanmi, to request for a means of transporting students from the Eastern Region to Asaba. He sympathised with us and provided us with the university’s buses; while some of us who had personal vehicles assisted others and we all left the campus for Asaba with mobile police escort provided by the vice chancellor.
Did you make it to East?
In the evening of that day, we arrived at Asaba. Just then, it dawned on us that we had been hasty in dumping our academics for safety. So, we decided that all the final year students should return to Ibadan that night in order to write their exams the following morning. Instantly, the few of us involved hired a 404-station wagon and started heading back to Ibadan. These included Atueyi, Obiorah, Ogwueleka, Azuike, Okolo and I.
We arrived at the Pharmacy block of the university 30 minutes after Pharmaceutical Chemistry paper had started at 9.00am the following day. As unkempt as we were, we barged into the office of the head of department, Dr Rowland Hardman, and told him that we had returned to write our examination. He declined our request, and this prompted us to march to the vice chancellor’s office in protest. Prof. Oluwasanmi (of blessed memory) was so kind as to instruct our head of department to allow us to write the examination and to give us extra time to do so.
By the time we finished the examination and were on our way back to the East, the Biafran government had blown the Onitsha end of the Niger Bridge and we had to cross over by canoe from Asaba. We were among those returnees who were labelled “saboteurs” by Biafran soldiers and could have been shot, if not for divine intervention and the assistance of some soldiers who recognised us.
How would you compare today’s pharmacy practice with your time?
As at the time I qualified as a pharmacist, I think that the number of pharmacists in Nigeria must be in the hundreds, certainly not up to one thousand. Many of those pharmacists were trained at Yaba Higher College, the Nigerian College of Arts, Science and Technology, Ibadan, and later on, at the University of Ife. The highest qualification then was Diploma in Pharmacy.
The majority of pharmacists worked in government hospitals, while a few ran retail pharmacies or worked for the few multinational companies as medical representatives. The hospital pharmacists, through their union, Nigerian Union of Pharmacists (NUP), were always engaging the government over their poor salary which was £408 per annum, compared with other graduates who earned much higher. Those who ran chemist shops were doing well because there were few patent medicine shops to compete with them.
What was the catalyst that changed the trend?
Between the late 50s and early 60s, the first set of graduate pharmacists started to return to Nigeria from the United Kingdom and the image of pharmacists started to soar. They included the late Emmanuel Igwueze (who later became the chief pharmacist of the Eastern Region after the last had expatriate left), Pius Alu, D. N. Akuneme and Mrs. A. Pepple. Those pharmacists were referred to as pharmaceutical officers and were placed on a salary of £1,020 per annum. The arrival of these graduate pharmacists opened a new vista for the image of pharmacists in Nigeria.
After this first set of pharmacists came the second set which included Dr Philip Emafo, Prof. Gabriel Osuide, Prof. Paul Akubue and Dr George Iketubosin, who went straight to academia. I was among the second set of graduate pharmacists from the University of Ife in 1967.
Today, virtually all universities in Nigeria churn out graduate pharmacists every year. With this massive increase in the number of graduates, it is getting more difficult to find gainful employment. It is therefore no surprise that some misguided graduates team up with patent medicine dealers to engage in unethical practices. During my time in Glaxo, pharmaceutical companies had three tiers of prices for their products: distributors’ price, hospital price and retail price. Retail price had a mark-up of 33.3 per cent on the distributors’ price so that any ethical product sold by a retail pharmacist attracted a 33.3 per cent automatic profit while OTCs had a mark-up of 25 per cent. This price regime was strictly adhered to and retail pharmacy boomed. Now, with the deluge of young pharmacists in competition with the patent medicine dealers, price cutting has become the order of the day, especially now that one cannot guarantee the quality of products in circulation in the country.
What is your view about pharmacists in politics?
My view about pharmacists in politics is premised on the saying, “Different strokes for different folks.” I have no problem with pharmacists who have the genetic make-up to jump into the shark-infested, murky waters of Nigerian politics.
I recall some people who, while in the university, showed signs of going into politics. First among them was Prince Julius Adelusi-Adeluyi, who was the president of All Nigeria United Nations Students and Youth Association (ANUNSA), PAX ROMANA (Latin for “Roman Peace”), Pharmaceutical Association of Nigeria Students (PANS) and secretary of National the Union of Nigeria Students (NUN), as well as a host of other associations. He was later to become the minister of health in Nigeria.
I also recall people like Chief Lambert Eradiri, Late Sir Samuel Agboifo, Late Chief Tony Ekoh, Pharm. Tony Chukwumerije and others. I wish to use this medium to congratulate Pharm. Jimi Agbaje who mustered the courage to contest in the last governorship election in Lagos State. I look forward to a time when more pharmacists will be in the corridors of power in Nigeria to help us in controlling some ills affecting the pharmacy profession.
Can you recall some of your colleagues and lecturers who had touched your life in unforgettable ways?
The most prominent personality at Ife in my time was Prince Julius Adelusi-Adeluyi. I just could not fathom how he was able to cope with the tedium of being a pharmacy student and at the same time acting as secretary of NUNS, president of ANUNSA, PAX ROMANA, PANS, and being a newscaster at the Western Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation (WNBC).
I also remember Chief G. L. Eradiri, who was a vibrant student politician and president of PANS. I remember an instance when Eradiri went to our Pharmaceutical Chemistry lecturer, Dr George Iketubosin, to ask whether he could be admitted to pursue postgraduate studies. Dr Iketubosin told him that he was known as a student politician and that he should go home and take up chieftaincy titles.
I also recall the Late Sir Samuel Agboifo who was president of the Students Union and PANS. Samuel was a quintessential gentleman who eventually became president of the Pharmaceutical Society of Nigeria (PSN).
As for my lecturers, I recall Dr Vernon Walters, who was our Pharmaceutics lecturer and who promised to give us the opportunity to take our B.Pharm degree after our Diploma course. Walters was a polished gentleman who loved his subject and the students. I also remember Dr Iketubosin who took us in Pharmaceutical Chemistry but died before we finished our course. He was replaced by Dr (Mrs) Pamela Ghergis.
We had other lecturers like Stella Rivers, Jennifer Heathcote, Dr. J. D. Kulkarni and M.B. Patel. Others were Maxwell Foy, Dr Parrat, Dr Rowland Hardman (HOD), Prof. Ayo Tella and Prof. Lanre Ogunlana. Looking back, I just remember how Dr Stella Rivers nicknamed Pharm Moses Azuike as “The Moses of the Bible.”
What is your advice to pharmacy students and today’s young pharmacists?
I advise pharmacy students and young pharmacists alike to always remember the history of the profession from the apothecary to dispensers to chemists and druggists. We have come a long way to where we are now. With the introduction of clinical pharmacy to the curriculum, pharmacists have moved from being dispensing pharmacists to being clinical advisors. Pharmacists have now become indispensable partners with other health care workers in health workers in health care delivery. So the young ones must work hard to add value to whatever standards we have handed over to them.