In this interview with Adebayo Folorunsho-Francis, former PSN Chairman, Sir (Pharm.) Charles U. Obowu takes a cursory look at the dynamism of the Nigerian pharmaceutical industry, its impact on the health sector and how he became a distinguished civil servant. Excerpts:
Tell us about yourself, especially your early days
I attended St Patrick’s College, Calabar from 1947 to 1951 after my elementary education at Government School, Kumba, in Cameroun. I passed the Senior Cambridge School Certificate in grade I and the London matriculation exams in 1951. In 1953, I travelled overseas to study. I studied at Kings College, University of London and the School of Pharmacy, Sunderland.
Tell us about your work experience
On my return to Nigeria in 1962, my first appointment was in the Ministry of Health as a manufacturing pharmacist, at the Federal Manufacturing Laboratory Yaba, under Mrs Nylander. Under the headship of Lady Nylander, my humble self, and Pharm. Sylvester Onwuka (later Dr Onwuka) set up the framework for the first indigenous manufacturing outfit in Lagos. Pfizer & Burroughs Wellcome had already started manufacturing in the country. We produced various tablets, intravenous drips, and chloroquine injections. These were supplied to government hospitals for use.
In retrospect, can you confidently say studying Pharmacy was a good decision?
The pharmacy profession is very satisfying. There is power in the role of the pharmacist. I saw myself as being the pivot to the wellness of the nation. Without the pharmacist, medicines and drugs which are tools in the hands of the physician and other professional health workers would not be made or prepared safely. It was both challenging and fulfilling working in the manufacturing lab.
What about your subsequent engagements
On leaving government work, I joined the private sector. I was recruited by Kingsway Chemists Limited as trainee manager in Lagos. Later I was transferred to Benin as branch manager.
When the civil war broke out, I was moved to the Aba branch of Kingsway Chemists Limited. After the war, I joined Shell Petroleum Development Company as senior pharmacist in Shell Hospital, Port Harcourt.
Before my services to Shell came to an end, I was moved to the Department of Public Affairs where I became Head, Government and Public Affairs, from 1985 to 1987. (I will reveal the rationale for this movement later). I finally retired from Shell in 1987 and set up Uchem Pharmacy Limited in Port Harcourt. In 2013, I decided it was time to put down the mortar and pestle. It is my belief that for every activity in life there is a time for retirement from active engagement.
Going by your wealth of experience in Pharmacy, how many platforms were you privileged to use?
The platforms from which I operated as a pharmacist include: government, private sector, hospital (Shell) and community pharmacy practice. These platforms provided for me rich pathways to some more non-pharmaceutical engagements.
For example, in 1975, the Rivers State Government appointed me as Chairman, PABOD Supplies Limited. In 1976, I was appointed member of Justice Allagoa Commission of Inquiry into Rivers State-owned companies, boards and parastatals. I did these jobs alongside my work at Shell Hospital.
Reports have it that you were in Gen. Muhammed Buhari’s cabinet. How true is this?
Yes, it is true. In 1983, I was invited to join Rivers State cabinet after the Buhari military coup. Shortly after that, I served as Commissioner for Commerce and Industry. Later, I was moved to the ministry of Information, Welfare, Tourism, Sports and Arts and Culture as commissioner.
In all, I served as commissioner in Rivers State from 1983 to 1985.
Is that all?
No. I had two other engagements with the Rivers State Government. Between 1994 and 1998, I was appointed Chairman of the Governing Council of the Rivers State Polytechnic, Bori. This was at the height of the Ogoni crisis. It is on record that I was the first Chairman of Council that completed the four-year tenure. Others before me (four of them) were removed before the end of their tenures.
The return of civilian rule in 1999 saw the beginning of the existence of the free medical service programme in Rivers State. I was the first chairman of that body from 1999 to 2004. The last three appointments were challenging, exciting and rewarding in terms of inputs and execution. They, in no small measure, fulfilled my yearning to do something to improve the education and health indices of our beloved country.
How active were you in PSN-related activities?
I served as PSN chairman in Rivers State on two occasions (1981-1984; 1988-1992). I was instrumental to the formation and inauguration of the Rivers State branch of the Association of Community Pharmacists (ACPN) in 1987, of which I was the first chairman (1987-1994). I was a member of NEC (1992-1994). I received the Fellowship award of the PSN in 1994. I was conferred with the knighthood of the order of St Christopher in 1995.
What was the profession like in your day compared to today’s practice?
The volume of medicaments produced today for treatment of ailments has been tremendous. This has changed the face of pharmacy practice. Hospital pharmacy has changed from dispensing and compounding to providing medicines to patients in a safe effective way. Hospital practice has become patient-oriented. This has given rise to clinical pharmacy as a specialisation. The emphasis now is on pharmaceutical care in pharmacy profession.
When I was in Shell Hospital, doctors, pharmacists and nurses took part in ward rounds. Retail pharmacy is now community-oriented; accordingly, the Association of Community Practice Pharmacy (ACPN) has become a technical group.
Manufacturing companies have increased more than ten-fold in the country. Academic pharmacy has more than quadrupled. Many universities now have faculties of Pharmacy. Consequently, the annual output of pharmacists has grown in leaps and bounds. Thus the content of Pharmacy and quantity of pharmacists has increased tremendously. But it is arguable whether this explosion translates to higher ethics and devotion to Pharmacy by the new breed of pharmacists.
What are the challenges facing pharmacy practice in Nigeria and how can they be surmounted?
Pharmacy nowadays has been so commercialised that standards have taken a dip. Today, the counterfeiting of drugs and the evils of “Register and Go” by the new breeds have become a thorn in the flesh.
How best do you think the issue of fake drugs and counterfeit medicine can be curbed?
One of the greatest challenges facing pharmacy practice in Nigeria is the issue of fake and counterfeit drugs. Counterfeiting of drugs is lethal, causing the death of many people.
Faking in general is global, leading to losses for authentic drug manufacturers. Counterfeiters have a worldwide network. To counter this evil, regulatory agencies must be involved, namely NAFDAC and SON (Standards Organisation of Nigeria), as well as customs and the consumers themselves. Consumers are also stakeholders and must work hand-in-hand with the regulators.
One of the duties of the regulators is to raise the awareness level of the consumers. The policy framework of the regulators should be constantly revised. There should be appropriate deterrent for offenders. Judges and anti-counterfeit agents should be strengthened. Culprits should be given speedy trials in our law courts. Those involved in arrest, investigation and prosecution should do their work honestly, and without delay.
What is your view about the annual PSN conferences?
PSN national conferences are good. They present opportunities to meet old colleagues. They provide for people in the same profession to deliberate and analyse issues of common interest.
I have enjoyed past conferences, although I must apologise for not attending one for some time now.
Over the years, is there any PSN president who left a lasting impression on you?
Past PSN presidents have been good. They represent young men who are anxious and ready to give leadership and their time in order to make the profession first among equals. There is no reason why the current PSN president should do less.
Of the past PSN presidents, I would rank Prof. Ogunlana high, especially as I was member of NEC during his tenure. He is a man of clarity and I think he is nimble and precise in thought, word and deed.
If you were not to be a pharmacist, what other profession would you have opted for?
Any other profession is the answer. As you might have deduced, my training and education fits me into any profession or duty but Pharmacy is my number one.
What advice do you have for young pharmacists?
In my day you were not allowed to practise until you had worked for at least three years after qualification under a qualified pharmacist. Nowadays it is not so. Young pharmacists are advised to be patient and learn the “trade” as the lives of innocent souls are at stake.