In this interview with Adebayo Folorunsho-Francis, Pharm. (Chief) Timothy Adebutu, a retired principal pharmacist, formerly in charge of the Lagos State Health Management Board (LSHMB) and current manager of his premises – Gem Pharmacy – reveals how he became a pioneer of LSHMB, how his wife’s untimely death cut short his dream of leaving the civil service, as well as his grievances against the Pharmaceutical Society of Nigeria (PSN). Excerpts:
Tell us a bit about yourself, especially your early days
I was born on 24January, 1932, and attended St James Anglican School, Iperu, Remo, Ogun State, from 1938 to 1945. I proceeded to the Baptist Academy, Lagos (1947–1952) for further studies,after which I enrolled at the Pharmacy School, Yaba, where I qualified as a pharmacist.
How about your work experience?
I had the privilege of sitting the London Matriculation Examination and passed. Not long after that, I joined Customs & Excise, Lagos. After working for close to a year, I was granted permission to write Cambridge Examination in December. Due to my passion for teaching, I was transferred to the education department in the civil service (Federal Ministry of Health) from 1957 to 1976.
Were you affected by the sudden change?
Well, as a senior pharmacist I was in charge of the health management board. I was made to retain the same position under the Lagos State Government (Lagos State Health Management Board) from 1976 to 1980. Until I retired in 1980, I was the principal pharmacist in charge of the board.
Do you have any regret spending your entire career in civil service?
I am not sure. You see, I planned to retire early in 1960. The reason was because, back then, it was quite attractive to work as a private practitioner than in civil service. Unfortunately, my wife’s death ended that dream forever.
How did that happen?
Well, I got married to her in November 1959. She was then a London-trained nurse. Those days, nurses were being trained at the UCH (it was not yet owned by University of Ibadan). My wife was among the second set of nurses to be trained there before travelling to London for another one-year course. On her return, she became a nursing tutor in a school opposite Island Maternity, which was still under construction. That was the situation, until I lost her in 1960 when she died in the labour room, struggling to deliver our first child. That incident cut short my dream of moving out which further kept me in the civil service for another 20 years with little opportunity except to retire on pension.
How do you feel as a pioneer of the modern-day Lagos State Health Management Board?
What else can I say other than “We did our best”? You see, the Lagos State Health Management Board (LSHMB) was actually created in 1972 by the Lagos Ministry of Health. All existing hospitals were drafted under its management and people like me were thrown into the system without proper training or a guideline on how to make the system work. Nevertheless, rather than complain, we poured our vexation into coming up with a grand structure. The health system was systematically organised and became a model of sort. So good was it that other states in Nigeria found it appealing and started adopting it. In fact, it is the same model that is still in use. I can confidently say that was the legacy we (pioneers) left behind. Interestingly, Massey Street was about the only maternity hospital we had in Lagos before the transformation.
Looking back, can you confidently say studying Pharmacy was a good decision for you?
At that time, it didn’t really matter because I was just after the admission. I could have studied anything. Initially, I thought of studying marine engineering but changed my mind. So the idea of studying Pharmacy just came to me naturally. Besides it was one course where you are expected to finish everything the same day – examination, interview and offer of admission. It was also open to sponsorship.
What was the profession like in your day compared to today’s practice?
Of course, you cannot expect everything to be the same. The School of Pharmacy I attended was a remnant of the Yaba College. In that same Yaba environ, there was a medical school. Back then, when you entered a laboratory, you would see each student in full lab kit. Also it used to be one student to one microscope and other equipment. It is much different from what I have been seeing around today.
I think commerce has taken over the pharmacy profession. I remember in our time, only few hands were on ground and they were quite effective. We were respected because of how disciplined we were. Now, indiscipline has taken over. Although I want to agree that every profession has a black sheep, but among pharmacy practitioners, the act of indiscipline is gross.
Prior to the Nigerian Civil War, there was nothing like ethnic rift and what have you. I could be posted to Sokoto or anywhere. As government students (on scholarship), we were expected to serve the federal government for five years; otherwise you might have to refund the bond you took. Once you started working as a pharmacist, you were automatically required to register with the PSN to show you were qualified. Even Koreans who worked in the country had dual qualification. That should tell you how serious being a pharmacist was back in those days.
What has changed?
We are in a confused state, especially pharmaceutical companies. Everybody just does what he likes. When the expatriates and the multinationals were here, everybody knew how much he was expected to pay for a particular medicine. This is because all the drugs were standardised. We don’t have that professional class anymore. It has been wiped out completely. What we have today is political class. People are just after power. That is why it is quite hard to create a business today and expect to make profit.
What is your view about pharmacists in politics?
That would be ideal if we were in a regulated profession. We need to carefully look at those pharmacists moving into politics. Have they passed through the right channels such as hospital, community, academia or industrial pharmacy? If not, what do they want to contribute there? Politics is a cult. They bring you in and give you their rules and regulations. Tell me, what are you going there to influence? Please prove me wrong if you can – do we have a comprehensive health institution that is based on partnership in this country that succeeded? Only Eko Corp really stood the test of time.
Look at even Juli Plc. Ordinarily, it ought to be a public liability company. However, it is still being run as if it is private. Unfortunately, it has to in order to avoid collapse. I cannot really blame people for most of the things you see in society today. The incursion of the military in Nigerian administration added to our woe. It has not only worsened things but also succeeded in dragging us backward
How best do you think the issue of fake drugs and counterfeit medicine can be curbed?
Pharmacists sold off this profession. They are proving too big to manage it well. We don’t value our profession. What we only know how to do well is to employ labourers, assistant this, assistant that… to help us do something we can do ourselves. The same way we sold this country to the military to manage is the same manner we have traded off pharmacy practice.
The simple truth is that once you give somebody your responsibility, they would hijack it from you. What we call fake drugs is a source of livelihood to those practising it. To them, it is business. In other countries, there are strict laws guarding against counterfeiting. But here, there is laxity. Most of these pharmacists, customs officers and law enforcers know most of these people (counterfeiters) and their activities – right from inspection to delivery stage. However it is a long battle that can be won only when we are sincere to ourselves.
Were you given some sort of recognition for your selfless service?
I believe you know how civil service operates. There is nothing like special reward. My only joy lies in the fact that we pioneered the model of the modern-day Lagos State Health Management Board which is also used in others of the federation. You will agree with me that it is not easy to select few hands and throw them into a system to go and work wonders. We had no training, no prior experience of how to make it work. But we thank God that it all turned out well.
I recall vividly that Jay-Kay (Pharm. Jimi Agbaje) was just coming in as an intern when I was planning for my retirement in 1978. A fine gentleman he turned out to be. Anyway, I quietly retired in 1980.
Did you get any special recognition or award from PSN?
If you read about Pharm. Albert Brown (former registrar of the Pharmacists Board of Nigeria) biography, you will understand how long it took him before he was made a PSN Fellow. Well, that is a story for another day. If there is any honour I cherish more, it has to be the Nigerian Institute of Management which I joined in 1983 as an associate member. I later became a full member in 1997. Owing to my commitment, I soon became a Fellow in 2011.
How often do you attend the annual PSN national conferences?
What will I be doing there when I don’t get PSN’s invitation? Look, I am still a licensed pharmacist, but whenever it is time for renewal, you will be struggling to get it done. Only people who know you would offer to help. In other professions, like Law, this is not so. Barristers will always grant you grace and special recognition. Even in the Nigerian Institute of Management, I was made a Fellow and we are consulted from time-to-time for counsel. But the PSN is different.
What else does it take to get recognised as a Fellow? Have we suddenly forgotten how the PCN came into being? Was it not through the help of Prince Juli (Adelusi-Adeluyi)? It is as if we are not proud to have ourselves as colleagues. So sad.That was why I asked how I would attend PSN conferences when I have not been extended an invitation. If esteemed bodies like NIM can honour me with invitation for major events, what stops the PSN? It is that bad.
How will you describe pharmacists working in civil service?
Again, you need to read about (Albert) Brown’s biography, you will know that the civil service doesn’t give any recognition to pharmacists. Only women still prefer working in the ministry. The reason is obvious – it affords them the luxury of working and raising a family at the same time. Notwithstanding, to gain experience, I think the civil service is still the best place to go. That is one of the benefits. In fact, the house I am staying was built with the housing loan I got from the ministry. I don’t know how many private companies can do that.
If you were not to be a pharmacist, what other profession would you have opted for?
I would have definitely turned out to be a teacher. I love the teaching profession to the extreme.
Is there a particular age that an active pharmacist should retire?
It is only death that can separate a practitioner from his profession. Being in a profession does not necessarily mean that you are making millions from it. It is just the joy of doing something.
As an elder in the pharmacy profession, what is your advice to young pharmacists?
Well, I don’t know what to say. I have just observed children of these days (mine inclusive) don’t want to study Pharmacy anymore. Anyway, my only advice has always been “Do the right thing at all times”. Since I have limited time, everything I do now is on short-term basis.