Mazi Sam Ohuabunwa is an outstanding pharmacist, erudite speaker and consummate administrator. The Abia State-born pharmacist is a veteran Fellow of the Pharmaceutical Society of Nigeria (PSN). He is, in fact, the Society’s immediate past president. In this Interview with Moses Dike, the eminent pharmacist, who turned 73 this year, talks about his eventful life and career, as well as the various achievements that signpost his over four decades of experience in the pharmaceutical landscape at various levels. Excerpts:
It is our pleasure to welcome you to our Senior Citizen’s column. Kindly tell us about your early years, education and the events that have helped to shape your adult personality.
I was born on 16 August 1950, in Port Harcourt, in present day Rivers State; but my parents came from Abia State. I attended primary schools in PH and secondary schools in Okrika and Owerri. My education was disrupted for three years by the civil war, during which I served as a soldier.
I entered University of Ife (now Obafemi Awolowo University, OAU) to study Pharmacy and graduated in 1976. After my internship and NYSC, I joined Pfizer Products Plc in 1978 and became chairman/CEO in 1993. I worked for 33 years in Pfizer/Neimeth and retired in 2011.
My youthful and working years were very eventful. I never experienced any dull moment as I was active in my work, profession, community, nation and the church. I have had several and unending opportunities to offer service and leadership through life; and my encounter with Jesus Christ, in midlife, strengthened me for several of the leadership and responsibility roles I have played in life up till now.
Recently, you clocked 73 years of age. How has this affected your priorities and how are you adjusting to the realities of old age?
I am 73 but, to be truthful, I still feel very youthful and feel that my work is not yet done. Despite some deliberate efforts to slow my pace, I still find that my talents and skills are in constant demand and God has continued to grant me the grace to cope comparatively well. At 73, I have packed in activities and achievements of a lifetime and still feel that there is still much to be conquered.
Nevertheless, as a healthcare professional, I am fully conscious of the physiological changes that accompany ageing and I make deliberate efforts to accommodate and adjust. I try to eat sensibly and maintain a minimum exercise schedule, while dwelling a whole lot in the presence of God who seems to renew my youth on an ongoing basis.
The 60 per cent management buyout of Neimeth International Pharmaceuticals from Pfizer which you spearheaded remains one of the landmark achievements in the annals of the Nigerian pharmaceutical industry. Please tell us more about this and how you were able to see it through.
The management buy over (MBO) of the 60 per cent shareholding of Pfizer Inc. shareholding in Pfizer Products Plc and the eventual transformation of the resultant company, Neimeth International Pharmaceuticals Plc., into a medium-sized Nigerian R&D-based pharmaceutical company seems to signpost my key achievement in my career. It was indeed a very unique experience, which, when combined with the aftermath, has helped to shape my entrepreneurial, economic and financial trajectory.
It tasked me to no end as there was little knowledge or experience of such a big ticket scheme in our jurisdiction. We therefore combined the little external advice and help with our gut feelings to conclude a 300-million dollar transaction between February and 14 May 1997, when the shares were crossed on the floors of the Nigerian Stock Exchange.
The full story and the lessons from that unique project are captured in my book, “Wired to Lead – Life Lessons from Many Years of Organisational Leadership”.
You are one of the few prominent pharmacists who have heeded the call to go into politics and aim for positions at the highest levels. Tell us about your experience in politics and why you decided to take the big leap to contest for Nigeria’s presidency?
My entry into politics was fortuitous. It was the culmination of many years of agonising, writing, preaching and advocating for the emergence of a new Nigeria. In 2010, I wrote what reviewers dubbed my “opus magna” on Nigeria: “Nigeria @ 60, Time for the Evolution of a New Nation” It was my vision of a first world nation that was competitive and that would work for every citizen.
I circulated it widely to the political class, praying and hoping that someone would run with it. But rather than improve, the Nigerian condition continued to regress. So, on 30 July, 2019, I was challenged and motivated in my spirit to quit standing on the barricades, and jump into the ring. And I obeyed and jumped into the murky waters of Nigeria’s politics, not minding the sharks and vampires that inhabit the space.
The experience was quite challenging and exciting. With no known political party affiliation and very little fund, I plunged headlong. I set up the New Nigeria Group (NNG), a political but non-partisan group that went round the 36 states of Nigeria and Abuja, selling the concept and possibility of enthroning a New Nigeria in 2023.
Eventually, I decided to use the PDP platform to actualise the vision. I truly enjoyed the experience as it enabled me to have a first-hand experience of the political, social and economic situation of every state of Nigeria. I saw the misery and desperation of the average Nigerian and their cry for a new Nigeria. Second, it helped me to fully understand the political system of Nigeria and the nature of the political practitioners and actors.
There was a wide acceptance of our message and all over Nigeria and they wondered if the established Nigerian political class would allow this kind of vision to hold sway. Though I was new in competitive politics, I was not new in Nigerian politics. At least, I have stood with my younger brother, Senator Mao, since 1998, when he ventured into Nigerian politics, serving in the National House of Representatives for two terms and in the Senate for a term.
I fully understood the savagery and corruption of the electoral system. But I had hoped on three factors for a change in 2023. The first is the frustration of the Nigerian citizens, who I had hoped would had had enough of the Nigerian political choice that is based on money, ethnicity and religion, and would perhaps focus more on vision, competence, capacity and character. The second was the well-advertised promise of INEC to guarantee a free and fair election, never seen in our country. The third was divine Intervention – based on the ceaseless cries and prayers of Nigerians for God’s intervention in 2023.
But, from the outcomes of the primaries and the results announced by INEC, it seemed not much has changed in the Nigerian political system. Only those who can steal, grab, snatch and run will win the prize! We now wait only on divine intervention. This cannot fail!
As the immediate past president of the PSN, can you tell us some of the highpoints of your tenure and if you had the opportunity what would you have done differently?
My tenure of 2019 to 2021 was disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic. Nevertheless, our God enabled us to build on the successes of the preceding regimes. The major high points include recognition and inclusion of pharmacists in the COVID-19 management teams at federal and state levels; creation of additional directorates for Pharmacy in the federal and state ministries of health (such as the Directorate for Herbal and Natural Medicines in the FMoH); approval of the long-awaited pharmacy consultant cadre, including the gazetting and the issuing of implementation guidelines; formalisation of an MoU with the medical and nursing associations, which led to these allied professional groups supporting our demand at the floor of the National Assembly for the specific inclusion of pharmacists on the boards of teaching hospitals and federal medical centres; the shooting down of the effort of the National Assembly to approve the NAPPTON Bill through which pharmacy technicians and technologists wanted to create a parallel regulatory authority.
We also enacted a new PSN Constitution (2020) that created the College of Past Presidents (CPP), enlarged the role of the Board of Fellows (BOF) and strengthened PSN organs, bringing more cohesion and discipline. We formally recognised the Young Pharmacists Forum and introduced the Clinical Pharmacists Association (CPAN), recognising both as interest groups in PSN. We ensured that there were more opportunities for intern pharmacists and stopped the syndrome of young pharmacists staying at home for years because of lack of space for internship placements. We persuaded NAFDAC, PCN, pharmacies (like Alpha and Medplus) NIPRD, manufacturers and many other organisations to expand opportunities for internship and NYSC.
Additionally, we streamlined procurement procedures in the Secretariat and strengthened administration by employing an admin manager to support the national secretary and improved the motivation of the secretariat staff. We opened up the Society for greater inclusiveness and participation by creating a few more committees. We also started the construction of the eight-storey Pharmacy Plaza in Victoria Island, adopting an innovative financing mechanism that invites a multi-year debenture investment, through which over 500 million naira was raised/pledged. We equally brought the Abuja national building project up to speed and for the first time opened the Abuja liaison office for the Society We did our best. No regrets.
As a pharmacy elder, which of the issues affecting Pharmacy and healthcare in general would you like the government and stakeholders to address more frontally, especially as we have ushered in a new government in Nigeria?
For me, the most critical matter today is to have a pharmacist sit in every room where decisions on drug-procurement and the like are taken in the public sector. They must be on boards of the teaching/specialist hospitals.
Related to this is the full implementation of the Pharmacists Consultant Cadre. This has been gazetted since 2021 but, to date, and after several implementation guidelines from the Head of Service of the Federation and the FMoH, many teaching Hospitals are still resisting full implementation. This should attract disciplinary action.
Thirdly is the sanitisation of the pharmaceutical distribution chain. Nigeria must stop sales of drugs in open markets and eliminate quackery in the distribution of drugs. I wish the new Federal Government will attend to these matters.
How do you relax? Tell us about some of the pastime activities and lifestyle modifications you have adopted to stay fit and active.
Actually, much of my relaxation is built into my daily schedule. I intersperse serious activities with less demanding and mundane ones. I could move from a Board meeting to a community meeting or a Christian fellowship. During my morning worships, I take healthy walking exercise, while singing praises to God, before I pray. So I am able to optimise my time.
I use every opportunity I find to exercise; walking to the boarding gate or exiting from an aircraft, visiting a shopping mall, etc. – I deliberately take measured steps. Sometimes, I walk around my estate. I find time to attend social events and enjoy being in the company of friends. I dance often and then read and write regularly.
The critical thing is that I am conscious that I need to exercise and relax to reduce stress; but I’m often too busy to go to sports clubs or gyms. So I improvise and take the staircase, instead of using the lift. Somehow, I manage to make up!
Can you briefly share with us some of the most memorable moments of your career?
I actually had a very memorable career, from beginning to the end. I became an area manager at Pfizer Products Plc within two years of joining the company. Within one year, I turned the fortunes of the new area around. It seemed like a fluke and to be sure that the sudden turnaround was due to my effort, I was transferred to another area the next year. Again, within one year, I moved the performance of the new area to a new height.
Having achieved these spectacular attainments within a few years, I was promoted to the position of national sales manager. Later on, I was made group sales manager (Pharmaceutical and Animal Health divisions). Subsequently I became marketing manager, pharmaceutical division director, deputy managing director and, soon after that, I became country manager, managing director/CEO, then Chairman/CEO and regional manager for West Africa. Within a period of 15 years (1978-1993), I moved from the lowly position of a pharmaceutical sales representative to the position of chairman/ CEO.
Perhaps the most spectacular event in my career was in 1997 when I led the MBO of the 60 per cent shareholding of Pfizer Inc. in Pfizer Products Plc, as Pfizer divested. I named the resultant company Neimeth International Pharmaceuticals Plc. I worked in Pfizer/Neimeth for 33 years, 18 of which were at CEO level, retiring in 2011.
Tell us about your family. Did any of your children take after you to study Pharmacy or other health-related professions?
I got married in 1980 in Benin to the love of my life, Stella Omude, from Kwale, Delta State. We have five children – three girls that came first and then two boys. My first daughter Oby (Mrs Ronnie-West) is a clinical pharmacist working in Charlotte, North Carolina, USA. My second daughter is Chinenye (Mrs Adekanmbi), an attorney working in the company secretariat at Neimeth. My third daughter is Matilda (Mrs Nwosu) an accountancy graduate and HR specialist living in Port Harcourt. Our first son is Emeka, a medical director currently in Denmark; while our second son and last child is an IT engineer living and working in the UK.
Between them, we are currently grandparents to 13 children. God has been very merciful to us and my wife played exceptional roles in the upbringing of these children, while I was actively running my career.