Pharm. Chibuzor Valentine Okaa is the senior special assistant (SSA) to the governor of Anambra State on pharmaceutical services. In this interview with Pharmanews, Okaa, a pharmacy graduate of Nnamdi Azikiwe University, Anambra State, who also holds a master’s degree in Pharmaceutical Services and Medicine Control, from University of Bradford, United Kingdom, speaks on how he emerged the SSA to Governor Willie Obiano.
He also reveals how he helped unite pharmacists in Anambra State and also facilitated the release of 30 million naira by the governor for the purchase of drugs in the state. Excerpts:
As a young pharmacist, how did you get appointed as the SSA to the governor of Anambra State?
Actually, I left the pharmacy school in the year 2012 so I am now seven years post-induction as a pharmacist. Let me also say that what I am doing now can be traced back to the experience I gained from my activities in campus politics when I was in the pharmacy school. At that time, my faculty was a new one and we were the second set. I was involved in a lot of student politics. My involvement was not for personal gain but to place the faculty of pharmacy within the fulcrum of student unionism and to get certain things that were not given to the faculty because it was located outside the main campus. The campus was located in Agulu.
I was the first elected pharmacy student member of the Students’ Representative Council (SRC) in the students’ union government (SUG). I am happy that I opened that line and many pharmacy students have followed that channel since then and they are making progress today.
After my tenure as SRC member, I tried to go for other positions in the SUG but was not successful. That was how my dream of always coming forward to serve as a pharmacist started. And I have always believed that I can aim high and go for anything I so desire. All it requires is focus, dedication and hard work. I am always ready with those.
However, to answer the question, after I left the pharmacy school, I did my internship at Nnamdi Azikiwe University Teaching Hospital, Nnewi. On completion of the internship, I left for the United Kingdom to do my master’s degree. I studied at the University of Bradford in England. It took 18 months of my life and I came back with a master’s degree in pharmaceutical services and medicine control. I came back in January, 2015.
Few weeks after I came back, I had the opportunity to attend a political meeting and was able to get about two minutes to discuss with the governor who is from my area and who was also at the meeting. I was prepared for that talk, so I presented my certificates to him and told him that I would like to work with his government in whatever area he think I can help. He said there and then that he would like to work with me. He said he already had some young brilliant minds he was working with presently and I would be his personal assistant on pharmaceutical services in the state. He said he was unhappy with the pharmaceutical sector in the state and that someone had to be in charge of what was going on with the drugs in the state. He asked me to do that as his special assistant pharmacy. That was how I got the appointment.
Since your appointment, what are the things you have done to deliver on the assignment given to you?
My first focus after my appointment was how to ensure all the stakeholders in the pharmaceutical sector in the state work together. We have the Pharmaceutical Society of Nigeria (PSN) in the state and we also have the office of the state director of pharmaceutical services (DPS) in the health ministry. We also have other bodies involved in drugs in the state and I knew all of them very well. I decided to meet with the leadership of all these bodies.
My first plan was to unite everybody because I knew there was no peace. I set up a peace committee and went round to ensure all pharmaceutical cases in courts were withdrawn and settled out of court because they were slowing down progress in the sector. This disunity was also preventing the sector from getting what it should get from the government.
I discussed with the DPS on what they want from the government and he gave me a copy of the memo they submitted to the governor requesting for funds to purchase some drugs for the state. They had a budget of about 60 million. I decided to make that a focal action-point of work for my office to make sure that they got what they were requesting for. So I kept on doing the needful and I was happy that the governor released the initial 30 million out of the 60 million for them to start.
Things went the way they went because of the politics involved in the ministry of health but I can tell you that we helped ensure things get moving.
Another thing I have done is that as a young person I believed that if I was given an opportunity, I should encourage and support other young persons. So, when I came in as personal assistant to the governor, I started meeting young pharmacists one-on-one and working with them to encourage them to be interested in what is going on in pharmacy and in Anambra State. I made them to know that they have to be ready for leadership position before they can get it. We have made progress and still making progress in that. These are the things that I have focused on primarily.
However, I have also been trying to handle the issues of taxes being collected from the pharmaceutical sector. I know the state need the internally generated revenue (IGR) from pharmacy and from the pharmaceutical industry but we don’t want the sector to be over-taxed and over-levied. We are almost at the point of discussing with the chairman of the internal revenue service of Anambra state. We shall fashion out a single-unit IGR fee, not the various levies they presently get, that choke them and make them unhappy. That basically sums up what we have been trying to achieve and those we have achieved.
What are your thoughts on how to encourage pharmacists, especially young pharmacists to get more involved in politics?
Let me tell you, in this our profession, there are so many intelligent people that can do very well in politics, they just have to show more interest in it. There was a time I briefly went out of the profession and got involved in something completely unrelated to the practice. That was during the reelection of the governor. It has to do with the activities of the National Youth Council in the state. There is also a chapter in Anambra State.
There was a dispute within the council then, so they wanted a neutral person that can come in and help in that phase. So I was made the transition chairman because all the parties were comfortable with me helping to sort out the issues. I am very good at making peace; so I worked hard to bring the factions together. I developed a lot of skills running the office of the state chairman of the National Youth Council of Nigeria. I worked with the Ministry of Youth and Social Development, the Ministry of Health, as well as for his Excellency. So I picked up a lot of skills – organisational skills, programme planning skills, as well as public relations skills.
I was the number one youth of the state and I sat on many boards in the state just because of that position. I worked hard to bring glory to that office by making good contributions before I left.
Based on what I have seen so far, to succeed, I have had to build a long line of relationship which I have been able to keep and nourish by the virtue of the fact that I know what to do at the right time when relating with people. It might be God’s talent in me, but I believe all pharmacists and, especially young pharmacists, must develop these skills I mentioned earlier and also learn how to build and nurture relationship. I believe most pharmacists can do this.
How will you describe your experience so far working as adviser to the governor on pharmaceutical issues? What are the challenges so far and what are your hopes for the future?
I am happy that I have been able to cement the office of the senior special adviser on pharmaceutical services in this state. It is now a mainstay in this government and has now spanned over two tenures. It was previously that of a special assistant but is now that of a special adviser and a very big position. I have an office domiciled in the office complex of the government.
On challenges, I am someone that knows if you want to get something done, you have to do it yourself. So, before coming in, I know there would be challenges and my attitude is to personally face those by going to those concerned with the issues. This has helped. I am also happy with the level of pharmacy youth involvement in politics in this state, though we can do more.
For instance, during the election, I gathered the young pharmacists in Anambra for an enlightenment campaign for a drug-free election. This is because I know that for there to be violence, someone has to be intoxicated with something. It can be Tramadol, Indian hemp, codeine, or even alcohol. We did that and captured a lot of audience. The House of Assembly members who were pharmacists came around that time and we encouraged and supported them because we knew that if they were there they would be able to support Pharmacy-friendly policies and that would be a great benefit to Pharmacy. Although they were House members representing their various constituencies, they are part and parcels of this profession.
My hope and plan is to channel my energy into the politics of the state. We need to bring forth pharmacists as commissioners and other top positions in government. I want pharmacists to come out of their shops, factories and other places of work and come out to where decisions are being made. If I can make contributions towards us achieving that, I believe that will be very great for me personally and for the profession.