NAFDAC: Living on Past Glory

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Just a decade ago, the fear of NAFDAC was the beginning of wisdom in the drug and food industry as fake and counterfeit drugs and products in circulation reduced from 60 per cent to 16.7 per cent. But with low budgetary release, obsolete equipment, and closed door leadership style, the agency is fast becoming a shadow of its former self. Martins Ifijeh writes

Prior to April 2011, Nigeria was known in the international community as the ‘fake and adulterated drugs’ capital of the world. At the time, all manner of products were dumped into the country resulting in over 60 per cent of drugs in circulation termed fake, substandard or adulterated. Unscrupulous individuals made fortunes from the practice. Those were the dark ages in the food and drug industry of Africa’s most populous nation.

But the narrative changed when late Prof. Dora Nkem Akunyili was appointed by former President Olusegun Obasanjo to head the National Agency for Food and Drugs Administration and Control (NAFDAC). She came in with discipline, firmness, honesty and an open door policy. She was open to new ideas, humble to a fault and did not encapsulate herself with the aura of a director General (DG); an approach that made it possible for her to get information easily for the benefit of safeguarding the health of Nigerians.

In no time, the toga of referring to Nigeria as the “fake and adulterated drugs” capital of the world began to fade away. Importation and manufacture of illicit, unwholesome and fake drugs started to take a downward trend. Many unscrupulous manufacturers in the country began to feel the heat. Those who escaped imprisonment ran out of business.

By the time she bowed out of NAFDAC in 2008, the percentage of fake drugs in circulation dropped from 60 per cent to 16.7 per cent. She was one of the best things to have happened to Nigeria’s public health sector. She will forever be remembered as one woman that fought for the health and safety of Nigerians.

Posers
NAFDAC by law is charged with the regulation and control of manufacturing, importation, exportation, advertisement, distribution, sale and use of food, drugs, cosmetics, medical devices, chemicals and packaged water in Nigeria. It also has the duty to check illicit and counterfeit products to safeguard the citizen’s health.

Fast forward 11 years after, is NAFDAC still safeguarding the health of the nation, as its vision popularly connotes? Does the agency still effectively test for quality of foods and drugs? Does it even have equipment for that again? How about the robust inspection and monitoring policies the agency was known for, do they still implement them (better put, is the department responsible for monitoring and inspection still getting funds to act?). If Akunyili was alive would the country be having this proliferation of indiscriminate use of Tramadol, Codeine and the likes by our primary, secondary and university students? Why is Nigeria’s former star agency going moribund? Why don’t good things last in Nigeria?

To be clear the above posers were not taken out of the bloom, the director general of the agency, Prof. Mojisola Adeyeye, in her own words, during the visit of the Senate Committee on Health to her office in Lagos, said 80 per cent of equipment in the agency’s laboratory were obsolete, and that the current sordid state of NAFDAC facilities was far from the expected international standards.

Adeyeye said, “Most of our equipment are obsolete and you cannot use old equipment for analysis, so we need to re-equip. The World Health Organisation (WHO) came to inspect our facilities and they gave Yaba facilities almost zero per cent because the centre is too small and the equipment are not there.”

Inadequate Funding
More shockingly, she said the agency gets very little support from government in terms of funding. “In 2017, we had a proposal of N6.1 billion, of which N164 million was appropriated and at the end only N82 million was released.
“In 2018, we had a proposal of N8.4 billion, of which N229 million was appropriated and only N22.9million was received. We requested for 50 operational vehicles to perform our mandate, till now, none has been released. We don’t have computers and we requested for 1,000 computers and we have not gotten any,” she told the visiting body.

In the United States, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) -an equivalent of NAFDAC in Nigeria- spent $5.1 billion in 2018 for purchase, maintenance of equipment and the general running of the federal parastatal. That is the equivalent of Nigeria’s entire health sector budget for five years combined.

Comparatively, NAFDAC in 2018 spent N22.9 million; that is about $63,000 while FDA in the same year spent $5.1 billion on same job description. One then wonders what else government is turning NAFDAC to if not to systematically destroy the agency and make it a toothless bulldog.

Like the saying goes, you cannot plant an orange and expect to harvest an apple. In same vein, Newton’s third law of motion states that for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction; this best describes series of events presently noticed in NAFDAC; of importance is that the remaining 20 per cent equipment available for testing are not enough to address the huge requests the agency is getting on a daily basis, and nature abhors gaps, hence giving food and drug industry players to cut corners to get what they want.

Cutting Corners
On specifics, a staff of the agency, who does not want his or her name mentioned for fear of victimisation, told THISDAY that many of those who wants to register products now use ‘facilitators’ within the agency, especially in the laboratory session, such that the facilitators help in all processes of registration, and this includes by -passing the use of equipment for testing.

“Those who involve in this trade among us do it for three things; first, to help the client eliminate waiting time since the few machines available cannot attend to all requests on time; secondly, if the equipment are by passed, products that ordinarily would not meet the standard would be approved, this means those who brought in substandard products will get them approved, then thirdly, it means more money for the facilitators,” the staff said.

During one of the breakfast meetings the present DG had with stakeholders in the industry, including journalists, some of those who spoke emphasised that they were still having a long waiting time anytime they require approval of products from NAFDAC; a remark Adeyeye said would soon be a thing of the past.

But 14 months after taking over the affairs of the agency, the waiting time seemed to have increased with some unscrupulous staff cashing in on lack of equipment to do the wrong thing.

Bottlenecks
Unlike in the time of Akunyili where the agency enjoyed robust support from the federal government, the present NAFDAC is being starved of funds; an act that makes safeguarding the nation health a herculean task for the agency.
“NAFDAC today is like the shadow of its former self. We are like orphans left alone to fend for ourselves despite the national importance attached to the agency,” a senior staff of the agency told THISDAY, adding that, “apart from paying salaries which the federal government is doing, we are the ones trying to generate funds through registration, and the likes.

“During the time of Akunyili and few after her, we were able to get robust internally generated revenue because the agency was really huge. Right now we are struggling to even get stationeries, not to mention fixing equipment from the little we are getting.”

The staff mentioned that the present DG was not also helping matters, as she has shut out members of staff, including directors from the daily running of the agency, adding that she does not believe in open door policy.

“Once the DG is not around, nothing works in NAFDAC. Sometimes, our office here in Abuja could run without power. If she doesn’t approve for us to get diesel and other things needed to run the office, we will be at a fix until she gets back. The lift in the Lagos office has broken down since the past six months, yet nothing is being done about it,” adding that many easy running of the agency have also been stalled due to bottlenecks on ground.

The staff said for instance, directors do not have easy access to the DG, as she has instructed that they must book appointments before they see her. “If you don’t rub minds with her personal assistant, Lolade Onaolapo, you can’t see the DG easily. These directors complain in hush tones, but what can they do, they must move in the policy direction of their boss,” the staff said.

Efforts by THISDAY to reach the DG on her 9mobile (formerly known as Etisalat) number proved abortive as she did not take the call, neither did she return the call as at press time.