The name, Paul Iwegbunam Akubue, is well-known in both the Nigerian pharmaceutical industry and the academia. To many, he is a professor of pharmacology and toxicology; to some, a Fellow of the Pharmaceutical Society of Nigeria (PSN); and still to others, an emeritus professor of University of Nigeria, Nsukka (UNN). In this interview with Adebayo Folorunsho-Francis, the former vice chancellor of Madonna University recalls how his vacation job as a pharmacy student accorded him the rare privilege of meeting the then Liberian president, the challenges of running a private university as vice chancellor and his pioneering role in the establishment of the prestigious West African Postgraduate College of Pharmacists. Excerpts:
Tell us about your early years.
I was born in Nimo, Njikoka Local Government Area of Anambra State. My parents were farmers and by the standard of the town, wealthy farmers. As the first child of the family, my father did not want me to join his farming business. He sent me to St. Bonaventure’s Primary School, Nimo. Although he did not have the benefit of modern education, he monitored my performance at the school. After each major class examination, he would ask me my position in the class. If I failed to get, at least, second position, he would want to know if the person who got the first position had two heads. I must confess that his approach of urging me to be the best helped me to always try to be one of the best in any class throughout my primary, secondary and university education.
You must have been the toast of your peers
Not exactly! I recall that our class teacher in standard six once asked me to set Mathematics test for my classmates. I did that and many failed because I picked my questions from difficult areas. Some of my classmates threatened to beat me up but the class teacher intervened and warned them against any such action.
After my primary education, I gained admission into the prestigious Christ the King College (CKC), Onitsha. I passed out of the college in flying colours after obtaining Cambridge School Certificate grade one. In those days, if one attended a well-known college and got a good school certificate, one was almost sure to get a job. However due to my interest and good performance in Mathematics, I opted to study Civil Engineering. Nigeria, at that time, had many roads with dangerous bends, cross roads and steep hills. Being a civil engineer, I thought, would give me an opportunity to make Nigerian roads safer. I needed a job that would create an opportunity for me to study civil engineering in a university.
After a short spell (one year) with Nigeria Railway’s civil engineering department, I got admission to Nigeria College of Arts, Sciences and Technology, Ibadan, to do GCE (Advanced Level) and the new pharmacy programme on federal government’s sponsorship. I completed the new pharmacy programme and passed the Diploma in Pharmacy examination of the college. I won two prizes – Sidney Philipson Prize, as the best student of the year; and May & Baker Prize for the best student in Pharmacy. The college appointed me a demonstrator in the department of pharmacy with an attractive salary.
The following year, I was admitted to the School of Pharmacy, University of London, as a federal scholar for a degree course from where I graduated with a Bachelor of Pharmacy (B.Pharm) degree, First Class Honours. My PhD was from King’s College, University of London, which I was able to complete in 24 calendar months.
What circumstances led you to study Pharmacy?
After my secondary education, I made up my mind that I must have university education. This would not happen without scholarship. And scholarship would not be secured easily except one had GCE (Advanced Level) in three subjects. To be able to achieve this, I took King’s College evening classes in Physics and Chemistry, while working in Lagos. Mathematics I thought, I would handle without the help of any teacher. This lasted for nine months, while I was working as engineering assistant-in-training under the Nigeria Railways. My transfer out of Lagos brought an end to my King’s College, Lagos evening classes.
Soon after, admission to study pharmacy in Nigeria College, Ibadan was advertised, stating that students must first do a two-year course and take GCE (Advanced Level). I was so excited that I did not waste time to apply. Luckily, I was selected. I did the GCE (A-Level) and passed the three subjects in one sitting. I was allowed to study Pharmacy and found it interesting and challenging. It opened a world of opportunities for me. If I did not like it very much, I could have left the college to study another course, but not Medicine.
In retrospect, would you say studying Pharmacy was a good decision?
It was a very good decision because the pharmacy course propelled me to great heights in a record time. It gave me a very broad education and offered me the rare opportunity to be in a position to help people health-wise, both the rich and the poor.
In the course of obtaining your degrees in pharmacy, were there some memorable experiences that you could share with us?
At that time in the School of Pharmacy, University of London, one thing that was striking was the nationality of the students. Besides British students, there were students from Japan, India, Ghana, Bangladesh, Korea, and of course Nigeria. This gave one opportunity to interact with many nationalities.
To be awarded First Class Honours degree was unbelievable. Frankly, I did not expect that the British teachers could consider a black man like me good enough for the award. For the PhD degree, the stipulation in the regulation allows one to complete the work in 24 calendar months. I worked towards this and was pleasantly surprised when my thesis was approved in 24 months.
My first vacation job experience was at Evans Medical, Liverpool. During the period, the president of Liberia paid a visit to the factory in the process of awarding a drug supply contract to the company. I was presented to the president to show that they were Africa-friendly. I was treated by the company as a special staff before, during and after the president’s visit.
Another experience I always recall was when I worked at King’s College Hospital during a long vacation. The chief pharmacist had asked me to prepare pills to contain a certain dose of zinc. Initially, I thought he was trying to keep me busy. I formulated and prepared the pills. To my greatest surprise, he handed them over to a patient. I least expected that he would have such confidence in what I prepared.
The period of study in London also offered me the opportunity to visit places in Europe during International Pharmacy Students’ Conferences. These included Munich (Germany) during their beer festival, Copenhagen (Denmark), Barcelona and Madrid (Spain); as well as industrial visits to drug manufacturers like Ciba-Geigy, Sandoz, and Hoffman la Roche (Switzerland).
As a former vice chancellor of Madonna University, what was it like to head such an institution?
Madonna University is a private university. It was a pleasure to be associated with it as vice chancellor. The problems and challenges of a private university are the same as those of government-owned universities. The students were Nigerians (or mostly so) and the staff were also Nigerians. I had a good and cordial relationship with both staff and students during my tenure.
If you were to compare today’s pharmacy practice with the one practised in your day, what would be your candid opinion?
Since 1966 when I returned to Nigeria to practise, I would say that pharmacy practice has changed for the better, but not as much as it should. Most of us seem to relax and let the practice move itself. I guess there are still cases of RAG. Are we in our pharmacies as was the practice in the 1970s and if we are there, are we visible or invisible? How much are we involved in public health – helping our clients to promote their health and to prevent preventable diseases and perhaps using as a guide, my book (Health Checks and Health Promotion)? Do we have pharmacy specialists in our tertiary hospitals – for example, pharmacists specialising in mental health, cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, cancer etc?
I can say without any fear of contradiction that our current practice has not incorporated fully all these activities. Until we achieve these, we cannot say we have arrived.
What is your view about pharmacists in politics?
Pharmacists should be in politics and be seen to be there. Their professional training prepares them for very successful political life. They are honest, very hard working, devoted, considerate and humane. Pharmacists should be in politics for the sake of the profession and for the sake of the public.
What do you consider as your major contributions to pharmacy profession?
For about 40 years, I was part of the faculties that trained and helped young boys and girls to become graduate pharmacists. These graduates are making their marks in many areas of pharmacy practice today and I am proud of them. I contributed to their development.
To be a dean of pharmacy is very demanding and to be a pioneer dean has its own challenges. I was pioneer dean in two universities and established the faculties of pharmacy.
The University of Liberia had no faculty of pharmacy. As the chairman of the Education Committee of West African Pharmaceutical Federation (WAPF), I got the president (vice chancellor) of the university to approve the establishment of the faculty of pharmacy programme. My committee recommended the first dean. I negotiated with a number of departments for laboratories the faculty could use for its takeoff. I am proud to say that the faculty of pharmacy took off as planned. Unfortunately, the civil war destroyed everything and set the hands of clock back.
Is it true that your immense contribution led to the establishment of West African Postgraduate College of Pharmacists (WAPCP)?
As the chairman of Education Committee of West African Pharmaceutical Federation (WAPF), we prepared a programme for the establishment of the above college. I got it approved by the programme committee of the West African Health Community. This was then submitted through the WAPF President/Council of Ministers of the West African Health Community. It was turned down. We did not give up. Two other attempts to get approval by two other presidents of WAPF suffered the same fate.
When I became the President of WAPF, I re-presented the programme to establish the college to the Council of Health Ministers of West African Health Community. This was during the Council meeting in Banjul, The Gambia. I am delighted to say that after presenting my argument for the establishment of the college and in spite of very strong opposition from one of the member countries, the Council of Health Ministers approved the establishment of the West African Postgraduate College of Pharmacists.
The college was inaugurated in 1991 in Ghana and I was installed the first Foundation Fellow of the college by the Minister of Health, Ghana. I then installed other Foundation Fellows of the college.
Your name also rings a bell in the programme of International Non-proprietary Names (INN) for the Pharmaceuticals. What was that all about?
For 28 years, I served as a member of the expert group of eight (later ten) responsible for coining or approving new drugs name to be used worldwide. Each one of us (except myself and one other member) represented a major drug manufacturing country like UK, USA, Japan, Russia, France, Spain and all of us, except one, were pharmacists. I was the only person from Africa. We met twice a year in Geneva and any name approved or coined was based on the chemical structure, pharmacology and the proposed therapeutic use of the drug. The drug name, called International Non-Proprietary Name (INN), prepared and approved by the expert group is the one presented to and approved by the World Health Assembly of the World Health Organization (WHO) as Recommended INN. Every drug manufacturer ensures that all drugs to be marketed by it have recommended INNs. I found the work challenging and my participation as a major contribution to p5harmacy.
Do you have awards or laurels to show for all your selfless service over the years?
They are innumerable. Some of them include: Fellow of Royal Pharmaceutical Society of Great Britain; and Fellow of the West African Postgraduate College of Pharmacists (I was actually the first person to be made a Fellow).
I am also a recipient of Clavender Bright Parker Award for contribution to the development and growth of pharmacy in West Africa; Pharmaceutical Society of Nigeria (PSN) special award for contribution to the journal; Pharmanews Award for outstanding contribution to the profession of pharmacy in Nigeria and West Africa; and the West African Society for Pharmacology’s Father of the Society Award for contribution to the founding and growth of the society.
Others are Achievement Award by Faculty of Pharmaceutical Sciences, University of Nigeria, Alumni Association for contribution as academic researcher and pioneer dean; National Integrity Award by National Pharmaceutical Association of Nigerian Students (PANS) and Award of Excellence in Pharmacy by Nigerian Association of Pharmacists in Academia (NAPA).
What do you think is the future of Pharmacy in Nigeria?
I have no doubt that Pharmacy in Nigeria has a great future. The industrial sector is making waves and this is bound to continue. The hospital pharmacy has challenges but eventually will be liberated from the clutches of hospital management in some hospitals. I am convinced that when we have in the hospitals pharmacists who specialise and practise in various areas of medicine, a change of attitude of administration will come. We have to force this change if need be.
The community pharmacy practice in Nigeria is making an impact but drug distribution system is the worst in the world (my assessment). The practice will continue to improve with time in spite of government failure to put the practice on the proper pedestal for the benefit of Nigerians. The academics are waxing strong and with time, and with improved facilities, their researches will be world class.
What is your advice for pharmacy students seeking to follow your footsteps?
The pharmacy course like some other professional courses is very demanding. It comprises many subjects from engineering science to management. In spite of this, Pharmacy is an interesting and an enjoyable programme to study. You must be devoted and pay attention to details. To follow my footsteps, one has to work hard enough to achieve a very good grade in the first degree. This is within reach of almost every average student. For the higher degree, one must be highly motivated and interested in research and be prepared to pursue this with unalloyed devotion and patience.