Former Deputy Vice Chancellor (Administration) of the University of Benin, Professor Bona Obiorah is a distinguished pharmacist. His illustrious career has seen him serve as president of the West African Pharmaceutical Federation (now West African Postgraduate College of Pharmacists). He was also a chairman of Edo State PSN and, remarkably, the first black professor of Pharmaceutical Technology in Africa. In this interview with ADEBAYO FOLORUNSHO-FRANCIS, the professor recounts the ups and downs of the journey so far. Excerpts:
What was your early education like?
My primary education was at St. Mathew’s Catholic School, Amawbia in old Onitsha Province. I left there in standard five in 1954 to attend Government College Umuahia. At Umuahia, I was in the experimental class that wrote WASC in class four. After WASC I had a stint of nine months in Shell BP as a clerk. Thereafter, I proceeded to the old Nigerian College, Enugu, for my A-levels in Physics, Chemistry and Biology which I successfully completed in June 1961.
How did you find yourself at Nigerian College?
Well, I think that is a story for another day. After my WASC, my passion was to study Agriculture at the University of Ibadan. I wrote the entrance examination and was admitted to the university. But the issue of Eastern Nigeria Government Scholarship cropped up and when I checked the list I found that I had been awarded a scholarship to study Pharmacy. That was the first time I was hearing of such a course.
I travelled to Enugu to find out what was going on. I was told that my name appeared under Pharmacy because that was an area of need for the regional government. I needed a scholarship and accepted to study Pharmacy at the University of Ife (now OAU). The letter of admission was for a three-year B.Pharm degree. On arrival at the university, the letter of offer was withdrawn and replaced with a three-year diploma offer.
What was the reason?
The reason was that the staffing situation was inadequate for a Pharmacy degree. Some of us went over to the University of Ibadan and enrolled for Medicine, but a good number took the matter philosophically and enrolled for the diploma programme.
What happened next?
At the end of the diploma programme in June 1964, we were enlisted in the register of pharmacists, which paved way for me to join the Eastern Nigerian Civil Service as a pharmacist. Quite unexpectedly, those of us who graduated in 1964 with diploma were invited back to Ife to do a one year top-up programme in October 1966. Thus, by June 1967, we had got the B.Pharm degree. At the end of the programme, those of us who bagged second class honours upper degree were offered appointments as Assistant Lecturers in Ife; but I could not take up the appointment.
Because of the Nigerian Civil War. Still, I was allowed to take up the offer in April 1970 at the end of the war. That was the start of my long and rewarding career in academia.
Rewarding, in what sense?
I was sponsored to the UK for a PhD programme by the university in September 1970. I spent about three and half years at the University of London and bagged my PhD in Pharmaceutical Technology in February 1974. I rose quickly through the ranks in Ife and subsequently at the University of Benin (Uniben) and became a full professor of Pharmaceutical Technology in 1981.
In retrospect, can you confidently say studying Pharmacy was a good decision for you?
Looking back, it was providential that I read Pharmacy since I never set out to do so. But as it turned out to be, I have no regret whatsoever studying Pharmacy. Pharmacy turned out to be a real blessing for me. I had attained the rank of full professor in Pharm Technology barely seven years after my PhD, and in fact, the first in black Africa. The rapid rise had its challenges but I feel fulfilled that I lived up to them as they arose.
What was the profession like in your day compared to today’s practice?
I was in hospital pharmacy for five years before going into academics. Pharmacy in the hospital at the time was beset with all sorts of challenges – top of which was being placed on the technical cadre in public service. We also operated from cubicles as pharmacies and there was very little contact with the patients.
With the recent introduction of clinical pharmacy, we are beginning to have a pre-eminent position in the hospital. We must bear in mind that the status of Pharmacy will always be determined by its fate in the hospital.
Were there scandals and other disturbing trends surrounding the practice during your time?
Pharmacy appears to have been a fighting profession over the decades. This is so because a lot of interlopers exist; and many people who try to determine our fate in most cases do not have a clue about Pharmacy as a profession. Of course, virtually everyone wants a bit of the pie. If the profession is allowed to fully regulate itself, Pharmacy will attain its full potential which will be to the benefit of all.
Some of the bad policies affecting our profession are gradually being addressed, with pharmacists throwing their hats in the ring of party politics. Pharmacists can no longer afford to remain apolitical.
What was your level of involvements in pharmaceutical activities?
My involvement in pharmaceutical activities was closely linked to my activities as a pharmacy teacher. I always preached to my students that they must take a lot of interest in hospital pharmacy. Students used to be reluctant to work in hospitals, complaining of little or no time for pleasure. I always emphasised to them that if the hospitals could dispense with their services on weekends, then they could also dispense with their services altogether since hospitals are open 24 hours a day.
What about active membership of associations and holding offices?
I was chairman of Edo State PSN. As dean of pharmacy in the University of Benin, I was fully active in pharmacy politics. I was also an active member of the West African Pharmaceutical Federation (WAPF) and rose to be its president and played a major role in midwifing it to become the West African Postgraduate College of Pharmacists. Even as deputy vice chancellor (administration) in the University of Benin, I remained very active in the affairs of Pharmacy, nationally and internationally.
Were there some major awards given to you in recognition of your service?
In the course of my service to Pharmacy, I was honoured with fellowships of the PSN (FPSN) and the West African Postgraduate College of Pharmacists (FPCPharm). I was also country representative of the Commonwealth Pharmaceutical Association for very many years.
What is your impression of the annual PSN national conferences?
The annual PSN national conferences seem to have derailed from the original thinking. It has become so commercialised that there is very little consideration for pharmacists in academia. They should be made to be an integral part of the jamboree.
If you were not to be a pharmacist, what other profession would you have opted for?
I have had a most rewarding career in pharmacy. If I was not in Pharmacy due to providence, I probably would have become a farmer as I indicated at the beginning of this interview. Whether I would have had the same success as I had in Pharmacy if I was a farmer is an issue for another day.
Is there a particular age when an active pharmacist should retire?
The issue of retirement age for pharmacists has continued to crop up. In my extensive travels around the world, I have seen pharmacists in various facets of the profession remaining active well over 80 years. The matter must be left to the individual pharmacist to decide. The alertness of the practitioner should be the deciding consideration, not age as a rule of thumb.
As an elder in the pharmacy profession, what is your advice to young pharmacists?
Young pharmacists tend to be too much in a hurry to reach the top or make money. Very often, this is to their detriment and that of our profession. They should make haste slowly and try to be on top of developments in the profession by continually updating their knowledge on the various areas of pharmacy. For the young ones ready to be sincere to themselves and the profession, they can rest assured that there is room at the top.