Pharm (Dr) Uzo Nelson Uwaga is a revered and dynamic pharmacist, with records of several top positions held within and beyond the pharmacy profession. A Fellow of several professional bodies, Uwaga rose through the ranks to become president of the Pharmaceutical Society of Nigeria (PSN) from 2003 to 2006. Ten years later, he assumed the mantle of leadership of the Nigerian Institute of Management (NIM), becoming the only pharmacist to have ever occupied the prestigious position. Motivated by a philanthropic desire to mentor young people, Uwaga took up a job as an adjunct senior lecturer at the University of Port Harcourt, where he has lectured for the past 12 years, on a largely pro bono basis.
In this interview with MOSES DIKE, the eminent pharmacist and entrepreneur, who clocked 70 years in January this year, tells the story of his upbringing, early education, career, business and participation in pharmacy and other professional activities. He also bares his mind on several issues affecting the pharmacy profession and, from his vantage position and interactions with youths, offers valuable advice to the younger generation of pharmacists on the right values that will help them impact humanity positively. Excerpts:
Kindly tell us about yourself, your early childhood experiences, and the events that have helped to shape your adult personality.
I am currently on the seventh floor of life, with profound gratitude to God. I was raised by early Methodist British missionaries and Creoles from Sierra Leone, outside Nigeria, which greatly influenced my life.
My parents were part of the early missionary’ church and school, whose mantra of true worship of God, discipline, honesty, and humility was enforced on the pupils through biblical teachings and corporal punishment. According to these early missionaries, enforced discipline in the formative years of a child ultimately leads to self-discipline as the child grows into adulthood.
My early life spanned Umuahia, Uyo, Calabar, Santa Isabel, and Madrid, Spain. I still understand and speak a little Spanish many years after.
Back in Nigeria, I attended the famous Methodist College, Uzoakoli (founded in 1923) before and after the civil war. I was among the fortunate young ones that survived the war, despite serving as a soldier in two different formations of the then Biafran Army.
I also schooled at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka (UNN), the University of Port Harcourt (UNIPORT), and the University of Benin (UNIBEN). I also had the opportunity of attending courses, training, and leadership programs at Cambridge University, Manchester Business School, and Harvard University, among others.
Service to PSN exposed me to many opportunities in life, including becoming the PSN president from 2003 to 2006. I remain grateful to God and my profession.
In January this year, you clocked 70 years of age. What does this new age mean to you and as you get older, do you see your perspective as life-changing? Are there new feats you are still working to achieve?
Life on the seventh floor is characterized by appreciation to God always, for attaining the biblical 70 years. The tendency is to show more contentment in life and become more spiritual than physical in all things.
Since 2010, I have intensified and devoted my life to giving back to society. I teach as an adjunct senior lecturer at the University of Port Harcourt since 2011 (pro bono, since I attained the age of 60), which has helped me to mentor and give opportunities to so many young ones. I also serve in the leadership of the Methodist Church, Nigeria, and my home community. I am still serving my beloved pharmacy profession, the Nigerian Institute of Management, the federal government, my home state, and my state of residence, in various capacities.
You were the PSN president at a time when the twin issues of fake drugs and chaotic drug distribution were front-burner issues affecting pharmacy practice in Nigeria. Several years down the line, do you feel these issues have been adequately addressed?
Over the years, the issues of fake drugs and chaotic drug distribution in Nigeria have continued to grow in leaps and bounds. The government has not shown the political will to enforce the laws and shut down these open drug markets that propel this twin evil.
Today, the proposal to introduce regulated wholesale drug distribution centers nationwide to replace these open drug markets, and in turn shut down the open drug markets is a good idea, if these new centers are properly regulated. I also believe the proposed new Pharmacists Council of Nigeria (PCN) laws will be helpful in this regard. We remain optimistic and hopeful.
Tell us about your work experiences and participation in pharmacy activities. Which of these did you find most exciting and why was it so?
My early work experiences and participations in various pharmacy activities were good and memorable. There was more discipline and ethical practice then than we have now. We had senior colleague-mentors to look up to, which greatly shaped our character, ethics, and practices, and not just make money.
Pharmacy practice was very much less mercantile in comparison to what it is today. Like medicine and law professions, we worked hard with few tools to be dignified in our practices. The implosion in Nigerian society has greatly affected our young colleagues, even though we now have more tools to do better as practitioners.
Given your deep knowledge of pharmacy and PSN activities, which of the issues affecting pharmacy practice would you like the current PSN leadership and regulatory agencies to tackle more seriously?
Three main areas come to my mind. One, professional values, discipline, and ethical practice in the PSN and her technical and interest groups. These values have dropped so much. The leadership of the PSN and the PCN must work towards redeeming these values we use to hold so dear.
Two, pharmacy education of the 21st century, including inculcating discipline and ethics in our students and young pharmacists. Here, our counterparts in Medicine and Law have managed to maintain integrity in their practices and conduct. We have not quite been that successful. Whereas the Young Pharmacists Group (YPG) was set up by the International Pharmaceutical Federation (FIP) to teach, mentor, and nurture young pharmacists, ours seem to have been corrupted, weaponized, and used for influencing pharmacy election outcomes these days. In recent times, some of our young ones start so early to seek undue monetary gains. Some of their leaders tend to be very rude in their utterances and conduct.
Three, a new pharmacy law that can really protect the practice of pharmacy against the onslaught of mercantile traders in our midst, non–professionals, and even the government of the day. Our leaders must continue to work towards influencing the government to fund and restructure a new Pharmacists Council Of Nigeria (PCN) that is active, strong, and effective like the National Agency for Food, Drug Administration and Control (NAFDAC) so as to be able to enforce the statutes.
Yes, we can regulate the practice of Pharmacy as we have in Francophone Africa, Europe, America, and the rest of the world.
After your tenure as PSN president, you have gone ahead to become the president of the Nigerian Institute of Management (NIM), becoming the only pharmacist to achieve this feat. How did you manage to attain this height?
God made it possible for me to become the 19th President of NIM in 2013, given that I had no godfather or godmother when I joined the Institute. I can however say with certainty that the PSN brand (which I exemplified) is very attractive and highly appreciated by the professionals in NIM.
You must have been elected to the NIM Council before being eligible to serve as a principal officer, such as the president. Election into the Council is strictly based on merit since campaigns are not allowed. The NIM past presidents who pride themselves as the moral compass and conscience of the institute contribute over seventy percent to a candidate’s eligibility to become the president. They are overly deliberate and hardly make mistakes in choosing the Institute leaders. They are the “guardian angels” of the institute.
Also, I found favor with some of the past presidents, like Dr. Michael Omolayole, the late Deacon Onosode, Dr. Christopher Kolade, Olola Ogunlana, Dr (Mrs) Bolujoko, Asiwaju Olawale-Cole, and others, who adjudged me to posses the qualities of a would-be president of NIM.
Prince Julius Adelusi–Adeluyi (whom they all respect) was also on hand to speak highly and favorably about me to these past leaders in the course of their due diligence and checks on my past.
Tell us also about your high and low moments. Were there incidents or events in your years of practice that you wish never happened or should have happened differently? If you have the opportunity, is there anything about your life and career you would like to change?
One incident that stood out in my career was my decision to set up a scientific and marketing office in Lagos, outside my traditional retail business in Port Harcourt. I had invested all my life savings plus a huge loan from the bank into the business. That was the period NIM invited me to take up the mantle of leadership as the president.
I found the NIM presidency very challenging, as it entailed regular travels within and outside the country. I was forced to leave the business in the hands of two colleagues whom I thought I could trust and 21 sales representatives and other workers all employed to run the business. With my absence and dishonest colleagues, the business went down, with dubious, unrecoverable debts and expired drugs, worth over 100 million nairas at that time.
The lesson I learned here is that it is imperative to be physically present and in control, of any business, you want to run successfully in Nigeria. Also, you must build operational controls in your systems to manage the high level of fraud and insincerity that is prevalent among employees in Nigeria.
The entropy in world systems continues to increase and is inversely proportional to possible containments. That of Nigeria is even worse and defies modern management science and business prescriptions. I am however optimistic that things are going to get better. I continue to associate with the younger generation, notwithstanding, and share my experiences and act as a moral compass and conscience in their midst.
You have been a very close associate of Pharmanews which has just attained a record of 43 years of the unbroken monthly publication. What is your view about the publication and its progress so far and where would you like to see the journal in the next couple of years?
The content, quality, size, and circulation of Pharmanews have continued to grow in leaps and bounds and I profoundly congratulate senior citizen Ifeanyi Atueyi and his dear wife, who, against all odds have made a remarkable success of this publication in well over four decades.
Pharmmanews has won all awards available in Nigeria and beyond and will continue to do so. I strongly suggest that the next phase of the publication should be to venture into the area of publishing scientific papers in the international arena while retaining the news component as local content.
Tell us about your family. Did any of your children take after you to study Pharmacy or other health-related professions?
I am blessed with my pharmacist wife and we have been married for 35 years. She is a Pharmacist (Dr) Chinyere Uwaga, who is also a Fellow of the Pharmaceutical Society of Nigeria. She is also an evangelist. We have been blessed with five grown-up children. Two of them are pharmacists like us; one is a medical doctor, another an economist and the other is in the hospitality industry. We are all really close as a family.
How do you relax? Tell us about some of the pastime activities and lifestyle modifications you have adopted to stay fit and active.
I spend my leisure time reading and watching documentaries. I use to love international travels but my health challenge (spondylolisthesis) has denied me the opportunity, include golfing and taking regular walks these days.
My wife has her specialization in herbal drugs and alternative medicine, in managing ailments/maintaining health. She has also applied this to what we eat at home. Unfortunately, such pharmaceutical-grade foods are not usually “sweet” for my aging taste buds, but I am managing them for the sake of my health.
I love and keep buying books and hope to live the rest of my life reading and writing, God willing.
Finally, what advice would you give to the younger generation of pharmacists on how to make the best use of their calling as healthcare professionals to impact humanity positively?
Young people in Nigeria are in a hurry to make money and fame in the wrong way and means. Some of these anomalies seem to be catching up with some of our young pharmacists. This is a bad omen, and the PSN leadership should do all that is possible to contain it because of the profession.
In the core professions of Pharmacy, Medicine, and Law, it had been traditional for young professionals to be patient, learn, and be tutored or mentored by the seniors. I learned character, integrity, correct life values, hard work, etc. from my senior colleagues also.
There are no alternative routes to becoming a successful pharmacist. With the right values, our young pharmacists can eventually take the profession to where we want it to be and impact humanity positively to the extent that society accords the pharmacy profession with the social value and recognition that some other healthcare professionals presently enjoy.