Chairman of the Conference Planning Committee of the 94th annual conference of the Pharmaceutical Society of Nigeria, Pharm. Ignatius Anukwu, is someone once described as “a man on fire” by foremost pharmacist and former Health Minister, Prince Julius Adelusi-Adeluyi, for his passion to make things happen. In this exclusive interview with Pharmanews, the erstwhile national chairman of the Association of Industrial Pharmacists of Nigeria (NAIP), reflects on the highs and lows of the recently concluded conference and how his committee was able to achieve success, despite the many challenges encountered. Excerpts:
Sir, how would you describe the 94th PSN conference?
I can describe it from two perspectives – my personal perspective and the perspective of the Pharmaceutical Society of Nigeria. From my personal perspective, it was quite an interesting and challenging exercise for me as the chairman of the organising committee. I have been involved in conference planning for the PSN for many years. I have worked as a CPC member for eight consecutive years in the past. I also worked as a conference planning committee member of NAIP, until I became chairman and for the four years that I was chairman, I was deeply involved in conference planning.
However, none of these other scenarios can be compared to the 94th annual conference of the PSN. Given the wealth of experience I had garnered, it still proved to be a challenge. I am grateful to God that I was able to handle it with my colleagues who also have quite a lot of experience behind them. To the glory of God, what could have been a complete flop eventually turned out to be one of the conferences many people will make reference to, in the years to come.
From the perspective of the Society, there are certain things we don’t seem to see in the PSN. I will give you some instances. For example, until now, the PSN did not have a database of pharmacists who are our members – across states, technical groups and gender-wise; their phone numbers, email addresses etc. It had never been done in the PSN. However, for this conference planning, we were able to generate a database of 10,400 members of the PSN. So, from the PSN, we can reach any member in any state, from that database. It was this conference planning that brought about this idea.
Over the years, from what I know, we’ve had vendors who come to PSN conferences to render one service or the other. Some people came along, their services were not good and they failed to deliver. It was difficult to make them take responsibility for their inactions. This time around, we developed contracts for each of the vendors that we had something to do with such that today, we have bequeathed to the PSN a set of contracts that we can always use for vendors.
Thirdly, prior to now, delegates who came to conferences usually faced hard times during registration. Some of those times, they had to upload their licences and certificates. Sometimes, when on getting to the venue of the conference, you would find delegates lining up by the wall, looking for their names on the list. It was very confusing and frustrating. For the first time, delegates came to the conference with their numbers. All they needed to do was to get to the registration desk, identify themselves, fill the form and get the conference materials without stress. For the Society, it was a huge leap.
Some of these rare innovations that we brought about at the 94th annual conference, I believe, have come to stay for the PSN, going forward. This was the value we brought to the planning process. And I don’t think the PSN will jettison these innovations. It was quite a worthwhile experience for many pharmacists. I think that, given all the challenges we faced here and there, we had quite a good conference.
There are some people who actually believe that the conference was one of the worst, in terms of organisation. What is your take on this?
From training, I have come to realise that when people relive their experiences, they should be taken very seriously. If someone had a very bad experience, it is unfortunate. What we need to do is to find out why the person had that kind of experience.
We respect people’s views because everyone is not expected to feel the same way. What such views do is to help us become better. In the conference planning committee, we have very distinguished people who have come a long way and they worked very hard both at the CPC level and the LOC level. However, as in every human group, you would also see those who were there but did not work so much.
Because there was so much to do, the work was really overwhelming for those who were committed. We had a very good control and command structure. Due to the multiplicity of events at the conference, we had a control and command structure that brought about low points and high points. Overall, I can confirm that we had a superb organisation.
You can’t conclude that the organisation was the worst without doing some analysis. Yes, we had poor crowd control, poor sitting arrangement and chaotic exhibition arrangement. Though these were organisational issues, we also have to appreciate the fact that we had more attendees, compared to the names we registered. While we registered about 2,500 delegates, we had about 4000 in attendance. Given that we also experienced poor infrastructure in terms of electricity, Internet technology and so on, the issues were compounded.
However, the control and command was great. The people I worked with that handled conference venue, exhibition ground, registration and finance were wonderful. They were at their duty post, despite the fact that we had huge challenges. All the delegates that came to the conference got registered. By the second day, we had up to 2000 registered.
I agree that people may have had terrible experiences in terms of distance between their hotels and the conference venue, the delay in the commencement of certain events and all other challenges and glitches here and there. For instance, the dinner started at about 10 pm, while the elections were still going on. There was nothing we could do about that as it was not purely a CPC issue. In fact, I had to personally apologise to someone who was expressing his annoyance over the delay in the commencement of the dinner. He said so many unprintable things but I do understand his frustration and that can only make us learn in order to improve in future.
I also heard the “worst conference” accusation from someone at the registration ground. The young man was complaining bitterly about his inability to secure his e-tag. On interacting with him, I discovered he had not followed the proper registration protocol. Until I took him through the proper process that made his registration almost effortless, he would have concluded that, indeed, the conference was the “worst”. However, I am sure that many of the delegates were happy.
There were also complaints about the distance between the Diete Spiff Civic Centre (conference venue) and the hotels. What was responsible for that?
When I cited the fact that this conference would have been a flop, this was one of the major issues that we had to grapple with. Maybe some people know, maybe they on’t know. When the conference planning committee was set up in April, 2021 or thereabout, we already knew that the PSN had already got approval for an international conference. And conferences are held in conference centres. Where you can’t get a conference centre, you can get a hotel.
We set out, knowing this and prepared our initial communication materials with this in mind. We even visited the Obi Wali International Conference Centre. We checked the facilities and okayed them, especially because the centre was located in a part which was not downtown. It was close to the GRA and some other highbrow areas where you find the best hotels in town. Choice-wise, proximity-wise, security-wise – for pharmacists, that was the place to be.
However, as the conference was drawing closer, I think sometime around July, we got news that the governor of the state said he wanted to renovate the facility. All efforts to persuade him to wait until the conference was over failed, as he insisted on carrying out the renovation. We also made efforts to see if the renovation could end before 1 November, but that also did not work. This explains the reason we had to make an alternative arrangement at a very short notice.
The Diete Spiff venue became the best alternative, largely due to the number of delegates we were expecting. We could not find any hotel that could take 2000 delegates and above. We didn’t have any hotel with the kind of space we needed to hold the kind of exhibition we wanted to do. Therefore, when our colleagues in Rivers State searched, they ended up with the Civic Centre.
The Diete Spiff Civic Centre was like an abandoned property. The day we went to inspect the place, it was not a good sight to behold. The flowers were overgrown. It was in a mess. There were algae all over the place and the soot that had become a recurring problem in Rivers State had darkened the walls of the facility, such that painting was not even the first option. We had to wash the walls first because, if we had painted the walls with the soot on it, white paint would have turned to ash. There was huge work to be done there.
Unfortunately, too, this Diete Spiff Civic Centre was located in the downtown area of the state. This means that all the good hotels that were in places like the GRA were a distance from the venue of the conference. The fact that the venue was not situated along a major road also constituted a major challenge. It would have been very difficult for one to drive straight to the conference venue as major road construction works were on-going. There was also an extent to which the Uber and Bolt drivers could be of help.
Why was the Rivers State Government not represented at the Conference? What went wrong?
Nothing went wrong. We all know that Governor Nyesom Wike is a peculiar person. Everybody knows him. He recently sacked his Health Commissioner. We, as PSN, went to Rivers State and discussed with him; our president was sending him messages almost every other week. He told us he was busy and urged us to carry on with our plans. Even the courtesy visit we planned could not hold because he was very busy with official and political duties. It was when the conference approached and we came to town that we realised he was not available to grace the event.
I think it is for him to say why he did not make himself available; not for us. He was properly briefed and he even approved the venue and other logistics. One would have also expected that, if he was not there, he should have sent either his deputy or an official of the state government but he chose not to.
I think, like I said earlier, Governor Nyesom Wike, is a peculiar person. He does his own things in his own ways. Sometimes, he does his things effectively and some other times, he does thing in his own perspective which may not appeal to everyone. I also think that Rivers State missed something. It is unfortunate that the governor could not interface with the noble profession of pharmacy.
With a population of about 9 million, in this time and age when we are talking about medicine security, there is no single pharmaceutical manufacturer in Rivers State. Rivers State is a wealthy State and one would have expected the governor to come and have discussions with us and officials of the State Ministry of Health to see how the coming of the PSN would help the state. It was a huge opportunity that Rivers State missed. In Rivers State, I don’t think there is any big time importer of pharmaceutical products. It may be that they don’t have a good understanding of the profession. However, it is a big miss for Rivers State.
What should we expect from the new leadership of the PSN?
To move the Society higher. I believe the new president has what it takes to move the Society higher but he has to work with people to achieve the better PSN that we all envisage.
Your advice to Nigerian pharmacists who depend on the PSN for leadership?
PSN is 94-years-old. There is no professional body in Nigeria that is as old as the PSN. Every pharmacist in Nigeria should be very grateful to the PSN. Every pharmacist in Nigeria owes the PSN their loyalty and commitment. Every pharmacist must find a role to play to make the PSN stronger.