Oviemo Ovadje: How My Boss Almost Ruined My Career in Nigerian Army


At your age, you’re still agile and active. What is the secret and what are you up to lately?
It is the special grace of God that one is hale and hearty and the Bible says ‘God would renew our youth like that of the eagle.’ I was retired at the age of 53 in 2007. I don’t want to take the credit for my fitness or attribute it to the rigorous exercise received in the Nigerian Army because we were many who passed through the training. And what I have been up to lately – well, I may be retired but not tired because I have since delved into so many things including farming.

What have you been doing since you left the army? Are you still involved in medical research?
Well, while I was in the military I was much involved because I was then the chief delegate to the World Congress of Military Medicine and each time we attended these meetings we moved from one country to another. I always made sure that I had a new thing to present in my lectures during those congresses. My life dynamism altered immediately I left government. My first challenge was a home to live because I was living in an official quarter in Ikoyi (Lagos State). Luckily, former President Chief Olusegun Obasanjo had desired to give out the official quarters; the first offer to owner-occupiers. Obviously, I was the one to bid for it. I did bid for it though there were challenges and battles along the way, with God on my side, I secured the place. So, here I am.

How widespread is the use of EATSET you invented 17 years ago in Nigerian hospitals?
I never made an invention for Nigeria because the EATSET is a worldwide product acknowledged by the World Health Organisation (WHO). After it was certified by the WHO that the product was genuine and not fake as many people in Nigeria thought it was then, the first 200 units of the equipment was manufactured in Germany by BERCO Industries. The equipment was given out to various hospitals for clinical trials.

I remember it was reported on the Nigerian Television Authority’s (NTA) Newsline by the current Senior Special Adviser to President (Muhammadu) Buhari on Foreign Affairs and Diaspora, Hon. Abike Dabiri-Erewa, who was a broadcaster of the NTA then. The World Intellectual Property Organisation which later gave me the WIPO gold medal award sent some delegates from Geneva to witness the use of EATSET in Nigerian hospitals such as Lagos University Teaching Hospital and Ayinke Hospital.

All the international bodies monitored me and followed it up. And talking about its wide usage – well, if I were in the academic world I would be writing papers and all that. I have got a proposal from a reputable university abroad asking me to accept an honorary professorship.
The important thing for me is not whether it is used all over the world, but I know EATSET as my concept is being globalised. If you go to the Internet now you find that people have started copying the concept.

The most important thing is that the idea of using one’s blood, which is instant in an emergency condition, was invented by me. When I started the invention, I went to Prof. Ajabor and told him what I was working on. He encouraged me. He said in 1958 at the University College Hospital (UCH) in Ibadan, women were bleeding to death through ectopic pregnancy and they were using a piece of cloth to filter blood.

And 30 years after, we were still doing the same thing? I said it was a crude technique. From that moment, I started thinking about the way out. I witnessed the case of a lady who was rushed down to the emergency ward at Island Maternity in Lagos but she died because they couldn’t stop the bleeding. I said to myself that I had to intensify effort to invent that device to save humanity. Since I had watched many people die, I took up the responsibility because the surgeons would not operate if they are not sure there would be blood.

Can you recall a case you used the machine before it was certified?
I watched a case of one Miss Adesiyan who was brought in and was bleeding profusely. I volunteered to use the EATSET technique. I signed for the operation. They took her to the theatre and they watched me use the EATSET to recycle her blood during the operation. I thought they would call me that she was dead. But they called to say that the girl was troubling them that she was hungry. Normally, when you do abdominal surgery it is advisable not to eat for three days. But she was hungry because it was her blood that was used to perform the operation. And the time she spent in the hospital was short because she did not use other people’s blood.

That gave me confidence to forge ahead on this device that changed the status quo. When the Commonwealth sponsored a conference at the Lagos University Teaching Hospital, I gave a lecture, demonstrated how to use the device and everybody was impressed. When you are doing something new, you don’t demonstrate it on the pages of newspapers. You go to your peers and that is why we have Peer Reviews especially in the academic world. Giving lectures to doctors, nurses that would be able to understand and be critical of your invention.

At what stage did your effort catch the authority’s attention?
It was divine because I didn’t push what I was doing but the authorities noticed it and were quite impressed that one of them has made them proud. It was during the military era and former Head of State, Gen. Abdulsalami Abubakar, said I have to represent Nigeria at the World Military Congress in America. I went and gave my lecture and there was a loud ovation because many of them were not used to it. So it was strange to them because they didn’t experience such because of their health care system.

I understand you have a factory that produces EATSET and syringes somewhere in Calabar. What is the status of that factory?
It got to a point where the UNDP and WHO mandate stops. They have a mandate for development but don’t have a mandate to sponsor commercialisation. When we got to the point when we wanted to commercialise the products, I wrote a proposal and presented it. I looked for investors and we were able to set up a factory in Calabar, Cross River State. It is the biggest medical manufacturing outfit not only in Nigeria but in West Africa. I was encouraged by the then Cross River State Governor, Donald Duke and his wife, Onari to acquire the land at the Calabar Free Trade Zone.

Of course, I and my Managing Director flew down to Calabar and the land was allocated to us. We paid all the necessary dues and we commenced construction. We completed the building in 2002/2003. It was a huge investment and we appointed a consultant after which we deliberated on equipment to settle for. Initially, we were supposed to use equipment from Asia. So I travelled to South Korea and Indonesia with my partner to source for companies that can come and establish it for us. We had a good deal but by the time we came back that plan changed.

What happened?
My chairman had met with some other people who advised him that European equipment were better. But they didn’t tell him the condition because European equipment are very expensive. For instance, for every N100 spent in Asian countries like China, India, Korea, you will spend N10, 000 in Europe. It was burdensome but my chairman wanted the best. So we ordered for equipment from Europe and set it up.

While setting up the manufacturing outfit, we envisaged that Nigeria’s polymer granules would have been available in our raw materials. When I went to China to make my presentation, I had a private audience with the head of the Chinese Army and his team. He advised me that Nigeria’s Polymer granules were whiter than the Chinese which has a line of blue. And I am asking for hospital clean white which you must see through so that if the blood is contaminated you would know.

Having invested heavily in the project, at what stage did plans go wrong?
Well, we thought everything was set when the same consultant came back and he said we could change the name of the company from EATSET (so it wouldn’t be a mono products company), and engage in production of other products such as syringes and so on. Of course, we debated it. If I refused it would look as if I was selfish since EATSET was my baby. So I agreed and the company’s name was changed to First Medical and Sterile Products.

Of course, we were asked to manufacture auto-destruct syringes; these are syringes that immediately after you use it, it destroys itself. You can’t use it again. It looks attractive. We realised that some hospitals boiled syringes and re-used them. And you couldn’t be sure if all the viruses were killed. So we started manufacturing and we thought all was well. As I said earlier, it was a Free Trade Zone and we were assured that there would be steady power supply.

You know what? We never got electricity after sometime. And we were spending one million naira every month on diesel. You know those European equipment must not be put off once they start working, whether you are manufacturing or not, because they are electronically calibrated and immediately you turn them off, you have to start all over again. Once it goes off you can no longer talk about the series because many of the things you manufacture are in batches and immediately one batch is faulty, others can be recalled and withdrawn from the market. This is why the machine must be active 24 hours.

With the epileptic power supply we couldn’t cope because there is nothing we would be able to manufacture and make profit. Right now, we still have over 3, 000 units of EATSET in Calabar. EATSET is currently being manufactured in India. I am trying to visit India to ensure that no EATSET will come into Nigeria unfinished. The Calabar factory is still functioning but not at full capacity.

A similar product (a blood transfusion device) is being promoted from the United States by SISU Global Health.com. Is it a new invention or similar to yours?
I have petitioned the American Patent Office not because I want to stop the promoter of this product but for plagiarism. If you are doing anything you must make reference to what has been done in that field particularly when you were picking languages, saying things that had been said by the earlier inventor. So they shouldn’t try to claim originality. For me, this is an intellectual fraud. I have given series of lectures on EATSET device internationally. In fact, the lecture I gave in California is on Youtube; there you will see various practical demonstrations of real life experiences with the EATSET.

And the said SISU Global Health.com have read everything about my work and looking for a way to come in. They waited for almost 20 years because after 20 years, my claim to ownership of EATSET technology will be in the public domain. And after 20 years, the intellectual property goes into the public domain and anybody can try to do the same thing.

So, what do you want from SISU?
What I need is an acknowledgment and not litigation or monetary gain. In the academic world, when a new work is carried out, reference is made to previous works done by earlier inventors in the field. Again, I am going to fight what they are doing from different level not because I want to stop them. I am happy  that an American or a British or some company somewhere are doing what I did that many people in this country did not believe in. When Njoku Obi discovered the cholera vaccine, Nigerians killed it back home due to lack of support. The thing went out and the credit to cholera vaccine is given to a Swiss scientist.

Do oyinbos (Americans and Europeans) suffer cholera? Do they have the idea of what we are experiencing here? You cannot invent what you don’t know about. Njoku Obi did it because in Nsukka, poor women who fed their children from the ground had cholera. Now back to the SISU Global Health.com; they were making reference to what I have done before. Among them there are no doctors or clinicians. It is a company trying to do business.

They even said in one of their write-ups that they have discovered a $4 billion annual business in blood transfusion in Africa. I am going to contest that later. They should carry out their clinical trials in their country. They should use Americans as guinea pigs. Of course, they (Americans) won’t accept it. But because the black man thinks the white man has it all, so when they come here we think they are helping us. The idea is mine. They are only looking for a way to do something similar and then take advantage of their position and commercialise it.

They are hoping to make $4 billion dollar out of it. So let us see how it will go as I said I have already petitioned the authorities in America. I am not fighting them because they have helped me to popularise my invention. What I want is acknowledgement. Period! They are bringing a product, which was my invention, packaged it in a metal contraction instead of plastics which I used. They now incorporated a non-return valve into it, which is a complicated mechanical structure in a system that is straightforward and simple.

This is a potential source of contaminating the blood that is to be recycled, especially when dealing with fastidious organisms like viruses such as Hepatitis C. And they say you can sterilise it 50 times; for a device that makes contact with human blood that can be a source of spreading infections to subsequent users. At the appropriate time I will be in Geneva, to make contact with all stakeholders in blood safety to prove my point. And they are coming to try this specifically in sub-Saharan Africa.

They should try it in America and get the product certified for use there and let the relevant bodies like the Emergency Care Research Institute (ECRI), in Plymouth Meeting, Philadelphia, to scrutinise before coming to Africa to talk of $4 billion business. I took my EATSET to ECRI under the supervision of Professor Joel Nobel and Chris Lavanchi; because the device uses an invasive technique, it requires the rigorous certification process of the WHO before it can be deployed anywhere in the world just like I did with the EATSET.

Your device has the stamp of the World Health Organisation (WHO), the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO). Can you give an insight into the process of getting these global endorsements of the device?
I got all these endorsements by attending global conferences delivering lectures, making presentation, showing video clips of my invention or how the technique works. The doors began to open at the Commonwealth Science Organisation Conference held at LUTH years back.

A representative of WHO and Prof. Olikoye Ransome Kuti, the then Minister of Health were at that conference. By the time I finished my presentation somebody from WHO came and dropped his card that I should see them so they would ask me what to do. They said they didn’t deal with individual that Prof. Kuti should write them a letter they requested for. I had earlier sent a letter to Prof. Kuti. After two weeks I got a phone call from Prof. Kuti’s office to see him. He wrote a letter, got my documents and sent to WHO and UNDP. That was the beginning. Later on, my write-up was sent to the Netherlands and a consultant in blood safety was appointed to make an input.

My proposal was sent to Prof. Watson Williams, a 70-year-old American and another consultant in blood safety. They all made their inputs. Prof. Williams was sent to Nigeria to interview me and even made a presentation before Nigerian doctors at Blood Safety Conference at Ota, Ogun State. This man congratulated me and said I had passed the presentation and said my work was ‘novel.’ He wrote a letter to the UNDP that they should release funds for me that he had approved my invention.

Along the line, I got grants to further my research. Though there were obstacles here and there as a consultant appointed to assist me teamed up with a South African counterpart to take credit for my research. God intervened by using people who were aware of my research trajectory.  This consultant was sacked and by God’s grace I took my credit. That was how medals, awards started trooping in.

You are academically inclined. How did you combine this with your responsibility as a doctor in the Nigerian Army?
When my fame was going up, the Chief of Army Staff, General Saliu Ibrahim called my overall boss in the Nigeria Army Medical Corps and said He watched my interviewed on BBC with his wife and was embarrassed when his wife asked him about my work.

The Chief requested that I be formerly presented to him.  What did my boss say? He said sir, “I have always said the officer is very intelligent and that he is a university material.” That statement would have ended my career that day. But God used the then Chief of Administration, the late Gen. Tanko Ayuba who was at that conference to disagree with my Commandant. I leant he said ‘with due respect sir that my then boss, Major Gen. Oye was wrong.

Was he telling the Chief of Army Staff, that the Nigerian Army does not need intelligent officers?” Another Gen. also attacked General Oye. That was how my career was saved that day. So what I was doing at that time was medical research that brought honour and respect to the Nigerian Army across the globe. I remember when l gave my lectures in Europe and America, they ask me if I belong to the same Army that plans coup that troubles Nigerian government and all that. It was an honour not only to me but to the Nigerian Army, Nigeria and the black race. The Army compensated me in kind.

I am one of the few military officers that won three Chiefs of Army Commendation Awards. I also got an Army Council Medal. The government also compensated me with various awards and medals. I had about five presidential commendations from General Ibrahim Babangida, Sani Abacha, General Abdussalam Abubakar, Chief Olusegun Obasanjo  and Dr Goodluck Jonathan who gave me the Centenary Medal.

How do you combine your busy life with taking care of five children as a widower?
I lost my friend, my soul mate in 2005 who left five children behind for me to look after. I give the credit to God Almighty. I also thanked my late wife who nurtured before her death children who are focused, and responsive to training. My children are cooperative. My first born was in third year in a university in America and the last born was four years old. God helped me, they also made friends and God used American family whom I met during one of my presentations in the US.

They are a wonderful family. They took it upon themselves and they were visiting my daughter. And when another one went to Canada, God had positioned my cousins, their late mother’s friends to look after them. And for the finance God was able. Today, they are doing wonderfully well. One of them won an award for discovering the properties of Dandelion Tea that is used to cure cancer. They have made me proud and I am grateful to God Almighty.